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Commission on security and cooperation in Europe

U. S. Helsinki Commission

Mission

We are a US government agency 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

Senator Roger F. Wicker

Co-Chairman

Representative Christopher H. Smith

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  • Wicker: Celebrate First Amendment Religious Freedoms

    The First Amendment to our Constitution is a powerful expression of our right to the “free exercise” of religion. Americans can practice their faith without fear of persecution – a freedom that is not found in all parts of the world. For Christians in the United States, the prevalence of religious persecution worldwide is especially heartbreaking as we approach Easter Sunday. We are reminded of the suicide bomber who targeted Christians on Easter Sunday last year in Pakistan, killing more than 70 and injuring hundreds. Sadly, this violence is not isolated. Pakistan ranks fourth on this year’s World Watch List created by the nonprofit group Open Doors USA. The list names 50 countries that have extreme, very high and high persecution of Christians. North Korea ranked first. I currently serve as chairman of the U.S. Helsinki Commission, an agency comprised of members of Congress and federal officials to promote security and human rights in 57 countries in North America, Europe and Eurasia. The persecution of Christians and religious minorities remains a significant concern for the commission. In Syria, the Islamic State has waged a genocide against Christians, forcing thousands from their homes and destroying religious sites. In Russia, the government’s recent attempt to ban Jehovah’s Witnesses from practicing their faith is yet another affront to religious freedom in a country known for trampling human rights. Russia’s actions refute the international agreement that the U.S. Helsinki Commission seeks to uphold. I have consistently supported legislative measures to protect Americans’ constitutional freedoms, including the exercise of religion. Political agendas should not encroach these rights. During the Obama administration, for example, I championed legislation that would allow military chaplains to refrain from performing marriage ceremonies if it would violate their conscience to do so. The religious expression of our military men and women is deserving of respect. The same respect should be afforded to all Americans by our government agencies. I am encouraged by recent reports that President Trump is considering an executive order that would require federal agencies to protect the freedom of religion in their actions and policies. Earlier this month, I sent a letter with 17 other senators to President Trump expressing our support for this executive action and the need for federal agencies to follow the rule of law. The letter reminds the President of attempts by the Obama administration to infringe on the rights of faith-based charities like the Little Sisters of the Poor. Obamacare forced the group either to pay a fine or offer services that they opposed for deeply held religious reasons. A Supreme Court ruling reaffirmed the religious liberty of the Little Sisters, just as it did for the owners of Hobby Lobby, who also raised religious objections to the health-care law. Our founding documents built a foundation for religious liberty that is admired around the world. It is up to us to ensure that this foundation does not crumble. Roger Wicker is a U.S. Senator from Mississippi. Contact him at 330 W. Jefferson St., Tupelo, MS 38803 or call (662) 844-5010.

  • Romani Political Participation Key to Change

    On March 27 and 28, 2017, thirty-five Romani elected officials and civil society representatives participated in a two-day event held by the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) in cooperation with the U.S. Helsinki Commission, as part of the European Union’s “Roma Week.”  The event focused on opportunities to enhance Romani political participation as a means of strengthening the long-term strength and stability of the OSCE region.  As citizens of many OSCE participating States, Roma have long contributed to the prosperity of their countries in numerous ways, ranging from serving in the military to educating the next generation.  However, Roma are often described and perceived in negative terms, leading political leaders and others, to consider Roma a problem rather than a solution. Referring to the political rhetoric that instigated the tragic murders of Roma in 2008 and 2009, Romani-Hungarian researcher and Transatlantic Inclusion Leaders Network alumni Roland Ferkovics stressed, “Political narratives should not only motivate and influence people but should also unite…Political leaders must take Roma as equal partner(s) using narratives [that] focus on similarities instead of differences.” Diverse speakers from across the OSCE region also shared experiences and practices that have been successful in inspiring democratic change. “Standing for elected office and using one’s right to vote is a powerful tool for Roma communities in Europe to counter anti-Roma rhetoric, hate crimes and racism,” said Mee Moua, former President of Asian Americans Advancing Justice (AAJC), who also served as a Minnesota State Senator in the United States. Noting the importance of united communities, Killion Munyama, a member of the Polish Parliament and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, noted the importance of Roma having a seat at the decision-making table:  “Societies benefit from broad and diverse participation representing the voices of all communities in the public and political spheres.” Participants also stressed the urgency in ensuring the success of current Romani legislative initiatives and the importance of ensuring that legislative initiatives aimed at Roma, such as the EU Framework Strategy for Integration, are designed and implemented with the participation of Roma at all levels of government.  Other speakers at the event included MEP Terry Reintke, former MEP Livia Jaroka, and Jamen Gabriela Hrabanova of the European Roma Grassroots Organizations Network. Dr. Mischa Thompson of the Helsinki Commission participated as a facilitator.

  • International Roma Day 2017

    International Roma Day is observed annually on April 8, commemorating the anniversary of the1971 London meeting of Romani activists from across Europe. The 1971 London meeting, convened as the "World Romani Congress," was one of the first transnational gatherings of Roma.  Since 1990, International Roma Day has been an opportunity to celebrate Romani culture and counter anti-Roma prejudice that fosters political and economic marginalization.  Roma—Europe’s Largest Ethnic Minority Roma live throughout all European countries as well as the Americas and Australasia. In Europe, the Roma population is very conservatively estimated at 15 million, with large concentrations in Central, Eastern, and Southern Europe.  Roma have migrated to the United States since the colonial period. There are an estimated one million Americans with some Romani roots (recent or distant Romani ancestry).  Roma live throughout the United States, with larger communities in New York City, Baltimore, Chicago, and Los Angeles. They are sometimes the victims of racial profiling by law enforcement.  The last explicitly anti-Roma law in the United States was repealed in New Jersey in 1998. Romani Americans have served as public members on the U.S. delegation to several OSCE human dimension meetings.  In 2016, the President appointed Dr. Ethel Brooks to serve on the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum Council, bringing a Romani voice to that body. Helsinki Commission Advocacy on Romani Human Rights The Commission has long record of addressing human rights issues relating to Roma.  As early as 1990, a Helsinki Commission delegation in Bucharest raised alarm orchestrated attacks on Roma conducted as part of a larger crackdown on dissent.  Helsinki Commissioners have continued to engage regarding the situation of Roma through hearings, briefings, and congressional meetings with Roma in Europe and the United States.  In recent years, the Commission has supported Romani inclusion in annual initiatives for political leaders such as the Transatlantic Minority Political Leadership Conference (TMPLC) and Transatlantic Inclusion Leaders Network (TILN).  On March 27-28, the Commission worked in cooperation with the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights to hold a workshop during “Roma Week” at the European Parliament in Brussels titled, “Strengthening diverse leadership, participation and representation of Roma, including women and youth, in public and political life.”  Roma Day Events in the United States Harvard will host its fifth Annual Roma conference on April 10, where Helsinki Commission staff will participate. Scholars of Romani culture and Roma who work as academics, activists, and performers will convene a conference at New York University April 28-29. Later in the spring, on May 6, the 20th Annual Herdeljezi Music Festival will be held in the San Francisco area at the Croatian American Cultural Center. In the Washington area, the Embassy of the Czech Republic supported a March 30 screening of the documentary about the prejudice faced by the FC Roma football club. On May 17, the Czech Embassy will support a concert at the national Gallery of Art by Romani-Czech pianist Tomas Kaco. Learn More International Roma Day: Statement by U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson Celebrating International Roma Day: Statement by USOSCE Acting Deputy Chief of Mission Michele Siders International Roma Day: Statement by OSCE/ODIHR Director Michael Link

  • Russian Supreme Court Considers Outlawing Jehovah's Witness Worship

    The Russian Supreme Court could declare the Jehovah's Witnesses an extremist organization in a Wednesday hearing, a move that would lead to the seizure of the church's headquarters near St. Petersburg and the outlawing of the group’s organized worship. In advance of the hearing, international concern has grown. “If the Supreme Court rules in favour of the authorities, it will be the first such ruling by a court declaring a registered centralized religious organization to be ‘extremist,’” the UN human rights’ high commissioner's office said in a statement on Tuesday. The ruling would also cap off years of increased restrictions by the Russian Federation against minority religions. Last summer, Russia introduced an anti-terrorism law that also restricted evangelism, and a regional court ordered the deportation of six missionaries with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In 2015, a court banned the Church of Scientology’s Moscow branch. Under a Russian law passed in 1997, there is freedom of religion, but four faiths are designated to be traditional—Orthodox Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism—and other religious organizations must register with the government. Some groups, like Jehovah’s Witnesses, who are registered, still face bureaucratic and legal hurdles. Jehovah's Witness leaders estimate that there are 175,000 Russian-based adherents to the faith, which was founded in the United States the 1870s. Unlike Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox Christians, Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that Jesus is the son of God but do not believe in the Trinity. “They would basically be prosecuting Jehovah’s Witnesses as criminals,” David Semonian, international spokesperson for the Jehovah’s Witnesses, says of the pending court declaration. “Anyone who would actually would have our publications could be criminalized. It is of great concern.” Jehovah’s Witnesses have filed a counter claim asking the court to rule the Justice Ministry’s actions as political repression. A ruling in favor of the ministry would make it a crime for Jehovah’s Witnesses to worship in the Russian Federation and dissolve the faith’s legal means to own or rent Kingdom Halls, their places of worship. In 2015, the Russian Federation banned the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ website JW.org, and customs officials stopped shipments of Jehovah’s Witnesses’ Bibles, citing the possibility they were extremist literature. Last year, Russia threatened to close the group’s national headquarters. Roman Lunkin, a human rights fellow at the Wilson Center and an expert on church-state relations in Russia, says that Russian authorities have been targeting minority religions as “extremists” in an effort to demonstrate support for the Russian Orthodox Church and to marginalize organizations with suspected pro-western sympathies. "The treatment of the Jehovah’s Witnesses reflects the Russian government’s tendency to view all independent religious activity as a threat to its control and the country’s political stability," the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom said in a statement on Tuesday. “Jehovah’s Witnesses are no threat to either the Russian Orthodox Church or to the Russian Government,” Semonian says. “The constitution guarantees freedom of worship, and that is all we are asking, to have the same rights as other religious groups have so we can go about our ministry in a peaceful way.” Jehovah’s Witnesses are pacifists, and their religious beliefs require them to abstain from political activity. They declare allegiance only to God, not to a state or political entity. They do not vote, lobby, protest, or join military. This lack of participation can be seen as a threat if a state demands nationalist and patriotic activity. “The persecution of the Jehovah’s Witnesses is very much tied to the resurgence of a new view of nationalism, where everything within the state is fine, but anything outside of the state has to be crushed,” Kristina Arriaga de Bucholz, a U.S. commissioner for International Religious Freedom appointed by House Speaker Paul Ryan, says. “A pacifist group that tells its members that their allegiance is to something outside of the government is immediately a group that will be perceived as dangerous to the regime.” Other minority Christian groups in Russia, like evangelicals, have not yet faced the same level of scrutiny. Lunkin says it is impossible to accuse evangelicals of extremist activity because their literature and Bible translation matches that of the Russian Orthodox Church. Jehovah’s Witnesses have their own translation of the Bible, and they also have their own magazine and educational materials. Evangelicals also have closer relationships with government officials, he says. “It’s [about] a protection of traditional religions, and the Orthodox identity of Russian people,” Lunkin says. “But in fact it is about protecting personal power, because the main fear is changing of regimes in Russia.” Jehovah’s Witness church leadership has reached out to the U.S. State department’s Office of International Religious Freedom, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, and the U.S. Helsinki Commission for aid. “We will do everything within our legal means to have the judgment reversed,” Semonian says. “Jehovah’s Witnesses are known worldwide for our peaceful activities, and under no circumstances would we ever resort to violence or any other activity that could be misunderstood or considered extremist.” Jehovah’s Witness leaders have also asked their eight million members worldwide to write letters to Russia officials, including President Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, to ask them to intervene. Instructions tell writers to “be candid but respectful,” and to mention how the faith has benefited their families. “Keep in mind that ‘a mild answer turns away rage,’ and ‘a gentle tongue can break a bone,’” the instructions say, quoting the Biblical book of Proverbs. The decision will come as the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom is finalizing its annual report identifying countries of concern, its first such report for the Trump administration. The Commission is a bipartisan government advisory group that makes policy recommendations to the President, Congress, and the Secretary of State. Since 2009, the group has designated Russia as a “Tier 2” nation, on the watch list one step below countries of particular concern. “The fate of the Jehovah’s Witnesses is the fate of any religious group that does not pledge its allegiance to the Russian government,” Arriaga says. “April 5 will definitely mark a new chapter of religious persecution in post-Soviet Russia.”

  • Wicker, Cardin Support Territorial Integrity of the Nation of Georgia

    WASHINGTON—Helsinki Commission Chairman Senator Roger Wicker (MS) and Ranking Commissioner Senator Ben Cardin (MD) today introduced a Senate resolution supporting the territorial integrity of the nation of Georgia. “The Russian government has tried to undermine Georgian sovereignty and territorial integrity for far too long,” said Chairman Wicker. “It is time for the United States to make it clear once again that we do not recognize Russian land grabs within its neighbors’ borders. Russia should adhere to the cease-fire agreement it signed in 2008, withdraw its troops from Georgia, and allow international monitors and aid workers access to occupied regions.” S.Res.106 condemns the ongoing military intervention and occupation of Georgia by the Russian Federation, as well as Russia’s continuous illegal activities along the occupation line in Abkhazia and Tskhinvali region (South Ossetia). The bill also urges Russia to live up to its commitments under the Helsinki Final Act, which calls upon signatories to respect the territorial integrity of each of the other participating States of the Organization of the Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).  “Russia’s violation of the territorial integrity of Georgia is a blatant breach of one of the guiding principles of the Helsinki Final Act by Russia. This reflects a broader pattern of disregard by Putin’s regime for transatlantic security norms and democratic values, which the United States and our allies must stand against with resolve,” said Commissioner Cardin, who is also Ranking Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “Georgia is a strong partner of the United States and continues to take important steps to further integrate with the transatlantic community. Georgia recently concluded an agreement on visa free travel with the European Union, for example. This significant development shows that constructive interaction is possible and welcome.” This resolution mirrors a similar measure introduced in the House (H.Res. 660) in September 2016, and demonstrates that the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Georgia enjoy bipartisan support from both chambers of Congress.

  • Chairman Wicker Welcomes Accession of Montenegro to NATO

    WASHINGTON–Following U.S. Senate approval of the accession of Montenegro to the NATO Alliance, Senator Roger Wicker (MS), Chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, issued the following statement: “I am pleased by the Senate’s decision to welcome Montenegro into NATO. At a time of unease in Europe, this small nation and its people are making important contributions to security and stability. By joining the Alliance, Montenegro also confirms the continued validity of the Helsinki Final Act, which affirms the right of countries to determine their own security arrangements and alliances.  Allowing outside actors to call this principle into question would have severely undercut European security.”   Last week, NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander Europe, U.S. Army Gen. Curtis M. Scaparrotti, said at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing that it is “absolutely critical” that Montenegro be brought into NATO.  Chairman Wicker serves as a senior member of the committee and took part in the hearing. The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the U.S. Helsinki Commission, has supported human rights and democratic development in Montenegro since observing the first multi-party elections in the country in 1990.  Further, the Commission has been deeply involved in policy debates over NATO, including conducting hearings on previous additions to the alliance.

  • Helsinki Commission Condemns Pending Legal Action against Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia

    WASHINGTON—Following the Russian government’s request for its Supreme Court to effectively ban Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia from worshipping, claiming that they are members of an “extremist organization,” Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS), Co-Chairman Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04), and Commissioner Rep. Richard Hudson (NC-08), issued the following statements: “It is wrong to apply flawed counterterrorism laws to those who seek to practice their faith,” said Chairman Wicker. “The Russian government is exploiting genuine threats of violent extremism to undermine what little religious freedom remains in that country. This distracts from real efforts to fight terrorism. I urge the Russian government to drop the case immediately.” “At stake in the upcoming court case is the legality and perhaps the survival of the Jehovah’s Witnesses—and in fact basic religious freedom—throughout the Russian Federation,” said Co-Chairman Smith. “If the Supreme Court of Russia declares this faith group an extremist organization, it is an ominous sign for all believers and it marks a dark, sad day for all Russians.” “As a staunch supporter of religious liberty, I am appalled by the Russian government treating an entire religious group as a threat to national security,” said Commissioner Hudson. “Religious affiliation should never be a justification for persecution.”  On March 15, the Russian Ministry of Justice filed a formal court claim to label the Administrative Center of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia an extremist group and liquidate their national headquarters and 395 local chapters, known as “local religious organizations.” Should the Russian Supreme Court decide against the Administrative Center, 175,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia could face criminal prosecution for practicing their faith.  According to the Helsinki Final Act signed by all 57 participating states of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe –  including Russia – “participating States will recognize and respect the freedom of the individual to profess and practice, alone or in community with others, religion or belief acting in accordance with the dictates of his own conscience.”

  • Consensus Denied? Challenges for OSCE Decision-Making in 2017

    Over the past decade, it has been increasingly difficult for the 57 participating States of the Vienna-based Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to achieve the consensus necessary to address key issues facing the OSCE region, as well as to make decisions that shape the internal functioning of the organization.   In contrast to the bloc-to-bloc confrontations of the Cold War, there often is overwhelming support from most OSCE countries for specific decisions or actions.  However, the Russian Federation regularly represents the single dissenting country; without consensus, under OSCE rules, the proposal fails.  Some participating States have tried to accommodate Russian recalcitrance, believing it will give Moscow a greater stake in the OSCE; others see Moscow’s obstructionism succeed and are tempted to play the same game. Such efforts only encourage greater intransigence and move the OSCE away from the core principles and values around which all participating States once rallied. Download the full report to learn more. Contributors: Robert Hand, Senior Policy Advisor, Janice Helwig, Representative of the Helsinki Commission to the U.S. Mission to the OSCE, and Erika Schlager, Counsel for International Law

  • Chairman Wicker Questions SACEUR about Russian Activity, OSCE

    WASHINGTON – Helsinki Commission Chairman Senator Roger Wicker (MS), a senior member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, today questioned Gen. Curtis M. Scaparrotti, Commander, U.S. European Command / Supreme Allied Commander, Europe, about ongoing Russian activities in the European region. Chairman Wicker discussed the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe’s (OSCE) mission monitors on the ground in Ukraine, as well as the organization’s work to provide an accurate depiction of activities and compliance with international treaties. He also asked about Russian “snap” military exercises and whether or not those actions are in line with agreements currently in place. Gen. Scaparrotti stated that there is reason to be concerned about Russian activity trends in the Arctic and North Atlantic regions, as they are more aggressive and are expanding their posture in the area. He went on to recommend that the U.S. reestablish Cold War deterrence practices in the region. 

  • Chairman Wicker Highlights Importance of OSCE Mission in Stabilizing Europe

    At a March 21 U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) hearing on “U.S. Policy and Strategy in Europe,” Helsinki Commission Chairman Senator Roger Wicker underlined his commitment to Ukraine’s future and highlighted the importance of the mission of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). “The more Ukraine succeeds, the better off it is for us in the United States and the West, and I think it is one of the most profoundly important issues that we face in the next year or two,” stated Senator Wicker, who also serves as a senior member of SASC. Praising the OSCE’s monitoring mission in Ukraine as providing the “international community’s eyes and ears in the conflict zone,” Chairman Wicker underlined the challenges facing the consensus-based OSCE in addressing the increased aggression in Europe by Russia, one of its participating States. Citing the fundamental “Helsinki principles” on which the OSCE is based, Senator Wicker pressed a panel of experts for their views on the continued value of the OSCE. Ambassador William J. Burns, former U.S. Deputy Secretary of State who also served as U.S. Ambassador to Russia, stated that despite the OSCE’s limitations, the organization has continuing value. “It embodies some of the core values that we share with our European allies and partners in terms of sovereignty of states and the inviolability of borders—so that the big states don’t just get to grab parts of smaller states, just because they can,” he said. Burns further called for continued U.S. investment in the OSCE. Former NATO SACEUR General Philip M. Breedlove, USAF (Ret.), suggested that the Special Monitoring Mission in Ukraine was a particularly valuable expression of the OSCE’s work, underlining that “…with some of the fake news that was created in the Donbass and other places as Russia invaded, even though OSCE was challenged … often, [the monitoring mission] was the source of the real news of what was actually going on on the ground.” Ambassador Alexander R. Vershbow, former Deputy Secretary General of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization who also served as U.S. Ambassador to Russia, stated that the OSCE remains valuable, despite the challenges inherent in Russian actions, “…because of the norms and values that it upholds – even though the Russians are violating a lot of those right now – it gives us a basis on which to challenge their misbehavior.”  Praising the Special Monitoring Mission in Ukraine as “very courageous,” Vershbow underlined that while the OSCE faces serious limitations, “I don’t see any alternative right now in trying to manage a conflict like in Eastern Ukraine.”

  • Chairman Wicker Meets With Russian Opposition Leader Vladimir Kara-Murza

    WASHINGTON – Helsinki Commission Chairman Senator Roger Wicker (MS) met this week with Vladimir Kara-Murza, a Russian journalist, politician, and longtime critic of President Vladimir Putin. Last month, Kara-Murza was mysteriously and suddenly stricken ill and hospitalized in Moscow – leading many to believe that he had been poisoned for the second time in less than two years. His story was recently aired on CBS’s “60 Minutes.” “Vladimir’s perseverance for an open, free, and democratic Russia is inspiring,” Chairman Wicker said. “I am proud to call him a friend, and I am confident that he will continue his work to highlight that cause from anywhere in the world.”

  • Baltic War Game Scenario Plays Out at Helsinki Commission

    On March 3, 2017, U.S. Helsinki Commission staff, joined by Congressional staff from various offices, took part in an interactive, informal simulation led by the RAND Corporation, which demonstrated RAND’s research on the shape and probable outcome of a near-term hypothetical Russian invasion of the Baltic states. The meeting followed the Commission’s December 2016 briefing, Baltic Security After the Warsaw NATO Summit, where RAND expert Michael Johnson presented the research and war-game approach exploring how a hypothetical Russian invasion of the Baltics would actually play out tactically. During the event, Johnson and his team not only described their research but also demonstrated the advantages of the flexible platform of physical simulation in such a context. Attendees were able to “play out” military deployments on both sides of the board, representing both Russian and NATO forces. Using a physical model – as opposed to a digital platform – allowed attendees to pose hypothetical scenario-based questions to one another and to the RAND team, and to explore the defense outcomes on a representative military theater. The RAND simulation demonstrated that, under current NATO postures, Russian forces would be likely to be able to take the capitals of all three Baltic States in 60 hours or less. More information on the war-gaming research by Michael W. Johnson and David A. Shlapak can be found in their report, Reinforcing Deterrence on NATO’s Eastern Flank: Wargaming the Defense of the Baltics (2016).

  • Helsinki Commissioners Meet with U.S. 6th Fleet Leadership

    By Alex Tiersky, Global Security / Political-Military Affairs Advisor U.S. Helsinki Commission En route to the 2017 OSCE Parliamentary Assembly Winter Meeting in Vienna, five members of the Helsinki Commission and four other members of Congress made a strategic stopover in Naples, Italy, for a closed-door briefing at the headquarters of the U.S. 6th Fleet. Members of the Delegation, led by Helsinki Commission Chairman Senator Roger Wicker (MS), discussed several regional security challenges with Vice Admiral Christopher W. Grady (Commander, U.S. 6th Fleet, Deputy Commander, U.S. Naval Forces Europe [NAVEUR], and Commander, Naval Striking Forces NATO) and his subordinates. These included ongoing operations against ISIS; migration flows across the Mediterranean; and Russia’s increasingly assertive regional military posture and activities. In addition to Senator Wicker, members of the U.S. Congressional Delegation at the 6th Fleet briefing included Helsinki Commissioners Rep. Roger Aderholt (AL-04), Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), Rep. Alcee Hastings (FL-20), and Rep. Richard Hudson (NC-08). The Delegation also included Senator Lamar Alexander (TN), Rep. Lloyd Doggett (TX-35), Rep. Eliot Engel (NY-16), and Rep. Trent Kelly (MS-01). About the 6th Fleet As Commander of U.S. 6th Fleet, Vice Admiral Grady directs the operations of U.S. ships, submarines and aircraft and the Sailors and civilians who operate them in Europe and swaths of Africa. NAVEUR has a number of task forces and subordinate units organized around functions including surface naval activity, missile defense, logistics, land-based patrol aircraft, Naval Expeditionary Forces, and submarine forces. The U.S. 6th Fleet conducts the full spectrum of joint and naval operations, often in concert with allied, joint and interagency partners in order to advance U.S. national interests and security and stability in Europe and Africa.  The main lines of operation of the 6th Fleet include Operation Inherent Resolve (counter-ISIS) and Operation Atlantic Resolve (demonstrating continued commitment to collective security of NATO), as well as reassurance and deterrence activities with European allies and partners such as military exercises including SEA BREEZE (a multinational exercise co-hosted by the U.S. and Ukraine Navies with several thousand troops from more than a dozen nations) and BALTOPS (which last year featured 6,100 maritime, ground, and air force troops exercising maritime interdiction, anti-subsurface warfare, amphibious operations, and air defense, and demonstrating resolve among NATO and partner forces to defend the Baltic region).

  • Helsinki Commission Chairman Leads U.S. Delegation to Parliamentary Gathering of OSCE Countries

    Led by Helsinki Commission Chairman Senator Roger F. Wicker (MS), 10 Members of the U.S. Congress joined the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly’s annual Winter Meeting in Vienna, Austria, on February 23 and 24, 2017. Since the founding of the OSCE PA, Members of Congress have actively engaged their Canadian, European, and Central Asian counterparts at Winter Meetings and other OSCE PA events. Such engagement was particularly significant in 2017 in the context of an ongoing terrorist threat in Europe, Russian aggression against Ukraine and other neighboring countries, and the challenges of the massive influx of refugees and migrants into Europe from the Middle East and Africa. The transition to a new Administration in the United States made it more important than ever to reaffirm the commitment of the United States to security and cooperation in the region.  Approximately 250 parliamentarians from 53 participating States took part in the 2017 Winter Meeting, and active participation of the U.S. Delegation – the largest in OSCE PA Winter Meeting history – was warmly welcomed. In addition to Senator Wicker, the U.S. Delegation included Helsinki Commissioners Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20), Rep. Robert B. Aderholt (AL-04), Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), and Rep. Richard Hudson (NC-08), as well as Senator Lamar Alexander (TN), Rep. Eliot L. Engel (NY-16), Rep. Lloyd Doggett (TX-35), Rep. Steve King (IA-04), and Rep. Trent Kelley (MS-01). U.S. Delegation Speaks Out on Security, Religious Freedom, and Human Rights in Times of Crisis The bicameral, bipartisan Delegation was highly visible throughout the meeting. In addition to his role as Head of the U.S. Delegation in 2017, Senator Wicker serves as chairman of the Assembly’s General Committee on Political Affairs and Security (also known as the First Committee), which met during the Winter Meeting. Opening the committee session, Senator Wicker applauded the opportunity the Winter Meeting provides “to dialogue directly with senior officials working within the OSCE” and “to discuss pressing concerns with the Ambassadors representing all of our States on a continuing basis.”  “This dialogue,” he added, “is one way in which we, as representatives of our citizens, help to shape the future of the OSCE…  The role of this Committee remains as important as at any time in the history of our Assembly. Let us now get down to the work of discussing how we will collectively rise to the challenges of our time.” Representative Hudson participated in the First Committee’s debate on confronting terrorism.  Observing that some countries misuse laws regarding extremism and terrorism to persecute an entire religious community, Hudson agreed that “violent extremism and terrorism – including in the name of religion – are real threats that must be countered,” but argued that “religious affiliation itself is never a justification for detention and imprisonment.” As some governments have been accused in recent years of using outside threats and security concerns as justification for the denial of basic human rights to political opponents, “protecting human rights in a time of crisis” was chosen as a relevant and timely topic for the closing plenary debate. At the closing plenary, Representative King noted the magnitude and gravity of the threats Turkey faces today, including ISIS- and extreme Kurdish-sponsored terrorism as well as an attempted military coup.  He added, however, that the response must respect core obligations and should not be broadened into a crackdown on political rivals, independent voices and average citizens. Representative Aderholt, who also serves as one of nine Vice Presidents of the OSCE PA, remarked on contrasting developments in another country facing a crisis: Ukraine. He noted that the threat posed by Russian aggression since 2014 “could easily have led to a deterioration in Ukraine’s human rights situation, as well as increased corruption and societal intolerance,” but that, “to Ukraine’s credit, this has not happened.” He reminded delegates of the difficult and substantial reforms the country has undertaken in recent years and encouraged their implementation. He also detailed the “contrasting deterioration in the human rights of those parts of Ukraine which have been seized by Russia and its separatist proxies.” Beyond the Debates Chairman Wicker also represented the United States in a session which amended the Assembly’s rules of procedure to encourage greater discipline to avoid over-amending draft resolutions at Annual Sessions which take place each summer, and to ensure that those resolutions are placed on the agenda based on the degree of support they get from heads of delegation.  While in Vienna, the U.S. Delegation hosted two additional events to facilitate an exchange of views: one for 15 of the Parliamentary Assembly’s leaders and heads of delegation, including Austrian parliamentarian and current President Christine Muttonen; and a second for senior OSCE officials. Bilateral talks with the delegates from Georgia, Israel, Poland, Romania, and Russia took place on the margins of the meeting. The next gathering of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly will be its Annual Session, scheduled to take place in Minsk, Belarus, on July 5-9, 2017. About the OSCE PA Winter Meeting The Parliamentary Assembly was formed as the Cold War ended in the early 1990s to allow elected representatives to take a more active role in the multilateral diplomacy of what is today the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).   Winter Meetings initiate the Assembly’s work for the coming year and debate current issues. Unlike other Assembly meetings, Winter Meetings always take place in Vienna to facilitate greater interaction between the parliamentarians and both OSCE officials and diplomatic representatives of the 57 OSCE participating States.   

  • U.S. Congressional Delegation Expresses Bicameral, Bipartisan Commitment to Enduring Partnerships with Jordan and Israel

    Helsinki Commission Chairman Senator Roger F. Wicker (MS) led a bicameral and bipartisan delegation of nine Members of the U.S. Congress to Jordan and Israel from February 19-22, 2017 before traveling to Vienna for the Winter Meeting of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly. This was the first major U.S. Congressional delegation to visit Jordan and Israel, two of the United States’ strongest Middle East allies, since the start of the 115th Congress and the inauguration of President Donald J. Trump. As such, it manifested the United States’ lasting and bipartisan commitment to these partnerships that are vital to defending American interests overseas and at home. In addition to Senator Wicker, the U.S. Delegation included Helsinki Commissioners Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20), Rep. Robert B. Aderholt (AL-04), Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), and Rep. Richard Hudson (NC-08), as well as Senator Lamar Alexander (TN), Rep. Eliot L. Engel (NY-16), Rep. Lloyd Doggett (TX-35), and Rep. Trent Kelly (MS-01). In Jordan, the delegation met with King Abdullah II and reviewed the full horizon of threats and opportunities that lie ahead for Jordan and the United States, particularly concerning the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Iran, Syria, and the fight against terrorism. The King also shared his views about the economic and social challenges facing Jordan in the near- and medium-term, including slow economic growth, high unemployment, and a massive refugee population. Members of the delegation also had the opportunity to visit a Jordanian military unit and meet with the unit’s United States and United Kingdom military trainers to witness the depth of US-Jordanian cooperation and integration. The delegation also consulted with leading members of Jordan’s cabinet, parliament, business community, and civil society. In Israel, the delegation further discussed regional dynamics with Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, Deputy Minister for Diplomacy Michael Oren, and Ministry of Foreign Affairs Political Director Alon Ushpiz. In their capacities as U.S. lawmakers, members of the delegation also met with their counterparts from the Israeli Knesset, including members of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, to discuss the role of legislative institutions in fostering effective foreign policy. In each location the delegation held consultations with the United States’ leading diplomatic and military officers to learn about the work of the United States interagency to strengthen our foreign government partners, communicate our values, protect our personnel overseas, and defend the homeland. Jordanian and Israeli interlocutors commonly stressed the importance of reinvigorating American leadership in the region to address the emergence of power vacuums where pernicious influences thrive. The delegation heard concerns in both countries about the impact of Russia and Iran’s ascendant influence in regional conflicts, particularly Syria. These officials further emphasized the need for the US to shape a coalition of moderate regional countries that can challenge the reach of terrorist groups, radical ideologies, and Iran’s destabilizing foreign policy.    The U.S. delegation reaffirmed the United States’ commitment to Israel’s security, which faces threats from virtually every direction on a daily basis. Delegation members also elicited Jordanian and Israeli officials’ views about recent developments in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the prospects for peace, particularly the possibility of achieving a two-state solution. Neither Jordanian nor Israeli officials expressed optimism about the near-term feasibility of achieving a final status agreement and establishing a Palestinian state. Although they emphasized different obstacles to achieving peace, both sides acknowledged the significant challenge posed by weak Palestinian leadership and institutions. Members of the delegation also heard about the importance of U.S. foreign aid to Jordan and Israel, two of the world’s largest recipients of American foreign assistance. The delegation heard how such assistance fosters closer coordination and forges lasting partnerships that are unrivaled by the cooperation offered by other regional stakeholders, thus representing a critical mechanism of US influence.   

  • Panelist Profile: Dr. Margareta Matache

    Dr. Margareta Matache was a speaker at the Helsinki Commission’s February 16, 2017 panel discussion on the challenges faced by Romani communities in Romania. The event followed a screening of the acclaimed Romanian film “Aferim!” (“Bravo!”), which addresses the forgotten history of 500 years of Roma slavery in two former Romanian principalities. Margareta is a Romani activist and scholar from Romania with over 18 years of experience in the field of human rights. She joined the Harvard FXB Center for Health and Human Rights team in 2012, where she currently works as an instructor and director of the Roma Program. Before this position, for seven years Dr. Matache served as the executive director of Romani CRISS, a leading Romani non-profit in Romania. Margareta grew up under the first wave of Romani activism in post-communist Romania. Her father, a construction worker of Romani descent, was a community activist himself, which played a role in fostering her interest in the field of human rights. “This activist environment taught me about our ancestors, some of whom on my mother’s side may have been slaves, and so I am trying to document that now,” she says. Margareta was the first child in her family and community to attend high school. She has a B.A. in Social Work, an M.A. in European Social Policies and a PhD, magna cum laude, from the University of Bucharest. However, her educational path was no easy feat. “As an adolescent, I felt the pressure and pain of race and class constructs and wanted to drop out from school way too often,” she admits.   She says that those feelings later became one of the triggers of her motivation to dedicate a large portion of her work to fighting racism and stigma against Romani adolescents. Margareta became involved with the Romani movement in 1999 as a volunteer for the Roma Students Association, working with association director Emilian Nicolae in a local community in Bucharest. Six years later, she became the executive director of Romani CRISS. “Taking a stand in cases of anti-Roma racism was at the core of our work at Romani CRISS,” Margareta says. Since the 1990s, the organization has documented countless cases of Romani rights violations which were later ruled upon by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) and included in reports from Amnesty International, the U.S. State Department, and other institutions. “In 2006, we assisted the community in the town of Apalina, after the police used violence against 37 Roma, including elders. Based on a complaint filed by Romani CRISS, the ECHR condemned the way the Romanian government had conducted the investigation and awarded the victims €192,000 in damages,” she recalls.   Yet, she also recalls that they lost cases before the court in many instances. “We had quite a lot of failures or so called ‘lessons learnt,’” she adds. Margareta’s work was also dedicated to fostering the right to education. “When I took over the Romani CRISS leadership, I continued prioritizing the issues of Romani children segregated in separate schools and classes from their non-Roma peers. We set up a coalition of five renowned nonprofit and intergovernmental organizations that worked with the Ministry of Education to develop a legal document that prohibits segregation. In 2007, our advocacy led to the issuing of a School Desegregation Bill,” she recounts. In 2011, along with other partners, Margareta’s organization convinced the Romanian Parliament to include an article that targets the misdiagnosis and abusive placement of children in special schools based on their ethnicity or another discriminatory criterion in the new Education Law. Despite these successes, Margareta feels that there is still a lot to be done as Romani children continue to be placed in segregated schools and classes to this day. In 2012, Margareta decided to take a break from activism and shifted to academia. At the Harvard FXB Center for Health and Human Rights, she has been pursuing and piloting participatory approaches for assessing the needs of Romani youth and suggest better-informed policies and measures. Moreover, the Roma Program has provided support for Romani and non-Romani youth to conduct culturally sensitive and participatory research. Margareta is also contributing to strengthening ties and joint advocacy efforts between Roma and other social movements, working on reparations claims across historical and geographical spheres.  Slavery in Romania is an example of past state-sponsored injustices around which Margareta’s program try to create awareness and solidarity. “Romania has not even advanced symbolic reparations, including memorials, museums to acknowledge this episode in our country history. Roma and Romanian children are simply deprived from learning about this central episode in their collective history. We need to help the next generations of children, Roma and non-Roma, to learn about the origins of the present-day biases, racist behaviors, and also, to understand the effects of the unseen gadjo or non-Roma privilege,” she says. Margareta also champions the idea to use films and other artistic productions as a tool to ignite discussions and raise awareness of difficult topics. She points out that "Aferim!" helped lay the foundations for the acceptance, recognition, and memorialization of the past of injustice in Romania. “It was remarkable to me that the film was produced and directed by fellow Romanians, who told the world the hidden truth about the uncomfortable past of 500 years of slavery on Romanian territories. I think that 'Aferim!' started the public conversation on the history of slavery while The Great Shame, a play written and directed by the brilliant mind of Alina Serban, continues the conversation on slavery and takes a step further, by looking at the past through the eyes of the present,” she says. According to Margareta, what makes the film exceptional is that “'Aferim!' shifts the emphasis on the non-Roma and their moral responsibility for past injustices and the roots of present-day injustice, including exploitation and discrimination, pulling to pieces the discourse on Roma vulnerability and  the ‘Roma problem.’” “We would not need any integration policy if we benefited from a just treatment throughout our history, she says. “'Aferim!' speaks, in many ways, to all embedded biases in our Romanian culture, and also mocks them in a manner that could potentially help Romanians understand present-day discrimination against Roma and other groups, and how ridiculous and outdated racism should be.” Asked why learning about Roma is important for Americans, Margareta points out that there is a need to build solidarity with the Roma. However, she also stresses that Romani communities face stigmatization on the American soil as well: “There is an idea in the U.S. that the gypsies are not a people; it’s rather a way of life: bohemian, free spirit. The truth is that we have quite a large Romani population here in the United States, about a million people. Also, reality shows, Hollywood movies, and many other cultural products continue to portray Roma solely in stereotypical images and that adds to the stereotypical ways in which some Americans perceive this population. Fearing stigma, many Roma in the U.S. hide their identity.  In this context, there is a need for mobilization of Romani people in the U.S. in view of building a new discourse to balance the stereotypical ways in which some Americans perceive this population."

  • Roundtable on Fighting Anti-Semitism Looks at Turning Words into Action

    On March 1, 2017, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) hosted a roundtable discussion in Washington focusing on the active role of civil society organizations in the United States and Europe to combat anti-Semitism and violent hate crime.  “Turning Words Into Action: Addressing Anti-Semitism and Intolerance in the OSCE Region” featured opening remarks by ODIHR Director Michael Link and Senator Ben Cardin, who serves as the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly Special Representative on Anti-Semitism, Racism, and Intolerance. Helsinki Commission Chairman Senator Roger Wicker offered closing remarks.  Director Link underscored the continuing importance of the OSCE in helping participating States meet their human rights commitments, including through the new OSCE/ODIHR Words Into Action to Address Anti-Semitism project to prevent and respond to anti-Semitism through security, education, and coalition-building initiatives.  “We...assist the participating States, state authorities, parliaments, civil society, [and] media, …concentrating especially...on security, on education and on coalition-building [including] the development of resources to better equip governments and civil society, to address the security needs of Jewish communities.  It includes the development and publication of the practical security guide, an online platform for reporting anti-Semitic hate crimes, hate speech, discrimination and other incidents of intolerance.” Noting the need for immediate action in response to recent threats made against Jewish institutions in the United States over the past month, OSCE PA Special Representative Senator Cardin reiterated the importance of the ODIHR project and collective responsibility of political leaders to act, including by supporting coalitions and youth-led initiatives.  He highlighted the importance of collaboration between local law enforcement, school administrators, and civil society in addressing security needs for Jewish communities citing recent incidents in the state of Maryland.  “Now, it’s not just Maryland.  It’s happening throughout the entire country...This is a problem throughout the OSCE region," he said. Senator Cardin continued, "It’s not limited to anti-Semitism...Nothing would help more to stop these calls about bomb scares or to stop the desecration of cemeteries or what we see at places of worship than [to] get some people prosecuted for these crimes and convicted for these crimes.  Any act of vandalism or violence is wrong.  But when it’s motivated by hate, it should be elevated to a higher level.  And that’s what we’ve done by our hate crime laws, and that’s what we’ve done by our special units in law enforcement.  And we need to support those efforts, put the spotlight on it and let the public know that we won’t tolerate that type of hate activities in our community.” Following the introductory remarks, expert panelists Cristina Finch, Head, Tolerance and Non-Discrimination Department, OSCE/ODIHR, Stacy Burdett, Director of Government Relations, Anti-Defamation League, Mark Weitzman, Director of Government Affairs, Simon Wiesenthal Center, Susan Corke, Director, Antisemitism and Extremism, Human Rights First, moderated by  Dr. Mischa Thompson of the U.S. Helsinki Commission, explored current challenges and recent initiatives in addressing anti-Semitism and increased prejudice and discrimination in the 57 participating States of the OSCE. Roundtable participants focused on the need for increased efforts to address the surge in anti-Semitic incidents in the U.S. and Europe, and ways to strengthen relationships between the Jewish community, law enforcement and other actors to address continuing prejudices and violence.  Additionally, they provided concrete recommendations for next steps for the OSCE/ODIHR and Members of Congress.    The event closed with remarks from Chairman Wicker, who emphasized the importance civil society and leadership to address the problem, noting, “It has to be encouraging that the president would mention Black History Month and anti-Semitism... in the first 60 seconds of his speech [before the Joint Session of Congress and] something that the international community would take notice of.”

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