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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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    By Erika Schlager, Counsel for International Law On July 11, Helsinki Commission staff met with Dame Audrey Glover, head of the OSCE election observation mission during the 2016 U.S. elections. Other members of the OSCE team included Mr. Jan Haukass (Vienna Representative of the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, or ODIHR), Dr. Richard Lappin (ODIHR-Warsaw), and Mr. Radivoje Grujic (ODIHR-Warsaw).  The meeting was part of OSCE’s standard consultations following the deployment of an election observation mission.  The election team also held meetings in Washington with Members of Congress and the Department of State. OSCE election observation is based on the 1990 Copenhagen Document in which the participating States agreed that “the will of the people, freely and fairly expressed through periodic and genuine elections, is the basis of the authority and legitimacy of all government.” The commitment fosters universal suffrage, equality, fairness, freedom, transparency, accountability, and secrecy of the ballot. The original proposal for a commitment to hold free and fair elections came from the Helsinki Commission in 1989 but, at that time, was unacceptable to communist countries. In 1990, as communist regimes began to fall, agreement on the new commitment was adopted and signaled the rejection of the one-party systems that had previously dominated Eastern Europe. However, implementation of this commitment continues to be restricted in some countries where civil society is limited or faces repression. OSCE election observation in the region represents the “gold standard” in international election observation. In some instances, when even the fundamental conditions for free and fair elections are lacking, the OSCE may decline to observe elections rather than give them a degree of legitimacy that is unwarranted. In 2015, restrictions imposed by the government of Azerbaijan compelled the OSCE to cancel a planned election observation mission. Some countries, such as Russia, have sought to undermine OSCE election observation by promoting observation through the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), a post-Soviet grouping that includes Azerbaijan, Armenia, Belarus, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Ukraine.  CIS election observers consistently praise elections that are considered to be significantly flawed by independent observers, particularly the OSCE.  Helsinki Commissioners and staff have participated in well over 100 election observation missions since 1990 – the vast majority of them as members of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly contingent that is part of the larger OSCE-led international observation missions. The Commission continues to support OSCE observation efforts, focusing on countries where resistance to democratic change remains the strongest.  The Commission has also actively supported the right of domestic election observers to monitor the elections in their own countries. Learn more about OSCE election observation.

  • Social Media Day 2017

    First celebrated in 2010, Social Media Day recognizes the enormous impact social media has had on global communication. Many OSCE institutions, field missions, and related entities maintain a robust presence on social media, allowing them to share news, facilitate dialogue, and promote democracy, the rule of law, and human rights throughout the 57 participating States of the OSCE. Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (U.S. Helsinki Commission)  Twitter Facebook YouTube Flickr LinkedIn U.S. Mission to the OSCE Twitter Facebook YouTube OSCE Parliamentary Assembly Twitter Facebook YouTube Flickr Instagram OSCE Secretariat  Twitter Facebook YouTube Instagram LinkedIn SoundCloud OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities  Twitter OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights Twitter Facebook LinkedIn OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media Twitter Facebook YouTube Flickr OSCE Presence in Albania  Twitter Facebook OSCE Mission to Bosnia and Herzegovina Twitter Facebook YouTube Google+ SoundCloud OSCE Mission in Kosovo Twitter Facebook YouTube OSCE Mission to Serbia Twitter Facebook OSCE Mission to Skopje Twitter Facebook OSCE Mission to Moldova Facebook OSCE Project Co-ordinator in Ukraine Facebook OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine Twitter Facebook OSCE Office in Tajikistan Facebook

  • Transatlantic Inclusion Leaders Network 2017 Workshop Report

    The Transatlantic Inclusion Leaders Network (TILN) advances leaders who are global in outlook, representative, culturally competent, and inclusive. TILN is the premier venue for young, diverse U.S. and European elected and civil society leaders to meet, enhance their inclusive leadership portfolio, and engage senior policymakers. Now entering its sixth year housed within the German Marshall Fund in cooperation with the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (U.S. Helsinki Commission), TILN has been honored to be supported through partnerships with the U.S. Department of State, Balkan Trust for Democracy, Open Society Foundations, Meridiam, IMPACT, ONCE Foundation, Operation Black Vote, Unitas Communications, New American Leaders Project and the World Jewish Congress. At the center of the initiative is an annual leadership workshop for young diverse leaders from Europe and the United States. TILN workshops have created an empowered and highly upwardly mobile network that bridges the Atlantic and strengthens transatlantic relations for the future. TILN alumni utilize their experiences to reach new heights from mounting campaigns for the European and national Parliaments to becoming Members of the U.S. Congress, Ministers, and regionally and locally elected officials. Alumni include U.S. Congressman Ruben Gallego, Swedish Parliamentarian Said Abdu, UN Expert on Minority Issues Rita Iszak, and other Parliamentarians, Ministers, Mayors, City Councilpersons, regional and local leaders. Download the full report to learn more about the 2017 Annual Workshop.

  • #MovetheCouch: Transatlantic Leaders Convene in Brussels

    By Dr. Mischa Thompson, Policy Advisor “If we cannot be entrusted as leaders to do the small things, why should the public trust us to do the big ones, including governing international relations?” –Svante Myrick Mayor of Ithaca, New York TILN 2016 From March 20-26, 2017, the U.S. Helsinki Commission, in partnership with the German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF), the U.S. State Department, and other stakeholders, hosted the sixth annual Transatlantic Inclusion Leaders Network (TILN) workshop in Brussels, Belgium.     Twenty-five young leaders representing more than fourteen European countries and the United States came together to learn from one another, expand their leadership skills, and offer a more inclusive vision for the world. As participants in the Brussels Forum Young Professionals Summit, TILN participants engaged with senior U.S. and European public and private sector leaders on the most pressing issues impacting the transatlantic relationship today, ranging from U.S. elections and the international workforce to Russia and counterterrorism. Several TILN participants also visited a high school in Brussels, exploring opportunities for international exchange and collaboration between administrators, educators, and students related to the educational needs of increasingly diverse student bodies and the future workforce on both sides of the Atlantic. Ithaca Mayor Svante Myrick closed Brussels Forum with powerful cautionary comments to all leaders. “While here in Brussels thinking about global problems, I received an email from a constituent who has been annoyed by an abandoned couch for days. It might seem like a small issue, but I'm going to make sure I move that couch,” he stated.  “I had to move it because, if we cannot be entrusted as leaders to do the small things, why should the public trust us to do the big ones, including governing international relations?” Sharing the vision for a more inclusive world, in the week following the workshop, TILN alumni from previous years led GMF-funded alumni leadership action projects in the Netherlands, Finland, Italy, and during the European Union’s Roma Week.  For more information on this year's Brussels workshop, please see the Transatlantic Inclusion Leaders Network 2017 Workshop Report. The Transatlantic Inclusion Leaders Network (TILN) “inspires, informs, and connects diverse young leaders to excel in elected office and other leadership roles, advance inclusive policies, and engage with senior transatlantic policymakers.” Participants are from diverse U.S. and European communities, including the Balkans, with a proven commitment to advancing diversity and inclusion best practices in their policymaking and society.  For more information on TILN, please see the Transatlantic Inclusion Leaders Network 2017 Workshop Report.   TILN 2016 Participants Umut Aydin | France | Analyst, Meridiam Delio Diaz Garcia | Spain | Secretary General, Juventudes de Unidad Progresista Nebojša Dobrijević | Croatia | Independent Advisor, Joint Council of Municipalities Judith Garcia | United States | City Councillor, Chelsea, Massachusetts Diana Horvat | Serbia | Editor, Radio Televison of Vojvodina Maryam Jamshid | Belgium | Social Council Elected Member, City of Hasselt, Flanders Paulette Jordan | United States | State Representative, Idaho Natascha Kabir | Germany | Green Party Faction Leader, City Parliament of Offenbach Aroosa Khan | Netherlands | Board Member, PvdA Party, Amsterdam-East Edin Koljenović | Montenegro | Program Coordinator, Civic Alliance Oleksii Krasnoshchokov | Ukraine | Board President, Pidmoga.info Hayatte Maazouza | France | Municipal Council Member, Trappes Sammy Mahdi | Belgium | President, Work Group on Diversity, Youth, CD&V Party Martin Mata | Czech Republic | City Council Member, Usti nad Labem Svante L. Myrick | United States | Mayor, City of Ithaca, New York Frances O'Donovan | Denmark | City Council Member, Fredericia Anna Poisner | Ukraine | Counsel, Dragon Capital Aida Salketić | Bosnia and Herzegovina | Cultural Heritage Professional Athena Salman | United States | State Representative, Arizona Brandon Scott | United States | City Council Member, Baltimore, Maryland Karen Taylor | Germany | Advisor to of Member of Parliament Dr. Karamba Diaby David Walsh | United Kingdom | International Relations Officer, Board of Deputies of British Jews John Vargas | United States | Secretary, NALEO Alex Yip | United Kingdom | City Councillor for Sutton New Hall, Birmingham City

  • Using Technology to Protect Children from Online Exploitation

    Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Chris Smith, the Special Representative for Human Trafficking to the President of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, has registered a supplementary item for this year’s Annual Session in Minsk, Belarus, titled, “Preventing Child Sexual Exploitation Online through Advances in Technology.”  Smith’s supplementary item examines the ways protections for children have lagged behind technology, leaving children vulnerable. “Impressionable children in most of the OSCE region have unrestricted access on any web-capable device to every conceivable form of pornography—even the most violent and vile acts—and that exposure has measurable impact on their vulnerability to sexual exploitation,” Smith said. “Tragically, we are seeing children targeted and further victimized as they are exposed to pornographic websites,” said Smith. Studies Show Correlation between Youth Access to Pornography, Sexual Exploitation Similar to earlier studies, a 2016 study in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence (Stanley et. al) of 4,564 young people aged 14 to 17 found in boys a statistically significant correlation between viewing online pornography and committing sexual coercion and abuse.   Importantly, this study was conducted in five OSCE participating States. A definitive study in the European Journal of Developmental Psychology (Bonino, et. al, 2006) found that adolescent girls who report viewing pornography are more likely to report being victims of sexual harassment or forced sex at the hands of male friends or acquaintances. “We are kidding ourselves if we think unrestricted access to pornography online is not harming our children,” said Smith. “We are allowing them to be actively and passively groomed for trafficking,” said Smith, referring to how child sex abusers are known to lower the defenses of children and condition children to accept sexual abuse as normal by showing children pornography. Age Verification The United Kingdom recently joined Germany, Finland, and Iceland in recognizing that unrestricted access of children to online pornography is a public health concern.  In April of this year, the UK’s Digital Economy Act of 2017 became law, empowering an “age verification-regulator,” most likely the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC), to create guidelines on age verification walls for all pornographic websites viewed from within the UK.  The age-verification regulator will be able to fine websites that violate the new guidelines.  Ultimately, IP addresses in the UK for non-compliant websites could be shut down.  The new UK law is in addition to the country’s current requirement that cell phone companies filter content unless the cell phone owner is 18 or older. “All UK mobile operators run content filtering and age verification on their networks, based on the BBFC guidelines,” said Ernie Allen, who led the Center for Missing and Exploited Children in the United States and International Center for Missing and Exploited Children for more than 25 years. “If a customer tries to access an 18+ site and has not age verified, he or she receives a notice on the site that they may not access it until they have age verified,” Allen said.  Verification may be accomplished by visiting the cell phone store and showing identification, or logging into a designated website and using a credit card.  Cardholders must be 18 or older to have a credit card in the UK.  To make sure the card is not “borrowed” from a parent, one pound may be deducted to give notice to the credit card owner that their card has been used for age verification.   The data repository already created by the UK cell phone requirements could be used to inform age verification for pornographic websites.  In addition, the data repository created by the UK’s Gambling Act of 2005, which imposed age restrictions for online gambling, could also be used to verify age.  Visitors to pornographic websites could enter their gambling account number, which would then be authenticated by the website.   The pornography industry has recently come out with its own age verifying system, AgeID.  After an account is created on AgeID, the account number would be sufficient for age verification. Other companies are offering biometric options, using apps to verify that a passport showing the appropriate age belongs to the person offering the passport as verification. “We now have the technology to protect children online,” said Allen.  “A few data points sent to a third party can effectively verify age without necessarily disclosing identity.” The pending supplementary item received sponsorship from 54 parliamentarians representing 26 countries.  President of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, Christine Muttonen, has offered her support. Since raising this issue at the St. Petersburg Annual Session in 1999, Rep. Smith has introduced or cosponsored a supplementary item or amendments on trafficking at every annual session of the OSCE PA, including on issues such as prevention of sex tourism, situational awareness for the detection of trafficking victims in transit, and corporate responsibility for trafficking in supply chains.

  • 2017 Trafficking in Persons Report – the OSCE Region

    Human trafficking remains a pressing human rights violation around the world with the International Labor Organization estimating that nearly 21 million people are enslaved at any given time, most of them women and children. As part of U.S. efforts to combat human trafficking, the U.S. Department of State today released the 2017 Trafficking in Persons Report (TIP Report), reflecting the efforts of 187 countries and territories to prosecute traffickers, prevent trafficking, and to identify and assist victims, as described by the Palermo Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, especially Women and Children. Trafficking Victim Identification and Care: Regional Perspectives According to the new TIP Report, in the 2016 reporting year, countries in the OSCE region identified 304 more trafficking victims than in the previous year, for a total of 11,416 victims.  This increase is particularly notable when compared to the East Asia and Pacific, Near East, South and Central Asia, and Western Hemisphere regions, where victim identification declined, but still maintained a generally upward trend over 2014.  Trafficking victim identification and care is critical for proper management of refugee and migrant flows.  In order to help law enforcement and border guards identify trafficking victims among the nearly 400,000 migrants and refugees entering the region last year, the OSCE Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Human Beings launched a new project to conduct multiple trainings, including simulation exercises, through 2018.  The first training in November 2016 included participants from 30 OSCE participating States. Victim identification and care are also critical for successful prosecutions.  Nearly every region of the world saw a drop in prosecutions of human traffickers, but an increase in convictions in the 2016 reporting year.  This trend may reflect a growing knowledge among prosecutors of how to successfully investigate and prosecute a trafficking case.  It also may reflect an overall increase in trafficking victims who have been identified, permitted to remain in-country, and cared for such that the victims—now survivors—are ready, willing, and able to testify against their traffickers.  Despite the dramatic decline in prosecutions (46 percent) in the OSCE region, convictions held steady at nearly the same numbers as the previous year. Individual Country Narratives Along with regional statistics, the TIP Report also provides individual country narratives, recommendations for the most urgent changes needed to eliminate human trafficking, and an assessment of whether the country is making significant efforts to meet the minimum standards for the elimination of human trafficking. Tier 1 countries meet the minimum standards for the elimination of human trafficking. Tier 2 countries do not yet meet the standards, but are making significant efforts to do so.  Tier 2 Watch List countries do not meet the minimum standards and are making significant efforts to do so, but have a very large or increasing number of trafficking victims, have failed to demonstrate increasing efforts over the previous year, or lack a solid plan to take additional steps in the coming year. Tier 3 countries do not meet the minimum standards and are not making significant efforts to do so. Twenty-five OSCE participating States qualified for Tier 1 in the TIP Report.  Nineteen participating States qualified for Tier 2, including Ukraine, which was upgraded this year after four years on the Tier 2 Watch List.  Five participating States were designated for the Tier 2 Watch List, including Hungary, Moldova, Montenegro, Serbia, and Bulgaria.* Four participating States were on Tier 3, including Belarus, Russia, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.  States on Tier 3 may be subject to sanctions. Legislation authored by Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Chris Smith—who also serves as the Special Representative for Human Trafficking Issues to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe Parliamentary Assembly – requires the TIP Report to be produced every year.  In recent years the report has also included an assessment of the United States.   Since the inception of the report, more than 100 countries have written or amended their trafficking laws, with some nations openly crediting the report for inspiring progress in their countries’ fight against human trafficking. * OSCE participating States Andorra, Monaco, Lichtenstein, and San Marino are not included in the TIP Report.

  • OSCE Debates Future of European Security

    By Alex Tiersky, Global Security and Political-Military Affairs Advisor Can an organization of 57 participating States which includes both the United States and Russia come to agreement on the causes of instability in European security today, let alone re-commit to the basic rules of the road governing states’ behavior?  And are all participating States – especially Russia – still able and willing to participate in good faith in a positive-sum, cooperative approach to building security, rather than a competitive, beggar-thy-neighbor approach? These were the questions that underpinned the OSCE Security Days conference of non-governmental experts and governmental representatives on “Countering fragmentation and polarization: Re-creating a climate for stability in Europe,” held on May 18-19, 2017 in Prague.  While the Czech hosts were proud to inform attendees that the meeting was held in the very hall in which the July 1, 1991 protocol dissolving the Warsaw Pact was signed, it seemed unlikely that this historical spirit would deliver positive breakthroughs in the current challenges facing the post-Cold War order in Europe, which was declared dead by more than one speaker. The great majority of interventions focused on the deliberate undermining of other countries’ security and independence by Russia. Additional challenges raised by speakers included increasing polarization within and among states, the rise of populist movements, a post-truth environment that feeds instability and mistrust, and the emergence of the cyber domain and its use in interstate competition. Russian revisionist perspectives on the European security order, declared on such occasions as President Putin’s speech at the Munich Security Conference in 2007, underline the extent to which Russian leaders see the post- cold war order as detrimental to Russia’s interests and therefore obsolete, according to several speakers. Conference participants from Russia, for their part, painted an entirely different reality than that described by most other participants. In the former’s telling, the west took advantage of Russia in the post-cold war period despite positive actions by Russia, ranging from the withdrawal of troops and armaments previously stationed across Europe, to more recent collaboration in fighting against piracy or eliminating Syrian chemical weapons. Stressing the concept of indivisibility of security, Russian speakers underlined that Russia would make no more of what they called unilateral concessions, and called for a new European Security Treaty.  NATO’s concept of deterring Russia is not compatible with OSCE commitments, they asserted. Seeking to address these widely differing perspectives among its membership, the German Chairmanship in 2016 and the Austrian Chairmanship in 2017 have launched an informal working group on “structured dialogue” to discuss participating States’ differing views on security threats and possible ways forward.  Conference participants were of mixed views on the prospects for the structured dialogue effort, with skeptics citing what they saw as similar past processes such as the Corfu Process or Helsinki +40, which failed to show concrete results.  Many participants were keen to underline the need for the structured dialogue to avoid calling existing institutions or principles into question.  The challenges facing European security were not institutional in nature, these voices argued, but rather the result of one OSCE participating State – Russia – failing to uphold its commitments or respect the sovereignty and independence of other participating States. Conference participants offered a number of policy recommendations for strengthening the OSCE (such as providing a small crisis response fund under the Secretary General’s authority; providing additional tangible assets like unmanned aerial vehicles; supporting historical research to better understand the sources of divergent perspectives; or modernizing arms control and confidence building measures).  The OSCE should pay more attention to the increasing instability in the Western Balkans, it was suggested, and ongoing work on cyber norms had real potential utility. Individual participating States were urged to combat disinformation campaigns by investing in tools to rapidly rebut false claims, educate publics, and discredit outlets that serve as propaganda, while safeguarding fundamental freedoms.  Despite these and other positively-inclined recommendations, however, the general mood at the conference was one of urgency, not optimism. If one point of general consensus emerged among the widely differing perspectives, it was that in the face of increasingly complex and urgent challenges (many of them caused by or closely linked to Russia’s geopolitical stance, according to the great majority of conference attendees) the absence of shared views and approaches was unlikely to resolve itself in the near term. This dynamic was likely to contribute to a worsening of existing and emerging security crises – and ultimately the further loss of lives. Alex Tiersky attended the conference as a representative of the U.S Helsinki Commission.

  • The Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict

    The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan remains one of the world’s most intractable and long-standing territorial and ethnic disputes. Its fragile no-peace, no-war situation poses a serious threat to stability in the South Caucasus region and beyond.  The conflict features at its core a fundamental tension between two key tenets of the 1975 Helsinki Final Act: territorial integrity and the right to self-determination. As part of the Helsinki Commission’s continued engagement on security challenges across Europe and Eurasia, this short primer on the conflict lays out the conflict’s origins and recent evolution, as well as the role of key players including Russia, the United States, and the OSCE. Download the full report to learn more.

  • OSCE Debates Counterterrorism Approaches

    By Alex Tiersky, Global Security and Political-Military Affairs Advisor Several hundred officials, academics, journalists, NGO representatives and youth ambassadors gathered in Vienna on May 23-24, 2017 for the OSCE’s annual counterterrorism conference.  The event was convened around the subject of “Preventing and Countering Violent Extremism and Radicalization that Lead to Terrorism.” The subject matter could hardly have been more pressing, with the conference taking place in the immediate wake of the tragic terrorist attack in Manchester, England.  That attack – and those suffered by so many OSCE participating States in recent months and years – served to heighten the sense of urgency towards finding ways to address all aspects of the problem, from effectively preventing radicalization that leads to violence, to ensuring societies are resilient in the face of future attacks. OSCE participating States were particularly concerned about the continued threat posed by so-called “foreign terrorist fighters” – citizens of their countries who traveled abroad to fight, in particular to Iraq and Syria, who could return with the intent to inflict attacks on their home countries.  Experts at the meeting voiced concern that many countries are unprepared for the challenge of mitigating any threat posed by these individuals – including children who may have been radicalized as a result of travel as part of families – upon their return. Youth are particularly vulnerable to radicalization and a key element of any sustainable and effective strategy to counter it, according to the OSCE Chair-in-Office, Austrian Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz. He stated that recent OSCE youth workshops had called for greater inclusion of young people in anti-radicalization discussions and strategies; efforts to eliminate propaganda from social media; and broader dissemination of narratives describing the negative results of radicalization. Conference participants differed somewhat on whether best practices in countering extremism developed in one country were universally applicable, or whether local (or even family-level) actors, who may be best placed to identify early warning signs of radicalization and counter it, should be emphasized. Still, most participants underlined that counterterrorism approaches that failed to emphasize the rule of law, fundamental freedoms, and support to civil society, or that singled out religious or ethnic communities, would ultimately prove counterproductive.  The OSCE itself served as a useful platform on this issue, according to head of the U.S. Delegation Irfan Saeed (the Director of the Department of State’s Office of Countering Violent Extremism), who commended ongoing OSCE programs such as the capacity-building work of OSCE Field Missions and the #UnitedCVE social media campaign.  Among the many recommendations offered by various conference participants for heightened national or international efforts were the following: Supporting capacity building efforts by OSCE field missions in the Balkans and Central Asia. Strengthening border controls. Improving governmental interoperability of information systems and access to encrypted information, as well as the ability to process large amounts of data rapidly. Increasing the sharing of biometric data collection to improve effectiveness of policing and border controls. Greater sharing of financial information to detect terrorist networks and their financing. Ensuring cooperation between local communities and law enforcement. Fighting online radicalization and propaganda, in collaboration with the private sector. Addressing the particular vulnerabilities of women and girls and empowering their contributions to countering extremism. Strengthening legal systems to prevent impunity. Using data-driven approaches to assess the effectiveness of programs. Developing and promoting a positive, inclusive vision for Western societies to serve as an alternative to the hate-filled narrative of violent groups. Combatting the challenge of radicalization in prisons. Despite a number of areas of agreement, there were some differences of opinion among the conference participants, including how prominently values should feature in any counterterrorism approach; the characterization of specific groups as “terrorist;” or the use of censorship to address potentially extremist speech on line. One consistently outlying view was expressed by Russian delegates, including Deputy Foreign Minister Oleg Syromolotov, who claimed that (unnamed) partners often committed only rhetorically to countering terrorism rather than acting as part of a global anti-terrorist front, and chastised Western partners who, he said, put their own “geopolitical ambitions” above the need to counter terrorism.  Other Russian interventions included accusations that Western states tolerated or even supported terrorist groups and suggestions that excessive liberalism allowed for terrorists to go unchecked in Western societies.  The interventions served as a reminder of the obstacles that remain to fully maximizing the utility of international cooperation to address this common challenge. Alex Tiersky attended the conference as a member of the U.S. delegation, which was led by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Counterterrorism and Countering Violent Extremism.

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