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Helsinki Commission Chairman Amends NDAA to Reflect Support for Open Skies Treaty

On May 21, 2020 the Trump administration reportedly decided to withdraw the United States from the Open Skies Treaty to be effective at the end of this year.

To express strong opposition, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) recently authored an amendment to H.R.6395, the William M. (Mac) Thornberry National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for Fiscal Year 2021, expressing the sense of Congress that the Trump Administration’s decision to withdraw from the Treaty on Open Skies did not comply with a legal requirement to notify Congress; did not assert that any other Treaty signatory had breached the Treaty; and was made over the objections of NATO allies and regional partners.

“I am proud to have worked with Rep. Jimmy Panetta to successfully amend the House FY21 NDAA to express Congressional support for Open Skies and reiterate our commitment to the confidence and security building measures that are so vital to our NATO allies and partners,” said Chairman Hastings. “As Chairman of the U.S. Helsinki Commission, I strongly disagree with the President’s decision to withdraw from the Open Skies Treaty, an important arms control agreement that significantly reduces the risk of armed conflict.”

The measure expresses support for confidence and security building measures like the Open Skies Treaty, because they reduce the risk of conflict, increase trust among participating countries, and contribute to military transparency and remain vital to the strategic interests of our NATO allies and partners. The amendment also underlines the need to address Russian violations of treaty protocols through international engagement and robust diplomatic action. The full amendment is available below or as amendment numbered 167 printed in House Report 116-457.

Chairman Hastings had previously condemned the Trump administration’s decision to withdraw from the Treaty on Open Skies, which is designed to increase transparency, build confidence, and encourage cooperation among the United States, Russia, and 32 other participating states (including much of Europe as well as partners like Ukraine and Georgia), by permitting unarmed observation aircraft to fly over their entire territory to observe military forces and activities.

In November 2019, the Commission hosted a joint hearing with the House Committee on Foreign Affairs on the importance of the Open Skies Treaty, emphasizing its critical role in security and stability around the world, which still stands today.

The United States has conducted nearly three times as many flights over Russia as Russia has over the United States under the treaty. The United States has also used the treaty to support partners by conducting flights over hot spots such as the Ukraine-Russian border.

Amendment

At the end of subtitle D of title XII, add the following:

SEC. 12__. SENSE OF CONGRESS ON THE OPEN SKIES TREATY.

It is the sense of Congress that–

(1) the decision to withdraw from the Treaty on Open Skies, done at Helsinki March 24, 1992, and entered into force January 1, 2002–

(A) did not comply with the requirement in section 1234(a) of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2020 (133 Stat. 1648; 22 U.S.C. 2593a note) to notify Congress not fewer than 120 days prior to any such announcement;

(B) was made without asserting material breach of the Treaty by any other Treaty signatory; and (C) was made over the objections of NATO allies and regional partners;

(2) confidence and security building measures that are designed to reduce the risk of conflict, increase trust among participating countries, and contribute to military transparency remain vital to the strategic interests of our NATO allies and partners and should continue to play a central role as the United States engages in the region to promote transatlantic security; and

(3) while the United States must always consider the national security benefits of remaining in any treaty, responding to Russian violations of treaty protocols should be prioritized through international engagement and robust diplomatic action.

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