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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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  • Chairman Wicker Welcomes Nomination of Robert Destro for Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor

    WASHINGTON—Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) today welcomed the nomination of Robert A. Destro to serve as the Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor. The Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor traditionally also serves as the State Department’s representative on the Helsinki Commission. “For more than 40 years, the bipartisan, bicameral Helsinki Commission has demonstrated the deep commitment of the U.S. Congress to robust American leadership on human rights and democracy. By nominating Mr. Destro, President Trump has taken a decisive step to ensure that the critical work of the State Department will keep pace with the challenges we are currently facing,” said Sen. Wicker. “I encourage my Senate colleagues to quickly confirm Mr. Destro, given the many human rights challenges we are seeing worldwide.” “Following his confirmation, I also look forward to welcoming Mr. Destro to the Helsinki Commission. By serving together as commissioners, members of Congress and senior administration officials more effectively advance U.S. policies that promote security, human rights, and fundamental freedoms around the globe,” Sen. Wicker concluded. Mr. Destro is a human rights advocate and a civil rights attorney with expertise in elections and employment law. He is also professor of law and director of the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies at The Catholic University of America.

  • Roundtable on Illicit Trade

    Illicit trade—the transnational smuggling of illegal goods—has grown dramatically in the era of globalization thanks to modern technology, free trade zones, and the absence of the rule of law in many countries. Today, the shadow economy is booming and is estimated to account for up to 8 to 15 percent of world GDP. This roundtable brought U.S. government officials together with representatives of companies, associations, and organizations working to combat illicit trade. Participants discussed policy responses to the growing threat of illicit trade and how to build effective public-private partnerships. Officials from the intelligence community, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Department of State discussed their agencies’ roles in the struggle to stem the tide of illicit trade. Click here to see the full list of participants.

  • Chairman Wicker, Ranking Senator Cardin Urge President Trump to Call on President Putin to Free Oleg Sentsov

    WASHINGTON—In a letter on Friday, Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) and Ranking Commissioner Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) urged President Trump to call on Russian President Vladimir Putin to free Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov from his unjust imprisonment. On May 14, 2018, Sentsov began a hunger strike, which he plans to continue until all Ukrainian political prisoners jailed in Russia are released. The letter reads in part: “Oleg Sentsov has been a prisoner of conscience in Russia for more than four years. In May 2014, he was detained in his native Crimea, then illegally occupied by Russia, and brought to Moscow on unsubstantiated allegations of terrorism. Numerous governments and human rights organizations have dismissed these allegations as politically-charged, groundless fabrications orchestrated in retaliation for Sentsov’s outspoken criticism of Russia’s occupation of Crimea and his efforts to document human rights abuses there… “As Russia hosts the World Cup in the coming weeks, the eyes of the world will be on the country. In the spirit of this unifying global event, we urge you to raise with President Putin the international approbation which Oleg Sentsov’s immediate release would provide for him. Your advocacy on behalf of this brave Ukrainian patriot will be an important demonstration of U.S. human rights leadership around the world.” In April 2017, the U.S. Helsinki Commission held a briefing focusing on Russia’s human rights violations against Ukrainian citizens, including Sentsov. The full text of the letter can be found below: The Honorable Donald J. Trump President of the United States The White House 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., NW Washington, DC 20500 Dear Mr. President, We hope you will call on Russian President Vladimir Putin immediately and unconditionally to release the Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov from his unjust imprisonment in Siberia. In light of Sentsov’s hunger strike, our request is urgent. Oleg Sentsov has been a prisoner of conscience in Russia for more than four years.  In May 2014, he was detained in his native Crimea, then illegally occupied by Russia, and brought to Moscow on unsubstantiated allegations of terrorism. Numerous governments and human rights organizations have dismissed these allegations as politically-charged, groundless fabrications orchestrated in retaliation for Sentsov’s outspoken criticism of Russia’s occupation of Crimea and his efforts to document human rights abuses there. On May 14, 2018, Mr. Sentsov declared he had begun an indefinite hunger strike, stating that “the one and only condition for its termination is the release of all Ukrainian political prisoners that are currently present on the territory of the Russian Federation.” With his health already weakened, it is uncertain how long he can survive. As Russia hosts the World Cup in the coming weeks, the eyes of the world will be on the country.  In the spirit of this unifying global event, we urge you to raise with President Putin the international approbation which Oleg Sentsov’s immediate release would provide for him.  Your advocacy on behalf of this brave Ukrainian patriot will be an important demonstration of U.S. human rights leadership around the world. Sincerely,

  • High Crimes and Pipelines

    Corruption continues to plague Ukraine’s energy sector. Despite the success of reforms to its state-owned gas company, Naftogaz, rampant corruption in regional distribution companies and elsewhere prevents Ukraine’s energy sector from realizing its potential. Coupled with the Russian assault on energy security in the form of Nord Stream 2, Ukraine finds itself at a crossroads: will it continue on the reformist path toward energy independence, or will its energy sector once again become defined by corruption? This briefing reviewed the challenges facing Ukraine’s energy sector with a focus on corruption’s role in preventing necessary reforms. Speakers provided expertise and insight as to how Ukraine’s energy sector fits into the larger picture of Ukraine’s fight against corruption. They also examined Russia’s malign influence in the country. Finally, the briefing offered policy responses to these issues.

  • Reality vs. Rhetoric

     Since President Trump’s inauguration, the administration’s Russia policy has been divided between rhetoric and reality. Two dueling narratives have emerged—one based on the conciliatory nature of the president’s words and tweets, the other arising from the hawkishness of implemented policy. The disparity has rendered difficult any objective assessment of administration policy toward Moscow.  During this briefing, the panelists examined this divergence and sought to contextualize the administration’s policy while providing recommendations for future action. According to the panelists, while rhetoric is undoubtedly important, for analysis it is far more useful to look to reality. In that regard, the Trump administration’s policy has been “the toughest since the Cold War.” This policy has taken two principal forms: increased military deterrence and an expanded sanctions regime. Militarily, the administration has instituted a tactical deterrence strategy that may serve as the foundation for a larger strategy of containment. Since 2017, the administration has initiated the sale of lethal arms to Ukraine, conducted air strikes against the Syrian regime and Russian private military contractors operating in Syria, increased funding in the NDAA for the European Deterrence Initiative from $3.7 billion to $6.3 billion, and enhanced the U.S. presence in Eastern Europe by expanding the size, scope, and frequency of allied training exercises in the region. The administration has supported this conventional deterrence policy with an equally strong political push against Moscow: a policy exemplified by the administration's imposition of the congressionally-designed CAATSA sanctions, which target oligarchs associated with the Putin regime. Beyond this, other political actions implemented by the administration include the largest expulsion of Russian diplomats in history, further sanctions imposed on Russian firms and cyber groups, and the appointment of Russia hawks to roles of National Security Advisor, Secretary of Defense, and Secretary of State. In addition to current policy, the panelists also looked to the future and gave their prescriptions on how the administration’s Russia policy should proceed. A discussion centered on two themes: further targeting President Putin’s support base and developing the United States’ ability to counter Russian hybrid warfare. The former is predicated on expanding the existing sanctions regime to better target the ability of Russian oligarchs to access the international financial system and targeting Putin's regime by exposing its corruption to the Russian people. The latter is a call for increased investment in cyber defense and eliminating the avenues by which Russian disinformation campaigns reach Americans. In response to a question from Helsinki Commission policy advisor Rachel Bauman regarding the role of Congress in future Russia policy, the panelists agreed that Congress could take the lead, serving as a check against the rhetoric of President Trump, and continue the strong policy the administration has implemented.    

  • Helsinki Commission to Host Roundtable On Illicit Trade

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following briefing: ROUNDTABLE ON ILLICIT TRADE Thursday, June 21, 2018 1:00 p.m. Russell Senate Office Building Room 485 Live Webcast: www.facebook.com/HelsinkiCommission Illicit trade—the transnational smuggling of illegal goods—has grown dramatically in the era of globalization thanks to modern technology, free trade zones, and the absence of the rule of law in many countries. Today, the shadow economy is booming and is estimated to account for up to 8 to 15 percent of world GDP. This roundtable will bring U.S. government officials together with representatives of companies, associations, and organizations working to combat illicit trade. Participants will discuss policy responses to the growing threat of illicit trade and how to build effective public-private partnerships. Officials from the intelligence community, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Department of State will discuss their agencies’ roles in the struggle to stem the tide of illicit trade. Discussion will follow each presentation. Participants include: Russ Travers, Acting Director, National Counterterrorism Center, Office of the Director of National Intelligence Convergence: How illicit trade networks fit in with other illicit networks Christa Brzozowski, Deputy Assistant Secretary, Trade and Transport, Department of Homeland Security Contraband: How to stop the flow of illicit goods Lisa Dyer, Director, Office of Intellectual Property Enforcement, Department of State Counterfeiting: How to combat the violation of IP protections Aaron Seres, Acting Section Chief, Financial Crimes Section, FBI Corruption and Organized Crime: How to counter those who facilitate illicit trade The event is open to the public.

  • Bill introduced to make doping in worldwide events a crime

    WASHINGTON (AP) — U.S. lawmakers introduced a bill on Tuesday that would make it a crime to use or distribute performance-enhancing drugs while competing in international sports events. The bill in the House is named after Grigory Rodchenkov, the Russian lab director who blew the whistle on Russian cheating at the Sochi Olympics. Penalties would include fines of up to $250,000 for individuals and prison sentences of up to 10 years for those who make, distribute or use banned substances at international events, such as the Olympics. U.S. and foreign athletes would be subject to the law if competing in an event that includes four or more U.S. athletes and other athletes from three or more countries, even if the event is held outside the United States. The bill cites the U.S. contribution to the World Anti-Doping Agency as justification for jurisdiction over events outside American borders. The bill also would expand the timeframe for athletes and corporate sponsors who were cheated to file lawsuits seeking damages. Other countries, including Germany, Italy and Kenya, have similar laws. U.S. authorities have long been hamstrung by limited legal options to prosecute doping cheats.

  • U.S. Lawmakers Seek to Criminalize Doping in Global Competitions

    United States lawmakers took a step on Tuesday toward criminalizing doping in international sports, introducing a bill in the House that would attach prison time to the use, manufacturing or distribution of performance-enhancing drugs in global competitions. The legislation, inspired by the Russian doping scandal, would echo the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, which makes it illegal to bribe foreign officials to gain a business advantage. The statute would be the first of its kind with global reach, empowering American prosecutors to act on doping violations abroad, and to file fraud charges of a different variety than those the Justice Department brought against top international soccer officials in 2015. Although American leagues like Major League Baseball would not be affected by the legislation, which would apply only to competitions among countries, it could apply to a league’s athletes when they participate in global events like the Ryder Cup, the Davis Cup or the World Baseball Classic. The law would establish America’s jurisdiction over international sports events, even those outside of the United States, if they include at least three other nations, with at least four American athletes participating or two American companies acting as sponsors. It would also enhance the ability of cheated athletes and corporate sponsors to seek damages, expanding the window of time during which civil lawsuits could be filed. To justify the United States’ broader jurisdiction over global competitions, the House bill invokes the United States’ contribution to the World Anti-Doping Agency, the global regulator of drugs in sports. At $2.3 million, the United States’ annual contribution is the single largest of any nation. “Doping fraud in major international competitions also effectively defrauds the United States,” the bill states. The lawmakers behind the bill were instrumental in the creation of the 2012 Magnitsky Act, which gave the government the right to freeze financial assets and impose visa restrictions on Russian nationals accused of serious human rights violations and corruption. On Tuesday, the lawmakers framed their interest in sports fraud around international relations and broader networks of crime that can accompany cheating. “Doping fraud is a crime in which big money, state assets and transnational criminals gain advantage and honest athletes and companies are defrauded,” said Sheila Jackson Lee, Democrat of Texas, who introduced the legislation on Tuesday. “This practice, some of it state-sanctioned, has the ability to undermine international relations, and is often connected to more nefarious actions by state actors.” Along with Ms. Jackson Lee, the bill was sponsored by two other congressional representatives, Michael C. Burgess, Republican of Texas, and Gwen Moore, Democrat of Wisconsin. It was put forward just as Russia prepares to host soccer’s World Cup, which starts Thursday. That sporting event will be the nation’s biggest since the 2014 Sochi Olympics, where one of the most elaborate doping ploys in history took place. The bill, the Rodchenkov Anti-Doping Act, takes its name from Dr. Grigory Rodchenkov, the chemist who ran Russia’s antidoping laboratory for 10 years before he spoke out about the state-sponsored cheating he had helped carry out — most notoriously in Sochi. At those Games, Dr. Rodchenkov said, he concealed widespread drug use among Russia’s top Olympians by tampering with more than 100 urine samples with the help of Russia’s Federal Security Service. Investigations commissioned by international sports regulators confirmed his account and concluded that Russia had cheated across competitions and years, tainting the performance of more than 1,000 athletes. In early 2017, American intelligence officials concluded that Russia’s meddling in the 2016 American election had been, in part, a form of retribution for the Olympic doping scandal, whose disclosures Russian officials blamed on the United States. Nations including Germany, France, Italy, Kenya and Spain have established criminal penalties for sports doping perpetrated within their borders. Russia, too, passed a law in 2017 that made it a crime to assist or coerce doping, though no known charges have been brought under that law to date. Under the proposed American law, criminal penalties for offenders would include a prison term of up to five years as well as fines that could stretch to $250,000 for individuals and $1 million for organizations. “We could have real change if people think they could actually go to jail for this,” said Jim Walden, a lawyer for Dr. Rodchenkov, who met with the lawmakers as they considered the issue in recent months. “I think it will have a meaningful impact on coaches and athletes if they realize they might not be able to travel outside of their country for fear of being arrested.” The legislation also authorizes civil actions for doping fraud, giving athletes who may have been cheated in competitions — as well as corporations acting as sponsors — the right to sue in federal court to recover damages from people who may have defrauded competitions. Ms. Jackson Lee cited the American runner Alysia Montaño, who placed fifth in the 800 meters at the 2012 Summer Olympics. Two Russian women who placed first and third in that race were later disqualified for doping, elevating Ms. Montaño years later. “She had rightfully finished third, which would have earned her a bronze medal,” Ms. Jackson Lee said, noting the financial benefits and sponsorships Ms. Montaño could have captured. The bill would establish a window of seven years for criminal actions and 10 years for civil lawsuits. It also seeks to protect whistle-blowers from retaliation, making it illegal to take “adverse action” against a person because he or she has disclosed information about doping fraud. Dr. Rodchenkov, who has lived in the United States since fall 2015, has been criminally charged in Russia after he publicly deconstructed the cheating he said he carried out on orders from a state minister. “While he was complicit in Russia’s past bad acts, Dr. Rodchenkov regrets his past role in Russia’s state-run doping program and seeks to atone for it by aiding the effort to clean up international sports and to curb the corruption rampant in Russia,” Ms. Jackson Lee said, calling Tuesday’s bill “an important step to stemming the tide of Russian corruption in sport and restoring confidence in international competition.”

  • Helsinki Commissioners Jackson Lee and Burgess Introduce Rodchenkov Anti-Doping Act

    WASHINGTON—Today, U.S. Helsinki Commissioners Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (TX-18) and Rep. Michael Burgess, M.D., (TX-26) introduced the Rodchenkov Anti-Doping Act (RADA) in the House of Representatives. Named for Russian whistleblower Dr. Grigory Rodchenkov, the bipartisan legislation establishes civil remedies and criminal penalties for doping fraud crimes affecting U.S. athletes and companies at international sports competitions. Helsinki Commissioner Rep. Gwen Moore (WI-04) also co-sponsored the bill. “Meeting Dr. Rodchenkov and witnessing his courage in the face of Putin’s brutal regime inspired me to introduce the Rodchenkov Anti-Doping Act,” said Rep. Jackson Lee, who sponsored the bill and serves as the Ranking Member of the Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, Homeland Security, and Investigations. “The unprecedented level of doping he exposed at the Olympics, where American athletes compete and U.S. companies are sponsors, demonstrates how countries engaging in clean sport are being defrauded by criminals. In particular, athletes’ livelihoods suffer when prize money and sponsorships are awarded to cheaters.” “International competitions should be the pinnacle of human physical achievement—a chance for those who have trained harder than anyone to go head-to-head and demonstrate their skills to the whole world,” said Rep. Burgess, the bill’s lead co-sponsor. “There should not be an opportunity for states to engage in misconduct. Athletes who compete honestly must not have victory seized from them by an opponent who has used performance-enhancing drugs.” In 2016, Dr. Rodchenkov exposed the Russian state-sponsored doping scandal that took place during the 2014 Sochi Olympics. By deceiving international anti-doping authorities and swapping athletes’ samples, Russian officials cheated U.S. athletes out of Olympic glory and U.S. corporations out of honest sponsorships. These corrupt officials used bribes and illicit payments, sometimes through U.S. financial institutions, to commit this fraud. Unfortunately, the masterminds behind the Russian doping operation escaped punishment for their actions because there was no U.S. legal mechanism to bring them to justice. The Rodchenkov Anti-Doping Act will: Establish criminal penalties for knowingly manufacturing, distributing, and using PEDs. This section applies to all major international competitions in which U.S. athletes or U.S. entities participate, so that international fraud against Americans will not go unpunished. Penalties will include fines of up to $1,000,000, or imprisonment of up to ten years, depending on the offense. Establish a private civil right of action for doping fraud, giving clean athletes and defrauded corporations and entities legal recourse to pursue civil action against deceptive competition that has deprived them of medals or financial awards. Protect whistleblowers from retaliation, to ensure that intimidation tactics will not be tolerated against those who do the right thing and expose fraudulent schemes. Any person who has experienced retaliation because of exposing Doping Fraud may sue the retaliating party in United States district court. Empower the U.S. Attorney General to develop regulations by which the U.S. Department of Justice will help private litigants to obtain foreign evidence, in compliance with the Convention on the Taking of Evidence Abroad in Civil or Commercial Matters. In February 2018, the Helsinki Commission held a briefing featuring Dr. Rodchenkov’s attorney, Jim Walden, on combating fraud in sports and the role of whistleblowers in safeguarding the integrity of international competitions. In March, Commissioners Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), Sen. Cory Gardner (CO), and Rep. Jackson Lee met with Dr. Rodchenkov to discuss the threat posed by Russia to the United States, corruption in international sports bodies, and how the United States can contribute to the international effort to counter doping fraud. “It is both gratifying and humbling to see the introduction of the “Rodchenkov Anti-Doping Act in the House of Representatives today," said Dr. Rodchenkov. "I would like to thank Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, Rep. Michael Burgess, and the rest of the Helsinki Commission for taking the time to hear about my role in the Russian doping scandal that marred the 2014 Sochi Olympics. Although doping continues to pervade international athletic competitions, I am encouraged that the U.S. Congress has chosen to protect clean athletes and fair sport. This bill stands to correct a broken and corrupt system, and I sincerely hope that other Members of Congress will support this endeavor.”

  • Helsinki Commission Announces Briefing on the Trump Administration's Russia Policy

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following briefing: REALITY VS. RHETORIC: ASSESSING THE TRUMP ADMINISTRATION’S RUSSIA POLICY Friday, June 15, 2018 10:00 a.m. Dirksen Senate Office Building Room 562 Live Webcast: www.facebook.com/HelsinkiCommission The polarization of views surrounding President Trump and Russia continues to complicate an objective assessment of administration policy toward Moscow. Despite repeated comments by President Trump expressing a desire to improve relations with Russia, the U.S. Government continues to advance what is arguably the toughest policy toward the Kremlin since Ronald Reagan’s first term. This public briefing will discuss the relative value Vladimir Putin places on conciliatory gestures vs. actual concessions that seem increasingly unlikely to materialize. It also will assess the likely trajectory of U.S.-Russia relations for the remainder of the Trump presidency. The following panelists are scheduled to participate: Mr. Herman Pirchner, Jr., President, American Foreign Policy Council Dr. Alina Polyakova, David M. Rubenstein Fellow, Foreign Policy, Brookings Institution Ms. Yulia Latynina, Journalist, Echo Moskvy and Novaya Gazeta

  • Corruption in Ukraine's Energy Sector Focus of Upcoming Helsinki Commission Briefing

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following briefing: HIGH CRIMES AND PIPELINES: CURBING CORRUPTION IN UKRAINE’S ENERGY SECTOR Monday, June 18, 2018 3:30 p.m. Dirksen Senate Office Building Room G11 Live Webcast: www.facebook.com/HelsinkiCommission Corruption continues to plague Ukraine’s energy sector. Despite the success of reforms to its state-owned gas company, Naftogaz, rampant corruption in regional distribution companies and elsewhere prevents Ukraine’s energy sector from realizing its potential. Coupled with the Russian assault on energy security in the form of Nord Stream 2, Ukraine finds itself at a crossroads: will it continue on the reformist path toward energy independence, or will its energy sector once again become defined by corruption? This briefing will review the challenges facing Ukraine’s energy sector with a focus on corruption’s role in preventing necessary reforms. Speakers will provide expertise and insight as to how Ukraine’s energy sector fits into the larger picture of Ukraine’s fight against corruption. They will also examine Russia’s malign influence in the country. Finally, the briefing will offer policy responses to these issues. The following panelists are scheduled to participate: Ambassador Bill Courtney, Former U.S. Ambassador to Georgia and Kazakhstan and career foreign service officer Ed Chow, Senior Fellow, Center for Strategic and International Studies Nataliya Katser-Buchkovska, Member of the Ukrainian Verkhovna Rada

  • Chairman Wicker Acts to Protect Religious Freedom in Europe and Central Asia

    WASHINGTON—Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) today introduced a bipartisan resolution (S.Res.539) urging President Trump to take action against some of the worst violators of religious freedom in Europe and Central Asia. Key targets of the legislation include the governments of Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Turkey, and Russia, as well as Russian-led separatist forces in Ukraine. “Our founding fathers made religious freedom a cornerstone of our country, and President Trump carries that legacy forward by making religious freedom a cornerstone of his presidency. This resolution is a blueprint for action in a region where governments have often attacked religious freedom instead of protecting it. When governments take steps toward improvement, as Uzbekistan has done, we should support and bolster their efforts,” said Chairman Wicker. Helsinki Commissioner Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (NH) is the lead co-sponsor of the resolution. Other original co-sponsors of S.Res.539 include Helsinki Commissioners Sen. Thom Tillis (NC), Sen. John Boozman (AR), and Sen. Cory Gardner (CO), along with Sen. James Lankford (OK). S.Res.539 targets governments of participating States of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) that have not complied with specific OSCE commitments to respect fundamental human rights and freedoms, including religious freedom. The resolution urges President Trump to: Re-designate Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan as “Countries of Particular Concern”—nations that engage in or tolerate severe violations of religious freedom such as torture, prolonged detention without charges, abduction or clandestine detention—and take actions required by the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 Designate Azerbaijan, Russia, and Turkey as “Special Watch List Countries” for severe violations of religious freedom, and designate Kazakhstan if it continues to tighten restrictions on religious freedom Block entry to the United States and impose financial sanctions on individual violators in these countries, including but not limited to: Turkish officials responsible for the imprisonment of Andrew Brunson, an American pastor who has been unjustly jailed since October 2016 Kremlin officials responsible for Russia’s forcible, illegal occupation of Crimea Russian-led separatist forces in Ukraine Instruct the Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, former Helsinki Commission Chairman Sam Brownback, to develop a U.S. government strategy that promotes religious freedoms in these countries, especially prioritizing support for ongoing reforms in Uzbekistan S.Res.539 is supported by prominent international religious freedom advocates, including: Dr. Thomas Farr, President of the Religious Freedom Institute, and founding Director of the State Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom Dr. Kent Hill, Executive Director of the Religious Freedom Institute, and Assistant Administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development (2001-2008) The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention Frank Wolf, former U.S. Representative (VA-10), and Distinguished Senior Fellow, 21st Century Wilberforce Initiative Nina Shea, Director, Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom Dr. Daniel Mark, Commissioner, U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (2014-2018; Chairman 2017-2018), and Assistant Professor of Political Science, Villanova University Rev. Dr. Andrew Bennett, Canada’s Ambassador for Religious Freedom (2013-2016), and Program Director for Cardus Law Dr. Aykan Erdemir, Senior Fellow, Foundation for Defense of Democracies, and Member of Parliament, Grand National Assembly of Turkey (2011-2015) Dr. Elijah Brown, General Secretary, Baptist World Alliance Dr. Byron Johnson, Director, Institute for Studies of Religion, Baylor University Dr. Daniel Philpott, Professor of Political Science, Notre Dame University Dr. Kathleen Collins, Associate Professor of Political Science, University of Minnesota

  • First Person: Arctic Security in Flux

    By Alex Tiersky, Senior Policy Advisor As the Helsinki Commission’s global security and political-military affairs policy advisor, I regularly travel to observe and evaluate changing security conditions that have a direct impact on the interests of the United States.  In May, following an invitation to join a group of senior U.S. security experts in Norway to study the security challenges of NATO’s northern flank, I found myself in one of the northernmost towns in the world: Longyearbyen, on the archipelago of Svalbard, Norway. The delegation of government officials, independent experts, and journalists was organized by the Atlantic Council of the United States. We met with a variety of government officials and non-governmental experts over two days in Oslo, before flying more than 1,200 miles north to Svalbard, an Arctic archipelago halfway between the Norwegian mainland and the North Pole. In Svalbard we met with the Norwegian Coast Guard, the Svabard Satellite Station (SvalSat), the Norwegian Polar Institute, and the Svalbard Governor’s office. Among the many strands emerging from the week of off-the-record discussions, several stood out as key takeaways. Maintaining Close Relations with U.S. and NATO Norway’s security is inextricably linked to its defense relationship with the United States and with NATO more broadly, interlocutors told us. This distinguishes Norway from its neighbors Sweden and Finland, both of which have sought to provide for their defense primarily on a national basis.  As a result, Norway puts a premium on predictability in its relationship with the United States and with NATO, and would consider any threat to NATO cohesion as a national security concern. Maintaining unity is among the highest Norwegian priorities for the July NATO Summit in Brussels. Norway will continue to invest carefully in its defense capabilities and in its relationship with the United States, we were told. Norwegian officials hailed the long-standing defense relationship, exemplified by the pre-positioning of U.S. Marine Corps equipment in Norway since the 1980s, and more recently by the $35B Norwegian purchase of F-35s. Norway also is purchasing new conventional submarines, and replacing aging P-3 Orion and DA-20 Jet Falcon maritime patrol aircraft with the Boeing-built P-8A. The presence of more than 300 U.S. Marines performing cold-weather training in Norway, while still politically sensitive, is seen as a success by most political parties and was recently extended by Norway through 2018.  Independent analysts suggested that there was a strong likelihood the arrangement would likely be extended beyond 2018—and quite possibly lengthened in duration to a multi-year agreement—as well as increased  to include greater numbers of Marines (a move that was subsequently publicly announced). Concerns over Russian Activities Russia’s increased military activities in the north featured prominently in our discussions.  Norway’s Russia policy will continue to rely on a dual-track policy of deterrence and reassurance vis-a-vis its neighbor to the east, interlocutors suggested. However, they underlined that Norway must consider the rapidly advancing capabilities of the Russian armed forces, even if they are not directed at Norwegian territory. Norway closely monitored the major Russian military exercise ZAPAD 2017, which I witnessed in person.  While the exercise did not result in the direst scenarios feared in the Baltic region, its components in the north were significant and raised many concerns.  During the maneuvers, Russian armed forces demonstrated an ability to move land forces over strategic distances quickly and stealthily; cover them with an anti-access/area-denial (A2AD) bubble through measures including electronic warfare (which impacted civilian air traffic in the area), and deploy a follow-on deterrent in the dual-capable (nuclear/conventional) ISKANDER tactical ballistic missile. In addition to the increased tempo of Russian operations in the north, one particular concern is a new class of Russian submarines, the Yasen-class, which demonstrates a greater capacity for stealth and formidable armament, potentially holding much of Europe and the North Atlantic sea lanes at risk. The strategic Russian Kola Peninsula, only 140 miles from Norwegian border, represents the largest concentration of non-western military power in the world, interlocutors reminded us. This area also represents the heart of the Russian “bastion defense” concept.  Norway’s unique location and relatively tension-free relations with Russia allow Norway to play an important role in providing its allies with important intelligence and situational awareness on Russian activities in the North Atlantic region. In a larger context, interlocutors suggested that we should anticipate that Russia will continue to develop its arctic coastline, rich in natural resources and with increasingly accessible shipping to Asian markets.  This development, they argued, including the reinforcement of military infrastructure and ice breakers, makes sense in the context of protecting and enabling this economic potential and need not be seen as threatening. Svalbard is accessible to citizens and companies from all signatories to the 1920 treaty granting full sovereignty to Norway, an agreement that also forbids naval bases and fortifications on the archipelago (but not creating what some have misunderstood as a “demilitarized zone”).  Its “extreme northern location” offers a number of advantages, the delegation learned at the Svabard Satellite Station (SvalSat), the world’s largest commercial ground station for satellite control.  The station provides satellite coverage to owners and operators of polar orbiting satellites, linked by fiber-optic communication links between Svalbard and mainland Norway. Rising Temperatures in the Arctic Norwegian interlocutors emphasized that the Arctic should be recognized by all Allies as NATO territory in the north. As a result, the rapid warming of the Arctic, and the acceleration of the changing climate in the region that was witnessed in Svalbard, merited Alliance-wide attention, they argued.  A senior Norwegian Polar Institute scientist who has worked in Svalbard for 30 years told the delegation that the temperature change in the Artic was measurable, demonstrated, and greater than even the most pessimistic predictions of only a few decades ago, a dynamic he attributed directly to levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. The delegation had the opportunity to board a Norwegian Coast Guard vessel for a briefing on the guard’s responsibilities, which include monitoring an area seven times larger than the Norwegian mainland.  The distances involved posed significant challenges for the relatively small number of vessels to meet the Guard’s the goal of remaining “always present,” and fulfilling its responsibilities in the areas such as monitoring fisheries and search and rescue.  These challenges are becoming more acute, as the warming climate makes the waters increasingly accessible to maritime traffic of all sorts.

  • Inaugural PADWEEK Addresses Racial Discrimination across Europe

    On May 19, 2018, African-American Meghan Markle wed Prince Harry at St. George’s Chapel in Windsor, England. Black culture was celebrated throughout the event: Queen Elizabeth II’s first female black chaplain offered prayers, a black British choir sang African-American Ben E. King’s “Stand By Me,” and Chicago-based African-American Episcopalian bishop Michael Curry quoted civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr. during his wedding address, preaching on “the power of love.” However, the public discussion leading up to the wedding was riddled with racial stereotyping and prejudice spurred by Markle’s biracial identity—her father is white and her mother is black. British news outlets were heavily criticized for racial insensitivity after commenting on Markle’s “unconventional family,” and using phrases like “unlikely pairing” to further differentiate between the prince and Markle. Unfortunately, racial bias is not confined to Markle—now Duchess of Sussex—but instead extends to many black people in Europe. According to four comprehensive reports from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the European Commission, the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights, and Open Society Foundations, a significant percentage of the estimated 15–20 million people of African descent living in Europe have experienced high rates of prejudice and discrimination. Just days before the wedding, racial equality advocates from across Europe gathered in Brussels to address this problem. At the inaugural People of African Descent Week (PADWEEK), organized by the European Parliament Anti-Racism and Diversity Intergroup, Transatlantic Minority Political Leadership Conference, Each One Teach One, and the European Network Against Racism, more than 100 black European activists discussed current racial injustices in Europe and recommended ways for European leaders to respond to increasing hate and discrimination across the region. Attendees included black policymakers, business leaders, and human rights activists from across Europe. Helsinki Commissioners Rep. Alcee Hastings (FL-20) and Rep. Gwen Moore (WI-04) were two of nine honorary hosts. “Whether in America or Europe, we must all do more to uphold the democratic values of our nations,” Commissioner Hastings said in a statement. “Skin color should not determine one’s access to rights, protections, and opportunities in a democracy.” Though the agenda was full with discussions ranging from BREXIT to migration to Africa-EU relations, PADWEEK addressed issues of racial discrimination head-on and introduced new ways to find solutions. It called for change to a well-ingrained European system that has left black people by the wayside for centuries. Race and legal issues were raised repeatedly in discussions. German legal expert and human rights activist Thomas Ndindah called for justice for Oury Jalloh, an asylum seeker who burned to death in a German police cell while handcuffed to a mattress in 2005. Participants also questioned a so-called “Marshall Plan” for Africa, the name of which alludes to the American-European economic plan that helped rebuild Western Europe following World War II. Participants voiced concerns that African countries were not being viewed as equal partners in the negotiations or consulted on the name. Instead, many attendees viewed the plan as Europeans paying African governments to keep unwanted African migrants from reaching Europe, while at the same time purposefully attracting Africa’s highly skilled professionals to Europe. This raised one question: how would Africa benefit from this “Marshall Plan” for Africa if Africa’s brightest and best were contributing to countries elsewhere? The week ended with a list of recommendations from participants and a passionate speech by Mirielle Fanon-Mendes-France, daughter of twentieth century philosopher Frantz Fanon. She called on European institutions to deliver on longstanding promises to address the ongoing impact of colonialism and slavery on the present-day well-being of black Europeans. Recommendations from PADWEEK included: Recognizing the history of past injustices by adopting a European Black History Month and a Remembrance Day for victims of colonialism and enslavement Supporting empowerment and anti-discrimination initiatives by funding black-led civil and human rights organizations Adopting legislation in the European Parliament on an EU Framework for National Strategies for Equality and the Inclusion of People of African Descent in Europe

  • Chairman Wicker and Co-Chairman Smith Welcome Release of Bitkov Family from Prison

    WASHINGTON—Following today’s release of Irina and Anastasia Bitkov from prison in Guatemala and their reunification with Igor and Vladimir Bitkov, Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) and Co-Chairman Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04) issued the following statements: “By freeing the Bitkov family, the government of Guatemala has demonstrated its commitment to the rule of law. Every effort must now be made to protect this family from further retribution by Russian authorities and to expedite the process of clearing their names, so that their long nightmare can end and they can live in peace,” said Chairman Wicker. “This will not be the last time that the Kremlin attempts to abuse the world’s courts and legal institutions to settle a vendetta. We must find ways to defend our international organizations from Russian propaganda and manipulation.” “We should all rejoice with the Bitkovs that they are now no longer in prison—and keep working to secure their release from house arrest, and then bring to an end their persecution by the Russian government and CICIG,” said Co-Chairman Smith, who chaired an April 27 Helsinki Commission hearing to examine the role of the government of Russia and the UN’s International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) in the family’s imprisonment. “There must be accountability for the evident injustices they have suffered—but the top priority must remain the Bitkovs’ own safety and welfare.” Chairman Wicker first raised the issue of the Bitkovs’ plight in a 2015 letter to the then-president of Guatemala, Alejandro Maldonado.

  • Helsinki Commission Chair Welcomes Annual International Religious Freedom Report

    WASHINGTON—Following the release of the 2017 International Religious Freedom Report by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback, and the announcement that the State Department will host a Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom this July, Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) issued the following statement: “I commend President Trump, Secretary Pompeo, and Ambassador Brownback for their strong commitment to religious freedom at home and abroad. Religious freedom is a fundamental right enshrined in our constitution; it is also vital to our national security and economic prosperity. “I hope Secretary Pompeo will consider inviting the Government of Uzbekistan to participate in the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom. Uzbekistan—like several other countries in Central Asia—has been among the world’s worst violators of religious freedom. However, the new government led by President Mirziyoyev has taken significant steps to bring Uzbekistan into compliance with its international commitments to respect religious freedom, and we should encourage further progress.” In February 2018, the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief issued comprehensive recommendations to help Uzbekistan improve its protection of religious freedom. In May 2018, Uzbekistan’s parliament released a “road map” directing government offices to implement all of the recommendations within one year. The annual State Department International Religious Freedom Report describes the status of religious freedom in every country. The report covers government policies violating religious belief and practices of groups, religious denominations and individuals, and U.S. policies to promote religious freedom around the world.

  • 2018 World Cup: The Beautiful Game and an Ugly Regime

    The 2018 World Cup hosted by Russia has created an unprecedented opportunity for the country’s kleptocrats to enrich themselves. Just as he did with the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, President Vladimir Putin has hijacked a world sporting event in an attempt to burnish his own image and enrich the Kremlin elite, rather than to celebrate sport and sportsmanship in Russia. However, unlike the 2014 Winter Olympics, the World Cup has required multiple infrastructure projects in not just one, but eleven, host cities. Oligarchs, as well as regional and national officials, have worked together to embezzle assets from the tournament stadium construction and refurbishment to side projects of accommodation and transport. Mistreated and forced laborers have completed this work. Contractors have used and manipulated Rus-sian and migrant workers to erect the stadiums and other structures that are essential to hosting a World Cup. For example, Russia has continued its unscrupulous use of North Korean forced labor to build St. Petersburg Zenit Arena, opened by President Putin himself in March 2017. Russia presented the World Cup to the FIFA voters in 2010 as a wholesome tournament, bringing the world together for a festival of sport. Instead, President Putin will give the world a corrupt tournament, built on the backs of forced and mistreated labor, and expose fans to a real risk of soccer violence and hatred. Although troubling trends in each of these areas can be seen in countries throughout the OSCE region, the offenses of the Kremlin are particularly egregious. Download the full report to learn more. Contributors: Michael Newton, Intern and Scott Rauland, Senior State Department Advisor

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