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Criminal Defamation and "Insult" Laws: a Summary of Free Speech Developments in Romania
Friday, May 24, 2002

Numerous international documents, including those adopted by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), establish freedom of expression as a fundamental right. The right to free speech, however, is not absolute. Consistent with international law, certain kinds of speech, such as obscenity, may be prohibited or regulated. When governments restrict speech, however, those restrictions must be consistent with their international obligations and commitments; for example, the restrictions must be necessary in a democratic country and proscribed by law.

Criminal defamation and “insult” laws are often defended as necessary to prevent alleged abuses of freedom of expression. They are not, however, consistent with OSCE norms and their use constitutes an infringement on the fundamental right to free speech.

Criminal Defamation Laws

All individuals, including public officials, have a legitimate right to protect their reputations if untruthful statements have been made about them. Untrue statements which damage a person’s reputation constitute defamation. Oral defamation is known as slander; defamation in writing or other permanent forms such as film is libel. In some instances, criminal codes make defamation of public officials, the nation, or government organs a discrete offense, as distinct from defamation of a person.

Truthful statements – as well as unverifiable statements of opinion – are not legally actionable as defamation. Indeed, the European Court of Human Rights has held that public officials must tolerate a greater degree of criticism than private individuals: “The limits of acceptable criticism are accordingly wider as regards a politician as such than as regards a private individual. Unlike the latter, the former inevitably and knowingly lays himself open to close scrutiny of his every word and deed by both journalists and the public at large, and he must consequently display a greater degree of tolerance.” (Lingens v. Austria, Eur. Ct. H.R., 1986.)

Criminal defamation laws are those which establish criminal sanctions for defamation. Those sanctions may include imprisonment, fines, and prohibitions on writing. Individuals convicted of defamation in a criminal proceeding and sentenced to suspended prison terms may be subjected to the threat of immediate imprisonment if, for example, they violate an order not to publish. The existence of a criminal record may also have other social and legal consequences. In a criminal defamation case, state law enforcement agents (police and prosecutors) act, using taxpayer money, to investigate the alleged defamation and to act on behalf of the alleged victim.

It is sometimes argued that criminal defamation laws are necessary to achieve the legitimate goal of providing the victims of defamation with redress. But general laws against libel and slander, embodied in civil codes, provide private persons as well as public officials the opportunity to seek redress, including damages, for alleged defamation. In such cases, the plaintiff and defendant stand in court as equals. Accordingly, specific criminal laws prohibiting defamation are unnecessary.

“Insult” Laws

"Insult" laws make offending the "honor and dignity" of public officials (e.g., the President), government offices (e.g., the Constitutional Court), national institutions, and/or the “state” itself punishable. Unlike defamation laws, truth is not a defense to a charge of insult. Accordingly, insult laws are often used to punish the utterance of truthful statements, as well as opinions, satire, invective, and even humor.

Although insult laws and criminal defamation laws both punish speech, significant differences exist between them. Defamation laws are intended to provide a remedy against false assertions of fact. Truthful statements, as well as opinion, are not actionable. The use of civil laws to punish defamation is permissible under international free speech norms. The use of criminal sanctions to punish defamation, however, chills free speech, is subject to abuse (through the use of state law enforcement agents), and is inconsistent with international norms. In contrast, recourse to any insult law, whether embodied in a civil or a criminal code, is inconsistent with international norms.

Their Use Today

At one time, almost all OSCE countries had criminal defamation and insult laws. Over time, these laws have been repealed, invalidated by courts, or fallen into disuse in many OSCE participating States. Unfortunately, many criminal codes contained multiple articles punishing defamation and insult. Thus, even when parliaments and courts have acted, they have sometimes failed to remove all legal prohibitions against insult or all criminal sanctions for defamation. In communist countries and other anti-democratic regimes, such laws are often used to target political opponents of the government.

Today, when insult and criminal defamation laws are used, they are most often used to punish mere criticism of government policies or public officials, to stifle political discussion, and to squelch news and discussion that governments would rather avoid. It is relatively rare for a private individual (someone who is not a public official, elected representative, or person of means and influence) to persuade law enforcement representatives to use the tax dollars of the public to protect their reputations. In some OSCE countries, such laws are still used to systematically punish political opponents of the regime. Even in countries where these laws have fallen into a long period of disuse, it is not unheard of for an overzealous prosecutor to revive them for seemingly political purposes.

The International Context

Numerous non-governmental organizations have taken strong positions against criminal defamation and insult laws. These include Amnesty International; Article 19; the Committee to Protect Journalists; national Helsinki Committees such as the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee, Croatian Helsinki Committee, Greek Helsinki Committee, Romanian Helsinki Committee and Slovak Helsinki Committee; the International Helsinki Federation; The World Press Freedom Committee; Norwegian Forum for Freedom of Expression; national chapters of PEN; and Reporters Sans Frontières.

Moreover, the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Opinion and Expression, the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, and the Organization of American States Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression issued a joint statement in February 2000 which included the following conclusions, based on relevant international norms:

  • “Expression should not be criminalized unless it poses a clear risk of serious harm. . . . Examples of this are laws prohibiting the publication of false news and sedition laws. . . . These laws should be repealed.”
  • “Criminal defamation laws should be abolished.”
  • “Civil defamation laws should respect the following principles: public bodies should not be able to bring defamation actions; truth should always be available as a defense; politicians and public officials should have to tolerate a greater degree of criticism. . . .”

(See: “Statement Regarding Key Issues and Challenges in Freedom of Expression,” agreed by Santiago Canton, OAS Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression; Freimut Duve, OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media; and Abid Hussain, UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Opinion and Expression, February 2000, www.article19.org. See also “Insult Laws: An Insult to Press Freedom,” published by the World Press Freedom Committee.)

Finally, the United States Department of State regularly reports, in its annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, on cases where criminal defamation or insult laws have been used and, at OSCE meetings, regularly calls for the repeal of such laws.

Free Speech Cases in Romania

Since the end of the Ceausescu era, non-governmental human rights groups, free speech advocates, journalists’ associations and others have called for the repeal of Romania’s criminal defamation and insult laws. These laws have been widely criticized and their use documented, including by Amnesty International (www.amnesty.org), the non-governmental free speech watchdog Article 19 (www.article19.org), Freedom House, the Romanian Helsinki Committee, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (Resolution 1123/1997), and the U.S. State Department (“Country Reports on Human Rights Practices” for calendar year 2001). While similar reports on other countries in Central Europe often detail specific cases of individuals charged with criminal defamation or insult, cases in Romania are so numerous they are often described not by individual names but, collectively, by triple-digit figures. For example, according to a statement by Article 19 and the Center for Independent Journalism, Romania, delivered at the March 2001 OSCE Supplementary Human Dimension Meeting on Freedom of Expression – convened during the Romanian Chairmanship of the OSCE – official statistics indicated that over 225 people were in prison at that moment for speech “offenses” against the authorities. More recently, the Associated Press reported: “Currently some 400 journalists are being sued for libel and insulting authorities” (“Romania pledges to abolish communist-era laws restricting free speech,” May 5, 2002).

When individual cases are reported in detail, they illustrate the conflict between Romania’s criminal defamation/insult laws and basic free speech norms. For example, in December 2001, the General Prosecutor announced that he was investigating whether the singing of the Hungarian national anthem at a private meeting constituted a violation of article 236 (defamation of national symbols). That is, he used scarce taxpayer resources to consider whether people should actually be sent to prison, for up to three years, for singing.

Renewed calls for Romania to repeal articles of the criminal code that restrict free speech have often followed controversies triggered by government actions perceived as hostile to free speech and an independent media. In May 2001, Justice Minister Rodica Stanoiu called for increasing criminal penalties for defamation, exactly contrary to the recommendations of, i.a., the Council of Europe and the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media. Although President Ion Iliescu and Prime Minister Adrian Nastase subsequently stated they did not support jail terms for press offenses, they failed to call for the full repeal of the range of articles in the penal code that, at present, still permit journalists and others to face criminal charges for their speech.

In January 2002, another controversy erupted when the General Prosecutor ordered the arrest of Ovidiu Cristian Iane and the search of Mugur Ciuvica’s home. The two men, a journalist and former government official respectively, were suspected of circulating email messages (under the title “Armageddon II”) accusing Prime Minister Nastase of corruption. These actions were portrayed by the General Prosecutor as damaging to national security and Romania’s international relations and a violation of article 168 of the criminal code (disseminating false information, a provision, in other penal codes, generally intended to cover acts that might create a threat to the public, such as making a false bomb threat). Although Prime Minister Nastase later acknowledged that he had overreacted, he failed to call for the full repeal of the range of relevant articles in the penal code.

The latest controversy unfolded after the Wall Street Journal published a report on May 3, 2002, entitled “Among NATO Applicants, Romania Draws Particular Scrutiny.” Romanian journalists then reported on the story, including the assertion that the continued presence of Securitate agents in Romania’s security services is a matter of concern in the context of Romania’s candidacy for NATO. On May 10, Minister of Defense Ion Mircea Pascu issued – in writing – a warning to journalists that “life is too short, and your health has too high a price to be endangered by debating highly emotional subjects.” In addition to heightening concern that old Securitate practices, if not actual agents, are alive and well in Romania’s security services, the written threat triggered yet another row between the government and journalists. On May 16, Minister Pascu issued another statement, saying he regretted that his May 10 statement had been misinterpreted and that it was only intended to be humorous.

The event nearly overshadowed an announcement by Prime Minister Nastase that the government plans to amend the criminal code to bring it into conformity with Romania’s free speech commitments. The government’s proposal, however, which would reduce prison terms for some speech offences but not actually repeal them all from the criminal code, falls short of what is needed to achieve the Prime Minister’s stated goals.

Relevant Romanian Laws

The articles of the Romania criminal code which are not consistent with Romania’s freely undertaken commitments are:

  • article 205 (insult; punishable by up to two years in prison);
  • article 206 (defamation; punishable by up to three years in prison);
  • article 236 (defamation of national symbols; punishable by up to three years in prison);
  • article 236/1 (defamation of the country or nation; punishable by up to three years in prison);
  • article 238 (insult or defamation of public officials; punishable by up to seven years);
  • article 239 (insult or defamation of civil servants; punishable by up to seven years in prison).

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

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Nevertheless, the session developed into one of the more animated at the HDIM. The Georgian delegation, which had been silent up to that point, spoke out against Russian aggression and alleged numerous human rights abuses. It expressed gratitude to the European Union for sending monitors to the conflict zone and urged the EU to pressure Russia to fully implement the Six-Point Ceasefire agreement negotiated by French President Sarkozy. The United States joined several delegations and NGOs calling on all parties to the conflict to observe their international obligations to protect refugees and create conditions for their security and safe voluntary return. In a pattern observed throughout the meeting, the Russian delegation did not respond to Georgian charges. It left it to an NGO, “Ossetia Accuses,” to make Russia’s case that Georgia had committed genocide against the people of South Ossetia. A common theme among many interventions was a call for an independent investigation of the causes of the conflict and a better monitoring of the plight of refugees, but to date Russian and South Ossetian authorities have denied both peacekeeping monitors and international journalists access to the region from elsewhere in Georgia. A joint assessment mission of experts from ODIHR and the HCNM, undertaken in mid-October, were initially denied access to South Ossetia, with limited access to Abkhazia granted to some team members. Eventually, several experts did gain access to the conflict zone in South Ossetia, though to accomplish this they had to travel from the north via the Russian Federation. One can only speculate why Georgia received such limited treatment at this HDIM. The crisis in the south Caucasus had dominated OSCE discussions at the Permanent Council in Vienna for weeks preceding the HDIM. Some participants may have feared that addressing it in Warsaw might have crowded out the broader human rights agenda. Others may have felt that, in the absence of a clear picture of the circumstances surrounding the conflict and with so many unanswered questions, it was best not to be too critical or too accusatory of either party. The EU (and particularly the French) were, at the time of the HDIM, in the process of negotiating the deployment of European observers to the conflict zone, and may have feared that criticism of Russia at this forum would have only complicated the task. In fact, the EU’s only oblique reference to Georgia was made at HDIM’s penultimate working session (a discussion which focused on human dimension “project activity”) in connection with the work of High Commissioner for National Minorities. (One observer of this session remarked that there seemed to be a greater stomach for dinging the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights for shortcomings in its work than for criticizing Russia for invading a neighboring OSCE participating State.) Finally, other participants, particularly NGOs, seemed more inclined to view human rights narrowly in terms of how governments treat their own citizens and not in terms of how the failure to respect key principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity are invariably accompanied by gross violations of human rights and can produce humanitarian disasters. Amid simmering tensions between Russia and Georgia which could erupt into renewed fighting, and completion of a report requested by the Finnish Chairmanship in time for the OSCE’s Ministerial in Helsinki in early December, Ministers will have to grapple with the impact of the south Caucasus conflict and what role the OSCE will have. Beyond Warsaw The relative quiet of the HDIM notwithstanding, French President M. Nicolas Sarkozy put a spotlight on OSCE issues during the course of the meeting. Speaking at a conference in Evian, France, on October 8, he responded to a call by Russian President Dmitri Medvedev, issued in June during meetings with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, for a new “European Security Treaty” to revise Europe’s security architecture – a move seen by many as an attempt to rein in existing regional security organizations, including NATO and the OSCE. President Sarkozy indicated a willingness to discuss Medvedev’s ideas, but argued they should be addressed in the context of a special OSCE summit, which Sarkozy suggested could be held in 2009. The escalating global economic crisis was also very much on the minds of participants at the HDIM as daily reports of faltering financial institutions, plummeting markets, and capital flight promoted concerns over implications for the human dimension. Several delegations voiced particular concern over the possible adverse impact on foreign workers and those depending on remittances to make ends meet. Looking Ahead The human rights and humanitarian concerns stemming from the war in South Ossetia will likely come into sharper focus in the lead up to the December OSCE Ministerial in Helsinki as talks on the conflict resume in Geneva, and OSCE and other experts attempt to document the circumstances surrounding the outbreak of fighting and current conditions. The coming weeks can also be expected to bring renewed calls for an overhaul of the human dimension and the ODIHR by those seeking to curb attention paid to human rights and subordinate election monitoring activities. It remains to be seen whether Kazakhstan will fulfill the commitments it made a year ago in Madrid to undertake meaningful reforms by the end of this year. There is also the risk that a deepening economic crisis will divert attention elsewhere, even as the resulting fallout in the human dimension begins to manifest itself. It is unclear what priorities the Greek chairmanship will be set for 2009, a year that portends peril and promise. Notes (1) OSCE Human Dimension Implementation Meetings are held every year, unless there is a Summit. Summits of Heads of State or Government are preceded by Review Conferences, which are mandated to review implementation of all OSCE commitments in all areas (military-security, economic and environmental cooperation, and the human dimension). (2) Helsinki Document 1992, The Challenges of Change, IV (16). (3) Interestingly, at the session on human rights and counterterrorism, moderator Zbigniew Lasocik, member of the United Nations Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture, noted that Poland’s Constitutional Court had, the previous day, struck down a 2004 law that purported to allow the military to shoot down hijacked commercial aircraft – even if they were being used as weapons like the planes that killed thousands of people on 9/11. The Court reportedly reasoned that shooting down an aircraft being used as bomb would infringe on the constitutional protection of human life and dignity of the passengers. (4) Turkmenistan sent a representative to the HDIM in 2005 for the first time in several years. While responding to criticism delivered in the sessions, the representative appeared to focus more on monitoring the activities of Turkmen NGOs participating in the meeting. Turkmenistan subsequently complained that certain individuals who had been charged with crimes against the State should not be allowed to participate in OSCE meetings. Turkmenistan officials did not participate in the 2006 or 2007 HDIMs. Participation in the 2008 meeting would have been a welcome signal regarding current political developments. (5) The HCNM had previously expressed concern regarding Hungary’s overreach vis-a-vis ethnic Hungarian minorities in neighboring countries. In 2004, Hungary held a referendum on extending Hungarian citizenship to ethnic Hungarians abroad – an idea that still holds political currency in some quarters of Hungary – but the referendum failed due to low voter turnout.

  • OSCE 101: Briefing for Civil Society

    Please join the U.S. Helsinki Commission for OSCE 101: BRIEFING FOR CIVIL SOCIETY Thursday, September 4, 2008  10:00 a.m. - 12:00 p.m.  Rayburn House Office Building  B318 For those in need of a refresher course and those interested in becoming involved. Learn about the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the Role of Civil Society For those planning to travel to Warsaw, Poland, remember to register to participate in the OSCE’s Annual Human Rights Meeting: What: Human Dimension Implementation Meeting (HDIM) When: September 29 – October 10, 2008 Where: Warsaw, Poland Why: Annual 2-week human rights conference What is the HDIM? The term "human dimension" describes the set of norms and activities related to human rights, the rule of law, and democracy that are regarded within the OSCE as one of the three pillars of its comprehensive security concept, along with the politico-military and the economic and environmental dimensions. Every year in Warsaw, the OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) organizes a two-week conference, the Human Dimension Implementation Meeting (HDIM). The HDIM is a forum where OSCE participating States discuss the implementation of human dimension commitments that were adopted by consensus at prior OSCE Summits or Ministerial Meetings. These commitments are not legally binding norms; instead, they are politically binding - a political promise to comply with the standards elaborated in OSCE documents. Follow-up meetings to review the implementation of the commitments are based on the principle that the commitments undertaken in the field of the human dimension are matters of direct and legitimate concern to all participating States and do not belong exclusively to the internal affairs of the state concerned. A comprehensive, 2-volume compilation of the OSCE human dimension commitments (available in English and in Russian) can be ordered free of charge through the ODIHR website: Volume 1: Thematic Compilation and Volume 2: Chronological Compilation.

  • Italian Fingerprinting Targeting Romani Communities Triggers Protests; OSCE Pledges Fact-Finding

    By Erika B. Schlager, Counsel for International Law On July 10 and 11, the OSCE participating States held the 2nd of this year’s three Supplementary Human Dimension Meetings (SHDMs). This meeting, formally devoted to consideration of “Sustainable Policies for Roma and Sinti Integration,” also became a forum to protest Italy’s announced plans to fingerprint Roma and Sinti – and no one else. (“Sinti” is the term of self-ascription used by a Romani people primarily in historically German-speaking areas of Europe.) The OSCE’s newly appointed Director of the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, Janez Lenarcic, announced at the meeting’s opening that the OSCE and Council of Europe would undertake a fact-finding trip to Italy to examine the situation of the Roma there. Overview of Meeting The OSCE holds three Supplementary Human Dimension Meetings each year. These are two-day human rights meetings held in Vienna, Austria (where the OSCE is headquartered). As originally conceived, these meetings are intended to bring topical human rights issues closer to the Permanent Council of the 56 participating States, the key decision-making body of the OSCE. The topics for the SHDMs are chosen by the OSCE Chair-in-Office (a post currently held by Finland), in consultation with the participating States. The SHDMs augment the annual two-week human dimension implementation review, typically held in the fall in Warsaw. Participants at this meeting included representatives from the national delegations to the OSCE in Vienna; government representatives from capitals (including from offices or departments specializing in Romani concerns); local authorities with responsibility for implementing policies relating to Romani minorities; representatives of Romani and other non-governmental organizations (NGO); and international organizations (such as the Council of Europe and United Nations Development Program). The meeting was divided into successive sessions: 1) an opening session which included keynote remarks presented by Romanian Government State Secretary Gruia Bumba, head of Romania’s National Agency for Roma; 2) a session on the role and responsibility of regional and local authorities to assist in integrating Roma; 3) a session on good practices and major challenges in improving the situation of Roma at the local level; 4) a session on policies to facilitate equal access of Roma and Sinti to public services and education; and 5) closing remarks. These discussions were enriched by the insights of officials actually implementing policies or programs relating to Roma at the local or regional level, including the Head of the Unit of Attention for the Roma Community from the Catalan Government in Spain; the Director of Empowering Social Work and Basic Security from the City of Jyvaskyla, Finland; the Vice Mayor of the City of Bologna, Italy; and the Mayor of Trikala, Greece, among others. In addition to these formal sessions, a civil society round-table was held on the morning of the first day, enabling Romani civil society representatives to present shared concerns to the OSCE participating States during the opening session. Three additional side events were held on: the effective use of the European Court of Human Rights judgments; building partnerships between Romani communities and local authorities; and fundament rights and freedom of Roma in Italy. The Italian Job As a practical matter, the advanced planning time-line required for these meetings makes it difficult to select topics that are particularly time-sensitive or reflect breaking developments. The timing of this particular SHDM, however, more-or-less coincided with the announcement by the Italian Government that Roma and Sinti – including European Union citizens – would be singled out for fingerprinting by the country’s law enforcement authorities. As a consequence, the meeting was sharply punctuated by discussions of developments in Italy. The fingerprinting plan, reportedly to be administered with the collection of data on ethnicity and religion, is the latest culmination of a growing anti-migrant and anti-Roma sentiment in Italy. Intolerance in Italy escalated with the latest wave of EU expansion, after which an increased number of Romanian nationals went to Italy to work; a weakened Italian economy; and the election earlier this year of political leaders who campaigned on an anti-immigrant platform. Sharp criticism of the situation in Italy was therefore a reoccurring theme, beginning with a protest action at the opening session. At a pre-determined moment, several dozen non-governmental activists rose in unison, many wearing t-shirts bearing the image of an out-sized fingerprint and the words “no ethnic profiling” over it, or holding enlarged photos of Romani camps that had been torched by mobs in Italy. They demanded an end to the selective fingerprinting of Roma. Moreover, one Romani non-governmental representative observed that no perpetrators have been held accountable for torching Romani camps or other acts of violence and warned that, if unchecked, such violence would surely result in deaths. He called on Italy to report to the upcoming Human Dimension Implementation Meeting on actions taken to hold perpetrators accountable. On the second day of the meeting, a similar group gathered in front of the OSCE’s meeting site, and marched through Vienna to the offices of the EU’s Fundamental Rights Agency. Then, at the side event focused on the situation in Italy, a coalition of NGOs (the European Roma Rights Center, the Open Society Institute, the Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions, Romani CRISS and the Roma Civic Alliance of Romania) launched a report on Italy outlining the “extreme degradation of Roma rights in Italy.” NGO representatives who had visited destroyed camps described finding toys and clothes left behind, as victims fled with nothing but the clothes on their backs. Italy was well represented at the meeting by representatives from their permanent delegation to the OSCE as well from the Ministry of Interior. They came to all events, including to the side event on the situation of Roma in Italy, and responded politely to the issues raised. In particular, Italian authorities claimed that manifestations of racism against Roma had been widely condemned in Italy. Notwithstanding their conciliatory demeanor, Italian officials stood by their plans to move ahead with the fingerprinting operation targeting Romani communities. In this context, it was particularly interesting to hear an alternative view from a local government official from Bologna. She clearly sought to distance herself from the national policies under fire, and described the challenges local officials had absorbing or responding to an increased number of Romani migrants, without assistance from or a strategic plan on the part of the national government. The Romanian Government was restrained, but circulated a formal document of protest, “request[ing] the European Union to recommend the Italian Government to give up the fingerprinting measures of Roma persons and to observe and enforce the aquis communitaire regarding the fundamental rights of European Union citizens, including of Romanian citizens of Roma origin.” Although the ECONOMIST recently described Europe’s diverse and dispersed Romani communities as “bound only by music,” one might have added, “and an extensive network of electronic devices.” Even as the OSCE held its human dimension meeting in Vienna, email messages arrived on participants’ cell phones and blackberries reporting that the European Union Parliament had adopted a resolution calling on Italy to stop the fingerprinting.

  • Combating Sexual Exploitation of Children: Strengthening International Law Enforcement Cooperation

    The hearing examined current practices for sharing information among law enforcement authorities internationally and what concrete steps can be taken to strengthen that cooperation to more effectively investigate cases of sexual exploitation of children, including child pornography on the Internet. Despite current efforts, sexual exploitation of children is increasing globally. The use of the Internet has made it easier for pedophiles and sexual predators to have access to child pornography and potential victims. In May, the Senate Judiciary Committee passed the Combating Child Exploitation Act of 2008 (S.1738), which will allocate over one billion dollars over the next eight years to provide Federal, state, and local law enforcement with the resources and structure to find, arrest, and prosecute those who prey on our children.

  • Hate in the Information Age

    The briefing provided an overview of hate crimes and hate propaganda in the OSCE region, focusing on the new challenges posed by the internet and other technology. Mischa Thompson led the panelists in a discussion of the nature and frequency of hate crimes in the OSCE region, including the role of the internet and other technologies in the training, recruiting, and funding of hate groups. Panelists - Rabbi Abraham Cooper, Mark A. Potok, Christopher Wolf, Tad Stahnke – discussed how best to combat hate crimes and hate propaganda and highlighted internet governance issues in the United States and Europe and how the internet extensively contributes to hate propaganda. Issues such as free speech and content control were at the center of the discussion.

  • Clearing the Air, Feeding the Fuel Tank: Understanding the Link Between Energy and Environmental Security

    Congress has an obligation to work to ensure a healthy and safe environment for the benefit of current and future generations.  To reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and achieve a healthier environment, we need a multi-faceted approach that addresses the tangled web of issues involved.  We need to foster both energy independence and clean energy. Given rising sea levels, the increasing severity of storm surges, and higher temperatures the world over, the impact of global climate change is undeniable.  Unless we act now, we will see greater and greater threats to our way of life on this planet.

  • Crossing Boarders, Keeping Connected: Women, Migration and Development in the OSCE Region

    The hearing will focus on the impact of migration on family and society, the special concerns of migrant women of color, and the economic contributions of women migrants to their home country through remittances. According to the United Nations, women are increasingly migrating on their own as main economic providers and heads of households. While the number of women migrants is on the rise, little is known about the economic and social impact of this migration on their home country.

  • Armenia after the Election

    Since the February 19 presidential election, Armenia has experienced its most serious political crisis in over a decade. The March 1 confrontation between the authorities and supporters of the opposition resulted in at least eight fatalities and the imposition of a state of emergency, causing serious damage to Armenia’s reputation. Although Prime Minister Serzh Sarkissian has been elected President, some opposition leaders refuse to recognize the outcome and government opposition relations remain tense.  The state of emergency has been lifted but restrictions on freedom of assembly continue in effect.  The hearing will focus on the ramifications of these developments for Armenia and the United States, especially the ongoing Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) negotiations on Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia s qualifications for assistance from the Millennium Challenge Account.

  • Helsinki Commission Delegation Visits Prague and Bratislava

    By Erika B. Schlager, Counsel for International Law Prior to participating in the Winter Meeting of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly in Vienna, Austria, Senator Benjamin Cardin (D-MD), the Co-Chairman of the U.S. Helsinki Commission, led a Congressional delegation to Prague, the Czech Republic, from February 18-20. In Prague, he was joined by Chairman Alcee Hastings (D-FL), Commissioner Louise McIntosh Slaughter (D-NY) and Congressman Michael McNulty (D-NY). Chairman Hastings also traveled to Bratislava, Slovakia, for additional meetings on February 21, where he was joined by Commissioner Hilda L. Solis (D-CA). In the Czech Republic, the delegation met with representatives of the Jewish community and toured the historic Jewish quarter in Prague, which dates back to the Middle Ages. The delegation discussed recent anti-Semitic manifestations, most notably a large demonstration organized last November on the anniversary of Kristallnacht, and other planned demonstrations by extremists. Although Czech civil society has strongly countered these demonstrations, local officials have struggled to find the appropriate balance between respect for freedom of speech and freedom of assembly and their desire to combat anti-Semitism and manifestations of other forms of intolerance. The delegation also held a round-table discussion with leading civil society and Romani activists. Their discussions touched on past instances of sterilizing Romani women without informed consent, and discrimination against Roma in education, housing and employment. It was noted that victims of wrongful sterilization practices have been advised by government officials to seek redress from the courts, even though most cases will be barred by statutes of limitations. The delegation held official meetings with the President of Senate, Premysl Sobotka, and other members of the Czech Senate; Deputy Foreign Minister Jan Kohout; representatives of the Government Council for Human Rights; and Otakar Motejl, the Public Defender of Rights (also known as the Ombudsman). In these meetings, delegation members expressed concern about the unresolved property claims of Americans who were excluded by the legal framework for property restitution previously adopted by the Czech Republic. They urged Czech officials to protect freedom of speech and assembly, while demonstrating sensitivity for dates or sites of particular importance to the Jewish community. With respect to the situation of the Romani minority, the delegation expressed concern for the victims of past sterilization without informed consent. They urged the Czech Government to take concrete steps to improve the situation of Roma, including through the adoption of comprehensive anti-discrimination legislation. Discussions with Czech officials also touched on bilateral or regional issues, including Kosovo’s declaration of independence and managing relations with Russia. While in Prague, the delegation also met with President of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty Jeffrey Gedman, toured the broadcasting facility, and held a press conference at the RFE/RL headquarters. In Slovakia, Chairman Hastings and Commissioner Solis met with leading political analysts to hear a broad discussion of political developments and trends, including concerns regarding proposed legislation on non-governmental organizations and on the media. During a round-table discussion with Romani activists, participants discussed the need to translate the government’s program into concrete action, and the particular challenge of translating national policies into change at the local level. The delegation also met with Foreign Minister Jan Kubis, Deputy Prime Minister Dusan Caplovic (who has responsibility for, i.a., human rights issues), and a group of parliamentarians, including representatives of opposition parties. In their meeting with Minister Caplovic, Chairman Hastings urged the Slovak Government to acknowledge the past sterilization without informed consent of Romani women. In other meetings, the delegation also expressed concern about the adoption by the parliament of resolution honoring Andreij Hlinka, who died in 1938 but whose nationalist leadership set the stage for Slovakia’s WWII alliance with Nazi Germany and the deportation of its Jewish citizens.

  • NATO Enlargement and the Bucharest Summit

    This hearing was chaired by Commissioner Alcee L. Hastings and attended by commissioners Ben Cardin and Mike McIntyre. Witnesses included Dr. Michael Haltzel, senior fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies of Johns Hopkins University; Janusz Bugajski, director of the New European Democracies Project and senior fellow of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) Europe Program; and Steven Pifer, former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine and Senior Advisor at CSIS’s Russia and Eurasia Program Center. The hearing focused on the possible inclusion of Albania, Croatia, and Macedonia in the upcoming NATO Summit in Bucharest, Romania. It also discussed extending Membership Action Plans to Ukraine and Georgia. More broadly, the hearing focused on the degree to which these states had transformed their policies and institutions in order to join NATO.

  • Commission Staff Participates in Conference on Roma; Greece Slated to Serve as OSCE Chair in 2009

    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.

  • Human Rights, Civil Society, and Democratic Governance in Russia: Current Situation and Prospects for the Future

    This hearing, chaired by Helsinki Commission Chairman Hon. Sam Brownback and Ranking Member the Hon. Benjamin Cardin, focused on the tumoltuous developement of human right in Russia. For the past few years, a series of events in Russia has given cause for concern about the fate of human rights, civil society, and democratic governance in that country. Of particular concern is the recent promulgation of a law establishing greater governmental control over NGOs and an attempt by the Russian secret services to link prominent Russian NGOs with foreign intelligence services. Newsweek International wrote in its February 6, 2006 issue: “The Russian secret service is acting more and more like the old KGB.” At the same time, the Russian Federation accedes this year to the chairmanship of the Group of Eight Industrialized Nations (G-8), and will chair the Council of Europe Committee of Ministers beginning in May 2006.  

  • Freedom of the Media in the OSCE Region Part 2

    Freedom of media is one of the cornerstones of democracy, and recognized as such under international human rights law and in numerous OSCE commitments.  Moreover, a free and independent media is not only an essential tool for holding governments accountable; the media can serve as an agent of change when it shines a light into the darkest crevices of the world (examining environmental degradation, corporate or government corruption, trafficking in children, and healthcare crises in the world's most vulnerable countries, etc.) Freedom of the media is closely connected to the broader right to freedom of speech and expression and other issues including public access to information and the conditions necessary for free and fair elections.  The hearing will attempt to illustrate the degree in which freedom of the media is obstructed in the greater OSCE region.

  • Combating Hate Crimes and Discrimination in the OSCE

    Congressman Alcee L. Hastings (D-FL), Chairman of the CSCE, held a briefing on hate crimes and discrimination in the OSCE region.  Joining Chairman Hastings at the dais were Helsinki Commissioners Senator Gordon Smith (R-OR) and Congresswoman Hilda Solis (D-CA).  The briefing focused on intolerance and discrimination within the 56 countries that make up the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).  Congressman Hastings emphasized the discrimination against the Roma and other minorities of Turkish, African, and south Asian descent when they attempt to apply for jobs, find housing, and get an education The panel of speakers – Dr. Dou Dou Diene, United Nations Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia, and related intolerance; Dr. Tiffany Lightbourn, Department of Homeland Security, Science & Technology Directorate; and Mr. Micah H. Naftalin and Mr. Nickolai Butkevich, UCSJ: Union of Councils for Soviet Jews – spoke of the rising popularity of right-wing extremist party, who espouse vicious anti-Semitic slogans and appeal to a 19th century form of European ethnic identity.  In addition, Urs Ziswiler, the Ambassador of Switzerland, attended the briefing and commented on the rise in xenophobic views in Switzerland.  

  • OSCE Chairman Addresses Helsinki Commission in Advance of Madrid Ministerial

    By Ronald J. McNamara, International Policy Director Spain’s Foreign Minister, Miguel Angel Moratinos, appeared before the Helsinki Commission on October 29, in his capacity as Chairman-in-Office of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, to discuss developments in the 56-nation OSCE before ministers meet in Madrid in late November. Similar hearings with the top political leader of the Vienna-based organization have been convened annually since 2001. Finland will assume the year-long chairmanship beginning in January. In prepared remarks, Commission Chairman Alcee L. Hastings noted, “While the participating States may share a common view of Europe on paper, translating that vision into reality is another matter altogether. While all OSCE commitments have been agreed to by all of the countries, the fact is that there are human rights commitments that have been on the books for many years that would not be agreed to by some today. Indeed, the OSCE, and its precursor, the CSCE, have served as barometers for relations among the participating States. Frankly, the current barometric pressure is low, signaling a likely impending storm.” Commission Co-Chairman Benjamin L. Cardin, also in a prepared statement, commended the Government of Spain for organizing the 2005 Córdoba Conference on Anti-Semitism and on Other Forms of Intolerance. He noted that the Helsinki Commission has been particularly active in the face of the spike of anti-Semitism and related violence in the OSCE region. “We appreciate your efforts to keep this important issue on the OSCE agenda with the reappointment of the personal representative on different aspects of tolerance as well as the related conferences convened this year in Bucharest and Córdoba,” said Cardin. The October 2007 Córdoba Conference focused on intolerance and discrimination against Muslims, a priority concern of the Spanish chairmanship. Commissioner Louise McIntosh Slaughter, who chaired the hearing, expressed particular appreciation for the Minister’s recognition of the distinctive contributions of parliamentarians to the Helsinki process. Slaughter has been a long-time active participant in the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly. She welcomed the timeliness of the hearing and recognized the complicated dynamics evident in the lead up to the Madrid Ministerial. “I know you have an ambitious agenda for the Madrid meeting and the Russians and others may complicate your work given the OSCE rule requiring consensus,” she said, continuing, “over the years, I have appreciated the opportunity to work closely with fellow parliamentarians from throughout the OSCE region, from Vancouver to Vladivostok. The OSCE PA has provided important leadership on issues from combating anti-Semitism and other forms of intolerance to promoting projects aimed at protecting the environment, to combating the scourge of human trafficking and advancing security among the participating States.” As one of Congress’ leading voices on equal rights for women, Commissioner Slaughter also commented on the OSCE PA’s trailblazing work in this area, as well. Moratinos’ testimony covered a wide range of accomplishments during the Spanish chairmanship as well as the numerous outstanding and potentially contentious issues on the OSCE’s agenda. On Kosovo, the Minister stressed, “We have managed over the years to maintain a neutral and unbiased position in regard to the status of Kosovo and the communities recognize this effort of OSCE. While the OSCE is not directly involved in the status negotiation, we are, as OSCE, contributing to the process of creating the necessary conditions on the ground for the implementation of the status settlement.” In response to a query from Slaughter about a possible unilateral declaration of independence by Kosovo and the prospects for renewal of OSCE’s current mandate covering operations in Kosovo which expires at year’s end, Moratinos stressed that “it's very important that OSCE maintain its engagement in Kosovo, whatever is going to be the future status. We are ready to stay in Kosovo in order to focus on monitoring protection of the rights of communities, particularly regarding the centralization and the protection of cultural and religious sites.” With regard to longstanding conflicts in the OSCE region, the OSCE Chairman-in-Office pointed to the Organization’s continuing work to facilitate a settlement on the Transnistrian issue in Moldova, through participation in the "five-plus-two" negotiations. Regarding the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, he reported that while ongoing mediation efforts by the OSCE Minsk Group have not resulted in a breakthrough in the settlement process, the parties nevertheless remain committed to continuing the negotiations. Moratinos cited concern over serious incidents both in Abkhazia and the zone of the Georgian-Ossetian conflict. He discussed the chairmanship’s efforts in the aftermath of the August 6th missile incident between Russian and Georgia, stressing the need for forward-looking measures to build confidence between the two OSCE countries and avoid similar incidents in the future. Turning to Afghanistan, the OSCE's newest Partner for Cooperation, Slaughter remarked, “When I first flagged the concerns regarding the problems in Afghanistan in the OSCE context, some people said ‘that isn't our concern, it's outside the OSCE region.’ Well, one of the lessons of September 11 is that events in seemingly faraway lands do matter for the people there and ultimately for our own security.” Moratinos, in response, said “The situation in Afghanistan continues to have a substantial impact on security in Central Asia. In this respect, the OSCE is considering a serious border management project, particularly in Tajikistan. We hope to encourage counterparts in Afghanistan in these border related activities.” Spain is proposing an informal discussion on the margins of the Madrid Ministerial on the OSCE’s role in promoting the stability and future of Afghanistan. Slaughter referred to a recent meeting she had with Afghanistan’s President Karzai in which she underscored the importance of the movement of women in that country and the benefits of educating his young Afghan girls. An outspoken supporter of Kazakhstan’s longstanding bid to chair the OSCE, Moratinos remarked, “this bid has been welcomed by all members of the Organization and we hope and we are sure that this is an excellent opportunity for Kazakhstan, Central Asia, and the OSCE as a whole. For now, there is not a final consensus regarding the date of the chairmanship by Kazakhstan, but as Chairman-in-Office, Spain is actively seeking to build a consensus amongst all OSCE states on this important decision for the Organization.” Broaching concerns over observation of upcoming parliamentary elections in the Russian Federation scheduled for December 2, Commissioner Slaughter cited remarks by a senior Russian elections official suggesting that there would be a numerical limit to the number of international observers, including OSCE observers to 400 in total. Slaughter pointed out that the OSCE alone deployed over 450 in 2003 for the last election to the State Duma, Russia’s parliament. In response, Moratinos stated, “If there is a danger in the debate of election observation, it is that some participating States, to a certain extent, would like to shift the discourse away from commitments and the fulfillment, or lack of fulfillment. We find it unhelpful to call into question the well established OSCE practice on election observation, which so far has proved most fruitful. In this respect, it is our concern that the announcement made by the Russian representative in Vienna indicating that the invitation to observe the Duma election would be ‘ala carte.’” On the thorny issue of Russian intransigence in the OSCE, Ranking Minority Member Christopher H. Smith, in a prepared statement, underscored that the power of ideas remains a meaningful force today as witnessed by the drama being played out in the arena of the OSCE between those committed to pluralistic democracy and those pursuing authoritarianism, euphemistically termed “managed democracy, and dictatorship, as in Belarus and others. “Compromising on core values or watering down longstanding commitments is not the solution to the current impasse. Rather, our responsibility is to remain steadfast to these values and principles to which all participating States – including those now recalcitrant – have promised to uphold in word and deed,” warned Smith. Moratinos concluded by focusing on the future of the OSCE against the backdrop of discontent among some participating States, notably Russia, Belarus and like-minded countries with some of the activities of the Organization and its direction as well as uncertainty over sustained funding of OSCE, including potential gaps between U.S. rhetorical support and actual commitment of resources. On the former, the Minister suggested that perhaps the time was ripe for the convening of an OSCE summit meeting of Heads of State or Government from the participating States. The last OSCE summit was held in Istanbul, Turkey, in 1999. Skeptics might question the prudence of organizing a summit now, given the acrimony over fundamental aspects of the OSCE standing in stark contrast to the 1990 Paris Summit which opened a new chapter in the Helsinki process firmly rooted in a commitment to pluralistic democracy and free and fair elections. On the question of U.S. funding of OSCE, Moratinos voiced concern over “some rumors” regarding possible cuts in support and enlisted the support of members of the Helsinki Commission in addressing the matter. “I know that the Helsinki Commission plays a unique role as a forum for debate on the burning issues of the day facing the OSCE and the region. In so doing, this Commission pays unique tribute to the longstanding and continued engagement by the United States with the OSCE and the values that underpin it,” said Moratinos.

  • Kazakhstan’s Bid to Chair The OSCE: A Fundamental Right or a Foolhardy Ambition?

    At this hearing, commissioners and witnesses examined the implications of the prospect of Kazakhstan at the helm of the OSCE, specifically as far as democracy, human rights, and the rule of law are concerned. This role would affect Kazakhstan and the OSCE, and it would also have implications for Central Asia and Russia as well. However, to be a serious contender for chair of the OSCE, Kazakhstan would have to demonstrate meaningful progress concerning human rights.

  • Human Rights Defenders in Russia

    Commission Chairman Hon. Alcee L. Hastings hosted a briefing that focused on the efforts by Russian NGOs, human rights activists and legal experts to halt the retreat in the area of human rights and civil liberties that has taken place in Russia under the current government. Participants at the briefing included Ms. Karinna Moskalenko, a prominent Russian human rights attorney and head of the Russian Affiliate, Center of Assistance to International Protection; Mr. Neil Hicks, Director, Human Rights Defenders Program, Human Rights First; and Ms. Maureen Greenwood-Basken, Advocacy Director for Europe and Central Asia, Amnesty International USA. They spoke of their personal experiences dealing with this issue and acknowledge that although it is difficult, activists must keep pushing back to retain their political freedoms. 

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