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Commission Plays Leading Role at Parliamentary Assembly in Lithuania
Tuesday, August 18, 2009

By Robert A. Hand,
Policy Advisor

A bipartisan U.S. delegation traveled to Vilnius, Lithuania June 29 for the 18th Annual Session of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA). The delegation participated fully in the activity of the Assembly’s Standing Committee, the plenary sessions and the Assembly’s three General Committees.

Helsinki Commission Chairman Senator Benjamin L. Cardin led the delegation, which included the following commissioners: Co-Chairman Congressman Alcee L. Hastings, Ranking Minority Member Chris Smith, and Senator Roger Wicker, Representatives Louise McIntosh Slaughter, Mike McIntyre, G.K. Butterfield and Robert B. Aderholt. Senate Assistant Majority Leader Dick Durbin, Senator George Voinovich and Representatives Lloyd Doggett, Madeleine Z. Bordallo and Gwen Moore also joined the delegation.

Background of the OSCE PA

The Parliamentary Assembly was created within the framework of the OSCE as an independent, consultative body consisting of more than 300 parliamentarians from each of the 56 countries, which stretch from the United States and Canada throughout Europe, the Caucasus and Central Asia. The Annual Sessions are the chief venue for debating international issues and voting on a declaration addressing human rights, democratic development, rule of law, economic, environmental and security concerns among the participating States and the international community.

The United States delegation is allotted 17 seats in the Assembly. Robust Congressional participation has been a hallmark of the Parliamentary Assembly since its inception nearly 20 years ago, ensuring U.S. interests are raised and discussed.

18th Annual Session

This year’s Annual Session, hosted by the Parliament (Seimas) of Lithuania from June 29 to July 3, brought together more than 500 participants from 50 of the 56 OSCE participating States under the theme: “The OSCE: Addressing New Security Challenges.”

The Standing Committee -- the Assembly’s leadership body (composed of Heads of Delegations from the participating States and the elected officers) -- met prior to the Annual Session. Senator Cardin, as Head of Delegation and an OSCE PA Vice President, represented the United States.

Chaired by the OSCE PA President, Portuguese parliamentarian João Soares, the committee heard reports from the Assembly’s Treasurer, German parliamentarian Hans Reidel, and from the Assembly’s Secretary General, R. Spencer Oliver of the United States. The Assembly continues to operate well within its overall budget guidelines and to receive positive assessments from auditors on financial management. The committee unanimously approved the proposed budget for 2009-2010.

The Standing Committee also approved several changes in the OSCE PA’s Rules of Procedure, especially related to gender balance and the holding of elections for officers, as well as 24 Supplementary Items or resolutions for consideration in plenary or committee sessions. The committee brought up as an urgent matter a resolution regarding the detention of Iranian citizens employed by the British Embassy in Tehran. Senator Cardin spoke in support of the resolution.

With the Standing Committee’s business concluded, Assembly President Soares opened the Inaugural Plenary Session, stressing in his opening remarks the need for OSCE reform. The first session concluded with a discussion of gender issues led by Swedish parliamentarian Tone Tingsgaard that included comments from Rep. Gwen Moore.

A Special Plenary Session the next day was scheduled to accommodate the OSCE Chair-in-Office, Greek Foreign Minister Dora Bakoyannis, who had just presided over an informal meeting of OSCE foreign ministers in Corfu, Greece, to launch a new, high-level dialogue on European security.

Senator Cardin attended the Corfu meeting as a representative of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly. Following her speech, Bakoyannis engaged in a dialogue with parliamentarians on a number of OSCE issues. Lithuanian Foreign Minister Vygaudas Usackas also addressed the special session. Lithuania will chair the OSCE in 2011.

U.S. Member Involvement

The U.S. delegation actively participated in the work of the Assembly’s three General Committees – the first committee for Political Affairs and Security; the second for Economic Affairs, Science, Technology and the Environment; and the third on Democracy, Human Rights and Humanitarian Questions. Each committee considered its own draft resolution, prepared by an elected Rapporteur, as well as 23 of the 25 Supplementary Items. Two Supplementary Items, including one by President Soares on Strengthening the OSCE, were considered in plenary session.

Representatives Chris Smith, Mike McIntyre, and Gwen Moore each proposed resolutions that were adopted dealing with freedom of expression on the Internet, international cooperation in Afghanistan, and prevention of maternal mortality respectively.

Members of the U.S. delegation were also instrumental in garnering support for Supplementary Items introduced by others, co-sponsoring eight resolutions introduced by delegations of other countries. The U.S. delegation was responsible for 26 amendments to either the committee draft resolutions or various Supplementary Items.

Chairman Cardin proposed climate-related amendments to a resolution on energy security and suggested the OSCE initiate work with Pakistan in the resolution on Afghanistan. Co-Chairman Hastings worked on numerous human rights and tolerance issues. Other amendments were sponsored by: Sen. Durbin on improving international access to clean water; Sen. Voinovich on combating anti-Semitism; Sen. Wicker on preserving cultural heritage; Rep. Smith on preventing the abuse of children; and Rep. Butterfield on responding to climate change.

Bilateral Meetings

The U.S. delegation also engaged in a variety of activities associated with the Annual Session, holding bilateral meetings with the delegations of Russia and Georgia focusing on their respective internal political developments and the tension in the Caucasus since Russia invaded Georgia last August and then sought to legitimize breakaway regions.

Separate meetings were also held with Lithuanian President Valdas Adamkus and other Lithuanian leaders, at which the delegation pressed for new laws to resolve outstanding claims of property seized during the Nazi and Communist eras. The delegation also presented President Adamkus a letter from President Barack Obama on the occasion of the 1000th anniversary of the first written reference to Lithuania. Members of the U.S. delegation attended a working lunch to discuss gender issues, hosted by Swedish parliamentarian Tingsgaard. A variety of social events, including a reception hosted by the British delegation at their embassy, afforded numerous informal opportunities to discuss issues of common concern.

U.S. Leadership

As a demonstration of active U.S. engagement, a Member of the U.S. Congress has always held some elected or appointed leadership role in the OSCE PA. The Vilnius Annual Session has allowed this to continue at least through July 2012.

Chairman Cardin was reelected to a three-year term as one of nine Vice Presidents, a very welcome development given his long record of OSCE engagement going back to his years in the House of Representatives. Rep. Aderholt, who has attended every OSCE PA Annual Session since 2002 and often visits European countries to press human rights issues, was elected Vice Chair of the third General Committee, which handles democracy and human rights. President Soares was reelected for a second term and selected Rep. Smith to serve as a Special Representative on Human Trafficking and asked Co-Chairman Hastings to continue serving as Special Representative on Mediterranean Affairs.

An unfortunate development in the election of new officers is the absence of a representative of the Russian Federation. Because the United States government may disagree so substantively with current Kremlin policies, the U.S. government has always felt it critical to welcome Russian engagement in the OSCE PA. It was, therefore, a disappointment that the head of the Russian Federation delegation, Alexander Kozlovsky, reversed course and decided not to run for a Vice Presidency seat and more disappointing that a political bloc at the OSCE PA defeated Russian incumbent Natalia Karpovich as rapporteur of the Third Committee. Karpovich had been accommodating of U.S. human rights initiatives in her draft resolution.

Vilnius Declaration

Participants at the closing plenary session adopted the final Vilnius Declaration -- a lengthy document which reflects the initiatives and input of the U.S. delegation. Among other things, the declaration calls for strengthening the OSCE in order to enhance its legitimacy and political relevance; addresses conventional arms control, disarmament and other security-related issues of current concern in Europe; calls for greater cooperation in the energy sector and better protection of the environment; and stresses the continued importance of democratic development and respect for human rights, especially as they relate to tolerance in society and freedom of expression.

The most contentious part of the declaration related to the promotion of human rights and civil liberties twenty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, which included language noting the 70th anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. While some of the language may have been provocative, strong Russian objections to the entire text appeared to be motivated by a desire to defend a Stalinist past and minimize its crimes. The Russian delegation’s effort to block passage of this resolution reflects a similar sentiment in Moscow that recently led to the creation of a widely-criticized commission "for counteracting attempts to falsify history to the detriment of Russia's interests." As a July 9 column for The Economist noted about recent Russian efforts to excuse Stalinism, the “debate in Vilnius makes it a bit harder to maintain that stance.” Some of Russia’s traditional friends and allies in the OSCE PA were noticeably absent from the debate.

The Balkans

While the Congressional delegation’s work focused heavily on representing the United States at the OSCE PA, the trip afforded an opportunity to advance U.S. interests elsewhere in Europe. While Co-Chairman Hastings traveled to Albania to observe that country’s first parliamentary elections since becoming a NATO member earlier this year, the rest of the delegation visited Bosnia-Herzegovina. Bosnia-Herzegovina is still recovering from the conflict in the 1990s and the associated horrors of the Srebrenica genocide and massive ethnic cleansing. The reverberations of the conflict continue to hinder prospects for European and Euro-Atlantic integration.

The United States was instrumental in bringing the Bosnian conflict to an end in 1995, especially with the negotiation of the Dayton Agreement, and the United States has invested considerable financial, diplomatic and military resources in the post-conflict period. The visit came one month after Vice President Joe Biden visited Sarajevo with a message of renewed U.S. engagement in the Balkans. While meetings with Bosnian political leaders revealed little willingness to work constructively toward constitutional reform needed for an effective central government, a meeting with English-speaking university students revealed a refreshing desire to overcome ethnic divisions and move the country forward.

Belarus

Given its proximity to Vilnius, members of the Congressional delegation visited Minsk, the capital of Belarus, to press for greater democracy and respect for human rights in that country. Belarus has remained a repressive state over the years even as its European neighbors have transitioned from being former Soviet or Warsaw Pact states to EU and NATO members or aspirants.

Following a delegation meeting with President Alexander Lukashenka, Belarusian authorities released imprisoned American Emanuel Zeltzer, who was convicted of espionage in a closed trial and had numerous health concerns. The delegation also urged for greater progress in meeting the conditions in the Belarus Democracy Act passed by the U.S. Congress in 2004 and reauthorized in 2006. A meeting with political activists provided useful information on the situation for political opposition, non-governmental organizations and independent media. Finally, the delegation pressed Belarus’ officials to allow for an increased U.S. diplomatic presence in the country. In response to expanding U.S. sanctions, Minsk kicked out 30 diplomats last year, including the U.S. ambassador, leaving a staff of five at the U.S. Embassy.

During the course of the Vilnius Annual Session, Senator Voinovich also broke away for a brief visit to Riga, Latvia. That visit was among the highest level visits from a U.S. official in three years, and was important for our relations with this NATO ally, which has deployed troops with Americans in Afghanistan without caveat and recently suffered losses which easily impact such a small country.

U.S. interests abroad are advanced through active congressional participation in the OSCE PA. The 19th Annual Session of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly will be held early next July in Oslo, Norway.

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Cummings’ goal was to increase the number of people of color and women in flag officer rank by focusing on military recruitment, retention, and promotion.  The 2011 MLDC final report, “From Representation to Inclusion: Diversity Leadership for the 21st-Century Military,” proposed 20 recommendations to develop policy goals and metrics to manage and sustain diversity at the U.S. Department of Defense.  Following the release of the report, Rep. Cummings, Sen. Cardin, and other Members of Congress held a 2012 Congressional Military Diversity Forum with MLDC Chairman General Lester Lyles, where the general raised the urgency of implementing the report’s recommendations to maintain force levels in concert with increasing diversity in the United States. Helsinki Commission efforts—including legislation by Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee Hastings and Sen. Cardin on the incorporation of women in combat divisions and on increasing diversity in the intelligence and national security workforces—have complemented and built upon Rep. Cummings’ work. Rep. Cumming’s efforts also were integral to the 2013 launch of the Mission Critical: Inclusive Leadership for the Security Sector program, led by the German Marshall Fund and supported by Helsinki Commission leadership.  Findings from the MLDC underpin the initiative, which brought together militaries, Members of Congress, staff of the Department of Defense, other government officials and experts from Europe and the United States to review and take stock of diversity and inclusion best practices in the security sector. “There must be an assigned and qualified individual on the command level to oversee military issues including discrimination, racial profiling, and hazing. In particular, the military needs to have a more effective response against hazing cases to better identify and respond to dangerous situations.  Women, minorities, and every single soldier should be able to achieve their goals when joining the military.”  – Congressman Elijah Cummings, Mission Critical 2013 As part of the inaugural Mission Critical event in 2013, Congressman Cummings highlighted lessons learned from the MLDC and the need to address discrimination and other problems, including hazing, in militaries to increase diversity and ensure the success of missions critical to national security.  Efforts to address these and other issues have continued at subsequent Mission Critical events, most recently in June 2019. Continuing to build upon the MLDC foundation, the event focused on diversity and inclusion issues related to personnel, the future of security, and technology in the security sector.  Speakers echoed the sentiments of Rep. Cummings years before. Then-German Federal Minister of Defense Ursula von der Leyen stressed the value of religious diversity in the armed forces, sharing how she was working to get the Bundeswehr’s military chaplaincy to include Jewish rabbis and Muslim imams instead of only the traditional Protestant and Roman Catholic chaplains.  Tjorven Bellmann of the German Federal Ministry of Foreign Affairs raised the importance of recruitment methods that appeal to young people from diverse backgrounds. He also noted that discrimination in the military remains a barrier for racial minorities, women, LGBT+, and other groups.  Nida Ansari, a State Department detailee to the Helsinki Commission, discussed U.S. Government inclusion efforts around faith communities. Ursula von der Leyen’s elevation to the Presidency of the European Commission offers hope for highly-placed advocacy of inclusive policies and concrete strategies beyond the security sector and broader dissemination of practices shared during Mission Critical. Congressman Cummings’ vision of a more inclusive security sector, and more inclusive societies generally, at home and abroad will not soon be forgotten.  Signs of progress include examples like General Lori Robinson, whose distinguished career included serving as the first woman to command a major Unified Combatant Command when she led United States Northern Command (USNORTHCOM) and the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) from May 2016 to May 2018.  The rarity of her example, however, only underlines the work that Mr. Cummings well knew was still required. With special thanks to Leah Perry, former Professional Staff Member, House Oversight Committee, for her assistance in providing background information for this article. 

  • Inclusive Leadership Summit

    “The real political division lies between people who believe we should be more inward looking versus those who want a more globalized world.  If we don’t include citizens, then we diminish our values. Inclusivity is not a constraint, but a true opportunity we need to seize and build on.” - Drancy Mayor Aude Lavail-Lagarde, France By Nida Ansari and Dr. Mischa Thompson From September 18 to September 20, 2019, more than forty European and U.S. leaders representing 12 countries across Europe and the United States participated in the second annual Inclusive Leadership Summit held in Paris, France. Focused on Achieving Political Inclusion, the summit featured findings from a recent report and knowledge-sharing among participants on advancing the practice of inclusive leadership through four essential areas: inclusive representation in legislatures; inclusive policymaking; civic participation; and election systems. Hosted by the German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF), the Summit included alumni of the GMF, U.S. Helsinki Commission, and State Department-supported Transatlantic Inclusion Leaders Network.   As leaders incorporating inclusive practices into their organizations, participants emphasized the importance of the widening circle of representation in political discourse and establishing leadership networks to specific strategies and techniques to strengthen political inclusion. They also stressed the need for increased engagement with marginalized communities to ensure the development of policies that are inclusive of all members of society. Participants also discussed strategies for engaging political parties, navigating difficult political environments, and effectively promoting diversity across sectors to advance political inclusion. Participants also explored opportunities and pitfalls of political engagement through technology and the role of the private sector in advancing inclusivity. Dr. Mischa Thompson of the Helsinki Commission, facilitated a panel on how diverse government leaders have successfully envisioned and met inclusivity goals. Promoting safe, inclusive, and equitable societies is a priority of the Helsinki Commission for the 116th Congress. Commission efforts on inclusion have included briefings, hearings, legislation, and inter-parliamentary initiatives in the U.S. Congress and Europe. In addition, the Helsinki Commission frequently partners with the U.S. State Department and other stakeholders in the United States and Europe to empower diverse voices at the decision-making table to be able to effectively devise public policies that meet the needs of all members of society, rather than just a few.

  • Co-Chairman Wicker Statement on Developments in Northern Syria

    WASHINGTON—Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) today issued the following statement on reports that Turkey has launched an attack on Kurdish troops in northern Syria: “Kurdish troops bravely fought alongside Americans and our other allies to defeat the ISIS caliphate. The small deployment of special operators we had in northern Syria supported the fight against extremism and protected our partners. We should continue to stand by our Kurdish friends and oppose Turkey’s invasion. Those who support the United States deserve nothing less. Otherwise, we undermine our country’s interests in the region and our credibility around the world.”

  • Chairman Hastings on Yom Kippur Shooting outside German Synagogue

    WASHINGTON—Following yesterday’s shooting outside of a synagogue in Halle, Germany, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) issued the following statement: “I am heartbroken to hear about the shooting near a synagogue in Germany where Jewish worshippers gathered to observe Yom Kippur. I stand in solidarity with the two innocent lives lost and the families and worshippers who were impacted by this senseless act of violence and hatred. As we commemorate the one-year anniversary of the Pittsburgh synagogue tragedy later this month, we must do more across borders to address these common challenges together.”

  • Chairman Hastings Leads Bipartisan Delegation to Tunisia, Israel, and Morocco

    WASHINGTON—From September 28 to October 6, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) led a bipartisan, bicameral U.S. delegation to Tunisia, Israel, and Morocco to assess the state of security, human rights, and democracy in the Middle East and North Africa. The delegation concluded with the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (PA) Autumn Meeting in Marrakech, Morocco, where the strong U.S. presence demonstrated the consistent and bipartisan commitment of the United States to security and cooperation in the OSCE and neighboring Mediterranean regions. “As a Member of Congress, I spent decades traveling to the Middle East and North Africa,” said Chairman Hastings, who formerly served President of the OSCE PA as well as the OSCE PA Special Representative to the Mediterranean Partners for Cooperation. “This trip was an occasion to revisit long-standing relationships and discuss some of the most consequential dynamics impacting the Mediterranean region today.” Chairman Hastings was joined on the delegation by Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS); Helsinki Commission Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02), Helsinki Commissioner Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, II (MO-05), and Rep. Andy Harris (MD-01). In Tunisia, the delegation met with Interim President Mohamed Ennaceur, who noted that that the gravest threat facing his nation is the economic and social despair afflicting many young people. Members also held roundtable discussions with civil society groups and local and international election observers, who provided an assessment of the September 15 presidential election and prospects for country’s upcoming legislative election and presidential run-off. In Israel, the delegation met with both Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mohamed Shtayyeh. Members also met with civil society to assess possible threats to the rule of law impacting both Israelis and Palestinians, and with Christian leaders to explore interreligious relations and the mediating role Christian churches play in the Holy Land. During the OSCE PA Autumn Meeting, Chairman Hastings and other members of the delegation discussed ways to maximize cooperation with OSCE Mediterranean Partners in areas ranging from migration and human trafficking, to tolerance and non-discrimination, to energy and water, all in the context of good governance and democratic institutions. “In the coming days, I urge you, my distinguished colleagues, to continue exploring ways to integrate civil society in our work and to deepen engagement with the OSCE Mediterranean Partners, particularly through support for, and observation of their electoral processes,” said Chairman Hastings during the meeting. Co-Chairman Wicker, who serves as a vice-president of the OSCE PA and as the 2019 Head of the U.S. Delegation to the OSCE PA, chaired a session focusing on regional and national perspectives of cooperation across North Africa and the African continent. In Morocco, members also met with the Algerian, Moroccan, and Ukrainian delegations to the OSCE PA; OSCE PA President George Tsereteli; and OSCE PA Secretary General Roberto Montella.

  • Remarks to the Mediterranean Forum

    Autumn Meeting of the OSCE PA *NOTE: As prepared for delivery* Before arriving in Morocco, I led a bicameral and bipartisan Congressional delegation to Tunisia and Israel. While in these countries, my colleagues and I held high-level exchanges with national leadership, civil society, religious leaders, and others to assess the current state of regional security, human rights and democracy. As a Member of Congress, I spent decades traveling to the Middle East and North Africa.  I was never more proud of that engagement, than when I served as President of the Parliamentary Assembly and its  Special Representative to the Mediterranean Partners for Cooperation. This trip was an occasion to revisit longstanding relationships and discuss some of the most consequential dynamics impacting the Mediterranean region today. Our delegation arrived in Tunisia and Israel at sensitive political moments. Tunisia held its second democratic presidential election ever on September 15 and will follow in the coming weeks with its third-ever free legislative election and a presidential run-off. In Israel, the country’s second national election this year on September 17 once again delivered an ambiguous result, touching off a flurry of government formation negotiations with no end in sight. In Tunis, my colleagues and I met with Interim President Mohamed Ennaceur. I commended him for leading his country through a historic peaceful transition of power following the death of President Beji Caid Essebsi earlier this year. When I asked about the most serious existential threat facing Tunisia, he had a bracing assessment: that the gravest threat is the economic and social despair afflicting so many youth. We should heed President Ennaceur’s words and commit ourselves during this meeting of the Parliamentary Assembly to discussing ways to restore hope and opportunity for the youth in our societies. Early next year, I intend to do my part to respond to the call of President Ennaceur and others by hosting young parliamentarians from throughout the OSCE region and the Partners for Cooperation in Washington for a seminar that empowers our future leaders. I look forward to sharing details with your delegations in the near term. While in Tunisia, our delegation also held roundtables with civil society groups and local and international election observers. I was encouraged by the bold commitment of these groups to preserving and advancing the gains Tunisia has made since 2011 in respect for the rule of law, democracy, and fundamental freedoms. I remain concerned, however, that the ongoing imprisonment of one of the leading presidential candidates could undermine confidence in the democratic process. In Israel, our delegation met both with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mohamed Shtayyeh. Both leaders were candid in their assessments of the impasse in the peace process. While no clear opportunities emerged, I was affirmed in my belief that parliamentary diplomacy bridges divides. Prime Minister Netanyahu shared his sobering assessment of the global threat posed by Iran and the existential danger it poses to the people of Israel. I hope we will discuss ways of addressing this matter during our debates in the coming days. During a roundtable with Israel-based civil society, we heard warnings about possible threats to the rule of law impacting both Israeli citizens and Palestinians. In a separate meeting with the leaders of major Christian denominations, including Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem Theophilos III, we explored interreligious relations and the mediating role Christian churches play in the Holy Land. In Luxembourg this summer, this assembly passed a resolution I authored on the importance of integrating and protecting civil society engagement in the work of the OSCE and this Assembly. Our meetings with such groups in Tunis and Jerusalem confirms the value of consulting local activists in our work as parliamentarians at home and abroad. In the coming days, I urge you, my distinguished colleagues, to continue exploring ways to integrate civil society in our work and to deepen engagement with the Mediterranean Partners, particularly through support for- and observation of their electoral processes.

  • Safe and Dignified Return

    In July, nearly 300 parliamentarians from the 57 OSCE participating States met for the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (PA) 2019 annual session in Luxembourg, where they addressed in a final declaration the wide range of issues of current concern to the organization. Of these issues, none received more attention than those relating to human rights and humanitarian questions; the relevant section of the declaration contained more than 180 paragraphs. Leading subjects of concern included the treatment of investigative journalists, manifestations of discrimination and intolerance in society, gender inequality, and efforts to stifle dissent. The text also focused heavily on migration, including the rights of refugees. During the consideration of a final text for adoption, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (TX-18), who has been active in representing the United States at OSCE PA meetings in recent years and serves on the OSCE PA’s Ad Hoc Committee on Migration, proposed an amendment underlining the importance of the right of safe return of refugees. Her amendment, co-sponsored by other members of Congress and by parliamentarians from Cyprus, Georgia, Ireland, Italy, and North Macedonia, made clear that returns should not only be safe, but also voluntary and dignified. The adopted text, included in the Luxembourg Declaration, reads as follows: “The OSCE Parliamentary Assembly underlines that the right of voluntary, safe and dignified return for refugees and internally displaced persons to their homes and properties must be guaranteed;” The concept of voluntary return is at the heart of binding international law on refugees. The 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees states, “No Contracting State shall expel or return (‘refouler’) a refugee in any manner whatsoever to the frontiers of territories where his life or freedom would be threatened on account of his race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.” The convention originally was restricted to people who became refugees because of “events occurring in Europe before 1 January 1951.” The 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, which removed the convention’s time and geographic restrictions, maintains the binding “non-refoulement” obligation. There are only a few exceptions on “grounds of national security or public order” and only after “due process of law.” According to the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, presented in 1998 by the United Nations Secretary General’s Representative on Internally Displaced Persons, “Competent authorities have the primary duty and responsibility to establish conditions, as well as provide the means, which allow internally displaced persons to return voluntarily, in safety and with dignity, to their homes or places of habitual residence, or to resettle voluntarily in another part of the country.” The principles are not legally binding on governments, but they are the point of reference for how a government should respond to internally displaced persons.

  • Co-Chairman Wicker Welcomes Confirmation of Assistant Secretary Destro

    WASHINGTON—Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) today welcomed the confirmation of Robert A. Destro to serve as the Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor. The Assistant Secretary traditionally also serves as the State Department’s representative on the Helsinki Commission. “I am pleased that Assistant Secretary Destro has been confirmed to this critical post, and I look forward to working closely with him to promote security and human rights around the globe,” said Co-Chairman Wicker. “I encourage the White House to act quickly and formally appoint him to the Helsinki Commission. America’s voice is strongest and most effective when our executive and legislative branches work together. The Helsinki Commission offers a unique opportunity to reap the benefits of such a partnership.” Mr. Destro is a human rights advocate and a civil rights attorney with expertise in religious freedom issues and election law. He is also professor of law and founding director of the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies at The Catholic University of America.

  • Helsinki Commission Leaders Appoint Shannon Simrell as Representative to U.S. Mission to the OSCE

    WASHINGTON—Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20), Chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (U.S. Helsinki Commission), today announced the appointment of Shannon Simrell as the Representative of the Helsinki Commission to the U.S. Mission to the OSCE (USOSCE). “On behalf of the Commission leadership, I am pleased to welcome Shannon Simrell as the Helsinki Commission’s representative to USOSCE for the 116th Congress,” said Chairman Hastings. “Her extensive experience with a wide variety of OSCE missions and institutions makes her an invaluable resource not only to the Helsinki Commission but also to Ambassador Gilmore and our other State Department colleagues.” For 25 years, Simrell has worked to advance U.S. comprehensive security objectives in the Balkans, Central and Eastern Europe, Caucasus, and Central Asia. Early in her career, Simrell organized short-term democratization and environmental study tours in the United States for emerging leaders in Central and Eastern Europe and Russia. Between 2006 and 2008, she served first as a democratization officer then as acting regional center director at the OSCE mission in Kosovo. Following her time in Kosovo, Simrell spent a decade recruiting, deploying, and supporting more than 2,300 American experts serving in nearly 100 OSCE permanent, special, and election observation missions on behalf of the U.S. Department of State.  During this time, she observed elections in Kosovo, Georgia, Ukraine, and Tajikistan, and conducted dozens of site visits to OSCE missions and institutions. Simrell replaces Janice Helwig, who returns to the Helsinki Commission in Washington to resume her previous position of senior policy advisor. Helwig’s portfolio will include Central Asia, trafficking in persons, and the OSCE’s human dimension.

  • A Global Pandemic: Disinformation

    By Annie Lentz,  Max Kampelman Fellow Popularly and ambiguously dubbed “fake news,” malign efforts to spread false facts often are wrongly lumped together with politicians’ diatribes against negative media coverage. Well-orchestrated disinformation campaigns do exist around the world, using algorithms, social platforms, and advertisements as a means of deceiving the public and undermining democracy. Due to its proliferation and widespread attention, the definition of so called “fake news” has been lost. Even the meaning of the terms it is defined by are ambiguous. In fact, misinformation and disinformation are not synonymous. Misinformation refers the inadvertent spread of false information, while disinformation refers to the purposeful circulation of deceptive news stories by both state and nonstate actors. Disinformation plagues the modern world in increasingly sophisticated and pervasive ways largely due to widespread use of social media. Whether it’s shared through Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, or WhatsApp, fake news is easy to share, difficult to identify, and almost impossible to stop. Easy to Share The trickle-down effect of counterfeit news campaigns is massive. A single fake story has the potential to reach millions, propagated by bots and trolls and manipulation of social media content algorithms. For example, a heavily edited interview from conservative CRTV portrayed a fictional conversation between one of their hosts and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez where the Congresswoman admitted to know nothing of the legislative process. Although CRTV eventually said it was satire, the video was viewed almost 1 million times within 24 hours prior to CRTV’s clarification. This was not an isolated incident. Thanks to the universality of social media, with Facebook and Twitter having a global presence economically and socially, cultures around the world are all susceptible to manipulation through such platforms. Following the 2019 European Union elections—second only to India as the largest democratic elections in the world—the European Commission documented “ongoing disinformation campaigns” by Russian sources. Officials went on to demand Facebook, Google, and Twitter “step up their efforts” in combatting fake news; they classified the fight as enduring, saying, “Malign actors constantly change their strategies. We must strive to be ahead of them.” The influence and impact of Russian disinformation efforts remains unknown and therefore future elections in both the EU and elsewhere remain at risk. Difficult to Identify Several aspects of the communication space make disinformation hard to identify. When reading content from a seemingly trustworthy source, even if there is no evidence of professionalism, most naturally consider the information to be trustworthy. However, that is not always the case and those creating and spreading propaganda are well-versed in mimicking reputable sources in structure and design. Moreover, the more specific the topic and narrow the scope, the easier it is for disinformation to spread as consumers lack the background and context to identify red flags, which are becoming ever harder to detect. According to Politifact, earlier this year a Facebook post about Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, claiming he was trying to take away health care from millions of Americans, went viral. This claim was a mischaracterization of his stance on federal funding for health care and falsified his personal history with the program. Regardless, the false narrative spread to thousands of people who lacked the in-depth background knowledge to recognize the inaccuracy. Disinformation is not limited to false news stories or phony websites; it also extends to doctored photos and videos, like the CRTV interview previously mentioned. The Washington Post’s guide to fact-checking video makes the point, “Seeing isn’t believing.” Even high-profile politicians can be fooled by such disinformation. One doctored video appearing to show Nancy Pelosi drunk that was retweeted by President Trump, who shared the false narrative with more than 62.8 million followers. Even content originating from seemingly trustworthy sources can be deceptive. For example, pro-Brexit campaigns from the UK Independence Party (UKIP) during the EU referendum vote in 2016 told a false story through misleading photos (actually from the border of Slovenia) of thousands of immigrants pouring into the UK. Though the poster and campaign were widely condemned, it is impossible to measure the number of voters that may have been influenced. However, the very existence of such misleading material threatened the democratic integrity of the referendum. The Russia Problem While there are many guilty parties—like those who spread doctored stories and videos leading up to India’s elections in April and May of 2019 and incited hatred between Buddhists and Muslims in Sri Lanka and Malaysia on Facebook—the biggest culprit behind the growth of widespread disinformation is the Russian Government. The Kremlin has used sophisticated disinformation campaigns to justify its actions in Crimea and eastern Ukraine, interfere in the 2019 European Union elections, and attempt to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential elections. However, Kremlin interference isn’t isolated to politics. RT America, cited as a principle meddler in the 2016 presidential elections, aired a campaign of stories about health risks associated with 5G signals, none of which were supported by scientific facts. Such efforts from “the Kremlin’s principal international propaganda outlet” match what experts cite as the Kremlin’s ultimate goal: to amplify voices of dissent, sow public discord, and exacerbate social divides. Impossible to Stop … or Not? There is no global police force to defend against disinformation. There are platform-specific efforts, such as Facebook’s regulations for political advertising; grassroots efforts, like Factitious, an online game designed to teach students to identify fake news stories; and coalitions like the one formed by Facebook, Google and Twitter after the March 15 massacre in Christchurch, New Zealand, when the tech giants signed an agreement with world leaders to fight hate speech online. However, with the amount of disinformation growing every day and no unified or cohesive approach from both the public and private sector to aggressively and actively combat online propaganda, these efforts are akin to putting a Band-Aid on a broken leg. Any attempts to regulate disinformation are constrained by the right to free speech. If the response is too broad–whether from a corporation like Facebook or a government entity–it quickly challenges the fundamental freedoms afforded to citizens. On the one hand, stopping false facts from spreading and inundating social media benefits democracy and freedom the world round. On the other hand, the people’s right to free speech must be respected. Any meaningful efforts to battle disinformation must carefully balance the protection of the community against the protection of the individual. In addition, those with the best ability to fight against disinformation—private companies like Facebook and Twitter—have no true legal obligation to do so and may have alternative interests in terms of profit. Until Congress shined a light on this problem, there were no serious efforts on the part of social media platforms to fight against foreign influence. As social platforms and their users maintain the right to freedom of expression, the ability of Congress to require them to undertake any specific efforts is lacking. However, that hasn’t stopped them from trying. There are other solutions. One is promoting better media literacy among citizens, so they can more easily identify false or misleading information. Another is “sourcing” news stories, so readers know the true origin of a story—a story about a local issue in Kansas may in fact emanate from Russia, for example. The content would still be available, but readers would have a better awareness of potential manipulation by outside actors. To combat the ripple effect of disinformation, media self-regulation to verify sources and stories before publishing them is another effective tool. The most important and most effective way to confront disinformation is by understanding it. Through events like the 2017 Helsinki Commission hearing on Russian Disinformation, and OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media Harlem Désir’s efforts to lead the OSCE in combatting disinformation, additional progress can be made. Disinformation is a disease to which no one is immune; the longer the virus goes untreated, the worse it becomes.

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