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Criminal Defamation and “Insult” Laws: A Summary of Free Speech Developments in Slovakia
Friday, December 14, 2001

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 discreet 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. . . .”

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

Illustrative Slovak Cases

Since the establishment of an independent Slovak state on January 1, 1993, there have been a steady trickle of people who have been charged with “insulting” or defaming public officials. At present, for example, journalist Ales Kratky is facing charges of criminal defamation in connection with his May 2001 criticism of a speech delivered by President Rudolf Schuster. If found guilty, Kratky faces a possible two-year prison term. In March 2000, journalist Vladimir Mohorita was sentenced to four months in prison for criticizing the government’s decision to allow NATO aircraft to use Slovak airspace during the Kosovo crisis. In a substantially larger number of instances, individuals (most often journalists and politicians) have been threatened with charges of defamation or insult. Indeed, it is a time-honored tradition in Slovakia to accuse one’s political enemies of defamation.

In addition to free speech concerns presented by recourse to criminal defamation and insult laws, developments in Slovakia have raised other free speech concerns. For example, the charge of defamation of race, creed or nationality has become increasingly popular in recent years. Deputy Jan Slota, widely known for his inflammatory anti-Hungarian and anti-Roma rhetoric, survived an effort to strip him of his parliamentary immunity in 1999 as a prelude to charging him with defamation of race, creed or nationality. More recently, Romani activist Alexander Patkolo has been threatened with the charge of spreading alarming information and human rights lawyer Columbus Igboanusi has been threatened with charges of spreading alarming information and defaming the Republic of Slovakia. Sources include: Amnesty International (AI); Article XIX; the Committee to Protect Journalists; East European Constitutional Review; “Freedom in the World” reports (published by Freedom House); Index on Censorship; Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty; U.S. State Department annual Country Reports on Human Rights; the World Press Freedom Committee.

Relevant Slovak Laws

News reports about persons charged with criminal defamation or “insulting” public officials, government offices or national institutions often do not cite the specific legal basis for the charges. In Slovakia, the laws which appear to give rise to such charges include the following: Article 49 (1) (a) of the Simple Offenses Act provides that anyone who offends another person by insulting him or exposing him to ridicule may be punished by a fine. Article 102 of the Penal Code prohibits defamation of the Republic, National Council of the Slovak Republic, Government or the Constitutional Court of the Slovak Republic, punishable by up to two years in prison. Article 103 of the Penal Code prohibits defamation of the President of the Republic for the execution of his powers or for his activities in the political life, punishable by up to two years in prison. Article 154(2) of the Penal Code prohibits gross insults or defamation of an organ of state administration in the exercise of its function or in connection with its function, punishable by up to one year in prison. Article 206 of the Penal Code prohibits the dissemination of false and discrediting information about another person, punishable by up to two years in prison. If the defamation occurs in the broadcast or print media, the punishment may increase to five years. In addition, someone convicted under this article may be banned from working as a journalist.

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Mr. WICKER. Madam President, I thank my colleague from Maryland, who has been such a leader in the area of human rights and international recognition of the challenges that our world faces today. I do appreciate his leadership and his partnership. We have worked shoulder to shoulder on so many issues. Yes, I proudly rise with him this afternoon to talk about a very valuable series of meetings that our 12-member delegation had in 4 countries in Europe in recent days. This was Republicans and Democrats from the House and Senate, a truly bipartisan and bicameral delegation—a very large delegation—which I think my colleague will agree made a strong statement on behalf of the United States of America and on behalf of the U.S. House and Senate about the way we view European engagement and our partnership and friendship with the 50-plus member countries of the OSCE and their Parliamentary Assembly. We visited Vienna, Austria, for the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly. As Senator Cardin mentioned, we met with great success. Yes, I was reelected to the position of vice president, and I appreciate the support of Democrats and Republicans in the House and Senate in helping me get those votes to receive another three-year term there. Richard Hudson, our colleague from the House of Representatives, has been very active as chairman of Committee No. 1 in the Parliamentary Assembly. He is highly regarded. He was reelected without opposition. So there are two bits of success there. And then the great piece of work, actually, was with regard to Senator Cardin's initiative on the rising hate and intolerance that we are seeing all around the world, particularly among member countries of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe. Senator Cardin actually took the lead in challenging the leadership of the Parliamentary Assembly in saying that issues should be discussed. Even though they weren’t in an immediate, like, three-week crisis mode, they deserved to be brought forward. And Senator Cardin was able to get his resolution considered and passed overwhelmingly, and we made a strong statement on behalf of countering the rising hate and intolerance and countering the use of these things to buttress authoritarianism and to stoke conflict around the world. We also passed a very important resolution about the tragedy, the outrage that has gone on in Belarus. I can tell you, the opposition party leader from Belarus was in this Capitol building just yesterday talking about the importance of support from places like the United States Congress. I can tell you, Madam President, that Senator Shaheen and I are about to send a letter to our colleagues asking any and all of us to join a Freedom Caucus for the Belarusian people, the Belarus Freedom Caucus. We asked the opposition leader, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, to tell us whether that would be helpful. She said the formation of this caucus to support the freedom movement in Belarus would be a strong signal. It would be well received and effective on behalf of the opposition leadership there in Belarus. Then, again, we reiterated our opposition to what Russia has done in Ukraine and particularly to the recent Russian military buildup and ongoing aggression in Ukraine. We did a lot there with the Parliamentary Assembly. We went on to Estonia, met with leadership there—a former President, the current Prime Minister, other leaders. And, also, we had a chance to travel to the very easternmost part of Estonia and actually travel on the Narva River and look right across to Russia and the security guards there, understanding what our Estonian allies are up against with Putin’s Russia staring right across the river at their freedom and democracy. From there, we joined the Three Seas conference in Sofia, Bulgaria. I can tell you, this is a group of Eastern European former Soviet Bloc countries that are striving to be in charge of their own infrastructure and rely less on the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative. I think the fact that 12 Americans showed up, participated, met with Heads of state at that conference made a very strong statement of American support for freedom and for looking westwardly in trying to get their problems solved and their infrastructure needs met. We also had a very meaningful visit to Norway, where we saw some American-Norwegian defense initiatives. I am very proud of the partnership that this Helsinki Commission—our organ of the American OSCE PA—and the way that we joined together to express our support for freedom, for democracy, for the rule of law, for opposing corruption, both at the petty local level and also at the larger State-sponsored level. One other thing before I yield back and let my friend close. Particularly in Bulgaria, but also all during our trip, we were met with hearty thanks for the United States leadership in the global Magnitsky Act. This began as an initiative with Senator Cardin, Senator Lieberman, Senator McCain, and me several years ago directed—during the Obama administration—directed toward individual Russians who had violated human rights and individual liberty in a very outrageous and gross way, allowing us to sanction individuals rather than causing harm to the people of Russia in that case. That has been expanded now to the global level and other countries are adopting this. But I can tell you, when we arrived in Bulgaria, we were met with great thanks from people who are trying to combat lawlessness and corruption at the top level of government. I just have to say, of course, Ben Cardin has been the premier leader in this worldwide effort. It was gratifying to know and to learn firsthand on the ground there in Sofia, Bulgaria, that an initiative that began right here in this U.S. Senate years ago, and continues to this day, is having a beneficial effect on the people all across Europe and particularly in some of the countries that we visited. I yield back to the Senator from Maryland. The PRESIDING OFFICER. The Senator from Maryland. Mr. CARDIN. Madam President, let me again thank Senator Wicker. Thank you for your leadership on so many issues. But on this congressional delegation, for those who are not familiar, it is not easy to put together the type of opportunities to advance American values. And Senator Wicker took the responsibility as the leader of our delegation to make sure that we had the opportunities to advance American values. I thank him for all the effort he put into it. It was certainly extremely successful. I just want to emphasize a few things before closing. One, in Vienna, we did have an opportunity to meet with Rafael Grossi, who is the Director General of the IAEA. That is the International Atomic Energy Agency, which has the responsibility of monitoring the nuclear programs throughout the world. Obviously, it has played a bigger role in regard to the program in Iran, and it was monitoring exactly what was happening in Iran under the JCPOA. They now don’t have the same access, and we had a chance to talk with the Director General as to the challenges with the Iranian program. And I think it was helpful for all of us to understand exactly the role that the IAEA can play in regard to getting us information about what is happening on the ground in Iran. Senator Wicker talked about our visit to Estonia, a strong ally partner, NATO partner. We showed our support by going to Narva, which is on the Russian border. It is a town that has a majority of Russian-speaking Estonians. It is an interesting community. But we could see across the river, very clearly, the Russian patrol boats. We know and heard firsthand of the concern of the Estonians. They saw what happened in Ukraine and they worry that same thing could happen in Estonia with Russian aggression. I must tell you, our presence to reinforce the NATO commitment, I think, was an extremely important message that we gave to the Estonian people. Mr. WICKER. Would the gentleman yield on that point? Mr. CARDIN. I would be glad to yield. The PRESIDING OFFICER. The Senator from Mississippi. Mr. WICKER. If I might add, people in Narva, Estonia, and people in the city across the river have access to each other across a bridge there. And it is clear to the people on the Russian side that their cousins and friends in Narva, Estonia, live a better life and have a better standard of living in this free country, this NATO ally called Estonia, than the Russian cousins and friends have on the other side. I just thought I would add that to the discourse before Senator Cardin moves on to discussing Norway and Bulgaria. Thank you. The PRESIDING OFFICER. The Senator from Maryland. Mr. CARDIN. Madam President, let me move onto Bulgaria very briefly. Senator Wicker did cover Bulgaria. The Three Seas Initiative, I wasn’t that familiar with it before traveling to Bulgaria. It is an initiative by twelve states that are basically part of the Eastern European Coalition, states that are developing democratic institutions and democratic economies after the fall of the Soviet Union. They need to build up their resilience as a collective entity in energy, transportation, and digital infrastructure. The Three Seas Initiative is to attract investment to connect the twelve countries together on infrastructure needs. It is for many reasons. It is for its own economic strength and growth, but also for resiliency against the efforts of China on its Belt and Road Initiative, which is trying to infiltrate these countries and convert their way of economy to more of the Chinese system. The Three Seas Initiative is an effort to have their own independent way of attracting capital. The United States is participating in the Three Seas. We are not a member, but we are participating and providing resources for the fund that is being developed that would be leveraged for these type of investments. While we were in Bulgaria, we had a chance to have bilateral meetings. There were twelve heads of state there. We had bilateral meetings with the President of Poland, Bulgaria, Latvia, and Romania. We had very constructive discussions about what is happening in their country. We raised Helsinki issues with all these countries. Senator Wicker already talked about how we were welcomed by the Bulgarian leadership in regards to the imposition of the Magnitsky sanctions. We are heroes. They feel like they have a second chance to try to develop the type of anti-corruption mechanisms that they desperately need. Our visit to Varna, which is on the Black Sea, was very educational to see how Russia is trying to dominate the Black Sea area and one of the reasons why they are so aggressive in Ukraine and the Crimea. I think that was extremely helpful for us to understand the security risks and how we have to work with our NATO partners to protect the Black Sea area, particularly from the potential aggression—not potential—from the aggression of Russia. Also in Bulgaria, we had a chance to visit a Roma village. It is not my first visit to a Roma village. I have visited over the years. It is a real tragic situation. The Roma population have been in Europe for centuries. They lived in communities for hundreds of years, yet they do not have property rights. They have lived in their homes, and yet they do not have the opportunity to have their homes registered. And at any time, the government can come in and take away their property without compensation. They rarely have reliable utilities. The village we visited did not have water systems, so they had to use outhouses, et cetera. They had limited availability of fresh water. Their utility service is not reliable. And they go to segregated schools. They don’t have the same employment opportunities. So we, once again, will raise the rights of the Roma population as part of our commitment under the Helsinki Commission, and we are following up with the local officials to try to help in that regard. Then, lastly, on our way back, we visited Norway. I learned a lot because I did not know about the pre-positioning program. I know my friend Senator Wicker already knew about this from his Armed Services service, but it is where we pre-position equipment so that we can respond rapidly to a circumstance anywhere in the world. The Norway pre-positioning is actually used to help us in regard to the Middle East and our needs in the Middle East. So it was an extremely, extremely, I think, productive visit to these countries. I think we did carry out our commitment under the Helsinki Commission, and we advanced American values. I think we represented our country well, and we were very well noticed. With that, I yield the floor. The PRESIDING OFFICER. The Senator from Mississippi. Mr. WICKER. Madam President, one other thing that our colleagues might not understand about the OSCE is their role in election observation. As we were leaving Sofia on the morning of July 11, we crossed paths with some other representatives from the OSCE from European countries who were there to observe the parliamentary elections being held in Bulgaria that very day. Also, on the same day, Moldova, another member of the OSCE, was having parliamentary elections.  We have every hope that the results of these elections will be a further resolve in those two nation members to counter the corruption at the highest level, and we want to congratulate both of those member states of the OSCE for free and fair elections in Europe. With that, I thank my colleague. I yield the floor.

  • Cardin and Cohen Condemn Persecution of Independent Journalists in Belarus

    WASHINGTON—In response to the July 16 raids by Belarusian authorities on Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) offices in Minsk, as well as raids on the homes of several independent journalists across Belarus and the arrest of three RFE/RL correspondents, U.S. Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) and Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09) issued the following statements: “Alexander Lukashenko’s vicious attacks on human rights groups and the news media must end. He clearly fears the power of an independent press that brings credible information and reporting to the people of Belarus,” said Chairman Cardin. “This is why the Biden administration and the Congress are welcoming to Washington the apparent winner of last August’s presidential election, Svetlana Tsikhanouskaya. She clearly speaks for the people of Belarus much more clearly than the Lukashenko administration that has been rejected by the people of Belarus. I urge Belarusian authorities to stop the raids against RFE/RL and other independent news organizations, and to release all political prisoners without exception.” “Independent journalists and human rights defenders in Belarus have shown exceptional courage, but they should not have to do their jobs at risk to their personal safety,” said Co-Chairman Cohen. “Mr. Lukashenko must stop his aggressive intimidation tactics or risk further isolation and condemnation from the international community. We will continue to support democracy and freedom for the people of Belarus.” Since the run-up to the fraudulent August 2020 election, and during the subsequent protests, Belarusian authorities have conducted a sweeping crackdown on journalists, civil society, and opposition politicians. On July 14, Belarusian police conducted sweeping raids against human rights groups and the media, arresting at least a dozen people and targeting at least 19 nongovernmental organizations, including the Vyasna human rights center and the Belarusian Helsinki Committee. In May, Helsinki Commission leadership condemned Alexander Lukashenko’s order to divert and forcibly land a commercial plane in Minsk in order to arrest Belarusian activist and journalist Raman Pratasevich and his companion, Sofia Sapega. In April, U.S. Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) and commission leaders Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) and Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) called on Belarusian authorities to release detained journalists and political prisoners, including RFE/RL consultant Ihar Losik.

  • Helsinki Commission Delegation Advances Priority Issues at First OSCE PA Annual Session Since Onset of Covid-19 Pandemic

    WASHINGTON—Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) and Ranking Member Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) last week led a U.S. delegation to the 2021 OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (PA) Annual Session in Vienna, Austria. The assembly was the first major gathering with an in-person component since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020. The 2021 OSCE PA Annual Session was held in a hybrid format, with most of the approximately 250 delegates participating remotely and others convening in Vienna. The United States had more representatives to the in-person meeting of the OSCE PA Standing Committee—comprising the heads of national delegations and other OSCE PA leaders—than any other participating State: Chairman Cardin, as the head of the U.S. delegation; Sen. Wicker, who serves as a vice-president of the OSCE PA; and Helsinki Commissioner Rep. Richard Hudson (NC-08), who chairs the OSCE PA General Committee on Political Affairs and Security. Other members traveling to Vienna included Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02), Commissioners Rep. Gwen Moore (WI-04) and Rep. Marc Veasey (TX-33), Sen. John Cornyn (TX), Sen. Thom Tillis (NC), Rep. Lloyd Doggett (TX-35), Rep. Andy Harris (MD-01), and  Rep. Trent Kelly (MS-01). Remote participants in the Annual Session included Commissioners Sen. Tina Smith (MN), Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (RI), Rep. Robert Aderholt (AL-04), and Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (PA-01), along with Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (TX-18) and Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04). During the Annual Session, the American legislators engaged in debates on political affairs and security, economic and environmental matters, and democracy and human rights. The U.S. legislators also played key roles in the adoption of three resolutions reflecting the major issues confronting the OSCE today: rising hate and its use to bolster authoritarianism and conflict, a call for democratic change in Belarus, and continued opposition to Russian aggression in Ukraine. Chairman Cardin, who also serves as the OSCE PA Special Representative on Racism, Anti-Semitism, and Intolerance, sponsored the first resolution, urging OSCE participating States to adopt an OSCE Anti-Discrimination, Equity, and Inclusion Action Plan, to strengthen the efforts of law enforcement, civil society, and others to tackle discrimination and extremism. In addition, parliamentarians held the first Assembly elections in two years, with both Sen. Wicker and Rep. Hudson easily retaining their leadership posts. Sen. Wicker received the most votes of any of the nine vice-presidential candidates, while Rep. Hudson was elected by acclamation. While in Vienna, members also met with OSCE Secretary General Helga Schmid and other senior OSCE officials, along with International Atomic Energy Agency Director General Rafael Grossi. The in-person delegation also traveled to Estonia, where they met with Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas, Foreign Minister Eva-Maria Liimets, former President Toomas Hendrik Ilves, and Chair of the Riigikogu Foreign Affairs Committee Marko Mihkelson to demonstrate the strong U.S. support for the bilateral security relationship. During a visit to Narva, delegation members engaged with representatives of the local Russian-speaking community and visited the Russia-Estonia border to gain a better understanding of the security situation. “The American alliance with Estonia is based on shared democratic values. We appreciate our bilateral relationship and mutual efforts to support the democratic opposition in Belarus and independent voices in Russia,” said Chairman Cardin. “Across the 57 nations that are part of the OSCE, rising challenges to democratic norms require a sober and sustained response from those committed to the rule of law and the defense of human rights. Estonia and the United States are staunch allies in this effort.” “As the Baltic region faces serious and continuing security challenges, the United States is proud to support our steadfast NATO allies,” Sen. Wicker said. “This visit by a bipartisan and bicameral delegation is representative of the strong consensus in the U.S. Congress to push back against the Kremlin’s malign activities in the region. We also appreciate the important and growing contributions of Estonia and our other regional allies and partners as we work to address global security challenges.” Members then traveled to Bulgaria for the Three Seas Initiative Summit, designed to promote transparent and sustainable investments in energy, transportation, and digital infrastructure that contribute to an undivided, free, prosperous, and resilient Europe. While at the summit, they held bilateral meetings with President Andrzej Duda of Poland, President Rumen Radev of Bulgaria, and President Egils Levits of Latvia to discuss a broad range of security and human rights issues. The delegation also traveled to Varna to examine Black Sea regional security issues; visited a Roma community to better understand the current situation of Roma in Bulgaria and underscore U.S. support for the rights of Bulgaria's Roma population; and met with journalists of the recently re-established Bulgarian service of Radio Free Europe. “We brought a dozen members from the U.S. Congress to Sofia to demonstrate support for the Three Seas Initiative and also to engage with Bulgaria’s leaders and its people about our shared values and basic human rights,” said Chairman Cardin. “Protecting civil and human rights is an essential component of every democracy and we look forward to hearing more about how Bulgaria is safeguarding fundamental freedoms and the rule of law.” “The Black Sea region has seen a troublesome rise in tension recently,” said Sen. Wicker. “Our visit to the area was intended to keep us abreast of the situation and to demonstrate our strong, enduring, and bipartisan support to Bulgaria and our other NATO Allies and partners in the region.” En route back to the United States, the delegation visited the Marine Corps Prepositioning Program Norway, a cooperative effort with a stalwart NATO ally that reinforces regional security and offers direct support to U.S. deployments as far away as Iraq.  

  • Tribute to Erika Schlager

    I want to acknowledge one individual who recently announced that she is retiring, Erika Schlager, after 34 years of service to the Commission and to the global community. Erika received her bachelor’s degree from the University of North Carolina in Greensboro, where she graduated magna cum laude and was elected to Phi Beta Kappa. She earned her A.M. degree from Harvard University in Soviet Union studies and her juris doctor degree with honors from the George Washington University Law School. She studied at Warsaw University as a Fulbright fellow and received a diploma from the International Institute of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France. Quite a record. She used that academic preparation to make a difference in the world—and what a difference she made. Erika has been an unfailing professional in her dedication to doing whatever is necessary to ensure that the commission meets its mandate and defends human rights abroad. Her deep expertise, which she has honed over decades of work, is renowned both among policy professionals in the United States and in the countries of Central Europe that she followed for the commission. Erika is one of our nation’s top experts on Europe’s most vulnerable communities. She is a leading voice on Roma rights—Europe’s largest minority, with significant populations also in the United States. I have joined Erika in the crusade to speak up for the Roma population, a group that has been denied citizenship in so much of Europe. What a difference she has made in their lives. Erika has worked with Members of Congress, the Department of State and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to address issues ranging from the enslavement and sterilization of Roma to a permanent memorial in Berlin dedicated to the Sinti and Roma victims of the Nazi regime, to annual recognition of International Roma Day. She has brought to my attention the candidacy of Ethel Brooks to be the first Roma board member of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. I know that Erika will continue to bring Roma perspective and history on the Holocaust to further the tolerance, education, and human rights work of the museum. I have the honor of representing the Senate on the Holocaust Memorial Museum board, and I can tell you that Erika is so deeply respected by the professionals at that museum for the work she has done in furthering the goal of that institution to prevent atrocities against any groups of people. Erika has long been one of my top advisers on the Holocaust restitution and Europe’s Jewish community. She has worked closely with me over the years to raise concerns about the rise of Holocaust revisionism in countries like Hungary and Poland; to foster implementation of the Terezin Declaration on Holocaust Era Assets measures to right the economic wrongs that accompanied the Holocaust; and to hold accountable a French railway that transported thousands of Holocaust victims to their deaths. She worked on all of these issues and made significant progress. Erika has been instrumental in ensuring that the Helsinki Commission works to hold the United States accountable for our own human rights record, examining U.S. policies and conduct concerning Guantanamo Bay detention camps and U.S. policy regarding torture. Erika’s counsel greatly assisted me in my role as the Parliamentary Assembly of the OSCE’s Special Representative on Anti-Semitism, Racism, and Intolerance, where I was focused on human rights and justice here at home and across the expanse of the 57 participating States of the OSCE. From the plight of African Americans and Muslims to migrants and refugees, Erika has been integral to the Helsinki Commission’s mandate of upholding the myriad of human rights commitments defined in the Helsinki Final Act and subsequent OSCE agreements. In addition to her many professional milestones and achievements, Erika retires from the commission having left a deeply personal mark on those she worked with, from diplomats and civil servants to the staff of the Helsinki Commission. She is a natural teacher with a gift of taking a complex issue and distilling it in a way that makes it both relevant and accessible. Erika has taught our diplomats at the Foreign Service Institute and spoken at international meetings and at universities across the nation and around the world. She displayed her exceptional teaching ability at the Department of State’s annual training program on Roma rights, and she has ensured that Roma civil society groups could also participate. She has actively sought out dialogue and collaboration with new colleagues to help deepen their understanding of the Helsinki Commission’s role, of the challenges the commission could usefully seek to address abroad, and of the unique tools at its disposal to do just that. Erika is always quick to ask about a colleague’s well-being or inquire after a family member’s well-being. She has fostered collegiality among the Commission’s staff through her unfailing kindness and good nature. In so doing, she has repeatedly demonstrated how deeply she cares, not just for the work she has dedicated her career to, but also for the people whose great privilege it is to call her a colleague and a friend. I will say on a personal basis that I have benefited so much from her friendship, from her understanding, from her strategic thinking, from where we can make a difference. We know there are a lot of problems around the world. We know we can’t settle all the issues. But Erika helped us focus on areas where we can make a difference, and thanks to her input, we have made a difference. I know I speak on behalf of all Helsinki Commission members and staff and scores of other individuals—many who may not know her name—and groups concerned about advancing human rights around the globe and here at home when I say how we will miss Erika. Henry David Thoreau said: ‘‘Aim above morality. Be not simply good; be good for something.’’ Erika has embodied that maxim in her professional career and in her life. She has made an enormous difference, and she will continue to do so. I wish her all the best with respect to her future endeavors. I know we will continue to hear from her. Thank you, Erika, for the way you served the commission, our country, and the global community.

  • Sweden's Leadership of the OSCE

    In 2021, Sweden chairs the world’s largest regional security organization—the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE)—which comprises 57 participating States stretching from North America, across Europe, and to Central Asia and Mongolia. Even as the OSCE begins to emerge from the global COVID-19 pandemic, it is tackling other critical challenges, including Russia’s ongoing aggression in Ukraine, protracted conflicts in Moldova and Georgia, and the pursuit of a lasting and sustainable peaceful settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict through the framework of the Minsk Group. Meanwhile, several countries are deliberately spurning their OSCE commitments to human rights, democracy, and the rule of law. Participating States including Russia, Belarus, and Turkey not only stifle dissent in their own countries but also seek to undermine the OSCE’s work defending fundamental freedoms and curtail civil society’s participation in OSCE activities. Other shared challenges include combating human trafficking, countering terrorism and corruption, and protecting vulnerable communities, including migrants, from discrimination and violence. At this virtual hearing, Swedish Foreign Minister and OSCE Chairperson-in-Office Ann Linde discussed Sweden’s priorities for 2021 and addressed current developments in the OSCE region. Related Information Witness Biography

  • COVID-19 Vaccination Rollouts Expose Underlying Inequalities, Underscore the Need for Equitable, Coordinated Response to Global Health Crises

    By Michelle Ngirbabul, Max Kampelman Fellow, and Shannon Simrell, Representative of the Helsinki Commission to the U.S. Mission to the OSCE More than one year into the COVID-19 pandemic, over 169 million cases and nearly four million deaths have been reported worldwide. The development and rollout of mass vaccination campaigns have proved to be the most effective, and most important, tools in combating the deadly virus. However, supply chain issues and geopolitical struggles have plagued vaccine rollout efforts, and subsequent delays have exposed and exacerbated existing social, health, and economic inequalities within and among OSCE participating States. To control the ongoing pandemic and prepare for the threats of future global health crises, governments must rely on extensive cooperation and coordination to ensure that vaccination programs and relevant policies are equitable among States. COVID-19 Vaccinations are the Key to Ending the Pandemic Vaccines always have been an important part of managing public health crises. During the COVID-19 pandemic, pharmaceutical companies based in the United States, Germany, China, India, Russia, the United Kingdom, and Sweden rapidly developed the nine leading approved or authorized coronavirus vaccines using various approaches. Vaccines produced by Pfizer, Moderna, Oxford-AstraZeneca, and Johnson & Johnson have been approved or authorized for wide use either in Europe or the United States. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration granted emergency use authorization (EUA) to the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines in December 2020 and to Johnson & Johnson’s Janssen vaccine in February 2021. Likewise, the European Medicines Agency authorized Pfizer for use in December 2020 and Moderna, AstraZeneca, and Janssen in early 2021. The highly effective vaccines inspire hope that an end to the pandemic may soon be within sight both at home and abroad. Systemic Challenges Hampered Effective Vaccination Rollout Despite the number of approved vaccines available, systemic challenges have impeded vaccine procurement and rollout. For example, in the weeks following the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines’  EUA, vaccine supply shortages, bottlenecks in distribution by manufacturers and production errors, and bureaucratic challenges complicated distribution amid a surge in demand globally. While Moderna and Pfizer expanded production, in the absence of a clear national strategy, confusion, delays, and shortages plagued early U.S. vaccination efforts. Across the Atlantic, the European Union’s stuttering vaccination rollout was beset by vaccine shortages, partially due to its insistence on a joint EU vaccine procurement strategy and related bureaucratic delays. Unlike the United States and other countries that rushed to secure agreements with vaccine producers as early as August 2020, the EU’s 27 Member States were caught in lengthy price negotiations, forcing the region to wait at the back of the line to receive shipments. Shortly thereafter, the region’s vaccination efforts were dealt a massive blow when AstraZeneca, the company with which EU leaders signed a contract for at least 300 million doses of its COVID-19 vaccine, informed leaders in January that it was unable to meet agreed supply targets for the first quarter. Despite missteps, at least 12 of the EU’s 27 countries remain confident they will reach targets to vaccinate at least 70 percent of the adult population by the end of summer 2021. Pre-existing socioeconomic inequalities within countries have further complicated early vaccination rollouts. In the United States, the lack of a coordinated, federal response led to the significant disparity of access to vaccinations, varying widely depending upon one’s location, age, occupation, and underlying health conditions. Similarly, the United Kingdom reported lower vaccination rates among Black, Asian, and minority ethnic groups.  Additionally, inequalities among countries also severely impacted efforts to control and end the pandemic. Vaccine Nationalism and Inter-State Competition Vaccine shortages also disproportionately affected certain countries in the EU, leading to inter-state competition for vaccines and varied vaccination rates among states. Frustrated with slow vaccine deliveries, authorities have coordinated restrictions on exporting vaccines—Italy, for example, had blocked a shipment of the AstraZeneca vaccine bound for Australia and warned of possible vaccine export restrictions to non-reciprocating countries outside the bloc. In March 2021, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen stated that the EU would not consider donating vaccine supplies to developing countries until they have “a better production situation in the EU,” as the bloc struggles to maintain its own supply of vaccines EU unity was further challenged as leaders from Austria, Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Latvia, and Slovenia complained to Brussels that vaccines were not being proportionately delivered as originally agreed in the EU’s joint vaccine strategy. Under the modified agreement, less wealthy EU states that could not afford the more expensive Pfizer or Moderna vaccines were forced to wait for AstraZeneca vaccines amid ongoing shortages. The protesting states were also those that had received the lowest number of vaccines at that time, which raised concerns about individual states’ progress to vaccinate their populations and reach herd immunity. Despite early concerns of sustained and widening disparities, technical specifications agreed in April have charted a course for the bloc’s Digital Green Certificates—a digital COVID-19 vaccination record program to be launched in June 2021. Emerging Vaccine Diplomacy Political, economic, and logistical challenges created an opening for Russian and Chinese influence in the region through so-called “vaccine diplomacy.” Amid shortages and uncertainty, Russia and China have filled the vaccine gap by offering exclusive deals or free vaccines in dozens of countries globally. In August 2020, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that Russian regulators had licensed Sputnik V, the world’s first COVID-19 vaccine, and claimed that clinical trials demonstrated an  efficacy rate of over 90 percent. In December 2020, approximately one month after Pfizer and Moderna received approval in the United States and the European Union, China-owned Sinopharm also brought its vaccine to market, claiming a 79 percent efficacy rate. Global experts in vaccine immunology and epidemiology have since criticized Moscow’s and Beijing’s lack of transparency, questioned the reliability of clinical trial data, and raised safety concerns. Despite such skepticism, Russia and China are determined to implement an elaborate international rollout of their vaccines to strengthen their  influence abroad, even at the expense of their domestic vaccinations.  Between the two countries, China and Russia have secured deals to supply more than 800 million vaccine doses in 41 countries. Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia were among the first European countries to forego waiting for Sputnik V’s and Chinese-made Sinopharm vaccine’s full approval or authorized emergency use from the European Medicines Agency. In mid-February, 500,000 doses of the initial batch of five million Sinopharm vaccines arrived in Hungary, making it the first member of the EU to receive the Chinese vaccine and authorize emergency use within the country. As of May 2021, nearly 60 countries have registered to administer the Sputnik V vaccine, including OSCE participating States Azerbaijan, Belarus, Hungary, Kazakhstan, Moldova, North Macedonia, Serbia, Slovakia, Ukraine, and Uzbekistan. Austria seemingly used negotiations with Russia for one million doses to bolster its bid for a greater portion of the EU’s pool of bloc-approved vaccines.  Although Sputnik V is not approved for use in the EU and received negative ratings by Russia’s own domestic drug regulating body, Slovakia authorized the vaccine for use in late May and followed Hungary as the EU’s second country to administer the Sputnik V vaccine.  In Hungary, which leads the EU in COVID-19 deaths per capita, demand remains high for EU-approved doses despite a pervasive government-supported campaign to increase interest in Russia’s jab. As countries attempted to procure vaccines, the Russian Direct Investment Fund was reaching deals with various companies in Italy, Spain, France, and Germany to produce Sputnik V, pending approval by the European Medicines Agency, promising to deliver vaccines for 50 million Europeans from June 2021. China has also signaled further investments in vaccine donations, particularly in countries in or near the Western Balkans—as they turn towards Russia and China for COVID-19 vaccine doses amid the EU’s struggles, intensifying the EU’s geopolitical problem. Adapting Approaches to Meet Emergent Challenges The emergence of varied and highly transmissible mutations of the virus risk in late 2020 and early 2021 outstripped the ability of vaccines to contain the virus, led to the extension or reintroduction of lockdowns, hampered economic recovery, and overburdened health care systems. Emergent variants have further highlighted the need to prioritize vaccination rollouts amid spiking case numbers. Also underscored is the role that effective vaccination programs can play to limit threats against democracy and misuse of global crises by corrupt leaders. Across the globe, challenges posed by the pandemic have provided governments with pretexts to consolidate power and restrict civil and human rights through measures such as imposed lockdowns, allegedly to curb high case counts or deaths. For example, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán assumed extraordinary emergency powers with no sunset clause to seize unchecked power.  While Orbán eventually opted to remove the most widely-condemned feature of his emergency powers in January 2021, the other elements of the measure remain in place. Systemic challenges also exist in inequities among countries as wealthier countries stockpiled batches of vaccines despite the efforts of COVAX—a global program led by the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovation (CEPI), GAVI, the WHO, and UNICEF that aims to ensure equitable distribution of COVID-19—to help prevent vaccine stockpiling and subsequent inequities. However, there is hope. An EU summit in March 2021 led to an agreement to improve vaccine production and distribution to its Member States and abroad.  As of mid-May 2021, COVAX has shipped more than 59 million vaccines to 122 countries. In the United States, the Biden administration launched a campaign to improve cooperation among industry rivals, increase vaccine production and distribution, promote access to reliable information, enhance cooperation with the EU, and waive vaccine patents. Increased U.S.-EU cooperation could alleviate vaccination shortages, secure supply chains, successfully and safely develop vaccine passports, and achieve widespread resistance to the virus and its powerful variants to save lives and reopen the global economy.  Lessons Learned for a More Equitable and Secure Future Vaccines have the potential to mitigate the spread of the virus and help orient the world within a “new normal” post-COVID-19, but only if they are sufficiently deployed. The pandemic illustrated that political leaders, scientists, and citizens cannot operate in silos during health crises. Rather, health emergencies must be viewed as global security crises that require coordination and cooperation among all stakeholders. To reap the full health, societal, and economic benefits of vaccines, programs must be coordinated, inclusive, and equitable. The COVID-19 pandemic demonstrates the enduring importance of the OSCE’s comprehensive approach to security: none are safe until we all are safe.

  • Swedish Foreign Minister Ann Linde to Appear at Helsinki Commission Online Hearing

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following online hearing: SWEDEN’S LEADERSHIP OF THE OSCE Priorities for 2021 Friday, June 11, 2021 9:15 a.m. to 10:15 a.m. Watch Live: https://www.youtube.com/HelsinkiCommission In 2021, Sweden chairs the world’s largest regional security organization—the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE)—which comprises 57 participating States stretching from North America, across Europe, and to Central Asia and Mongolia. Even as the OSCE begins to emerge from the global COVID-19 pandemic, it is tackling other critical challenges, including Russia’s ongoing aggression in Ukraine, protracted conflicts in Moldova and Georgia, and the pursuit of a lasting and sustainable peaceful settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict through the framework of the Minsk Group. Meanwhile, several countries are deliberately spurning their OSCE commitments to human rights, democracy, and the rule of law. Participating States including Russia, Belarus, and Turkey not only stifle dissent in their own countries but also seek to undermine the OSCE’s work defending fundamental freedoms and curtail civil society’s participation in OSCE activities. Other shared challenges include combating human trafficking, countering terrorism and corruption, and protecting vulnerable communities, including migrants, from discrimination and violence. At this virtual hearing, Swedish Foreign Minister and OSCE Chairperson-in-Office Ann Linde will discuss Sweden’s priorities for 2021 and address current developments in the OSCE region.

  • Helsinki Commission Commemorates 45 Years of Advancing Comprehensive Security in the OSCE Region

    WASHINGTON—To commemorate the 45th anniversary of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the U.S. Helsinki Commission, on June 3, Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) and commission leaders Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) and Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) issued the following statements: “The Helsinki Commission has played a vital role in elevating the moral dimension of U.S. foreign policy and prioritizing the protection of fundamental freedoms in our dealings with other nations,” said Chairman Cardin. “From fighting for fair treatment of Jews in the Soviet Union, to developing landmark legislation to address human trafficking, to demanding sanctions on human rights violators and kleptocrats, and so much more, the commission consistently has broken new ground.” “For 45 years, the commission has flourished as a bipartisan and bicameral platform for collaboration within the federal government. Its purpose is not to support a specific party or administration, but instead to advance transatlantic cooperation, promote regional security and stability, and hold OSCE participating States accountable to their promises,” said Sen. Wicker. “Our commissioners’ united front against threats to democracy and human rights worldwide has become a pillar of U.S. international engagement.” “I am grateful to have experienced the crucial role played by U.S. engagement in the Helsinki Process, both as an election observer in Bulgaria in 1990, and later as a lawmaker and commissioner,” said Rep. Wilson. “The Helsinki Commission is unique in its ability to adapt to evolving global challenges. The defense of human rights and democracy looks different now than it did during the Cold War, but we continue to unite over the same resilient principles and commitment to fundamental freedoms.” On June 3, 1976, U.S. President Gerald Ford signed the Helsinki Commission into existence through Public Law 94-304 to encourage compliance with the Helsinki Final Act of 1975—the founding document that lays out the ten principles guiding the inter-state relations among today’s OSCE participating States. The agreement created new opportunities to engage with European partners on human rights, cooperative security, economic opportunities, and territorial disputes, and the commission played an integral role in ensuring that human rights became a key component of U.S. foreign policy. Forty-five years after its founding, the Helsinki Commission continues to engage with participating States to confront severe and persistent violations of human rights and democratic norms. Since its establishment, the Helsinki Commission has convened more than 500 public hearings and briefings. It regularly works with U.S. officials in the executive branch and Congress to draw attention to human rights and security challenges in participating States, including racism, anti-Semitism, and intolerance; corruption; human trafficking; and Russia’s persistent violations of the Helsinki Final Act in its relations with Ukraine and other OSCE countries.

  • Helsinki Commission Condemns Lukashenko Regime for Forced Landing of Commercial Jetliner Leading to Arrest of Raman Pratasevich

    WASHINGTON—Following Alexander Lukashenko’s order to divert and forcibly land a commercial plane in Minsk in order to arrest Belarusian activist and journalist Raman Pratasevich and civil society activist Sofia Sapega, Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), Commission leaders Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) and Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02), and Commissioner Richard Hudson (NC-08) issued the following statements: “Dictators like Alexander Lukashenko increasingly seek to use extraterritorial surveillance, intimidation, harassment and even assassination against their political opponents,” said Chairman Cardin. “The kidnappings of Raman Pratasevich and Sofia Sapega from a commercial aircraft illegally forced by military aircraft to land in Minsk creates a precedent of terror that, if unchecked, could limit dissidents’ ability to travel freely. An international crime of this magnitude, engineered by the self-styled leader of Belarus, requires a strong international response, starting with Magnitsky sanctions on those involved.” “Lukashenko has already rigged elections, restricted freedoms, and repressed thousands of Belarusians. He has stooped to a new and alarming low by using military aircraft to force down a civilian airliner,” said Sen. Wicker. “He will only continue escalating his attempts to retain power unless he faces real consequences for his actions. We should develop a full-spectrum strategy against transnational repression to deter such brazen actions by dictators.” “The shocking abduction of Raman Pratasevich demonstrates that Alexander Lukashenko will do almost anything to silence perceived opposition,” said Rep. Wilson. “We demand that Lukashenko release all political prisoners without exception, and end his attacks against journalists, civil society, and all Belarusians peacefully exercising their rights.” “Holding civilian passengers hostage by creating a false threat and forcing a plane to land is an act of state terrorism,” said Rep. Hudson. “Unfortunately, we now have proof that Lukashenko’s dictatorship is a grave threat not only to Belarusians, but to the rest of the world. His regime should be treated as the rogue state that it is.” On May 23, a Ryanair plane flying from Athens to Vilnius carrying over 120 passengers was notified of a bomb threat, met by a Belarusian military jet, and forced to land in Minsk. The bomb threat was false, and upon landing, Belarusian authorities detained journalist Raman Pratasevich and Sofia Sapega, a Russian citizen studying in law at the European Humanities University, which was forced out of Belarus in 2004 and has relocated to Vilnius. Each could face up to 15 years in prison. Pratasevich, who had been living abroad for his safety since 2019, is a co-founder of the NEXTA Live Telegram channel, which has extensively covered this past year’s protests in Belarus and serves as a coordination hub for opposition activity. Belarusian authorities declared NEXTA an “extremist” outlet in October 2020. On May 24, video footage of Pratasevich appeared on Telegram, in which he states that his health is fine, the authorities have treated him lawfully, and that he is cooperating with them in their investigation. The Belarusian KGB is known for producing such videos of forced confessions. Lukashenko has crushed independent media and jailed journalists, activists, and political opponents in unprecedented numbers since Belarus’ falsified presidential elections in August 2020.

  • Cardin, Hudson Pledge Support to Ukraine in Bilateral Call Between OSCE PA Delegations

    WASHINGTON—In response to increased Russian aggression against Ukraine, Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) and Commissioner Rep. Richard Hudson (NC-08) initiated an exceptional bilateral meeting with members of the Ukrainian Delegation to the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA) on April 30.  Chairman Cardin, who serves as Head of the U.S. Delegation to the Assembly, and Rep. Hudson, who is a member of the delegation and chairs the OSCE PA’s General Committee on Political Affairs and Security, sought the meeting to express the support of the United States for Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty and to solicit the Ukrainian lawmakers’ perspectives on the ongoing crisis. Ukrainian participants included parliamentarians Mykyta Poturaiev (Head of Delegation) and Artur Gerasymov (Deputy Head of Delegation).  The exchange, which focused on the recent massing of Russian forces on Ukraine’s eastern border and in occupied Crimea, and the closure by Russia of parts of the Black Sea and the Azov Sea, also covered topics including: The militarization of occupied Crimea and widespread violations of fundamental freedoms there, with particular persecution directed toward Crimean Tatars The Crimean Platform, a Ukrainian diplomatic initiative to mobilize world leaders to raise the cost of Russia’s occupation of the peninsula, with the ultimate goal of de-occupation The effects of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline on Russian influence in Europe  The importance of continued reform processes in Ukraine, including in ensuring the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary and of Ukraine’s anti-corruption bodies Chairman Cardin and Rep. Hudson reiterated Congress’ strong and bipartisan support for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine. Chairman Cardin underscored that the United States stood with Ukraine in the face of Russian aggression, which “violated every principle of the Helsinki Final Act,” he stated. He added that the Ukraine Security Partnership Act unanimously approved by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on April 21 codified the U.S. security commitment to Ukraine and support for the Crimean Platform initiative, among other measures designed to strengthen the bilateral relationship. The United States remained “strongly and firmly united in our support for Ukraine,” Rep. Hudson said, pledging continued resolve in ensuring this message was clear to Russian authorities. Hudson, recalling a statement issued in his capacity as OSCE PA committee chair on April 7, also expressed readiness to engage fully in the parliamentary dimension of the Crimean Platform. In addition, the U.S. and Ukrainian delegates discussed plans for the 2021 Annual Session to be held remotely in late June and early July. 

  • Helsinki Commission Leaders Mark World Press Freedom Day

    WASHINGTON—On World Press Freedom Day, Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) and commission leaders Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) and Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) issued the following statements: “Press freedom is at the core of a healthy democracy,” said Chairman Cardin. “Over the last year, we have witnessed a sharp decline in access to information globally, and a rise in cases of violence against journalists. Some OSCE participating States have even used the COVID-19 pandemic as grounds to justify unnecessary restrictions on the press. Independent, professional journalism grounded in truth and transparency is the best antidote to the poison of disinformation and misinformation that plagues the OSCE region, during this global emergency and at all times.” “Strong democracies encourage a free press—one that informs the public, welcomes diverse voices, and holds leaders accountable,” said Sen. Wicker. “Unfortunately, in many nations autocrats abuse political, economic, and legal measures to intimidate, jail, and bankrupt members of the media who oppose them. On World Press Freedom Day, I commend the courageous journalists who work despite these threats.” “In the absence of press freedom, citizens are denied access to information and prevented from meaningful engagement in their communities,” said Rep. Wilson. “In some participating States, we continue to see violent attacks, arbitrary arrests, legal harassment, and other attacks against the legitimate work of journalists. These attempts to close off the information pipeline only highlight the weakness of such regimes, not their strength.” In its 2021 World Press Freedom Index, Reporters without Borders found that journalism is totally blocked, seriously impeded, or constrained in 73 percent of the countries evaluated. The data also reflect a dramatic deterioration in people's access to information and an increase in obstacles to news coverage. According to the study, Turkmenistan (at 178 of 180), Azerbaijan (at 167), Tajikistan (at 162), Belarus (at 158), Uzbekistan (at 157), Kazakhstan (at 155), Turkey (at 153), and Russia (at 150), rank the lowest in press freedom in the OSCE region. On April 30, Chairman Cardin and Helsinki Commissioner Sen. Marco Rubio (FL) reintroduced the World Press Freedom Protection and Reciprocity Act, which seeks to protect and promote worldwide press freedom and enhance reciprocity for U.S. news and media outlets. Earlier in April, Helsinki Commission leaders called on Belarusian authorities to release journalists and political prisoners. In 2020, the U.S. Helsinki Commission held a hearing to examine the troubling trend of violence against journalists, and review implementation of international press freedom commitments undertaken by the United States. In 2019, the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media testified before the U.S. Helsinki Commission on the state of media freedom in the OSCE region.

  • Helsinki Commission Digital Digest: April 2021

  • Helsinki Commission Leaders Call for Action to Support Navalny

    WASHINGTON—In response to the precarious health of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny in prison, threats to the future operation of his organization, and recent detentions of protestors calling for his release, Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) and commission leaders Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) and Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) issued the following statements: “The world is watching in horror as Alexei Navalny wastes away in a Russian prison cell, while being inspired by the bravery of Russians who came out to the streets to support him,” said Chairman Cardin. “The Biden administration should  continue to raise the cost on Vladimir Putin and his remaining allies for this most recent attempt to intimidate those who would take up Navalny’s call to action by challenging the Kremlin’s corruption and standing up for their own freedom.” “Alexei Navalny was lucky to survive one assassination attempt, but he returned to his homeland in a powerful example of civic courage,” said Sen. Wicker. “Now as he suffers once again in a Russian prison, we should consider Mr. Navalny’s suggestion of sanctioning those closest to Vladimir Putin—including notorious oligarchs like Roman Abramovich, Alisher Usmanov, Igor Shuvalov, and Nikolay Tokarev. We will be monitoring his condition carefully.” “By jailing Alexei Navalny, branding his anti-corruption organization as ‘extremist,’ and targeting supporters of a free Russia, the Kremlin reveals its contempt for the fundamental rights of the Russian people,” said Rep. Wilson. “This is simply the latest attempt by Vladimir Putin to cling to power and it will ultimately fail.” In August 2020, Alexei Navalny was the victim of an assassination attempt by FSB that used a Russia-developed chemical weapon in the Novichok family. He spent months recovering after being flown to Berlin for treatment. Navalny returned to Moscow on January 17, 2021, and immediately was arrested. Navalny is serving two years and eight months at one of Russia’s most notorious penal colonies, about three hours east of Moscow. He is accused of violating the terms of a suspended sentence related to a 2014 case that is widely considered to be politically motivated. He has severe back pain and numbness in his extremities. Prison authorities have prohibited him from seeing his own doctors, but recently allowed him to be examined outside the prison by independent physicians. Navalny spent three weeks on a hunger strike to protest his lack of access to an outside doctor and remains in critical condition. On April 16, the Moscow prosecutor’s office asked the Moscow City Court to label Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation and its regional headquarters, as well as his Citizens’ Rights Protection Foundation, as “extremist” organizations. If approved as expected, it will essentially outlaw these groups and criminalize their activity. On April 21, thousands of protestors came out across Russia in support of Navalny. More than 1,000 people were detained, including members of the press.

  • Helsinki Commission Leaders Troubled by Kyrgyzstan’s New Constitution

    WASHINGTON—Following the adoption of a new constitution in Kyrgyzstan on April 11, U.S. Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) and commission leaders Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) and Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) issued the following joint statement: “We are concerned that this new constitution will move Kyrgyzstan—long considered among the most democratic countries in Central Asia—toward authoritarian rule by concentrating power in the hands of the president, reducing the role of parliament, and minimizing checks and balances. “Vague provisions prioritizing the ‘moral and ethical values and public conscience of the people of the Kyrgyz Republic’ could be used to restrict human rights, including freedom of expression. We urge the Government of Kyrgyzstan to ensure that the country’s independent media and civil society can exercise their human rights and fundamental freedoms without interference.” The new constitution was approved via referendum, although voter turnout was low at just over 30 percent. President Sadyr Japarov, who took office after being freed from prison during unrest that followed a popular revolt sparked by fraudulent parliamentary elections last October, promoted the constitution’s stronger presidential role. Prior to the referendum, the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) and the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission jointly evaluated the draft constitution and concluded that the process adopting it did not follow the rule of law and took place with minimal public consultation or parliamentary debate, and that it raised “grave concerns over the lack of respect for the principles of the rule of law, separation of powers, and inherent lack of checks and balances.”

  • Cardin and Wicker on April 15 Sanctions Against Russia

    WASHINGTON—In response to President Biden’s Executive Order on harmful foreign activities of the Russian government and subsequent Treasury sanctions designations, Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) and Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) issued the following statements: “The Biden administration is holding Russia to account for its malign activities in a direct and transparent manner,” said Chairman Cardin. “I applaud the president for taking bold action in response to Russia’s cyberattacks, election interference, its occupation of Crimea, the war it started in eastern Ukraine, and overall human rights abuses and weaponization of corruption. The president should continue to be frank with Russia about the consequences for their actions. We will need to stay the course and continue to use the Magnitsky Act and executive authority to further contain this dangerous regime.” “I welcome all efforts to hold Vladimir Putin accountable for his violence at home and abroad, but this package leaves much to be desired,” said Sen. Wicker. “Instead of the bold action needed to change the Kremlin’s behavior, yesterday’s sanctions represent the latest in a series of incremental steps that exact minimal costs and will have minimal effect. The longer we wait to impose real consequences for Moscow’s bad acts, the longer the Russian people will continue to suffer under Putin’s brutal authoritarian regime.” On April 15, Treasury sanctioned 16 individuals and entities that attempted to influence the 2020 U.S. presidential elections on behalf of the Government of Russia. Along with the European Union, United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia, Treasury also designated five people and three entities in connection with Russia’s occupation of Crimea and human rights abuses there. Under the authority of a new Executive Order issued by President Biden, Treasury implemented new restrictions on the purchase of Russian sovereign debt as well as targeted sanctions on technology companies engaged in malicious cyber activities against the United States.

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