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Commission Staff Participates in Conference on Roma; Greece Slated to Serve as OSCE Chair in 2009
Tuesday, March 04, 2008

By Erika B. Schlager
Counsel for International Law

U.S. Embassy in Athens Organizes Conference on Romani Issues

On February 29, Helsinki Commission staff participated in a conference on Romani issues organized by the U.S. Embassy in Athens, Greece, primarily for human rights officers from U.S. Embassies in Europe. The conference was designed to improve understanding of Romani minority concerns, and to allow human rights officers to share information and ideas related to their congressionally mandated human rights reporting obligations.

The conference underscored the strong interest of the United States in the situation of Romani minority communities throughout the OSCE region and provided a useful opportunity for human rights officers to improve their knowledge of this minority group’s history and experiences. Roma now constitute the largest ethnic minority in the European Union.

The conference was opened by the United States Ambassador to Greece, Daniel Speckhard. Andrzej Mirga, the senior advisor for Romani issues with the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (Warsaw) and Helsinki Commission staff served as speakers during the morning session. Panayote Dimitras of the Greek Helsinki Monitor spoke during a working lunch. In the afternoon, Embassy officials from various posts led “best practices” discussion groups – although it proved more difficult to identify such practices than one might have hoped.

Commission Staff Visit Romani Shanty Towns

On the margins of the conference, Commission staff held meetings on Romani issues with representatives of the Greek Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ Division for International Human Rights, Refugees, and Immigration; the Ombudsman for Human Rights; the Ministry of Interior; and the Ministry of Education. In addition, staff visited several Romani shanty towns in the Athens region, including the infamous Aspropyrgos camp.

Greece does not recognize any groups as “minorities” other than those few formally recognized under the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne (primarily the Muslims of Western Thrace). Accordingly, Roma are not considered an ethnic minority but a “socially vulnerable group.”

It is estimated that there are roughly 150,000-300,000 Roma in Greece, out of a population of 11-million-plus. This population largely consists of indigenous Greek Roma, but also includes some Roma who have migrated from Albania in recent years. Greece does not count people according to ethnic affiliation or identity on its national census.

Roma in Greece face problems similar to those faced by Roma in other countries. In recent years, Romani plaintiffs have successfully brought cases against Greece before the European Court of Human Rights, including for ill-treatment or excessive use of force by the police. Non-governmental organizations have also been particularly concerned by the deplorable conditions in some Romani shanty towns and the lack of equal access to education and the ability of Roma to obtain documents. The Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights, Thomas Hammarberg, has also expressed concern about forced evictions of Roma.

Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Benjamin L. Cardin and Commissioner Louise McIntosh Slaughter participated in a Helsinki Commission delegation to Greece in early 1998, and met with (among others) Romani representatives.

Greece Slated to Serve as OSCE Chair

Greece is slated to serve as Chair of the OSCE in 2009; Kazakhstan has been selected to serve in that position in 2010.

Finland serves as the current OSCE Chair-in-Office. At his inaugural address to the OSCE Permanent Council in January, Finnish Foreign Minister Ilkka Kanerva stated, “More can be done also to fight discrimination against Roma and Sinti. I count on all participating States to renew their commitment to implementing the recommendations in the OSCE Action Plan of 2003.” Finland plans to schedule one of this year’s three Supplementary Human Dimension Meetings on Romani human rights issues.

Relevant countries: 
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  • At OSCE PA Winter Meeting, U.S. Legislators Unite with International Counterparts to Condemn Putin’s Invasion of Ukraine

    By Ryn Hintz, Max Kampelman Fellow From February 20 – 26, 2022, Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09) led a bipartisan Congressional delegation to the Winter Meeting of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA) in Vienna, where he served as the Head of the U.S. Delegation. Other participating Helsinki Commissioners included Ranking House Commissioner Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02), and Commissioners Rep. Robert Aderholt (AL-04), Rep. Richard Hudson (NC-08), and Rep. Marc Veasey (TX-33). They were joined on the delegation by Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (TX-18). Ranking Senate Commissioner Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) and Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04) participated remotely as members of the U.S. Delegation. The OSCE PA, consisting of 323 legislators from the 57 countries of the OSCE, has been particularly useful in defending democracy and promoting security in the face of numerous threats and challenges across the OSCE region.  The Winter Meeting, held in a hybrid format due to ongoing but easing COVID restrictions, allows parliamentarians an opportunity to engage OSCE officials and diplomatic representatives, as well as to initiate work for the coming year.  Prior to the Winter Meeting, the delegation visited Lithuania to demonstrate the strong U.S. support for this close NATO ally, which not only faces security threats on its borders but also provides refuge to independent voices from Russia and Belarus. OSCE PA Winter Meeting The 2022 Winter Meeting coincided with Russian dictator Vladimir Putin’s large-scale invasion of neighboring Ukraine, a horrific escalation of a conflict that began with Russia’s illegal occupation of the Crimean Peninsula in 2014 and ongoing aggression in the eastern portion of Ukraine. Ahead of the Winter Meeting, the OSCE PA Secretary General Roberto Montella and members of OSCE PA leadership (including Sen. Wicker as a Vice President and Rep. Hudson as Chair of the Committee on Political Affairs and Security) met in an emergency session and issued a statement condemning the Kremlin invasion as a “clear and gross violation of the most basic norms of international law as well as OSCE principles and commitments.” The group also issued a subsequent statement standing “in solidarity with the people of Ukraine and its elected government” and noting the “extraordinary courage” exhibited by “civilians, the armed forces and national leaders, including President Volodymyr Zelensky.” Statements condemning Vladimir Putin for the deliberate assault of Russian forces on Ukraine dominated the formal sessions of the meeting, despite an agenda originally designed to consider ongoing OSCE PA work on a wide range of issues. Co-Chairman Cohen spoke for the United States, decrying Putin’s claim that the Ukrainian government is led and run by Nazis. In a poignant end to the Standing Committee’s second session, the Ukrainian Head of Delegation, Mykyta Poturaiev, reported on violence in his neighborhood of Kyiv and bid farewell as he sought to return to his family in Ukraine. The 2022 Polish Chair-in-Office of the OSCE for 2022 outlined Poland’s priorities in an utterly transformed era in European security. During the general debate, nominally on the topic of “security guarantees and the indivisibility of security in Europe,” delegations resumed their near-universal condemnation of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. Rep. Hudson opened the meeting of the Committee on Political Affairs and Security by denouncing the invasion of one participating State by another, in total opposition of Helsinki principles. He also underlined the committee’s particular relevance in the context of the security crisis precipitated by Russia, a view reinforced by a panel of senior OSCE officials present as guest speakers.  Finally, Rep. Hudson moderated a debate on “heightened tensions in the OSCE area and the need for inter-parliamentary dialogue.” The debate focused heavily on the attack on Ukraine, with Sen.Wicker remotely joining those in Vienna condemning Russia’s outrageous behavior, and Rep. Jackson Lee forcefully urging members to recall the role of the Belarusian government in the events leading to the invasion. In the economic and environmental affairs committee, Rep. Smith spoke alongside OSCE official Valiant Richey about their efforts as special representatives on human trafficking issues of the Parliamentary Assembly and the OSCE, respectively. They specifically discussed supply chains as they relate to human trafficking matters. Representative Wilson spoke for the United States in the subsequent debate. In the committee dealing with democracy and human rights, Rep. Wilson condemned Russian human-rights violations in occupied Ukraine and in Russia itself, as well as ongoing repression in Belarus. Rep. Aderholt defended free media in his statement to the committee following presentations by recent Nobel laureate and Novaya Gazeta editor Dmitriy Muratov and OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media Teresa Ribeiro. On the margins of the Winter Meeting, the U.S. delegation gathered key parliamentarians from a range of participating States over dinner, fostering an opportunity for frank and candid exchanges of views on important topics confronting the OSCE. The event emphasized the depth of the U.S. commitment to European security, going beyond diplomatic representatives to include elected Members of Congress. The delegation also was briefed by diplomats representing the United States in the OSCE, including Ambassador Michael Carpenter, and held bilateral meetings with the heads of the Azerbaijani and Mongolian OSCE PA Delegations. Visiting Lithuania The delegation’s presence in Europe also afforded an opportunity to visit Lithuania to underscore U.S. support for a crucial NATO ally at a time of deep concern caused by Russian aggression. In Vilnius, the delegation met with Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda, Prime Minister Ingrida Simonyte, Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis, and senior members of the Lithuanian Parliament (Seimas) to discuss the Russian assault on Ukraine, the deterioration of regional security, and Lithuania’s values-based foreign policy, including relations with China. Officials emphasized to the delegation the game-changing nature of recent developments, especially the total capitulation of the Lukashenko regime in Belarus to Moscow. These actions resulted in a dramatically more challenging situation on Lithuania’s border, leaving the country essentially no warning should Putin choose to act against the Baltic states.  The delegation also visited the Pabrade Training Area, a Lithuanian initiative which provides facilities for U.S. and Allied military activities in the region. Members also met with Belarusians and Russians who had fled to Lithuania to avoid persecution, including Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya and other opposition leaders, civil society organizations, and the media.

  • Helsinki Commission Mourns Death of Ukrainian OSCE Mission Member During Russian Attack on Kharkiv

    WASHINGTON—Following the death of a Ukrainian member of the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission (SMM) in Ukraine during a Russian attack, Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), and Ranking Members Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) and Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) issued the following joint statement: “We are saddened and angered by the tragic death of Maryna Fenina, a Ukrainian member of the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission (SMM) in Ukraine, during shelling in Kharkiv on March 1. We offer our deepest condolences to her family and friends. “Russian dictator Vladimir Putin’s ruthless attack against the people of Ukraine is targeting men, women, and children; destroying homes, businesses, and cultural treasures; and forcing millions to flee for their lives. Putin’s unprovoked war is shredding the European security architecture that brought peace after the Second World War. Individuals like Maryna Fenina remind us of the terrible human toll of war. “Russia must cease its brutal and criminal invasion and withdraw its forces from the sovereign territory of Ukraine.” Maryna Fenina was the second OSCE SMM member to die as a result of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine. Joseph Stone, a U.S. paramedic serving with the SMM, was killed In April 2017 when his vehicle struck a landmine in Russian-controlled territory in eastern Ukraine. The SMM was established in 2014 to monitor implementation of the Minsk agreements, which were designed to bring peace to eastern Ukraine. It is an unarmed, civilian mission that has served as the international community’s eyes and ears on the security and humanitarian situation in the conflict zone. On February 25, the SMM decided to withdraw its international mission members from Ukraine. Ukrainian national mission members remain in the country. 

  • Helsinki Commission Digital Digest February 2022

  • Co-Chairman Cohen Leads Bipartisan Congressional Delegation to Defend Democracy and Ukrainian Sovereignty at OSCE PA Winter Meeting

    WASHINGTON—Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09) last week led a bipartisan Congressional delegation to the Winter Meeting of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (PA) in Vienna, Austria, which focused almost exclusively on responding to the full-scale Russian assault on Ukraine.  A sizable and active U.S. presence at the hybrid event helped generate nearly united condemnation of the Kremlin attack and provided assurance of the U.S. commitment to European security during a time of great uncertainty. “Our bipartisan delegation actively and adamantly defended Ukraine’s rights as a sovereign nation in the face of unchecked Russian aggression,” said Co-Chairman Cohen. “The European security architecture that has supported peace and prosperity on the continent and around the world for decades must not be allowed to crumble at the whim of a dictator with grandiose aspirations of returning to some imagined past glory. It is long past time that democratic nations—including all other OSCE participating States—unite to firmly put Putin back where he belongs: isolated and outside the bounds of international society.” Other members of Congress traveling to Vienna included Helsinki Commission Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02), Commissioners Rep. Robert Aderholt (AL-04), Rep. Richard Hudson (NC-08), and Rep. Marc Veasey (TX-33), as well as Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (TX-18). Remote participants in the Winter Meeting included Ranking Member Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) and Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04). Although the meeting included a wide range of OSCE issues of concern, Russia’s brazen invasion of Ukraine dominated all discussion.  “Fundamental underpinnings of our security order, including commitments to respect other countries’ territorial integrity, sovereignty, and choices of security alliances, are at this moment being breached, flagrantly and deliberately, by one of our participating States, which is—as we speak—conducting an unprovoked invasion of another participating State,” said Rep. Hudson, who chairs the OSCE PA General Committee on Political Affairs and Security. “If Vladimir Putin succeeds in Ukraine, he will not stop there—just as he did not stop with Transnistria, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Crimea, and the Donbass. How can any of us realistically believe he will stop with Ukraine?” asked Sen. Wicker, who serves as a vice-president of the OSCE PA. “According to Putin’s twisted rationale, every former republic of the USSR is at risk. NATO is at risk. Every member of the peace-loving international community is at risk of being swept up into this conflict.” Members of the U.S. delegation directly challenged the egregious assertions of the few Russian delegates who attempted to justify their country’s naked aggression. Other issues raised by the U.S. delegation included human rights violations within Russia, as well as in Belarus and in areas of Ukraine under illegal occupation; ongoing concerns regarding human trafficking; and the assault on free media throughout the OSCE region.  Ahead of the Winter Meeting, members of the in-person delegation traveled to Lithuania to underscore U.S. support for a crucial NATO Ally at a time of deep concern caused by Russian aggression. In Vilnius, they met with Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda, Prime Minister Ingrida Simonyte, Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis, and senior members of the Lithuanian Parliament (Seimas) to discuss the Russian assault on Ukraine, the deterioration of regional security, and Lithuania’s values-based foreign policy, including relations with China. The delegation also visited the Pabrade Training Area for briefings on U.S. and Allied military activities conducted in the region, and met with Belarusians and Russians who have fled to Lithuania to avoid persecution, including Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya and other opposition leaders, members of the business community, civil society organizations, and the media.

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