Parliamentary diplomacy is an important tool in U.S. foreign policy, especially in the United States, where the legislative and executive branches share responsibility for foreign policy. Commissioners have championed the development of parliamentary assemblies for regional organizations throughout the world. In the OSCE region, U.S. interests are advanced through the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, which offers opportunities for engagement among parliamentarians from OSCE participating States.
The OSCE PA debates current issues related to OSCE commitments; develops and promotes tools to prevent and resolve conflicts; supports democratic development in participating States; and encourages national governments to take full advantage of OSCE capabilities.
The Helsinki Commission organizes bicameral U.S. delegations to OSCE PA meetings throughout the year. With 17 of 323 seats, the United States has the largest representation in the assembly. The active involvement of members of Congress in debates and dialogue assures all other states—including allies and friends as well as adversaries—of the depth of the U.S. commitment to security in the OSCE region.
Members of Congress consistently have held leadership positions in the OSCE PA since its inception. Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings served as a committee officer, as president of the OSCE PA from 2004 to 2006, and for many years was the OSCE PA Special Representative on Mediterranean Affairs.
Sen. Roger Wicker currently serves as an OSCE PA vice-president and formerly chaired the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly's Committee on Political Affairs and Security. In addition, Sen. Ben Cardin serves as the Special Representative on Anti-Semitism, Racism, and Intolerance, and Rep. Chris Smith is the current Special Representative to the OSCE PA President on Human Trafficking Issues. Rep. Richard Hudson chairs the Committee on Political Affairs and Security, and Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee serves on the Ad Hoc Committee on Migration.
Sen. Cardin, Rep. Steny Hoyer, and Rep. Robert Aderholt have all served as committee officers as well as vice presidents of the OSCE PA, and former Rep. Hilda Solis served as a committee officer and Special Representative on Migration.
The OSCE PA allows the United States to introduce new issues and concerns that ultimately need to be addressed by the OSCE. While the OSCE operates based on consensus decision-making, meaning just one of the 57 participating States can block a decision, the OSCE PA operates on majority voting, allowing for adoption of resolutions on more controversial issues that need to be confronted directly.
Efforts to protect press freedom, combat trafficking in persons, and respond to anti-Semitism, racism, and other forms of intolerance in society became central to the OSCE’s work following OSCE PA initiatives. The OSCE PA also encourages the OSCE to further develop its partnerships with Mediterranean and Asian states.
Central to OSCE diplomacy is the notion that respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms is part of a comprehensive definition of security, and that raising concern about violations of these rights and freedoms in other states does not constitute interference in the internal affairs of that state. Still, many states resist discussion of their human rights performance.
The United States has generally been more responsive to the concerns raised about its record, including the conduct of elections, use of the death penalty, or treatment of Guantanamo Bay detainees. Both diplomatic and congressional representatives have accepted legitimate concerns raised, provided clarification when necessary and acknowledged shortcomings that do exist.
Members of the U.S. Congress have a diversity of opinions that they express at parliamentary forums, rather than reflecting a single official policy. Thus, the U.S. delegation sets an example for others to follow, particularly in other parliaments where political pluralism is stifled.
The Helsinki Commission has observed scores of elections in other OSCE participating States since contested elections were first held in the formerly one-party communist states of Eastern Europe and then-republics of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s and early 1990s. OSCE PA observation missions effectively deploy commissioners and commission staff to observe elections and encourage their free and fair conduct.