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The Backpage.com Bust
What a Smaller and Scattered Online Sex Market Means for the Fight Against Human Trafficking
Tuesday, October 09, 2018

By Felicia Garcia,
Max Kampelman Fellow

On April 6, 2018, customers in search of sexual services on massive ad marketplace Backpage.com were met with U.S. law enforcement agency logos and the words “Backpage.com and affiliated websites have been seized.”

Backpage.com, the world’s second largest classified advertising website—which operated in 97 countries and had an estimated value of more than $500 million—was seized for allegedly promoting and facilitating sex trafficking of adults and children.

The website company has been accused of not only knowingly advertising sexual services, but also of turning a blind eye to the sexual exploitation of women and children. In all, the U.S. Department of Justice (DoJ) has charged seven individuals in a 93-count federal indictment for facilitation of prostitution and money laundering. 

The seizure of Backpage.com occurred just days before President Trump signed a new law that allows trafficking victims and state prosecutors to target websites that create a market for human trafficking. The Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) and the Stop Enabling Sex Trafficking Act (SESTA)—referred to jointly as FOSTA/SESTA—were written to curtail online sex trafficking by making it “a federal crime to own, manage, or operate a website with the intent to promote or facilitate prostitution.” 

The legislation allows state prosecutors to levy charges against individual websites without relying on the intervention of federal law enforcement. It also ensures that trafficking victims who were advertised on such websites can sue the websites that profited from their exploitation.

With the combination of the Backpage.com seizure and FOSTA/SESTA, Bradley Myles, CEO and executive director of the Polaris Project, found thatthe online sex market has rapidly transformed from centralized and crowded to dispersed and sparse.

Drop in Online Sex Ad Volume

One of the biggest victories of the Backpage.com seizure and SESTA/FOSTA law has been the immediate reduction in ads.  According to data collected by web search tool Memex and analyzed by Rob Spectre, CEO of childsafe.ai, commercial sex ads dramatically decreased immediately after the Backpage.com seizure. 

According to Spectre, over the past several months there has been a marked downward shift in the online sex market, with an analysis of North America showing a 62 percent reduction in sex advertising online. Spectre found that nationwide, these ads dropped from approximately 2,750,000 in March to 1,000,000 ads in April—and many of these remaining ads are duplicates.

Prior to the closure of Backpage.com, law enforcement agencies struggled to sift through millions of sex ads posted in search of likely trafficking victims using tools like Memex, TraffickJam, and Spotlight.  Their job was made even more difficult by the efforts of Backpage.com and others to hide the telltale signs of human trafficking—such as words or images that conveyed that the victim was a child—in the ads.  Traffickers risked posting their victims online because they could hide like a needle in the haystack; now they have less “haystack” to hide in.

Buyers are also feeling the haystack effect. Previously anonymous because of the crowded marketplace, they can no longer easily hide from law enforcement—and this fear of discovery seems to have depressed demand.

In attempts to fight trafficking, the New York Police Department Human Trafficking Team has operated a demand deterrence program where they posted fake ads every day and recorded the number of responses. After the Backpage.com seizure, responses to decoy ads dropped 64 percent. “Perception of risk in this population [of buyers] is now at an all-time high,” said Spectre.

More Victims Coming Forward

The dramatic decline in the online sex trafficking market also seems to have created conditions where sex trafficking victims are coming forward for services. In his research, Spectre found that "all victims' groups are reporting increases in self-referrals with some shelters indicating in the immediate aftermath that demand [for services] doubled. Beds have always been scarce in every American market—now LE [law enforcement] agencies are reporting they are almost impossible to find." 

New Challenges

While the dramatic decline in online sex ads is a remarkable accomplishment, the change in online slave markets will require law enforcement and NGOs to adapt to effectively continue the fight against human trafficking.

For example, the seizure of Backpage.com left a market with buyers looking for a place to go.  Some more daring sex service websites are now competing fiercely for customers and finding ways to attract more traffic onto their sites by duplicating ads and soliciting first time buyers.

Monitoring efforts by law enforcement that were previously focused on Backpage.com now must be scattered among dozens of smaller websites. Analyzing data collected from a diffuse market rather than a centralized one makes the process even more difficult—but not impossible. Since April, Memex, TraffickJam, and Spotlight have been updating their law enforcement tools to be effective in a post-Backpage.com market. 

Companies also are finding creative ways to manage the new risks of selling sex online. Some online website companies that profit from prostitution and trafficking are moving offshore to reduce the risk of government interference, to continue their connections with their current customers, and to extend their reach to new customers. Such offshoring makes it more difficult—but not impossible—for U.S. law enforcement to prosecute these websites.

Experts are also watching for any other unintended side effects of the Backpage.com closure, such as an increase in risky or illegal activity. For example, law enforcement agencies in Riverside County, CA, report that prostituted individuals are forced by their pimps or traffickers to meet the same quota as they were when they were advertising online, putting them in an even more dangerous situation as they are forced to work on the streets, private residences, and at truck stops.

Adapting to these new challenges in the United States may require action from Congress, including funding to properly equip law enforcement agencies with efficient monitoring tools and dedicated staff to use those tools; promotion of cooperation and information-sharing among law enforcement agencies, non-profit organizations, and governments at the local, regional, and federal level; and demand reduction through preventative action and prosecution of buyers and traffickers.

Since many companies are offshoring their business in fear of being sued by trafficking victims or prosecutors in the United States, other OSCE participating States must be vigilant to ensure that their State—and population—do not become the new victims of exploitative websites. In 2017, the OSCE Ministerial Council called on participating States to hold accountable those who misuse the Internet Communication Technologies to knowingly or recklessly facilitate access to children for sexual exploitation or child trafficking—such as by advertising children on websites—highlighting that such individuals should be prosecuted as traffickers.

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    Russia’s Ukraine gambit is the most flagrant manifestation of the Kremlin’s assault on the international order. Moscow’s actions degrade the security environment in Europe and are a direct attack on settled international norms, including the territorial integrity of states and the self-determination of peoples affirmed in the Helsinki Final Act and subsequent agreements of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). On February 2, 2022, the U.S. Helsinki Commission held a hearing on Russian aggression against Ukraine. The hearing included testimony from three expert witnesses on the motives and intentions of the Kremlin, how the West can continue to support Ukraine, and the ramifications of Putin’s belligerence for Europe and the international order. Helsinki Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) opened the hearing by highlighting the unity displayed between the United States and Europe in response to the threatened invasion. He commended the Biden administration on its efforts to enhance deterrence and reinforce NATO’s eastern flank, while ensuring a diplomatic path remains open to Russia should it wish to find areas of cooperation; he emphasized that the sovereignty of Ukraine and freedom of Europe would under no circumstance be bargained away. Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09) noted that Putin considers Ukraine’s evolution into a budding democracy “with its open market of ideas, vibrant media, and a strong civil society” as a threat to his regime and repeated the importance of a free and sovereign Ukraine for the security of Europe. Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) highlighted Russia’s participation in the Helsinki Final Act of 1975, saying, “Putin is now treading underfoot the principles at the heart of the Commission’s work, principles agreed to by Mr. Putin’s predecessors in Moscow.” He also underlined importance of ensuring passage of defense appropriations to our defense commitments abroad. Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) praised the strong bipartisan stance exemplified by the hearing regarding the need to deter Russia; Republicans and Democrats in the U.S. Congress, as well as Transatlantic allies, were “firmly united in support of the people of Ukraine” Dr. Fiona Hill, senior fellow in the Center on the United States and Europe in the Foreign Policy program at the Brookings Institution, testified on Putin’s motives and likely worldview, citing Russian interventions in Georgia, Armenia, and Belarus. “From Russia’s perspective, the United States played no significant role in addressing these upheavals,” she said. She noted that the 2024 presidential elections likely are influencing Putin’s need to act now. Dr. Hill closed by emphasizing the importance of definitively countering Putin’s narrative regarding Russia’s aggressive posture. “We need to reframe this crisis for what it is, as the administration has just done in the United Nations,” she said. “This is not a proxy conflict. This is not aggression by the United States or NATO. This is not a righteous effort to counter some great historic wrong, as President Putin says. This is an act of post-colonial revisionism on the part of Russia.” Lieutenant General (Ret.) Ben Hodges, Pershing Chair in Strategic Studies at the Center for European Policy Analysis, testified on the current needs of the Ukrainian army, as well as potential countermeasures Ukraine’s Western partners can take to address Russian aggression. He highlighted President Zelensky’s request for funds to support a significantly larger Ukrainian army, as well as continued diplomatic support from the West. General Hodges also underlined that a common approach among NATO Allies, including and especially Germany, would be necessary to prevent a new Russian offensive. “We need to take the initiative instead of always reacting to whatever the Kremlin does. But we have to do this in unity with our allies,” he said. Lieutenant General Hodges closed by urging NATO to remain clear-eyed about the nature of diplomacy with the Kremlin. “They are not boy scouts. They use chemical weapons, poison and murder against their own opposition, and they use cyber and disinformation to destroy lives and trust in our democratic system,” he noted. “We should talk, but we need to understand with whom we are talking.” Ambassador (Ret.) William Taylor, Vice President, Russia and Europe at the United States Institute of Peace, commended the resolve and unity shown by President Biden and President Zelensky, suggesting that this had been surprising to the Kremlin. He surmised that the effectiveness of the Western response had, to date, successfully deterred a full-scale invasion and there was reason to believe that Putin currently remains engaged on a diplomatic track. Ambassador Taylor underlined the stakes in the current confrontation and their relevance to U.S. interests, describing Ukraine as “the frontline of the battle between democracy and autocracy. We should support them. With that support, they will prevail. Putin will lose.” Members raised a broad range of concerns with witnesses, questioning them on issues ranging from the influence of public opinion and oligarchs on Putin’s thinking, to the most efficient timing of sanctions. Witnesses were united in their praise for the bipartisan consensus on countering Russian aggression demonstrated by Congress, and adamant in their call for continued resolve and determination in the support of Ukraine. Related Information Witness Biographies Putin Has the U.S. Right Where He Wants It - Dr. Fiona Hill  NATO Must Help Ukraine Prepare for War - Lieutenant General (Ret.) Ben Hodges  After U.S.-Russia Talks, Risk of War in Ukraine Still High - Ambassador (Ret.) William B. Taylor

  • Helsinki Commission Digital Digest January 2022

  • On International Holocaust Remembrance Day, Cardin and Cohen Denounce Recent Antisemitic Activity Across the United States

    WASHINGTON—On the 77th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau in Nazi-occupied Poland, which is designated as International Holocaust Remembrance Day, U.S. Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) and Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09) issued the following statement on the recent spate of antisemitic activity across the United States: “We are extremely alarmed by recent events targeting the Jewish community. The distribution of flyers across multiple states touting antisemitic and racist conspiracy theories, invoking Nazi ideologies, and blaming the Jewish community for the COVID-19 pandemic has come hard on the heels of a vicious attack on the Congregation Beth Israel synagogue in Colleyville, Texas. These incidents must be stopped and called out as the dangerous fearmongering they are. Not only on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, but every day, leaders and every person in this country have an obligation to stand up against hate.   “Antisemitism is not just a problem in the United States. We see similar issues in Europe, where Jewish synagogues, schools, and cemeteries once again must tighten security protocols in fear of attack, and the Holocaust is being trivialized for political gain. It is time for the 57 participating States of the OSCE to come together and adopt an international strategy to hold countries accountable for implementing legislation to quash hate crimes and discrimination, protect Jewish communities, and address the dangerous ideologies that lead to violence and sow disunity in our country and abroad. “International Holocaust Remembrance Day serves as a grim reminder of our past failures to protect the Jewish community. Inaction or turning a blind eye to antisemitism and hate only encourages its proliferation. We must ensure that the words ‘never again’ have real meaning by stamping out antisemitism wherever it is found.” Chairman Cardin, who also serves as the OSCE PA Special Representative on Racism, Anti-Semitism, and Intolerance and is a member of the United States Holocaust Memorial Council, has called for an OSCE strategy to address antisemitism and other forms of intolerance.  In July, the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly adopted an urgent item he drafted titled “Addressing the Rise in Hate, Intolerance, Violence and Discrimination Across the OSCE Region” that he has called for the new Polish Chair-in-Office to work with OSCE countries to implement.  

  • Russia’s Assault on Ukraine and the International Order to Be Discussed at Helsinki Commission Hearing

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following hearing: RUSSIA’S ASSAULT ON UKRAINE AND THE INTERNATIONAL ORDER Assessing and Bolstering the Western Response Wednesday, February 2, 2022 2:30 p.m. Dirksen Senate Office Building Room 562 Watch live: www.youtube.com/HelsinkiCommission Russia’s Ukraine gambit is the most flagrant manifestation of the Kremlin’s assault on the international order. Moscow’s actions degrade the security environment in Europe and are a direct assault on settled international norms. These include the territorial integrity of states and the self-determination of peoples affirmed in the Helsinki Final Act and subsequent agreements of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). Witnesses will examine the latest developments in the Kremlin-driven crisis in and around Ukraine and the urgency for the United States to bolster Ukraine’s defenses and deter further Russian aggression. The following witnesses are scheduled to testify: Dr. Fiona Hill, Senior Fellow, Center on the United States and Europe, Brookings Institution Lieutenant General (Retired) Ben Hodges, Pershing Chair, Center for European Policy Analysis Ambassador (Retired) William B. Taylor, Vice President, U.S. Institute of Peace

  • Half Measures Are Worse Than Nothing in Ukraine

    Europe begins the new year on the brink of major war. Russia has amassed more than 100,000 troops and heavy equipment along Ukraine’s border and issued an ultimatum to the West demanding it trade Ukraine’s sovereignty in exchange for its peace. Such demands are a strategic nonstarter, but the seriousness of the Kremlin’s threats appear all too real. To stop this war before it begins, muddling through is not an option; this demands immediate and bold action. Russia claims its 100,000-plus troops at Ukraine’s doorstep is a response to NATO enlargement and its infrastructure in Ukraine and Eastern Europe. These arguments are unconvincing. The Kremlin has used NATO as a straw man for its grievances, yet Russian disquiet has little to do with NATO itself, which has no immediate plans to expand anywhere near Russia and would not threaten Russia if it did. Although the United States and its European partners have provided material and technical military assistance to Ukraine, it has not changed the region’s balance of power. Instead, Russia’s demands evince anxiety over global status and the possibility that its borderlands may be able to escape from its grip. In particular, Ukraine has the size and industrial capacity to make it a credible economic and military power regardless of whether it joins NATO. For Russia, a strong and hostile Ukraine is intolerable, even though Russian aggression husbanded Ukraine’s pro-West turn. By supporting Donbass separatism and annexing Crimea, the Kremlin stoked patriotism in Ukraine, lanced Ukraine’s most Russia-friendly population, and earned Kyiv’s hostility. Ukraine is not the only country for which this applies, but it may be the most significant given its size, geography, and symbolic position in official Russian neoimperial mythology. War should be avoided at all reasonable costs. Another invasion would risk tens of millions of lives and further undermine Europe’s increasingly fragile security. The United States and Europe should be willing to negotiate in good faith to avoid wider conflict—so long as Ukraine, Georgia, and Eastern Europe’s sovereignty are preserved. However, acceding to Russia’s maximalist demands would strip Ukraine of its already battered sovereignty and invite a new Iron Curtain over Europe—consigning many millions of people to generations of domination and conflict. History and international relations theory may offer some guidance in this crisis. In the runup to the Peloponnesian War between the sprawling Athenian league and Sparta’s opposing empire, Athens faced a dilemma between its ally Corcyra and Corinth, a powerful member of the Spartan alliance. As chronicled by classical historian Donald Kagan in his On the Origins of War: And the Preservation of Peace, Corcyra called on Athens for protection, but Athens was anxious to intervene lest it precipitate a ruinous great-power war with Sparta, which was increasingly fearful that Athens, the rising force in Greece, would eclipse Spartan power. Yet Athens worried that abandoning Corcyra would undermine its alliances and invite Spartan aggression. As a compromise, Athens deployed a mere 10 ships out of its vast 400-ship fleet to join the Corcyraeans in the hopes that it would be enough to deter Corinth’s advancing 150-ship armada. However, as Kagan notes, Athens’s symbolic deployment was not strong enough to deter Corinth—much less defeat it—but too aggressive to completely assuage Spartan fears about Athenian ambitions. In the ensuing Battle of Sybota, the Corinthian armada destroyed the combined Corcyraean-Athenian fleet, launching a spiral of events that led to the devastating Peloponnesian War. As the United States deliberates with its partners and allies to craft countermeasures against Kremlin aggression, the West should avoid its own 10-ship trap. In some ways, NATO’s 2008 Bucharest summit decision is an example, where the alliance promised eventual membership to Georgia and Ukraine without a concrete pathway. This compromise left Georgia and Ukraine vulnerable while stoking the Kremlin’s strategic anxieties. The recently departed Columbia University political scientist Robert Jervis considered such problems in his international relations theory classic Perception and Misperception in International Politics. Jervis weighed deterrence against a “spiral” model, which posited that counterescalating in response to perceived escalation could provoke the opposite of the intended response. An attempt at deterrence could instead be viewed as further provocation. While deterrence preaches strength and resolution, the spiral model generally counsels conciliation. However, Jervis theorized that while the deterrence and spiral models are often presented as opposing, generalizable theories, their usefulness varies with the circumstances. He surmised that deterrence is applicable between two powers with genuinely incompatible positions, and the spiral model best applies to disputes between status quo powers where their perceived incompatibility is mostly illusory. One exercise Jervis suggests is to interrogate evidence that the second power is not engaged in revisionist aggression. In this case, a charitable reading of Russian actions suggests that Russia’s grievances are oriented to the security situation on its borders—the “belt of Russia’s vital interests.” In this interpretation, Russia’s historical influence along its borders need not be a cause for alarm on its own, much less for war. Indeed, if arms limitations and codes of conduct represent an acceptable compromise to defuse the present crisis without sacrificing the freedom or sovereignty of the states on Russia’s border, this is worth pursuing. However, which vital interests necessitate Russian dominion over its periphery? Although Russia’s perceptions of insecurity may be real, it is demonstrably not materially insecure, with a large, full-spectrum, and sophisticated military that is arguably the most powerful in Europe. Russia’s neighbors are far weaker, Western states largely disarmed after the Soviet Union’s dissolution, and remnant Allied forces remained in Western Europe in compliance with the NATO-Russia Founding Act, even as Russia has significantly militarized. And Russia’s economic fortunes are far better served by peace and integration with the West, not conflict. However, the stability and integrity of European security architecture as enshrined in the Helsinki Final Act remain fundamental to U.S. national security. Any countenance of the Kremlin’s broader abrogation of that framework and the restoration of a new Yalta Conference would reverse decades of peace and prosperity—and likely drive continental militarization that would only compound Russian security anxieties and conflict. It appears the West and the Russian regime’s positions are indeed incompatible. In response, the United States and its allies must be wary of the 10-ship trap. Although caution is often a virtue in national security and foreign policymaking, a moderate response to the enormity and notoriety of Russia’s belligerence would likely neither protect Ukraine nor satisfy Russian imperial appetites. Broad economic sanctions on their own are likely to be sufficient to forestall an invasion; and token, light deployments behind NATO’s high walls while Ukraine burns will inflame Kremlin paranoia without arresting or appreciably punishing Russian militarism. Negotiations and diplomacy should be given the time to work, and any kind of durable solution is unlikely to completely satisfy either party. However, the United States and its allies should undergird these talks with serious and significant measures to prevent another, greater war in Ukraine before it begins. As in Corcyra, half measures are unlikely to ameliorate the crisis and may only exacerbate them. What, then, do full measures look like? The critical factors here are speed and plausibility: steps that not only can be taken quickly but that Russia will believe Washington will carry through. Although economic sanctions have been broadly regarded as useful tools in this regard, most measures being envisioned are likely already baked into Russian calculations or may not have an immediate effect. In addition, the United States—and Europe, if it is willing—should significantly curtail Russian energy imports and aim to wean Russian hydrocarbons from European markets entirely—perhaps even going so far as to employ Defense Production Act authorities to stockpile and potentially surge liquefied natural gas and other fuel alternatives to Central and Eastern Europe. Boosting other energy sources on a strategic scale could also accompany this approach. Moscow must be convinced that military aggression will only dramatically increase and complicate what it believes are its existing security vulnerabilities. Toward that end, the United States and Europe could begin studying withdrawal from the NATO-Russia Founding Act, and planning can begin in earnest for repositioning heavy forces in Europe in the event of a wider Russian war. NATO can signal that new European applications for NATO membership would be welcomed and expediently ratified (perhaps even pre-ratified in some form), particularly from Sweden and Finland, should Russia go through with its militaristic gambit. Washington could also consider scenarios to provide aspirants—Ukraine, Georgia, and potentially the Nordics—with bilateral treaty guarantees prior to NATO accession. In Corcyra, the compromise of 10 Athenian ships only served to anger Corinth and Sparta as well as fed beliefs that war was not only necessary but an urgent enterprise. Against the colossal coercive symbolism and military reality posed by the Russian buildup—and the even greater weight of the Kremlin’s demands—the United States and Europe should prepare responses to match the moment. Michael Hikari Cecire is a senior policy advisor at the U.S. Helsinki Commission. 

  • Russia sent troops near Ukraine and to Kazakhstan. The U.S. is watching and waiting

    Transcript   SCOTT SIMON, HOST: The Biden administration is heading into an intense week with Russia. The U.S. has already condemned the massing of tens of thousands of Russian troops along the border with Ukraine. But the White House seems to be taking a different approach to Russian involvement in the former Soviet Republic of Kazakhstan. NPR's Michele Kelemen explains. MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: First, a word on why Kazakhstan matters to the U.S. Senator Ben Cardin, who chairs the U.S. Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, puts it this way. BEN CARDIN: It does bridge between Russia and China, Asia and Europe. It really is one of the key locations. It is a country that's rich in resources. It's a country that has a critical location from a security point of view, from a counterterrorism point of view. KELEMEN: U.S. companies are heavily invested in Kazakhstan's energy sector, and the U.S. saw the country as a relatively stable, though not a democratic partner. Cardin, who was speaking via Skype, says he was disappointed to see Kazakhstan's president invite in troops from the Collective Security Treaty Organization, a group of ex-Soviet states led by Russia. CARDIN: When Russia sends troops, they rarely remove those troops. And it's not what the Kazakhs need. It's not what the people need in that country. KELEMEN: The latest turmoil started with protests over gas prices and corruption. But some major cities also saw mobs taking over government buildings. And experts point to another layer of conflict, an attempt by the country's president, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, to sideline other government elites linked to Kazakhstan's longtime ruler, Nursultan Nazarbayev. And in that complex picture, the U.S. has little leverage, according to Emma Ashford of the Atlantic Council. EMMA ASHFORD: Even if we wanted to intervene, even if there was a clear side upon which we thought we could intervene - which I don't think there is - we just don't have that much leverage in Kazakhstan. We have limited ties in the country, and they're almost all commercial in the energy sector. KELEMEN: She thinks the U.S. needs to be cautious and not feed into Russian conspiracies. ASHFORD: We know that Vladimir Putin in particular, you know, the Russian government, has this historical tendency to see American fingers in every pot - you know, American action in every protest in the post-Soviet space. And even though that's not true, I think we should probably avoid giving the impression that we're going to get more involved. KELEMEN: Secretary of State Antony Blinken has been on the phone with his counterpart in Kazakhstan, calling on authorities to protect the rights of peaceful protesters and raising questions about why the government felt the need to invite in Russian-led troops. (SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING) ANTONY BLINKEN: It would seem to me that the Kazakh authorities and government certainly have the capacity to deal appropriately with protests, to do so in a way that respects the rights of the protesters while maintaining law and order. So it's not clear why they feel the need for any outside assistance. So we're trying to learn more about it. KELEMEN: For now, those Russian troops seem to be focused mainly on protecting key infrastructure. And Blinken is reluctant to conflate the situation in Kazakhstan with Ukraine, where Russia has seized territory and is threatening to take more. (SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING) BLINKEN: Having said that, I think one lesson in recent history is that once Russians are in your house, it's sometimes very difficult to get them to leave. KELEMEN: Regional experts say if Kazakhstan's president is able to reinforce his political power in the midst of this crisis, he will be indebted to Moscow. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

  • Helsinki Commission Welcomes Passage of Trap Provision in 2022 National Defense Authorization Act

    WASHINGTON—Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Cardin (MD), Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), Ranking Member Sen. Roger Wicker (MS), and Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) today welcomed the passage of the Transnational Repression Accountability and Prevention (TRAP) provision as part of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for Fiscal Year 2022. “By co-opting and undermining the rule of law to harass and intimidate dissidents and political opponents, corrupt regimes threaten our national security,” said Chairman Cardin. “Our provision will make it U.S. policy to fight exploitation of INTERPOL, including by naming and shaming member states that abuse its mechanisms. This amendment will protect the United States, our allies, and all those fighting or fleeing authoritarian regimes from extraterritorial and extrajudicial abuse.” “We’ve seen time and again how corrupt dictators take advantage of INTERPOL to intimidate and harass those who expose their immoral deeds, even after they have fled their homes and their country in search of safety,” said Co-Chairman Cohen. “The TRAP provision will protect these dissidents and ensure that our own institutions are not used against us—or them.” “There is no reason for any democracy, especially the United States, to be forced to play a part in authoritarian regimes’ blatant abuse of INTERPOL Red Notices,” said Sen. Wicker. “I am pleased Congress has taken action to name publicly the abusers, such as Russia and China, and prevent American law enforcement from having to do the dirty work of these repressive autocrats.” “INTERPOL should enable us to crack down on criminals worldwide,” said Rep. Wilson. “Instead, the criminals have taken over the institution, using it to target those who oppose them. The TRAP provision will protect the United States from this abuse and ensure that we do everything we can to restore the rule of law to INTERPOL.” “Increasing transparency and accountability at INTERPOL underscores the bipartisan commitment of the United States Senate to push back against countries, large or small, seeking to distort legitimate law enforcement cooperation to instead pursue political opponents or personal vendettas,” said Sen. Bob Menendez (NJ), Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “This new provision will strengthen protections for human rights defenders, political dissidents, and journalists, and pave the way for the international community to join the United States in pressing for reforms and standing against the abuse of INTERPOL Red Notices by China and Russia, among others.” The Transnational Repression Accountability and Prevention (TRAP) Act was introduced in 2021 in the Senate by Sen. Wicker and Chairman Cardin and in the U.S. House of Representatives by Co-Chairman Cohen and Rep. Wilson. The legislation makes fighting abuse of INTERPOL a key goal of the United States at the organization, mandates that the United States name the worst abusers of INTERPOL and examine its own strategy to fight INTERPOL abuse, and protects the U.S. judicial system from authoritarian abuse.

  • Uniting Against Corruption

    At a virtual kickoff event on December 7, leaders of the U.S. Caucus against Foreign Corruption and Kleptocracy, the EU Parliament Anti-Corruption Intergroup, and the UK All-Party Parliamentary Group on Anti-Corruption and Responsible Tax formally launched the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance against Kleptocracy. Members of the alliance are politicians leading the fight in their respective parliaments against corruption and kleptocracy.  The launch immediately preceded President Joe Biden’s December 9 – 10 Summit for Democracy, where approximately 110 countries committed to fighting corruption and renewing democratic values. Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), who has championed anti-corruption efforts throughout Congress, welcomed the formation of the alliance at the kickoff event. The event began with opening remarks from Chairman Cardin, and then featured remarks from several other parliamentarians: U.S. Representatives Tom Malinowski (NJ-07) and Helsinki Commission Ranking Member Joe Wilson (SC-02); Members of the UK Parliament Margaret Eve Hodge (Barking) and Andrew John Bower Mitchell (Sutton Cornfield); and Members of the European Parliament Daniel Freund (Germany), Katalin Cseh (Hungary), and Lara Wolters (Netherlands). Helsinki Commission Senior Policy Advisor Paul Massaro moderated the discussion. Chairman Cardin traced the history of successful anti-corruption legislation in the United States. He touched on the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act of 1977, the Money Laundering Control Act of 1986, and the Global Magnitsky Act of 2016 as examples both of bipartisan cooperation and of U.S. leadership in the international fight against corruption.  The next step, he said, is dealing with enablers. “These are the accountants, the lawyers, the financial advisers. They allow kleptocrats to be able to do their corruption through the use of rule of law of other countries,” he noted. Rep. Malinowski stressed the connection between corruption and authoritarianism: “Corruption is the reason for being for most authoritarian regimes. It sustains them. It profits them.” Nonetheless, he observed that corruption is also a vulnerability for such regimes, as citizens ultimately refuse to accept kleptocratic leaders. Rep. Malinowski then discussed the ENABLERS Act, which seeks to close loopholes that enable kleptocrats to hide their money. MP Hodge echoed the need to address the enablers of corruption, the structures “through which the world’s crooks and kleptocrats take their stolen money and let it disappear.”  She then explained her push, along with MP Mitchell and others, for a public register of beneficial ownership to combat the role of property in UK money laundering. MP Mitchell further discussed the push for a public register of beneficial ownership, a particularly important policy as the UK “may be responsible for up to 40 percent of the money laundering that goes on in the world.” MP Freund continued the discussion of transparency, emphasizing that the European Parliament cannot see the final beneficiaries of EU-funded projects. He welcomed the possibility of working with the new U.S. administration and cited the success of the Magnitsky sanctions as an instance of effective U.S. leadership against kleptocracy and corruption. Rep. Wilson echoed MP Freund’s enthusiasm for cooperation, calling corruption “a bipartisan and cross-border problem” that requires cooperative solutions. Like Rep. Malinowski, he noted the link between corruption and authoritarianism and suggested that closing the loopholes available to authoritarian governments requires international cooperation. MP Cseh built on the previous discussion of authoritarianism, adding that corruption is inseparably linked with human rights abuses.  “Autocrats and oligarchs oppress their people so that they can enrich themselves… and they are desperately holding onto power because they want to escape prosecution for corruption,” she said. She then drew on her experience as a Hungarian opposition politician to discuss the connection between corruption and democratic backsliding. MP Wolters delivered the final remarks of the event on the new state of the EU in light of Hungary’s democratic backsliding.  “I don’t think the EU was ever designed with the idea that we would end up with strange bedfellows internally within our system,” he said. This breach in EU sanctity entails new problems as these “strange bedfellows” have access to funding meant improve the lives of EU citizens. The event concluded with questions from the audience. Chairman Cardin and Rep. Malinowski responded to question on the resources available to victims of corrupt and kleptocratic regimes, and MPs Freund and Cseh addressed the potential for proactive measures against interference by kleptocratic regimes in legislatures. The Inter-Parliamentary Alliance against Kleptocracy aims to build a transparent and accountable global financial system; promote government transparency, allowing for effective public oversight; disable transnational corrupt networks, while deterring the movement of dirty money into democracies; support the role of free media and journalists in exposing the risks from kleptocracy; and advocate for strong anti-corruption standards for public officials and their enforcement. Planned projects include coordinating targeted sanctions and public visa bans, synchronizing anti-money laundering frameworks, harmonizing cross-border investigations into grand corruption, and promoting robust anti-corruption ethics frameworks for public officials. Members of the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance against Kleptocracy subscribe to the principles that democratic states are based on the rule of law and must safeguard this system against the taint of corruption and illicit finance; that kleptocracy is an authoritarian governance model in which political leaders routinely engage in illicit self-enrichment, maintain power through corrupt patronage networks, exploit democracies to conceal and protect stolen assets, and use strategic corruption as a tool of foreign policy; and that kleptocracy poses the most profound challenge for democratic governance in the 21st  century as it corrodes the rule of law from within.

  • Inter-Parliamentary Alliance Against Kleptocracy to Unite Political Leaders in Transatlantic Battle Against Corruption

    BRUSSELS, LONDON, WASHINGTON—At a virtual kickoff event on December 7, leaders of the U.S. Caucus against Foreign Corruption and Kleptocracy, the EU Parliament Anti-Corruption Intergroup, and the UK All-Party Parliamentary Group on Anti-Corruption and Responsible Tax will formally launch the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance against Kleptocracy. Members of the alliance are politicians leading the fight in their respective parliaments against corruption and kleptocracy.  The launch immediately precedes to President Joe Biden’s December 9 – 10 Summit for Democracy, where approximately 110 countries will commit to fighting corruption and renewing democratic values. Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), who has championed anti-corruption efforts throughout Congress, will welcome the formation of the alliance at the kickoff event. UNITING AGAINST CORRUPTION Launch of the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance against Kleptocracy Tuesday, December 7, 2021 11:00 a.m. ET Register: https://bit.ly/3IsbbvY “Countering corruption—a clear national security threat—is one of the three pillars of the upcoming Summit for Democracy. For me, it is an essential aspect of the meeting,” said Chairman Cardin. “It isn’t enough that the United States prioritizes the fight against corruption. To curb this global scourge, democracies must work together. I welcome the formation of the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance against Kleptocracy, which will help harmonize our approaches to countering corruption and closing our systems to dirty money.” The Inter-Parliamentary Alliance against Kleptocracy is an alliance of legislative groups committed to countering the threat of global corruption. The new alliance will focus on fighting kleptocracy, an authoritarian governance model in which political leaders routinely engage in illicit self-enrichment, maintain power through corrupt patronage networks, exploit democracies to conceal and protect stolen assets, and use strategic corruption as a tool of foreign policy. Because the fight against foreign corruption spans the globe, the alliance will enable members and staff to share perspectives and coordinate efforts to confront the growing threat of authoritarian corruption. The alliance will hold periodic events, sponsor informal roundtables and briefings with leading experts, and coordinate initiatives across borders. “Nothing gets under the skin of dictators more than democracies working together—and confronting corruption is the best way to align ourselves with public sentiment in their countries. This parliamentary alliance will help ensure that lawmakers from the world’s democracies are working together to pass and enact laws against amassing and hiding illicit wealth,” said Rep. Tom Malinowski (NJ-07), Co-Chair of the U.S. Caucus against Foreign Corruption and Kleptocracy. “Corruption is at the heart of all human rights abuse. Journalists are silenced and civil society is attacked because these individuals threaten to expose the corruption that underpins all strongmen,” said Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), a member of the U.S. Caucus against Foreign Corruption and Kleptocracy. “By uniting with our allies to root out corruption, we take aim at the very essence of authoritarianism. That is why the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance against Kleptocracy is so important. Corruption is global by nature. But if all democracies close their doors to it, we can succeed.” “Corruption is the new communism. It is the uniting force of dictators and the system they seek to export. And like communism, the USA needs to join together with its allies to defeat it. I am pleased to welcome the establishment of the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance against Kleptocracy, which will unite democratic allies against the corruption of Russian oligarchs, CCP princelings, Venezuelan thugs, and Iranian mullahs,” said Helsinki Commission Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02). “We have been seeing autocrats like Viktor Orbán successfully undermining European democracy for years from within, with increasing support from their experienced counterparts in Russia and beyond. If they close their ranks, all democratic parties need to do the same. This is not a fight that a single actor can win alone,” said MEP Daniel Freund of Germany, Co-Chair of the EU Parliament Anti-Corruption Intergroup. “Kleptocrats are destroying democracy and undermining the European Union. With this alliance we can stop European autocrats like Viktor Orbán and could be a powerful tool to influence not only national legislation but agreements on fighting corruption, transparency, accountability and criminal cooperation between the EU and the US. We should keep this alliance open for national lawmakers as well within the EU, allowing for example the devoted members of the Hungarian opposition parties also to join and commit themselves to such a noble cause. We have to fight together and we will fight together,” said MEP Katalin Cseh of Hungary, Member of the EU Parliament Anti-Corruption Intergroup’s leadership bureau. “Dirty money is at the root of many evils. From drug smuggling to terrorism, from money laundering to human trafficking, and from fraud to corruption. But if we can follow the money then we can start to put a stop to all manner of heinous crimes. That's why the launch of the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on Kleptocracy represents a powerful moment as the world's democracies come together for the fight against illicit finance,” said UK MP Margaret Hodges, Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Anti-Corruption and Responsible Tax. “The movement of illicit finance is a global problem that requires a global solution.  The harm caused to global security and democracy is facilitated by lack of coordination between different legislatures, and I am delighted to be part of the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on Kleptocracy.  I look forward to working with colleagues across the world to ensure that we give Kleptocrats nowhere to hide,” said UK MP Kevin Hollinrake, Vice Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Anti-Corruption and Responsible Tax. “It is not enough that America fight dictators – our friends and allies must also fight them. By working together to reject blood money, we can successfully deny dictators and their cronies access to our markets. I am thrilled about the formation of the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance against Kleptocracy. This international alliance of like-minded kleptocracy fighters will ensure that killers and thugs have no safe haven,” said Rep. Maria Elvira Salazar (FL-27), a founding member of the U.S. Caucus against Foreign Corruption and Kleptocracy. The Inter-Parliamentary Alliance against Kleptocracy aims to build a transparent and accountable global financial system; promote government transparency, allowing for effective public oversight; disable transnational corrupt networks, while deterring the movement of dirty money into democracies; support the role of free media and journalists in exposing the risks from kleptocracy; and advocate for strong anti-corruption standards for public officials and their enforcement. Planned projects include coordinating targeted sanctions and public visa bans, synchronizing anti-money laundering frameworks, harmonizing cross-border investigations into grand corruption, and promoting robust anti-corruption ethics frameworks for public officials. Members of the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance against Kleptocracy subscribe to the principles that democratic states are based on the rule of law and must safeguard this system against the taint of corruption and illicit finance; that kleptocracy is an authoritarian governance model in which political leaders routinely engage in illicit self-enrichment, maintain power through corrupt patronage networks, exploit democracies to conceal and protect stolen assets, and use strategic corruption as a tool of foreign policy; and that kleptocracy poses the most profound challenge for democratic governance in the 21st  century as it corrodes the rule of law from within.

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