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Commission Hearing Surveys State of Ethnic Relations in Kosovo
Tuesday, August 06, 2002

By Bob Hand,
CSCE Staff Advisor

The Helsinki Commission held a hearing June 19, 2002 on the prospects for ethnic harmony in Kosovo amidst recent reports of ongoing human rights abuses against minority groups.

Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-NJ) chaired the hearing. Commissioner Senator George V. Voinovich (R-OH) also participated.

"Vandalizing or bombing churches is not just wrong, it is beneath the dignity of any Albanian who suffered under the Milosevic regime," Smith said, stressing that "revenge is not justice." He condemned the inexcusable acts of repression brought upon Albanians during the former Yugoslav President's rule.

Co-Chairman Smith appealed for cooperation among all parties involved and called for fostering a climate of tolerance. Leaders within Kosovo, within minority communities, and in the Yugoslav Government have a crucial role to play, Smith noted.

Senator Voinovich expressed alarm over the human rights situation in Kosovo. He cited a joint report from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) on continuing areas of concern.

Quoting from the report, Voinovich said, "I could not agree more with a statement made in that report: ‘Only when Kosovo's minorities feel confident in their long-term future and when all of Kosovo's displaced persons are able to exercise the choice to return to their homes, feeling assured of their safety and confident in their ability to assess institutions and participate in social, economic and political life in Kosovo on a nondiscriminatory basis will it be possible to say that the situation of minorities in Kosovo is successful.'"

Based on his observations during a trip to Kosovo earlier this year, Voinovich underscored the continuing need for U.S. engagement. He concluded that the situation in the divided city of Mitrovica, where ethnically-motivated attacks persist, and along the Kosovo-Macedonian border need to be resolved through cooperation and discussion.

Testifying before the Commission were Dr. Alush Gashi, representing President Ibrahim Rugova's Democratic League of Kosova in the Kosovo Parliament; Rada Trajkovic, leader of the Kosovo Serb "Return" Coalition within the Parliament; Valerie Percival, the Kosovo Field Representative for the International Crisis Group (ICG); and Deputy Prime Minister of Serbia Nebojsa Covic.

Dr. Gashi expressed gratitude for the United States' leadership and promised to work with the international community to ensure that all Kosovars have equal national and human rights. He noted that Serbs currently participate in all levels of government and institutions.

Further integration, however, is hindered by a Serb population that has so far refused to distance itself from Belgrade's brutal assault on Kosovar Albanians, which included numerous atrocities and 650 mass graves not yet exhumed.

"The reality is that Kosovar-Albanians cannot get from Belgrade even the dead bodies of their members of families, and at this same time we are asking them to welcome live Serbs," Dr. Gashi testified in an emotional plea.

Dr. Gashi acknowledged the right of Serbs to return to their homes in Kosovo. He also voiced strong opposition to "Belgrade's interference in [the] United Nations mission administration [UNMIK] in Kosovo."

Dr. Trajkovic addressed a primary concern of the Kosovo Serb population, describing the fundamental unresolved issue as "the wish of the Albanians that Kosovo be exclusively their state and the wish of the Serbs that Kosovo remains part of their state."

Dr. Trajkovic detailed a situation whereby the Albanian majority seeks the "Albanization and not multi-nationalization" of Kosovo. In this way, Kosovar Albanians dominate the hospitals, the universities, the media, and even the transportation sector, creating a highly segregated and polarized society. Islamic extremists, who go unpunished, are attempting to "wipe out the foundations of a civilization" by destroying churches, headstones, and cultural monuments, Trajkovic added.

Ms. Percival discussed the ICG's recently released report on Kosovo, noting that Mitrovica is a "frequent flashpoint for confrontation and a source of instability." Attacks and reprisals are commonplace.

Offering a multi-track plan of action, Percival recommended that the international community take four specific steps: pressure Belgrade to end its policy of incitement and continued support for parallel institutions; encourage the rule of law; establish a specially administered area in the north where Kosovar Serbs live; and promote UNMIK's transparency.

Deputy Prime Minister Covic defended the right of Serbs in Kosovo to be free from "inexcusable persecution". "In Kosovo and Metohija, whatever the final solution might be, our desire is to have a strong and successful multi-ethnic society," Covic asserted.

Covic said ethnic Serbs continue to flee Kosovo, in response to worrisome figures on the number of killings of Serbs, attacks, and missing persons. Kosovar leaders have shunned a bi-lingual society, inter-ethnic tolerance, unbiased police and an independent judiciary in favor of extremism, Covic maintained.

Co-Chairman Smith, concerned about reports of pervasive criminality in Kosovo, raised the issues of missing persons, human trafficking, and perpetuation of parallel institutions.

Ms. Percival said that UNMIK, in cooperation with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), continues to exhume bodies from mass graves and is making efforts to account for missing persons. Though UNMIK established a trafficking and prostitution unit, the witness protection program is very weak.

Mr. Covic responded that Yugoslav authorities are working hard to identify remains and find missing persons, noting the wide disparity between estimates of missing Albanians and Serbs. He added that Yugoslavia takes the issue of human trafficking very seriously and that anti-trafficking legislation is pending in Belgrade.

Dr. Gashi labeled Yugoslav support for parallel institutions as an attempt to sabotage UNMIK's institutions. To calm the psychological insecurity, the Serbs have to demonstrate the will to work with us, Gashi testified.

Mr. Covic stressed that parallel institutions were not created by the current Yugoslav authorities and once the Serbs' basic human rights in Kosovo are met, there will be no need for parallel institutions.

Dr. Gashi reiterated his commitment to equal rights, an open civil society, and cooperation. In response to concerns raised, he indicated that a strong consensus exists among Kosovars opposing the destruction of Serb property and violence against Orthodox nuns and lay people in Kosovo.

In light of the OSCE/UNCHR report, all witnesses agreed to its generally accurate portrayal of the situation and reasonable recommendations. Urging all parties to move forward, Senator Voinovich pressed for more information on allegations that Belgrade is "meddling" in the governance of Kosovo.

Commissioners Smith and Voinovich pledged to continue their support for U.S. and international engagement to help resolve pressing issues in Kosovo. Any perpetrator of a human rights violation in Kosovo needs to be held accountable, Smith concluded.

The hearing came to a close after Co-Chairman Smith recognized Daniel Serwer of the United States Institute for Peace (USIP) for a few closing remarks. Serwer stressed the need to support the creation of an infrastructure in which the next Kosovo parliament can effectively operate. USIP had recently hosted in Virginia a session on inter-ethnic cooperation among Kosovo parliamentarians. Thirty of the participants attended the hearing.

An un-official transcript of the hearing and written statements submitted by Members and witnesses are located on the Helsinki Commission's Web site, http://www.csce.gov.

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, Commerce.


United States Helsinki Commission intern Derek Politzer contributed to this article.

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Dr. Andrew Bowen described the strategic environment in which the buildup is occurring, and noted that Russian political leadership has asserted that it regarded the presence of NATO and Western military and political influence on its border as a red line. Although Ukraine has no immediate likelihood of joining NATO, the Russian regime may regard Ukraine’s growing independent capabilities and partnerships with the West as indicative of a graduate deterioration of its own relative security position. As such, its military buildup may be intended to either compel a diplomatic accommodation with the West to forestall Ukraine’s continued Western path, or, if necessary, launch military operations to do so through the use of force. Dr. Bowen noted that Congress has played a significant role in supporting activities to bolster Ukraine’s defenses, including through the provision of lethal aid, and has also supported efforts to reinforce NATO’s Eastern flank in response to Russia’s aggressive actions. Robert Lee focused on Russian military capabilities currently arrayed at Ukraine’s border. He noted that tens of thousands of troops had been mobilized from Russia’s other geographic combatant commands and deployed to Ukraine’s border, including significant heavy offensive weaponry and specialized assets. According to some assessments, total Russian deployments may represent as much as two-thirds of its total combat power to in and around the Ukraine theater, suggesting a nationwide military mobilization and all the preparations for a major invasion. 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Co-Chairman Cohen also asked if the buildup today was proportionally similar to past buildups in 2014-2015, which was the last time Russian forces semi-overtly invaded Ukraine in large numbers. Lee replied that the current buildup is much more significant, though it is also true that the Ukrainian military is more capable today than it was in the past. Co-Chairman Cohen then inquired about past Russian casualties, which Lee described as being in the “hundreds” at least, though exact figures were not made publicly available. Co-Chairman Cohen then reiterated the gravity of the situation, and the seriousness with which he and the U.S. government was taking the issue. Cecire then introduced Dr. Maryna Vorotnyuk, who also made the point that the Russian regime’s full intentions were obscure, and not entirely knowable. However, she noted that the array of capabilities that the Kremlin has assembled on Ukraine’s border is suggestive, as are the demands the Kremlin has made in combination with the military buildup. On the latter point, she noted that there was an internal logic to Moscow linking its threatening posture over Ukraine with its demands with the West, because Russia’s war on Ukraine could be regarded as a kind of proxy war against the West as a whole. In a more comprehensive way, Russian demands seek a revised security architecture that would effectively undermine the sovereignty of Ukraine as well as other non-NATO states like Georgia, giving Russia free rein over its periphery. While this may be a nonstarter for the West, Dr. Vorotnyuk noted that Russia likely would settle for an accommodation from the West that would reduce Western involvement in the region and leave Ukraine and other countries weak and vulnerable to Russian pressure. While some may find such a route appealing, she noted, such a response would not likely lead to a more constructive Russia, and could even invite more aggression as Moscow’s intent was never solely about or limited to Ukraine. As such, it is important for the West to remain resolute in defending and advocating for Ukraine’s sovereignty. Katsiaryna Shmatsina spoke about Belarus’ role in the broader calculus. She recalled how, after Belarusian protests were being crushed by the regime, EU diplomatic leaders asked how Belarus might be used as an appendage of Russian strategic power. She noted that this appears to be the case in the ongoing episode with Ukraine, with the hybrid migrant crisis at the Belarusian border, the mooted possibility that Russian forces might use Belarusian territory to attack Ukraine, and the solidarity Russia has showed with the regime in Minsk through the flights of nuclear-capable bombers—suggesting that Belarus is not merely a side act, but a key element of Russian strategy in the region. For his part, Belarusian President Lukashenko has been severely weakened by the protests and his subsequent reliance on Russian support, leaving him nowhere else to turn and cementing Belarus’s place in the Kremlin’s alliance system and regional strategy. Shmastsina counseled that the situation in Belarus should merit greater international attention, particularly from the West, because it is inseparable from the ongoing military buildup in and around Ukraine and another aspect of Russia’s broader campaign against the West. Rep. Veasey noted that in a past visit to Ukraine, the assessment was that Russia was not necessarily interested in taking and holding territory and asked whether this view was still accurate. Dr. Vorotnyuk replied that this was very likely the case, but ultimately that the likely Russian aim was to permanently weaken Ukraine and be able to “veto” its alignments with the West. Particular territorial objectives could also be under consideration, such as a land corridor from the Donbas to Crimea—both of which Russia already holds—or a particular city, such as Odesa, and its port access to the Black Sea. Rep. Veasey then asked why Ukraine, but not Georgia, was being targeted in this way. Lee responded that Georgia no longer threatens to retake the Russia-held separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia by force, and that Ukraine is a much larger country with a more capable military and economic capacity, which holds a unique place in Russia’s historical narrative. Rep. Veasey then raised the issue of corruption, which continues to be seen as a major issue in Ukraine as compared to, for example, Georgia, and asked whether this is a serious problem. Dr. Vorotnyuk noted that it was a major issue, but that it is not a justification for Russian aggression, and that Western assistance with Ukraine is very much helping to address issues like corruption and democratic governance. Related Information Panelist Biographies

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

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

  • Russian Military Buildup to be Scrutinized at Helsinki Commission Briefing

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following online briefing: DEFENDING UKRAINE, DETERRING PUTIN Thursday, December 16, 2021 10:00 a.m. Register: https://bit.ly/3DHAGWu The Kremlin has dramatically increased its military activities and capabilities in and around Ukraine, leading to predictions that the regime may be preparing for an aggressive military operation in the coming months. Russian military movements have sufficiently concerned U.S. and allied observers that CIA Director William Burns was personally dispatched to Moscow to telegraph U.S. concerns. Secretary of State Antony Blinken also has added to a chorus of alarm, and Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba has described Russia’s movements as preparations for an invasion. On December 7, President Biden held a two-hour phone call with Russian President Vladimir Putin over the apparent buildup. The Helsinki Commission will convene a briefing to evaluate the Russian regime’s actions and capabilities near Ukraine and assess potential options for U.S. and Western countermeasures to deter aggression and preserve Ukrainian sovereignty. The briefing will include U.S. and international experts on Russian military capabilities and Eurasian security. The following panelists are scheduled to participate: Dr. Andrew Bowen, Analyst in Russian and European Affairs, Congressional Research Service Dr. Maryna Vorotnyuk, Expert on Black Sea security; Associate Fellow, Royal United Services Institute Katsiaryna Shmatsina, Belarusian analyst on Eurasian politics and security; Visiting Fellow, European Values Center for Security Policy in Prague Robert Lee, Expert on Russian military capabilities; PhD candidate, Kings College London

  • Chairman Cardin Calls for Release of Osman Kavala, Welcomes Council of Europe Infringement Proceedings Against Turkey

    WASHINGTON—Following the recent ruling of a Turkish court that will keep philanthropist Osman Kavala jailed until his trial begins in January 2022 and the subsequent decision by the Council of Europe to begin infringement proceedings against Turkey, Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) issued the following statement: “Justice has been denied, once again, for Osman Kavala, whose only apparent crime is being a Turkish patriot. Despite earlier rulings from a Turkish court and the European Court of Human Rights requiring the state to release Mr. Kavala, Turkish authorities have already jailed him for more than four years—in clear violation of Turkey’s OSCE commitments. “The ongoing injustice against Mr. Kavala is not unique. Thousands of Turkish citizens have been victims of the arbitrary court system. It is welcome news that the Council of Europe will start infringement proceedings against Turkey. Although Turkey is an important NATO ally, its leaders repeatedly have failed to uphold its commitments to respect human rights and the rule of law. "I urge the Turkish government to comply with its international obligations and release Mr. Kavala.” Turkey’s failure to comply with the decision of the European Court of Human Rights, of which the country is a member, prompted the Council of Europe to start infringement proceedings. The process has been used only once before in more than seven decades of the organization’s history and may result in Turkey losing its voting rights or being excluded from the Council. Osman Kavala is a Turkish entrepreneur and philanthropist who has for decades supported civil society organizations in Turkey. In 1990, he contributed to the establishment of The Helsinki Citizens' Assembly, a democracy and human rights non-profit inspired by the Helsinki Final Act. In November 2017, Turkish authorities arrested Mr. Kavala, alleging that he attempted to overthrow the Turkish government. Mr. Kavala was acquitted of these charges in February 2020, only to remain in detention and be charged with a new offense in March 2020. The same month, the European Court of Human Rights ruled Mr. Kavala should be released from pre-trial detention.  Domestic and international human rights watchdogs consistently report that the charges against Mr. Kavala are unsubstantiated and politically motivated. Recently, ambassadors from ten Western countries, including the United States, advocated for his release. These demands were rejected by the Government of Turkey. Mr. Kavala is a recipient of the 2019 European Archaeological Heritage Prize and the Ayşenur Zarakolu Freedom of Thought and Expression Award from the Human Rights Association’s Istanbul branch.

  • 30 Years After Ovcara

    By Robert Hand, Senior Policy Advisor On November 20, 1991, after the fall of the city of Vukovar in Croatia, militant Serb forces removed 265 ill and injured Croats from a hospital. They were taken to the nearby Ovčara farm southeast of Vukovar, where they were abused before being shot and killed, with their bodies dumped in a mass grave. In addition to wounded members of the Croatian armed forces were civilians, including some women and children.   The Helsinki Commission strongly supported the international effort to prosecute those responsible for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide in the former Yugoslavia, including those most responsible for the crime at Ovčara, which took place early in a series of conflicts associated with Yugoslavia’s disintegration throughout the 1990s.  Many obstacles stood in the way, but after years of persistent effort justice prevailed. However, malicious acts supporting territorial aggression continue in the OSCE region and elsewhere. When remembering Ovčara, it is important to acknowledge the brave few in Serbia—civil society advocates, political activists, journalists, lawyers and judges, and everyday citizens—who consistently have refused to associate themselves with the terrible crimes committed in their name in the 1990s, and seek to this day not only justice but a needed acknowledgement of reality in the face of continued denial and revisionism. A wider acknowledgement led by those holding power today will mean a better future for Serbia and its neighbors tomorrow.

  • Helsinki Commission Alarmed by Attempted Liquidation of Memorial

    WASHINGTON—Following last week’s request by Russian prosecutors to liquidate the human rights group Memorial International and the Memorial Human Rights Center, Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), Ranking Member Sen. Roger Wicker (MS), and Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) issued the following joint statement: “We continue to see an alarming increase in attacks on civil society, opposition politicians, and independent media in Russia. Now the Kremlin actively seeks to dismantle Memorial, a respected network of organizations dedicated to revealing and preserving the history of Soviet repression and fighting for political prisoners in Russia today. Memorial’s efforts to defend truth and human rights are essential and must be protected for generations to come.” In 2015, the Memorial Human Rights Center was designated a “foreign agent.” This label has been applied in a derogatory way to numerous human rights groups, independent media organizations, and related individuals to stifle or completely stop their work in the country. In 2016, Memorial International, the parent organization of the Memorial Human Rights Center, also was designated a “foreign agent.” On November 11, Russia’s Supreme Court notified Memorial International that the General Prosecutor’s office was suing to dismantle the organization for alleged violations of Russia’s “foreign agent” laws. The Supreme Court hearing is scheduled to take place on November 25. Memorial Human Rights Center will come before the Moscow City Court on November 23 to face liquidation for alleged “justification” of extremism and terrorism in its materials. Memorial, established in the final years of the Soviet Union by dissidents including Andrei Sakharov, is one of the most respected and enduring human rights groups in the region. Its local chapters focus on preserving the truth about Soviet repressions, particularly under Stalin, and honoring the memories of those lost. Memorial also maintains a comprehensive database of current political prisoners in Russia and continues to advocate for the rights of the people of Russia, especially in the North Caucasus. The Helsinki Commission has convened numerous events featuring Memorial representatives.

  • Upholding OSCE Commitments in Hungary and Poland

    Political leaders in Hungary and Poland—U.S. allies and members of the European Union—have for the past decade pursued policies that undermine democracy and the rule of law. In Hungary, the Fidesz government has weakened the country’s democratic institutions, especially the free media and independent judiciary. Instead of strengthening the transatlantic bond, Viktor Orbán has sought closer ties with Russia and China. In Poland, the ruling coalition has taken steps to compromise judicial independence and limit free expression. In this hearing, witnesses examined the erosion of democratic norms in Hungary and Poland and discussed the implications for U.S. foreign policy. Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) began the hearing by addressing the need to help safeguard the freedoms that both Poland and Hungary have fought so hard for, and that form the basis of the OSCE. He then addressed the downward trajectory of democracies in both countries, emphasizing Hungary as a particular concern. In his opening remarks, Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09) emphasized the importance of democracy to all freedom loving people, and that while both Poland and Hungary are critical allies to the United States, the erosion of democratic norms in both countries is of serious concern. Co-Chairman Cohen highlighted the use of xenophobic, antisemitic and Islamophobic rhetoric as a mechanism to maintain political power in Hungary, and the collapse of the judicial system in Poland as examples of de-democratization in both countries. He concluded by stating that the United States should expect better of their allies and of members of the European Union. Zselyke Csaky, Research Director, Europe & Eurasia at Freedom House, testified about the key differences between Poland and Hungary and their decline as democracies. She first noted that while Poland remains a democracy and Hungary is now reclassified as a hybrid regime, the democratic decline of Poland is occurring at a faster rate than that of Hungary. She suggested that state capture of the media, judiciary, civic sector, and elections play a key role in the democratic backsliding of both countries. Ms. Csaky then concluded that while any decisions on the governments of Hungary and Poland will be determined by their respective electorates, the United States should uphold strategic, long term commitments supporting the EU, and help to strengthen the civic and media sectors. In his testimony, Dalibor Rohac, Senior Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, expressed his concern over the authoritarian nature of the Hungarian and Polish governments. In particular, he called attention to the de-facto end of constitutional review, limited access to diverse media, and extraordinary rise in corruption in Hungary. Mr. Rohac closed by stressing the need for support from the United States to be bipartisan and narrow in focus. Heather Conley, Senior Vice President for Europe, Eurasia, and the Arctic at CSIS and incoming President at the German Marshall Fund, began her testimony by maintaining that while democracy in Poland and Hungary are examples of foreign policy accomplishments, both Poland and Hungary should be held accountable for their governments’ behavior in undermining democracy at home and abroad.  Ms. Conley emphasized Hungary’s growing relationship with China, and the need to determine if Hungary is at the level of commitment too maintain the secrecy of a NATO member. She recommended that the United States remain engaged in its investment in both countries but do so through bipartisan and firm policy. Following the conclusion of the witness statements, Chairman Cardin acknowledged that Poland and Hungary are two separate countries with different priorities but addressed what the two have in common. While Poland and Hungary are different cases, he noted, there is a need to address disturbing trends in countries with which the United States has deep ties. “We have to look for way to strengthen the values that make our relationship so important,” he said. “I think America can play an important role here, and that Congress can play an important role.” Related Information Witness Biographies

  • Helsinki Commission to Hold Hearing on Upholding OSCE Commitments in Hungary and Poland

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following hearing: UPHOLDING OSCE COMMITMENTS IN HUNGARY AND POLAND Wednesday, November 3, 2021 2:30 p.m. Dirksen Senate Office Building Room 419 Watch live: www.youtube.com/HelsinkiCommission Political leaders in Hungary and Poland—U.S. allies and members of the European Union—have for the past decade pursued policies that undermine democracy and the rule of law. In Hungary, the Fidesz government has weakened the country’s democratic institutions, especially the free media and independent judiciary. Instead of strengthening the transatlantic bond, Viktor Orbán has sought closer ties with Russia and China. In Poland, the ruling coalition has taken steps to compromise judicial independence and limit free expression. Witnesses will examine the erosion of democratic norms in Hungary and Poland and discuss the implications for U.S. foreign policy. The following witnesses are scheduled to testify: Heather A. Conley, Senior Vice President for Europe, Eurasia, and the Arctic, Center for Strategic and International Studies Zselyke Csaky, Research Director, Europe & Eurasia, Freedom House Dalibor Rohac, Senior Fellow, American Enterprise Institute  

  • Helsinki Commission Regrets Closure of OSCE Observer Mission at Russian Checkpoints Gukovo and Donetsk

    WASHINGTON—In light of yesterday’s termination of the activities of the OSCE Observer Mission at the Russian Checkpoints Gukovo and Donetsk on the Russian-Ukrainian border, Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), Ranking Member Sen. Roger Wicker (MS), and Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) issued the following joint statement: “By forcing the closure of the OSCE Observer Mission on Ukraine’s border, despite clear and continued support from other OSCE States for the mission, the Kremlin is once again trying to blind the international community to the reality of its aggression against Ukraine.  The mission regularly observed and reported suspicious movements at the border. “Rather than blocking OSCE instruments, Russia needs to cease its war against Ukraine, including reversing its illegal occupation of Crimea.”    The OSCE Observer Mission at the Russian Checkpoints Gukovo and Donetsk was intended to build confidence through increased transparency by observing and reporting on the situation at the international border between Ukraine and Russia. Russia had previously imposed severe restrictions on the observer mission, including limiting movement and prohibiting the use of binoculars or cameras.  Despite these limitations, the mission reported on the movements of more than 24 million people since beginning operations in 2014. It observed more than 100 Russian convoys, along with individuals in military apparel and thousands of other vehicles, crossing the uncontrolled border.

  • Seeking Justice and Freedom in Belarus

    In 2020, mass protests against the fraudulent election of Alexander Lukashenko shook Belarus. Since then, Lukashenko and his illegitimate regime have clung to power by committing ever more serious acts of repression against advocates of democracy and free expression. Hundreds of political prisoners languish in pre-trial detention or have been sentenced to years in prison during closed trials. The regime has effectively criminalized independent journalism and peaceful assembly; no independent justice system exists to hold those in power accountable. On September 21, 2021, the U.S. Helsinki Commission held a hearing on the events in Belarus leading up to and following the 2020 presidential elections. The hearing included expert witness testimony by four witnesses on the state of the media, the plight of political prisoners, the international legal ramifications of Lukashenko’s violence, and U.S. policy responses and options. Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) opened the hearing by remarking that the election in 2020 was not free or fair, contrary to official reports from Belarus, and commended the extreme courage of peaceful protestors to show up en masse despite a history of mass arrests and torture and the “brazen hijacking of a civilian aircraft and kidnapping of a critic of Mr. Lukashenko.” In opening remarks, Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09) announced that, alongside Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02), he soon would sponsor a resolution denouncing the acts of the Belarusian regime and supporting freedom and human rights in Belarus. Serge Kharytonau delivered a testimony on behalf of the International Strategic Action Network for Security (iSANS) based on monitoring and documentation of activity in Belarus. He noted that since 2020, the informational sovereignty of Belarus has been given up to Russia in exchange for Putin’s support of Lukashenko. The state propaganda machines in Belarus and Russia are now synchronized to promote the Kremlin’s goals. Kharytonau noted that the state media also is being used to conduct psychological operations, depicting videos of political hostages and victims of torture. Technology platforms such as YouTube are being used to promote misinformation, hate speech, and the threat of violence towards civilians. Tatsiana Khomich, the Coordination Council’s Representative for political prisoners, testified about the situation of political prisoners in Belarus. Only 673 political prisoners are officially recognized by the government in Belarus, but more than 4,600 cases have been opened relating to 2020 election. Several activists have been sentenced to more than 10 years in prison, where they lack medical care, suffer from chronic diseases, are subject to torture, and often attempt suicide. She noted that most of these prisoners are just regular people, such as taxi drivers, and some are as young as 15 years old. “The situation in Belarus will most likely result in the complete annihilation of the civil rights of Belarusians and the chance of political transformation in Belarus will disappear,” she said. Khomich argued that time plays into Lukashenko’s hands as his government adapts to sanctions and the negotiating position of the West declines. Furthermore, as time passes the focus on Belarus is likely to decrease; action is needed now. David Kramer, a senior fellow at Florida International University and former Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, testified on the violation of human rights and “weaponization” of migrants by Belarus, noting that the spillover effects in neighboring NATO countries poses a threat to the United States. Kramer also classified Belarus as a test case for the West and its struggle between democracy and authoritarianism. He offered several recommendations to deal with the situation in Belarus: targeting the individuals surrounding Lukashenko who are keeping him afloat financially with sanctions; requiring U.S. allies in the Middle East to make a choice between supporting the United States or supporting Lukashenko; cutting off  IMF funding to Belarus; and continuing not to recognize Lukashenko as the leader of Belarus. Kramer emphasized that an effort should be made to press for the release of all political prisoners and have accountability for the gross violation of human rights by the Lukashenko regime. The West needs to prepare for when Lukashenko is gone, he argued, but in the meantime Belarusian civil society must be supported. Siarhej Zikratski, a representative on legal affairs in the office of Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, personally attested to the political persecution of prisoners. Prisoners are cramped in tiny cells, tortured, beaten, and subjected to sexual violence. Despite appeals, no criminal cases exist regarding these acts. He also highlighted the disbarment of 13 lawyers who defended journalists and politicians who stood up to the regime. Zikratski recommended that the international community refuse to recognize Lukashenko as Belarus’ leader; use international human rights laws and international human rights protection mechanisms such as Article 30 of the Convention Against Torture and Article 41 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to address human rights violations; and record evidence of human rights violations, document crimes, and investigate criminal proceedings under the principle of universal jurisdictions. During the question-and-answer session with witnesses, members asked questions ranging from the use and abuse of U.S. technology platforms by repressive regimes, to the proposed union between Belarus and Russia and the recent joint Zapad military exercise, to specific cases of human rights abuses in Belarus. Witnesses also discussed the effectiveness of the OSCE’s 2020 Moscow Mechanism investigation and the continuing importance of U.S-funded news outlets such as Voice of America, Radio Liberty, and Radio Free Europe. Related Information Witness Biographies Special Statement from Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya Press Release: Chairman Cardin Joins Bipartisan Resolution Highlighting First Anniversary of Fraudulent Election In Belarus Press Release: Cardin and Cohen Condemn Persecution of Independent Journalists in Belarus Press Release: Helsinki Commission Condemns Lukashenko Regime for Forced Landing of Commercial Jetliner Leading to Arrest of Raman Pratasevich

  • Repression in Belarus Focus of Upcoming Helsinki Commission Hearing

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following hearing: SEEKING JUSTICE AND FREEDOM IN BELARUS Tuesday, September 21, 2021 2:30 p.m. Dirksen Senate Office Building Room 419 Watch live: www.youtube.com/HelsinkiCommission More than a year has passed since mass protests against the fraudulent election of Alexander Lukashenko shook Belarus. In the meantime, Lukashenko and his illegitimate regime cling to power by committing ever more serious acts of repression against advocates of democracy and free expression. Hundreds of political prisoners languish in pre-trial detention or have been sentenced to years in prison during closed trials. The regime has effectively criminalized independent journalism and peaceful assembly; no independent justice system exists to hold those in power accountable. As Lukashenko lashes out at the West—even engineering the forced landing of an EU flight to abduct a journalist and sending overwhelming numbers of migrants into the EU via Belarus—the exiled leader of democratic Belarus, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, has been engaging the world on her country’s behalf, calling for new elections, the release of political prisoners, and accountability for the repressive regime. Expert witnesses will provide updates on the current situation in Belarus, including the state of media, the plight of political prisoners, the international legal ramifications of Lukashenko’s violence, and U.S. policy responses and options. The following witnesses are scheduled to testify: Serge Kharytonau, Media Expert, International Strategic Action Network for Security (iSANS) Tatsiana Khomich, Coordination Council Representative for political prisoners, Viktar Babaryka Team Coordinator, and sister of political prisoner Maria Kalesnikava David J. Kramer, Senior Fellow, Florida International University Siarhej Zikratski, Representative on Legal Affairs, Office of Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya

  • Helsinki Commission Summer 2021 Digital Digest

  • Co-Chairman Cohen, Ranking Member Wilson Introduce TRAP Act In House

    WASHINGTON—Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09) and Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) yesterday introduced the Transnational Repression Accountability and Prevention (TRAP) Act in the U.S. House of Representatives. The legislation makes fighting abuse of INTERPOL a key goal of the United States at the organization, mandates that the United States examine its own strategy to fight INTERPOL abuse, and protects the U.S. judicial system from authoritarian abuse. The legislation was introduced by Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) and Ranking Member Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) in the Senate in May 2021. “Using the legal system and INTERPOL to harass political opponents is becoming far too common,” said Co-Chairman Cohen. “Russia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Turkey frequently issue meritless INTERPOL requests that violate key provisions of INTERPOL’s constitution, subjecting international travelers to unnecessary inconvenience. The TRAP Act cracks down on the misuse of these tools to prevent autocrats from harassing their own citizens overseas.” “Dictators are increasingly pursuing political opponents and dissidents across borders. Through surveillance, harassment, and even assassination, these autocrats are attempting to build a world safe for authoritarianism—where speaking out against brutal regimes might destroy your life,” said Rep. Wilson. “It is imperative that we fight back. INTERPOL abuse is one of the worst forms of this transnational repression and I am pleased to introduce the TRAP Act with other Helsinki Commission leaders to curb it.” The Helsinki Commission regularly receives credible reports from political dissidents, human rights defenders, and members of the business community who are the subject of politically-motivated INTERPOL Notices and Diffusions requested by autocratic regimes. These mechanisms, which function effectively as extradition requests, can be based on trumped-up criminal charges and are used to detain, harass, or otherwise persecute individuals for their activism or refusal to acquiesce to corrupt schemes. Russia is among the world’s most prolific abusers of INTERPOL’s Notice and Diffusion mechanisms. Other participating States of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE)—principally Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Turkey—and other authoritarian states, such as China, also reportedly target political opponents with INTERPOL requests that violate key provisions of INTERPOL’s Constitution, which obligate the organization to uphold international human rights standards and strictly avoid involvement in politically-motivated charges. One notable example of autocratic leaders using this power to harass their political enemies occurred in Rwanda. Paul Rusesabagina, a staunch critic of the Rwandan government, was arrested while traveling through Dubai after Rwanda asked INTERPOL to issue a Red Notice. Rusesabagina was then returned to Rwanda on false terrorism charges. Turkey’s government also has abused INTERPOL to target Enes Kanter, an NBA basketball player, who lives in the United States. Kanter is an outspoken member of a religious group that largely opposes the Turkish President. Original co-sponsors of the bipartisan bill include Helsinki Commissioners Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, II (MO-05), Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (PA-01), Rep. Ruben Gallego (AZ-07), Rep. Richard Hudson (NC-08), Rep. Gwen Moore (WI-04), and Rep. Marc Veasey (TX-33). Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (TX-18), Rep. Tom Malinowski (NJ-07), and Rep. Peter Meijer (MI-03) also are original co-sponsors. 

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