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Commission Hearing Looked Ahead to Maastricht Ministerial
U.S. Policy Toward the OSCE
Wednesday, December 03, 2003

By Michael Ochs
CSCE Staff Advisor

The United States Helsinki Commission held a hearing on September 9, 2003 reviewing United States policy toward the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). The hearing considered the many security, economic, and humanitarian challenges facing the United States, and how the 55-member nation organization can be best utilized to address these challenges.

Testifying for the State Department were A. Elizabeth Jones, Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs, and Lorne W. Craner, Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, and Helsinki Commission Member.

In his opening statement, Helsinki Commission Chairman, Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-NJ) emphasized the important role the OSCE plays in promoting American security abroad. "The explicit and implicit connection between security and human rights, the fulcrum of the Helsinki process," he said, "has been at the center of U.S. thinking and policy since the day almost exactly two years ago when religious fanatics flew airplanes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon."

At the same time, he bemoaned the lack of democratic progress throughout much of the former USSR. Particularly in Central Asia, he said, "It becomes more and more difficult to harbor expectations that the future will be better or much different than the past or even the present."

Helsinki Commission Ranking Member Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-MD) expressed his appreciation to the State Department and executive branch for their willingness to work with the Commission over the years. Mr. Cardin particularly lauded the work of Ambassador Stephan M. Minikes, head of the U.S. Mission to the OSCE, whose efforts, he said, helped to form a unified agenda with Congress in the OSCE. He also expressed his appreciation to the State Department, later echoed by Chairman Smith, for arranging a visit by the Commission to Guantanamo Bay that allowed Commissioners to respond to concerns raised by the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly regarding humanitarian standards for detainees.

In her remarks, Assistant Secretary Jones noted two particular OSCE successes during the past year that were the result of U.S. efforts: the Vienna Anti-Semitism Conference and the new, annual Security Review Conference. She also identified the adoption of the Anti-Trafficking Action Plan as a positive development.

Secretary Jones listed several priorities for the OSCE Maastricht Ministerial, including progress on Russia's Istanbul commitments; mandating the 2004 Berlin Anti-Semitism Conference; and, addressing the pressing problems, discussed at the Security Review Conference, of travel document security and Man Portable Air Defense systems (MANPADs).

Secretary Jones identified several broad areas where the OSCE particularly serves U.S. interests: human rights and democracy promotion; conflict prevention and conflict resolution; and trans-national issues, such as human trafficking, anti-Semitism, racism and xenophobia, the rights of the Roma, refugees, and internally displaced persons. The United States, she said, also hoped to enhance the OSCE's police training capabilities "not only to step up anti-crime capabilities, but to deal with the human rights concerns that are related to the way police deal with civil society."

Assistant Secretary Craner began on a positive note, identifying encouraging signs throughout the region. "In a majority of the OSCE countries," he said, "we see growing and increasingly vibrant civil society groups advocating for peaceful change. The rule of law is being bolstered as countries move the administration of prisons under the auspices of the ministry of justice, and guards receive training to respect international standards."

He added, however, that there are also areas of both stagnation and backsliding in the OSCE region, all the more troubling given the numerous regional successes. "It is most disheartening," he said, "for the people of those countries who see other nations which have emerged from the Soviet empire now joining NATO and the EU and enjoying the fruits of democracy. Meanwhile, some governments remain authoritarian or unwilling to move beyond the old struggles and practices."

Secretary Craner noted troubling signs for democratization efforts throughout the former Soviet Union. Central Asian states, he said, had made little progress. Upcoming presidential elections in Ukraine would seriously affect U.S. attitudes toward that country's suitability for integration into Euro-Atlantic and European institutions. The Russian parliamentary elections in December are showing some troubling signs, while holding legitimate presidential elections in Chechnya would be extremely difficult, given the security situation there. He said, however, that such elections could potentially contribute to the end of that conflict.

Chairman Smith noted his pleasure that the sanctions list, established by the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 which he sponsored, which groups countries into three tiers based on their action on the issue of human trafficking would be released the week of the hearing. He also welcomed the U.S. military's initiatives against trafficking in South Korea and hoped for similar progress in the Balkans. Secretary Craner agreed that countries were taking the sanctions law seriously, and both witnesses stated that the U.S. and British militaries were taking strong action on trafficking issues. Smith and Jones emphasized that the pressure was not off countries that made it out of the bottom tier.

On the former Yugoslavia, Assistant Secretary Jones described gradual progress at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia and improved cooperation from the government in Belgrade. "The list [of war criminals] is being reduced," she said, "but it is not done yet." Commissioner Cardin, however, noted that the patience of the international community was coming to an end. Both agreed that the political leadership in Serbia seems to want to do the right thing, but needs help from the United States to reinforce their efforts.

On issues of property restitution, Secretary Jones assured the Commissioners that when she travels to pertinent countries, the issue is always on the agenda and explained that the United States has had considerable success convincing governments to take action on a bilateral basis. She also agreed with Representative Cardin that poverty and corruption make democratic development more difficult. She said that the United States would try to attack the issue through the OSCE by working hard on corruption.

Commissioner Cardin brought attention to the United States' efforts in the OSCE's Parliamentary Assembly to create a mechanism extending Helsinki principles to the OSCE's Mediterranean Partners. Assistant Secretaries Jones and Craner said that the administration supported the goal but was uncertain whether the best way to accomplish it was directly through the OSCE or through a new, OSCE-like institution.

Chairman Smith then focused on the importance of "naming names" in the OSCE. He said that "one of the most vital aspects of the Helsinki process was specifically naming names" and "holding people to account," but he noted a curious reluctance to do so in the last ten years. Assistant Secretary Craner stated that the United States had indeed "named names" with regard to the situation in Belarus. The United States sponsored a resolution at the UN Commission on Human Rights putting Belarus in a category with countries like Turkmenistan and North Korea. Assistant Secretary Jones admitted that it was difficult to influence President Lukashenka of Belarus but said there were still elements of civil society in Belarus, activists in the Belarusian body politic, and free media that needed outside moral support.

Finally, Chairman Smith raised the issues of Chechnya and missing persons in the Balkans. Assistant Secretary Jones said that Chechnya was on the agenda for the Camp David summit between Bush and Putin in late September . She also indicated that the OSCE was negotiating with Russia to define a role for the organization in that conflict, ideally getting a mission back on the ground.

On the Balkans, Secretary Craner said that the United States was actively pressing governments bilaterally and through the OSCE to account for the fate of missing persons. He also highlighted the United States' support for the International Commission for Missing Persons, which is engaged in the painstakingly slow process of DNA identification. Lastly, Secretary Jones assured the Commissioners that the United States was not merely paying lip service to the concerns of minorities in Kosovo. She said, "It is a tough issue, but it nevertheless is a critical one in our policy of standards before status."

The United States Helsinki Commission, an independent federal agency, by law monitors and encourages progress in implementing provisions of the Helsinki Accords. The Commission, created in 1976, is composed of nine Senators, nine Representatives and one official each from the Departments of State, Defense and Commerce.


United States Helsinki Commission Intern Kevin Angle contributed to this article.

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    By Rachel Bauman, Policy Advisor and Kyle Parker, Senior Senate Staff Representative   Bright morning sunlight streamed through the windows of School No. 119 in Odesa as the first ballot was cast for the March 31 presidential election in Ukraine. We, along with our third team member, a Danish parliamentarian, had arrived an hour earlier to watch as a stern but amiable middle-aged woman—who seemed especially proud to speak Ukrainian to her Russian-speaking electoral commission colleagues—instructed them on proper procedure for the day. The ballot boxes must be sealed properly, privacy in the voting booths maintained, proper identification verified, and voter lists checked and double checked. Coffee, tea, and small talk were in good supply to combat the grogginess of a morning made even earlier by the switch to daylight savings time shortly after midnight on election day. This election, with 39 candidates vying for the presidency, required the longest ballot in Ukraine’s history at 80 centimeters (more than two and a half feet) long. Not only did this present a printing challenge, but we saw numerous voters seeming to wonder just how many folds would be needed to easily deposit their ballot through the narrow slot and preserve the secrecy of their selection. Ukraine’s election law is surprisingly strict in this regard and imposes criminal penalties on voters who deliberately reveal their selections, whether by showing someone personally, taking a picture of their ballot, or bringing someone else into the voting booth with them. Notably, we observed no incidence of anyone deliberately violating ballot secrecy. We were among over a thousand foreign observers of the election invited by the Government of Ukraine, consistent with its OSCE commitments. We joined approximately 100,000 domestic observers to inspect the nearly 30,000 electoral precincts across the country—excluding parts of the Donbas and Crimea, due to the ongoing war and Russia’s illegal occupation, respectively. All of the domestic observers that we encountered were observing on behalf of an individual candidate, usually for Yuriy Boyko, Petro Poroshenko, or Yulia Tymoshenko. We did not encounter any of the foreign and domestic NGOs also observing the election. Throughout the day, we traveled to numerous polling stations, spending almost an hour at each, to watch for irregularities or violations of election law. Most electoral commissioners went out of their way to proudly display what was an organized and transparent electoral system. All afforded us full access to every part of the voting process. A few commissioners even seemed flattered to host foreign observers from the OSCE, an acronym well known in Ukraine for the prominent role the OSCE has played in assessing previous elections, including those that led to the Orange Revolution in 2004 and that served to ratify the dramatic change of government in 2014. In any election observation, the most critical part of election day is the counting of ballots after the polls have closed and unused ballots have been checked against the total numbers of ballots issued and votes cast. With these procedures scrupulously followed, the chairwoman at the precinct where we were assigned gave the okay to open the ballot boxes and tally the votes. By that time, the sun had set and the flickering fluorescent lighting in the school hallway where the voting took place was so dim and distracting that everyone—commissioners, observers, and the school’s custodial staff—moved tables, chairs, and the sealed ballot boxes to a better lit atrium so a proper count could proceed. One by one, a grinning commissioner (we later discovered he was candidate Volodymyr Zelenskiy ’s representative on the commission) cut the plastic seals on each box and, with pomp, dumped their contents onto a table surrounded by other commissioners eager to see who won and to finish the work they had begun before sunrise, some 18 hours earlier. First, the control sheet deposited in each box before the polls opened was located and set aside. Then, the chairwoman divided the candidates among commissioners so they could begin to stack ballots as they were unfolded and inspected. On a few occasions, a voter’s selection was unclear and so the ballot was presented to the entire commission for scrutiny, followed by a vote on how and whether to record the ambiguous ballot. Many of the 39 candidates on the ballot received no votes and there was often a wisecrack and laughter when any of these candidates received a vote, or even two! Despite the daunting fullness of the ballot boxes, due in part to the physical size of the ballot, the count proceeded apace with only a couple instances of needing to recount a candidate’s stack of votes to reconcile the final numbers needed for the formal protocol. This document would soon be posted outside the precinct for public inspection and sent up the chain to be included in the national tally. Security throughout the count was so strict that an ailing observer was nearly prohibited from leaving the precinct while the count was underway. After seeking the approval of the commission chairwoman, police finally unlocked the doors and allowed the observer to depart. These rules, as explained to us, were in place to prohibit any ballots from being brought into or out of the precinct. Based on the increasing grumblings of commissioners as night turned to early morning, this prohibition on leaving seemed to motivate commissioners to stay focused on their duties lest they risk witnessing another sunrise at their polling station. The OSCE’s post-election preliminary statement corresponded to our observation of a smooth, even festive in some cases, electoral process that complied with Ukraine’s domestic laws and fulfilled the country’s international commitments. Given the frequent opportunities Ukraine has had to exercise its democratic muscle in recent years, few on the international observation mission led by the OSCE expected anything but the free and fair process we witnessed. As the gold standard of international election observation, the OSCE’s recommendations over many electoral cycles have helped Ukrainian officials to improve the conduct of their elections. Further, praise from the OSCE following election day is powerful validation of the process in the eyes of Ukraine’s voters and gives other states a democratic model to emulate. No sooner had the election ended than the hundreds of thousands of electoral commissioners overseeing Ukraine’s nearly 30,000 local electoral precincts started to prepare for the presidential runoff election on April 21—this time with just two names on the ballot and a decisive outcome. These commissioners are the unsung heroes of a maturing democracy that is simultaneously at war in the East and on an irreversible path to the West. At least they will get a proper break before having to, once again, regroup and oversee Ukraine’s parliamentary elections expected to take place in the fall of this year.

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