Title

Title

American Agenda Moves Forward at the 14th Annual OSCE Parliamentary Assembly
Friday, August 19, 2005

The 14th Annual Meeting of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly convened in Washington, DC, July 1-5, 2005. Speaker of the House, J. Dennis Hastert (R-IL), the host for this year’s Assembly, welcomed more than 260 parliamentarians from 51 OSCE participating States as they gathered to discuss various political, economic, and humanitarian issues under the theme, “30 Years since Helsinki: Challenges Ahead.”  Commission Chairman Senator Sam Brownback (R-KS) served as head of the U.S. Delegation, Co-Chairman Christopher H. Smith (R-NJ) was delegation vice-chairman. 

Secretary of State Dr. Condoleezza Rice gave the inaugural address at the assembly’s opening session, thanking the members of the OSCE PA for their work toward “human rights, the rule of law, free and fair elections, and the development of transparent, accountable institutions of government across the OSCE community and around the globe.

“As the Chairman-in-Office and Parliamentary Assembly take a fresh look at the OSCE agenda and consider these and other items, preserving the integrity of Helsinki principles and ensuring that the OSCE continues to be an agent of peaceful, democratic transformation should be paramount objectives,” Secretary Rice said.

Chairman Brownback in plenary remarks underscored the rich history of the Helsinki Process, unwavering U.S. commitment to human rights and the dignity of the individual, and the dramatic advances made in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan.  At the same time, he pointed to the remaining work to be done in the OSCE region and beyond to meet the promises made with the signing of the 1975 Helsinki Final Act.     

Offering guidance to the body, OSCE PA President and Helsinki Commissioner Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (D-FL) reiterated the gathering’s theme:  “In this new Europe, and in this new world, the OSCE and the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly must stand ready to respond to new threats and challenges, and this means evolving and adapting to new realities.”

Agenda and Issues

Among the issues considered by the Assembly were recommendations for changes in the OSCE Code of Conduct for Mission Members, efforts to combat human trafficking, and calls for greater transparency and accountability in election procedures in keeping with OSCE commitments made by each of the 55 participating States.

The First Committee on Political Affairs and Security met to discuss matters of terrorism and conflict resolution, including resolutions on the following topics:

  • terrorism by suicide bombers
  • the situation in Abkhazia, Georgia
  • terrorism and human rights
  • Moldova and the status of Transdniestria

Under the chairmanship of Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-MD), the Second Committee on Economic Affairs, Science, Technology and Environment moved on a number of issues, including resolutions and amendments on:

  • small arms and light weapons
  • maritime security and piracy
  • the OSCE Mediterranean dimension
  • money laundering
  • the fight against corruption

The Third Committee on Democracy, Human Rights and Humanitarian Questions tackled a number of resolutions, as well as two supplementary items brought by members of the U.S. Delegation.  Other topics addressed by the Committee included:        

  • the need to strengthen the Code of Conduct for OSCE Mission Members
  • combating trafficking in human beings
  • improving the effectiveness of OSCE election observation activities
  • The Assembly plenary met in consideration of the resolutions passed by the general committees as well as the following supplementary items:
  • improving gender equality in the OSCE
  • combating anti-Semitism

Special side events were held in conjunction with the 5-day meeting, including a briefing on the status of detainees at the U.S. Naval Station at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, held by senior U.S. officials from the Departments of Defense and State.  Members of the U.S. Delegation also participated in the following organized events:

  • Parliamentary responses to anti-Semitism
  • Working breakfast on gender issues
  • Mediterranean side meeting
  • Panel discussion on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict
  • Human rights in Uzbekistan
  • Meeting of the parliamentary team on Moldova

In addition, while participating in the Assembly, members of the U.S. Delegation held bilateral meetings with fellow parliamentarians from Azerbaijan, Georgia, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan.  They also had formal discussions with the newly appointed OSCE Secretary General Marc Perrin de Brichambaut.

Key U.S. Initiatives

The successful adoption of a number of supplementary items and amendments to the Assembly’s Washington Declaration illustrated the extent of the activity of the members of the U.S. Delegation in the three Assembly committees.  The delegation met success in advancing its initiatives in human trafficking, election observation activities, and religious freedom. As a result, the Washington Declaration reflects significant input based on U.S. initiatives.

In the General Committee on Democracy, Human Rights and Humanitarian Questions, Senator Voinovich (R-OH) sponsored, and successfully passed, a supplementary item on funding for the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) to allow it to continue its missions and responsibilities.

Speaking on the passage of his resolution on combating trafficking at the hands of international peacekeepers, Co-Chairman Smith said, “In the past, the lack of appropriate codes of conduct for international personnel, including military service members, contractors, and international organization’s employees, limited the ability to counter sexual exploitation and trafficking.  That is finally changing.”

The U.S. Delegation also overwhelmingly defeated text offered by the Russian Delegation that would have weakened the ability of ODIHR to effectively perform election observations.  Co-Chairman Smith, principal sponsor of the amendments that served to frustrate the Russian resolution, praised the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly saying,

“The Parliamentary Assembly has reaffirmed the central and historic leadership role of the OSCE’s Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights in monitoring elections….Parliamentarians from the participating States have soundly rejected the ploy to weaken OSCE election standards, holding participating States accountable when they fail to fulfill their OSCE election commitments.”

On the issue of religious freedom, the U.S. Delegation carried through two amendments to the final Assembly declaration.

“I am very pleased that these amendments passed,” said Co-Chairman Smith, who offered the amendments to the draft resolution.  “However, the fact that the first amendment passed by only 10 votes underscores the continuing challenge in the fight for religious liberties in the OSCE region.  The fact that parliamentarians are willing to discriminate against minority religious communities is sobering.”

In addition, an amendment brought by Del. Eleanor Holmes-Norton (D-DC) that calls on the U.S. Congress to grant voting rights for residents of the District of Columbia secured passage.

Leadership Positions

Commissioner Hastings was re-elected unanimously to another one-year term as the President of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly.  Joining the U.S. leadership on the Parliamentary Assembly, Commissioner Benjamin L. Cardin was also re-elected Chairman of the General on Economic Affairs, Science, Technology and Environment by unanimous decision.  Commission Co-Chairman Christopher H. Smith continues in his role as Special Representative on Human Trafficking to the OSCE PA.  Additionally, Rep. Hoyer chaired the Ad Hoc Committee on Transparency and Accountability, which works to foster greater response from the governments of participating States to Assembly initiatives.

The close of the Assembly was marked with the adoption of the Washington Declaration and concluding remarks by OSCE PA President Hastings.

The Parliamentary Assembly will meet again next year, July 3-7, in Brussels, Belgium.

U.S. Delegation to 14th Annual OSCE Parliamentary Assembly:

  • Commission Chairman Sen. Sam Brownback (R-KS)
  • Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-NJ)
  • Commission Ranking Member Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-MD)
  • Sen. George Voinovich (R-OH)
  • Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-MD)
  • Rep. Louise McIntosh Slaughter (D-NY)
  • Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (D-FL)
  • Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-AL)
  • Rep. Mike McIntyre (D-NC)
  • Rep. Joseph R. Pitts (R-PA)
  • Rep. Mike Pence (R-IN)
  • Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC)
  • Related content
  • Related content
Filter Topics Open Close
  • Co-Chairman Wicker Welcomes Confirmation of Assistant Secretary Destro

    WASHINGTON—Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) today welcomed the confirmation of Robert A. Destro to serve as the Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor. The Assistant Secretary traditionally also serves as the State Department’s representative on the Helsinki Commission. “I am pleased that Assistant Secretary Destro has been confirmed to this critical post, and I look forward to working closely with him to promote security and human rights around the globe,” said Co-Chairman Wicker. “I encourage the White House to act quickly and formally appoint him to the Helsinki Commission. America’s voice is strongest and most effective when our executive and legislative branches work together. The Helsinki Commission offers a unique opportunity to reap the benefits of such a partnership.” Mr. Destro is a human rights advocate and a civil rights attorney with expertise in religious freedom issues and election law. He is also professor of law and founding director of the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies at The Catholic University of America.

  • Helsinki Commission Leaders Appoint Shannon Simrell as Representative to U.S. Mission to the OSCE

    WASHINGTON—Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20), Chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (U.S. Helsinki Commission), today announced the appointment of Shannon Simrell as the Representative of the Helsinki Commission to the U.S. Mission to the OSCE (USOSCE). “On behalf of the Commission leadership, I am pleased to welcome Shannon Simrell as the Helsinki Commission’s representative to USOSCE for the 116th Congress,” said Chairman Hastings. “Her extensive experience with a wide variety of OSCE missions and institutions makes her an invaluable resource not only to the Helsinki Commission but also to Ambassador Gilmore and our other State Department colleagues.” For 25 years, Simrell has worked to advance U.S. comprehensive security objectives in the Balkans, Central and Eastern Europe, Caucasus, and Central Asia. Early in her career, Simrell organized short-term democratization and environmental study tours in the United States for emerging leaders in Central and Eastern Europe and Russia. Between 2006 and 2008, she served first as a democratization officer then as acting regional center director at the OSCE mission in Kosovo. Following her time in Kosovo, Simrell spent a decade recruiting, deploying, and supporting more than 2,300 American experts serving in nearly 100 OSCE permanent, special, and election observation missions on behalf of the U.S. Department of State.  During this time, she observed elections in Kosovo, Georgia, Ukraine, and Tajikistan, and conducted dozens of site visits to OSCE missions and institutions. Simrell replaces Janice Helwig, who returns to the Helsinki Commission in Washington to resume her previous position of senior policy advisor. Helwig’s portfolio will include Central Asia, trafficking in persons, and the OSCE’s human dimension.

  • A Global Pandemic: Disinformation

    By Annie Lentz,  Max Kampelman Fellow Popularly and ambiguously dubbed “fake news,” malign efforts to spread false facts often are wrongly lumped together with politicians’ diatribes against negative media coverage. Well-orchestrated disinformation campaigns do exist around the world, using algorithms, social platforms, and advertisements as a means of deceiving the public and undermining democracy. Due to its proliferation and widespread attention, the definition of so called “fake news” has been lost. Even the meaning of the terms it is defined by are ambiguous. In fact, misinformation and disinformation are not synonymous. Misinformation refers the inadvertent spread of false information, while disinformation refers to the purposeful circulation of deceptive news stories by both state and nonstate actors. Disinformation plagues the modern world in increasingly sophisticated and pervasive ways largely due to widespread use of social media. Whether it’s shared through Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, or WhatsApp, fake news is easy to share, difficult to identify, and almost impossible to stop. Easy to Share The trickle-down effect of counterfeit news campaigns is massive. A single fake story has the potential to reach millions, propagated by bots and trolls and manipulation of social media content algorithms. For example, a heavily edited interview from conservative CRTV portrayed a fictional conversation between one of their hosts and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez where the Congresswoman admitted to know nothing of the legislative process. Although CRTV eventually said it was satire, the video was viewed almost 1 million times within 24 hours prior to CRTV’s clarification. This was not an isolated incident. Thanks to the universality of social media, with Facebook and Twitter having a global presence economically and socially, cultures around the world are all susceptible to manipulation through such platforms. Following the 2019 European Union elections—second only to India as the largest democratic elections in the world—the European Commission documented “ongoing disinformation campaigns” by Russian sources. Officials went on to demand Facebook, Google, and Twitter “step up their efforts” in combatting fake news; they classified the fight as enduring, saying, “Malign actors constantly change their strategies. We must strive to be ahead of them.” The influence and impact of Russian disinformation efforts remains unknown and therefore future elections in both the EU and elsewhere remain at risk. Difficult to Identify Several aspects of the communication space make disinformation hard to identify. When reading content from a seemingly trustworthy source, even if there is no evidence of professionalism, most naturally consider the information to be trustworthy. However, that is not always the case and those creating and spreading propaganda are well-versed in mimicking reputable sources in structure and design. Moreover, the more specific the topic and narrow the scope, the easier it is for disinformation to spread as consumers lack the background and context to identify red flags, which are becoming ever harder to detect. According to Politifact, earlier this year a Facebook post about Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, claiming he was trying to take away health care from millions of Americans, went viral. This claim was a mischaracterization of his stance on federal funding for health care and falsified his personal history with the program. Regardless, the false narrative spread to thousands of people who lacked the in-depth background knowledge to recognize the inaccuracy. Disinformation is not limited to false news stories or phony websites; it also extends to doctored photos and videos, like the CRTV interview previously mentioned. The Washington Post’s guide to fact-checking video makes the point, “Seeing isn’t believing.” Even high-profile politicians can be fooled by such disinformation. One doctored video appearing to show Nancy Pelosi drunk that was retweeted by President Trump, who shared the false narrative with more than 62.8 million followers. Even content originating from seemingly trustworthy sources can be deceptive. For example, pro-Brexit campaigns from the UK Independence Party (UKIP) during the EU referendum vote in 2016 told a false story through misleading photos (actually from the border of Slovenia) of thousands of immigrants pouring into the UK. Though the poster and campaign were widely condemned, it is impossible to measure the number of voters that may have been influenced. However, the very existence of such misleading material threatened the democratic integrity of the referendum. The Russia Problem While there are many guilty parties—like those who spread doctored stories and videos leading up to India’s elections in April and May of 2019 and incited hatred between Buddhists and Muslims in Sri Lanka and Malaysia on Facebook—the biggest culprit behind the growth of widespread disinformation is the Russian Government. The Kremlin has used sophisticated disinformation campaigns to justify its actions in Crimea and eastern Ukraine, interfere in the 2019 European Union elections, and attempt to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential elections. However, Kremlin interference isn’t isolated to politics. RT America, cited as a principle meddler in the 2016 presidential elections, aired a campaign of stories about health risks associated with 5G signals, none of which were supported by scientific facts. Such efforts from “the Kremlin’s principal international propaganda outlet” match what experts cite as the Kremlin’s ultimate goal: to amplify voices of dissent, sow public discord, and exacerbate social divides. Impossible to Stop … or Not? There is no global police force to defend against disinformation. There are platform-specific efforts, such as Facebook’s regulations for political advertising; grassroots efforts, like Factitious, an online game designed to teach students to identify fake news stories; and coalitions like the one formed by Facebook, Google and Twitter after the March 15 massacre in Christchurch, New Zealand, when the tech giants signed an agreement with world leaders to fight hate speech online. However, with the amount of disinformation growing every day and no unified or cohesive approach from both the public and private sector to aggressively and actively combat online propaganda, these efforts are akin to putting a Band-Aid on a broken leg. Any attempts to regulate disinformation are constrained by the right to free speech. If the response is too broad–whether from a corporation like Facebook or a government entity–it quickly challenges the fundamental freedoms afforded to citizens. On the one hand, stopping false facts from spreading and inundating social media benefits democracy and freedom the world round. On the other hand, the people’s right to free speech must be respected. Any meaningful efforts to battle disinformation must carefully balance the protection of the community against the protection of the individual. In addition, those with the best ability to fight against disinformation—private companies like Facebook and Twitter—have no true legal obligation to do so and may have alternative interests in terms of profit. Until Congress shined a light on this problem, there were no serious efforts on the part of social media platforms to fight against foreign influence. As social platforms and their users maintain the right to freedom of expression, the ability of Congress to require them to undertake any specific efforts is lacking. However, that hasn’t stopped them from trying. There are other solutions. One is promoting better media literacy among citizens, so they can more easily identify false or misleading information. Another is “sourcing” news stories, so readers know the true origin of a story—a story about a local issue in Kansas may in fact emanate from Russia, for example. The content would still be available, but readers would have a better awareness of potential manipulation by outside actors. To combat the ripple effect of disinformation, media self-regulation to verify sources and stories before publishing them is another effective tool. The most important and most effective way to confront disinformation is by understanding it. Through events like the 2017 Helsinki Commission hearing on Russian Disinformation, and OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media Harlem Désir’s efforts to lead the OSCE in combatting disinformation, additional progress can be made. Disinformation is a disease to which no one is immune; the longer the virus goes untreated, the worse it becomes.

  • 2019 Human Dimension Implementation Meeting

    From September 16 to September 27, OSCE participating States will meet in Warsaw, Poland, for the 2019 Human Dimension Implementation Meeting (HDIM), organized by the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR).  As Europe’s largest annual human rights conference, the HDIM brings together hundreds of government and nongovernmental representatives, international experts, and human rights activists for two weeks to review OSCE human rights commitments and progress. During the 2019 meeting, three specifically selected topics will each be the focus of a full-day discussion: “safety of journalists,” “hate crimes,” and “Roma and Sinti.” These special topics are chosen to highlight key areas for improvement in the OSCE region and promote discussion of pressing issues. Human Dimension Implementation Meeting 2019 Since the HDIM was established in 1998, the OSCE participating States have a standing agreement to hold an annual two-week meeting to review the participating States’ compliance with the human dimension commitments they have previously adopted by consensus. The phrase “human dimension” was coined to describe the OSCE norms and activities related to fundamental freedoms, democracy (such as free elections, the rule of law, and independence of the judiciary), humanitarian concerns (such as refugee migration and human trafficking), and concerns relating to tolerance and nondiscrimination (such as countering anti-Semitism and racism). Each year, the HDIM allows participating States to assess one another’s implementation of OSCE human dimension commitments, identify challenges, and make recommendations for improvement. The HDIM agenda covers all human dimension commitments, including freedoms of expression and the media, peaceful assembly and association, and religion or belief; democratic elections; the rule of law; tolerance and non-discrimination; combating trafficking in persons; women’s rights; and national minorities, including Roma and Sinti. Unique about the HDIM is the inclusion and strong participation of non-governmental organizations. The United States has been a stout advocate for the involvement of NGOs in the HDIM, recognizing the vital role that civil society plays in human rights and democracy-building initiatives. OSCE structures allow NGO representatives to raise issues of concern directly with government representatives, both by speaking during the formal working sessions of the HDIM and by organizing side events that examine specific issues in greater detail. Members of the U.S. delegation to the 2019 HDIM include: Ambassador James S. Gilmore, U.S. Permanent Representative to the OSCE and Head of Delegation Christopher Robinson, Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs Roger D. Carstens, Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor Elan S. Carr, Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism Alex T. Johnson, Chief of Staff, U.S. Helsinki Commission

  • Helsinki Commission Leaders Introduce Transnational Repression Accountability and Prevention (TRAP) Act

    WASHINGTON—Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) and Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) today introduced the Transnational Repression Accountability and Prevention (TRAP) Act (H.R. 4330) in the House of Representatives. Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) and Ranking Member Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) introduced the TRAP Act (S. 2483) in the Senate on Tuesday. The legislation addresses politically-motivated abuse of the International Criminal Police Organization (INTERPOL) by autocracies. “Today’s autocrats don’t simply try to silence journalists, activists, and other independent voices at home. They also hunt them down in their places of refuge abroad,” said Chairman Hastings. “Such repressive regimes even manipulate INTERPOL—a legitimate and potent tool for international law enforcement cooperation—to trap their targets using trumped-up requests for detention and extradition. The United States must act to prevent this flagrant abuse and protect those who fight for freedom, human rights, and the rule of law." “Instead of facing consequences for their serial abuse of INTERPOL, autocratic states like Russia and China have instead jockeyed for senior positions in the organization,” said Co-Chairman Wicker. “The United States and other democracies should impose real costs for this global assault on the rule of law. This legislation would ensure that the United States remains at the forefront of defending the vulnerable against the long arm of state repression.” “The Transnational Repression Accountability and Prevention Act continues the tradition of U.S. leadership in combating INTERPOL abuse, holding perpetrators accountable, and advancing necessary reforms within the U.S. Government and INTERPOL to respond to this threat,” said Rep. Wilson. “This legislation makes it clear that the United States stands on the side of freedom for those who defy repression, resist corruption, and defend human rights wherever they seek refuge and a voice.” “Autocratic regimes are increasingly exporting their repression overseas, including to our own country. The United States must respond more forcefully to these attacks against the rule of law and deter the serial abuse of INTERPOL by repressive governments,” said Sen. Cardin. “This legislation is critical to establishing stronger protections for dissidents and other independent voices whom these regimes wish to apprehend in the United States on politically motivated charges.” The Helsinki Commission regularly receives credible reports from political dissidents, human rights defenders, and members of the business community who are the subject of politically-motivated INTERPOL Notices and Diffusions requested by autocratic regimes. These mechanisms, which function effectively as extradition requests, can be based on trumped-up criminal charges and used to detain, harass, or otherwise persecute individuals for their activism or refusal to acquiesce to corrupt schemes. Following reports that U.S. immigration authorities have cited such politically-motivated INTERPOL requests to detain some individuals and consider removing them from the United States, the TRAP Act formally codifies strict limitations on how INTERPOL requests can be used by U.S. authorities. The TRAP Act further declares that it is the policy of the United States to pursue specific reforms within INTERPOL and use its diplomatic clout internationally to protect the rights of victims and denounce abusers. The bill requires the Departments of Justice, Homeland Security, and State, in consultation with other relevant agencies, to provide Congress with an assessment of autocratic abuse of INTERPOL, what the United States is doing to counteract it, and how to adapt United States policy to this evolving autocratic practice. The State Department would also be required to publicly report on the abuse of INTERPOL in its annual Country Reports on Human Rights to create a transparent, public record of these violations of the rule of law. Russia is among the world’s most prolific abusers of INTERPOL’s Notice and Diffusion mechanisms. Other participating States of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE)—principally Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Turkey—and other authoritarian states, such as China, also reportedly target political opponents with INTERPOL requests that violate key provisions of INTERPOL’s Constitution, which obligate the organization to uphold international human rights standards and strictly avoid involvement in politically-motivated charges. Original co-sponsors of the legislation include Helsinki Commission members Sen. Marco Rubio (FL), Sen. Cory Gardner (CO), Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (RI), Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (PA-01), Rep. Richard Hudson (NC-08), Rep. Gwen Moore (WI-04), and Rep. Marc Veasey (TX-33). Rep. John Curtis (UT-03), Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (TX-18), and Rep. Tom Malinowski (NJ-07) are also original co-sponsors.

  • TOOLS OF TRANSNATIONAL REPRESSION

    As modern technology has allowed political dissidents and human rights defenders to operate from almost anywhere on the planet, repressive regimes have searched for opportunities to reach those who threaten their rule from afar.  To silence dissent from abroad, autocrats often turn to the International Criminal Police Organization, known as INTERPOL, to file bogus criminal claims seeking the arrest and extradition of their political targets. This abuse of INTERPOL Red Notices and Diffusions enables autocratic governments to harass and intimidate their opponents thousands of miles away, even within free and democratic societies. The U.S. Helsinki Commission convened an expert panel to highlight how autocrats today use INTERPOL and other means such as surveillance, abduction, and assassination to punish dissent overseas. Witnesses suggested how the United States and other democratic nations can defend against these threats to the rule of law domestically and internationally.

  • Simulating a Baltic Security Crisis

    By Brittany Amador, Intern On August 29, 2019, U.S. Helsinki Commission personnel, joined by Congressional staff from several relevant offices, participated in a simulated security crisis in the Baltic region centered on the U.S. and NATO response to a hypothetical act of Russian aggression. The event followed the Helsinki Commission’s historic field hearing on Baltic Sea regional security, where members of Congress convened senior Allied and partner leaders from Poland, Lithuania, Estonia, Sweden, and Finland, as well as the United States European Command (EUCOM) and the U.S. Mission to NATO, to better understand current and evolving security threats in the region.  Participants in the simulation. Ambassador (ret.) John Heffern, a former Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Europe and Eurasian Affairs and Deputy Chief of Mission to the U.S. Mission to NATO, led the simulation. Ambassador Heffern, who currently serves as a Distinguished Fellow of Diplomacy and Entrepreneurship at Georgetown University, was assisted in the facilitation of the game by Andrew Carroll, an officer with the United States Air Force who recently completed his Max Kampelman Policy Fellowship at the Helsinki Commission. 2d Lt Andrew Carroll describing the parameters of the simulation. During the three-hour event, attendees played the roles of various regional actors, and debated possible actions in response to realistic scenario inputs. Participants were provided immediate feedback on their strategic decisions, knowing in real time the impact of their simulated actions. The scenario underlined the challenges and opportunities inherent in any response to a security crisis in the Baltic Sea region. Ambassador (ret.) John Heffern explaining tactical movements.

  • Why the Helsinki Commission still matters

    Forty four years ago, President Gerald Ford joined 35 other heads of state, including longstanding American adversaries, to sign one of the most significant international agreements of the 20th Century—the Final Act of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, better known as the Helsinki Accords. The accord committed the United States, Europe, and the Soviet Union to respect human rights, to manage the spread of dangerous weapons, to foster economic opportunity, and to ending the territorial disputes in Europe that had already twice plunged the world into war. The U.S. Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, better known as the Helsinki Commission, was created to uphold these commitments. Since its inception, the Helsinki Commission has provided a crucial voice for defending freedom, opportunity, and human rights across the world. Composed of members of Congress from both parties and chosen from the House and Senate, the Helsinki Commission represents our democracy’s commitment to preserving and advancing the peace, freedom, and prosperity across the world that previous generations of Americans sacrificed so much to achieve. That is why I am honored to be among the latest members of Congress to be appointed to serve on the Helsinki Commission. The world has changed dramatically since the Helsinki Commission began, but the need to defend the principles of freedom, opportunity and human rights is greater than ever. Rising authoritarian powers are contesting the principles of democracy like never before--these powers are undermining a fair and free electoral process by interfering with elections across the democratic west and directly invading their neighbors. The most shocking part is that the United States’ own commitment to values is being challenged from within—from the very officeholder once considered the leader of the free world. The challenges that democracies face today signify the work that this Commission is doing is now more important than ever. Who better to respond to a president who rejects the pillars of traditional American foreign policy than a bipartisan commission composed of members of Congress? I am hopeful that my Republican colleagues on this Commission, who understand the importance of American leadership on the issues of human rights and democracy, will feel the same way. I am eager to get to work and face the challenges that this position presents. I look forward to having the opportunity to make a positive impact on the world, as well as ensuring that the priorities of the great state of Texas are represented on an international stage. It’s on those of us entrusted by the American people with representing them in Congress to make clear to the world that despite what they may hear from the White House, our country is still the same country that showed up, negotiated and implemented the Helsinki Accords—one that leads in defending freedom, opportunity and human rights across the world. Congressman Marc Veasey is a proud representative of Texas’ 33rd District in the U.S. House of Representatives.

  • Helsinki Commission Hearing to Probe Autocratic Abuse of Interpol

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following hearing: TOOLS OF TRANSNATIONAL REPRESSION How Autocrats Punish Dissent Overseas Thursday, September 12, 2019 10:00 a.m. – 12:00 p.m. Cannon House Office Building Room 210 Live Webcast: www.youtube.com/HelsinkiCommission As modern technology has allowed political dissidents and human rights defenders to operate from almost anywhere on the planet, repressive regimes have searched for opportunities to reach those who threaten their rule from afar.  To silence dissent from abroad, autocrats often turn to the International Criminal Police Organization, known as INTERPOL, to file bogus criminal claims seeking the arrest and extradition of their political targets. This abuse of INTERPOL Red Notices and Diffusions enables autocratic governments to harass and intimidate their opponents thousands of miles away, even within free and democratic societies. The U.S. Helsinki Commission will convene an expert panel to highlight how autocrats today use INTERPOL and other means such as surveillance, abduction, and assassination to punish dissent overseas. Witnesses will suggest how the United States and other democratic nations can defend against these threats to the rule of law domestically and internationally. The following witnesses are scheduled to participate: Alexander Cooley, Director, Columbia University's Harriman Institute for the Study of Russia, Eurasia and Eastern Europe; Claire Tow Professor of Political Science, Barnard College Sandra A. Grossman, Partner, Grossman Young & Hammond, Immigration Law, LLC Bruno Min, Senior Legal and Policy Advisor, Fair Trials Nate Schenkkan, Director for Special Research, Freedom House Additional witnesses may be added.

  • A Push to Let the U.S. Charge Foreign Officials With Bribery

    One of the hallmarks of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act has been that it cannot be used against a foreign official who demands or takes a bribe for helping a company win a contract or retain business. A bill introduced in Congress this month seeks to change that. Called the Foreign Extortion Prevention Act, the legislation would expand the prohibition on bribery to foreign officials who demanded or solicited bribes. The Foreign Corrupt Practices Act’s prohibition on paying bribes abroad is limited to companies in the United States and those acting in this country. It has always excluded the foreign official who takes the bribe, and courts over the years have reaffirmed that. In United States v. Castle, a 1991 decision, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit found that two Canadian officials could not be prosecuted for a conspiracy to violate the F.C.P.A. because Congress exempted foreign officials. In United States v. Hoskins, a 2018 ruling, the federal appeals court in Manhattan held that a foreign national who was never in the United States could not be prosecuted under the foreign bribery law because “Congress did not intend for persons outside of the statute’s carefully delimited categories to be subject to conspiracy or complicity liability.” The bill, which has both Democrats and Republicans as sponsors, would put the prohibition on a foreign official’s accepting a bribe under the federal anti-bribery statute, 18 U.S.C. § 201, rather than the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. The proposal would also make it a crime for a foreign official “otherwise than as provided by law for the proper discharge of official duty” to demand or accept anything of value for being influenced in the performance of official responsibilities. But putting the prohibition under the federal anti-bribery statute would subject it to the limitations the Supreme Court placed on the law in its 2016 ruling in McDonnell v. United States. That case overturned the conviction of a former governor of Virginia by rejecting a broad reading of what is an “official act.” The justices explained that it must involve “a formal exercise of governmental power that is similar in nature to a lawsuit, administrative determination or hearing.” They found that “merely setting up a meeting, hosting an event or contacting an official — without more — does not count as an ‘official act.’” Favoring a business by arranging meetings or contacting other foreign officials to help it win a contract may not rise to the level of an “official act,” especially if the foreign official who received the bribe did not have the direct authority to decide who should be awarded a contract. So the potential limitations on the federal bribery statute could be read into prosecutions of foreign officials for accepting bribes that violated the F.C.P.A. The F.C.P.A. also contains two defenses that were added in 1988. One is the “local law” defense, which allows a defendant to show that under the written laws and regulations of the place where the bribe occurred that it was not illegal. Another defense permits small “facilitation payments” to obtain routine government action in the country. In both situations, a foreign official could argue that these defenses should preclude liability for accepting a payment. A greater potential issue for the Justice Department if the legislation becomes law is whether a foreign official will be brought to the United States to face a criminal charge. If the person is still in office, a foreign government may be reluctant to send the person to America. But a criminal indictment would most likely limit where the foreign official could travel. The person would need to avoid countries that have an extradition treaty with the United States. The Department of Justice has not been without tools to punish foreign officials who engage in bribery. The money-laundering statute allows a foreign official receiving money through bribery, misappropriation or theft of public funds to be charged with a crime. Federal prosecutors could also use the Travel Act, which prohibits traveling into the United States to engage in bribery. Both statutes, though, require either travel to the United States or a financial transaction using the United States financial system. The new legislation would make it much easier to pursue a foreign official. The Justice Department would not have to show a connection to the United States beyond a payment by an American company. Whether it would result in an increase in prosecutions is a different question. Still, simply charging the official could have the effect of identifying who was responsible in a country for accepting illegal bribes. That should make it easier for American companies and their employees to demand fairness from foreign officials rather than being extorted for payments.

  • Representatives Jackson Lee, Curtis, Malinowski, and Hudson Introduce Foreign Extortion Prevention Act

    WASHINGTON—Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (TX-18), Rep. John Curtis (UT-03), Rep. Tom Malinowski (NJ-07) and Rep. Richard Hudson (NC-08) today introduced the Foreign Extortion Prevention Act. The legislation, developed with the support of the U.S. Helsinki Commission, will criminalize extortion by foreign officials, enabling the Department of Justice to indict such officials for demanding bribes to fulfill, neglect, or violate their official duties. Currently, only paying or offering a bribe abroad is illegal under U.S. law. “Transnational kleptocrats pose a serious national security threat to the United States. They act as agents of U.S. adversaries, undermining the rule of law internationally and in their own countries, and accessing elite circles and levers of power in democracies through strategic graft and corruption. U.S. prosecutors have been able to indict such individuals under criminal statutes such as wire fraud, mail fraud, and the Travel Act; however, these laws were not designed to tackle the problem of transnational kleptocracy, and each contain deficiencies which make it less than ideal for prosecuting foreign extortion. We cannot leave our prosecutors without the legal tools they need to protect the rule of law,” said Rep. Jackson Lee. “U.S. businesses abroad are regularly targeted by foreign extortionists. Transnational kleptocrats hide under the veneer of officialdom and abuse their power to warp the regulatory environment, attempting to co-opt or eliminate legitimate job-creators and entrepreneurs who follow the rules. The Foreign Extortion Prevention Act would protect U.S. businesses from these individuals by punishing the demand side of bribery. Currently, a business being extorted for a bribe can only say ‘I can’t pay you a bribe because it is illegal and I might get arrested.’ This long-overdue bill would enable them to add, ‘and so will you,’” said Rep. Curtis. “Americans who pay bribes overseas can be prosecuted—with this bill, our prosecutors will be able to go after the foreign officials who demand those bribes. We’re giving the Justice Department a powerful new tool to fight the kleptocracy that impoverishes people and empowers dictators around the world,” said Rep. Malinowski. “Pursuing the extortionists is crucial to ending the entire system of international bribery. Even if a kleptocrat cannot be immediately extradited, a U.S. indictment serves as a play-by-play of the crime committed that can be used to support additional measures—such as sanctions—and can force transnational criminals to think twice before traveling abroad to spend their ill-gotten gains. Moreover, a U.S. indictment can help the forces of the rule of law in other countries to root out corruption by pressuring the domestic government in question to charge the individual,” said Rep. Hudson. The Foreign Extortion Prevention Act will bring U.S. laws in line with international best practices. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), which maintains the OECD Anti-Bribery Convention—a key international mechanism for fighting foreign bribery—has recognized the importance of criminalizing transnational extortion in a recent report. In addition, countries including the United Kingdom, France, the Netherlands, and Switzerland have already criminalized foreign extortion. The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the U.S. Helsinki Commission, endeavors to counter corruption and malign influence in all its forms. Current and former Helsinki Commissioners have sponsored and cosponsored other anti-corruption legislation such as the Countering Russian and Other Overseas Kleptocracy (CROOK) Act (H.R. 3843), the Kleptocrat Exposure Act (H.R. 3441), and the Rodchenkov Anti-Doping Act (H.R. 835/S.259).

  • First Person: The Role of Peace Corps in Promoting Democracy

    By Gabriel Cortez, Charles B. Rangel Fellow & Returned Peace Corps Volunteer, Ukraine 2016-2019 Getting a high five has never felt as satisfying as it did in rural Ukraine. Even after three years serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer I cannot help but smile every time I remember one of my students extending their hand out for a “dye pyat.” I grew up in a large Mexican-American family in small-town California. Removed from the centers of international politics, the only diplomacy I knew was my brothers and sisters deciding who could use the family TV and when. Even as a kid I knew I wanted to be a part of something greater, to explore not only the United States but the other countries around the world, the ones they talked about in the news. The Peace Corps gave me and thousands of others that opportunity. For 58 years, the Peace Corps has sent Americans young and old to live and work in communities worldwide. Over 235,000 volunteers have served in 141 countries, ranging from Mongolia and Albania to Morocco and China. Volunteers commit to 27 months of service in the country they serve, working in several sectors including education, health, agriculture, community development, and youth development. As of July 2019, there are around 7,000 Peace Corps volunteers serving in 62 countries. Montenegro, an OSCE participating State, is the newest addition to the Peace Corps family, with volunteers slated to launch the program in 2020. The promotion of democracy is one of the central tenets of the Organization on Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the Helsinki Final Accords. To that end, the Helsinki Commission has monitored aspects of the transition to democracy throughout Europe, including challenges to the rule of law, free and fair elections, and the impact of corruption. Peace Corps volunteers work concurrently in this field to demonstrate the strength democracy brings and help promote civic engagement in their sites. Schoolchildren from my site participating in an English Language Summer Camp in Krasyliv, Ukraine. When President John F. Kennedy created the Peace Corps in 1961, the program was designed for large groups of Americans to live abroad and promote the American way of life, including the best aspects of democracy. That mission continues today in the OSCE region, with volunteers serving in Ukraine and eight other OSCE countries, including Armenia, Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, and Mongolia. My Peace Corps service began in September 2016 but was inspired years prior. In 2014, when the Maidan Revolution occurred, I watched it on TV with amazement, drawn by the images of Ukrainians from all walks of life marching on their capital to advocate for a better future. Already eager to work with the Peace Corps, I knew from that moment that Ukraine was the country I wanted to serve in as a volunteer. Peace Corps Ukraine, which began in 1992, is the largest Peace Corps program operating anywhere in the world. Nearly 300 volunteers have served in the education, youth development, and community development sectors, as well as the President’s Emergency Plan for Emergency AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) programs. When volunteers arrive, they dedicate the first three months to training, learning the Ukrainian and/or Russian languages, discovering local culture, and exploring Ukraine’s history. After training, volunteers move to their permanent sites where they live and work for two years, tasked with the three goals of the Peace Corps. The first goal of Peace Corps is “to help the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women.” For Ukraine, this translates to projects focusing on English education, combatting corruption, and working with youth to develop healthy lifestyles. Since gaining independence in 1991, Ukraine has made progress in reorienting itself to the West; a strong partnership with the U.S. has been crucial in this journey. Peace Corps volunteers contribute to this mission every day. Whether it is through teaching English at schools, organizing a summer camp on gender rights, or helping a local NGO secure a grant to fund health projects, Peace Corps volunteers have a tremendous impact on the communities they live in. Volunteers ultimately help promote entrepreneurship and civic engagement, critical facets of the Helsinki Accords. The second goal, and perhaps the most important in Peace Corps Ukraine, is “to help promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served.” As a former Soviet country, Ukrainians were disconnected from the world for over 70 years, learning about the United States through the limited movies, newspapers, and clothes smuggled past the Iron Curtain. Today, Peace Corps volunteers act as a bridge between both countries, promoting a positive image of the U.S. and bringing back a better understanding of Ukrainian culture. In communities like the one I served in, a small town with no other Americans, a volunteer’s presence is truly felt. I led discussions on race and gender, hosted events highlighting different American groups, introduced my students to American holidays, and much more. Acting as a cultural ambassador is an honor for any Peace Corps volunteer, and a role the program is founded upon. The third and final goal of the Peace Corps is “to help promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.” Volunteers return from service eager to share their experiences with their friends and families. This may include organizing a speech at a local school, attending a Ukrainian-American event, or even joining an organization that focuses on Ukrainian issues. This allows returned Peace Corps volunteers the chance to talk to Americans about their experience in the country: their successes, challenges, memories, and more. In turn, Americans learn about Ukraine and other countries they have never had experience with or knowledge of. Teacher training at the Window on America in Kharkiv, Ukraine The Peace Corps is a unique agency that continues to change lives all over the world and receive bipartisan support in Congress. On the 49th anniversary of the Peace Corps, Co-Chairman of the Helsinki Commission Senator Roger Wicker (MS) noted, “The Peace Corps invests time and talent in other countries, but it pays dividends back here in the United States as well.” Helsinki Commissioner Ranking Member Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) reaffirmed his support of the Peace Corps on its 55th anniversary, stating, “Peace Corps volunteers represent the best qualities of American foreign policy. They come from all walks of life and from across the country [and] are saving lives. I could not be more proud of these Americans.” The introduction of the bipartisan H.R.3456 - Peace Corps Reauthorization Act of 2019 demonstrates Congress’ commitment to the Peace Corps. Helsinki Commissioners Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), Sheila Jackson Lee (TX-18), and Gwen Moore (WI-4) are co-sponsors of the bill, which would increase support for current and returned Peace Corps volunteers. Peace Corps volunteers work every day to develop the foundational tenets outlined by the Helsinki Accords. From promoting tolerance and non-discrimination, to developing education programs, to confronting corruption, Peace Corps volunteers exhibit the strength of the partnerships between OSCE participating States and work to improve the lives of others. True progress is rooted in the sustainable and long-term projects of Peace Corps volunteers and their communities. In Ukraine, I saw firsthand the impact the Peace Corps can have in developing communities: a summer leadership camp for middle school students, a newly built community center with music and dance classes in a small village, and an accounting transparency workshop that reduced corruption in several city management offices. Substantive changes are happening every day in villages, towns, and cities across the country and throughout Peace Corps-partnered OSCE countries. Peace Corps volunteers exemplify the foundations of the Helsinki Accords, promote democracy abroad, and help bolster OSCE participating States and other nations like Ukraine build a bright, hopeful, and prosperous future, one high-five at a time.

  • Hastings and Wicker Condemn Police Crackdown on Russian Pro-Democracy Protesters and Opposition Leader Alexei Navalny

    WASHINGTON—Following violent police crackdowns on protesters during a weekend of pro-democratic demonstrations in Moscow, as well as the arrest of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny days before the protest and his subsequent hospitalization, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) and Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) issued the following statement: “We condemn the extraordinary use of force by riot police against peaceful protesters in Moscow seeking a free and fair electoral process. Ahead of the upcoming September 8 municipal elections, we hope that the citizens of Russia will be able to exercise their rights to participate freely in the democratic process, including voicing their opinion about the transparency of the system of voting and nomination of candidates. “We also are concerned about the health of opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who was arrested on Wednesday, July 24, and subsequently hospitalized following an unknown ‘allergic reaction.’ We will be monitoring the situation closely.” Last weekend, thousands of Russian people took to the streets of Moscow to protest the exclusion of several opposition candidates from the ballot for upcoming City Duma municipal elections on September 8. On July 24, Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny was arrested, reportedly for his plans to lead the protests. On Sunday, July 28, Navalny’s spokeswoman Kira Yarmysh announced that Navalny suddenly had been hospitalized while in government custody.

  • FIRST PERSON: UKRAINIAN PARLIAMENTARY ELECTIONS

    By Alex Tiersky, Senior Policy Advisor, Global Security and Political-Military Affairs   “Why aren’t you doing your job?!” An unexpectedly tense early morning on July 21, 2019—Election Day in Ukraine: the polling station was more than 30 minutes late in opening. The shouted reprimand came from a voter, an older man who was one of several Kyiv residents who had been present and seeking to vote at this school in the center of the Ukrainian capital since well before 8:00 a.m., when the polls for the national parliamentary elections were supposed to open. His indignation was directed at the beleaguered leadership of the local polling station, who struggled to organize their work and follow the extensive procedures required to meet Ukrainian law and international best practices. *** As an official election observer representing the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, I was at the polling station to observe the extent to which those best practices were followed. With my capable interpreter Natalya beside me, and in partnership with my experienced observation team partner Latvian MP Aleksandrs Kiršteins, I had arrived days earlier on the invitation of the Ukrainian government for a series of preparatory briefings. On Election Day, we would follow a prescribed plan of observation as part of a larger team of more than 800 international observers spread across Ukraine (with the exception of illegally occupied Crimea, and the Donbas region under the occupation of Russian-controlled forces, where holding a free and fair election would be impossible). *** The disorganized polling station was the first stop of the day for our team. While this was my first time serving as an election observer, I didn’t need the extensive and detailed procedural checklist and questionnaire provided by the OSCE to know that something was seriously amiss. My Latvian colleague confirmed, based on his extensive observation experience, that the situation was extremely unusual. The key problem seemed to be that the leadership of the team responsible for proper running of the polling station (the chair and the secretary, among others), recently had been replaced and the newcomers had little experience with their assigned duties. It was clear that they had done precious little preparation to be able to effectively direct the work of their team on Election Day. We had been warned during the extensive pre-election briefings provided by the OSCE that many local election officials across Ukraine had been replaced. The experts were concerned that this loss of institutional memory had the potential to hamper the operations of local electoral bodies—a warning that, in our case, proved prescient. At 8:45 a.m., a full 45 minutes after its scheduled opening time and to the relief of several increasingly agitated voters and local observers, the polling station finally began to process votes. Judging that tensions at the school building had de-escalated and the situation had achieved some normalcy, we dutifully finalized our observation—promptly reporting our findings to the OSCE election experts compiling statistics from other teams deployed across the country—and moved on to observe voting procedures at several other polling stations. Before leaving, given the challenges at the polling station, we resolved to return in the evening to observe closing procedures and the counting of the vote. *** We spent much of the rest of the day visiting several polling stations in the west of Kyiv. Contrary to our first observation, all the other polling stations we visited were extremely well-organized, with experienced and well-functioning teams of officials ensuring an orderly and transparent voting process. The civic pride demonstrated by the election officials and voters in properly exercising their democratic choice was evident in each location we visited. We witnessed voters of all ages casting their ballots in serene conditions, which we learned from other observation teams was largely the norm across Ukraine that day. *** As the afternoon turned to evening, it was time to return to our initial polling station to assess closing procedures and the start of the counting of ballots. With the station closing as planned at 8 p.m. on the dot, we were quietly hopeful that the morning’s problems had been resolved. Our optimism quickly proved misguided. The election officials were even more poorly directed by their leadership than they had been in the early hours of the day. After two hours of inconclusive progress toward beginning a count of actual ballots, the procedures ground to a halt in a cloud of remonstrations among several hard-working poll workers and local observers on one hand, and the polling station’s leadership on the other. In what I understood to be an extremely unusual development, the majority of the poll workers essentially sidelined their grievously underperforming leadership on the spot in order to better organize themselves. At this point, we needed to return to our home base to report on our observation, leaving behind several other international and local observers to witness what surely would be a long and challenging night of tabulation of ballots. *** As we returned to the hotel, I reflected on the day’s remarkable events. It struck me how counterintuitive some might find it that we had been allowed to witness the poor performance by the leadership of this particular polling station. After all, who wants to air their dirty laundry in front of international observers taking careful note of every discrepancy? It was then, for the first time, that I truly understood the key purpose of our election observation mission. OSCE participating States like Ukraine make the choice to invite international observation missions to their elections precisely because only in providing full transparency can a fair judgment on the electoral process be made. In other words, our observation and reporting of the procedural imperfections we witnessed only underlined the relatively excellent performance witnessed by observation teams in the vast majority of other polling stations across Ukraine. Only through the full transparency provided by impartial external observers using a standardized methodology can the people of Ukraine be sure that their electoral process, to the maximum extent possible, allows for the full and fair expression of their democratic choice. I feel honored to have been able to play even a very small part in this extremely consequential democratic process, and to help an OSCE participating State hold itself accountable to its commitment to the rule of law. I am already looking forward to the next opportunity to serve as an election observer.

  • INVASION AND REVISION

    By Annie Lentz, Max Kampelman Fellow The Soviet-Afghan War, which lasted for more than nine years, began with the December 1979 invasion following a Soviet-orchestrated coup and the subsequent appointment of Soviet loyalist Babrak Karmal as president of a communist Afghan government. The coup was a direct violation of international law and global norms as Afghanistan was—and remains—a sovereign and independent nation. In June 1981, two Mujahideen insurgent coalitions—one moderate, one fundamentalist—formed to combat Soviet influence over the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan. These new groups contributed to an increase in organized, effective guerilla attacks against Soviet forces, leading to the eventual Soviet withdrawal from the country following their failure to quell the Mujahideen insurgency.  Four years earlier, the Soviet Union signed a collection of international agreements—including the Helsinki Final Act—committing to respect the rights of sovereign nations. By signing the Helsinki Final Act, the Soviet Union and 34 other countries pledged to refrain from exercising the threat or use of force, to observe the rights of peoples to self-determination, and to accept international principles of conduct, all commitments that the Soviet Union violated by invading Afghanistan. On July 22, 1981, during the early stages of the Soviet-Afghan war and shortly after the mobilization of the new Mujahideen coalitions, the U.S. Helsinki Commission held a hearing, “Soviet Violation of Helsinki Final Act: Invasion of Afghanistan,” to examine how the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan was not only a violation of international law but also of the terms of the Helsinki Final Act. Then-Chairman Rep. Dante Fascell chaired the hearing, saying, “The Soviet invasion has clearly undermined the spirit and intentions of the principles embodied in the Final Act. Most importantly the invasion of this formerly independent state has severely damaged the international climate and has done great harm to East-West relations.” Rep. Don Bonker, then-Chairman of the House Subcommittee on Human Rights and International Organizations, noted, “There is hardly a single international agreement, treaty, rule of law, custom or civilized behavior that the Soviets have not violated during their bloody occupation and suppression of the Afghan population.” He went on to urge the Reagan administration to use U.S. allies to convince the Soviets that an independent Afghanistan was in the best interest of all parties. Prior to the Helsinki Commission hearing, the international community’s response to the Soviet Union had been growing more severe. On top of escalating sanctions and embargoes which exasperated tensions from the Cold War, in 1980, the U.S. led a boycott of the Summer Olympics hosted in Moscow. In 1984, the Soviet Union did the same to the Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. The retaliatory actions continued through the end of the war, deepening the strain between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. Despite the signing of the Geneva Accords (1988), an international agreement aimed to resolve the situation in Afghanistan, the Mujahideen refused to accept the terms and continued fighting until Soviet forces (or the Soviet military) withdrew in 1989. The conflict resulted in upwards of two million civilian casualties and forced 5.5 million Afghans to flee as refugees. The failure of Soviet forces to win the war or quell the Mujahideen insurgency is thought to have contributed to the collapse of the Soviet Union. The failure to win the Cold War proxy battle having an extensive impact on Soviet politics and the perceived legitimacy of the Soviet government. The Soviet-Afghan War left the Afghan government in ruins. It would take years for significant progress to be made, and even then, the deteriorated state of the government and the economy left the country susceptible to extremist groups. In 1999 the United Nations Security Council adopted Resolution 1267 to combat terrorist entities in the country, including the Taliban, which can trace its origins to the aftermath of the Soviet-Afghan War. Unfortunately, the UN’s efforts proved insufficient, allowing for the rise of Al-Qaeda and other extremist groups. For the past few decades, the Helsinki Commission has worked closely to promote human rights and security in Afghanistan, holding hearings to support the country’s progress and recovery. The Commission has also worked to ensure the U.S. upholds its own international commitments. The Russian Government remembers the conflict differently. The Kremlin is using the 30th anniversary of Soviet troop withdraw for political gains, passing legislation this year to subsequently justify the conflict. Such legislation continues Vladimir Putin’s trend of historical revisionism and deepens the divide between the Kremlin’s political narrative and history.

  • Truth, Reconciliation, and Healing

      Today, many countries seek to address historic wrongs, heal wounds, bridge divisions, and build a shared future. Truth and reconciliation efforts to encourage restitution, reparations, and restorative justice have been called for in many places, including the United States, Western Europe, Canada, and the Balkans, while Holocaust survivors and other victims of Nazi persecution continue to seek justice worldwide. In June, Amsterdam city councilors voted to apologize for the city’s role in the transatlantic slave trade. In April, Belgium’s Prime Minister Charles Michel apologized for the kidnapping of thousands of children born to mixed-race couples during its colonial rule in several African countries.  In 2015, Sweden published a historic white paper on abuses and rights violations against Roma in the 20th century.  A decade ago, Canada established a reconciliation process in response to the Indian Residential School legacy, which forced First Nation children to attend government-funded boarding schools. On July 18th, 2019, the U.S. Helsinki Commission held a briefing entitled, “Truth, Reconciliation and Healing: Towards a Unified Future,” where expert panelists reviewed lessons learned and discussed ways to heal and reunify societies divided by war, genocide, hierarchal systems of human value, and other tragedies stemming from extreme nationalism, racism, anti-Semitism, and other forms of ethnic and religious discrimination. Speakers addressed official government apologies, truth and reconciliation processes, restitution, reparations, and other policy prescriptions that have been used or are currently being considered to address historic wrongs and unify citizens in countries across Europe and North America. According to Dr. Gail C. Christopher, “this country was built over two and a half centuries with the deeply embedded fallacy of a hierarchy of human value, that some human beings just simply don’t have value.” She continued, “racism, anti-Semitism, religious bias, extremism, xenophobia – they all have their root in this fundamental fallacy of a hierarchy of human value. […] Our country has a history of enslaving people, committing genocide among Indigenous people, and embracing centuries of institutionalized racism [additionally] inequities caused by racism [are] costing our nation almost $2 trillion annually in lost purchasing power, reduced job opportunities, and diminished productivity.”  She went on to note that unlike other countries that have endured war, sectarian or racial strife, the United States has never undertaken a comprehensive Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) or other process, undergirding the antiquated belief in a hierarchical separation of races.  To address this problem, she discussed her efforts to adapt a truth and reconciliation process across America based upon “truth, racial healing, and transformation.”    Ambassador Stuart Eizenstat discussed his work over three U.S. administrations to provide belated justice for victims of the Holocaust and other victims of Nazi tyranny during World War II, as a Special Representative of the President and Secretary of State on Holocaust-era issues. “I’ve negotiated $17 billion in recoveries for Holocaust survivors who suffered under the Nazis.  Eight billion as a U.S. government representative under Clinton and Obama administrations and $9 billion as the chief negotiator for the Jewish claims conference in our annual negotiations with Germany,” he stated.  The payments covered everything from forced enslaved labor, unpaid insurance policies, to looted works of art including for non-Jews in some cases.  His other efforts included a presidential commission on the Holocaust led by Eli Wiesel that led to the creation of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and $5 billion for a German remembrance foundation. He also described how Jewish refugees were refused entry into some countries, or their assets confiscated and then used to finance Nazi war efforts.  Citing the Justice for Uncompensated Holocaust Survivors (JUST) Act, he called for Congress to hold hearings on findings from a report to be released in November 2019 on whether countries have met their commitments under the Terezin Declaration. Former Flemish Christian and Democratic Party (CD&V) Councilwoman Tracy Tansia Bibo spoke in her video testimony about recent efforts to address the horrors of Belgian colonialism from the period of Leopold II through the 1960s where people's hands were cut off when they did not reach their rubber quota, communities and villages burned in response to uprisings and women were raped.  As one of the authors of Belgian legislation that led to an apology from the Prime Minister, Councilwoman Bibo described efforts to provide reparations and other means of redress for the kidnapping and forced adoption of close to 20,000 children from former Belgian colonies in Burundi, Congo, and Rwanda.  She noted that in addition to the apology, archives had been opened and travel assistance provided to support families in finding one another.  With the work of the Belgian government on hold since the last elections, she highlighted continuing efforts towards reconciliation and healing for Belgium and its former colony, including open societal dialogue; recognition of colonization and its modern day-effects; education and knowledge about colonization and racism; and reparations to address social and economic inequities stemming from institutional racism and colonization. “It's hard to talk about reparations,” she said. “Reparations is about fighting racial inequalities created by political systems that in the past were maintained by a privileged group. Hearings to determine exactly what this recovery means are therefore necessary… What if we finance programmes that, for example, aim to provide better health care for the black population who, according to studies, are more affected by certain diseases? What if we eliminate inequality in education by means of targeted programmes? Reparations is about more than handing out cheques to the black population. It is about eliminating inequalities.” Dutch Councilman and ChristienUnie Party Leader Don Ceder shared a European perspective on truth and reconciliation efforts, following his role in passing June 2019 legislation calling for a formal apology for the city of Amsterdam’s role in enslaving close to 600,000 Africans in the colonies and the Netherlands being the largest slave trader between West African and South America in the 17th century.  The apology is scheduled to take place July 1, 2020 on the Dutch day of remembering the abolition of slavery also known as Keti Koti - a Surinamese term that means “the chains are broken.”  According to Ceder, the effort was a result of seven political parties coming together because, “we see that a formal apology for the shared past is a mature step to a consolidated shared future in Amsterdam [in part because] though slavery has been abolished since 1863 in the Netherlands, the traces remain visible everywhere around the city today.”  Amsterdam will join cities such as Liverpool and Charleston and countries such as Benin and Ghana in issuing formal apologies for their participation in racial oppression, in addition to the European Parliament calling for all Member states to apologize for their roles.  Ceder recognized that a new narrative may be needed to redefine Amsterdam with the understanding that withholding truth only creates an obstacle to a unified future.    Dr. Diane Orentlicher cited numerous lessons learned from her work in Bosnia-Herzegovina. “Experience in many countries has shown that, unless they are adequately addressed, historic wrongs leave deep wounds, whose toxic legacy afflicts not only victims but whole societies.  […] Social divisions rooted in wrongs and oppression will not be fixed without an honest reckoning, including a robust acknowledgement and condemnation of the original wrongs and a determination to address their toxic legacies.”  Listing “denial” and “silence” as some of the main barriers to societies recovering from tragedy, she stated, “I do not believe Bosnia can become unified in any meaningful sense until public officials and other elites, as well as ordinary citizens, acknowledge the full extent of atrocities committed by members of their in-group and unequivocally condemn their crimes.“  Acknowledging that addressing historic wrongs can be painful, she noted the importance of honesty, bringing people together, courageous and innovative leadership, and persistence.

  • Representatives Keating and Fitzpatrick Introduce Countering Russian and Other Overseas Kleptocracy (CROOK) Act

    WASHINGTON—Rep. Bill Keating (MA-10) and Helsinki Commissioner Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (PA-01) today introduced the Countering Russian and Other Overseas Kleptocracy (CROOK) Act. The CROOK Act will establish an anti-corruption action fund to provide extra funding during historic windows of opportunity for reform in foreign countries as well as streamline the U.S. Government’s work building the rule of law abroad. “Russia and other authoritarian states have weaponized corruption, and exposing and countering that malign influence needs to be a priority. For too long, Russian President Vladimir Putin and other Russian politicians and oligarchs have acted with impunity, manipulating U.S. and European financial systems to move and disguise their ill-gotten gains. Their illicit funds are being used to control key economic sectors, fund political parties and organizations that advance Russian interests, and manipulate political processes and policies. The CROOK Act will help prevent Russian and other forms of kleptocracy from eroding democracy, security, and rule of law,” said Rep. Keating. “To counter the weaponization of corruption, the United States must double down on its work to promote the rule of law abroad. However, opportunities for the establishment of the rule of law are rare and success requires that the United States act quickly when reformers come to power and seek to root out corruption. The United States also must take a whole-of-government approach to ensuring that resources are being used effectively and that different U.S. Government agencies are not acting at cross-purposes,” said Rep. Fitzpatrick. The anti-corruption action fund established in the legislation will be funded by 5 percent of fines and penalties imposed pursuant to actions brought under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA). This way, a portion of the monies obtained under the enforcement of the FCPA will be recycled back into further international anti-corruption work. The legislation also establishes several complementary mechanisms to generate a whole-of-government approach to U.S. efforts to strengthen the rule of law abroad. These include an interagency taskforce, the designation of embassy anti-corruption points of contact, and a consolidated online platform for easy access to anti-corruption reports and materials. The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the U.S. Helsinki Commission, endeavors to counter corruption and malign influence in all its forms. Helsinki Commissioners have sponsored and cosponsored other anti-corruption legislation such as the Kleptocrat Exposure Act (H.R. 3441) and the Rodchenkov Anti-Doping Act (H.R. 835). All House Helsinki Commissioners are original cosponsors of the bill. This includes Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20), Helsinki Commission Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02), and Helsinki Commissioners Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), Rep. Robert Aderholt (AL-04), Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (TX-18), Rep. Richard Hudson (NC-08), and Rep. Gwen Moore (WI-04). Rep. John Curtis (UT-03), Rep. Tom Suozzi (NY-03), and Rep. Tom Malinowski (NJ-07) are also original cosponsors  of the legislation.

  • HELSINKI COMMISSIONERS VISIT HUNGARY

    Pictured: Mate Szabo, Hungarian Civil Liberties Union (left) meets with Representative Tom Cole (right). From July 1 to July 3, three members of the U.S. Helsinki Commission visited Hungary as part of a bipartisan delegation led by House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer. The delegation included Senator Benjamin L. Cardin, Ranking Senate Commissioner and OSCE Parliamentary Assembly Special Representative on Anti-Semitism, Racism and Intolerance, as well as Commissioners Steve Cohen and Gwen Moore. It was the largest congressional delegation to visit Hungary in at least three years.  From left: Rep. Garret Graves, Rep. Val Demings, Helsinki Commissioner Rep. Steve Cohen, Helsinki Commission Ranking Member Sen. Ben Cardin, Amb. David Cornstein, House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, Minister of the Prime Minister’s Office Gergely Guylas, Rep. Tom Cole,  Helsinki Commissioner Rep. Gwen Moore, Rep. Gregory Meeks The delegation met with civil society representatives; independent investigative journalists; analysts with expertise on corruption, Russian malign influence, and security; experts on the judiciary; and democratic opposition representatives. In addition, the delegation met with the rector of Central European University and the head of Hungary’s Jewish communities. The delegation requested meetings with the Prime Minister, Minister of Foreign Affairs and Speaker of the Hungarian parliament. During the visit, the Members of Congress had an exchange of views with Gergely Gulyás, the Prime Minister’s Chief of Staff, and Zsolt Nemeth, the chair of the Hungarian National Assembly foreign affairs committee.  U.S. Ambassador to Hungary David Cornstein welcomed the delegation and accompanied the Members to their meetings, also hearing the diverse concerns raised. The purpose of the visit was to strengthen support for the shared principles of democracy and collective security to which the United States and Hungary have jointly committed and with a view to safeguarding fundamental freedoms, democracy, and the rule of law. In meetings with government officials, the members welcomed the Hungarian parliament’s approval of the Defense Cooperation Agreement on July 2. Following the conclusion of their visit to Hungary, the delegation traveled to Luxembourg to participate in the annual session of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly. Members of the delegation also spoke about their visit to Hungary at the Parliamentary Assembly meeting. Members of the Congressional delegation at the statue in Budapest of President Ronald Reagan. The statue was erected in 2011 to honor the American president’s efforts to end communism. It is on Liberty Square, facing the U.S. Embassy, with the Hungarian parliament visible in the background. Majority Leader Hoyer served as chair and co-chair of the Helsinki Commission (positions that rotate between the House of Representatives and Senate) from 1985 to 1994. During that critical period of transition before and during the fall of communism, he made Central Europe a focus of the Commission’s efforts to support human rights and democracy. He led delegations to Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, the German Democratic Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Romania, working closely with Secretaries of State George Schultz, James Baker, and Warren Christopher to advance democracy in the region. He also chaired roughly a dozen hearings focused specifically on human rights in Central Europe, including minority rights and religious liberties. As chairman of the Helsinki Commission, Majority Leader Hoyer participated in the 1989 Paris Meeting of the Conference on the Human Dimension and personally introduced a Helsinki Commission initiative that became a formal U.S. proposal: a call for free and fair elections throughout the OSCE region. That U.S. proposal became a key element of the 1990 Copenhagen meeting a year later and set the stage for the subsequent framework for OSCE election observation. Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (right) meets with independent journalists Szabolcs Panyi (left) and Anita Komuves (center). Photo: Attila Németh/U.S. Embassy or fotó: Németh Attila/Amerikai Nagykövetség. Majority Leader Hoyer also represented the United States at the 1991 Moscow Conference on the Human Dimension, a meeting notable for taking place shortly after the August coup attempt in Russia. The Moscow Concluding Document included an unprecedented provision explicitly recognizing that human rights and democracy are not strictly the internal affairs of participating States: “The participating States emphasize that issues relating to human rights, fundamental freedoms, democracy and the rule of law are of international concern, as respect for these rights and freedoms constitutes one of the foundations of the international order. They categorically and irrevocably declare that the commitments undertaken in the field of the human dimension of the CSCE are matters of direct and legitimate concern to all participating States and do not belong exclusively to the internal affairs of the State concerned. They express their determination to fulfil all of their human dimension commitments and to resolve by peaceful means any related issue, individually and collectively, on the basis of mutual respect and co-operation. In this context they recognize that the active involvement of persons, groups, organizations and institutions is essential to ensure continuing progress in this direction.”     Hoyer Leads Congressional Delegation to Hungary For Immediate Release:  July 3, 2019 Contact Info:  Annaliese Davis (202) 226-1290 WASHINGTON, DC – House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (MD) led a bipartisan Congressional Delegation to Budapest, Hungary, where they met with government officials, opposition leaders, independent media, and civil society activists.   “The United States continues to support efforts to strengthen democracy in Hungary, and we had many honest discussions during our time in Budapest,” said Leader Hoyer. “We were disappointed that we were unable to meet with Prime Minister Orban. The threat of oligarchs and party loyalists gaining control of independent institutions, the judiciary, and the media is alarming. The erosion of democratic checks and balances ought to concern everyone. We appreciated the opportunity to meet with civil society activists and share our support for the work they are doing to renew democracy in their country.  We will continue to promote strong democratic institutions in Hungary that hold its leaders accountable to protect the rights and freedoms of its people.”   “Our meetings with diverse political leaders, independent journalists, representatives of religious communities and civil society were informative and illuminating.  We remain convinced that a strong, democratic Hungary would be the most effective partner for the United States and our NATO allies,” said Senator Cardin, the lead Senate Democrat on the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE). “We regret that we were unable to speak directly with Prime Minister Orban regarding the steps his government has taken which have undermined core elements of democracy, opened the door to Russian malign influence, and enabled corrosive corruption. Our alliance is not only about shared interests but shared values, and hope alone will not make this reality.  The United States remains open, as an active partner, to find ways to strengthen democracy and the rule of law, protect civil society, and counter extremism that fuels anti-Semitism and undermines regional stability.”    “Hungary is a firm friend and a loyal ally, but all of us are concerned about the erosion of democratic institutions and the rise of Russian influence," said Congressman Cole. "We intend to work with our Hungarian friends across the political spectrum to ensure that their elections are free and fair, their judiciary independent, and their press vibrant and robust." The delegation prioritized meeting with human rights and anti-corruption leaders. The delegation also met with the leadership of the Central European University and expressed their support for it to remain open.  Among the government officials with whom the Members held meetings were the head of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Hungarian Parliament and the Prime Minister’s Chief of Staff.    The other Members of the Congressional Delegation are: Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD), the lead Senate Democrat on the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE), and Reps. Tom Cole (OK-04), Gregory Meeks (NY-05), Gwen Moore (WI-04), Steve Cohen (TN-09), Garret Graves (LA-06), and Val Demings (FL-10).   

  • OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media Harlem Desir to Appear at Helsinki Commission Hearing

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following hearing: STATE OF MEDIA FREEDOM IN THE OSCE REGION Thursday, July 25, 2019 3:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m. Capitol Visitor Center Room HVC-210 Live Webcast: www.youtube.com/HelsinkiCommission Journalists working in the 57 participating States of the Organization for Security and Cooperation (OSCE) are facing increased risks to their lives and safety. According to a new report released the Office of the Representative for Freedom of the Media, in the first six months of 2019, two journalists have been killed and an additional 92 attacks and threats—including one bombing, three shootings, and seven arson attacks—have targeted members of the media. In his first appearance before Congress, OSCE Representative for Freedom of the Media Harlem Desir will assess the fragile state of media freedom within the OSCE region. Mr. Desir also will address the number of imprisoned media professionals as well as the violence, threats, and intimidation directed toward female journalists. The hearing will explore the threat posed by disinformation and online content designed to provoke violence and hate.  Following the hearing, at 5:00 p.m. in Room HVC-200, the Helsinki Commission will host a viewing of the documentary, “A Dark Place,” which details the online harassment of female journalists working in the OSCE region.

  • Minority Faiths Under the Hungarian Religion Law

    By Erika Schlager, Counsel for International Law This is a July 16, 2019, update to the article “Minority Faiths Under The Hungarian Religion Law," originally posted on July 8, 2017 (reprinted below). In 2011, Hungary adopted a new church law that entered into effect in 2012. The law stripped hundreds of faiths of their legal status overnight, deprived them of state resources to which they had previously been entitled, and resulted in other limitations. In December 2018, Hungary amended its religion law (effective as of April 15, 2019). The purpose of the amendment was to implement judgments of Hungary’s Constitutional Court as well as the European Court on Human Rights which held that Hungary’s religion law discriminated against faiths and churches. However, the amended law includes elements that, in practice, will continue discriminatory elements of the 2011 law for several more years and, in some respects, exacerbate the situation for minority faiths. The existing (2011) legal framework already distinguished among churches for the purposes of allocating government resources and benefits. The 2018 amendment added additional tiers to the categories, resulting in a more complex system. The four new tiers or categories are: religious association (with the right to be called a “church”), listed church, registered church and recognized church. Only the most “privileged” tier (recognized church) has the rights previously enjoyed by religious organizations recognized as churches before the passage of the 2011 law. Faiths which enjoyed legal recognition before the 2011 law but were stripped of that recognition under the 2018 law continue to be forced to accept the status of religious association and excluded from all the “privileges” granted to the higher categories. In other words, the 2018 amendment simply carries over the framework of the 2011 law. Additionally, the Hungarian Parliament – a body of elected officials – still decides which religious organizations are in the privileged tier (recognized church), making this an inherently political distinction. The amendment does make two improvements. First, it allows all religious organizations that secure state recognition to determine their own internal organizational structure. (Under the law passed in 2011, this was not the case.) Second, it permits people to donate 1% of their income tax to any religious organization that secures one of the four approved statuses. However, the amendment does not automatically enable organizations previously excluded from this support to receive it. On net, the December 2018 amendment fails to implement fully the court’s rulings or end the discrimination of the 2011 law, leaving some religious groups in limbo. The amendment did not provide a remedy for churches that were stripped of their status under the 2011 law, and faiths categorized in what is now the lowest tier (“religious association”) cannot be upgraded to the status of listed or registered churches without renouncing all future state, European Union, and foreign support or collecting the 1% income tax donation but remaining excluded from the benefits of "recognized" status during a prolonged transitional period. Minority Faiths Under The Hungarian Religion Law June 8, 2017 On April 25, 2017, the European Court on Human Rights announced a judgment in the case of the Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship v. Hungary.  This decision followed a 2014 finding by the Court that Hungary's 2011 law on religion violated the rights to freedom of association and freedom of religion.  In light of the failure of Hungary to end continuing violations, the April judgment awarded the Evangelical Fellowship €3 million in damages.  Religious Discrimination after the 2011 Law The case has its origins in changes made to Hungary’s religion law, which establishes a framework for the registration, or official recognition, of churches.  The law was rushed through parliament in June 2011 in a midnight parliamentary session as part of a massive three-year wave of 700 new laws, a new constitution, and five amendments to the Constitution passed between 2010 and 2013.  The “church law,” as it is known, came into force in 2012 and stripped legal recognition from over 300 previously recognized faiths; only 14 faiths retained their status under the new law.  The law gives the exclusive authority to the elected politicians in the Hungarian parliament to determine what constitutes a church, based on a parliamentary review of a religious community’s faith and rites; bylaws and internal rules; and elected or appointed administrative and representative bodies. The parliament then makes its decision according to a two-thirds vote.  Churches recognized by the parliament are granted a range of financial benefits and other privileges, including the ability to minister to co-religionists in public institutions such as schools, prisons and the military; unregistered faiths are denied these benefits.   Religions that lose their state recognition may have their assets confiscated by the state.  Hungarian Ombudsman Mate Szabo criticized the law when it was adopted and the Constitutional Court has twice struck down parts of the new religion law.  Parliament changed the law to allow unrecognized groups to identify as “churches” (translation:  “you can call yourself whatever you want”), but refused to alter the discriminatory framework that excludes unregistered faiths from the benefit of official status (translation:  “you’ll still have second-class status”).  In other words, there was no meaningful legislative change to address the law’s shortcomings.   The Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship, joined by several smaller groups, including Mennonites, two small reformed Jewish congregations, and a Buddhist congregation, brought the case that was decided by the European Court in 2014.  The European Court held that the “church law” is “inconsistent with the State’s duty of neutrality in religious matters that religious groups had to apply to Parliament to obtain re-registration as churches and that they were treated differently from incorporated churches with regard to material benefits without any objective grounds.”  Damages were awarded to the other religious communities in 2016, but the Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship continued to seek damages in light of continuing violations. In its April 2017 decision, the court awarded €3 million to the Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship.  The damages for discriminatory treatment included the loss of personal income tax donations and the corresponding supplementary State subsidy; the loss of State subsidies intended to support the applicant’s social and educational institutions; the loss of subsidies for religious teaching; and the loss of salary supplements paid to the staff employed by church institutions providing public-interest services. Unfortunately, the Court does not have the authority to compel Hungary to change its religion law and it is up to the Hungarian parliament to take the measures to comply with the ruling.  (The Court may award damages again – and again – in the case of continuing violations.) De-registered churches may be able to get a judgment for damages in Strasbourg, but only Budapest can provide a legal remedy.  The government may be trying to squeeze the Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship out of existence by depriving them of the benefits extended to other faiths and forcing them to devote resources to constantly litigate and re-litigate the same violations.  Smaller churches de-registered after 2011 have already largely been shuttered.  About the Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship The Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship broke from the Hungarian Methodist Church in the mid-1970s over the issue of collaboration with the communist regime. As a faith that would not bend to the communist regime, the Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship was subsequently forced underground and persecuted for engaging in charitable work with the poor at a time when the communist regime was loath to admit that poverty was a serious problem.  After the fall of the communist regime, in 1991 the Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship was officially recognized until stripped of this status under the 2011 law.  The Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship is known for its charitable and humanitarian work, particularly with Romani communities, and runs schools, homeless shelters, and soup kitchens. However, becausethe Hungarian tax authority has refused to issue a tax number to deregistered churches such as the Evangelical Fellowship, it is impossible for them to be designated them as recipients of a 1 percent charitable donation on tax forms.   Related Issues In 2017, the Hungarian Government has also proposed a Russian-style “foreign agents” law, which is currently scheduled for a vote by parliament, possibly on June 13. In recognition of criticism that, among the draft law’s many problems, it would stigmatize groups that receive foreign funding – including support from co-religionists in other countries – the current draft was altered to include a carve-out exception for religious organizations and sports.  If adopted, the law may spur the adoption of copycat laws in the region that might not have the same carve-outs for religious groups.  During a press conference in April, Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s chief of staff Janos Lazar suggested that Hungarian groups that receive foreign funding should be designated with a star.  He later apologized.

Pages