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Commission on security and cooperation in Europe

U. S. Helsinki Commission

Mission

We are a US government commission that promotes human rights, military security, and economic cooperation in 57 countries in Europe, Eurasia, and North America. Nine Commissioners are members of the Senate, nine are members of the House of Representatives, and three are executive branch officials.

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Chairman

Representative Alcee L. Hastings

 

Co-Chairman

Senator Roger F. Wicker

  • Our International Impact
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  • Report on Moldova's Parliamentary Elections

    On March 22, 1998, Moldova held its second multi-party elections to the 101-member parliament since achieving independence in August 1991. The Communist Party, which had been under legal prohibition until 1994, won just over 30 percent of the vote, translating into 40 seats out of 101. The results were a rejection by the voters of the previously powerful Agrarian Democrats, who did not cross the 4 percent threshold required for entry as a party into the new parliament. The election law required that a party/bloc or individual candidate garner 4% of the votes cast before being eligible for a seat in Parliament. Other big losers were the protocommunist Socialist-Unity bloc, which had taken second place in the 1994 parliamentary elections. There were no significant irregularities or major election law violations observed by Commission staff or reported by other Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe Parliamentary Assembly (OSCEPA) observers. A major exception to the OSCEPA judgment was the situation in Transdniestria “where neither candidates nor voters had even close to adequate conditions for exercising their civil rights.” The new Moldovan parliament opened its session on April 21, 1998.  Deputies are elected for a four year term.  

  • Belarus Opposition Leaders

    The Commission examined Belarus’ political situation under President Lukashenka, who, on the day of the briefing, had locked the diplomatic corps out of their residences. The briefing explored the development of what some call a dictatorship in Belarus after the fall of the Soviet Union that brought Soviet sentiment back into the political scene. The witnesses - Professor Yury Khadyka and Professor Stanislav Bogdankevich - highlighted the struggle for human rights in Belarus after 1991, when anti-communist rhetoric became a popular national value and during which personal freedom did not was excluded. They also addressed the lack of economic progress under Lukashenko, which goes unnoticed by Western governments.  

  • Report on Armenia's Presidential Election

    On March 30, 1998, Armenians went to the polls to choose a president in a runoff between Robert Kocharian—Armenia’s Prime Minister, Acting President and former President of Nagorno-Karabakh—and Karen Demirchian, former Communist Party leader of Armenia. The election followed first round voting on March 16, in which none of the 12 candidates managed to win the necessary 50 percent of the ballot. According to Armenia’s Central Election Commission, in the second round, Kocharian won 59.48 percent to Demirchian’s 40.52 percent, to become Armenia’s second president. Reported turnout was 68.14 percent. After two flawed elections in 1995 and 1996, the March 1998 vote offered Armenia, under different leadership,  an opportunity to redeem its image as a democratizing state. Most observers concurred that the campaign was better than in earlier elections: no candidate was excluded from the race, there were no serious impediments to campaigning, and the candidates received their allotted air time. But the preliminary statement of the OSCE/ ODIHR observation mission, issued after the first round, emphasized violations and warned that the recurrence of such problems during the second round might place the election’s legitimacy in doubt. The Council of Europe and the CIS Parliamentary Assembly, however, gave the March 16 voting good grades and openly disputed the assessment of the OSCE/ODIHR. Armenian-American groups accused the OSCE/ODIHR of anti-Armenian bias, reflecting a purported tendency to pressure Armenia into accepting the OSCE’s allegedly pro-Azerbaijani proposals on Nagorno-Karabakh. Helsinki Commission monitoring of both rounds yielded a mixed picture. The most serious problem observed during first-round voting was disorganization in small polling stations swamped by large numbers of voters, and the vote count went well in a precinct where numerous violations took place in 1996. But the vote count observed during the second round featured blatant fraud: the ballot box was tampered with during the vote; extra ballots were present in the box in large and obvious packets; the vote count made no effort to distinguish valid from improper votes; the precinct committee was in direct contact with Kocharian headquarters throughout the count; and the precinct protocols were falsified to make the numbers add up—in the direct view of the foreign observers. All the falsified votes were for Kocharian, who was openly supported by most members of the precinct committee. At least one fifth —and maybe as many as half— of the votes counted in this precinct were false. Subsequently, at the district election level, the box containing the ballots’ detachable “coupons” (a mechanism designed to prevent fraud) arrived over an hour late with the lid ripped open.  Based on these observations, and the accounts of many ODIHR observers at their debriefing, there is reason to harbor grave doubts about the reliability of the officially-reported results.  

  • Pluralism and Tolerance in Croatia

    This briefing moderated by Commission Policy Advisor Robert Hand focused on the many developments in Croatia at the time, including the issue of human rights- an area that Croatia needed to improve upon.  Likewise, in order to be fully embraced by the European community, as Hand said, the country needed to democratize. At that point in time, the country of Croatia stood at a crossroads. In January 1998, Croatia resumed control over eastern Slavonia, its last enclave occupied by Serb militants since the fall of 1991. Before resumption of Croatian control, the area was under U.N. administration the two years before. As sovereignty was reached on the entire state territory, priorities began to shift and the Croatian government came under strong internal and external pressure to allow acceleration of democratic development.

  • Repression and Violence in Kosovo and Hearing on Kosovo: The Humanitarian Perspective

    This hearing, chaired by Commissioner Alfonse D’Amato, discussed the dire circumstances in Kosovo, specifically Serbian repression of the Kosovar Albanian majority population. In this hearing, D’Amato called for the U.S. to step up and prevent another outbreak of ethnic cleansing and achieve a peaceful resolution to the crisis. More specifically, to facilitate a lasting peace, the Commissioner called on U.S. leadership to make Slobodan Milosevic believe that the world would not stand by while the atrocities in Kosovo and Serbia continued. In addition, any settlement reached between Milosevic and the Kosovo Albanian leadership, D’Amato, continued, must be respected and protect the human rights of all individuals in Kosovo, without preconditions. Witnesses in this hearing discussed these human rights violations and the predicament of the Kosovar Albanians.

  • Report on Ukraine's Parliamentary Election

    Ukraine’s March 1998 parliamentary elections resulted in a parliament similar in composition to the previous parliament, albeit with a somewhat more Communist tilt. The left constituted about 40 percent of parliament’s membership, with the remainder a mix of centrists, independents and national democrats. The new parliament included many new faces - only 141 deputies from the old parliament were in the new one. The parliamentary elections were held under a new election law which replaced the majoritarian system, introducing a mixed electoral system where half of the 450 deputies are elected from single-mandate districts and half from national party lists. While there were violations, transgressions and irregularities during the campaign and voting, Ukrainian voters generally were able to express their political will freely, and the results of the elections do appear to reflect the will of the electorate. The elections were conducted under a generally adequate legal and administrative framework, but the late passage of laws and regulations relating to the election–as well as late decisions regarding the Crimean Tatars—led to confusion and uncertainty about the electoral process. The campaign was generally peaceful in most of the country. However, it was marred by some tension, including incidents of violence, especially in Odesa and Crimea. The failure to allow non-citizen Crimean Tatar returnees the opportunity to vote, in contrast to arrangements that allowed them to vote in the 1994 elections, also tainted the elections. The state apparatus did not always display neutrality, and there were instances of harassment and pressure on opposition media.

  • Status of the Russian Religious Law

    Congressman Chris Smith and other lawmakers criticized the Russian Federation law on freedom of conscience and religious organizations signed by Boris Yeltsin for the threats it posed to religious liberty for minority religious faith. The scope of the law, including the terms of its formal implementations regulations and its actual implementation on the ground were topics of discussions. Those who testified at the briefing provided their insights on this law, its status at the time, and their perspective of developments in Russia in light of the law. Dr. James Billington, a distinguished author and Russian scholar, spoke to the decline in the standard of living and social services that the Russian people had suffered in the post-Soviet era. Another witness, Dr. Anatoly Pchelintsev, Director of the Christian Legal Center of the Institute on Religion and Law in Moscow, attributed the existence of the law to the tide of nationalist and Communist movements that were on the rise in Russia.

  • Bosnia

    During this briefing, Robert Hand, policy advisor at the Commission, led a discussion regarding Bosnia and its different regions. He spoke of the situation in Bosnia in 1998 and the power of ethnically-based political parties, retained through nationalism, corruption, and control of the media. Reconstruction in Bosnia has slow and challenging due to poor economic conditions and the continued displacement of certain populations. The witnesses - Luke Zahner, Candace Lekic, Jessica White, Roland de Rosier, Kathryn Bomberger, Brian Marshall - have served in regions all over Bosnia and gave valuable input on the differences between regions and their rehabilitations processes after the Dayton Accords. They also spoke of the influence of Republica Srpska and the Bosnian Federation on said regions.  Paying attention to these differences, they state, is important in that the United States wants to support only those that successfully implement the Dayton Accords.

  • Status of Religious Liberty for Minority Faiths in Europe and the OSCE

    The purpose of this hearing, which the Hon. Christopher H. Smith chaired, was to discuss the reality of disturbing undercurrents of subtle, but growing, discrimination and harassment of minority religious believers, as opposed to discussing the widespread documentation of torture and persecution of practitioners of minority faiths. In a number of European countries, government authorities had seemed to work on restricting the freedoms of conscience and speech in much of their governments’ actions. For example, in Russia, on September 26, 1997, President Boris Yeltsin signed the law called “On Freedom of Conscience and on Religious Associations,” which blatantly violated agreements of the OSCE which the former U.S.S.R. helped to initiate. Through use of witnesses, then, attendees of this hearing, namely commissioners, gained a deeper understanding of the religious liberty violations within OSCE member countries and insight into how to best influence governments to adhere more closely to internationally accepted human rights standards.

  • OSCE Human Dimension Implementation Meeting

    The purpose of this briefing, which Helsinki Commission Chief of Staff Michael Hathaway presided over, was to provide information to the public about the U.S.’s approach to the OSCE Human Dimension Implementation Meeting, as well as to hear from two highly respected non-governmental organizations regarding issues that they believed should have been taken up in Warsaw. At the point of the briefing, already established issues at Warsaw included freedom of religion, media, association on assembly, the prevention of torture, international humanitarian law, tolerance and non-discrimination, national minorities, and the plight of the Roma. The aim in mind was to encourage improved implementation of human dimension obligations by OSCE member states. Participants in this hearing included State Department Secretary Rudolph Perina, and Holly Cartner and Adrian Karatnycky with Human Rights Watch and Freedom House, respectively.

  • What's Next, Mr. Prime Minister? Democracy Hangs in the Balance in Slovakia on Constitution's Fifth Birthday

    Mr. President, 5 years ago, the speaker of the Slovak Parliament, Ivan Gasparovic, described his country's new constitution as `an expression of centuries-old emancipation efforts of the Slovak people to have a sovereign state of their own.' He also spoke of its `supreme binding force.' Since then, the people who present themselves as the guardians of Slovakia's statehood have undermined Slovakia's constitution. This is what they have done. This May, the Ministry of Interior ignored the Constitutional Court's ruling and altered an important referendum on NATO and on the direct election of the President, effectively denying the people of Slovakia their constitutionally guaranteed right to register their views through a referendum. Defending its actions, members of the Prime Minister's party insisted that they acted in conformity with the constitution--as they interpreted it--and that they were justified in placing their views ahead of the ruling of the highest court in the land. The actions of the ruling coalition in the case of Frantisek Gaulieder makes clear that the Meciar government has a profound and fundamental disregard for the constitution of Slovakia. Then there is the case of Frantisek Gaulieder. Frantisek Gaulieder is a member of the Slovak Parliament who was removed from office because he renounced his membership in Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar's party, the Movement for a Democratic Slovakia. On July 25, the Constitutional Court confirmed that the ruling coalition's action which deprived Gaulieder of his seat was unconstitutional and violated Gaulieder's rights. But members of the Prime Minister's coalition again claimed that they, and not the Constitutional Court, have the right to determine what the constitution means, and have declined to act to restore Gaulieder to his seat in Parliament. In short, the `supreme binding force' that Ivan Gasparovic spoke of 5 years ago no longer flows from the constitution, but from the will of Vladimir Meciar. When there are differences of opinion as to what a constitution means, whether those differences arise between branches of government or between the government and its citizens, in a state operating under the rule of law, it is the job of a constitutional court to interpret what the constitution means, not the Prime Minister or Parliament. Although this principle is taken for granted in many parts of Europe, and was established early in American history by the famous Supreme Court case of Marbury versus Madison, it has apparently not yet been accepted in Slovakia. Mr. President, the Slovak Democratic Coalition has moved, four times, to convene a special session of the Parliament in order to implement the decision of the Constitutional Court and restore Frantisek Gaulieder to his seat. Four times, however, Prime Minister Meciar's coalition has boycotted their own Parliament rather than face the following dilemma: restore Gaulieder to his seat--consistent with the Constitutional Court's decision--and risk the chance that others will follow Gaulieder's example and defect from the Prime Minister's party, or vote down the Slovak Democratic Coalition's proposal to restore Gaulieder to his seat and confirm that whatever form of government exists in Slovakia, it is not constitutional democracy, at least not as we understand it. Sooner or later, the Slovak Parliament will reconvene. When it acts, or fails to act, on the Gaulieder question, we will know whether Slovakia is committed to becoming a functioning constitutional democracy. If it is not, what it will become is an isolated State under constant international pressure and scrutiny, cut off from a promising and prosperous future by the arrogance and greed of its own leaders. As Vladimir Meciar is asked in his weekly news show, what next, Mr. Prime Minister?

  • Religious Intolerance in Europe Today

  • Russia’s Religion Law

    This briefing addressed Congressional concerns about a draft law regarding religion that was making its way through the Duma. Given that this draft was vetoed by President Yeltsin, the Commission took special care to highlight this act standing for religious freedom and the efforts that were made to respect and adhere to the Russia’s international commitments. Larry Uzzell of the Keston Institute provided an analysis of the events surround President Yeltsin’s recent veto of the proposed law on religious organizations in Russia. The roles of domestic and international influences in this resulting veto were each evaluated. Trends of religious freedom in Russia were also examined in the context of how much progress the defeat of this law would actually make.

  • The Meaning of Yeltsin's Veto of Russia's Law on Religion

    This briefing provided an analysis of the events surrounding President Yeltsin's veto of the proposed law on religious organizations in Russia which would have effectively banned the activities of certain religious minority groups including Protestants and Catholics. The bill passed emphatically in both houses of the Russian Parliament, mounting great domestic pressure on the President to approve it. Larry Uzzell of the Keston Institute credits the blocking of the bill to international pressure from both the US and the EU, which were vocal in their opposition. Congress sent several letters to Mr. Yeltsin, including one which was signed by 160 senators and members of the House of Representatives. The discussion in the question and answer period centered around more concrete measures taken by the US Congress to persuade Yeltsin to veto the bill, including economic incentives tied to foreign aid and trade.

  • Report on Human Rights and the Process of NATO Enlargement

    The Commission held a series of three public hearings on “Human Rights and the Process of NATO Enlargement” in anticipation of the summit of Heads of State and Governments of Member States of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to be held in Madrid, Spain, on July 8 and 9, 1997. The emergence of new democracies in Central and Eastern Europe and the demise of the Warsaw Pact created a security vacuum in the territory between the current eastern frontier of NATO and the Russian border. The first attempt to address the new security realities in the region occurred at the end of 1991 with the establishment of NATO’s North Atlantic Cooperation Council (NACC) as a forum for the evolution of a new relationship based on constructive dialogue and cooperation. In early 1994, the Partnership for Peace (PfP) was launched with the aim of providing a practical program to transform the relationship between NATO and states participating in PfP, moving beyond dialogue and cooperation to forge a genuine security partnership. (All 27 states of the Partnership for Peace (PfP) are OSCE participating States.) Simultaneously, NATO began to consider the possibility of enlarging the Alliance. The result was the 1995 Study on NATO Enlargement which addressed practical steps and requirements candidates for membership would have to satisfy. In December 1996, NATO foreign ministers called for a NATO summit at which one or more countries that wanted to join NATO would be invited to begin accession negotiations. The U.S. Congress was instrumental in stimulating the debate through several legislative initiatives. The NATO Participation Act of 1994 (PL 103-447) provided a reasonable framework for addressing concerns about NATO enlargement, consistent with U.S. interests in ensuring stability in Europe. The law lists a variety of criteria, such as respect for democratic principles and human rights enshrined in the Helsinki Final Act, against which to evaluate the suitability of prospective candidates for NATO membership. The Act stipulates that participants in the PfP should be invited to become full NATO members if they... “remain committed to protecting the rights of all their citizens....” Under section 203, a program of assistance was established to provide designated emerging democracies with the tools necessary to facilitate their transition to full NATO membership. The NATO Enlargement Facilitation Act of 1996 (PL 104-208) included an unqualified statement that the protection and promotion of fundamental freedoms and human rights are integral aspects of genuine security. The law also makes clear that the human rights records of emerging democracies in Central and Eastern Europe interested in joining NATO should be evaluated in light of the obligations and commitments of these countries under the U.N. Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the Helsinki Final Act.  

  • Report on the April 1997 Parliamentary, County, and Municipal Elections in Croatia

    On April 13, 1997, Croatia held its fifth set of elections since political pluralism was introduced in the former Yugoslav republic in 1989, and the fourth since achieving independent statehood in 1991. These were the first elections, however, held throughout the entire country in 7 years, signaling Croatia’s normalization after years of conflict, displacement and uncertainty. Seats were contested for the upper chamber House of Counties of the parliament, or Sabor, and for municipal and county councils. The very holding of elections in Eastern Slavonia—the one region forcibly taken by Serb militants in 1991 and yet to be reintegrated into the country—produced positive signs for reintegration through peaceful means and without another tragic mass exodus of ethnic Serbs. The results countrywide set the stage for presidential elections later in the year, and indicate Croatia’s overall political trends as the country moves beyond the turmoil associated with Yugoslavia’s violent disintegration, including the massive displacement of the population as territory was taken in 1991 and then retaken in 1995. The turmoil served to narrow the country’s overall political spectrum with a nationalist tinge, and the ruling Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) has relied on this situation to enhance its power. The fundamental question now is whether the party will accept defeat at the ballot box if the support of the population shifts as priorities change. As with previous elections in Croatia, the degree to which these elections could be considered free and fair was limited by the clear bias of the state-run broadcast media in its news coverage and by the effect of regular attempts to limit the diversity of the print media. Some administrative decisions regarding the elections seemed to be designed to benefit the ruling party, although the nature of these elections precluded the blatant stretching of what is legally permissible which had been evident in earlier elections. One decision prevented a domestic, civic-oriented non-governmental organization (NGO) from observing the polling, even from outside the confines of the polling station. People were generally permitted to vote freely and privately throughout Croatia on election day, except in Eastern Slavonia. There, a surprisingly strong turnout combined with the inadequate delivery of ballots and documents to polling stations, among other problems, causing the voting to be extended for an extra day. While there were some improvements over prior elections, these elections fell short of Croatia’s potential, especially as the country should now move more rapidly toward democracy. As more critical elections approach, it remains unclear whether the Croatian authorities will permit elections that could be considered free and fair if the result threatens their rule. The HDZ did retain its comfortable majority in the House of Counties and won most of the county and town councils, but opposition coalitions won outright, or at least enough to challenge the HDZ, in some of the bigger cities. The results in Eastern Slavonia, meanwhile, produced victories for a Serb coalition in just over one third of the municipalities, with the HDZ taking the remainder, a fairly predictable result that advances the issue of the region’s reintegration into the rest of Croatia. Croatia’s willingness to reconcile with its Serb population and to respect the human rights of its members, however, remains an open question.    

  • The Present Situation in Albania

    This briefing, moderated by the Honorable Eliot Engel, Co-Chairman of the Albanian Issues Caucus, examined the international response to the crisis in Albania since the collapse of the pyramid schemes in the beginning of the year, which led to protests, rebellion, and political stalemate.  The need for free and fair elections was emphasized in light of a political impasse over the holding of elections in June. Witnesses testifying at the briefing – including Julius Varallyay, Principle Country Officer for East Central Europe for the World Bank, Stefano Stefanini from the Italian Embassy, and Avni Mustafaj, former Director of Open Society Foundation for Albania – discussed the previous efforts that had been made to encourage political reforms and steps that needed to be taken in the future. The need for a comprehensive donor assistance program to complement international assistance was specifically address, as was the political reform on which this program would depend.

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