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2008 Human Dimension Implementation Meeting
Tuesday, November 18, 2008

The OSCE’s 2008 Human Dimension Implementation Meeting offered an opportunity to review compliance on a full range of human rights and humanitarian commitments of the organization’s participating States. Tolerance issues featured prominently in the discussions, which included calls for sustained efforts to combat anti-Semitism and other forms of discrimination. A U.S. proposal for a high-level conference on tolerance issues in 2009, however, met with only tepid support. Core human rights issues, including freedom of speech and freedom of religion, continued to draw large numbers of speakers.

Throughout the discussions, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) expressed concern about Kazakhstan’s failure to implement promised reforms and questioned its readiness to serve as OSCE Chair-in-Office in 2010. Greece, slated to assume the chairmanship in January, came under criticism for its treatment of ethnic minorities. As in the past, the United State faced criticism for retaining the death penalty and for its conduct in counter-terrorism operations. Belarusian elections, held on the eve of the HDIM, came in for a round of criticism, while Russia continued to advocate proposals on election observation that would significantly limit the OSCE’s independence in such activities. Finally, discussion of the Russia-Georgia conflict was conspicuous by its near absence, though related human rights and humanitarian concerns will likely receive more prominence in the lead up to and during the December OSCE Ministerial in Helsinki.

Background

From September 29 to October 10, 2008, the OSCE participating States met in Warsaw, Poland, for the annual(1) Human Dimension Implementation Meeting (HDIM). The HDIM is Europe’s largest human rights gathering, convened to discuss compliance by the participating States with the full range of human dimension commitments they have all adopted by consensus. The meeting was organized by the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), according to an agenda approved by consensus of all 56 participating States. The HDIM is the only multinational human rights meeting in Europe where representatives of NGOs and government representatives have equal access to the speakers list. Indeed, over half of the statements delivered at this year’s HDIM were made by NGO representatives.

Such implementation review meetings are intended to serve as the participating States’ principal venue for public diplomacy and are important vehicles for identifying continued areas of poor human rights performance. Although the HDIM is not tasked with decision-making responsibilities, the meetings can provide impetus for further focus on particular human dimension concerns and help shape priorities for subsequent action. Coming in advance of ministerial meetings that are usually held in December, the HDIMs provide an additional opportunity for consultations among the participating States on human dimension issues that may be addressed by Ministers. (This year, for example, there were discussions on the margins regarding a possible Ministerial resolution on equal access to education for Roma and advancing work in the field of tolerance and non-discrimination, including the possibility of convening a related high-level meeting in 2009.)

OSCE rules, adopted by consensus, allow NGOs to have access to human dimension meetings. However, this general rule does not apply to “persons and organizations which resort to the use of violence or publicly condone terrorism or the use of violence.”(2) There are no other grounds for exclusion. The decision as to whether or not a particular individual or NGO runs afoul of this rule is made by the Chairman-in-Office.

In recent years, some governments have tried to limit or restrict NGO access at OSCE meetings in an effort to avoid scrutiny and criticism of their records. This year, in the run up to the HDIM, Turkmenistan held the draft agenda for the meeting hostage, refusing to give consensus as part of an effort to block the registration of Turkmenistan NGOs which have previously attended the implementation meetings and criticized Ashgabat. Turkmenistan officials finally relented and allowed the adoption of the HDIM agenda in late July, but did not participate in the Warsaw meeting. Along these lines, the Russian delegation walked out in protest when the NGO “Russian-Chechen Friendship Society” took the floor to speak during a session on freedom of the media.

At the 2008 HDIM, senior Department of State participants included Ambassador W. Robert Pearson, Head of Delegation; Ambassador Julie Finley, Head of the U.S. Mission to the OSCE; Ambassador Karen Stewart, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor; and Mr. Bruce Turner, Acting Director, Office for European Security and Political Affairs. Mr. Will Inboden, advisor on religious freedom issues, and Mr. Nathan Mick, advisor on Roma issues, served as Public Members. Ms. Felice Gaer, Chair of the U.S. Commission on Religious Freedom, and Mr. Michael Cromartie, Vice Chair, also served as members of the delegation.

Helsinki Commission Chief of Staff Fred L. Turner and Senior State Department Advisor Ambassador Clifford Bond also served as members of the U.S. Delegation, along with Helsinki Commission staff members Alex T. Johnson, Ronald J. McNamara, Winsome Packer, Erika B. Schlager, and Dr. Mischa E. Thompson.

In comparison with previous HDIMs, the 2008 meeting was relatively subdued – perhaps surprisingly so given that, roughly eight weeks before its opening, Russian tanks had rolled onto Georgian territory. While the full scope of human rights abuses were not known by the time the meeting opened, human rights defenders had already documented serious rights violations, including the targeting of villages in South Ossetia inhabited by ethnic Georgians. Nevertheless, discussion of the Russian-Georgian conflict was largely conspicuous by its near absence.

Highlights

The annual HDIM agenda provides a soup-to-nuts review of the implementation of core human rights and fundamental freedoms (e.g., freedoms of speech, assembly and association; prevention of torture; right to a fair trial), as well as rule of law, free elections and democracy-building issues. National minorities, Roma, tolerance and non-discrimination are also on the agenda. The United States continued its longstanding practice of naming specific countries and cases of concern.

In accordance with OSCE procedures, the agenda included three specially selected topics, each of which was given a full day of review. This year, those subjects were: 1) education and awareness-raising in the promotion of human rights; 2) freedom of religion or belief; and 3) focus on identification, assistance and access to justice for the victims of trafficking. Of the three, the sessions on religious liberty attracted the most speakers with over 50 statements.

A large number of side events were also part of the HDIM, organized by non-governmental organizations, OSCE institutions or offices, other international organizations, or participating States. These side events augment implementation review sessions by providing an opportunity to examine specific subjects or countries in greater depth and often with a more lively exchange than in the formal sessions.

Along with active participation at these side events, the United States held extensive bilateral meetings with government representatives, as well as with OSCE officials and NGO representatives. At the end of the second week of the HDIM, Human Rights Directors from capitals also held a working meeting to discuss issues of mutual concern, with a special focus on United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325, on women, peace and security. This year, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom also hosted a reception to honor the OSCE Panel of Experts on Freedom of Religion or Belief, as well as the tenth anniversary of the U.S. International Religious Freedom Act and the 60th anniversary of the UN Declaration of Human Rights.

Greece, scheduled to assume the chairmanship of the OSCE starting in January 2009, came under particular criticism for its treatment of minorities. Unlike the highly emotional reactions of senior Greek diplomats in Warsaw two years ago, the delegation this year responded to critics by circulating position papers elaborating the Greek government’s views. Greece also responded to U.S. criticism regarding the application of Sharia law to Muslim women in Thrace by stating that Greece is prepared to abolish the application of the Sharia law to members of the Muslim minority in Thrace when this is requested by the interested parties whom it affects directly. Issues relating to the treatment of ethnic, linguistic and religious minorities in the OSCE region are likely to remain an important OSCE focus in the coming period, especially in light of developments in the Caucasus, and it remains to be seen how the Greek chairmanship will address these concerns in light of its own rigid approach to minorities in its domestic policies.

Throughout the HDIM, many NGOs continued to express concern about the fitness of Kazakhstan to serve as OSCE Chair-in-Office in 2010 given serious short comings in that country’s human rights record. In particular, Kazakhstan was sharply criticized for a draft religion law (passed by parliament, but not yet adopted into law). One NGO argued that a Kazakhstan chairmanship, with this law in place, would undermine the integrity of the OSCE, and urged participating States to reconsider Kazakhstan for the 2010 leadership position if the law is enacted. Juxtaposing Kazakhstan’s future chairmanship with the possible final passage of a retrograde law on religion, the Almaty Helsinki Committee asked the assembled representatives, “Are human rights still a priority – or not?” (Meanwhile, on October 5, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice visited Kazakhstan.)

On the eve of the HDIM, Belarus held elections. Those elections received considerable critical attention during the HDIM’s focus on democratic elections, with the United States and numerous others expressing disappointment that the elections did not meet OSCE commitments, despite promises by senior Belarusian officials that improvements would be forthcoming. Norway and several other speakers voiced particular concern over pressures being placed on ODIHR to circumscribe its election observation activities. Illustrating those pressures, the Russian Federation reiterated elements of a proposal it drafted on election observation that would significantly limit the independence of ODIHR in its election observation work. The Head of the U.S. Delegation noted that an invitation for the OSCE to observe the November elections in the United States was issued early and without conditions as to the size or scope of the observation. (Russia and others have attempted to impose numerical and other limitations on election observation missions undertaken by the ODIHR and the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly.)

Tolerance issues featured prominently during discussions this year, as they have at other recent HDIMs. Forty-three interventions were made, forcing the moderator to close the speakers list and requiring presenters to truncate their remarks. Muslim, migrant, and other groups representing visible minorities focused on discrimination in immigration policies, employment, housing, and other sectors, including racial profiling and hate crimes, amidst calls for OSCE countries to improve implementation of existing anti-discrimination laws. Jewish and other NGOs called for sustained efforts to combat anti-Semitism. Representatives of religious communities expressed concern about the confusion made by ODIHR in its Annual Hate Crimes Report between religious liberty issues and intolerance towards members of religious groups. This year, some governments and NGOs elevated their concerns relating to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender persons, increasingly placing these concerns in the context of the OSCE’s focus on hate crimes. A civil society tolerance pre-HDIM meeting and numerous side events were held on a broad range of tolerance-related topics.

The United States and several U.S.-based NGOS called for a high-level conference on tolerance issues to be held in 2009. Unlike in prior years, however, no other State echoed this proposal or stepped forward with an offer to host such a high-level conference.

In many of the formal implementation review sessions this year, NGOs made reference to specific decisions of the European Court on Human Rights, urging governments to implement judgments handed down in recent cases. During the discussion of issues relating to Roma, NGOs continued to place a strong focus on the situation in Italy, where Roma (and immigrants) have been the target of hate crimes and mob violence. NGOs reminded Italy that, at the OSCE Supplementary Human Dimension Meeting in July, they had urged Italy to come to the HDIM with concrete information regarding the prosecution of individuals for violent attacks against Roma. Regrettably, the Italian delegation was unable to provide any information on prosecutions, fostering the impression that a climate of impunity persists in Italy.

As at other OSCE fora, the United States was criticized for retaining the death penalty, contrary to the abolitionist trend among the OSCE participating States. Of the 56 OSCE participating States, 54 have abolished, suspended or imposed a moratorium on the death penalty and only two – the United States and Belarus – continue to impose capital punishment as a criminal sanction.

Two side events held during the HDIM also put a spotlight on the United States. The first event was organized by Freedom House and entitled, “Today’s American: How Free?” At this event, Freedom House released a book by the same title which examined “the state of freedom and justice in post-9/11 America.”

The second event was a panel discussion on “War on Terror or War on Human Rights?” organized by the American Civil Liberties Union. Speakers from the ACLU, Amnesty International and the Polish Human Rights Foundation largely focused on issues relating to the United States, including the military commission trials at Guantanamo, and official Polish investigations into allegations that Poland (working with the United States) was involved in providing secret prisons for the detention and torture of “high-value” detainees.(3)

In a somewhat novel development, Russian Government views were echoed by several like-minded NGOs which raised issues ranging from claims of “genocide” by Georgia in South Ossetia to grievances by ethnic Russians in Latvia and Estonia. Ironically, the Russian delegation, in its closing statement, asserted that this year’s HDIM had an “improved atmosphere” due (it was asserted) to the efforts by both governments and NGOs to find solutions to problems rather than casting blame.

As at past HDIMs, some sessions generated such strong interest that the time allotted was insufficient to accommodate all those who wished to contribute to the discussion. For example, the session on freedom of the media was severely constrained, with more than 20 individuals unable to take the floor in the time allotted, and several countries unable to exercise rights of reply. Conversely, some sessions – for example, the session on equal opportunity for men and women, and the session on human dimension activities and projects – had, in terms of unused time available, an embarrassment of riches.

Following a general pattern, Turkmenistan was again not present at the HDIM sessions this year.(4) In all, 53 participating States were represented at the meeting.

At the closing session, the United States raised issues of particular concern relating to Turkmenistan under the “any other business” agenda item. (This is the sixth year in a row that the United States has made a special statement about the situation in Turkmenistan, a country that some view as having the worst human rights record in the OSCE.) For the past two years, there has been a new government in Turkmenistan. The U.S. statement this year noted some positive changes, but urged the new government to continue the momentum on reform by fully implementing steps it already has begun. In addition, the United States called for information on and access to Turkmenistan’s former representative to the OSCE, Batyr Berdiev. Berdiev, once Turkmenistan’s ambassador to the OSCE, was reportedly among the large number of people arrested following an attack on then-President Niyazov’s motorcade in 2002. His fate and whereabouts remain unknown.

OSCE PA President João Soares addressed the closing plenary, the most senior Assembly official to participate in an HDIM meeting.

The Russian-Georgian Conflict

With the outbreak of armed violence between Russia and Georgia occurring only two months earlier, the war in South Ossetia would have seemed a natural subject for discussion during the HDIM. As a human rights forum, the meeting was unlikely to serve as a venue to debate the origins of the conflict, but there were expectations that participants would engage in a meaningful discussion of the human dimension of the tragedy and efforts to stem ongoing rights violations. As it turned out, this view was not widely shared by many of the governments and NGOs participating in the meeting.

The opening plenary session foreshadowed the approach to this subject followed through most of the meeting. Among the senior OSCE officials, only High Commissioner on National Minorities Knut Vollebaek squarely addressed the situation in the south Caucasus. Vollebaek condemned the19th century-style politicization of national minority issues in the region and the violation of international borders. At the time of the crisis, he had cautioned against the practice of “conferring citizenship en masse to residents of other States” (a reference to Russian actions in South Ossetia) and warned that “the presence of one's citizens or ‘ethnic kin’ abroad must not be used as a justification for undermining the sovereignty and territorial integrity of other States.” Sadly, that sound advice went unobserved in Georgia, but it is still applicable elsewhere in the OSCE region.(5) The statement delivered by France on behalf of the countries of the European Union failed to address the conflict.

During the plenary, only Norway and Switzerland joined the United States in raising humanitarian concerns stemming from the conflict. In reply, the head of the Russian delegation delivered a tough statement which sidestepped humanitarian concerns, declaring that discussion of Georgia’s territorial integrity was now “irrelevant.” He called on participating States to adopt a pragmatic approach and urged acknowledgment of the creation of the new sovereign states of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, terming their independence “irreversible” and “irrevocable.” Perhaps more surprising than this Russian bluster was the failure of any major NGO, including those who had been active in the conflict zone collecting information and working on humanitarian relief, to take advantage of the opportunity to raise the issue of South Ossetia during the opening plenary.

As the HDIM moved into its working sessions, which cover the principal OSCE human dimension commitments, coverage of the conflict fared better. The Representative on Freedom of the Media remarked, in opening the session on free speech and freedom of the media that, for the first time in some years, two OSCE participating States were at war. During that session, he and other speakers called on the Russian Federation to permit independent media access to occupied areas to investigate the charges and counter-charges of genocide and ethnic cleansing. The tolerance discussion included calls by several delegations for Russia to cooperate and respond favorably to the HCNM’s request for access to South Ossetia to investigate the human rights situation in that part of Georgia. Disappointingly, during the session devoted to humanitarian commitments, several statements, including those of the ODHIR moderator and EU spokesperson, focused narrowly on labor conditions and migration, and failed to raise concerns regarding refugees and displaced persons, normally a major focus of this agenda item and obviously relevant to the Georgia crisis.

Nevertheless, the session developed into one of the more animated at the HDIM. The Georgian delegation, which had been silent up to that point, spoke out against Russian aggression and alleged numerous human rights abuses. It expressed gratitude to the European Union for sending monitors to the conflict zone and urged the EU to pressure Russia to fully implement the Six-Point Ceasefire agreement negotiated by French President Sarkozy. The United States joined several delegations and NGOs calling on all parties to the conflict to observe their international obligations to protect refugees and create conditions for their security and safe voluntary return. In a pattern observed throughout the meeting, the Russian delegation did not respond to Georgian charges. It left it to an NGO, “Ossetia Accuses,” to make Russia’s case that Georgia had committed genocide against the people of South Ossetia. A common theme among many interventions was a call for an independent investigation of the causes of the conflict and a better monitoring of the plight of refugees, but to date Russian and South Ossetian authorities have denied both peacekeeping monitors and international journalists access to the region from elsewhere in Georgia. A joint assessment mission of experts from ODIHR and the HCNM, undertaken in mid-October, were initially denied access to South Ossetia, with limited access to Abkhazia granted to some team members. Eventually, several experts did gain access to the conflict zone in South Ossetia, though to accomplish this they had to travel from the north via the Russian Federation.

One can only speculate why Georgia received such limited treatment at this HDIM. The crisis in the south Caucasus had dominated OSCE discussions at the Permanent Council in Vienna for weeks preceding the HDIM. Some participants may have feared that addressing it in Warsaw might have crowded out the broader human rights agenda. Others may have felt that, in the absence of a clear picture of the circumstances surrounding the conflict and with so many unanswered questions, it was best not to be too critical or too accusatory of either party. The EU (and particularly the French) were, at the time of the HDIM, in the process of negotiating the deployment of European observers to the conflict zone, and may have feared that criticism of Russia at this forum would have only complicated the task.

In fact, the EU’s only oblique reference to Georgia was made at HDIM’s penultimate working session (a discussion which focused on human dimension “project activity”) in connection with the work of High Commissioner for National Minorities. (One observer of this session remarked that there seemed to be a greater stomach for dinging the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights for shortcomings in its work than for criticizing Russia for invading a neighboring OSCE participating State.) Finally, other participants, particularly NGOs, seemed more inclined to view human rights narrowly in terms of how governments treat their own citizens and not in terms of how the failure to respect key principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity are invariably accompanied by gross violations of human rights and can produce humanitarian disasters.

Amid simmering tensions between Russia and Georgia which could erupt into renewed fighting, and completion of a report requested by the Finnish Chairmanship in time for the OSCE’s Ministerial in Helsinki in early December, Ministers will have to grapple with the impact of the south Caucasus conflict and what role the OSCE will have.

Beyond Warsaw

The relative quiet of the HDIM notwithstanding, French President M. Nicolas Sarkozy put a spotlight on OSCE issues during the course of the meeting. Speaking at a conference in Evian, France, on October 8, he responded to a call by Russian President Dmitri Medvedev, issued in June during meetings with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, for a new “European Security Treaty” to revise Europe’s security architecture – a move seen by many as an attempt to rein in existing regional security organizations, including NATO and the OSCE. President Sarkozy indicated a willingness to discuss Medvedev’s ideas, but argued they should be addressed in the context of a special OSCE summit, which Sarkozy suggested could be held in 2009.

The escalating global economic crisis was also very much on the minds of participants at the HDIM as daily reports of faltering financial institutions, plummeting markets, and capital flight promoted concerns over implications for the human dimension. Several delegations voiced particular concern over the possible adverse impact on foreign workers and those depending on remittances to make ends meet.

Looking Ahead

The human rights and humanitarian concerns stemming from the war in South Ossetia will likely come into sharper focus in the lead up to the December OSCE Ministerial in Helsinki as talks on the conflict resume in Geneva, and OSCE and other experts attempt to document the circumstances surrounding the outbreak of fighting and current conditions. The coming weeks can also be expected to bring renewed calls for an overhaul of the human dimension and the ODIHR by those seeking to curb attention paid to human rights and subordinate election monitoring activities. It remains to be seen whether Kazakhstan will fulfill the commitments it made a year ago in Madrid to undertake meaningful reforms by the end of this year. There is also the risk that a deepening economic crisis will divert attention elsewhere, even as the resulting fallout in the human dimension begins to manifest itself. It is unclear what priorities the Greek chairmanship will be set for 2009, a year that portends peril and promise.

Notes

(1) OSCE Human Dimension Implementation Meetings are held every year, unless there is a Summit. Summits of Heads of State or Government are preceded by Review Conferences, which are mandated to review implementation of all OSCE commitments in all areas (military-security, economic and environmental cooperation, and the human dimension).

(2) Helsinki Document 1992, The Challenges of Change, IV (16).

(3) Interestingly, at the session on human rights and counterterrorism, moderator Zbigniew Lasocik, member of the United Nations Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture, noted that Poland’s Constitutional Court had, the previous day, struck down a 2004 law that purported to allow the military to shoot down hijacked commercial aircraft – even if they were being used as weapons like the planes that killed thousands of people on 9/11. The Court reportedly reasoned that shooting down an aircraft being used as bomb would infringe on the constitutional protection of human life and dignity of the passengers.

(4) Turkmenistan sent a representative to the HDIM in 2005 for the first time in several years. While responding to criticism delivered in the sessions, the representative appeared to focus more on monitoring the activities of Turkmen NGOs participating in the meeting. Turkmenistan subsequently complained that certain individuals who had been charged with crimes against the State should not be allowed to participate in OSCE meetings. Turkmenistan officials did not participate in the 2006 or 2007 HDIMs. Participation in the 2008 meeting would have been a welcome signal regarding current political developments.

(5) The HCNM had previously expressed concern regarding Hungary’s overreach vis-a-vis ethnic Hungarian minorities in neighboring countries. In 2004, Hungary held a referendum on extending Hungarian citizenship to ethnic Hungarians abroad – an idea that still holds political currency in some quarters of Hungary – but the referendum failed due to low voter turnout.

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  • Helsinki Commission Digital Digest February 2022

  • Co-Chairman Cohen Leads Bipartisan Congressional Delegation to Defend Democracy and Ukrainian Sovereignty at OSCE PA Winter Meeting

    WASHINGTON—Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09) last week led a bipartisan Congressional delegation to the Winter Meeting of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (PA) in Vienna, Austria, which focused almost exclusively on responding to the full-scale Russian assault on Ukraine.  A sizable and active U.S. presence at the hybrid event helped generate nearly united condemnation of the Kremlin attack and provided assurance of the U.S. commitment to European security during a time of great uncertainty. “Our bipartisan delegation actively and adamantly defended Ukraine’s rights as a sovereign nation in the face of unchecked Russian aggression,” said Co-Chairman Cohen. “The European security architecture that has supported peace and prosperity on the continent and around the world for decades must not be allowed to crumble at the whim of a dictator with grandiose aspirations of returning to some imagined past glory. It is long past time that democratic nations—including all other OSCE participating States—unite to firmly put Putin back where he belongs: isolated and outside the bounds of international society.” Other members of Congress traveling to Vienna included Helsinki Commission Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02), Commissioners Rep. Robert Aderholt (AL-04), Rep. Richard Hudson (NC-08), and Rep. Marc Veasey (TX-33), as well as Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (TX-18). Remote participants in the Winter Meeting included Ranking Member Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) and Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04). Although the meeting included a wide range of OSCE issues of concern, Russia’s brazen invasion of Ukraine dominated all discussion.  “Fundamental underpinnings of our security order, including commitments to respect other countries’ territorial integrity, sovereignty, and choices of security alliances, are at this moment being breached, flagrantly and deliberately, by one of our participating States, which is—as we speak—conducting an unprovoked invasion of another participating State,” said Rep. Hudson, who chairs the OSCE PA General Committee on Political Affairs and Security. “If Vladimir Putin succeeds in Ukraine, he will not stop there—just as he did not stop with Transnistria, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Crimea, and the Donbass. How can any of us realistically believe he will stop with Ukraine?” asked Sen. Wicker, who serves as a vice-president of the OSCE PA. “According to Putin’s twisted rationale, every former republic of the USSR is at risk. NATO is at risk. Every member of the peace-loving international community is at risk of being swept up into this conflict.” Members of the U.S. delegation directly challenged the egregious assertions of the few Russian delegates who attempted to justify their country’s naked aggression. Other issues raised by the U.S. delegation included human rights violations within Russia, as well as in Belarus and in areas of Ukraine under illegal occupation; ongoing concerns regarding human trafficking; and the assault on free media throughout the OSCE region.  Ahead of the Winter Meeting, members of the in-person delegation traveled to Lithuania to underscore U.S. support for a crucial NATO Ally at a time of deep concern caused by Russian aggression. In Vilnius, they met with Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda, Prime Minister Ingrida Simonyte, Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis, and senior members of the Lithuanian Parliament (Seimas) to discuss the Russian assault on Ukraine, the deterioration of regional security, and Lithuania’s values-based foreign policy, including relations with China. The delegation also visited the Pabrade Training Area for briefings on U.S. and Allied military activities conducted in the region, and met with Belarusians and Russians who have fled to Lithuania to avoid persecution, including Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya and other opposition leaders, members of the business community, civil society organizations, and the media.

  • Co-Chairman Cohen Discusses European Unity Against Russia

    Mr. Speaker, last week, I led a bipartisan group to visit Lithuania and the OSCE meeting in Vienna, Austria. In Lithuania, we met with the leaders and assured them of America’s Article 5 responsibilities and commitments in case Russia comes into Lithuania. They are very concerned. We met with our troops, who are 6 kilometers away from Russian troops stationed in Belarus. We then went to the OSCE in Vienna, and we led a strong response to support Ukraine and oppose an unbelievable invasion by the cruel Vladimir Putin. The European community is united, except for Russia and Belarus, in opposing the intrusion. Vladimir Putin is not operating in a rational manner. His KGB history and his extreme response to COVID have driven him to a delusional, paranoid, and dangerous state. It concerns all. I appreciate the actions of our President in supporting our country. I support President Zelensky, who is the Maccabee of his era, but the candle has only lasted so long. We need to get him more oil.

  • Lawmakers strike bipartisan note to condemn Putin, call for more sanctions

    In a show of unity, Republican and Democratic lawmakers swiftly condemned Russia’s military attack against Ukraine and vowed to inflict economic pain on President Vladimir Putin by imposing a torrent of punishing new sanctions. Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., said she wants Russia cut off from the SWIFT international banking system. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., called on international law enforcement to target Putin and his allies by seizing their “lavish apartments, fine art, yachts” and other items.  And Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., said the U.S. must continue to send financial support and arms to Ukraine as it defends itself against Russia.  “Today’s invasion of Ukraine by Russia is a premeditated and flagrant act of war,” said Sen. Jim Risch of Idaho, the top Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee. “These are not the actions of a proud nation and people, but the actions of a desperate man whose only desire is to sow chaos in order to make himself look strong.” His Democratic counterpart, Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Menendez of New Jersey, said Putin’s “unprovoked attack” has underscored the need to blacklist the Russian president and “expel the current Kremlin leadership from the international community.” “Today must mark a historical shift in how the world views and deals with the despot in Moscow,” Menendez said. The flurry of statements and tweets from Capitol Hill came moments after Putin declared Thursday local time in a national televised address that Russia was launching a military operation to support the “demilitarization and denazification” of eastern Ukraine. Explosions could be heard in cities across the country, including in the capital of Kyiv, where emergency sirens sounded. For the most part, Democrats and Republicans struck a bipartisan note, pressing Biden to go further in sanctioning Russia but reserving their fury for Putin. “Following news of Putin’s further invasion of Ukraine with enormous concern and anger,” tweeted Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, typically a vocal critic of Biden. “The US will stand with our Ukrainian allies, continue to provide them with arms to defend themselves, and work to counter Putin and hold accountable those responsible for this aggression.” Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., who tweeted that he was attending a meeting of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's Parliamentary Assembly, said he was "listening to Russian lies about their support of Ukrainian people." He questioned how Putin could claim that he wants to "de-Nazify" Ukraine when the country's president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, is Jewish. "Putin is a wild dog and won’t stop at Ukraine. Hitler didn’t stop at the Sudetenland. Learn from history!" Cohen tweeted. "The United States and all NATO must immediately provide as much military support as possible to the Baltic countries, to Poland, and other allies at risk." And the top Republicans on the House Foreign Affairs, Armed Services and Intelligence committees also took direct aim at Putin. “The last few hours have laid bare for the world to witness the true evil that is Vladimir Putin. …” Reps. Mike McCaul, R-Texas, Mike Rogers, R-Ala., and Mike Turner, R-Ohio, said in a joint statement. “Every drop of Ukrainian and Russian blood spilled in this conflict is on Putin’s hands, and his alone.” Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., tweeted, "Russia has just become a pariah nation. Everything short of involving US forces should be done to punish this action. This should be unrelenting." Yet there were a handful of Republicans who placed the blame for the Russian attack at Biden’s feet. “Joe Biden has shown nothing but weakness and indecision,” said Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., who’s considered a possible 2024 presidential candidate. “Now is the time to show strong purpose. Sanction Russia’s energy sector — the engine of its economy — to its knees and reopen American energy production full throttle.” Sen. Bill Hagerty, R-Tenn., a former ambassador to Japan, tweeted that Biden's strategy to prevent a war had failed. "Despite Ukrainian President Zelensky’s persistent call for pre-invasion sanctions, the Biden Administration chose to do nothing until it was too late and must now change course," he wrote. In a statement, Biden said Putin had “chosen a premeditated war” and vowed to unilaterally impose another round of crippling sanctions on Russia on Thursday, just two days after he had targeted Putin with an initial tranche of sanctions. But any congressional action on sanctions will have to wait until at least next week when both House and Senate lawmakers return from their Presidents Day recess.  In the meantime, top Biden administration officials, including Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, are planning to hold an unclassified phone briefing for senators Thursday on the developments in Ukraine.  That will be followed by a separate briefing for House lawmakers. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other top Democrats have been comparing Putin’s military incursion to Adolf Hitler’s military advance during World War II, the last time there was a major war in Europe.  “This is a momentous and tragic day when once again we see a dictator in Europe try to remake the map of Europe by using its military power,” House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., said on MSNBC’s “The Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell.”

  • Russian attack was consistent with US intelligence forecast, US senators say

    US senators have said the unfolding attack in Ukraine is in line with intelligence briefings they received about what to expect from a Russian invasion. In a series of tweets, Sen. Marco Rubio, the top Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said that Russia was launching a “full scale and comprehensive military assault throughout Ukraine.” The attack involved “airborne and amphibious landings, missile strikes from air, ground and naval forces, electronic and cyber attacks and a large ground force to occupy a large swarth of territory," Rubio said. He added that Russian airborne forces are also working to “take control of the airport in Kyiv (so) they can fly in forces to occupy the (capital) city." A source familiar with the matter said the tweets were based on US intelligence being shared with Intelligence Committee members. Congress briefed on attack: As the Russian attack escalated late Wednesday, Sen. Mark Warner, the Senate Intelligence chairman, and Rep. Adam Schiff, the chair of the House Intelligence Committee, spoke with CIA Director William Burns, according to two sources familiar with the matter. Sen. Ben Cardin, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told CNN that senators would be briefed on the invasion by the White House Thursday. “A lot of what we’re seeing happening in regards to the apparent air attacks on the defense infrastructure of Ukraine is all part of what was expected we would see,” Cardin said. “There is no justification for it. I can tell you there’ll be strong bipartisan support in the United States Senate and Congress for the strongest possible reaction by the United States and our allies.”   

  • Biden lays out harsh sanctions on Russia after Putin invades Ukraine

    As Moscow initiated a full-scale military assault on Ukraine early Thursday morning, launching airstrikes and artillery at military installations across the country and sending troops into major cities, officials in Washington rushed to determine how best to punish Russian President Vladimir Putin. ​​”Putin is the aggressor. Putin chose this war. Now he and his country will bear the consequences,” President Biden said Thursday, noting that the sanctions had been designed to maximize the long-term impact on Russia’s economy. Biden announced new limitations on what can be exported to Russia, “blocks” on four additional Russian banks, including state-owned banks VTB and Sberbank, and further sanctions on Russian elites. The sanctions also target the children of Nikolai Patrushev, an intelligence official with close ties to Putin, and Igor Sechin, head of the Russian oil company Rosneft. Despite weeks of negotiations, members of Congress failed to come up with a bipartisan sanctions package in the month leading up to Russia’s attack on Ukraine. Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle said Thursday that they would support robust sanctions proposed by the White House and are calling for more comprehensive sanctions legislation when Congress returns next week. “The United States and our allies must now totally isolate Russia from the global economy. This includes sanctions on all Russian oligarchs—those who actually hold Putin’s cash—and Russia’s financial and energy sectors, as well as the removal of Russian institutions from the SWIFT system,” Sen. Ben Cardin told National Journal. The U.S., the European Union, and the United Kingdom issued sanctions against Russia earlier this week following Moscow’s recognition of the independence of Donetsk and Luhansk, two regions in Eastern Ukraine that Russian proxy forces have controlled for the past eight years. Experts noted that the European Union’s sanctions were much tougher than many expected, while British Prime Minister Boris Johnson was slammed for failing to issue robust sanctions measures. Washington’s preliminary sanctions package was deemed limited but effective, as Biden left ample room to issue more-crippling sanctions as the situation escalates. “What we’re seeing is the EU is tougher than the U.S.,” said Anders Aslund, an economist specializing in the Russian economy. “The British sanctions were a joke. The EU and the U.S. were working in concert, and Boris Johnson was clowning around.” The U.S. on Tuesday sanctioned two Russian state-owned financial institutions, VEB, a bank described as Putin’s slush fund, and Promsvyazbank, an institution primarily used by Russia’s military. VEB has an office in New York that will be forced to close. Washington also slapped sanctions on three individuals tied to Putin’s inner circle—Denis Bortnikov, Peter Fradkov, and Vladimir Kiriyenko—and placed restrictions on Russia’s sovereign debt. Meanwhile, Biden announced he would lift the White House’s waivers on sanctions against the Nord Stream 2 pipeline. That controversial energy project would have brought Russian natural gas directly into Germany, bypassing Ukraine. Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle applauded the president’s decision. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, who had previously resisted making public statements about the pipeline, said German regulators would not certify the project. That move will cost Russia billions of dollars. The European Union sanctioned hundreds of individuals, including Russia’s defense minister and the 351 Russian parliamentarians who voted to recognize the independence of Donetsk and Luhansk. Brussels also targeted several people associated with Russian state-owned media, including RT editor-in-chief Margarita Simonyan, a move Washington is not expected to replicate due to the U.S. deference to First Amendment rights. These individuals are now subject to asset freezes and visa bans in Europe. Neither the U.S. nor the EU issued export controls in the first round of sanctions, however. The international community has several options when it comes to sanctioning Russia. One of these is to sanction specific financial institutions operated by people close to Putin, like Gazprombank, Sberbank, and Alfa Bank—which were all targeted Thursday. Another is to issue export controls on items such as semiconductors, which would cut Russia off from Western technology used for military development, and luxury goods. “We’re going to stunt the ability to finance and grow the Russian military. ... We’re going to impair their ability to compete in the high-tech 21st-century economy,” Biden said Thursday. Targeting more individuals close to Putin, or even Putin himself, is also on the table. Sanctions targeting specific sectors of the economy, like energy or metals, and the oligarchs who run those industries could also be painful for Russia. Still, they risk producing a blowback effect on Western economies. Experts expect the U.S. and its allies will continue to ramp up sanctions as events on the ground unfold. But decoupling Russia from the global economy will be difficult. “I think given how severe this invasion is, they’ll start with a pretty high-level implementation to begin with and leave themselves some room to maneuver,” said Fritz Lodge, a principal with the Scowcroft Group specializing in international economic policy. “But Russia is not Iran. This is the 11th-largest economy in the world," Lodge added. "It’s deeply connected to the rest of the global economy. It’s a major commodities exporter—not just energy, but it is also the largest wheat exporter in the world and a significant exporter of fertilizers, chemicals, and industrial additives. There will be painful side effects for European economies and the U.S. with these sanctions.” Russia, furthermore, has amassed significant foreign-exchange reserves estimated to be worth a little over $600 billion and has already reduced its reliance on foreign investment. Both moves will insulate Russia from international sanctions for at least a few months. “You can think of Putin as a geopolitical doomsday prepper,” Lodge said. “If he’s taking these actions, then he’s priced in the fact that it would incur these sanctions.” Many experts have called into question whether sanctions have the power to change Putin’s calculus. International sanctions issued in response to Russia’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula failed to stop the country from intimidating and ultimately attacking its neighbor, and made only a small dent in Putin’s popularity. Often, the impact of sanctions takes a long time to materialize, experts note. “Sanctions are not a magic bullet,” said Daniel Fried, who was the State Department’s sanctions coordinator when Russia seized Crimea in 2014. “Sanctions can work, but the timeline for them working might mean that the Ukrainian people suffer horribly. We often overestimate what we can achieve in the short run and underestimate what we can achieve in the longer run. But the Ukrainians are living in the window of short-term war. ” Still, Aslund noted that Putin has frequently expressed displeasure when people close to him are sanctioned, arguing that prohibitions on Russians spending money in Europe amount to human-rights violations. “He’s very sensitive, really a bleeding heart when it comes to his friends,” Aslund said.

  • Helsinki Commission Condemns Large-Scale Kremlin Invasion of Ukraine

    WASHINGTON—Following what appears to be a large-scale Kremlin invasion of Ukraine, Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), Ranking Member Sen. Roger Wicker (MS), and Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) issued the following joint statement: “We are outraged that Russia’s Vladimir Putin has chosen to dramatically escalate his war against Ukraine.  These are not the actions of a powerful leader, but a despot seeking to deny Ukrainians the peace and freedom he has denied his own people. “We demand Russia immediately cease its brutal and criminal invasion and adhere to the principles of the Helsinki Final Act.  We urge the entire world—including the people of Russia—to stand with the people of Ukraine in this moment of darkness.” On February 24, the military of the Russian Federation launched large-scale, unprovoked, and illegal armed attacks against the sovereign nation of Ukraine. According to the most recent credible reports, Russian airstrikes are being launched across Ukraine, and military forces as well as Belarusian and rebel proxies are attacking Ukrainians across multiple fronts.

  • Helsinki Commission Denounces Move by Putin to Declare Donetsk and Luhansk Regions of Eastern Ukraine “Independent”

    WASHINGTON—Following Russia’s recognition of parts of Ukraine as “independent,” and the announcement that Russian armed forces would be deployed to protect them, Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), Ranking Member Sen. Roger Wicker (MS), and Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) denounced the move and issued the following joint statement: “Putin’s latest unilateral move against Ukraine further violates Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty, the most basic principles of international law, and Russia’s commitments under the Helsinki Final Act.  We are deeply concerned about the escalation these steps represent in Russia’s war on Ukraine and call on Moscow to immediately cease hostilities against its peaceful neighbor.  “The United States and our allies will not tolerate this unprovoked aggression against an independent and democratic state. Our support for Ukraine remains unwavering and our response to Putin’s violent revisionism must be resolute. Imposing sanctions and reinforcing our military deterrent in frontline NATO states are essential. “We applaud the decision of the German government to halt further steps on the certification of Nord Stream 2 pipeline. We urge the entire world to support the people of Ukraine and to oppose this attack on peace and security in Europe.” On February 21, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a unilateral recognition of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of eastern Ukraine as “independent,” as well as the deployment of Russian forces to those regions. Meanwhile, Russian ground troops arrayed in multiple locations on Ukraine’s borders appear poised for further action.

  • Bipartisan Delegation Led by Co-Chairman Cohen Condemns Illegal Recognition of Moscow-Backed Rebel Territories In Ukraine

    VIENNA—In response to the Russian Federation’s illegal recognition of Moscow-backed rebel territories in Ukraine and continued military escalations, Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02), Commissioner and OSCE Parliamentary Assembly First Committee Chairman Rep. Richard Hudson (NC-08), Commissioner Rep. Robert Aderholt (AL-04), and Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (TX-18), Chair of the Judiciary Subcommittee for Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security, issued the following statement: “As a bipartisan delegation, we stand unified in condemnation of Putin’s aggressive actions, and we applaud the unified stance shown by the United States and our Allies in responding to the Kremlin’s reckless actions. “Putin has once again flagrantly and violently breached international law, interstate norms, and the principles and its obligations under the Helsinki Final Act. We condemn the Kremlin’s cynical and ahistorical move against Ukrainian territorial integrity and see it for what it is: an attack against a sovereign Ukraine, against Europe, and an assault on the same European security architecture that has supported peace and prosperity on the continent and around the world, including Russia, for decades. “Putin’s latest move appears to presage a major military escalation against Ukraine, and a wider attack on Europe’s peace. We condemn the Kremlin’s outrageous and violent agenda, and we and our NATO Allies will not accept its occupations anywhere in Ukraine, in Georgia and Moldova, or its soft annexation of Belarus. “We just visited Vilnius to confer with our close Allies who are at the front lines of the Kremlin’s aggression and malign influence. Lithuania’s principled foreign policy is a model for the United States and the entire world. But those principles and our common values must be defended against attack.  “In response, Russia will soon feel the first effects of sanctions imposed by the United States with our friends and allies around the globe. Any further aggression should and will be met with additional and increasingly severe economic penalties. Putin need not further compound this catastrophe of its own making. “During this dangerous time, we stand with our NATO Allies and we believe the time is right to continue to reinforce our Alliance and emphasize our unity with additional American troops on the ground.” On February 21, Russian President Putin announced a unilateral recognition of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of eastern Ukraine as “independent,” as well as the deployment of Russian forces to those regions. Meanwhile, Russian ground troops arrayed in multiple locations on Ukraine’s borders appear poised for further action.

  • 'Putin will pay a very, very, very heavy price' if he invades Ukraine further

    Senator Ben Cardin (D-MD) sits down with Yahoo Finance Live to talk about past geopolitical aggressions from Russian President Vladimir Putin, carefully applying sanctions on Russia, the energy sector, additional COVID-19 relief funds, inflation, and the federal gas tax. Video Transcript AKIKO FUJITA: Well, we are continuing to follow the latest developments from the Russia-Ukraine border. Several reports of increased shelling there with pro-Russian rebels ordering the evacuation of civilians. Amid those heightened tensions, President Biden is expected to speak this afternoon at 4:00 PM Eastern after he holds a call with NATO allies. And of course, we're going to bring that to you live right here on Yahoo Finance. Let's bring in Senator Ben Cardin of Maryland, who's also on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Senator, it's good to talk to you today. I think a lot of people trying to make sense of the headlines that we've gotten this week. Is diplomacy going to take its course? Is Russia-- is a Russian invasion of Ukraine inevitable? Talk to me about what you're hearing and what your biggest concerns are. BEN CARDIN: Well, first, it's good to be with you. Look, the circumstances are extremely dangerous right now. When you take a look at what Mr. Putin has done, the provocative actions he just recently took in Eastern Ukraine, the number of troops that he has on the border fully prepared to do a full incursion into Ukraine, and his past history, what he did in Georgia, what he's done-- this is part of his playbook, to use misinformation and to use everything he possibly can to bring down a country. And he wants to bring down an independent Ukraine. So it's a very, very dangerous situation. What will come next, only Mr. Putin knows. We certainly will not give up on diplomacy if Mr. Putin wants a diplomatic answer. But to now, every indication is that he is determined to use force to bring down the Ukrainian government. AKIKO FUJITA: You and your colleagues in the Senate have called for sanctions or increased sanctions against Russia. And I realize Republican senators have put forward their own sanctions as well. To what extent can these sanctions really have teeth in curtailing Vladimir Putin from scaling back some of those ambitions you just highlighted? BEN CARDIN: Well, to be clear, Democrats, Republicans, House and Senate, are fully behind President Biden and our European allies to make it clear that Mr. Putin will pay a very, very, very heavy price if he does further incursions into Ukraine. There's no dispute about that. We are fully behind the president in that regard. There's many of us who think that Mr. Putin already deserves to have additional sanctions imposed, but that would also, we think, give the president some additional leverage in his conversations with Mr. Putin. But that's more of a strategy issue, rather than our resolve that do everything we can to prevent the incursion. If it happens, the president will have our full support to impose the most serious sanctions, both on sectorial economy, as well as individuals. AKIKO FUJITA: We had your colleague, Senator Jon Tester, on earlier this week, who said, look, I'm all for sanctions, but we also need to be mindful of the economic impact this could have on our allies over in Europe, specifically on energy. How do you view that? Especially if we're talking about something like Nord Stream 2, I mean, number one, what power does the US have in halting that? And how do you think about the consequences for a country like Germany if that is halted, especially given their reliance on natural gas coming in from Russia? BEN CARDIN: Well, Senator Tester is mentioning some important points. But our number one priority is the security of Europe. And if Mr. Putin can overtake a sovereign country by the use of force without consequences, that does not bode well for the future security of Europe or other parts of the world by the use of force to try to change borders. That will have a much more devastating impact on future economies as well as the safety of Europe. So that has to be our primary concern. These sanctions on the energy sector, particularly, we need to long-term have a more secure Europe on energy sources. We know that. But in the short-term, we have to make sure that energy is not used as a weapon, as Mr. Putin is trying to do. That only will lead to bad results. So for all these reasons, we have to stay resolved and resolute in our force to say that we will impose the heaviest possible sanctions if there are further incursions into Russia. AKIKO FUJITA: Let's talk about more domestic issues. You have been, for some time here, calling for additional funds here to combat COVID-19. I know there was a request in from the Health and Human Services Department that called for $30 billion in additional funds. Given how much was spent on this most recent wave for Omicron, where do those discussions stand right now? And how are you thinking about that, number one, in terms of additional budgets that are needed on the health care side to fight the virus, and then the amount of money that could potentially go to small businesses that are still hurting in a big way? BEN CARDIN: Well, we have some unfunded programs now that need to be completely funded. And that is the Restaurant Revitalization Fund. We made certain commitments. The money, it was not adequate. We need to replenish those funds. That should be done as soon as possible. I hope we can get it done in early March. In regards to additional COVID needs, there's clearly a need in our health resources to make sure that we can stay ahead of the next variant. And there's likely to be another variant. So we have to have the funds necessary to do all of the preparation, including vaccination preparations, the therapeutic drugs, protective equipment, testing. All that will require additional resources. And as they're needed, we have to make those resources available. And then we hope we're at near the end of the tunnel in regards to this COVID point, the impact it has on our economy. But if it continues, then we have to be prepared again to step forward, as we did in the past, to make sure that our economy can continue even during a pandemic. AKIKO FUJITA: You talk about the challenges in the economy. Certainly a lot of Americans feeling the pinch from price pressures and inflation now hitting a 40-year high. That has certainly hurt this administration, at least, in the eye of the public. And I wonder where you stand especially on a potential holiday on the federal gas tax. That's something that has been raised by other Democratic lawmakers. The cynical take would be to what extent that can really bring down prices and how much of this is motivated politically. Where do you stand on that? And should there be a bit of a reprieve, given how far up gas taxes have run? BEN CARDIN: Well, I understand that we have to deal with the short-term pressures that American families are sustaining, so I recognize that. But the deal with the causes for inflation, we really do need to deal with the labor force to have more people able to work. And that means in the Build Back Better agenda, affordable child care is critically important. We've got to protect our supply chains as one of the principal reasons why we seeing a shortage of goods, and therefore an increase in price. And that means pass the legislation that is passed by both the House and Senate that needs to be reconciled that would make America more products produced here in our own country. They are the two things I think we can do the most to protect against the impact of higher costs. But we recognize that American families are hurting, and that's why we want to deal with more affordable housing, more affordable educational costs. We want to deal with the cost centers that are affecting American families. AKIKO FUJITA: Specifically on the federal gas tax, though, would you support a suspension? BEN CARDIN: Well, it depends. We have to make sure that there's adequate resources to carry out our infrastructure and our transportation programs. It's not just as simple as a holiday. It's a question of how we're going to adequately fund the needs that are critically important. You know, the transit needs, the road needs, broadband, all these are important services that the American people need, and we have to make sure we can continue to carry out those programs. AKIKO FUJITA: Well, Senator Ben Cardin, we always enjoy having you on the show. I hope to have you back on again soon. Maryland Senator Ben Cardin there joining us today from Baltimore. Coming up, existing home sales--

  • Ahead of OSCE PA Winter Meeting, Co-Chairman Cohen Reiterates Support for Ukrainian Sovereignty

    WASHINGTON—Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09) today issued the following statement: “Over the upcoming Congressional recess, I am proud to be leading a bipartisan, bicameral delegation to the Winter Meeting of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly. In today’s climate of global uncertainty, engagement between foreign officials and members of Congress offers reassurance to U.S. allies about the commitment of the United States to peace, security, and prosperity in Europe and beyond. “Our delegation also will take the opportunity to visit other NATO Allies to consult with government officials in light of the unprecedented number of Russian forces deployed in and around Ukraine. While we originally planned to stop in Kyiv, the relocation of embassy staff necessitated the unfortunate cancellation of that portion of our itinerary. However, I would like to take this opportunity to reassure the Government of Ukraine of the steadfast support of Congress for Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity in the face of Russian aggression. Rest assured we will bring up support for your nation’s security at the OSCE PA meetings.”

  • Chairman Cardin Discusses Russian Aggression on Balance of Power

    On February 16, Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) spoke about Russian aggression toward Ukraine with David Westin on Bloomberg's Balance of Power. "You cannot believe anything that Mr. Putin says," he said. "We understand what he is saying for public relations purposes, but to date we have not seen any major withdrawal of troops from the border. Russia did everything necessary to start an invasion. The troops are lined up; the so support personnel are there. So, we are still at a very high-tension level. Obviously, we would do everything we can on the diplomatic front, so that we could avoid what Russia is doing, but they need to have an off ramp and we don’t know whether Mr. Putin wants an off ramp or not."

  • Conflict of Interest?

    Turkey is at a crossroads. Even as the Turkish Government insists that it remains committed to its NATO partners and to future EU integration, its actions—both foreign and domestic—call those promises into question. Turkey has been a steadfast supporter of Ukraine and Turkish officials have announced plans to normalize relations with Armenia and moved to restore ties with several Middle Eastern countries, including Egypt and Israel. At the same time, the government has reiterated its commitment to the use of Russian military equipment, eroding relations with the United States and other members of NATO. Despite being a founding member of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Turkey is struggling to live up to the principles of respect for fundamental freedoms outlined in the Helsinki Final Act.  A record number of Turkish journalists are behind bars. The failure of the Turkish government to comply with a ruling of the European Court for Human Rights on the case of Osman Kavala paved the way for the country’s potential expulsion from the Council of Europe, and thousands of others arrested following the attempted 2016 coup also languish in prison on dubious charges.  The briefing, held on February 16, 2022, investigated the intersection of Turkey’s OSCE and NATO commitments related to human rights and security, and its domestic policies that fail to hold true to these principles. Panelists also explored practical policy recommendations to help Turkey overcome this disconnect. During the briefing, attendees heard from Dr. Soner Cagaptay, Director of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute for the Near East, and Deniz Yuksel, Turkey Advocacy Specialist with Amnesty International. The briefing was moderated by Helsinki Commission Senior Policy Advisor Bakhti Nishanov. Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09) opened the briefing by remarking on the importance of Turkey and his personal history with Turkey.  He also emphasized that human rights abuses in Turkey have long been a subject of concern, particularly those brought about by President Erdogan’s empire-building attempts. “We need to do what we can to see that the whole world is fair for citizens to express themselves, for press to express themselves, and for people to get information, without which we will not have independent democracies,” he said. Mr. Nishanov explained in opening remarks that Turkey’s position is complex and multi-faceted—while Turkey has been making efforts to normalize relationships with Armenia, Israel, and Egypt as well as bearing a large refugee burden, recent years have been challenging as Turkey experienced economic pain, inflation, and governance issues. Additionally, Turkey’s record of human rights abuses, anti-immigrant sentiments, and other obstacles cast a pall on recent progress, and bring into question the future of Turkey’s democratic development. Dr. Soner Cagaptay spoke about President Erdogan’s declining domestic popularity and the looming threat of economic hardship in Turkey. He also remarked on President Erdogan’s attempts to restore ties with Turkey’s Gulf neighbors, as well as with the United States and Europe. Dr. Cagaptay asserted that as tensions heightened between Russia and Ukraine, Turkey would adopt a neutral public-facing identity, but support Kyiv militarily. While Russia and Turkey are often compared, he pointed out that Turkey has measures of democracy that Russia does not. “The lesson of Turkey under Erdogan is that it takes a long time to kill [democracy]. Turkish democracy is resilient, it is not dead,” he said. Deniz Yuksel spoke to Turkey’s human rights crisis and the dangers opposition politicians, journalists, and citizens face. Reports of torture and detention are common, and those calling out such abuses face persecution themselves. She recommended that U.S. officials raise human rights concerns in every engagement with Turkey. She emphasized, “From the record-breaking imprisonment of journalists to the persecution of LGBTI people, an ongoing crisis of gender-based violence, and the unlawful deportation of refugees, the failures of Turkey’s judicial system cut across societal lines and undermine the human rights of all.” During the question-and-answer segment of the briefing, panelists addressed a range of questions including how specific ethnic minorities are treated in Turkey, how human rights abuses may affect Turkey’s relationship with the United States, and what challenges will arise alongside Turkey’s 2023 elections. Related Information Panelist Biographies Will Turkey Help Washington If Russia Invades Ukraine? | The Washington Institute Human Rights in Turkey | Amnesty International – USA: Turkey Regional Action Network  Turkey’s Careful and Risky Fence-Sitting between Ukraine and Russia | Foreign Policy Research Institute 

  • Chairman Cardin, OSCE participating States Commit to Countering Anti-Semitism at Annual Conference in Warsaw

    By Ryn Hintz, Paulina Kanburiyan, and Worth Talley, Max Kampelman Fellows, and Shannon Simrell, Representative of the Helsinki Commission to the U.S. Mission to the OSCE On February 7 – 8, 2022, the OSCE’s Polish Chair-in-Office organized a high-level conference in Warsaw on Combating Anti-Semitism in the OSCE Region with the support of OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODHIR). During the event, government officials, experts, civil society organizations, and the private sector underscored the ongoing threat that anti-Semitism poses not only to Jewish communities, but to democracy everywhere, and the shared responsibility to fight it. In a series of exchanges with experts over two days, more than 100 participants from over 25 countries unilaterally condemned anti-Semitism, Holocaust denial, discriminatory prohibition of religious practices, and other manifestations of prejudice against the Jewish community. They also discussed innovative history education, youth engagement, and legislative responses to foster Jewish life. Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin, who also serves as the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly’s Special Representative on Anti-Semitism, Racism, and Intolerance, opened the event by underscoring the need for sustained, coordinated action to end the pervasive anti-Semitism plaguing the OSCE region. “Although recalling the Holocaust is painful, it seems as if we have not fully learned our lesson,” he said. Law Enforcement: A Partner in Combating Hate Speech and Scapegoating OSCE Personal Representative on Combating Anti-Semitism Rabbi Andrew Baker led a session where panelists highlighted the rise in anti-Semitic hate speech, scapegoating, and conspiracy theories since the onset of the global pandemic. Participating States then shared effective national policies and strategies, including best practices of partnering with law enforcement. Addressing Anti-Semitism Online: A Shared Responsibility OSCE Advisor on Combating Anti-Semitism Mikolaj Wrzecionkowski moderated a discussion on steps the private sector, civil societies and governments can take to combat the spread of anti-Semitism online, including actively challenging anti-Semitic algorithms and hashtags, appointing points of contact to address concerns about anti-Semitic content, and promoting educational initiatives among young people, educators, and companies to increase media literacy. The United Kingdom’s Special Envoy for Post-Holocaust Issues, Rt. Honorable Lord Eric Pickles, again underscored the importance of joint action. “At a time of distortion and contempt for our fellow human beings, we need to be able to see our own faces in the faces of strangers,” he stated. Beyond Combatting Anti-Semitism: The Need to Actively Foster Jewish Life Dr. Felix Klein, Federal Government Commissioner for Jewish Life in Germany and the Fight against Anti-Semitism, led a discussion on the challenges and successes of states, cities, and societies in fostering vibrant Jewish communities to both resist the spread of anti-Semitism and uplift Jewish history, culture, and tradition. Panelists shared examples of initiatives to restore cemeteries and monuments, open museums, and compile educational and cultural resources online. Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt, President of the Conference of European Rabbis, illustrated the interconnectivity between fostering Jewish life and democracy by discussing recent legislative backlash against Jewish religious practices like circumcision and kosher preparation of meals, further stressing that regulations on these practices must not be prohibitive and should be formed in collaboration with Jewish communities. The Centrality of Education to Address Anti-Semitism and Anti-Roma Discrimination A session moderated by Kishan Manocha, ODIHR’s Head of the Tolerance and Non-Discrimination Department, highlighted the importance of new and innovative education initiatives to address root causes of anti-Semitism and anti-Roma discrimination. Panelists highlighted the need for cross-cultural exposure to combat anti-Semitic and anti-Roma attitudes and build greater connections between those inside and outside Jewish and Roma communities. Policymakers noted the ability to use interactive and digital tools to address histories of discrimination, related not only to the Holocaust but also to Jewish history and contributions to culture and the world. Despite advancements, participants acknowledged that challenges remain: online courses suffer from low completion rates and some curricula address the subject of anti-Roma discrimination only tangentially.  Panelists agreed that addressing anti-Roma discrimination also requires a holistic, inter-curricular approach that builds upon knowledge both of the genocide of Roma and Sinti, and of their histories and cultures. To close the conference, Plenipotentiary of Poland’s Ministry Foreign Affairs, Ambassador Paweł Kotowski called on participants to continue their important work to defeat anti-Semitism and anti-Roma discrimination.

  • Olympic skater’s entourage could face trouble under US law

    ZHANGJIAKOU, China (AP) — Legal troubles for the coach and others in Russian figure skater Kamila Valieva’s orbit could emerge in the United States even after her doping case from the Beijing Games has been resolved. Anti-doping experts say the episode falls under the scope of a recently enacted U.S. law that criminalizes doping schemes in events involving American athletes. The law calls for fines of up to $1 million and prison sentences of up to 10 years for those who participate in doping programs that influence international sports. “Doctors and coaches who give performance-enhancing drugs to athletes are directly liable” under the new law, said one of its authors, attorney Jim Walden. “They are at risk of jail, steep fines, and forfeiture. And I suspect the FBI is already hot on this trail.” On Monday, The Court of Arbitration for Sport cleared Valieva to compete in the women’s competition this week. Still unresolved is what to do about the gold medal the Russians won — with Valieva as the headliner — in last week’s mixed team competition. Because Valieva is 15, and considered a “protected person” under global anti-doping rules, the sanctions against her could be light. That does not exempt her entourage from possible anti-doping penalties beyond the possible stripping of the medal from the Russian team. Walden and others expect those same people to come under investigation by U.S. law-enforcement, as well. “The latest Russian doping scandal in Beijing is exactly why we passed the Rodchenkov Anti-Doping Act. Doping is corruption,” said Sen Ben Cardin, D-Maryland, who is involved in anti-doping issues. Walden represents the bill’s namesake, Grigory Rodchenkov, the Russian lab director who blew the whistle on the complex, widespread Russian doping scheme designed to help the country win medals at the 2014 Sochi Games and elsewhere. Rodchenkov now lives in hiding. The Rodchenkov Act wasn’t designed to go after athletes. It targets coaches, doctors and other members of an athlete’s entourage who are accused of arranging doping programs in any event that involves U.S. athletes, sponsors or broadcasters. The bill, supported by Walden, the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency and others, passed by unanimous consent through both houses of Congress and was signed into law in December 2020. It was considered a remarkable achievement considering the polarization in U.S. politics. Officials at the White House drug control office in both the Trump and Biden administrations have been critical of global anti-doping regulators. They threatened to withhold funding from the World Anti-Doping Agency, but recently paid their remaining dues despite some major concerns. The law’s first test came last month when federal officials charged a doctor of providing drugs to an “Athlete A,” who The Associated Press identified as Nigerian sprinter Blessing Okagbare. The IOC and WADA lobbied against parts of the bill. Their main argument was that it gave U.S. law enforcement too much leverage in policing anti-doping cases that occur outside its own borders. This case — a Russian who was found to have doped on Dec. 25 at a national championship — appears, at first glance, to fit that profile. WADA said it took six weeks for officials to receive the test from a lab in Sweden because Russia’s anti-doping agency (RUSADA) failed to flag it as a priority. That Valieva was allowed to compete at the Olympics turns it into an international episode. WADA said in a statement that it was “disappointed in the ruling,” and that it, too, would “look into” Valieva’s support personnel. Russia’s anti-doping agency has also begun an investigation. But critics of WADA and the IOC argue the bill was passed because the international anti-doping system has proven it can’t police its own. They point to the sanctions handed to Russia over the past eight years as Exhibit A. Part of those sanctions resulted in years’ worth of suspensions and reforms for RUSADA, which is overseeing this case. Critics contend the case involving Valieva might not have erupted had the country — whose athletes are competing in Beijing under the banner of “Russian Olympic Committee” due to the sanctions — been penalized appropriately. “If I were a betting man, I’d say there’s a 95% chance that this is a good case for” the law, said Rob Koehler, the head of the advocacy group Global Athlete. Though there are harsh penalties under the law, it’s hard to imagine U.S. authorities would ever get their hands on Russians if they were indicted. Still, an indictment would have an impact. It could curtail their ability to travel or coach outside of Russia, since the United States has extradition deals with dozens of countries across the globe. Valieva tested positive for the banned heart medication trimetazidine. “We need more facts, but you can envision a case like this under Rodchenkov,” USADA CEO Travis Tygart said. “This drug doesn’t just show up out of nowhere. Assuming the facts play out that someone was involved in giving it to her to enhance performance, it fits like a glove.”

  • Chairman Cardin on Doping Scandal At 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing

    WASHINGTON—Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) released the following statement: “The latest Russian doping scandal in Beijing is exactly why we passed the Rodchenkov Anti-Doping Act. Doping is corruption. It defrauds clean athletes and honest sponsors, and insults the spirit of international competition. “Putin—like other strongmen—regularly uses corruption as a tool of foreign policy. The Olympics are no exception. I call on the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate all alleged doping crimes during the Beijing Olympics and hold the perpetrators responsible under the Rodchenkov Act.” The Rodchenkov Anti-Doping Act, which became law in December 2020, criminalizes doping in international sport. In January 2022, the Federal Bureau of Investigation announced the first charges filed under the Rodchenkov Anti-Doping Act for a doping scheme at the Tokyo Olympics.

  • Helsinki Commission Briefing to Examine Intersection Between Foreign Policy and Human Rights in Turkey

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following online briefing: CONFLICT OF INTEREST? Foreign Policy and Human Rights in Turkey Wednesday, February 16, 2022 11:00 a.m. Register: https://bit.ly/3Je5Ck4 Turkey is at a crossroads. Even as the Turkish Government insists that it remains committed to its NATO partners and to future EU integration, its actions—both foreign and domestic—call those promises into question. Turkey has been a steadfast supporter of Ukraine and Turkish officials have announced plans to normalize relations with Armenia and moved to restore ties with several Middle Eastern countries, including Egypt and Israel. At the same time, the government has reiterated its commitment to the use of Russian military equipment, eroding relations with the United States and other members of NATO. Despite being a founding member of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Turkey is struggling to live up to the principles of respect for fundamental freedoms outlined in the Helsinki Final Act.  A record number of Turkish journalists are behind bars. The failure of the Turkish government to comply with a ruling of the European Court for Human Rights on the case of Osman Kavala paved the way for the country’s potential expulsion from the Council of Europe, and thousands of others arrested following the attempted 2016 coup also languish in prison on dubious charges.   The briefing will investigate the intersection of Turkey’s OSCE and NATO commitments related to human rights and security, and its domestic policies that fail to hold true to these principles. Panelists also will explore practical policy recommendations to help Turkey overcome this disconnect. The following panelists are scheduled to participate: Soner Cagaptay, Director, Turkish Research Program, Washington Institute for the Near East Deniz Yuksel, Turkey Advocacy Specialist, Amnesty International  

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