By Helsinki Commission Staff
En route to the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly’s Winter Meeting in Vienna, Austria, a delegation organized by the Helsinki Commission visited Israel and Turkey for talks on issues of key concern to U.S. foreign policy and the OSCE. These destinations in particular were selected to explore the impact on the OSCE region resulting from the ongoing tensions in the Middle East stemming from the active conflict and humanitarian crisis in Syria. The delegation was not only bipartisan but included Members from the Senate and House of Representatives, as well as two senior officials from the Department of Commerce.
The delegation, which departed February 15 and returned on February 23, was led by Helsinki Commission Chairman Senator Benjamin L. Cardin of Maryland and included Representatives Robert B. Aderholt of Alabama, Alcee L. Hastings of Florida and Mike McIntyre of North Carolina as well as Assistant Secretary of Commerce Michael C. Camuñez from the Helsinki Commission. Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Deputy Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Europe and Eurasia Matthew Murray also joined the delegation.
High Level Meetings in Israel
The delegation’s first stop was Jerusalem. Following a late arrival on Saturday, February 16, the delegation was briefed by Ambassador Daniel Shapiro and Consul General Michael Ratney in preparation for meetings on Sunday with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, President Shimon Peres, the Institute for Intelligence and Special Operations (Mossad), Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad and other officials.
High on the delegation’s agenda were U.S.-Israeli relations, including economic cooperation, the peace process, renewal of Israeli-Turkish relations and regional security. President Peres welcomed the delegation in his residence and praised the work of the Helsinki Commission on human rights. Chairman Cardin and President Peres engaged in a lengthy conversation regarding the nuclear ambitions of Iran as well as human rights in that country. They also focused on investment and economic development in the region, particularly the need to provide employment and entrepreneurship opportunities for young people in the Arab world.
Members of the delegation met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in his cabinet offices for a wide ranging discussion on Iran, the peace process, violence in Syria, Israel-Turkey relations and economic cooperation between our two countries. The Prime Minister also offered a candid assessment of the January 22 parliamentary elections in Israel and his efforts to form a new government.
Meeting with the delegation in the U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem, Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad provided an overview of the economic and security situation in the West Bank, the status of Palestinian-Israeli relations and the peace process. The Prime Minister indicated that there is outright disillusionment with the peace process among the Palestinian people. What is badly needed, he said, is a sense of renewal and energy by both parties to return to negotiations.
The remainder of the day included meetings with Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Intelligence and Atomic Energy, Dan Meridor, Central Bank Governor Stanley Fischer and a briefing by Israel’s Institute for Intelligence and Special Operations (Mossad). The delegation departed early the next morning for Turkey.
Fostering Security Cooperation with Turkey
Chairman Cardin’s delegation stopped in Ankara, Gaziantep, and Istanbul while in Turkey. In Ankara, the delegation met with President Abdullah Gul, Deputy Prime Minister Ali Babacan, and Omer Onhon, former Turkish ambassador to Syria. The delegation prioritized international engagement in the Syrian conflict, the status of Syrian refugees, the urgency of improving Turkish-Israeli relations, the Middle East Peace Process, bilateral economic cooperation and ongoing human rights concerns in their consultations with Turkish government officials. The delegation was briefed by U.S. Ambassador Frank Ricciardone and his staff on bilateral U.S.-Turkish priorities and the security of U.S. embassies following the tragic February 1, 2013 attack on the embassy in Ankara.
In Gaziantep, Chairman Cardin’s delegation was the first group from Congress to visit the American detachment of the newly established NATO Patriot missile batteries. Members met with the troops stationed near Gaziantep and were briefed on security concerns emanating from the Syrian conflict and NATO efforts to ensure the security of Turkish communities near the Syrian border. The delegation was briefed by regional staff of the U.S. Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance on their substantial efforts to meet the humanitarian needs of the Syrian people in refugee camps and ensure the necessary resources reach the internally displaced civilians within Syria.
The delegation then proceeded to visit the central Turkish camp for Syrian refugees in Kilis, which is one of more than 20 such camps along the border. After a briefing by the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Members had an opportunity to see the facilities. The Turkish government has independently made a substantial investment in Syrian humanitarian assistance through their camps. They urged the delegation to encourage the international community to contribute more financial support to address the lack of resources for the growing Syrian refugee population in the region. The delegation also met the camp leadership elected from among the refugees, which reflected the diversity of those displaced by the conflict. The camp leaders urged the delegation to act expeditiously to support the Syrian opposition before the positive perception of the United States irreparably diminishes among Syrian civilians.
In Istanbul, the delegation participated in a discussion on the success of bilateral economic cooperation and overcoming barriers to increase U.S. investment in Turkey hosted by the Joint American Business Forum of Turkey and the Turkish-American Business Council. Members then convened a roundtable discussion with a diverse group of Syrian opposition activists based in Istanbul. The activists expressed an urgent interest in the future U.S. role in addressing the security and humanitarian impacts of Syrian conflict. The delegation also had an opportunity to meet with graduate students of Bahcesehir University to discuss the importance of international academic exchanges and youth professional development.
OSCE Parliamentary Assembly Meets in Vienna
The congressional delegation concluded in Vienna, Austria, to represent the United States at the Winter Meeting of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA). Like the OSCE of which it is a part, the Parliamentary Assembly has been an important venue for important initiatives relating to the Helsinki Commission’s work. Those initiatives include addressing specific human rights concerns in numerous countries and combating intolerance in society, organized crime and official corruption, and trafficking in persons. They also include promoting transparency in government and business practices. The United States has traditionally maintained a robust presence in the Assembly, assuring European friends and allies of willing U.S. engagement on issues of common concern and ensuring that the Assembly’s work reflects U.S. interests. Representative Aderholt, for example, is currently an OSCE Vice President and sits on a subcommittee dealing with rules of procedure and an ad hoc committee focusing on reform and transparency of the OSCE.
The Winter Meeting is a two-day event held at the Hofburg premises of the OSCE, allowing diplomatic personnel from this multilateral organization to report to the parliamentarians on security, economic, environmental and human rights developments across Europe and into Central Asia. The Winter Meeting also provides a forum for open debate of topical issues and to present ideas for resolutions to be considered later in the year. In the decade since it was first organized, the Winter Meeting has become second in importance only to the OSCE PA’s Annual Session, which is held in June or July in different locations to consider these resolutions and adopt a declaration. In 2013, there were more than 200 parliamentarians in attendance.
Ambassador Ian Kelly, the U.S. Representative to the OSCE, briefed the delegation soon after its arrival on the regional issues of interest to the OSCE, as well as organizational developments, from a U.S. policy perspective. Ukraine has taken the OSCE’s chairmanship for 2013, and efforts continue to achieve progress on priority issues in time for a foreign ministerial scheduled for year’s end. As it approaches its 40th anniversary in 2015, the OSCE is also seeking to develop its structural and substantive abilities in order to remain relevant to European security, but it must do so in the face of efforts by Russia and like-minded states to undermine the OSCE’s human rights focus.
OSCE PA President Riccardo Migliori of Italy opened the Winter Meeting with a call to find “solutions for the future” based on “the road map signed in our past,” namely the 1975 Helsinki Final Act. The opening plenary was also addressed by Austrian National Council President Barbara Prammer, OSCE Secretary General Lamberto Zannier of Italy, and the Special Envoy of the OSCE Chair-in-Office, Viacheslav Yatsiuk of Ukraine.
Additional discussions were held in each of the Assembly’s three General Committees: the First Committee dealing with political affairs and security; the Second Committee with economic affairs, science, technology and the environment; and the Third Committee with democracy, human rights and humanitarian questions. Committee rapporteurs and guest speakers discussed current issues and the prospects for OSCE PA work in the coming year.
Assistant Secretary of Commerce Camuñez was a featured opening speaker for the Second Committee, focusing on economic issues in particular. Calling for a “truly 21st century approach” to engagement on these issues within the OSCE, he focused in particular on work being done on energy security and sustainability. He also called for operationalizing OSCE commitments on good governance and transparency adopted at the 2012 Dublin Ministerial Council of the OSCE and asked parliamentarians to play their role by passing needed laws and encouraging government policies that reflect OSCE norms and goals.
The Winter Meeting traditionally includes a closing joint-committee session to debate issues that are particularly relevant and timely. This year, the debate focused on how OSCE countries should respond to crises in Syria, the Sahara, and North Africa. Representative Hastings, speaking as the OSCE PA’s Special Representative on Mediterranean Affairs, made a presentation that called on the parliamentarians to consider being in the place of the Syrian people as they flee their homes and lose loved ones, including children, while the world watches. He called on the participating States to halt the flow of arms to Syria, and insisting the Bashar al-Assad “must go,” called for him to be held accountable for his crimes before the International Criminal Court. Chairman Cardin also spoke in the debate, reporting on the discussions the delegation had in Israel and Turkey regarding Syria and praising Turkey’s efforts to accommodate massive inflows of refugees.
During the course of the Winter Meeting, the OSCE PA convenes its Standing Committee, composed only of Heads of Delegation and officers, to shape the Assembly’s work. Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Representative Christopher H. Smith, who was unable to attend the Winter Meeting, and Rep. Hastings each submitted to the committee written reports on their activities as Special Representative on Human Trafficking and as Special Representative on Mediterranean Affairs, respectively. Chairman Cardin participated in a lengthy debate on OSCE election observation, calling for the Assembly and the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) to coordinate in the field and to take advantage of parliamentary leadership to make observation most effective.
The delegation used its time at the Winter Meeting to engage in bilateral meetings with parliamentarians and officials regarding Helsinki Commission concerns, including the OSCE Chair-in-Office envoy Yatsiuk, OSCE Secretary General Zannier and ODIHR Director Janez Lenarcic of Slovenia. Representative Hastings also organized a working session with visiting delegates from the Mediterranean Partner countries in order to plan activity for the coming year that will strengthen the partnership between the Mediterranean Partners – Algeria, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Morocco and Tunisia – and the OSCE. Representative Aderholt also met with human rights activist and opposition representative Andrei Sannikov to discuss common concerns in Belarus.
Beyond the Hofburg, the delegation also met with Ambassador Joseph MacManus, who represents the United States at United Nations organizations based in Vienna, and Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency Yukiya Amano of Japan. Nuclear proliferation was the main issue in these meetings. Chairman Cardin also was accompanied by the U.S. Ambassador to Austria, Willliam Eacho, as he paid tribute at the Austrian National Council to the Vienna-based organization CENTROPA and its American Director, Ed Serotta, for efforts to preserve Jewish memory in Central and Eastern Europe, the former Soviet Union, the Balkans and the Baltics for future generations.
By all accounts, the Winter Meeting represented two days of healthy debate and discussion. The U.S. Delegation played an active role throughout the meeting, making presentations and responding to statements of others.