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Bulgaria Holds Early Parliamentary Elections; OSCE Mounts Full-Scale Election Observation Mission
Tuesday, May 28, 2013

By Helsinki Commission Staff

Country-Wide Street Protests Trigger Snap Elections

In early 2013, 30 Bulgarian cities were rocked by demonstrations. In some instances, violence erupted between demonstrators and police. In addition, in the months immediately preceding the elections, six people committed suicide by self-immolation in acts of public protest and desperation.

The street demonstrations were triggered by sharply rising electricity rates in a country widely described as the poorest of the EU’s 27 members. Discontent was further fueled by dissatisfaction with political leaders across the board and widespread corruption.

In February, following the street demonstrations, Prime Minister Boyko Borisov resigned, paving the way for May 12’s early parliamentary elections.

For those elections, 8,100 candidates stood for seats in the 240-member unicameral National Assembly allocated by proportional representation from 31 multi-mandate constituencies (with a 4% threshold for both parties and coalitions to enter parliament). Altogether, 63 parties (38 outside of coalitions and 7 coalitions) were registered as well as two independent candidates.

The resulting ballot was roughly a yard long.

OSCE Mounts Full-Scale Election Observation Mission

The OSCE mounted a full scale Election Observation Mission (EOM) – the first in Bulgaria since 1997 and the first ever in an EU country.

Eoghan Murphy (MP, Ireland) was appointed by OSCE Chair-in-Office Leonid Kozhara to serve as Special Coordinator and leader of the short-term observer mission (parliamentarians and observers seconded by OSCE participating States). The OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) long-term observer team was headed by Miklos Haraszti. Roberto Battelli (MP, Slovenia) headed the OSCE PA delegation. Andreas Gross (MP, Switzerland) headed the observers from the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE).

On Election Day, there were 158 observers deployed from 39 countries.

Of an estimated 6.9 million voters (a number that, in any case, the OSCE and Council of Europe Venice Commission suggest may be high), 3,541,745 went to the polls. Voter turnout was at about 50 percent – the lowest turnout since the fall of communism – reflecting the voters’ antipathy even more than apathy.

Approximately 850,000 votes were cast for parties that failed to overcome the 4% threshold to get into parliament.

Reportedly 107,799 Bulgarian citizens voted abroad, with 63,152 votes cast in Turkey.

The Mysterious Case of the Extra Ballots

The administration of the elections on E-Day was largely unremarkable. It was, however, preceded by two separate but related wiretapping scandals suggesting that the Ministry of Interior had bugged journalists and state officials. The day before the elections, an “extra” 350,000 ballots were discovered in a printing house in Sofia. (A week after the elections, it was reported that more than 2,000 extra stamps for electoral commissions had also surfaced.)

In its preliminary findings, the Election Observation Mission drew particular attention to the alienation of voters, lack of confidence in the electoral process, concerns over ballot security (the “extra” ballots), and persistent allegations of vote buying or voter intimidation. (A final report from the Mission is forthcoming.)

Roma and Other Minorities in the Electoral Context

Bulgaria has a population of 7.36 million (from almost 8 million in the 2001 census and roughly 8.4 million in the 1992 census). This continuing drop reflects declining birth rates and labor migration to other parts of Europe.

The ethnic Turkish minority comprises 8.8 percent of the population. Almost 5 percent of the population self-identified as Romani on the last census, but Roma are estimated to be roughly 10 percent of the population. Last year, the Bulgarian Government estimated that 23 percent of the working age population is Romani.

The Bulgarian Constitution prohibits the formation of political parties on ethnic, racial or religious lines, which is contrary to OSCE and other international norms on freedom of assembly. The OSCE has criticized this restriction in previous reports on Bulgarian elections.

The Electoral Code stipulates that the election campaign must be conducted in the Bulgarian language only, also contrary to standards on free speech and minority language use set out in the 1990 Copenhagen Document. These restrictions also impede get-out-the-vote efforts.

The Movement for Rights and Freedoms is, de facto, an ethnic Turkish minority party, although it has largely been allowed to function with a wink and a nod from the authorities. After the elections, it was reported that Lyutvi Mestan, head of the MRF party, was fined in Sliven for campaigning in Turkish.

Bulgaria's last two local and Presidential elections (which were held simultaneously in 2007 and 2011) were preceded by outbreaks of anti-Roma violence. In 2011, just a few weeks before the elections, 14 Bulgarian cities erupted into anti-Roma riots. In July 2012, the headquarters of the EuroRoma political party were firebombed, killing one man. The investigation has not produced any results.

On April 8, 15 Romani civil society organizations withdrew from their advisory role with the National Council for Cooperation on Ethnic and Integration Issues, effectively deeming the government’s work in this area and the consultative process to be a sham.

There were no Roma in electable positions on the lists for any of the leading parties. As a result, the National Assembly produced by the May 12 elections will be the first Bulgarian parliament since the fall of communism to have no Romani MPs.

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    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the U.S. Helsinki Commission, with the participation of the Embassy of Romania and the U.S. Department of State, will host a screening of the acclaimed Romanian film Aferim! (Bravo!), the first Romanian film to grapple with the enslavement of Roma. The film will be followed by a panel discussion featuring Romani activist Dr. Margareta Matache, FXB Center for Health & Human Rights, Harvard University. Additional remarks will be offered by Cristian Gaginsky, Deputy Chief of Mission, Embassy of Romania, and Dereck Hogan, Director, Office of Central European Affairs, Department of State. AFERIM! (BRAVO!) Thursday, February 16 Cannon House Office Building Room 122 2:00PM – Film Screening 4:00PM – Panel Discussion Aferim!, Romania’s 2016 submission for the foreign-language Oscar, follows a constable and his son in 1835 as they track down a run-away slave, encountering various Romanian archetypes along the way.  Roma, Europe’s largest ethnic minority, were enslaved in Romania until their emancipation during the founding of the modern Romanian nation state in the second half of the 19th century. Today, approximately two million of Europe’s 15 million Roma citizens live in Romania. Romania commemorates the end of slavery on February 20.

  • Helsinki Commission Chairman Wicker Comments on Poisoning of Pro-Democracy Russian Activist, Fighting in Ukraine

    WASHINGTON–Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) today issued the following statement regarding the recent acts of aggression perpetrated by the Russian government: “In today’s Russia, there is a disturbing trend of violence that targets members of the political opposition. I am particularly concerned about Vladimir Kara-Murza, who is fighting for his life in a Moscow hospital after being poisoned.  Mr. Kara-Murza has appeared at multiple Helsinki Commission events and is a tireless advocate for restoring democratic freedoms to the Russian people. The United States should have no illusions about the nature of the Russian regime. “Meanwhile, fighting in eastern Ukraine continues to spread.  Last week, the OSCE’s Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine reported the heaviest fighting since combined Russian-separatist forces captured Debaltseve in January 2015.  The OSCE Parliamentary Assembly has repeatedly condemned Russia’s ‘clear, gross, and uncorrected’ violations of OSCE principles with respect to Ukraine. “I stand with UN Ambassador Nikki Haley in condemning the escalation of violence.  Russia should respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine.” Vladimir Kara-Murza has a longstanding relationship with the Helsinki Commission. He first appeared at a Helsinki Commission briefing in 2011. He testified at a Helsinki Commission hearing on Russia in 2015 and briefed Commission staff before the 2016 Russian parliamentary elections.

  • The Helsinki Commission, Forty Years Ago and Today

    Spencer Oliver saw the foundation of the Helsinki Commission as its first Chief of Staff, from 1976 to 1985. After subsequent service as Chief Counsel at the House Foreign Affairs Committee, he served as the first Secretary General of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly from October 1992 to December 2015. Spencer Oliver, a personal witness to the diplomacy that brought trans-Atlantic relations from the Cold War era to the present, recently paid a visit to the Helsinki Commission offices he first opened in 1976.  After a nine-year tenure as the Commission’s first Chief of Staff, Mr. Oliver remained involved with the Helsinki Process through his subsequent career in the Congress and at the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly. Mr. Oliver gave a short interview on the Commission’s accomplishments over four decades, and prospects for the future. Before the establishment of the Helsinki Commission in 1976, Oliver observed, “human rights were not really a component of U.S. foreign policy. It was the Commission that made a strong effort for President Carter to make human rights a definite element in his foreign policy portfolio.” He recalled a private foreign policy strategy meeting in the fall of 1976 with then-candidate Jimmy Carter’s foreign policy team. Then-Helsinki Commission Chairman Dante B. Fascell, a U.S. Representative from Florida, made a pitch about why human rights should be on Carter’s agenda.  Senator Hubert Humphrey, a very close friend and advisor to Carter, slammed his hand on the table and said, “By golly, Dante’s right! Human rights ought to be one of the principal pillars of the Carter foreign policy!” After Carter took office, Chairman Fascell and his staff, including Mr. Oliver, met with the new President’s Secretary of State, Cyrus Vance, to discuss a plan to make human rights a U.S. foreign policy priority. They recommended that: 1) the State Department position of “Coordinator of Humanitarian Affairs” be elevated to a full Bureau for Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs; 2) Patricia M. Derian, a civil rights activist from Mississippi, become the first Assistant Secretary of State to head that Bureau; 3) the Assistant Secretary also become the State Department’s representative on the Helsinki Commission; and 4) the Helsinki Commission be fully integrated into inter-agency CSCE planning and the U.S. Delegation to the upcoming CSCE Review Meeting in Belgrade. The Secretary agreed and implemented these recommendations, despite resistance within the State Department. “Without Dante Fascell and Patt Derian, human rights probably would not have had the place it eventually did in American foreign policy,” Oliver observed. Oliver mentioned with sadness the passing of Derian in May 2016. Mr. Oliver explained that the Helsinki Commission was also partly responsible for creating the practice of human rights implementation, review, and accountability. At the 1977 Belgrade Review Meeting, the Helsinki Commission participants in the U.S. Delegation articulated specific cases of human rights abuses and violations of the Helsinki Accords committed by the Soviet Union. In response, the Soviet delegation shot back with criticisms of U.S. human rights issues, such as racism and poverty, to which the United States responded by investigating and reporting factually on these concerns. By publishing a human rights compliance report, the United States set a precedent for accountability on the part of all Helsinki Final Act signatory states. “The Helsinki Accords,” Oliver explained, “were not just about how the countries treat one another, but also about how countries treat their own citizens.” Noting that, today, Russia’s human rights conditions are worse than they have been since the collapse of the USSR, Mr. Oliver recalled moments that looked more promising. Accompanying Fascell to Moscow in April 1986, he was among the first American officials to meet with Mikhail Gorbachev after his consolidation of power as leader of the Soviet Union. In a four-hour meeting at the Kremlin on a Saturday morning, Mr. Oliver expected Gorbachev to find recourse to concerns raised by displaying the same defensiveness and counter-criticism as previous Soviet leaders. Instead, Gorbachev was honest about the issues his country was facing, and expressed his intention to enact economic and political reforms to open the Soviet Union up to the rest of the world. Mr. Oliver left that meeting feeling encouraged about the direction of the USSR. This progressive streak in Russian leadership was short-lived, as illustrated by Vladimir Putin’s increasingly authoritarian rule and denial of basic freedoms. Mr. Oliver believes that Putin’s rise to power and current popularity result from the turmoil and economic devastation of the 1990s, compounded with his tight grip on the media. “There’s no country in the world where the dictator controls the media and he isn’t running at 80 percent in the polls,” he said. In terms of U.S. policy towards Russia, Mr. Oliver believes that strengthening and widening those economic sanctions already in place would put the most pressure on the Russian government to change its ways. “When the Russians invaded Crimea, they broke every one of the ten principles of the Helsinki Final Act,” he said.  “We should let the Russians know that we don’t intend to back off until they change their ways.” In the meantime, the Commission can continue to play an important role maintaining the gains made in promoting human rights through bilateral as well as multilateral diplomacy.

  • Co-Chairman Smith Expresses Support for Vladimir Kara-Murza

    WASHINGTON—Responding to reports that Russian democracy activist Vladimir Kara-Murza, currently in a coma in a Russian hospital, was diagnosed with “acute poisoning by an undetermined substance,” Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04) released the following statement: “I am deeply concerned by reports that, just as in 2015, Vladimir Kara-Murza was poisoned in Russia. Kara-Murza has been a champion of free and fair elections in Russia, and has fought bravely to hold Russian officials accountable for human rights violations.  Vladimir and his family are in my thoughts and prayers. We all hope that he recovers quickly–and I call upon the Russian government to take all measures to investigate this incident, and to bring those responsible to justice.” Kara-Murza testified before Smith at a Helsinki Commission hearing in October 2015, several months after a suspected poisoning earlier that year. Kara-Murza was also the target of death threats before the 2016 Russian parliamentary elections.  

  • Helsinki Commission Leaders Mark International Human Rights Day

    WASHINGTON—To mark International Human Rights Day on December 10, Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04), Chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, and Sen. Roger Wicker (MS), Co-Chairman of the Commission, issued the following statements: “2016 has been a challenging year for the OSCE region – some governments have backslid on human rights, and humanitarian crises on the OSCE’s periphery in Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere have driven waves of refugees into the OSCE region,” Chairman Smith said. “And despite our best efforts, child sex tourism is soaring while protection lags. We each have an essential role to play in fighting for the human rights of those who are persecuted, whether they are political prisoners in Azerbaijan, refugees fleeing genocide in Syria, journalists in Turkey, or victims of human trafficking in our own country. We must all become human rights defenders.” “We live in a world with significant security challenges, from cyber threats to terrorism to acts of aggression by one of our own OSCE participating States,” said Co-Chairman Wicker. “However, as we work to maintain regional stability, we remember that security cannot exist independently from securing fundamental human rights. Today, we recommit ourselves to democracy, the rule of the law, and the rights of all people to determine their future free from tyranny and oppression.” “The Helsinki Final Act is clear: human rights issues in one OSCE country are of direct and legitimate concern to all participating States,” Chairman Smith concluded. “I call on the 57 nations of the OSCE to defend the rights and dignity of the most vulnerable, and to provide humanitarian assistance to victims of genocide and war in the Middle East.”

  • Human Rights, Military Security in Crimea under the Microscope at Upcoming Helsinki Commission Briefing

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following briefing: Ongoing Human Rights and Security Violations in Russian-Occupied Crimea Thursday, November 10, 2016 2:00 PM Rayburn House Office Building Room B-318 In Russia’s ongoing illegal occupation of the Ukrainian region of Crimea, occupying authorities persistently and egregiously violate the human rights of those perceived to oppose Russian annexation of this Ukrainian territory, especially Crimean Tatars.  At the same time, with Russia’s militarization of the peninsula, the security situation in the surrounding Black Sea region is becoming increasingly perilous. The briefing will examine the current state of affairs in the region in the face of Russian aggression, analyze the response of the international community, and discuss how – 40 years after the Ukrainian Helsinki Monitoring Group was formed to  monitor the Soviet Government’s compliance with the Helsinki Final Act – Ukrainians continue to defend Helsinki principles in the face of violations by Moscow. The following panelists are scheduled to participate: Oksana Shulyar, Embassy of Ukraine to the United States John E. Herbst, Director, Dinu Patriciu Eurasia Center at the Atlantic Council; former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine   Paul A. Goble, Editor, Windows on Eurasia; Professor, The Institute of World Politics Taras Berezovets, Founder, Free-Crimea Project, Kyiv, Ukraine

  • Moldova at a Crossroads

    Twenty-five years after its independence, Moldova is at a crossroads as it prepares for presidential elections scheduled for October 30. While it seeks to overcome significant internal challenges, the country is also squarely in the crosshairs of Russian destabilization efforts intended to maintain Moscow’s influence and strike at the foundation of Moldovan democracy. The experts at this briefing offered valuable insight on the significant internal and external challenges Moldova faces as it approaches presidential elections in October 2016. The speakers addressed continued threats to Moldovan territorial integrity and sovereignty; hostile Russian actions including disinformation campaigns, an economic blockade, and threatening rhetoric; and the roles of the Moldovan government and external actors, including the OSCE, in addressing Moldovan vulnerabilities. Commissioner Rep. Joe Pitts (PA-16) opened the briefing with a statement on Moldova and the Transnistrian conflict, as he has been deeply interested and engaged in Moldova throughout his career.  Witnesses Ambassador William Hill and Matthew Rojansky then discussed Moldova's internal and external challenges in greater depth. As a veteran diplomat in Moldova and the region, Ambassador William Hill assigned an absence of rule of law as Moldova’s central challenge. Mr. Rojansky, a renowned scholar on this subject, offered historical perspective on Russia’s objectives in maintaining instability in neighboring countries like Moldova. Before beginning audience Q&A, the event also welcomed comments from Tatiana Solomon, Chargé d’Affaires ad interim of the Moldovan Embassy, who thanked the witnesses and the Helsinki Commission for engagement on the issues discussed. All participants encouraged U.S. support for Moldova and the region as it works towards a stable, democratic, and prosperous future.

  • Atrocities in Iraq & Syria: Relief for Survivors and Accountability for Perpetrators

      The civil war in Syria, which began in early 2011 and since spread into Northern Iraq has devastated both countries. Estimates of the number of people who have died during Syria's civil war since March 2011 range from 250,000 to 470,000. In Iraq, the estimated range is between 19,000 and 41,650 deaths since January 2014. The people living in these regions have been subjected to an extensive list of atrocities  including genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes. Thosands of refugees have fled Iraq and Syria to seek refuge in the OSCE region. The desperate situation in these areas has resulted in the worst refugee crisis since World War II. With the war in Iraq and Syria showing little signs of abating the danger for vulnerable groups in these countries continues to worsen.  This hearing examined the current situation in Iraq and Syria regarding the persecution of religious and ethnic minorities, and looked at how the United States and the international community can best help protect persecuted people in this region and ensure that perpetrators of genocide and related crimes in Iraq and Syria are punished. It featured witnesses from CIJA, the former Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes Issues, and leaders from the Catholic community. “The atrocities in Iraq and Syria have been so horrible, for so long, with so little action from the Administration, that it has been difficult to hope. Nevertheless, when [Secretary Kerry] declared genocide, we dared to hope that finally the Administration would hear the voices of the victims and act. Instead, the Administration has said the right words and done the wrong things,” said Helsinki Commission Chairman Chris Smith (NJ), “When the Executive Branch fails to acts, then Congress must require it to act. That is why I recently authored and introduced the bipartisan Iraq and Syria Genocide Relief and Accountability Act of 2016, with Representative Anna Eshoo as my lead cosponsor."  Witnesses discussed ways to support religious and ethnic communities that have survived such atrocities. In addition, they encouraged the U.S. to fund the criminal investigation, prosecution, and conviction of the perpetrators, and identified gaps in U.S. criminal statutes that make it difficult to prosecute Americans or foreigners in the U.S. who have committed such crimes. Former U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes Issues David Scheffer said, “H.R. 5961 demonstrates an undeniable logic: the survivors of genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes in Iraq and Syria merit the fullest possible assistance of our government, including consideration of admission of victim refugees to the United States.” “The perpetrators of atrocity crimes not only in Iraq and Syria but elsewhere in the world should be subject to investigation and prosecution,” Scheffer continued. “Federal jurisdiction over crimes against humanity and war crimes remains non-existent or very limited…it is a raw fact that the United States is currently a sanctuary for alien perpetrators of crimes against humanity or war crimes.” “The Iraq and Syria Genocide Relief Act [is] a much needed, not to mention overdue, piece of legislation,” said Chris Engels, deputy director of the Commission for International Justice and Accountability. “Criminal investigations done contemporaneously with the criminal acts are essential to ensuring later accountability. Otherwise, as we have seen in the past, evidence is lost and those responsible for these mass human rights violations go unpunished.” Witnesses also highlighted the humanitarian vulnerabilities and lack of assistance that force the survivors to flee their homes and recommended ways to support entities effectively serving genocide survivors in-country, including faith-based organizations. Steve Rasche, legal counsel and director of resettlement programs for the Chaldean Catholic Archdiocese of Erbil, noted, “Since August 2014, other than initial supplies of tents and tarps, the Christian community in Iraq has received nothing in aid from any U.S. aid agencies or the UN. When we have approached any of these entities regarding the provision of aid assistance …we have been told that we have done too well in our private efforts…every morning we wake up and rob six Peters to pay 12 Pauls.” “The current policy prioritizes individual needs but does not consider the needs of vulnerable communities,” said Carl Anderson, Supreme Knight, Knights of Columbus. “On one hand, we have the unanimous policy of the elected branches of the United States Government stating that a genocide is occurring. On the other hand we have an aid bureaucracy that is allowing the intended consequence of the genocide to continue, even though it is in our power to stop it.” Bill Canny, executive director for migration and refugee services at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), said, “We are gravely concerned by the small number of religious minorities who have been resettled in the United States during the current fiscal year.” “It is unclear at the time of this writing precisely why the percentage of Syrian Christians, who have been registered as refugees or resettled in the United States as refugees, is so low,” Canny continued. USCCB resettles more refugees annually in the U.S. than any other agency. Chairman Smith was joined at the hearing by a bipartisan group of lawmakers, including Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Senator Roger Wicker (MS), Ranking Commissioner Senator Ben Cardin (MD), and Commissioners Rep. Joe Pitts (PA-16) and Rep. Alan Grayson (FL-09).                

  • Hearing Addresses Genocide, War Crimes Driving Refugee Crisis in OSCE

    WASHINGTON—At a hearing convened today by Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04), witnesses unanimously expressed support for Chairman Smith’s recently introduced Iraq and Syria Genocide Relief and Accountability Act of 2016 (H.R. 5961), bipartisan legislation that provides relief to victims of genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes in Iraq and Syria, and accountability for perpetrators.   “The atrocities in Iraq and Syria have been so horrible, for so long, with so little action from the Administration, that it has been difficult to hope. Nevertheless, when [Secretary Kerry] declared genocide, we dared to hope that finally the Administration would hear the voices of the victims and act. Instead, the Administration has said the right words and done the wrong things,” said Chairman Smith. “Displaced genocide survivors cannot pay for food, medicine, or shelter with words from Washington,” Chairman Smith continued.  “When the Executive Branch fails to acts, then Congress must require it to act. That is why I recently authored and introduced the bipartisan Iraq and Syria Genocide Relief and Accountability Act of 2016, with Representative Anna Eshoo as my lead cosponsor.” Witnesses discussed ways to support religious and ethnic communities that have survived such atrocities. In addition, they encouraged the U.S. to fund the criminal investigation, prosecution, and conviction of the perpetrators, and identified gaps in U.S. criminal statutes that make it difficult to prosecute Americans or foreigners in the U.S. who have committed such crimes. Former U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes Issues David Scheffer said, “H.R. 5961 demonstrates an undeniable logic: the survivors of genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes in Iraq and Syria merit the fullest possible assistance of our government, including consideration of admission of victim refugees to the United States.” “The perpetrators of atrocity crimes not only in Iraq and Syria but elsewhere in the world should be subject to investigation and prosecution,” Scheffer continued. “Federal jurisdiction over crimes against humanity and war crimes remains non-existent or very limited…it is a raw fact that the United States is currently a sanctuary for alien perpetrators of crimes against humanity or war crimes.” “The Iraq and Syria Genocide Relief Act [is] a much needed, not to mention overdue, piece of legislation,” said Chris Engels, deputy director of the Commission for International Justice and Accountability. “Criminal investigations done contemporaneously with the criminal acts are essential to ensuring later accountability. Otherwise, as we have seen in the past, evidence is lost and those responsible for these mass human rights violations go unpunished.” Witnesses also highlighted the humanitarian vulnerabilities and lack of assistance that force the survivors to flee their homes and recommended ways to support entities effectively serving genocide survivors in-country, including faith-based organizations. Steve Rasche, legal counsel and director of resettlement programs for the Chaldean Catholic Archdiocese of Erbil, noted, “Since August 2014, other than initial supplies of tents and tarps, the Christian community in Iraq has received nothing in aid from any U.S. aid agencies or the UN. When we have approached any of these entities regarding the provision of aid assistance …we have been told that we have done too well in our private efforts…every morning we wake up and rob six Peters to pay 12 Pauls.” “The current policy prioritizes individual needs but does not consider the needs of vulnerable communities,” said Carl Anderson, Supreme Knight, Knights of Columbus. “On one hand, we have the unanimous policy of the elected branches of the United States Government stating that a genocide is occurring. On the other hand we have an aid bureaucracy that is allowing the intended consequence of the genocide to continue, even though it is in our power to stop it.” “There is nothing unconstitutional, illegal, unethical or unprofessional about prioritizing their right to survival as a community,” Anderson added, referring to Christian and other communities that face extinction in Iraq and Syria. Bill Canny, executive director for migration and refugee services at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), said, “We are gravely concerned by the small number of religious minorities who have been resettled in the United States during the current fiscal year.” “It is unclear at the time of this writing precisely why the percentage of Syrian Christians, who have been registered as refugees or resettled in the United States as refugees, is so low,” Canny continued. “It is clear, however, that Christians and other religious minorities have become a target for brutality at the hands of the non-state actor ISIS, and that they are fleeing for their lives, and that far too few of them have been attaining U.S. resettlement.” USCCB resettles more refugees annually in the U.S. than any other agency. Chairman Smith was joined at the hearing by a bipartisan group of lawmakers, including Helsinki Commission Co-Chair Senator Roger Wicker (MS), Ranking Commissioner Senator Ben Cardin (MD), and Commissioners Rep. Joe Pitts (PA-16) and Rep. Alan Grayson (FL-09). In 2013, ISIS began its brutal campaign of extermination and expulsion in Syria, expanding to Iraq in 2014. Many of those who survived these atrocities have been joining the flood of refugees streaming out of the region to Europe and other areas of safety. Resolving their plight is a key component to helping address the refugee crisis and has been of intense interest to countries in the OSCE region.

  • Helsinki Commission Honored for Work on Ukraine

    At yesterday’s 2016 Ukraine in Washington forum, the U.S.-Ukraine Foundation recognized the Helsinki Commission for four decades of support for Ukraine and Ukrainian dissidents. “Long before Ukraine’s independence and the formation of the House and Senate Ukraine Caucuses, we must remember there was the Congressional Helsinki Commission,” said Robert McConnell, co-founder of the U.S.-Ukraine Foundation. “It was doing everything possible to shine international klieg lights on Ukraine’s human rights issues, from its political prisoners to the illegality of the Ukrainian Catholic Church.”  The Helsinki Commission has a long history of supporting Ukrainians’ aspirations for human rights and democracy, even prior to independence when Ukraine – the largest non-Russian republic in the Soviet Union – was viewed as a particular threat to Moscow’s rule. Since 1991, the Commission has been a strong supporter of the development of an independent, secure, democratic Ukraine. The Commission was instrumental in introducing and ensuring passage of the original resolution calling for the U.S. to recognize Ukraine’s independence in the face of State Department opposition.  In the intervening 25 years, Helsinki Commission hearings, briefings, and other activities have highlighted issues including Chornobyl; the state of democracy and rule of law; the political situation in Ukraine; elections; and – more recently – Russia’s war against Ukraine and human rights violations in Crimea and the occupied territories of the Donbas.  “We know the Ukrainian people want freedom and democracy, whether it be in Crimea or other parts of the country,” said Helsinki Commission Chairman Christopher Smith (NJ-04). “Yet we find again that this persistent aggression by the Russians—which is reminiscent of Soviet times—continues to make the freedom, democracy, and prosperity that the people so richly deserve that much harder to achieve.” (View video.) Commissioners have also played an active role in the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly on Ukraine, especially in condemning Russia’s aggression and violation of all core OSCE principles enshrined in the Helsinki Final Act. Commission leadership has led several Congressional delegations to Ukraine, including three since Russia’s invasion, and the Commission has observed virtually every national election in Ukraine since 1990. “The Helsinki Commission’s efforts then and now must never be forgotten as they were – though often like cries in the wilderness – critically important in keeping the truth of Ukraine alive and in providing a rallying point for so many efforts that eventually helped Ukraine shed the Kremlin’s shackles,” McConnell said. “The Helsinki Commission for decades was like a beacon of hope. It was an outside promise for the Ukrainian Helsinki Group and a critical source of support for Ukrainian-Americans and so many others as they persevered in their quest for freedom against what seemed like insurmountable odds.”

  • Azerbaijan’s Constitutional Referendum Creates Crisis of Legitimacy

    WASHINGTON—In a recent letter to Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04) expressed deep concern about the country’s September 26 constitutional referendum, which proposes changes that would undermine Azerbaijan’s international obligations to protect democracy. The bipartisan letter urging President Aliyev to reconsider holding the referendum and to live up to his government’s commitment to human rights was also signed by Helsinki Commissioner Rep. Joe Pitts (PA-16) and Rep. Adam Schiff (CA-28). “By lengthening presidential terms and expanding presidential authorities, the proposed constitutional changes are susceptible to abuse that would entrench political authority, making it less responsive to the will of the Azerbaijani people,” the Members of Congress wrote. “We are especially troubled by amendments that would restrict fundamental rights that are vital to open public debate and government accountability.” Proposed changes to Azerbaijan’s constitution include extending the presidential term from five to seven years; removing the age limits for holding elected office; providing immunity for vice presidents; allowing the president to dissolve the national assembly and call early elections; and reorganizing the presidential line of succession. The Government of Azerbaijan has already faced international criticism for its crackdown on journalists, activists, opposition politicians, and members of religious minorities.  The referendum would further restrict fundamental freedoms by placing limits on freedom of expression when it provokes “hostility,” freedom of assembly when it “disrupt[s]…public morale,” and property rights when they violate “social justice and effective use.” “The upcoming referendum creates a grave crisis of legitimacy,” the letter read. “Neither the international community nor the Azerbaijani people can have confidence in a vote that takes place without free access to information, open debate, and transparency. That the Azerbaijani people are being asked to vote on measures that erode democratic principles makes the situation even more unacceptable.” In December 2015, Chairman Smith introduced H.R. 4264, the Azerbaijan Democracy Act, a bill that would deny U.S. visas to senior members of the Azerbaijani government until such a time that Azerbaijan makes substantial progress toward releasing political prisoners, ending its harassment of civil society, and holding free and fair elections. The full text of the letter is below. September 8, 2016 His Excellency Ilham Aliyev President of the Republic of Azerbaijan Presidential Palace Istiglaliyyat Street 19 Baku, AZ 1066 Dear President Aliyev, We write to you to express our deep concern regarding Azerbaijan’s upcoming constitutional referendum on September 26, 2016. We believe that the proposed changes to the constitution and the means for adopting them will undermine your government’s international obligations to protect democracy and human rights. By lengthening presidential terms and expanding presidential authorities, the proposed constitutional changes are susceptible to abuse that would entrench political authority, making it less responsive to the will of the Azerbaijani people. We are especially troubled by amendments that would restrict fundamental rights that are vital to open public debate and government accountability. Shortly following independence, the Government of Azerbaijan in 1992 joined the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) thereby expressing its commitment to the protection of fundamental rights and freedoms as one of the basic purposes of government. We regret that in the years hence Azerbaijan's human rights record fails to reflect this commitment. Time and again, the credibility of Azerbaijani elections has been marred by credible reports of ballot stuffing and irregularities with vote counting, as well as limitations on freedom of expression and freedom of association. These troubling precedents motivate our concern about the upcoming referendum. If successful, the vote would change the constitution to extend the presidential term from five to seven years, remove the age limits for holding elected office, provide immunity for vice presidents, allow the president to dissolve the national assembly and call early elections, as well as reorganize the presidential line of succession. Additionally, it would subject fundamental rights to vaguely worded restrictions, circumscribing freedom of expression when it provokes “hostility,” freedom of assembly when it “disrupt[s]…public morale,” and property rights when they violate “social justice and effective use.” We are deeply concerned that Azerbaijani voters are being asked to consider such consequential changes to Azerbaijan’s constitutional framework in a climate that makes free debate all but impossible. In recent days, it has been reliably reported that a number of political activists campaigning against the referendum and several journalists have been detained on trumped-up charges and some have faced mistreatment and torture at the hands of authorities. Even before the latest round of arrests and intimidation, half a dozen journalists were already in jail, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty has remained closed since December 2014, and other independent journalists and media outlets faced official harassment. The upcoming referendum creates a grave crisis of legitimacy. Neither the international community nor the Azerbaijani people can have confidence in a vote that takes place without free access to information, open debate, and transparency. That the Azerbaijani people are being asked to vote on measures that erode democratic principles makes the situation even more unacceptable. We urge you to reconsider this constitutional referendum and to re-invigorate your government’s flagging commitment to promote the freedom and dignity of its people by ceasing all harassment and proceedings that target political activists and journalists who peacefully express their visions for Azerbaijan. We are inspired by the example of these brave voices and hope that your government will recognize that Azerbaijan’s strength and stability derives from the liberty of its people. Sincerely, Christopher H. Smith Member of Congress Joseph R. Pitts Member of Congress Adam B. Schiff Member of Congress           

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