By Donald Kursch, Senior Advisor
American and German delegates to the Winter Session of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA) recently hosted a special forum in Vienna during which more than 75 parliamentarians from 17 countries expressed their support for efforts to combat anti-Semitism in the OSCE region.
The forum was organized by the cooperative efforts of United States Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman and Chairman of the US Delegation to the OSCE PA Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-NJ) and German Bundestag Member Dr. Gert Weisskirchen. Helsinki Commission Members Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-MD), Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-MD) and Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (D-FL), as delegates to the Parliamentary Assembly, actively participated in the discussions.
The forum also included parliamentarians from Bulgaria, Canada, the Czech Republic, Finland, France, Hungary, Italy, the Netherlands, Romania, Russia, Serbia and Montenegro, Sweden, Turkey and the United Kingdom. OSCE PA President Bruce George and Secretary General Jan Kubis also attended the meeting.
Participants expressed their readiness to support the Parliamentary Assembly’s Berlin Declaration of July 2002 denouncing anti-Semitic violence and agreed that a pro-active approach by parliaments and governments are essential to counter anti-Semitism throughout the 55-nation OSCE region. That measure, based on a draft introduced by the U.S. delegation, was unanimously adopted in Berlin.
Dr. Weisskirchen and Rep. Smith obtained substantial support for the German-U.S. joint action plan of December 2002 to combat anti-Semitism which encourages “all OSCE countries to enact appropriate criminal legislation to punish anti-Semitic acts and ensure that such laws are vigorously enforced.” The action plan also addresses the need for renewed educational efforts to counter anti-Semitic attitudes and stereotypes, and the proliferation of anti-Semitic and neo-Nazi material via the Internet.
Dr. Weisskirchen opened the Vienna meeting by recalling Germany’s experience and stressed the importance of preventive action. He said that anti-Semitism is a virus that may appear small in the beginning but can quickly gain momentum, poison the body of state institutions and destroy democracy itself.
Co-Chairman Smith cited the need for collective action and referred to a resolution he and Commissioner Cardin introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives to combat anti-Semitism that places particular emphasis on law enforcement and education.
Mr. Michel Voisin, head of France’s delegation to the Parliamentary Assembly, described a new law passed unanimously by both houses of the French Parliament that doubles penalties for anti-Semitic and racist violence. He cited the law as an example of decisive action parliaments can take. Voisin noted that prior to the approval of this law on February 3, 2003, anti-Semitic and racist motives were not taken into account when punishing perpetrators of violence. According to Voisin, France is vigorously tackling the problem posed by proliferation of anti-Semitic and neo-Nazi material over the Internet and stressed that providers who knowingly promulgate such material will be held responsible.
Austrian journalist and human rights activist, Marta Halpert, addressed the gathering as an expert witness. Citing the Austrian experience, she underscored how political populism was breaking old taboos in many European countries. Populists sought to fill gaps in the political spectrum by appealing to frustrated voters seeking simple solutions to complex problems, according to Halpert.
Halpert said politicians such as Jörg Haider in Austria and Jürgen Möllemann in Germany used language to encourage those in the electorate who assert that “the Jews encourage anti-Semitism themselves.” She noted how Haider’s high profile has enabled individuals with extremist views to “enter the mainstream” and cited the example of an Austrian neo-Nazi who writes a regular column for a high circulation national newspaper. Halpert stressed the importance of politicians in all parties to vigorously denounce those who use xenophobia and anti-Semitism to appeal to the base fears of the electorate.
Parliamentarians from several other OSCE participating States, including Canada, the Czech Republic, Italy, Sweden and Denmark, expressed their support for the joint German-American efforts. Canadian Senator Jerry Grafstein, OSCE PA Treasurer ,strongly endorsed the German-American initiative and praised the OSCE for leading international institutions in combatting anti-Semitism. He reminded his colleagues that “silence is acquiescence” and stressed that all parliamentary bodies of the OSCE participating States should take a strong, public stance condemning anti-Semitism in all its forms.
Members of the Canadian, French, German, Italian and Swedish delegations signed formal statements of solidarity with the German-American initiative.
Canadian MP and Third Committee Vice-Chair Sven Robinson said the fight against anti-Semitism attracts support across party lines in his country where efforts are underway to formulate a stronger response to those responsible for hate crimes.
Czech MP and head of delegation Petr Sulak expressed solidarity with the initiative and recalled the immense suffering that anti-Semitism had brought to his country and elsewhere in central Europe. In his country alone, more than 300,000 had perished in the Holocaust.
Italian Senator Luigi Compagna and MP Marcello Pacini highlighted proposals introduced into Italian legislative bodies to condemn anti-Semitism. According to Compagna and Pacini, such proposals are unprecedented.
Various speakers raised the need to counter the proliferation of racist and anti-Semitic material through the Internet and endorsed the French delegation’s call for restrictions.
Canadian MP Clifford Lincoln asserted that Internet service providers had to assume a greater sense of responsibility and questioned why measures to accomplish this would be a restriction on freedom of speech. Germany’s head of delegation, Bundestag Member Rita Süssmuth, said that speech should not be permitted to “ignore the dignity of others.”
Rep. Cardin noted the need to trace material transmitted by the Internet more easily, but noted the delicacy involved in finding ways to do this that respect the right of freedom of expression.
Rep. Cardin also congratulated the French on the passage of their new law and particularly endorsed its emphasis on motivation for a criminal act. This distinction was of great importance. He added that we also needed to increase the capability of schools and teachers to instruct the next generation to be fair minded and tolerant. Echoing this sentiment, Mr. Smith pointed out that youth are not inherently inclined to hate, but needed to be “taught by their seniors to hate.” He advocated that more resources should be devoted to promoting Holocaust awareness.
Danish MP Kamal Qureshi also recommended better education and training for police, who needed to learn how to distinguish between anti-Semitic and racist motivated crime and common criminal acts. U.S. Helsinki Commission and OSCE PA Vice President Rep. Alcee Hastings suggested the OSCE consider granting a special award to individuals who had done the most in the region to combat anti-Semitism.
U.S. Ambassador to the OSCE, Stephan Minikes, spoke of plans by OSCE Chairman-in-Office, Netherlands Foreign Minister Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, to hold a special conference on anti-Semitism. The date for such an OSCE conference has not been announced, but officials anticipate the two-day Vienna meeting will precede the Parliamentary Assembly’s July 2003 Annual Session to be held in Rotterdam. Topics will likely include the role of governments in monitoring anti-Semitism, appropriate legislation, education, law enforcement training and the role of civic leaders and NGOs in combatting anti-Semitism.
Russian Duma member, Elena Mizulina, noted that some progress has been made in her country. She hailed a new law condemning racism and extremism as a “milestone,” and praised the efforts of President Vladimir Putin in supporting the legislation. However, according to Mizulina, much work remains.
Mizulina said that anti-Semitic attitudes in Russia are much too common among the general population as well as elected officials. She said such attitudes are particularly common in Russia’s provinces where even certain state governors were still not embarrassed to express anti-Semitic views openly. Mizulina said that representatives from Russia and other CIS countries need to speak out more forcefully to condemn anti-Semitism and racism. She added that the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly has not done enough and strongly endorsed the notion that anti-Semitism be considered as a separate agenda item at the Rotterdam meeting.
Delegates also welcomed the decision by the OSCE Chairman-in-Office, Dutch Foreign Minister Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, to convene a special OSCE meeting on xenophobia and anti-Semitism in the coming months. At the same time, they agreed that the Parliamentary Assembly needs to remain actively involved and that continuing the fight against anti-Semitism must be a high priority item at the Assembly’s Annual Session.
The United States Helsinki Commission, an independent federal agency, by law monitors and encourages progress in implementing provisions of the Helsinki Accords. The Commission, created in 1976, is composed of nine Senators, nine Representatives and one official each from the Departments of State, Defense and Commerce.