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Belarus

Belarus, a country of about 9.5 million people which gained its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, has a troubled record on human rights that has complicated its relationships with the U.S. and the EU for almost all its independence. Since his election as president in 1994, Alexander Lukashenko has consolidated his rule over all institutions and undermined the rule of law through authoritarian means, including manipulated elections and arbitrary decrees.  Under his rule, all presidential and parliamentary elections have been neither free nor fair and have fallen well short of international standards. The government restricts fundamental civil liberties, including freedom of speech, press, assembly, and association. The democratic opposition operates in an exceedingly difficult environment. 

The Commission has been outspoken in championing democracy and human rights in Belarus, having held the overwhelming majority of Congressional hearings, public briefings, and meetings that have taken place on Belarus. A Congressional delegation (CODEL) to the 2017 OSCE Parliamentary Assembly summer meeting, hosted by Minsk, met with both President Lukashenko and the democratic opposition, and was the largest CODEL ever to visit Belarus. Commission staff has observed all elections in Belarus in the last two decades with only one exception.

Staff Contact: Rachel Bauman, policy advisor

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  • Helsinki Commission Applauds U.S. Human Rights Reports

    U.S. Senator Benjamin L. Cardin (D-MD), Chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation (U.S. Helsinki Commission) and Co-Chairman Congressman Alcee L. Hastings (D-FL) hailed today’s release of the State Department’s annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices as a key tool to monitor and track progress on universal freedoms. “The State Department reports on human rights provide a valuable reference point for assessing human rights trends in countries throughout the world, including those in the expansive OSCE region stretching from Vancouver to Vladivostok,” Chairman Cardin said. This year’s reports have increased significance as 2010 is the 35th anniversary of the Helsinki Final Act and the 20th anniversary of other international human rights agreements. “In a year commemorating landmark human rights documents of the Helsinki Final Act, the Copenhagen Document, and the Charter of Paris for a New Europe, today’s State Department reports remind us that many of the promises countries made in those historic documents still have not been met with meaningful action,” Co-Chairman Hastings said. “These reports on human rights around the world are a critical tool, and they’ll provide a fact-base to inform our foreign policy in the year ahead,” said Michael Posner, Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy Human Rights and Labor. Posner, who serves as the State Department Commissioner on the U.S. Helsinki Commission, unveiled the reports with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at a news conference this morning. As leaders of the U.S. Helsinki Commission, the Co-Chairmen have consistently voiced concerns about the pattern of rights violations cited in several of the OSCE participating States. “In Belarus, the political space for opposition remains tightly controlled and independent media face continual harassment,” said Cardin, who travelled to Minsk in July 2009. “The overall situation in Russia remains disturbing with the murder of a leading human right advocate, harassment of Jehovah’s Witnesses and forceful break up of public demonstrations. I urge Kazakhstan, as the current chair of the OSCE, to lead by example through concrete actions, starting with the release of activist Yevgeny Zhovtis.” The Co-Chairmen welcomed Assistant Secretary Posner to the Commission Feb. 25.Posner’s activity with the Commission and the State Department’s annual human rights reports mandated by Congress are examples of legislative-executive branch cooperation to keep a spotlight on human rights abuses.

  • Commission Plays Leading Role at Parliamentary Assembly in Lithuania

    By Robert A. Hand, Policy Advisor A bipartisan U.S. delegation traveled to Vilnius, Lithuania June 29 for the 18th Annual Session of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA). The delegation participated fully in the activity of the Assembly’s Standing Committee, the plenary sessions and the Assembly’s three General Committees. Helsinki Commission Chairman Senator Benjamin L. Cardin led the delegation, which included the following commissioners: Co-Chairman Congressman Alcee L. Hastings, Ranking Minority Member Chris Smith, and Senator Roger Wicker, Representatives Louise McIntosh Slaughter, Mike McIntyre, G.K. Butterfield and Robert B. Aderholt. Senate Assistant Majority Leader Dick Durbin, Senator George Voinovich and Representatives Lloyd Doggett, Madeleine Z. Bordallo and Gwen Moore also joined the delegation. Background of the OSCE PA The Parliamentary Assembly was created within the framework of the OSCE as an independent, consultative body consisting of more than 300 parliamentarians from each of the 56 countries, which stretch from the United States and Canada throughout Europe, the Caucasus and Central Asia. The Annual Sessions are the chief venue for debating international issues and voting on a declaration addressing human rights, democratic development, rule of law, economic, environmental and security concerns among the participating States and the international community. The United States delegation is allotted 17 seats in the Assembly. Robust Congressional participation has been a hallmark of the Parliamentary Assembly since its inception nearly 20 years ago, ensuring U.S. interests are raised and discussed. 18th Annual Session This year’s Annual Session, hosted by the Parliament (Seimas) of Lithuania from June 29 to July 3, brought together more than 500 participants from 50 of the 56 OSCE participating States under the theme: “The OSCE: Addressing New Security Challenges.” The Standing Committee -- the Assembly’s leadership body (composed of Heads of Delegations from the participating States and the elected officers) -- met prior to the Annual Session. Senator Cardin, as Head of Delegation and an OSCE PA Vice President, represented the United States. Chaired by the OSCE PA President, Portuguese parliamentarian João Soares, the committee heard reports from the Assembly’s Treasurer, German parliamentarian Hans Reidel, and from the Assembly’s Secretary General, R. Spencer Oliver of the United States. The Assembly continues to operate well within its overall budget guidelines and to receive positive assessments from auditors on financial management. The committee unanimously approved the proposed budget for 2009-2010. The Standing Committee also approved several changes in the OSCE PA’s Rules of Procedure, especially related to gender balance and the holding of elections for officers, as well as 24 Supplementary Items or resolutions for consideration in plenary or committee sessions. The committee brought up as an urgent matter a resolution regarding the detention of Iranian citizens employed by the British Embassy in Tehran. Senator Cardin spoke in support of the resolution. With the Standing Committee’s business concluded, Assembly President Soares opened the Inaugural Plenary Session, stressing in his opening remarks the need for OSCE reform. The first session concluded with a discussion of gender issues led by Swedish parliamentarian Tone Tingsgaard that included comments from Rep. Gwen Moore. A Special Plenary Session the next day was scheduled to accommodate the OSCE Chair-in-Office, Greek Foreign Minister Dora Bakoyannis, who had just presided over an informal meeting of OSCE foreign ministers in Corfu, Greece, to launch a new, high-level dialogue on European security. Senator Cardin attended the Corfu meeting as a representative of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly. Following her speech, Bakoyannis engaged in a dialogue with parliamentarians on a number of OSCE issues. Lithuanian Foreign Minister Vygaudas Usackas also addressed the special session. Lithuania will chair the OSCE in 2011. U.S. Member Involvement The U.S. delegation actively participated in the work of the Assembly’s three General Committees – the first committee for Political Affairs and Security; the second for Economic Affairs, Science, Technology and the Environment; and the third on Democracy, Human Rights and Humanitarian Questions. Each committee considered its own draft resolution, prepared by an elected Rapporteur, as well as 23 of the 25 Supplementary Items. Two Supplementary Items, including one by President Soares on Strengthening the OSCE, were considered in plenary session. Representatives Chris Smith, Mike McIntyre, and Gwen Moore each proposed resolutions that were adopted dealing with freedom of expression on the Internet, international cooperation in Afghanistan, and prevention of maternal mortality respectively. Members of the U.S. delegation were also instrumental in garnering support for Supplementary Items introduced by others, co-sponsoring eight resolutions introduced by delegations of other countries. The U.S. delegation was responsible for 26 amendments to either the committee draft resolutions or various Supplementary Items. Chairman Cardin proposed climate-related amendments to a resolution on energy security and suggested the OSCE initiate work with Pakistan in the resolution on Afghanistan. Co-Chairman Hastings worked on numerous human rights and tolerance issues. Other amendments were sponsored by: Sen. Durbin on improving international access to clean water; Sen. Voinovich on combating anti-Semitism; Sen. Wicker on preserving cultural heritage; Rep. Smith on preventing the abuse of children; and Rep. Butterfield on responding to climate change. Bilateral Meetings The U.S. delegation also engaged in a variety of activities associated with the Annual Session, holding bilateral meetings with the delegations of Russia and Georgia focusing on their respective internal political developments and the tension in the Caucasus since Russia invaded Georgia last August and then sought to legitimize breakaway regions. Separate meetings were also held with Lithuanian President Valdas Adamkus and other Lithuanian leaders, at which the delegation pressed for new laws to resolve outstanding claims of property seized during the Nazi and Communist eras. The delegation also presented President Adamkus a letter from President Barack Obama on the occasion of the 1000th anniversary of the first written reference to Lithuania. Members of the U.S. delegation attended a working lunch to discuss gender issues, hosted by Swedish parliamentarian Tingsgaard. A variety of social events, including a reception hosted by the British delegation at their embassy, afforded numerous informal opportunities to discuss issues of common concern. U.S. Leadership As a demonstration of active U.S. engagement, a Member of the U.S. Congress has always held some elected or appointed leadership role in the OSCE PA. The Vilnius Annual Session has allowed this to continue at least through July 2012. Chairman Cardin was reelected to a three-year term as one of nine Vice Presidents, a very welcome development given his long record of OSCE engagement going back to his years in the House of Representatives. Rep. Aderholt, who has attended every OSCE PA Annual Session since 2002 and often visits European countries to press human rights issues, was elected Vice Chair of the third General Committee, which handles democracy and human rights. President Soares was reelected for a second term and selected Rep. Smith to serve as a Special Representative on Human Trafficking and asked Co-Chairman Hastings to continue serving as Special Representative on Mediterranean Affairs. An unfortunate development in the election of new officers is the absence of a representative of the Russian Federation. Because the United States government may disagree so substantively with current Kremlin policies, the U.S. government has always felt it critical to welcome Russian engagement in the OSCE PA. It was, therefore, a disappointment that the head of the Russian Federation delegation, Alexander Kozlovsky, reversed course and decided not to run for a Vice Presidency seat and more disappointing that a political bloc at the OSCE PA defeated Russian incumbent Natalia Karpovich as rapporteur of the Third Committee. Karpovich had been accommodating of U.S. human rights initiatives in her draft resolution. Vilnius Declaration Participants at the closing plenary session adopted the final Vilnius Declaration -- a lengthy document which reflects the initiatives and input of the U.S. delegation. Among other things, the declaration calls for strengthening the OSCE in order to enhance its legitimacy and political relevance; addresses conventional arms control, disarmament and other security-related issues of current concern in Europe; calls for greater cooperation in the energy sector and better protection of the environment; and stresses the continued importance of democratic development and respect for human rights, especially as they relate to tolerance in society and freedom of expression. The most contentious part of the declaration related to the promotion of human rights and civil liberties twenty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, which included language noting the 70th anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. While some of the language may have been provocative, strong Russian objections to the entire text appeared to be motivated by a desire to defend a Stalinist past and minimize its crimes. The Russian delegation’s effort to block passage of this resolution reflects a similar sentiment in Moscow that recently led to the creation of a widely-criticized commission "for counteracting attempts to falsify history to the detriment of Russia's interests." As a July 9 column for The Economist noted about recent Russian efforts to excuse Stalinism, the “debate in Vilnius makes it a bit harder to maintain that stance.” Some of Russia’s traditional friends and allies in the OSCE PA were noticeably absent from the debate. The Balkans While the Congressional delegation’s work focused heavily on representing the United States at the OSCE PA, the trip afforded an opportunity to advance U.S. interests elsewhere in Europe. While Co-Chairman Hastings traveled to Albania to observe that country’s first parliamentary elections since becoming a NATO member earlier this year, the rest of the delegation visited Bosnia-Herzegovina. Bosnia-Herzegovina is still recovering from the conflict in the 1990s and the associated horrors of the Srebrenica genocide and massive ethnic cleansing. The reverberations of the conflict continue to hinder prospects for European and Euro-Atlantic integration. The United States was instrumental in bringing the Bosnian conflict to an end in 1995, especially with the negotiation of the Dayton Agreement, and the United States has invested considerable financial, diplomatic and military resources in the post-conflict period. The visit came one month after Vice President Joe Biden visited Sarajevo with a message of renewed U.S. engagement in the Balkans. While meetings with Bosnian political leaders revealed little willingness to work constructively toward constitutional reform needed for an effective central government, a meeting with English-speaking university students revealed a refreshing desire to overcome ethnic divisions and move the country forward. Belarus Given its proximity to Vilnius, members of the Congressional delegation visited Minsk, the capital of Belarus, to press for greater democracy and respect for human rights in that country. Belarus has remained a repressive state over the years even as its European neighbors have transitioned from being former Soviet or Warsaw Pact states to EU and NATO members or aspirants. Following a delegation meeting with President Alexander Lukashenka, Belarusian authorities released imprisoned American Emanuel Zeltzer, who was convicted of espionage in a closed trial and had numerous health concerns. The delegation also urged for greater progress in meeting the conditions in the Belarus Democracy Act passed by the U.S. Congress in 2004 and reauthorized in 2006. A meeting with political activists provided useful information on the situation for political opposition, non-governmental organizations and independent media. Finally, the delegation pressed Belarus’ officials to allow for an increased U.S. diplomatic presence in the country. In response to expanding U.S. sanctions, Minsk kicked out 30 diplomats last year, including the U.S. ambassador, leaving a staff of five at the U.S. Embassy. During the course of the Vilnius Annual Session, Senator Voinovich also broke away for a brief visit to Riga, Latvia. That visit was among the highest level visits from a U.S. official in three years, and was important for our relations with this NATO ally, which has deployed troops with Americans in Afghanistan without caveat and recently suffered losses which easily impact such a small country. U.S. interests abroad are advanced through active congressional participation in the OSCE PA. The 19th Annual Session of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly will be held early next July in Oslo, Norway.

  • Belarus Imprisonment

    Mr. President, as Chairman of the Helsinki Commission, I would like to bring to the attention of the Senate a situation which is literally a matter of life and death for an American citizen, Emanuel Zeltser, who has been imprisoned in Belarus since March 12, 2008. Mr. Zeltser is in desperate and immediate need of serious medical treatment--including a coronary bypass operation. The poor human rights record of President Lukashenka's regime is well known. No American--indeed no human being--should be subjected to the kind of treatment Mr. Zeltser has been forced to endure during his incarceration. Despite Mr. Zeltser's grave health condition--he suffers from heart disease, type 2 diabetes, severe arthritis, gout, and dangerously elevated blood pressure--Belarusian authorities have repeatedly refused to provide Mr. Zeltser with his prescribed medications. He was initially denied two independent medical evaluations and he has reported being physically assaulted and abused while incarcerated. Amnesty International has urged that Belarusian authorities no longer subject Mr. Zeltser to "further torture and other ill-treatment.'' Mr. Zeltser was convicted of "using false official documents'' and "attempted economic espionage'' in a closed judicial proceeding. The U.S. Embassy in Minsk criticized the proceedings, noting that it was denied the opportunity to observe the trial. The State Department has repeatedly called for Mr. Zeltser's release on humanitarian grounds. So have others in Congress, especially my colleague on the Helsinki Commission, cochairman Representative Alcee Hastings. But now the situation appears dire. Earlier this month, Mr. Zeltser was examined by an American doctor. It was only the second time an American physician has been permitted to see Mr. Zeltser. The doctor concluded that "there is a clear and high risk of sudden death from heart attack unless the patient is immediately transferred to a U.S. hospital with the proper equipment and facilities. ..... Refusal to transfer Mr. Zeltser to a U.S. hospital is equivalent to a death sentence.'' Specifically, Mr. Zeltser is in dire need of a coronary bypass procedure. The doctor also determined that because he had been denied prescribed diabetes medication, Mr. Zeltser's left foot may need to be amputated. In response to a press inquiry in December, the State Department called for "the Belarusian authorities to release Mr. Zeltser on humanitarian grounds before this situation takes an irrevocable turn.'' Based on the recent doctor's report it is apparent that such an irrevocable turn is imminent unless this American citizen can be brought home promptly for the medical treatment necessary to save his life. Belarus has taken some tentative steps to improve its notably poor human rights record, in particular the release of several political prisoners last August. However, Mr. Zeltser's continued, and potentially terminal, imprisonment threatens to override those initially encouraging signs. As such, I strongly urge the Belarusian authorities to release Emanuel Zeltser on humanitarian grounds so that he may obtain the immediate medical treatment his doctor has concluded is required if he is to live.

  • 2008 Human Dimension Implementation Meeting

    The OSCE’s 2008 Human Dimension Implementation Meeting offered an opportunity to review compliance on a full range of human rights and humanitarian commitments of the organization’s participating States. Tolerance issues featured prominently in the discussions, which included calls for sustained efforts to combat anti-Semitism and other forms of discrimination. A U.S. proposal for a high-level conference on tolerance issues in 2009, however, met with only tepid support. Core human rights issues, including freedom of speech and freedom of religion, continued to draw large numbers of speakers. Throughout the discussions, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) expressed concern about Kazakhstan’s failure to implement promised reforms and questioned its readiness to serve as OSCE Chair-in-Office in 2010. Greece, slated to assume the chairmanship in January, came under criticism for its treatment of ethnic minorities. As in the past, the United State faced criticism for retaining the death penalty and for its conduct in counter-terrorism operations. Belarusian elections, held on the eve of the HDIM, came in for a round of criticism, while Russia continued to advocate proposals on election observation that would significantly limit the OSCE’s independence in such activities. Finally, discussion of the Russia-Georgia conflict was conspicuous by its near absence, though related human rights and humanitarian concerns will likely receive more prominence in the lead up to and during the December OSCE Ministerial in Helsinki. Background From September 29 to October 10, 2008, the OSCE participating States met in Warsaw, Poland, for the annual(1) Human Dimension Implementation Meeting (HDIM). The HDIM is Europe’s largest human rights gathering, convened to discuss compliance by the participating States with the full range of human dimension commitments they have all adopted by consensus. The meeting was organized by the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), according to an agenda approved by consensus of all 56 participating States. The HDIM is the only multinational human rights meeting in Europe where representatives of NGOs and government representatives have equal access to the speakers list. Indeed, over half of the statements delivered at this year’s HDIM were made by NGO representatives. Such implementation review meetings are intended to serve as the participating States’ principal venue for public diplomacy and are important vehicles for identifying continued areas of poor human rights performance. Although the HDIM is not tasked with decision-making responsibilities, the meetings can provide impetus for further focus on particular human dimension concerns and help shape priorities for subsequent action. Coming in advance of ministerial meetings that are usually held in December, the HDIMs provide an additional opportunity for consultations among the participating States on human dimension issues that may be addressed by Ministers. (This year, for example, there were discussions on the margins regarding a possible Ministerial resolution on equal access to education for Roma and advancing work in the field of tolerance and non-discrimination, including the possibility of convening a related high-level meeting in 2009.) OSCE rules, adopted by consensus, allow NGOs to have access to human dimension meetings. However, this general rule does not apply to “persons and organizations which resort to the use of violence or publicly condone terrorism or the use of violence.”(2) There are no other grounds for exclusion. The decision as to whether or not a particular individual or NGO runs afoul of this rule is made by the Chairman-in-Office. In recent years, some governments have tried to limit or restrict NGO access at OSCE meetings in an effort to avoid scrutiny and criticism of their records. This year, in the run up to the HDIM, Turkmenistan held the draft agenda for the meeting hostage, refusing to give consensus as part of an effort to block the registration of Turkmenistan NGOs which have previously attended the implementation meetings and criticized Ashgabat. Turkmenistan officials finally relented and allowed the adoption of the HDIM agenda in late July, but did not participate in the Warsaw meeting. Along these lines, the Russian delegation walked out in protest when the NGO “Russian-Chechen Friendship Society” took the floor to speak during a session on freedom of the media. At the 2008 HDIM, senior Department of State participants included Ambassador W. Robert Pearson, Head of Delegation; Ambassador Julie Finley, Head of the U.S. Mission to the OSCE; Ambassador Karen Stewart, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor; and Mr. Bruce Turner, Acting Director, Office for European Security and Political Affairs. Mr. Will Inboden, advisor on religious freedom issues, and Mr. Nathan Mick, advisor on Roma issues, served as Public Members. Ms. Felice Gaer, Chair of the U.S. Commission on Religious Freedom, and Mr. Michael Cromartie, Vice Chair, also served as members of the delegation. Helsinki Commission Chief of Staff Fred L. Turner and Senior State Department Advisor Ambassador Clifford Bond also served as members of the U.S. Delegation, along with Helsinki Commission staff members Alex T. Johnson, Ronald J. McNamara, Winsome Packer, Erika B. Schlager, and Dr. Mischa E. Thompson. In comparison with previous HDIMs, the 2008 meeting was relatively subdued – perhaps surprisingly so given that, roughly eight weeks before its opening, Russian tanks had rolled onto Georgian territory. While the full scope of human rights abuses were not known by the time the meeting opened, human rights defenders had already documented serious rights violations, including the targeting of villages in South Ossetia inhabited by ethnic Georgians. Nevertheless, discussion of the Russian-Georgian conflict was largely conspicuous by its near absence. Highlights The annual HDIM agenda provides a soup-to-nuts review of the implementation of core human rights and fundamental freedoms (e.g., freedoms of speech, assembly and association; prevention of torture; right to a fair trial), as well as rule of law, free elections and democracy-building issues. National minorities, Roma, tolerance and non-discrimination are also on the agenda. The United States continued its longstanding practice of naming specific countries and cases of concern. In accordance with OSCE procedures, the agenda included three specially selected topics, each of which was given a full day of review. This year, those subjects were: 1) education and awareness-raising in the promotion of human rights; 2) freedom of religion or belief; and 3) focus on identification, assistance and access to justice for the victims of trafficking. Of the three, the sessions on religious liberty attracted the most speakers with over 50 statements. A large number of side events were also part of the HDIM, organized by non-governmental organizations, OSCE institutions or offices, other international organizations, or participating States. These side events augment implementation review sessions by providing an opportunity to examine specific subjects or countries in greater depth and often with a more lively exchange than in the formal sessions. Along with active participation at these side events, the United States held extensive bilateral meetings with government representatives, as well as with OSCE officials and NGO representatives. At the end of the second week of the HDIM, Human Rights Directors from capitals also held a working meeting to discuss issues of mutual concern, with a special focus on United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325, on women, peace and security. This year, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom also hosted a reception to honor the OSCE Panel of Experts on Freedom of Religion or Belief, as well as the tenth anniversary of the U.S. International Religious Freedom Act and the 60th anniversary of the UN Declaration of Human Rights. Greece, scheduled to assume the chairmanship of the OSCE starting in January 2009, came under particular criticism for its treatment of minorities. Unlike the highly emotional reactions of senior Greek diplomats in Warsaw two years ago, the delegation this year responded to critics by circulating position papers elaborating the Greek government’s views. Greece also responded to U.S. criticism regarding the application of Sharia law to Muslim women in Thrace by stating that Greece is prepared to abolish the application of the Sharia law to members of the Muslim minority in Thrace when this is requested by the interested parties whom it affects directly. Issues relating to the treatment of ethnic, linguistic and religious minorities in the OSCE region are likely to remain an important OSCE focus in the coming period, especially in light of developments in the Caucasus, and it remains to be seen how the Greek chairmanship will address these concerns in light of its own rigid approach to minorities in its domestic policies. Throughout the HDIM, many NGOs continued to express concern about the fitness of Kazakhstan to serve as OSCE Chair-in-Office in 2010 given serious short comings in that country’s human rights record. In particular, Kazakhstan was sharply criticized for a draft religion law (passed by parliament, but not yet adopted into law). One NGO argued that a Kazakhstan chairmanship, with this law in place, would undermine the integrity of the OSCE, and urged participating States to reconsider Kazakhstan for the 2010 leadership position if the law is enacted. Juxtaposing Kazakhstan’s future chairmanship with the possible final passage of a retrograde law on religion, the Almaty Helsinki Committee asked the assembled representatives, “Are human rights still a priority – or not?” (Meanwhile, on October 5, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice visited Kazakhstan.) On the eve of the HDIM, Belarus held elections. Those elections received considerable critical attention during the HDIM’s focus on democratic elections, with the United States and numerous others expressing disappointment that the elections did not meet OSCE commitments, despite promises by senior Belarusian officials that improvements would be forthcoming. Norway and several other speakers voiced particular concern over pressures being placed on ODIHR to circumscribe its election observation activities. Illustrating those pressures, the Russian Federation reiterated elements of a proposal it drafted on election observation that would significantly limit the independence of ODIHR in its election observation work. The Head of the U.S. Delegation noted that an invitation for the OSCE to observe the November elections in the United States was issued early and without conditions as to the size or scope of the observation. (Russia and others have attempted to impose numerical and other limitations on election observation missions undertaken by the ODIHR and the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly.) Tolerance issues featured prominently during discussions this year, as they have at other recent HDIMs. Forty-three interventions were made, forcing the moderator to close the speakers list and requiring presenters to truncate their remarks. Muslim, migrant, and other groups representing visible minorities focused on discrimination in immigration policies, employment, housing, and other sectors, including racial profiling and hate crimes, amidst calls for OSCE countries to improve implementation of existing anti-discrimination laws. Jewish and other NGOs called for sustained efforts to combat anti-Semitism. Representatives of religious communities expressed concern about the confusion made by ODIHR in its Annual Hate Crimes Report between religious liberty issues and intolerance towards members of religious groups. This year, some governments and NGOs elevated their concerns relating to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender persons, increasingly placing these concerns in the context of the OSCE’s focus on hate crimes. A civil society tolerance pre-HDIM meeting and numerous side events were held on a broad range of tolerance-related topics. The United States and several U.S.-based NGOS called for a high-level conference on tolerance issues to be held in 2009. Unlike in prior years, however, no other State echoed this proposal or stepped forward with an offer to host such a high-level conference. In many of the formal implementation review sessions this year, NGOs made reference to specific decisions of the European Court on Human Rights, urging governments to implement judgments handed down in recent cases. During the discussion of issues relating to Roma, NGOs continued to place a strong focus on the situation in Italy, where Roma (and immigrants) have been the target of hate crimes and mob violence. NGOs reminded Italy that, at the OSCE Supplementary Human Dimension Meeting in July, they had urged Italy to come to the HDIM with concrete information regarding the prosecution of individuals for violent attacks against Roma. Regrettably, the Italian delegation was unable to provide any information on prosecutions, fostering the impression that a climate of impunity persists in Italy. As at other OSCE fora, the United States was criticized for retaining the death penalty, contrary to the abolitionist trend among the OSCE participating States. Of the 56 OSCE participating States, 54 have abolished, suspended or imposed a moratorium on the death penalty and only two – the United States and Belarus – continue to impose capital punishment as a criminal sanction. Two side events held during the HDIM also put a spotlight on the United States. The first event was organized by Freedom House and entitled, “Today’s American: How Free?” At this event, Freedom House released a book by the same title which examined “the state of freedom and justice in post-9/11 America.” The second event was a panel discussion on “War on Terror or War on Human Rights?” organized by the American Civil Liberties Union. Speakers from the ACLU, Amnesty International and the Polish Human Rights Foundation largely focused on issues relating to the United States, including the military commission trials at Guantanamo, and official Polish investigations into allegations that Poland (working with the United States) was involved in providing secret prisons for the detention and torture of “high-value” detainees.(3) In a somewhat novel development, Russian Government views were echoed by several like-minded NGOs which raised issues ranging from claims of “genocide” by Georgia in South Ossetia to grievances by ethnic Russians in Latvia and Estonia. Ironically, the Russian delegation, in its closing statement, asserted that this year’s HDIM had an “improved atmosphere” due (it was asserted) to the efforts by both governments and NGOs to find solutions to problems rather than casting blame. As at past HDIMs, some sessions generated such strong interest that the time allotted was insufficient to accommodate all those who wished to contribute to the discussion. For example, the session on freedom of the media was severely constrained, with more than 20 individuals unable to take the floor in the time allotted, and several countries unable to exercise rights of reply. Conversely, some sessions – for example, the session on equal opportunity for men and women, and the session on human dimension activities and projects – had, in terms of unused time available, an embarrassment of riches. Following a general pattern, Turkmenistan was again not present at the HDIM sessions this year.(4) In all, 53 participating States were represented at the meeting. At the closing session, the United States raised issues of particular concern relating to Turkmenistan under the “any other business” agenda item. (This is the sixth year in a row that the United States has made a special statement about the situation in Turkmenistan, a country that some view as having the worst human rights record in the OSCE.) For the past two years, there has been a new government in Turkmenistan. The U.S. statement this year noted some positive changes, but urged the new government to continue the momentum on reform by fully implementing steps it already has begun. In addition, the United States called for information on and access to Turkmenistan’s former representative to the OSCE, Batyr Berdiev. Berdiev, once Turkmenistan’s ambassador to the OSCE, was reportedly among the large number of people arrested following an attack on then-President Niyazov’s motorcade in 2002. His fate and whereabouts remain unknown. OSCE PA President João Soares addressed the closing plenary, the most senior Assembly official to participate in an HDIM meeting. The Russian-Georgian Conflict With the outbreak of armed violence between Russia and Georgia occurring only two months earlier, the war in South Ossetia would have seemed a natural subject for discussion during the HDIM. As a human rights forum, the meeting was unlikely to serve as a venue to debate the origins of the conflict, but there were expectations that participants would engage in a meaningful discussion of the human dimension of the tragedy and efforts to stem ongoing rights violations. As it turned out, this view was not widely shared by many of the governments and NGOs participating in the meeting. The opening plenary session foreshadowed the approach to this subject followed through most of the meeting. Among the senior OSCE officials, only High Commissioner on National Minorities Knut Vollebaek squarely addressed the situation in the south Caucasus. Vollebaek condemned the19th century-style politicization of national minority issues in the region and the violation of international borders. At the time of the crisis, he had cautioned against the practice of “conferring citizenship en masse to residents of other States” (a reference to Russian actions in South Ossetia) and warned that “the presence of one's citizens or ‘ethnic kin’ abroad must not be used as a justification for undermining the sovereignty and territorial integrity of other States.” Sadly, that sound advice went unobserved in Georgia, but it is still applicable elsewhere in the OSCE region.(5) The statement delivered by France on behalf of the countries of the European Union failed to address the conflict. During the plenary, only Norway and Switzerland joined the United States in raising humanitarian concerns stemming from the conflict. In reply, the head of the Russian delegation delivered a tough statement which sidestepped humanitarian concerns, declaring that discussion of Georgia’s territorial integrity was now “irrelevant.” He called on participating States to adopt a pragmatic approach and urged acknowledgment of the creation of the new sovereign states of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, terming their independence “irreversible” and “irrevocable.” Perhaps more surprising than this Russian bluster was the failure of any major NGO, including those who had been active in the conflict zone collecting information and working on humanitarian relief, to take advantage of the opportunity to raise the issue of South Ossetia during the opening plenary. As the HDIM moved into its working sessions, which cover the principal OSCE human dimension commitments, coverage of the conflict fared better. The Representative on Freedom of the Media remarked, in opening the session on free speech and freedom of the media that, for the first time in some years, two OSCE participating States were at war. During that session, he and other speakers called on the Russian Federation to permit independent media access to occupied areas to investigate the charges and counter-charges of genocide and ethnic cleansing. The tolerance discussion included calls by several delegations for Russia to cooperate and respond favorably to the HCNM’s request for access to South Ossetia to investigate the human rights situation in that part of Georgia. Disappointingly, during the session devoted to humanitarian commitments, several statements, including those of the ODHIR moderator and EU spokesperson, focused narrowly on labor conditions and migration, and failed to raise concerns regarding refugees and displaced persons, normally a major focus of this agenda item and obviously relevant to the Georgia crisis. Nevertheless, the session developed into one of the more animated at the HDIM. The Georgian delegation, which had been silent up to that point, spoke out against Russian aggression and alleged numerous human rights abuses. It expressed gratitude to the European Union for sending monitors to the conflict zone and urged the EU to pressure Russia to fully implement the Six-Point Ceasefire agreement negotiated by French President Sarkozy. The United States joined several delegations and NGOs calling on all parties to the conflict to observe their international obligations to protect refugees and create conditions for their security and safe voluntary return. In a pattern observed throughout the meeting, the Russian delegation did not respond to Georgian charges. It left it to an NGO, “Ossetia Accuses,” to make Russia’s case that Georgia had committed genocide against the people of South Ossetia. A common theme among many interventions was a call for an independent investigation of the causes of the conflict and a better monitoring of the plight of refugees, but to date Russian and South Ossetian authorities have denied both peacekeeping monitors and international journalists access to the region from elsewhere in Georgia. A joint assessment mission of experts from ODIHR and the HCNM, undertaken in mid-October, were initially denied access to South Ossetia, with limited access to Abkhazia granted to some team members. Eventually, several experts did gain access to the conflict zone in South Ossetia, though to accomplish this they had to travel from the north via the Russian Federation. One can only speculate why Georgia received such limited treatment at this HDIM. The crisis in the south Caucasus had dominated OSCE discussions at the Permanent Council in Vienna for weeks preceding the HDIM. Some participants may have feared that addressing it in Warsaw might have crowded out the broader human rights agenda. Others may have felt that, in the absence of a clear picture of the circumstances surrounding the conflict and with so many unanswered questions, it was best not to be too critical or too accusatory of either party. The EU (and particularly the French) were, at the time of the HDIM, in the process of negotiating the deployment of European observers to the conflict zone, and may have feared that criticism of Russia at this forum would have only complicated the task. In fact, the EU’s only oblique reference to Georgia was made at HDIM’s penultimate working session (a discussion which focused on human dimension “project activity”) in connection with the work of High Commissioner for National Minorities. (One observer of this session remarked that there seemed to be a greater stomach for dinging the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights for shortcomings in its work than for criticizing Russia for invading a neighboring OSCE participating State.) Finally, other participants, particularly NGOs, seemed more inclined to view human rights narrowly in terms of how governments treat their own citizens and not in terms of how the failure to respect key principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity are invariably accompanied by gross violations of human rights and can produce humanitarian disasters. Amid simmering tensions between Russia and Georgia which could erupt into renewed fighting, and completion of a report requested by the Finnish Chairmanship in time for the OSCE’s Ministerial in Helsinki in early December, Ministers will have to grapple with the impact of the south Caucasus conflict and what role the OSCE will have. Beyond Warsaw The relative quiet of the HDIM notwithstanding, French President M. Nicolas Sarkozy put a spotlight on OSCE issues during the course of the meeting. Speaking at a conference in Evian, France, on October 8, he responded to a call by Russian President Dmitri Medvedev, issued in June during meetings with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, for a new “European Security Treaty” to revise Europe’s security architecture – a move seen by many as an attempt to rein in existing regional security organizations, including NATO and the OSCE. President Sarkozy indicated a willingness to discuss Medvedev’s ideas, but argued they should be addressed in the context of a special OSCE summit, which Sarkozy suggested could be held in 2009. The escalating global economic crisis was also very much on the minds of participants at the HDIM as daily reports of faltering financial institutions, plummeting markets, and capital flight promoted concerns over implications for the human dimension. Several delegations voiced particular concern over the possible adverse impact on foreign workers and those depending on remittances to make ends meet. Looking Ahead The human rights and humanitarian concerns stemming from the war in South Ossetia will likely come into sharper focus in the lead up to the December OSCE Ministerial in Helsinki as talks on the conflict resume in Geneva, and OSCE and other experts attempt to document the circumstances surrounding the outbreak of fighting and current conditions. The coming weeks can also be expected to bring renewed calls for an overhaul of the human dimension and the ODIHR by those seeking to curb attention paid to human rights and subordinate election monitoring activities. It remains to be seen whether Kazakhstan will fulfill the commitments it made a year ago in Madrid to undertake meaningful reforms by the end of this year. There is also the risk that a deepening economic crisis will divert attention elsewhere, even as the resulting fallout in the human dimension begins to manifest itself. It is unclear what priorities the Greek chairmanship will be set for 2009, a year that portends peril and promise. Notes (1) OSCE Human Dimension Implementation Meetings are held every year, unless there is a Summit. Summits of Heads of State or Government are preceded by Review Conferences, which are mandated to review implementation of all OSCE commitments in all areas (military-security, economic and environmental cooperation, and the human dimension). (2) Helsinki Document 1992, The Challenges of Change, IV (16). (3) Interestingly, at the session on human rights and counterterrorism, moderator Zbigniew Lasocik, member of the United Nations Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture, noted that Poland’s Constitutional Court had, the previous day, struck down a 2004 law that purported to allow the military to shoot down hijacked commercial aircraft – even if they were being used as weapons like the planes that killed thousands of people on 9/11. The Court reportedly reasoned that shooting down an aircraft being used as bomb would infringe on the constitutional protection of human life and dignity of the passengers. (4) Turkmenistan sent a representative to the HDIM in 2005 for the first time in several years. While responding to criticism delivered in the sessions, the representative appeared to focus more on monitoring the activities of Turkmen NGOs participating in the meeting. Turkmenistan subsequently complained that certain individuals who had been charged with crimes against the State should not be allowed to participate in OSCE meetings. Turkmenistan officials did not participate in the 2006 or 2007 HDIMs. Participation in the 2008 meeting would have been a welcome signal regarding current political developments. (5) The HCNM had previously expressed concern regarding Hungary’s overreach vis-a-vis ethnic Hungarian minorities in neighboring countries. In 2004, Hungary held a referendum on extending Hungarian citizenship to ethnic Hungarians abroad – an idea that still holds political currency in some quarters of Hungary – but the referendum failed due to low voter turnout.

  • Belarus’ Parliamentary Elections Fail to Meet OSCE Democratic Election Commitments

    By Orest Deychakiwsky and Winsome Packer Policy Advisors The conduct of the September 28 parliamentary elections in Belarus fell significantly short of international standards, despite some hopes that there would be improvements following the August release of political prisoners, Belarus’ reluctance to recognize South Ossetia and Abkhazia and statements by senior Belarusian officials raising expectations. The Commission followed the run-up to the elections closely, holding a hearing on September 16 titled “Business as Usual? Belarus on the Eve of the Elections,” and issuing a press release expressing concern about the pre-election climate and encouraging last minute steps, including transparency in the vote count and full access for OSCE observers. [Both the hearing and the press release are available on the Commission’s website.] Two members of the Commission staff traveled to Belarus as part of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly’s delegation of the overall OSCE Election Observation Mission, observing in Minsk and Smolevichi. In its statement, issued the day after the election, the OSCE election observation mission concluded that despite minor improvements, the conduct of the parliamentary elections in Belarus “ultimately fell short of OSCE commitments for democratic elections.” On election day, voting itself was generally well conducted, though the vote count was assessed as bad or very bad in 48 percent of OSCE observations. The experiences of Commission staff on voting day were consistent with those of other OSCE observers. For the most part, the voting itself in the precincts staff visited went smoothly. However, the vote counting process was particularly problematic, given the lack of transparency. All 110 elected members of the Chamber of Representatives of the National Assembly (lower chamber of parliament) are pro-government. No opposition activists from out of 70 nominated by the democratic opposition were elected. The vote count in one Minsk precinct in which Commission staff observed jointly with a Swedish member of parliament was dramatically lacking in transparency. There were three candidates on the ballot in this precinct, including one opposition member. Both the OSCE and domestic observers were hindered from having a full view of the vote counting proceedings. The precinct electoral commission set tables up as barriers about three meters from the tables on which the ballots were being counted. Further obstructing the observers’ view of the ballot count were the electoral commission workers themselves, who were positioned in such a way as to make viewing difficult. Attempts by observers and a proxy of the opposition candidate to clarify which provisions of the electoral code permitted this behavior by the electoral commission went nowhere. All of the ballots – from the early voting, mobile voting, and regular voting were mixed in together. When an OSCE observer took a picture of the vote count, or, more accurately, of the election commission members blocking the vote count, the chairwoman interrupted the count to write a complaint against the observer. After about 20 minutes, the opposition candidate’s proxy notified her that according to Article 55 of the electoral code, “the count must be performed without a break until the results of the voting have been obtained.” Only at that point did the Chairwoman cease writing and resume the count. In the North-East Minsk district that other Commission staff monitored with an Irish senator, the experience was similar. The voting process at the eight polling stations that they monitored was orderly and transparent. The problems came in the counting process. Similar to the reports from other observers, Commission staff and the Irish observer were prevented from standing close enough to watch the vote counting in a manner that allowed them to see the names and other distinguishing information on the ballots, even though the importance of this facet of observation was stressed to the government by the OSCE and the Interior Minister assured observers in a briefing on September 25 that election monitors would be able to watch the counting from a close vantage point. In a far departure from this promise, the precinct officials refused to announce what boxes they were opening during the process. They would lift a box, dump its contents on a table on the other side of the room from where the observers were seated, and ten or so people would crowd around the table to separate the ballots and "count" the votes. Observers could not distinguish which ballots came from early voting versus the ballots cast on election day, or spoiled ballots. They refused to announce the results of the count or record them in the protocol as was delineated in the procedural manual provided by ODIHR. They then huddled with a calculator to tabulate numbers, write them on a piece of paper in complete silence. Afterward, the precinct chair posted all of their numbers on a bulletin board. They then gathered up the ballots and left the building without a word. It is apparent that further legal and cultural changes are required for truly democratic elections to occur in Belarus. Several problems that manifested themselves during the actual voting were that the material used to seal the ballot boxes was easily manipulable and could be removed and put back on (clay dough and a string). In a number of precincts, the early voting ballot boxes were not in plain view, as required by law. Early voting was significant in several precincts, up to 39 percent in one case. Before voting day, there appeared to be a certain willingness on the part of some in the West to give the benefit of the doubt to the authorities, in part due to the minor improvements that had taken place in the election campaign, such as slightly increased access of opposition representatives to district election commissions, and the decision to repeat the airing of the candidates’ five-minute campaign spots on state TV and radio stations. This, together with the release of political prisoners Aleksandr Kozulin, Syarhei Parsyukevich and Andrei Kim (which led to the temporary lifting of U.S. sanctions on two subsidiaries of Belarus’s giant petrochemical conglomerate Belnaftakhim), and Belarussian leader Alexander Lukashenka’s unenthusiastic response to Russia’s occupation of Georgia and refusal to date to recognize South Ossetia and Abkhazia created an atmosphere of optimism that Lukashenka would be willing to take steps towards democratic reform and engage in a dialogue with Europe and the United States. The stark lack of transparency in the vote count was also surprising to many because it flew in the face of Belarusian authorities’ pledges prior to the vote, and it was probably unnecessary. Given the overall election campaign climate, which did not allow for genuine political competition and where the opposition had extremely minimal representation on precinct election commissions, the vast majority of pro-governmental candidates would have won in any event. This is within the context of the wider extremely inhospitable environment for the democratic opposition, in which for almost 15 years the Lukashenka regime has tightly controlled the media; vilified the opposition; repressed the independent media; disappeared, detained, imprisoned, and beaten opposition members and democracy activists; harassed and suppressed non-governmental organizations and, in short, done its best to stifle independent thought. Notwithstanding the EU’s temporary lifting of some visa sanctions against senior Belarusian officials, Mr. Lukashenka may have yet again missed an opportunity to move Belarus towards democratic Europe, which would enhance Belarus’ independence, at a time when it especially needs to be strengthened, given intensifying Russian pressure on Belarus. Notwithstanding the flawed elections, both the United States and Europe have displayed a willingness to continue to engage in dialogue with Minsk and to encourage Belarus to move forward along the path of compliance with freely undertaken OSCE human rights and democracy commitments. The poor quality of the September 28 elections did not facilitate this process, as had been hoped by the West. Nevertheless, if the Belarusian authorities take steps to increase political freedom and respect for human rights, the real possibility exists for a gradual opening in U.S.-Belarusian relations – for Belarus to begin the process of reducing its self-imposed isolation and eventually taking its rightful place among the community of European nations.

  • OSCE 101: Briefing for Civil Society

    Please join the U.S. Helsinki Commission for OSCE 101: BRIEFING FOR CIVIL SOCIETY Thursday, September 4, 2008  10:00 a.m. - 12:00 p.m.  Rayburn House Office Building  B318 For those in need of a refresher course and those interested in becoming involved. Learn about the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the Role of Civil Society For those planning to travel to Warsaw, Poland, remember to register to participate in the OSCE’s Annual Human Rights Meeting: What: Human Dimension Implementation Meeting (HDIM) When: September 29 – October 10, 2008 Where: Warsaw, Poland Why: Annual 2-week human rights conference What is the HDIM? The term "human dimension" describes the set of norms and activities related to human rights, the rule of law, and democracy that are regarded within the OSCE as one of the three pillars of its comprehensive security concept, along with the politico-military and the economic and environmental dimensions. Every year in Warsaw, the OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) organizes a two-week conference, the Human Dimension Implementation Meeting (HDIM). The HDIM is a forum where OSCE participating States discuss the implementation of human dimension commitments that were adopted by consensus at prior OSCE Summits or Ministerial Meetings. These commitments are not legally binding norms; instead, they are politically binding - a political promise to comply with the standards elaborated in OSCE documents. Follow-up meetings to review the implementation of the commitments are based on the principle that the commitments undertaken in the field of the human dimension are matters of direct and legitimate concern to all participating States and do not belong exclusively to the internal affairs of the state concerned. A comprehensive, 2-volume compilation of the OSCE human dimension commitments (available in English and in Russian) can be ordered free of charge through the ODIHR website: Volume 1: Thematic Compilation and Volume 2: Chronological Compilation.

  • Combating Sexual Exploitation of Children: Strengthening International Law Enforcement Cooperation

    The hearing examined current practices for sharing information among law enforcement authorities internationally and what concrete steps can be taken to strengthen that cooperation to more effectively investigate cases of sexual exploitation of children, including child pornography on the Internet. Despite current efforts, sexual exploitation of children is increasing globally. The use of the Internet has made it easier for pedophiles and sexual predators to have access to child pornography and potential victims. In May, the Senate Judiciary Committee passed the Combating Child Exploitation Act of 2008 (S.1738), which will allocate over one billion dollars over the next eight years to provide Federal, state, and local law enforcement with the resources and structure to find, arrest, and prosecute those who prey on our children.

  • Concern about Treatment of U.S. Citizen in Belarusian Detention

    Madam Speaker, as Chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, I would like to draw attention and concern to the case of Mr. Emanuel Zeltser, a U.S. citizen who was detained March 12th upon his arrival in Minsk, Belarus, charged with "use of forged documents.'' In the entire time that Mr. Zeltser has been detained, he has only been allowed visitation by the U.S. Embassy twice, on March 21st and April 25th. Upon the latter visit it was noted by the U.S. consul that Mr. Zeltser had been beaten several times and appeared in greatly weakened health. Mr. Zeltser suffers from Type 2 diabetes and a severe form of arthritis. Though his condition causes him severe pain and has further deteriorated during his incarceration, the authorities in the detention facility where he is held have reportedly denied him necessary medications. Without proper medications, Mr. Zeltser may not be able to survive the harsh conditions of his detention. Furthermore, according to his lawyer, Belarusian authorities have recently extended the period of Mr. Zeltser's term of detention. It is incumbent upon the Belarusian government to provide Mr. Zeltser full consular access, proper medical care, and ensure that he is not subjected to further physical abuse and degrading treatment--consistent with its international legal obligations and basic human rights standards. Time is of the essence in Mr. Zeltser's case, as further delays could lead to further deterioration of his health to the point of endangering his life. Madam Speaker, I call upon the Belarusian authorities to ensure that Mr. Zeltser immediately receives the medication his doctor has prescribed, and is protected from further ill-treatment, given access to U.S. consular representatives and any medical attention he may need. On April 25, the State Department requested the Government of Belarus to release Emanuel Zeltser on humanitarian grounds. I urge the Belarusian Government to favorably consider that request.

  • Hate in the Information Age

    The briefing provided an overview of hate crimes and hate propaganda in the OSCE region, focusing on the new challenges posed by the internet and other technology. Mischa Thompson led the panelists in a discussion of the nature and frequency of hate crimes in the OSCE region, including the role of the internet and other technologies in the training, recruiting, and funding of hate groups. Panelists - Rabbi Abraham Cooper, Mark A. Potok, Christopher Wolf, Tad Stahnke – discussed how best to combat hate crimes and hate propaganda and highlighted internet governance issues in the United States and Europe and how the internet extensively contributes to hate propaganda. Issues such as free speech and content control were at the center of the discussion.

  • Clearing the Air, Feeding the Fuel Tank: Understanding the Link Between Energy and Environmental Security

    Congress has an obligation to work to ensure a healthy and safe environment for the benefit of current and future generations.  To reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and achieve a healthier environment, we need a multi-faceted approach that addresses the tangled web of issues involved.  We need to foster both energy independence and clean energy. Given rising sea levels, the increasing severity of storm surges, and higher temperatures the world over, the impact of global climate change is undeniable.  Unless we act now, we will see greater and greater threats to our way of life on this planet.

  • Crossing Boarders, Keeping Connected: Women, Migration and Development in the OSCE Region

    The hearing will focus on the impact of migration on family and society, the special concerns of migrant women of color, and the economic contributions of women migrants to their home country through remittances. According to the United Nations, women are increasingly migrating on their own as main economic providers and heads of households. While the number of women migrants is on the rise, little is known about the economic and social impact of this migration on their home country.

  • Taking Stock: Combating Anti-Semitism in the OSCE Region (Part II)

    This hearing, which Commissioner Alcee L. Hastings presided over, was the second in a set of hearings that focused on combating anti-Semitism in the OSCE region. Hastings lauded the efforts regarding this approach to anti-Semitism by bringing up how impressive it was for these states to look at issues of tolerance, while a few years before the hearing took place, not all participating states thought that there was a problem. Since the Commission’s efforts regarding anti-Semitism began in 2002 with the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, a lot of progress had been achieved, but attendees did discuss work that still needed to be accomplished. For example, as per Commission findings, even Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenka had made anti-Semitic comments, underscoring the inadequate efforts the Belarusian government had made to hold those guilty of anti-Semitic vandalism accountable. The Russian Federation had operated under similar circumstances, but the situation for Jewish individuals was better in Turkey. However, attendees did discuss “skinhead gangs” and similar groups elsewhere in the OSCE.   http://www.csce.gov/video/archive2-08.ram

  • Human Rights and Democracy in Belarus off to a Discouraging Start in the New Year

    Madam Speaker, last month, I chaired a Helsinki Commission briefing with a delegation of leading political opposition figures and democratic activists from Belarus. The briefing was entitled, ``The Future Belarus: Democracy or Dictatorship'' and focused on the prospects for change in a country located in the heart of Europe that has Europe's worst track record with respect to human rights and democracy. Unfortunately, developments since the delegation's visit to Washington have been deeply discouraging and do not bode well for Belarus' democratic future. One of the young people who testified at the briefing, 19-year-old Zmitser Fedaruk, spoke eloquently of the dangers that young human rights activists face in Belarus. His words were prophetic, as a few days later, back in Belarus, he was beaten and knocked unconscious by riot policemen, then rushed by ambulance to the hospital. Just last week, the Minsk district prosecutor's office in Minsk refused to open an investigation into Zmitser's beating. A day earlier, my friend Anatoly Lebedka, one of Belarus' staunchest defenders of democratic rights, who also testified before the Commission, was roughed up by Belarusian police as well. It was far from the first time that this leader of the democratic opposition had been beaten up or repressed by the Lukashenka regime. On January 4, the Lukashenka regime banned Anatoly from travelling abroad in what was obviously a politically-motivated decision. Today, Anatoly is in jail serving a 15-day sentence, along with several dozen other pro-democracy and small business advocates who participated in a January 10 protest against restrictions on activities of small businesses. Some of the activists--mostly young people--received injuries during their arrest. Tatyana Tsishkevch, who was severely beaten during her arrest and presented her bloodstained jacket in court, received a 20-day sentence. Arsien Pakhomau, a freelance photo correspondent for ``Nasha Niva'' weekly--one of the very few remaining independent publications in Belarus--was also sentenced to 15 days' administrative arrest. On the day of the protest, a number of websites that cover social and economic affairs in Belarus, such as Charter '97 and Radio Liberty, were partially or fully blocked by the authorities. These most recent repressive actions follow the sentencing of opposition activist Artur Finkevich to 18 months in prison; the arbitrary use of judicial power to put out of business independent newspapers such as ``Novi Chas''; steps to liquidate the opposition Belarusian Communist Party; and the fining of Baptist pastor Yuri Kravchuk for unregistered religious activity. Belarus is the only country in Europe with compulsory registration before religious activity can take place. Unfortunately, the indications in just the first few weeks of this New Year are not encouraging. Lukashenka's presidential administration has recently rejected the opposition's proposal to hold talks on the upcoming 2008 parliamentary elections, refusing an offer by the Belarusian opposition to consider joint proposals on conducting parliamentary elections in accordance with democratic standards. Madam Speaker, as Chairman of the U.S. Helsinki Commission and as someone who has long been involved in the OSCE process to promote security, cooperation, democracy and human rights among the 56 OSCE countries, including Belarus, I am deeply disappointed in the Belarusian Government's continual flaunting of freely undertaken OSCE commitments. It is my strong hope that Mr. Lukashenka will cease the self-imposed isolation of his country--threatening, most recently, to expel U.S. Ambassador Karen Stewart--and will give serious thought to the offers of cooperation that have come from the United States and the European Union if Belarus releases political prisoners and displays respect for basic democratic norms. In the meantime, the Lukashenka regime can be assured that my colleagues and I on the Helsinki Commission are determined to stand by Anatoly Lebedka, Dzmitri Fedaruk and all those in Belarus--young and old--bravely struggling for freedom, democracy and respect for human rights.

  • Freedom of the Media in the OSCE Region Part 2

    Freedom of media is one of the cornerstones of democracy, and recognized as such under international human rights law and in numerous OSCE commitments.  Moreover, a free and independent media is not only an essential tool for holding governments accountable; the media can serve as an agent of change when it shines a light into the darkest crevices of the world (examining environmental degradation, corporate or government corruption, trafficking in children, and healthcare crises in the world's most vulnerable countries, etc.) Freedom of the media is closely connected to the broader right to freedom of speech and expression and other issues including public access to information and the conditions necessary for free and fair elections.  The hearing will attempt to illustrate the degree in which freedom of the media is obstructed in the greater OSCE region.

  • The Future Belarus: Democracy or Dictatorship?

    This briefing, on the prospects for democratic change in Belarus, a country located in the heart of Europe, but which had the unfortunate distinction of having one of the worst human rights and democracy records in the European part of the OSCE region, was held by Hon. Alcee L. Hastings, Chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe. He was join by a delgation of courageous leaders of Belarus' democratic opposition and leading human rights and democracy activists: Aliaksandr Milinkevich, Anatoliy Lebedko, Sergey Kalyakin, Anatoliy Levkovich, and Dmitriy Fedaruk. The witnesses were commended for their courage to testify at the briefing and applauded for their commitment to the struggle for democracy, freedom, and human rights, even under very trying circumstances.

  • Combating Hate Crimes and Discrimination in the OSCE

    Congressman Alcee L. Hastings (D-FL), Chairman of the CSCE, held a briefing on hate crimes and discrimination in the OSCE region.  Joining Chairman Hastings at the dais were Helsinki Commissioners Senator Gordon Smith (R-OR) and Congresswoman Hilda Solis (D-CA).  The briefing focused on intolerance and discrimination within the 56 countries that make up the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).  Congressman Hastings emphasized the discrimination against the Roma and other minorities of Turkish, African, and south Asian descent when they attempt to apply for jobs, find housing, and get an education The panel of speakers – Dr. Dou Dou Diene, United Nations Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia, and related intolerance; Dr. Tiffany Lightbourn, Department of Homeland Security, Science & Technology Directorate; and Mr. Micah H. Naftalin and Mr. Nickolai Butkevich, UCSJ: Union of Councils for Soviet Jews – spoke of the rising popularity of right-wing extremist party, who espouse vicious anti-Semitic slogans and appeal to a 19th century form of European ethnic identity.  In addition, Urs Ziswiler, the Ambassador of Switzerland, attended the briefing and commented on the rise in xenophobic views in Switzerland.  

  • Parliamentary Perspective of Challenges Facing Today’s Europe

    Mr. Göran Lennmaker, the President of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly testified about the current challenges facing the OSCE region and the work the OSCE PA is doing to address them.  He highlighted the work that the OSCE had done on the Nagorno-Karabakh and praised the cooperative efforts of Russia, France and United States. Mr. Lennmaker highlighted the need for increased engagement with Central Asia and supported the idea of Kazakhstan chairing the OSCE in the next year.

  • Activists Present Mixed Assessment of Protection and Promotion of Human Rights in OSCE Region

    By Ronald McNamara, International Policy Director Nearly a hundred human rights advocates representing dozens of NGOs and national human rights institutions gathered in Vienna, July 12-13, 2007, for the Supplementary Human Dimension Meeting on Protection and Promotion of Human Rights convened by the 56-nation Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Discussions were organized around three main topics: the role of national courts in promoting and protecting human rights; the role of civil society in addressing human rights violations; and, the role of national human rights institutions in promoting and protecting human rights. Rooted in the fundamental right of individuals to know and act upon their rights, much of the discussion focused on the legal framework, access to effective remedies when violations occur, and the role of civil society and non-governmental organizations in fostering the protection and promotion of human rights. A recurring critical question throughout the meeting was whether courts, the judiciary, and national human rights institutions are truly independent. Keynote remarks by Professor Vojin Dimitrijevic, Director of the Belgrade Center for Human Rights, revolved around institutional concerns, including the limited development of structures to address human rights violations, significant backlogs in the processing of human rights cases, and inadequate training of jurists and others. He suggested that universities could do much to address the current shortcomings of existing mechanisms. The Director of the OSCE Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, Ambassador Christian Strohal, referred to a related resolution adopted by the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly at its Annual Session held the prior week in Kyiv. A long-time rights advocate, he stressed the importance of prevention of violations, while underscoring the need for effective remedies when rights are violated. Professor Emmanuel Decaux opened the session of national courts by underscoring the fundamental importance of effective remedies and transparency in judicial proceedings. He pointed to the critical need for independent judges as well as protection and preservation of rights amid a heightened focus on counterterrorism. Legal advocates from Georgia and Azerbaijan addressed practical concerns such as transparency in judicial appointments, disciplinary actions against judges, public confidence in the courts, limits on televised coverage of courtroom proceedings, financial independence of the judiciary and combating corruption. Karinna Moskalenko, a leading human rights lawyer from the Russian Federation subjected to intense pressure because of her advocacy, including cases relating to Chechnya, noted the large number of cases from Russia being taken up in Strasbourg at the European Court of Human Rights. Nearly 30,000 complaints from individuals in Russia were submitted to the court between 1998 and 2006. Concern was also raised over the situation in Uzbekistan, where authorities frequently resort to use of Article 165 of the criminal code on extortion to imprison human rights defenders, including 10 members of the Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan. An activist from Kazakhstan said that it simply made no sense to speak of judicial independence in his country. Similarly, an NGO representative from Belarus asserted that whatever independence the judiciary had previously has evaporated under the regime. Others from Ukraine and Georgia bemoaned the slow pace of judicial reforms in their countries. Several speakers noted the failure of governments to change their laws or procedures following repeated judgments against them by the European Court of Human Rights. According to one, the budget of the Russian Federation now includes a line item specifically to cover fines stemming from rulings of the court, while the underlying deficiencies go unchanged. Liubov Vinogradova of the Russian Research Center for Human Rights opened the session devoted to human rights defenders, underscoring the difficult and often dangerous environment for activists in the post-Soviet space. She also pointed to attempts by government to manipulate NGOs, create GONGOs (government non-governmental organizations), and erect potemkin umbrella organizations or councils. Vinogradova cited the urgent need for meaningful judicial reform in her country. She decried efforts by some in Moscow to impede access by plaintiffs from Russia to the court in Strasbourg. She read off a lengthy list of areas where Russia’s 2,000 registered human rights NGOs are making a difference. Among the challenges are limited resources, harassment by the authorities and an often hostile media with close ties to the government. Vinogradova was skeptical about the intent of President Putin’s decree offering funds to NGOs in Russia, suggesting that it could represent an attempt at “managed NGOs.” Several subsequent speakers noted the particular difficulty encountered by those active in the defense of political rights, especially the tendency of the authorities to construe such work as party politics. A number referred to various forms of harassment by the authorities. Activists from Belarus talked about the deteriorating situation they face in a country where human rights defenders are viewed with deep suspicion by the authorities and most are forced to work underground due to a refusal by officials to issue formal registration. Some observed that obstructive methods employed in one country of the Commonwealth of Independent States often are adopted elsewhere, in what one speaker termed the “Putinization” of the former Soviet space. The case of Russian advocate Mikhail Trepashkin was cited as an illustration of what can happen when a lawyer gets involved in a case viewed as sensitive to the authorities. Trepashkin was arrested in 2003, days before a trial was to open relating to an apartment bombing in Moscow in 1999 that then became the basis for the Kremlin’s renewed military campaign in Chechnya. The lawyer was initially detained and charged with illegal possession of weapons, then convicted by a closed military court to four years imprisonment for disclosing state secrets. Other speakers urged the participating States to strengthen OSCE commitments on human rights defenders. The Vienna-based International Helsinki Federation echoed this call, noting the precarious position of activities in many OSCE countries. The IHF recommended focusing on the safety of human rights defenders in the face of harassment and threats and called for the November Madrid OSCE Ministerial Council to approve related language. Irish Human Rights Commission President Dr. Maurice Manning introduced the final session devoted to national human rights institutions. He provided an overview, stressing the importance of the independence of such bodies and adherence to the “Paris Principles.” Manning urged that these institutions be focused and avoid interference from government and non-governmental organizations alike. He suggested that they could play a number of useful purposes such as reviewing pending laws and regulations, assess compliance with standards in individual cases, and help identify systemic areas of concern. He concluded by suggesting that national institutions were ideally situated to serve as a bridge between civil society and the state. The UN Economic and Social Council, beginning in 1960, encouraged the establishment of institutions as a means of encouraging and assisting states with implementation of international human rights commitments. In 1978, the UN issued a series of guidelines on the function and structure of institutions, falling into two main categories: human rights commissions and ombudsman offices. In the early 1990s work was completed on the Paris Principles, addressing the competence and responsibilities of national institutions as well as composition and guarantees of independence and pluralism, and methods of operation. The International Coordinating Committee of National Institutions for the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights oversees accreditation of such bodies based on compliance with the Paris Principles. As of March 2007, 17 national institutions in the OSCE region were deemed fully compliant, five were not fully compliant, and two were non-compliant. Accredited institutions are found in Albania, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Luxembourg, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, and the United Kingdom. Several representatives of ombudsman offices described their activities, including establishment of national hotlines to receive human rights complaints, as well as working relations with courts and prosecutors. The discussions became more animated with exchanges between NGO participants and regime surrogates, notably regarding human rights in Belarus and Kazakhstan. The International Helsinki Federation expressed concern over a number of troubling trends faced by institutions, particularly targeted harassment stemming from their advocacy as well as legal and fiscal barriers to their work. The IHF representative made several concrete recommendations for OSCE, including strengthening relevant commitments, considering establishment of a special representative of the OSCE Chairman in Office on human rights defenders, and enhancing networks between civil society, national institutions and OSCE. The delegation of the Russian Federation used the closing session of the SHDM to renew its objections to allowing the Russian-Chechen Friendship Society to register for the meeting, notwithstanding the fact that the group did not actually attend. While the SHDM was informative and perhaps useful in terms of networking among those attending, the meeting underscored the clear divide between civil society representatives who advocate for human rights and the governments which perceive such work as a threat and thus try to thwart it. Though several heads of delegation from the Permanent Council made cameo appearances at the opening of the meeting, attendance by government delegates was sparse, particularly from countries which limit NGO activities. On the other hand, the theme of the meeting was particularly relevant in light of moves by several participating States, especially Belarus, Russia, Kazakhstan and other CIS countries to control civil society. Not surprisingly, these delegations are working actively behind the scenes to limit OSCE focus on human rights, particularly questions relating to freedom of association and assembly, bedrock commitments for civil society. A disturbing trend is the increasing tendency of several of these participating States to assert “interference in internal affairs” -- a standard ploy during Soviet times – when their rights violations are raised. While in Vienna, it became apparent that efforts are underway to limit NGO participation in OSCE meetings and to find an alternative to the annual Human Dimension Implementation Meeting, the singularly most important opportunity for civil society to engage the participating States and the OSCE. The failure of the Ljubljana and Brussels OSCE Ministerials to adopt proposed texts acknowledging the contribution of civil society and human rights defenders to the Helsinki process – drawn from existing OSCE commitments – clearly illustrates the backsliding of those States that refused to join consensus. Ironically, some participants in the SHDM proposed strengthening commitments on human rights defenders, when the reality is that a number of countries – Russia, Turkmenistan and Belarus among them – would be hard-pressed to agree today to provisions of the Copenhagen Document dating back to 1990! It is incumbent upon those OSCE countries that value the human dimension to resist the push to water down existing commitments or move the discussion of their implementation behind closed doors.

  • Remarks by the Hon. Alcee L. Hastings at the Conference on 21st Century Threats to Media Freedom

    Ladies and Gentlemen, As Chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, I appreciate this opportunity to address threats to media freedom in the expansive OSCE region stretching from Vancouver to Vladivostok. While the now 56 signatories to the Helsinki Final Act have accepted a series of specific commitments on media and working conditions for journalists, the difficulty remains translating words on paper into deeds in practice. Before turning to concerns of the 21st century, let me recall Thomas Jefferson’s observation from 1787: “were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.” In a subsequent elaboration, he explained why: “The only security of all is in a free press. The force of public opinion cannot be resisted when permitted freely to be expressed.” You don’t have to be one of our own Founding Fathers to grasp the idea. Leaders the world over who are determined to remain in office by any means necessary understand perfectly the power of the press. That is precisely why they and their associates strive so vigorously to control the media. In Aleksandr Lukashenka's Belarus, for example, media freedoms are systematically stifled and have deteriorated over the past few years. Investigations of suspicious deaths of two journalists in 2004 and 2005 have gone nowhere. And just a month ago opposition activist Andrei Klimau was arrested under a vague article of the Criminal Code. Meanwhile, the Lukashenka regime maintains a virtual monopoly on television and radio broadcasting. Last November, Lukashenka himself unabashedly admitted to reporters that his government uses “serious pressure” to control the media and that he is in charge of this process. In another context, that acknowledgment might be described as admirable candor – and certainly more than could be had in Russia. I’m sure all of you have read the obituaries for the late Boris Yeltsin. Russia’s first freely elected president made many mistakes. But all commentators have stressed that throughout his two terms, he protected the media. You may recall a TV show in Russia called Kukly which satirized politicians with hand-puppets. The show’s writers savaged their targets, including the head of state, and this in a country where the Tsar or the General Secretary could never be criticized. Yet Boris Yeltsin, who must have been chagrined, did not order Kukly off the air. That was left to his successor, whose minions made sure that Kukly never again darkened the airwaves. In fact, contrast the era of Kukly to the situation in Russia today: According to a Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty report last year, 79 percent of the population gets its news from the three national TV networks, which are either directly or indirectly controlled by the government. And it shows. You have to look long and hard for criticism of President Putin. You all saw, I suspect, the press report that employees of Russia’s largest independent radio news network have been told that at least 50 percent of the reports about Russia must be “positive,” that opposition political leaders may not be mentioned on the air and that “the United States was to be portrayed as an enemy.” The first impulse is to laugh at this absurdity of such policies. But journalism in Russia is a very serious business. Even before the assassination of prominent investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya last October and the mysterious death of reporter Ivan Safronov earlier this year, the Committee to Protect Journalists cited Russia as the third-deadliest country in the world for journalists over the past 15 years, with 42 journalists killed since 1992. The vast majority of these crimes remain “unsolved.” Only last week we learned that a former Kremlin reporter has felt it necessary to seek political asylum in the United Kingdom. Russia tends to be a trendsetter for its neighbors. But there are various degrees of media freedom in the former USSR. In Ukraine, since the 2004 Orange Revolution, media freedom has opened up and the egregious government instructions to the media are a thing of the past. Yet even in Ukraine, anonymous threats and attacks against journalists, especially those in the regions who expose corruption, still occur too frequently, and the 2000 murder of prominent journalist Georgiy Gongadze remains “unresolved.” Elsewhere, freedom of the press is only a cherished dream of human rights activists. Soviet-era censorship survives in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, which, not coincidentally, ban all political opposition. The death of a Radio Free Europe journalist while in custody in Turkmenistan demonstrates starkly how dangerous the journalist’s profession can be. In Kazakhstan and Tajikistan, electronic media are tightly controlled. Print media enjoy more latitude but their grounds for maneuver are also limited. A reporter in Kazakhstan who wrote articles implicating local officials and businessmen in the recent clashes between Kazakhs and Chechens has been missing for about a month. Kyrgyzstan is more difficult to characterize, because the state has been weaker than elsewhere in Central Asia and less capable of asserting its control of the media. But since the Tulip Revolution, restrictions on the free flow of information have loosened and I would say that free media have developed farther in Kyrgyzstan than anywhere else in Central Asia. Still, it is very disturbing that Kyrgyz authorities raided publishing houses last week, as the confrontation between the government and protesters heated up. In Armenia and Azerbaijan, according to reports by the State Department and OSCE’s Representative on the Media, the government seeks to control free media, especially television. In Armenia, for example, independent TV station A1+ has never been allowed back on the air since it was closed down. As for Azerbaijan, just last week, the State Department criticized Baku for the jailing of a journalist on libel charges and expressed concern about the deteriorating media situation. The use of criminal defamation and insult laws has long been used against those who criticize the government or officials, and I commend the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media for his consistent, principled focus on this area of abuse. Georgia is a particularly interesting case. Throughout the 1990s, leaders of most former Soviet states reined in the media that had blossomed under glasnost. A historic turning point came in fall 2003, when the Rose Revolution was gathering force in Georgia. Opposition leaders who refused to accept another rigged election led throngs of protesters against Eduard Shevardnadze’s government. You will recall that at a crucial moment, the Rustavi-2 TV station aligned itself with the opposition Troika and played a critical role in galvanizing the public to reject the official election results. In short order, this resistance movement mushroomed into peaceful regime change that sparked similar events in Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan. The lesson was not lost on leaders of other post-Soviet states. Shevardnadze’s counterparts in other CIS capitals were determined to avoid his fate and they resolved that no analogue to Rustavi-2 would arise on their turf. For the most part, I must say, they have pulled it off: outside Ukraine and to some degree Kyrgyzstan, nothing of the sort is permitted. In Georgia today, opposition figures maintain that Rustavi-2 has become a pro-government station. But other TV stations air broadcasts critical of President Saakashvili. Today, Russian and Uzbek media excoriate the United States for allegedly plotting more “color revolutions.” To stem the tide, a broad panoply of tactics has been deployed. Prominent among them have been the expulsion of democracy-promoting NGOs, including many U.S.-based organizations, and the throttling of media outlets. What lessons should we draw from this state of affairs? The first is that most governments of the post-Soviet states understand Thomas Jefferson quite well. They see freedom of the media as a threat which they are determined to neutralize. Second, they have been rather too successful in this endeavor. Even outside the extreme cases of Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, certain topics remain taboo in most countries, specifically criticism of the head of state or revelations about high-level corruption. This is particularly true of electronic media, and first and foremost TV. However, there is some reason for hope. I believe that pressure exerted by outside forces, including foreign capitals and international organizations, including the OSCE, can have an impact. For example, last week, Kazakhstan’s Culture and Information Minister announced that in response to OSCE criticism, the government has withdrawn a bill that would have imposed licensing requirements on publishing houses. Proposed legislation to regulate the Internet has been withdrawn and he said the authorities are ready to introduce a moratorium for “distorting the truth,” to free journalists from criminal persecution. At least under certain circumstances, then, and over the longer term, outside pressure and suasion can have a positive impact – even if gradually. But this also strengthens my conviction that now is not the time cut back on U.S. broadcasting to the post-Soviet republics. Freedom of the media is in real danger there, and those seeking alternative sources of information need our help. I am determined to make sure they get it. Let me conclude by quoting a heroic Russian journalist who understood the real meaning of Thomas Jefferson’s words over two centuries ago: Anna Politkovskaya. “My job is simple: to look around and write what I see.” That is how she described her task in accepting the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly 2003 Prize for Journalism and Democracy for her investigative reporting on developments in war-torn Chechnya. Last October, an assassin’s bullet brought her brilliant career and life to a sudden end. Anna knew the risks, given the death threats against her, but this courageous professional would not be deterred. Her murder is a reminder of the tremendous risks journalists take for daring to look and report on events that others prefer remain hidden.

  • Belarus Democracy Reauthorization Act of 2006

    Mr. Speaker, today I am introducing the Belarus Democracy Reauthorization Act of 2006, a bipartisan measure to provide support for the promotion of democracy, human rights and the rule of law in the Republic of Belarus, as well as encourage the consolidation and strengthening of Belarus' sovereignty and independence. I am pleased to be joined by my colleagues, Representatives Lantos and McCotter, as original cosponsors.  Three years ago, I introduced the Belarus Democracy Act which passed the House and Senate with overwhelming support and was signed into law by President Bush in October 2004. At that time, the situation in Belarus with respect to democracy and human rights was already abysmal. Belarus continues to have the worst rights record of any European state, rightly earning the country the designation as Europe's last dictatorship. Bordering on the EU and NATO, Belarus is truly an anomaly in a democratic, free Europe.  The need for a sustained U.S. commitment to foster democracy and respect for human rights and to sanction the regime of Belarus' tyrant, Alexander Lukashenka, is clear from the intensified anti-democratic policies pursued by the current leadership in Minsk. Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to note that the United States is not alone in this noble cause. Countries throughout Europe have joined in a truly trans-Atlantic effort to bring hope of freedom to the beleaguered people of Belarus. Prompt passage of the Belarus Democracy Reauthorization Act of 2006 will help maintain the momentum sparked by adoption of the 2004 law and the further deterioration of the situation on the ground in Belarus. Indeed, with the further deterioration in Belarus with the massive arrests of recent weeks, this bill is needed now more than ever.  One of the primary purposes of the Belarus Democracy Reauthorization Act of 2006 is to demonstrate sustained U.S. support for Belarus' independence and for those struggling to promote democracy and respect for human rights in Belarus despite the formidable pressures and personal risks they face from the anti-democratic regime. The bill authorizes $20 million in assistance for each of fiscal years 2007 and 2008 for democracy-building activities such as support for non-governmental organizations, including youth groups, independent trade unions and entrepreneurs, human rights defenders, independent media, democratic political parties, and international exchanges.  The bill also authorizes $7.5 million for each fiscal year for surrogate radio and television broadcasting to the people of Belarus. While I am encouraged by the recent U.S. and EU initiatives with respect to radio broadcasting, much more needs to be done to break through Lukashenka's stifling information blockade.  In addition, this legislation would impose sanctions against the Lukashenka regime, and deny senior officials of the regime, as well as those engaged in human rights and electoral abuses, including lower-level officials, entry into the United States. In this context, I welcome the targeted punitive sanctions by both the Administration and the EU against officials, including judges and prosecutors, involved in electoral fraud and other human rights abuses.  Strategic exports to the Government of Belarus would be prohibited, except for those intended for democracy building or humanitarian purposes, as well as U.S. Government financing and other foreign assistance, except for humanitarian goods and agricultural or medical products. The U.S. Executive Directors of the international financial institutions would be encouraged to vote against financial assistance to the Government of Belarus except for loans and assistance that serve humanitarian needs. Furthermore, the bill would block Belarus Government and senior leadership and their surrogates' assets in property and interests in property in the United States, that hereafter come within the United States, or that are or hereafter come within the possession or control of United States persons. To this end, I welcome the Treasury Department's April 10 advisory to U.S. financial institutions to guard against potential money laundering by Lukashenka and his cronies and strongly applaud President Bush's June 19 “Executive Order Blocking Property of Certain Persons Undermining Democratic Processes or Institutions in Belarus.”  Mr. Speaker, I want to make it absolutely clear that these sanctions are aimed not at the people of Belarus, whose desire to be free we unequivocally support, but at a regime that displays contempt for the dignity and rights of its citizens even as the corrupt leadership moves to further enrich itself at the expense of the people.  Mr. Speaker, Belarus stands out as an even greater anomaly following Ukraine's historic Orange Revolution and that country's March 26th free and fair parliamentary elections which stand in glaring contrast to Belarus' presidential elections held just one week earlier. The Belarusian elections can only be described as a farce. The Lukashenka regime's wholesale arrests of more than one thousand opposition activists, before and after the elections, and violent suppression of post-election protests underscore the utter contempt of the Belarusian authorities toward the people of Belarus.  Illegitimate parliamentary elections in 2004 and the recently held presidential ``elections'' in Belarus brazenly flaunted democratic standards. As a result of these elections, Belarus has the distinction of lacking legitimate presidential and parliamentary leadership, which contributes to that country's self-imposed isolation.  Lukashenka, the Bully of Belarus, has repeatedly unleashed his security thugs to trample on the rights of their fellow citizens. Indeed, they demonstrated what Lukashenka truly thinks about his own people. Nevertheless, courageous peaceful protesters on Minsk's central October Square stood up to the regime with dignity and determination. Almost daily repressions constitute a profound abuse of power by a regime that has blatantly manipulated the system to remain in power.  Albeit safely ensconced in power, Lukashenka has not let up on the democratic opposition. On July 17, in a particularly punitive display against those who dare oppose Lukashenka, former presidential candidate Aleksandr Kozulin was sentenced to an obviously politically motivated 5 1/2 years' term of imprisonment for alleged "hooliganism" and disturbing the peace. Democratic opposition leaders such as Anatoly Lebedka and Vincuk Viachorka have been arbitrarily detained and sentenced to jail terms which have been as much as 15 days. Last month, opposition activists Artur Finkevich received a two-year corrective labor sentence and Mikalay Rozumau was sentenced to three years of corrective labor for allegedly libeling Lukashenka. Other opposition activists, including Syarhey Lyashkevich and Ivan Kruk have received jail sentences of up to six months.  In a patent attempt to discourage domestic observation of the fraudulent March 19 presidential elections, authorities arrested activists of the nonpartisan domestic election monitoring initiative “Partnerstva”, Tsimafei Dranchuk, Enira Branitskaya, Mikalay Astreyka and Alyaksandr Shalayka. They have been in pre-trial detention since February 21, charged with participation in an unregistered organization.  Lukashenka's pattern of anti-democratic behavior began a decade ago, and this pattern has only intensified. Through an unconstitutional 1996 referendum, he usurped power, while suppressing the duly-elected legislature and the judiciary. His regime has repeatedly violated basic freedoms of speech, expression, assembly, association and religion. In its May 3 annual report, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom included Belarus on its watch list, as Belarus appears to be adopting tougher sanctions against those who take part in unregistered religious activity. The democratic opposition, nongovernmental organizations and independent media have been subject to intimidation and a variety of punitive measures, including closure. Political activists and journalists have been beaten, detained and imprisoned. Independent voices are unwelcome in Lukashenka's Belarus and anyone who, through their promotion of democracy, would stand in the way of the Belarusian dictator puts their personal and professional security on the line. Their courage deserves our admiration, and, more importantly, our support. Moreover, we have seen no progress on the investigation of the disappearances of political opponents--perhaps not surprisingly, as credible evidence points at the involvement of the Lukashenka regime in their murders. I welcome President Bush's decision to personally meet with two of the widows in the Oval Office to discuss the situation on Belarus. An Administration report mandated by the Belarus Democracy Act and finally issued on March 17 of this year reveals Lukashenka's links with rogue regimes such as Iran, Sudan and Syria, and his cronies' corruption. Despite efforts by the U.S. Government, working closely with the European Union, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and other European organizations, and non-governmental organizations, the regime of Lukashenka continues its grip on power with impunity and to the detriment of the Belarusian people.  Colleagues, it is my hope that the Belarus Democracy Reauthorization Act of 2006 and efforts by allies in Europe will help put an end to the pattern of clear, gross and uncorrected violations of OSCE commitments by the Lukashenka regime and will serve as a catalyst to facilitate independent Belarus' integration into democratic Europe in which democratic principles and human rights are respected and the rule of law is paramount. The Belarusian people deserve better than to live under an autocratic regime reminiscent of the Soviet Union, and they deserve our support in their struggle for democracy and freedom.

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