In 2020, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has faced the unprecedented challenge of a global pandemic while many participating States struggle—or fail—to live up to their commitments in the areas of human rights, democracy, and the rule of law. In this context, the Helsinki Commission held its traditional hearing with the annually rotating OSCE chairmanship to discuss priorities and exchange views on current issues.
Helsinki Commissioner Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, II (MO-05) chaired the hearing. Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) took the floor first to recognize that this year has been extraordinarily difficult as the OSCE under Albanian leadership works to resolve the appointment of senior leaders to OSCE positions, respond to brutal human rights violations in Belarus, address the gross violations of the Helsinki principles by the Russian Federation against Ukraine and other neighbors, and combat the threat posed by far-right extremists and hate groups. Sen. Cardin encouraged Prime Minister Rama to remind the diplomatic representatives of the OSCE participating States that they must all work to preserve and strengthen the values, institutions, and mechanisms that the OSCE offers. He assured Prime Minister Rama that the Helsinki Commission will work with the executive branch to ensure continued bipartisan U.S. support, engagement, and critical leadership of the OSCE.
Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) commended Prime Minister Rama for his prompt response to the ongoing situation in Belarus and his rejection of attempts to weaken the OSCE response with false statements of moral equivalency among participating states. He also emphasized the importance of working with the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, believing that engaging friends and even potential adversaries through parliamentary diplomacy helps to achieve the aims of the Helsinki Final Act.
Prime Minister Rama asserted that, despite the challenges 2020 has presented, the OSCE can be proud of how it has navigated the restrictions and the many complications from COVID-19. It has kept discussion alive—both in the Permanent Council and through conferences and webinars—while field operations have continued to carry out their important mandates. He acknowledged there are weaknesses within the OSCE due to participating States not being able to reach consensus for the reappointment of the four leading positions: the Secretary General, the Director of the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), the High Commissioner on National Minorities, and the Representative on Freedom of Media. Nevertheless, he assured the Commissioners that “the chairmanship has stepped in to ensure the executive structures have sustained leadership and management.”
“We must never compromise on our values of full respect for democracy and human rights. Our shared commitments must be upheld by all participating states, at all times and in all situations. And it is our responsibility to call the attention of our peers to violations and shortcomings anywhere in our region…
“The Helsinki recipe for peace in Europe is simple, yet effective: Respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, together with respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms.”
– Prime Minister of Albania Edi Rama, OSCE Chair-in-Office, 2020
Prime Minister Rama also emphasized facilitating electoral and constitutional reform in Belarus, in addition to improving the human rights situation, must be immediate. He underscored three necessary steps that: an immediate end to violence and arbitrary arrests on the part of authorities; full respect for the right of peaceful assembly; and prompt, thorough, and independent investigation of the conduct of law enforcement authorities.
Asked by Commissioner Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09) about concerns regarding the rule of law, safety and respect for the press, and the opportunity for people to vote and participate in the political process in the United States, Prime Minister Rama expressed confidence that “the United States is mature enough and is strong enough in its own institutions to deal with whatever political debate and whatever political consequence of a debate that might be polarizing.”
He concluded by stressing the need for standing up against all forms of racism, discrimination, and intolerance, and to reaffirm the values of humanity as the dehumanizing rhetoric of the “other” is again being normalized in public discourse across the OSCE region.