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COVID-19 IMPACTS OSCE’S 2020 HUMAN DIMENSION WORK
Monday, December 07, 2020

By Erika Schlager, Counsel for International Law;
Janice Helwig, Senior Policy Advisor; 

and Shannon Simrell, Representative of the Helsinki Commission to the U.S. Mission to the OSCE

The regular and planned schedule of OSCE meetings for 2020 was significantly altered by the COVID-19 pandemic. It now falls to the 2021 Chair-in-Office, Swedish Foreign Minister Ann Linde, to steward the Organization—and its human dimension activities—through the next phase of the pandemic.

Changes to the OSCE’s regular order began on March 14, when Austrian authorities ordered a lockdown in response to the emerging pandemic.  OSCE meetings in Vienna, where the OSCE is headquartered, were canceled for the second half of that month.  Pressing business was conducted remotely, which allowed the Permanent Council to renew the mandate for the Special Monitoring Mission (SMM) in Ukraine and adopt the SMM budget on March 19. 

After a regularly scheduled recess from April 6 to April 17, some OSCE meetings resumed as the organization shifted to primarily online meetings.  Some used a “hybrid” or “blended” format, permitting in-person engagement in Vienna (to the extent that in-person gatherings were allowed by changing local health measures), reinforced by additional participation through videoconferencing.  Two-day Supplementary Human Dimension Meetings, the Alliance Against Trafficking meeting, and the Annual Security Review Conference were held in a hybrid format.  Some other meetings, such as the annual Human Dimension Seminar in Warsaw, were not held at all.  Separately, the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly canceled its annual session, which had been scheduled in Vancouver in July.

2020 Human Dimension Implementation Meeting

As the participating States and the OSCE institutions strove to adjust to circumstances created by the COVID-19 pandemic, convening the annual Human Dimension Implementation Meeting (HDIM) presented particular challenges due to its length and complexity.

Reflecting the extraordinary times, the 2020 Human Dimension Implementation Meeting was canceled by decision of the participating States.

Spanning two weeks, the HDIM is significantly longer than other OSCE meetings. It typically draws more than a thousand representatives of government and civil society from across the OSCE’s expansive time zones.

According to its mandate, the HDIM holds six hours of formal sessions each day covering the full range of human dimension concerns including freedoms of assembly, association, expression, and religion or belief; countering anti-Semitism, racism, and xenophobia; and democratic institutions such as free and fair elections, the rule of law, and independence of the judiciary. 

Dozens of side events are also organized by nongovernmental organizations, OSCE institutions, other international organizations, and participating States, which meet for up to an additional six hours a day. Side events allow participants to focus on specific issues of concern in greater depth.

The most significant aspect of HDIM is that civil society representatives may speak during formal sessions on equal footing with government representatives.  Governments and civil society alike use HDIM as a forum to cultivate contacts among and between civil society and governments. 

As a practical matter, the critical human rights violations that would be the focus of any implementation review were unabated by the pandemic.  On the contrary, some governments used the pandemic to distract from their long-standing human rights shortcomings. In addition, the pandemic created additional areas of concern, such as government surveillance ostensibly related to health monitoring, punitive measures against real or alleged critics of a government’s pandemic responses, and the scope and duration of emergency measures adopted in response to the pandemic.

When considering how to hold the HDIM in the context of COVID-19, organizers and participants alike debated how, or indeed whether, HDIM’s unique aspects could be shoe-horned into an on-line format.

The United States argued that the HDIM could and should be convened in an adjusted, blended format.  “It is precisely because of the impact of the pandemic on human rights and democracy that the HDIM must be held. [. . .] 2020 is EXACTLY the year we need HDIM most.”

Harry Hummel, advisor to the Netherlands Helsinki Committee with extensive experience attending HDIMs, noted that some of these challenges had already been met for the first two Supplementary Human Dimension Meetings and that hybrid meetings would have some advantages.  However, he concluded that all online or hybrid HDIM variants would have significant disadvantages for civil society, particularly since one of the most important components of the HDIM—informal, person-to-person contacts—could not be replicated virtually

A majority of OSCE participating States agreed. After extensive consultations among participating States, the Chair-in-Office, and the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) —the OSCE institution mandated to organize the HDIM—the Permanent Council decided on September 11 that the HDIM (originally scheduled for September 21–October 2) would, exceptionally, not take place in 2020 due to the unprecedented, extraordinary, and unpredictable circumstances caused by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.  The Permanent Council also stated that this decision did not establish any precedent for the organization of future HDIMs.

Following the announcement, Chairman Alcee Hastings stated, “We should use this time wisely by redoubling our efforts to ensure that all OSCE participating States implement their OSCE commitments. The pandemic has revealed—and in some cases amplified—human rights shortcomings, democratic weaknesses, racial inequities, and social vulnerabilities across the region.” 

At a hearing before the Helsinki Commission on September 17, OSCE Chair-in-Office Edi Rama reaffirmed the importance of HDIM. He stated, “This is a huge loss for our organization. Together with [the] Permanent Council, [the] Human Dimension Implementation Meeting is a constituent part of the OSCE’s mechanism for the review and assessment of the implementation of our commitments.”

Working to Keeping Human Dimension Issues Top of Mind

To provide an additional platform in 2020 for human dimension issues, the OSCE held a series of webinars between September 28 and November 6, 2020, organized by ODIHR in cooperation with the Office of the Representative on Freedom of the Media (RFoM) and the Office of the High Commissioner on National Minorities (HCNM), and with the support of the 2020 Albanian OSCE Chairmanship.  The sessions focused on racism, xenophobia, and intolerance and discrimination; combating racism and discrimination against Roma; the rule of law; access to information and freedom of the media; democratic lawmaking; multilingual education; and human rights defenders. Some of the webinars touched on subjects such as the prevention of torture (part of the discussion on human rights defenders) and access to information that also were the subject of subsequent negotiations for Ministerial Council decisions. 

Although the webinars raised important human rights issues, they could not substitute for the HDIM, particularly as their format and short duration did not permit significant dialogue with civil society.

Looking Ahead to 2021

In a December 3 address to the annual OSCE Ministerial Council, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun called for sustained vigilance. “We must press governments to uphold their human dimension commitments, give audience to the voices of civil society, and hold a Human Dimension Implementation Meeting in 2021 where governments are called to account for their actions,” he said.

As 2021 Chair-in-Office, Sweden will have the task of consulting with the participating States on the entire calendar of OSCE meetings and events, continuing to adjust plans as needed in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.

There has been strong support among participating States for moving the HDIM, which is typically been held in the early fall, to earlier in the year to prevent any conflict with the annual United Nations General Assembly meeting.  Given the inability to hold a regular HDIM in 2020, if public health conditions permit, it would be ideal to move the HDIM forward in 2021.

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    WASHINGTON—Following the execution of four democracy activists by Myanmar’s military junta, Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman and OSCE Parliamentary Assembly Special Representative on Political Prisoners Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09) issued the following statement: “I strongly condemn the execution of these courageous activists by Myanmar’s unelected and illegitimate regime. These men—Kyaw Min Yu, Phyo Zeya Thaw, Hla Myo Aung, and Aung Thura Zaw—were political prisoners who were deprived of their right to due process and a chance to defend themselves. The junta sentenced them to death in secret trials, once again demonstrating the complete lack of respect for human life and common decency as well as a total disregard for rules-based order by which countries should abide. “The regime has jailed thousands, including the Nobel Peace laureate and State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, after seizing power in a coup in February 2021. Following a series of closed-door hearings and a string of trumped-up charges and convictions each carrying additional sentencing, she was sentenced to a total of 11 years in prison as of April 2022.  In an obvious attempt to ensure she is jailed for life, she still faces added bogus charges that could see her imprisoned for more than 190 years by some reports. This is appalling and concerning as the recent executions confirm that the junta will not hesitate to murder political prisoners to further strengthen their rule of terror. “The world should unite to pressure Myanmar to release all political prisoners. At least 117 activists have been sentenced to death since the coup. We must do everything in our power to ensure that they do not face the grim fate of their four compatriots.”

  • Co-Chairman Cohen Deplores Arrest of Ilya Yashin in Russia

    WASHINGTON—In response to the arrest of Ilya Yashin, a Russian politician critical of Russia’s war in Ukraine, the Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman and OSCE PA Special Representative on Political Prisoners Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09) issued the following statement: “Putin’s government has been engaged in a systematic assault on Russian citizens who dare speak the truth about Russia’s atrocities in Ukraine. Ilya Yashin, a Russian patriot and a fierce critic of the war in Ukraine, is one of the victims of this regime. “Ilya spoke out against the war despite the cynical law Russia has adopted that punishes people speaking the truth on this conflict with up to 15 years in prison. He was arrested on trumped-up charges and is facing a lengthy jail term for no crime other than publicly speaking out against Russia’s war in Ukraine. Ilya is a political prisoner and should be given all protections afforded by this status. The Russian government has a complete disregard for international law and customs but if they have an ounce of respect for their own laws, they will immediately release Ilya and other political prisoners.” Ilya Yashin, a co-founder of the Solidarity movement, is a member of a Moscow city district council. Throughout his career, he advocated for fair elections, rule of law, and democracy in Russia. Prior to his arrest, Mr. Yashin was one of the few Russian opposition activists who had not been killed, forced to flee, or imprisoned.

  • Helsinki Commission Urges Administration to Work to Free Vladimir Kara-Murza

    WASHINGTON—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) today released a letter urging the Biden Administration to “use every instrument in our toolbox” to free Russian political prisoner Vladimir Kara-Murza. The letter read in part: “The United States has a proud history of standing up for political prisoners and working relentlessly to help them return to freedom. We stared down the Soviet Union, Communist China, military regimes in Latin America and South-East Asia, and succeeded in helping secure the release of those who deserved freedom the most – innocent and peaceful activists and freedom fighters representing a vision for better governments in those countries. Mr. Kara-Murza represents a hope for a democratic Russia at peace with its neighbors and own citizens, and now is someone who the U.S. should advocate for his release… “The Helsinki Commission continues to raise the issue of political prisoners in Russia, Belarus, and other countries across the OSCE region, and specifically Vladimir Kara-Murza’s case…Now, we call on your Administration to use every instrument in our toolbox to secure the release of Mr. Kara-Murza. This is in the interest of our national security, his well-being, and importantly, the well-being of his incredibly brave children and spouse. Mrs. Kara-Murza and their three children reside in the U.S and despite the distance, the Kremlin has been poisoning – literally and figuratively – their lives for decades now. We should do everything in our power to help free Vladimir Kara-Murza and reunite him with his family.” On April 12, Vladimir Kara-Murza was arrested in Russia on charges of disobeying police orders when he allegedly “changed the trajectory of his movement” upon seeing Russian police officers at his home. This carried a 15-day sentence in jail. With five days remaining in his sentence, new charges were levied against him for spreading “deliberately false information” about Russia’s war on Ukraine.  He now faces up to 15 years in prison. On March 29, he testified at a Helsinki Commission hearing examining Russian dictator Vladimir Putin’s war on truth, where witnesses discussed the Kremlin’s use of propaganda and censorship. “Those who speak out against this war are now liable for criminal prosecution,” he said. The Helsinki Commission has a long tradition of advocating on behalf of political prisoners worldwide. Earlier this month, Co-Chairman Cohen was appointed the first-ever OSCE Parliamentary Assembly Special Representative on Political Prisoners.

  • CO-CHAIRMAN COHEN APPOINTED AS OSCE PARLIAMENTARY ASSEMBLY SPECIAL REPRESENTATIVE ON POLITICAL PRISONERS

    WASHINGTON—Margareta Cederfelt, President of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (PA), has appointed Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09) as the first-ever OSCE PA Special Representative on Political Prisoners. “I welcome the chance to serve as the voice of political prisoners across the OSCE region,” said Co-Chairman Cohen. “Every day, we witness more political arrests of opposition politicians, journalists, activists and civilians in Russia, Belarus, and other participating States that are cracking down on free speech, freedom of the press, and free thought. Through this position, I am committed to working tirelessly to elevate the issue of political imprisonment as the egregious violation of human rights that it is.” In his new role, Co-Chairman Cohen will collect and share intelligence on political prisoners throughout the OSCE region; raise awareness of participating States with high rates of political prisoners; advocate for the release of political prisoners; and promote dialogue at the OSCE PA and OSCE executive structures about political imprisonment.  Commission Chairman Senator Ben Cardin and Congressman Chris Smith were reappointed as Special Representative on Anti-Semitism, Racism and Intolerance, and Special Representative on Human Trafficking Issues, respectively.

  • Behind Enemy Lines

    As Russia’s genocidal war against Ukraine continues, Ukrainians in occupied territories are demonstrating courageous resistance in the face of atrocities, deprivation, and forced displacement, the scope and scale of which has shocked the world. This hearing examined the human toll the war is taking on the people of Ukraine. It also underscored the importance of continued assistance from Ukraine’s partners to help it win the war, restore its territorial integrity, rebuild its shattered infrastructure, and bring Russian war criminals to justice. U.S. Ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Michael R. Carpenter outlined his institution’s comprehensive approach to supporting Ukraine. The OSCE continues to provide Ukraine with military aid; expose Russia’s clear, gross, and uncorrected violation of the Helsinki Final Act based on its unprovoked aggression against Ukraine and the Ukrainian people people; impose costs on the Kremlin, including instituting export controls and restricting Moscow’s participation in OSCE activities due to its breach of all ten principles of the Helsinki Final Act; promote multilateral support forUkraine; and hold Russian individuals and leadership accountable, especially for Russia’s violations of human rights. Ambassador Carpenter also highlighted a recent report that centers on Russia’s human rights violations, produced by the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights. Ukrainian MP Oleksiy Goncharenko highlighted the systematic attacks on his nation’s history, culture, and identity. In addition to mass civilian casualties, rape, and torture within Ukraine’s borders, more than 1.3 million citizens have been deported to the Russian Federation, 240,000 children among them. Many are forced into “filtration camps,” in which soldiers crudely inspect, interrogate, and terrorize Ukrainians to look for signs of loyalty to Kyiv. Territories that fall under Russian occupation have been quickly militarized and used for further assaults on neighboring regions. Goncharenko noted that Russia now occupies an amount of land in Ukraine roughly equivalent to the size of Pennsylvania. Olga Aivazovska, Board Chair of the Civil Network OPORA and Co-Founder of the International Center for Ukrainian Victory, highlighted heartbreaking stories of human suffering, and Putin’s use of an asymmetric arsenal – including food insecurity, energy control, and misinformation campaigns – against Ukraine. She implored the international community to sustain investigations into and seek justice for widespread human rights violations. She also called attention to the wealth of resources that Russia has stolen from Ukraine, and the investment it will require to rebuild the nation after victory. Ukrainian witnesses asked for additional U.S. military support in the form of long-range HIMARS missile systems, western fighter jets, and related training. They also emphasized the need to designate Russia as a state sponsor of terrorism, to cultivate the legal and humanitarian infrastructure necessary to ensure justice, and to rebuild Ukraine’s economic, agricultural, and energy capacities. Members assured witnesses that their dedication to supporting Ukraine remains unwavering, and that Ukraine remains a great inspiration for the free world. Related Information Witness Biographies

  • Helsinki Commission Hearing to Highlight Life in Ukraine's Newly Occupied Territories

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following hearing: BEHIND ENEMY LINES Life in Ukraine’s Newly Occupied Territories Wednesday, July 20, 2022 2:30 p.m. Dirksen Senate Office Building Room 562 Watch live: www.youtube.com/HelsinkiCommission As Russia’s genocidal war against Ukraine continues, Ukrainians in occupied territories are demonstrating courageous resistance in the face of atrocities, deprivation, and forced displacement, the scope and scale of which has shocked the world. This hearing will examine the human toll the war is taking on the people of Ukraine. It also will underscore the importance of continued assistance from Ukraine’s partners to help it win the war, restore its territorial integrity, rebuild its shattered infrastructure, and bring Russian war criminals to justice. The following witnesses are scheduled to participate: Panel One: Michael Carpenter, Permanent Representative and Ambassador of the United States to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe Panel Two: Oleksiy Goncharenko, Member of the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine; Vice President of the Committee on Migration and Refugees, Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe Olga Aivazovska, Head of the Board Civil Network OPORA; Co-Founder, International Center for Ukrainian Victory

  • Shoulder to Shoulder

    Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen and Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson joined former U.S. Army Staff Sergeant James Vasquez and Lt. Colonel Ripley “Rip” Rawlings (USMC, Ret.) to discuss U.S. volunteers fighting for Ukraine. Mr. Vasquez is a volunteer soldier fighting in Ukraine who partnered with Lt. Col. Rawlings to provide on-the-ground support through an organization called Ripley’s Heroes.   At the beginning of Russia’s unprovoked and brutal invasion of Ukraine, Mr. Vasquez decided to travel to Ukraine and fight alongside Ukrainians. For three months, Vasquez armed and trained Ukrainian soldiers to “fight like gentlemen.” Vasquez noted that Ukrainians are “warriors in spirit and in heart,” but require training and supplies to be most effective. After fighting alongside Ukrainians, Vasquez developed a comradery with his unit, and is returning to Ukraine this month to deliver more supplies and continue fighting. Lt. Col. Rawlings met Vasquez in Ukraine in the early weeks of war and the two decided to launch Ripley’s Heroes, an organization providing essential military support to Ukrainian soldiers. Ripley’s Heroes has Ukrainian partners on the ground, including the Kiev-based NGO Come Back Alive, who help ensure that soldiers receive necessary supplies as quickly as possible. When asked by Rep. Cohen what the United States should do moving forward to support a Ukrainian victory, Lt. Col. Rawlings noted that a key obstacle to providing Ukrainians with warfighting supplies are U.S. commercial regulations on the export of military equipment, such as International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR). According to Lt. Col. Rawlings, rather than simply keeping U.S. military technology out of the hands of nefarious actors, ITAR prevents private U.S. citizens from supporting the war effort by providing simple, effective, non-lethal equipment, like night-vision goggles. Mr. Vasquez agreed that changing U.S. laws to remove the regulations that prevent private citizens from helping Ukraine could help them win the war.

  • Helsinki Commission Delegation Convenes Historic Black Sea Security Summit, Demonstrates Bipartisan Support for European Security

    WASHINGTON—From June 29 – July 9, Helsinki Commission Ranking Member Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) led a bipartisan, bicameral congressional delegation to Romania, the United Kingdom, Finland, and Sweden to consult with senior officials across Europe about Russia’s war on Ukraine, security in the Black Sea region, and Finland and Sweden’s plans to join NATO. On the shores of the Black Sea in Constanta, Romania, Sen. Wicker and Romanian Foreign Minister Bogdan Aurescu co-chaired the first-ever congressionally-organized Black Sea Security Summit to underscore the critical importance of the Black Sea region to European peace and security, and to establish a sustainable, collective approach to ending Russian aggression and enhancing mutual cooperation. “Given Russia’s monstrous war on Ukraine and its wider aggression in the region, it is not an exaggeration to say that the Black Sea is currently the epicenter of Euro-Atlantic security and global peace,” said Sen. Wicker. “Ukraine must be successful in this war…Vladimir Putin’s unprovoked aggression against a neighbor cannot stand.” “Over the last 25 years, a key objective of our bilateral strategic partnership has been to act as partners in enhancing our joint security and promoting the democratic and economic development of the Black Sea region.  The continuation of common decisive action in this regard at the bilateral and multilateral level is more relevant than ever,” said Minister Aurescu. “All along the Black Sea coast lies the first line of defense for the Euro-Atlantic community and the first line of support for our partners in Ukraine, the Republic of Moldova, and Georgia.” Prior to the summit, members of the Congressional delegation visited Romania’s Mihail Kogălniceanu Air Base, where they received briefings from U.S., Romanian, and other NATO personnel and met with American troops. Delegation members then traveled to Birmingham, UK, for the Annual Session of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (PA). Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09) was Head of the U.S. Delegation to the PA and spearheaded U.S. efforts to forge a strong, unified response from international legislators to Russia’s ongoing war of aggression against Ukraine and its people. “All OSCE parliamentarians must stand in solidarity with our Ukrainian colleagues as they battle the Kremlin’s vicious, intolerable war on Ukraine,” said Co-Chairman Cohen. “We must do all in our power—through this forum and all others—to ensure that Ukraine is victorious against Russian aggression.” During the Annual Session, parliamentarians overwhelmingly approved a resolution introduced jointly by Sen. Wicker and the heads of the Ukrainian and Lithuanian delegations, responding to Russia’s war on the Ukrainian people and the greater Russian threat to European security. The document “condemns resolutely and unequivocally the ongoing, intensified, clear, gross and still uncorrected violations of Helsinki Principles as well as of fundamental principles of international law by the Government of the Russian Federation in its war of aggression against Ukraine, as well as the complicity of Belarus in this war of aggression, and calls on the governments of OSCE participating States to do the same.” Several members of the U.S. Delegation successfully introduced more than two dozen amendments, designed to keep the focus on Russia’s current aggression, to an array of other resolutions. In Birmingham, the delegation also co-hosted an event highlighting the growing problem of political repression in Russia and Belarus, especially in the context of protesting the war on Ukraine; met with Mikhail Khodorkovsky to discuss his organization’s work to support political prisoners and democracy in Russia; and held bilateral meetings with the UK’s parliamentary leadership, OSCE officials, parliamentarians from other OSCE countries. Helsinki Commissioner Rep. Richard Hudson (NC-08) was re-elected to his post as chair of the OSCE PA’s Committee on Political Affairs and Security. Following the Annual Session, the congressional delegation stopped in Finland and Sweden to welcome the historic decision of both countries to join the NATO Alliance. In Finland, members met with President Sauli Niinistö, and Finnish parliamentarians including First Deputy Speaker Antti Rinne and OSCE PA Vice President Pia Kauma. In Sweden, they met with Foreign Minister Ann Linde, Deputy Defense Minister Jan Olof-Lin, and a group of members of the Swedish parliament, led by Speaker Andreas Norlén and OSCE PA President Margareta Cederfelt. In addition to Co-Chairman Cohen, Sen. Wicker, and Rep. Hudson, the Congressional delegation included Helsinki Commission Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02), Commissioners Rep. Robert Aderholt (AL-04), Rep. Ruben Gallego (AZ-07), and Rep. Marc Veasey (TX-33), as well as Sen. John Cornyn (TX), Rep. Lloyd Doggett (TX-35), Rep. John Garamendi (CA-03), Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (TX-18), Rep. August Pfluger (TX-11) and Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04).

  • US Soldier Who Voluntarily Fought in Ukraine Says Hardest Days of War to Come

    A U.S. Army veteran who independently and voluntarily fought in Ukraine warned on Thursday that the hardest days of fighting the war are still to come, as the Russian military tightens its control over territory in the eastern part of the country.  Retired U.S. Army Staff Sgt. James Vasquez, who has returned from combat in the country but plans to go back, told the congressional Helsinki Commission during a briefing that while the Ukrainian military is better off now with increased foreign support, the most difficult fighting lay ahead for soldiers. “We have much more support now, and we have the weapons and gear that we need to be able to fight properly,” Vasquez said to the panel. “The fight’s harder than it was when I left. And that was hard fighting when I left.”  Vasquez shared moving and oftentimes difficult details of his time in Ukraine at the hearing, alongside retired U.S. Marine Corps Lt. Col. Rip Rawlings, who is providing logistical support to the Ukrainian military through he and Vasquez’ foundation, Ripley’s Heroes. Vasquez, who has gained a social media following through the videos he shares from the battle’s front lines, said he has “pretty much sold everything I owned” so he can return to the fight in Ukraine. Vasquez explained the evolution of Ukrainian combatants that he witnessed, saying when he arrived the soldiers were fighting “primitively” but then saw them turn into battle-tested warriors. “I was fighting with guys who had a red T-shirt on and sneakers,” said Vasquez. “We were going into battle with white Toyota Camrys with Javelin (missiles) in the back.” But as the fighters have grown more sophisticated, and weapons and gear has rolled in from other countries, Vasquez and Rawlings both warned that the fighting situation was fragile and said Ukraine needs continued support from allies. “We need more, they need more (weapons),” Rawlings said. “We are at a very tenuous and fragile point. This war could go in any direction, very unfortunately.” Rawlings also urged lawmakers to amend export controls that do not allow Americans to send certain military equipment, including certain body armor, to Ukraine. “It is the largest single obstacle that we face,” Rawlings said. “The biggest issue that we have is that a U.S. citizen can go purchase a set of level three body armor, but you cannot purchase it and give it to a Ukrainian.” Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) lauded the veterans for their decision to volunteer in the Ukrainian conflict at the briefing.  “Foreign fighters have actually come in to heroically volunteer and are enduring intense combat conditions and witnessing the gross human rights violations perpetrated by (Vladimir) Putin.”

  • Helsinki Commission Briefing to Highlight U.S. Volunteers Fighting for Ukraine

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following online briefing: SHOULDER TO SHOULDER On the Front Lines with the Ukrainian Military’s Foreign Soldiers Thursday, July 14, 2022 2:00 p.m. Register: https://ushr.webex.com/ushr/j.php?RGID=r6604c3bdc74d6eb2ff6c8bfa86784358 In Russia’s war on Ukraine, an unprovoked attack, unspeakable atrocities, and genocidal intent is juxtaposed against a valiant defense of hearth and home, a spirit of national unity, and grassroots mobilization. Not since the 1930s has a foreign war between a larger aggressor and a smaller but tenacious underdog so captivated the imagination of freedom-loving people. Answering the call of conscience, many American combat veterans are now fighting alongside Ukrainian servicemembers, applying their experience in combined arms maneuver and decentralized command to help Ukraine win the war. This briefing will examine the war in Ukraine through the eyes of two American volunteers: former U.S. Army staff sergeant James Vasquez and Lt. Colonel Rip Rawlings (USMC, Ret.). Vasquez fought in Ukraine in the early days of Russia’s full-scale invasion and soon plans to return to the battlefield. Rawlings is providing logistical support to the Ukrainian military through Ripley’s Heroes, a foundation he co-founded with Vasquez.

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