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Democratic Change in Ukraine Provides a Backdrop of Success at the 12th OSCE Ministerial
Wednesday, January 12, 2005

By Elizabeth Pryor, Senior Advisor

The twelfth Ministerial Council Meeting of the Organization for Security and Cooperation (OSCE) took place in Sofia, Bulgaria, December 6-7, 2004.  The United States Delegation was led by Secretary of State Colin Powell.  Rep. Alcee L. Hastings, who is a Helsinki Commissioner, headed the delegation of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly in his role as President of that body.  Secretary Powell noted that the United States “bases its faith in the OSCE’s future not just on past successes, but on the significant contributions this pioneering organization is making today,” citing among other achievements the preparation of landmark elections in Georgia and Afghanistan. Congressman Hastings spoke of the important work of the Parliamentary Assembly in promoting democracy, in fighting terrorism and in election monitoring, and called for more OSCE involvement in the Caucasus and Central Asia.  He concluded:  “The OSCE has enormous potential to help Europe and the world to become places of peace, stability and co-operation….the world will be more dangerous without it.”

During the meeting ministers strengthened their commitment to use the organization to fight terrorism, taking several decisions that make it more difficult for terrorists to operate in the region.  They also encouraged OSCE participating states to adopt measures to fight corruption, including ratification of the UN Convention against Corruption.  They underscored the important political role of the OSCE Secretary General, gave impetus to the implementation of earlier decisions on promotion of equal opportunity for women and men, and reiterated their commitment to combat racism, xenophobia and anti-Semitism. They also pushed for quicker and better implementation of OSCE methods of eliminating stockpiles of conventional armaments and ensuring proper export documents for small arms and light weapons. New agreements to protect child victims and more vigorous attention to penalizing sex tourists, and other individuals who prey on children, enhanced earlier OSCE actions to counter human trafficking.  Ministers also agreed to augment activities that would address economic instability, through the organization’s Economic Forum.

In addition, ministers welcomed the intention of the OSCE Chairman to appoint three distinguished personal representatives to combat discrimination and promote tolerance. This decision stemmed from significant meetings during the previous years which registered OSCE concern at growing instances of intolerance, some of them acts of violence.  The Bulgarian chairmanship subsequently appointed Anastasia Crickley of Ireland as the special representative to combat racism, xenophobia and discrimination; Gert Weisskirchen of Germany as the special representative to combat anti-Semitism; and Ömür Orhun of Turkey to be special representative to combat intolerance and discrimination against Muslims.     

The measures taken to reduce the ability of terrorists to function in the region are especially significant. Ministers pushed to complete an agreement on comprehensive and uniform standards for border security; new methods of information exchange about the use of the Internet by terrorists–including an international meeting by experts; strong coordination with other international organizations to ensure the security of shipping containers; and a harmonized method for relaying and compiling information on lost and stolen passports through Interpol.  If agreed within the next year, as ministers hope, and implemented vigorously, collectively these decisions can dramatically curb the ability of terrorists to move people and weapons easily and change identities without detection.

Texts of all of the decisions can be found at www.osce.org.

*   *   *   *   *

Negotiation at Sofia was difficult.  A U.S. proposal to extend and augment the provisions of a June 2004 NATO anti-trafficking plan failed to be agreed.  A Russian-proposed text that would have changed the perimeters of OSCE election monitoring was also blocked. No joint statement of the ministers could be concluded.  An important decision to extend the mandate of the OSCE Border Monitoring Operation in Georgia was not agreed. In all of these negotiations, the Russian Federation was isolated, either in its demands, or in its refusal to join consensus. Secretary of State Powell and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov openly disagreed in their interventions about the validity of OSCE operations in the former Soviet Union.  Secretary Powell took issue with Lavrov’s assertion that OSCE’s focus on the region was disproportionate, pointing out that the United States has used the organization to discuss its own difficulties, including the abuse of detainees in U.S. custody in Iraq. 

There is a long history of such disagreements within the OSCE. One need only look at the negotiating record of the original Helsinki Accords to note the seemingly insurmountable gulf that existed in 1975. At that time negotiations were complicated by disputes between the West and the then-powerful neutral and non-aligned nations, as well as between East and West. Those talks took place in an atmosphere of a near-zero diplomatic interaction between many of the countries. Yet skillful negotiation and a larger vision won the day.  Over the years the Helsinki process has witnessed stand-offs over the status of fixed–wing aircraft in the negotiations on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE); over development of new standards for media freedom; on the creation of the field missions for which it is now so celebrated; on the division of roles in election monitoring and hundreds of other issues. Indeed, one of the hallmarks of the organization is that it assumes strong disagreement among the participating States. The glory of the OSCE is that it has not seen this as an obstacle to progress, but has always kept its dialogue open and lively and found creative ways to search for common ground.  Those debating today’s issues should find the successful negotiations of the past both encouraging and instructive.

In the wake of Russian intransigence, a number of newspaper comments and internal accounts of the ministerial meeting have been unduly pessimistic, with some commentators even extrapolating about the near demise of the OSCE. The disappointment seems to center on the inability of the 55-nation organization to agree to the joint statement that traditionally concludes these meetings. The fate of the highly effective Border Monitoring Operation is of real concern and should be the object of concerted, expert diplomacy by all OSCE States.  But the vitality of the OSCE is not in question, and it is striking that such an array of senior observers has limited its definition of relevancy to an almost invisible statement, the kind that in today’s diplomatic world has decreasing impact or shelf-life.  Perhaps it would have been better if those in Sofia had agreed to a joint statement, but it is largely irrelevant that they did not.

For, over the past few years, the OSCE has seen stunning proof of its true relevance:  the influence of its agreed standards of conduct and its continuing ability to inspire those who are courageous enough to fight for democracy and then make it stick. This year’s Sofia meeting was dominated by Ukraine’s remarkable democratic ferment.  In Sofia, negotiations took place against a backdrop of the Ukrainian people embracing systems of liberty and justice.  Just as evident was the ineffectiveness of the oligarchs, petty tyrants and reactionary ideologues who had tried to stifle this heady movement.  The excitement and optimism were palpable as the news reports – first of the crowds in Independence Square, then the courageous actions in the parliament and courts – came filtering into Sofia’s old communist Hall of Culture, itself a symbol of the OSCE’s ability to effect positive change.

There is no doubt that the events of these historic weeks owed much to three decades of the OSCE’s tireless and patient work.  First, the Helsinki process eroded the bulwark of communism; then through its mission in Ukraine and its support of many valiant NGOs, it persistently promoted the rule of law and free processes over the false security of re-emergent authoritarianism.  If it all seemed a little familiar, it was because the 2003 Maastricht ministerial meeting was colored by a similar public demand for democracy in Georgia, also a product of OSCE’s influence and persistence. And, four years ago, we welcomed another electoral surprise as Serbia’s citizens demanded the right to a valid election and a future that they themselves would determine.

All of these developments are very heartening.  They attest to the indomitable will of people everywhere to live in freedom and of the important way OSCE principles support them.  The continuing quest for democracy in Europe is the true measure of the OSCE’s success.  No anodyne statement, no “family photo” of beaming foreign ministers, could possibly illustrate the OSCE’s importance as have these real and hopeful events.

That the OSCE remains the major player in promoting European unity and security is also apparent in the rhetoric of some leaders who want to sabotage its work.  Notable among them are Alexandr Lukashenko, the autocrat in Belarus, who openly resists fulfilling the commitments made freely by his country, and Sparmurat Niyazov, who holds Turkmenistan under dictatorial rule. Unfortunately, others are following in this path, Vladmir Putin among them.  These increasingly authoritarian leaders see that the high principles of the Helsinki Accords can motivate people to demand their rights and thus discourage selfish governmental policies and foreign adventurism.  They want to thwart OSCE influence precisely because it stands in the way of backsliding toward the uncontrolled exercise of personal power.  Ironically, their refusal to cooperate on OSCE policies that continue the forward momentum toward freedom only serve to point up just how successful the organization has become.

As it moves to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the signing of the Helsinki Accords the OSCE has much to be proud of.  But it also has a great deal of work ahead of it.  The participating States of the organization must be certain that they continue to stabilize both borders and the democratic institutions of Georgia.  Unresolved conflicts continue to fester in Moldova and Nagorno-Karabakh, and the situation in Kosovo remains fragile and tense.  Human rights are jeopardized in much of Central Asia, with the OSCE often the lone voice in their defense.  Several states have crossed the line into totalitarianism.  Well-established democracies, including the United States, need to be eternally vigilant, lest we take our fundamental freedoms for granted and allow our high ideals to be eroded.  None of this is evidence of OSCE ineffectiveness, but of our continuing need for its guidance.  The process of promoting human rights is continual.  It is essential that the OSCE is there to remind us that we must never become complacent.

Among the most important decisions the OSCE took at Sofia was the reassertion of the important political role of the organization’s Secretary General.  The Helsinki Commission hopes that this year, when a new Secretary General will be selected, participating States will choose a strong individual, a person of proven and inspirational leadership and managerial excellence.  OSCE ministers also chose to appoint a panel of eminent persons to advise on any directional adaptation that may help strengthen the organization.  Once again, members of the Helsinki Commission trust that people with innovative ideas and recent expertise will be chosen.  One fitting recommendation that could be made by the panel would be to call a review conference to evaluate the vitality of organizational structures and the commitment of its participating States.  There is a long tradition of this kind of self-assessment at the OSCE and such a move would be especially appropriate in the anniversary year.  It would also address the call made by several states to take a comprehensive look at the future work of the OSCE.

All European institutions play important roles for ensuring the security of the region.  Yet, OSCE remains the most agile instrument for promoting our dearest and most enduring values.  It is not about quick fixes or flashy actions, but works slowly over the long term to create true stability and cooperation.  Other institutions may also help motivate nations to take a path compatible with democracy.  But only the OSCE has the inclusivity, the agreed values and the presence on the ground to get them over the finish line.

Sofia a failure for lack of a joint communiqué?  No, not at all.  If you are looking for a “statement” of the OSCE’s vitality, read it in the faces on Independence Square in Kiev; in the recent history of Slovenia, its incoming Chairman; and in the fear with which it is regarded by those who would wield disproportionate power over their citizens.

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Ian Kelly, former U.S. Permanent Representative to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).  “It’s not a moment.  It’s a movement.” Witnesses emphasized that George Floyd’s death has created a movement, not just a moment, in efforts to address systemic racism, police violence, and secure justice. Nkechi Taifa called on the United States to implement fully international human rights commitments and obligations, without legal barriers. She observed that the world is at the midpoint of the United Nations International Decade for People of African Descent and concluded, “What we are witnessing today is the unprecedented possibility for change.” Malcolm Momodou Jallow observed that structural, institutional, and systemic racism— including racist violence—is not confined to the United States, but is also present in Europe.  The European project includes an antidiscrimination, antiracist dimension, with a fundamental commitment to reflect the lessons of the Holocaust and eradicate past European divisions through respect for the human rights of all. Failure to do so affects entire communities, thereby eroding social cohesion, trust in public authority, the rule of law and ultimately democracy.  Mr. Jallow also drew attention to the European Parliament’s resolution, adopted on Juneteenth (June 19), on the anti-racism protests following George Floyd’s death.  The resolution also recalled Europe’s colonial past and its role in the transatlantic slave trade; draws on the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights’ annual hate crimes report; and calls for closer cooperation between the European Commission and the OSCE.  “The OSCE should rise to that occasion.” Ambassador Ian Kelly stated that security among states depends on respect for human rights within states. Actions clearing peaceful protesters, at the expense of their basic rights, cost the United States moral authority to call other countries to account.  Ambassador Kelly credited the OSCE for its work to shine a light on the problems of intolerance but asserted more could and should be done in the OSCE context to expose abuses against people of color in the OSCE region.  By signing the Helsinki Final Act, the United States committed to respecting human rights and protect democracy, even under the most challenging circumstances. A willingness to respond to the human rights concerns that other countries raise with the United States in the Helsinki context has been instrumental in validating the promotion of human rights and democracy advocacy as a goal of U.S. foreign policy. The Helsinki Commission has addressed the implementation of OSCE commitments in the United States in various ways, including hearings, reports, and legislation. The video of the murder of George Floyd and the ensuing protests received wall-to-wall coverage throughout most of the OSCE participating States. Journalists from at least eight OSCE participating States—Canada, Finland, France, Germany, Russia, Sweden, Switzerland, and Turkey—suffered violence while trying to report on demonstrations. George Floyd’s death in police custody prompted demonstrations in nearly all western OSCE participating States, including more than 25 of the 30 NATO member states, supporting the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement and protesting systemic racism. In some Central European countries, the death of George Floyd has been compared to police brutality against Roma. In other countries, demonstrators have called for changes to their own national policing practices, the removal of symbols of their colonial past, and other policy changes. There have been no BLM sympathy demonstrations in Russia, where assembly (even protests by single picketers or dolls dressed as protesters) remains highly controlled. Heads of OSCE institutions, including the Director of the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights and the Representative on Freedom of the Media, have expressed concern about the actions of police, restrictions on freedom of assembly, and restrictions on press freedom. The OSCE Parliamentary Assembly President George Tsereteli, expressed similar concerns in a press statement on June 1. On June 8, 38 NGOs from the Civic Solidarity Platform, a decentralized advocacy network of independent civic groups from across the OSCE region, issued a rare joint statement of concern regarding “the United States government’s response to widespread peaceful protests against police violence.” Related Information Witness Biographies Human Rights at Home Safe, Inclusive, and Equitable Societies Briefing: 8:46 (George Floyd) Press Release: Hastings: To Promote Human Rights Abroad, We Must Fiercely Protect Them at Home Press Release: OSCE Media Freedom Representative concerned about violence against journalists covering protests in USA, calls for protection of journalists Press Release: Statement of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly President on the policing of protests in the United States Civic Solidarity Platform Statement: U.S. racism and police violence and the human dimension heritage of the OSCE Rep. Jim McGovern: To Regain Our Credibility on Human Rights, America Must Start At Home

  • Hastings and Wicker Denounce Fraudulent Vote in Russia

    WASHINGTON—Following this week’s manipulated vote to amend Russia’s constitution to further weaken the separation of powers, strengthen the presidency, and allow President Vladimir Putin to remain in office until 2036, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) and Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) issued the following joint statement: “As we have seen time and again in Putin’s Russia, the outcome of this vote was decided long before the ballots were tallied. “Thanks to a fraudulent plebiscite ‘legitimizing’ the rubber stamp of Russia’s parliament, the Russian people—along with those living under Russian occupation—will remain under the thumb of an increasingly powerful Putin who could rule until he is in his eighties. “State-sponsored fraud, coercion, and obfuscation make it impossible to know the true will of the Russian people, who deserve a responsive, democratic government in line with Russia’s OSCE commitments.” From June 25 to July 1, 2020, citizens of Russia and residents of illegally-occupied Crimea and Russia-backed separatist regions of the Donbas could vote either for or against a package of more than 200 amendments to Russia’s constitution. Because the vote was not technically classified as a referendum, regulations and procedures that would usually apply—including a required minimum voter turnout level—were disregarded. Russia’s Central Election Commission released preliminary results showing overwhelming support for the amendments hours before the last polls closed, which under normal circumstances would be illegal. The potential for voter fraud was increased by the Russian Government’s decision to spread the voting over the span of a week and introduce electronic voting in some areas, ostensibly to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Independent journalists have received credible reports of people being paid to create multiple false profiles to vote online, employees being coerced into voting by their superiors, and the use of online tools to track voter participation. Individuals documented ballot-stuffing and other irregularities at polling places.  The package of amendments was approved overwhelmingly and with little discussion by President Putin and both chambers of the Russian parliament on March 11, 2020, then rapidly cleared by the regional parliaments and the Constitutional Court. It required a nationwide vote to come into force. Vladimir Putin has ruled Russia either as president or prime minister for 20 years. He can now pursue two more six-year terms after his current term expires in 2024.

  • The Future of American Diplomacy

    By Erick Boone, Max Kampelman Fellow; Gabriel Cortez, Charles B. Rangel Fellow;  Nida Ansari, Policy Advisor and State Department Detailee; and Dr. Mischa Thompson, Director of Global Partnerships, Policy, and Innovation America’s Competitive Advantage “Diversity and inclusion are the underpinnings of democratic societies. It is time to ensure that those from all segments of our society have an equal opportunity to contribute to the future of our nation as part of the vibrant workforce that is at the heart of our democracy.” Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20), Chairman, U.S. Helsinki Commission Promoting and maintaining workforce diversity offers strategic advantages to the government agencies tasked with advancing U.S. foreign policy, including the U.S. Department of State and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). By leveraging the unique talents of the nation’s diverse communities—including valuable language skills, cultural competencies, and elevated credibility when engaging with local communities—the State Department and USAID can take unique advantage of opportunities to expand democracy, promote business, and support national security. Individuals from diverse communities often bring unique perspectives to policy discussions that would otherwise be absent in a homogenous workplace, and their presence in the U.S. foreign policymaking establishment illustrates the U.S. commitment to equality and justice. More broadly speaking, studies show that diverse workforces promote increased creativity and innovation, improve recruitment prospects, and avoid high turnover rates. Simply put, the diplomatic corps is better equipped to advance U.S. foreign policy by including its racially, ethnically, culturally, and otherwise diverse communities.  Unfortunately, currently there is a lack of diversity in America’s primary diplomatic agencies. The question remains: How can the United States better utilize the competitive advantage of its natural diversity on the world stage? Identifying Barriers to Diversity According to 2020 State and USAID reports published by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), racial and ethnic minorities remain severely underrepresented in both agencies. The reports found that of the nearly 25,000 full-time employees at the State Department, African Americans, Hispanics/Latinx, Asian Americans, and other racial groups only make up 7 percent, 7 percent, 6 percent, and 4 percent respectively. Overall, these demographics lag far behind the current diversity of the United States as documented by the U.S. Census Bureau. When employees reach senior-level positions, the percentages of non-white employees fall even more drastically. The GAO reports found that promotion rates within the State Department and USAID were generally lower for racial and ethnic minorities, and that minorities were underrepresented at higher ranks.  Native Americans were virtually absent from both agencies. The Road to Improvement In attempts to capitalize on the benefits of diversity to the diplomatic corps, the Department of State and USAID have introduced several efforts to attract and retain outstanding individuals from traditionally underrepresented groups. Some programs expose students and young professionals to the Foreign Service, allowing the U.S. Government to proactively recruit new generations of talented Americans. For example, the State Department’s Pathways Internship Program targets high school students as well as individuals enrolled in undergraduate and graduate institutions. Other efforts focus more broadly on building the skills that students will need to work in international affairs. The Charles B. Rangel Summer Enrichment Program provides undergraduate students, especially those from underrepresented communities, the opportunity to enhance their knowledge of U.S. foreign policy and the global economy through summer coursework. The Department of State and the Department of Defense also fund several scholarship programs, such as the Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship, the Boren Scholarship, and the Critical Language Scholarship, that enable students to study and travel internationally and serve as pipelines to international careers Fellowship programs like the Charles B. Rangel, Thomas R. Pickering, and Donald M. Payne Fellowships, named in honor of those in government who made a major impact in foreign affairs, aim to recruit, train, and retain the best and brightest from all corners of the United States and draw from the extensive perspectives of the American public. Over the years, these programs, which have historically received bipartisan support, cumulatively have produced nearly 1,000 fellows, many of whom are current Foreign Service Officers serving with the State Department or USAID in over 65 countries. In addition to graduate foreign service fellowships, the U.S. government and key partners have encouraged efforts to diversify the diplomatic corps through programs like the International Career Advancement Program (ICAP) at the University of Denver’s Josef Korbel School of International Studies and State Department affinity groups such as the Thursday Luncheon Group, which has been working to increase the participation of African-Americans and others in the formulation, articulation, and implementation of United States foreign policy since 1973. Inside government agencies and the public sector, affinity groups working to increase diversity include the Hispanic Employees Council of Foreign Affairs Agencies, the Asian American Foreign Affairs Association, Executive Women at State, GLIFAA, LGBT+ Pride in Foreign Affairs Agencies, and the Sunday Brunch group. The Public Policy and International Affairs Program promotes inclusion and diversity in public policy; Black Professionals in International Affairs focuses on expanding roles in global policy; and TruDiversity, an initiative of the Truman National Security Project, aims to attract more underrepresented minority groups to the field of national security. Increased efforts to recruit and retain diverse populations for diplomatic corps in other agencies have also begun at USDA, and been called for at the Departments of Commerce and Homeland Security, the Peace Corps, and other agencies. “The diversity of the American people is one of our greatest assets as a nation. Our national security agencies, especially those on the frontlines representing America around the world, should reflect this reality.” Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (MD), Ranking Member, U.S. Helsinki Commission Helsinki Commission Efforts Members of the Helsinki Commission have a long history of supporting diversity and inclusion efforts in the diplomatic corps and in national security careers more broadly.  For close to a decade, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) and Ranking Member Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland (MD) have joined bipartisan Congressional efforts to support annual funding for State Department and USAID diversity fellowship programs such as the Rangel, Payne, Pickering, and ICAP programs. Chairman Hastings and Sen. Cardin are both lead sponsors of the National Security Diversity and Inclusion Workforce Act of 2019 (S.497), which would strengthen employee diversity in the U.S. national security workforce through enhanced hiring, retention, and growth practices targeting gender, race, ethnicity, disability status, veteran status, sexual orientation, gender identity, national origin, and other demographic categories. In March, Chairman Hastings introduced the Federal Jobs Act to require a government-wide diversity and inclusion strategy. “Estimates indicate that by 2050, more than half of the U.S. workforce will be made up of Americans from diverse populations.  Effectively governing our nation will require that we fill federal jobs—whether they are in the military, intelligence, foreign service, health, or education sectors—with an equally diverse federal workforce who can meet the needs of our country.” Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20), Chairman, U.S. Helsinki Commission Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) is a lead sponsor of the Paul Simon Study Abroad Program Act, which works to increase study abroad opportunities for diverse populations. Study abroad is often a precursor to professions in the diplomatic corps. Chairman Hastings also amended the Matthew Young Pollard Intelligence Authorization Act for Fiscal Years 2018 and 2019, which directs the Office of the Director of National Intelligence to implement a plan to expand the intelligence community’s recruitment efforts so that rural and underserved regions in the U.S. are more fully represented.  In 2017, Sen. Cardin worked with then-chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Sen. Bob Corker (TN) to include several strong diversity provisions, including support for the Donald M. Payne Fellowship and diversity data collection, in the 2018 State Department authorization bill. Most recently, Sen. Cardin helped lead Senate and House Foreign Relations Committee efforts to improve diversity at the State department Supporting policies that strengthen diversity and inclusion in the diplomatic corps and across the federal government ensures that the United States will become a shining example of the power and strength diversity can bring.  A diplomatic corps composed of individuals from all parts of the U.S. society not only presents a more accurate snapshot of America to the world and proves that the U.S. abides by its human rights principles, but also equips the country to handle complex challenges at home or abroad with the widest variety of skills, knowledge, perspectives, ideas, and experiences at the ready. 

  • Helsinki Commission Hearing to Examine Human Rights At Home

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following online hearing: HUMAN RIGHTS AT HOME Implications for U.S. Leadership Thursday, July 2, 2020 11:00 a.m. Watch Live: www.youtube.com/HelsinkiCommission By signing the Helsinki Final Act, the United States committed to respecting human rights and the rule of law, even under the most challenging circumstances. Recent developments in the United States—including George Floyd’s tragic death at the hands of police and subsequent protests—have put U.S. human rights commitments to the test in the eyes of the world. During this online hearing, witnesses will discuss these events, the U.S. response, and the resulting implications for U.S. leadership in foreign policy. Witnesses scheduled to participate include: Ambassador (ret.) Ian Kelly, former U.S. Permanent Representative to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Malcolm Momodou Jallow, Member of Parliament (Sweden) and General Rapporteur on Combating Racism and Intolerance, Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) Nkechi Taifa, Founding Principal & CEO, The Taifa Group, LLC; Convener, Justice Roundtable; and Senior Fellow, Center for Justice, Columbia University

  • Hastings Urges Belarus to Allow Real Political Competition in Upcoming Elections

    WASHINGTON—In light of the recent crackdown on protesters and arrests of prominent presidential candidates leading up to the August 9 elections in Belarus, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) released the following statement: “Every OSCE participating State, including Belarus, commits to holding free and fair elections. Belarusian authorities have made this impossible by arresting and intimidating presidential candidates, journalists, and activists in the early stages of campaigning. There can be no free choice when the system is rigged in favor of the incumbent. I call on President Lukashenko to order the release of those who have been detained for political reasons and allow real political competition in Belarus.” Belarusian presidential candidate and popular YouTube personality Sergei Tikhanovsky was arrested in early June. His wife, who has decided to run in his place, has received numerous threats. Another presidential candidate and former head of Belgazprombank Viktor Babaryko was also detained, along with his son, after authorities raided the bank’s offices. Journalists, members of civil society, and others have been arrested during rallies and peaceful protests against Lukashenko’s regime. An estimated 140 people across Belarus were detained on June 19 alone, the last day for presidential candidates to collect signatures to get on the ballot. According to international observers, Belarus has not had free and fair national elections since Lukashenko’s election in 1994.

  • Hastings Urges Belarus to Allow Real Political Competition in Upcoming Elections

    WASHINGTON—In light of the recent crackdown on protesters and arrests of prominent presidential candidates leading up to the August 9 elections in Belarus, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) released the following statement: “Every OSCE participating State, including Belarus, commits to holding free and fair elections. Belarusian authorities have made this impossible by arresting and intimidating presidential candidates, journalists, and activists in the early stages of campaigning. There can be no free choice when the system is rigged in favor of the incumbent. I call on President Lukashenko to order the release of those who have been detained for political reasons and allow real political competition in Belarus.” Belarusian presidential candidate and popular YouTube personality Sergei Tikhanovsky was arrested in early June. His wife, who has decided to run in his place, has received numerous threats. Another presidential candidate and former head of Belgazprombank Viktor Babaryko was also detained, along with his son, after authorities raided the bank’s offices. Journalists, members of civil society, and others have been arrested during rallies and peaceful protests against Lukashenko’s regime. An estimated 140 people across Belarus were detained on June 19 alone, the last day for presidential candidates to collect signatures to get on the ballot. According to international observers, Belarus has not had free and fair national elections since Lukashenko’s election in 1994.

  • Hastings: To Promote Human Rights Abroad, We Must Fiercely Protect Them at Home

    WASHINGTON—Ahead of a 57-nation OSCE meeting on freedom of expression, media, and information, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) released the following statement: “In the United States, we have witnessed a devastating series of attacks by authorities against journalists covering the nationwide protests calling for racial justice following the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. In many cases, reporters have been injured, harassed, or arrested even after explicitly identifying themselves as members of the press. “If the United States wants to remain a credible voice in the promotion of human rights abroad, we must fiercely protect them at home. This Supplementary Human Dimension Meeting on the critical topic of freedom of expression, media, and information represents an important opportunity to take an honest and critical look at America’s own record in recent weeks on protecting journalists and safeguarding press freedom.” According to the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, as of June 15, there have been more than 430 reported press freedom violations since the beginning of the national Black Lives Matter protests on May 26. This includes at least 59 arrests; 268 assaults (including the use of tear gas, pepper spray, and rubber bullets and projectiles); and 57 cases of equipment/newsroom damage. OSCE Supplementary Human Dimension Meetings (SHDM) are convened three times annually on topics chosen by the OSCE Chairperson-in-Office. The first SHDM organized by the Albanian chairmanship,  “Addressing All Forms of Intolerance and Discrimination,” took place May 25-26, 2020. The June meeting on freedom of expression, media and information includes participation by non-governmental civil society organizations, the U.S. Helsinki Commission, and representatives from OSCE participating States.

  • 8:46 (George Floyd)

    George Floyd’s tragic death at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer—recorded for a wrenching eight minutes and 46 seconds—shocked the world. During this online briefing, political and civil rights leaders from the United States and Europe discussed the impact made by resulting protests and the need to change policing tactics, alongside an honest review of how racism stemming from the transatlantic slave trade and colonialism persists today. Related Information Panelist Biographies Podcast | Communities at Risk: The Impact of COVID-19 on the OSCE’s Most Vulnerable Populations Press Release | Chairman Hastings Introduces LITE Act to Strengthen Ties with U.S. Allies, Support Visionary Leadership on Both Sides of the Atlantic Press Release | Chairman Hastings Introduces Bill to Promote Diversity and Inclusion in the Federal Workforce Press Release | Chairman Hastings Recognizes Black European Fight for Inclusion Safe, Inclusive, and Equitable Societies Helsinki Commission Initiatives on Racial Justice, Minority Rights, and Tolerance and Non-Discrimination ENAR demands to address racist police violence and structural racism

  • Political and Civil Rights Leaders to Discuss Impact of George Floyd’s Death at Helsinki Commission Briefing

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following staff-led online briefing: 8:46 (GEORGE FLOYD) A Time for Transformation at Home and Abroad Friday, June 12, 2020 10:00 a.m. Register to attend. George Floyd’s tragic death at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer—recorded for a wrenching eight minutes and 46 seconds—shocked the world.  During this online briefing, political and civil rights leaders from the United States and Europe will discuss the impact made by resulting protests and the need to change policing tactics, alongside an honest review of how racism stemming from the transatlantic slave trade and colonialism persists today. Panelists scheduled to participate include: Abena Oppong-Asare, Member of Parliament, United Kingdom Adam Hollier, Michigan State Senator Mitchell Esajas, Chair, New Urban Collective (Netherlands) Karen Taylor, Chair, European Network Against Racism (ENAR) Panelists may be added.

  • OSCE Supplementary Human Dimension Meeting Examines Intolerance and Discrimination during Pandemic

    On May 25-26, 2020, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) held the year’s first Supplementary Human Dimension Meeting (SHDIM).  The event, which attracted more than 950 participants from 57 countries, focused on addressing intolerance and discrimination and was the OSCE’s first public event hosted in an entirely virtual format. During the event, representatives of governments, civil society, and OSCE institutions discussed the importance of immediate, robust, and coordinated responses to acts of scapegoating, racism, xenophobia, and anti-Semitism, especially during times of crisis. Participants underscored the need to reject hate speech both online and off, and shared best practices to prevent its escalation into violence. Recommendations centered on the shared goals of building inclusive and resilient societies that guarantee human rights for all. In her closing remarks, Shannon Simrell, the U.S. Helsinki Commission Representative to the U.S. Mission to the OSCE in Vienna, highlighted recent commission engagement on combating intolerance and discrimination. Under the leadership of Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20), the Helsinki Commission's ongoing commitment to building safe, equitable, and inclusive societies has been embodied by “On the Road to Inclusion,” a new interethnic, multicultural, inter-religious, and intergenerational initiative designed to build broad-based coalitions and crafts durable solutions, based on respect and meaningful engagement of all members of society.  In addition, Helsinki Commission Ranking Member Senator Ben Cardin (MD), who also serves as the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly Special Representative for Anti-Semitism, Racism, and Intolerance, has directed funding to support OSCE’s comprehensive and multi-year Words into Action project, which develops inclusion handbooks for governments and communities.  The second Supplementary Human Dimension Meeting of 2020, scheduled for June 22-23, will focus on freedom of expression, press freedom, and access to information.  Closing Remarks by Shannon Simrell, U.S. Helsinki Commission Representative to the U.S. Mission to the OSCE On behalf of the U.S. Helsinki Commission, I wish to congratulate the Chair in Office for organizing this historic event, thank the speakers for sharing your expertise, and recognize my colleagues and civil society representatives for your thoughtful engagement on these issues. In the past two days, we have heard not only about the importance of immediate and definitive responses to acts of hate and intolerance, but also the importance of a comprehensive and long-term approach to dismantle the social, economic, legislative, and technological roots of discrimination.  Crises such as the COVID-19 pandemic lay bare the significant work that still needs to be done across the OSCE region to address prejudice, racism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, and all forms of discrimination.  Helsinki commitments must be equally realized by everyone among us. Without exception. To ODIHR colleagues, thank you for your comprehensive approach to addressing hate crimes and intolerance while recognizing also the specific and varied challenges faced by various vulnerable groups, including Roma/Sinti, people of African descent, disabled, youth, women, and migrants and refugees.  In support of ODIHR’s vital role, I note that U.S. Senator Ben Cardin, in addition to his role as OSCEPA Special Representative for Anti-Semitism, Racism, and Intolerance, is proud to have directed funding to support phase two of the Words into Action project.  In addition, the Commission's commitment to building safe, equitable, and inclusive societies is further underscored by an initiative under the leadership of U.S. Helsinki Chairman Alcee Hastings, called “On the Road to Inclusion.”  This interethnic, multicultural, inter-religious, and intergenerational initiative builds broad-based coalitions and crafts durable solutions, based on respect and meaningful engagement of all members of society. I look forward to future events where we can continue not only our exploration of the hurdles, but an update on ways we are working to guarantee human rights for all.

  • Disinformation, COVID-19, and the Electoral Process

    Listen to audio of the briefing on Facebook.  Free and fair elections are one of the most fundamental measures of a democratic society. During the 2016 presidential elections, many Americans became aware for the first time that disinformation can be easily coupled with technology by state and nonstate actors to disrupt and muddy the information space in the months, weeks, and days leading up to an election.  The use of disinformation to influence elections has since become a pervasive and persistent threat in all 57 OSCE participating States, one which many still struggle to adequately address. With presidential, parliamentary, or local elections scheduled in 15 OSCE participating States before the end of 2020, the stakes could not be higher. The COVID-19 pandemic has added another level of complexity, as Russia, China, and Iran are all attempting to use the crisis to drive a wedge between the United States and Europe. Governments in the region are struggling to respond, with some enacting measures that further restrict the free flow of information and threaten press freedom. This briefing featured three expert panelists who each examined the implications of this emerging threat to the electoral process and explored opportunities for nations, state and local governments, the private sector, and civil society to collaborate to identify and mitigate disinformation’s corrosive effects.  Some of the more urgent concerns they noted were the increased politicization of the information space and the rise of nonstate actors.  Heather Conley, Senior Vice President for Europe, Eurasia, and the Arctic at the Center for Strategic International Studies, noted, “Russia does not create the weaknesses; they simply exploit them.  And this is where I think it’s very important to understand that in the U.S. system they’re exploiting, obviously, our partisanship.  So we are offering them the weakness, and then they use it wherever they can.” Nina Jankowicz, Disinformation Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center Science and Technology Information Program and author of the upcoming book How to Lose the Information War, said the goal is often simply to bombard the information space with so much conflicting information, the voter loses interest: “They want people to consume less news and to feel like participation at all stages of the process is futile, whether that means communicating with our elected representatives, participated in civil society, or even the act of voting itself.” She added that partisanship cannot be permitted to frame the response to disinformation. “Disinformation is not a partisan issue,” she said.  “If we’re to make any progress in protecting our democracies, we need to not only clearly recognize the threat that disinformation poses but reject its tactics whole cloth.  Any government that uses disinformation cannot hope to fight it.” Chatham House’s Sophia Ignatidou called for a US-EU approach to combatting disinformation that was rooted in international human rights. She noted, “The reason for doing that is that international human rights law is suitable to deal with an issue that doesn’t respect any physical boundaries.  And it can provide a more holistic view of the issue of disinformation which we are lacking sometimes.” Ignatidou also challenged one of the primary arguments that some of the big tech companies use to push back against regulation – freedom of expression – as misleading, because “the problem with disinformation is dissemination patterns and scale, not content, per se.  And freedom of speech does not equate [with] freedom of reach.” Other questions centered on the importance of OSCE election monitoring missions paying more attention to how disinformation impacts the atmosphere surrounding an election in the months leading up to it.  The discussion ended on a positive note as all three panelists, when asked to cite examples of successful efforts to mitigate disinformation, spoke about the importance of using trusted, credible voices at the grass-roots level and of building resilience among voters in a nonpartisan fashion.  Related Information Panelist Biographies Podcast: Helsinki on the Hill | Defending against Disinformation A Global Pandemic: Disinformation Hearing: The Scourge of Russian Disinformation Briefing: Lies, Bots, and Social Media

  • Helsinki Commission Chairman Condemns Reported U.S. Withdrawal from Open Skies Treaty, Calls For New START Extension

    WASHINGTON—Following reports that the Trump administration has notified other governments of its intent to withdraw from the Treaty on Open Skies, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) issued the following statement: “The Open Skies Treaty has underpinned transatlantic security for decades, and has always enjoyed bipartisan support precisely because of its contributions to our security and that of our allies and partners,” said Chairman Hastings. “The Trump administration’s ideological opposition to arms control agreements has undercut transparency and predictability in Europe at a time when U.S. leadership is needed most.  “The timing of this ill-advised decision so close to our elections is distasteful. The United States withdrawing from the Open Skies Treaty can only benefit Putin’s continuing campaign of aggression against Russia’s neighbors. I urge the administration to reconsider and instead work with Congress to double down on supporting our allies and partners in Europe, and particularly working to secure the prompt extension of the New START Treaty.” The Open Skies Treaty is designed to increase transparency, build confidence, and encourage cooperation among the United States, Russia, and 32 other participating states (including much of Europe as well as partners like Ukraine and Georgia), by permitting unarmed observation aircraft to fly over their entire territory to observe military forces and activities. The United States has conducted nearly three times as many flights over Russia as Russia has over the United States under the Treaty. The United States has also used the Treaty to support partners by conducting flights over hotspots such as the Ukraine-Russian border. The New START Treaty between the United States and Russia limits each side’s intercontinental ballistic missile launchers, nuclear-capable heavy bombers, and deployed nuclear warheads, and includes a substantial verification regime to ensure the sides comply with the Treaty’s terms. New START is due to expire in February 2021, unless both parties agree to extend it for no more than five years. 

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