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European Court Rules in Critical Czech Desegregation Case; Equal Access to Education for Roma Remains Goal
Tuesday, February 21, 2006

By Erika B. Schlager
Counsel for International Law

Summary

In 1999, several Romani students from the Czech Republic brought a suit before the European Court on Human Rights alleging that their assignment to “special schools” for the mentally disabled was tainted by racial prejudice and therefore violated European human rights law.  On February 7, 2006, a seven-member Chamber of the Court held that the applicants failed to prove that their placement in “special schools” was the singular result of intentional racial discrimination.  The plaintiffs have 3 months to appeal to a 17-member Grand Chamber.  Elsewhere in Central and Southern Europe, Roma are also pursuing efforts to achieve equal access to education.

Background

During the Communist-era, many East European countries developed a practice of channeling Roma into schools for children with mental disabilities, called “special schools.”  Critics have argued that this practice constitutes, de facto, a form of segregating Roma into a separate and inferior school system.

The Ostrava Case

“Unsatisfactory performance of Gypsy children in Czech and Slovak schools is often “solved” by transferring the children to special schools for the mentally retarded. During the school year of 1970-71 in the Czech lands alone, about 20% of Gypsy children attended these special schools as against only 3% of children from the rest of the population. According to psychological tests the great majority of these children should not be in these schools. This indiscriminate transferring of Gypsy children to these special schools, which is the general practice, reflects unfavorably on the whole Gypsy population. A child who “graduates” from such a school has the same standing as a child who did not finish his basic schooling. Access to better employment opportunities is closed. Even art schools are closed to them, while persons with special musical talent - not uncommon among Gypsies - are shunned. Musical and dance groups are interested in these talented persons, however, they cannot employ them.

“The main reason for the unsatisfactory performances of Gypsy children is the fact that there are no schools which teach Gypsy culture and try to develop it. The powers that be are, on the contrary, doing everything to suppress Gypsy culture and the media assists in this destruction by spreading lies, such as that Gypsy culture does not exist. Gypsy children are forced to attend schools where they are taught in the Czech or Slovak language and where, from the pictures in the primer, they get the impression that they are foreign, that they are second class citizens, without their own language, without a past and without a future.”  
- Situation of the Gypsies in Czechoslovakia, Charter 77 Document No. 23, issued December 13, 1978 by Vaclav Havel and Dr. Ladislav Hejdanek, Charter 77 Spokesmen

In 1999, a group of Roma from Ostrava, the Czech Republic’s third largest city, brought suit against their government, alleging that their assignment to “special schools” for the mentally disabled was tainted by racial prejudice and therefore violated Czech national and constitutional law, as well as European human rights law.

At the time the case was brought, a number of Czech newspapers ran editorials indirectly espousing some form of school segregation.  For example, one leading newspaper ran an article arguing that educating a “future plumber” and a “future brain surgeon” together ultimately benefits neither one.

On October 20, 1999, the Czech Constitutional Court rejected the plaintiffs’ claim.  In the view of the court, it did not have the jurisdiction to address the broad pattern of discriminatory treatment alleged – allegations supported by compelling statistical evidence but no smoking gun that proved an explicit intent to discriminate against the individual plaintiffs.

Notwithstanding the Constitutional Court’s perceived jurisdictional inability to provide a remedy to the plaintiffs, the Court recognized “the persuasiveness of the applicants’ arguments” and “assume[d] that the relevant administrative authorities of the Czech Republic shall intensively and effectively deal with the plaintiffs’ proposals.”

Having exhausted their domestic remedies, the students then turned to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, an organ of the Council of Europe.

In connection with that suit, Case of D.H. and Others v. The Czech Republic, the Czech Government acknowledged that, nationwide, 75 percent of Czech Roma were channeled into special schools.  In some special schools, Roma made up 80-90 percent of the student body.  The Czech Government also acknowledged that “Roman[i] children with average or above-average intellect [we]re often placed in such schools” for children with mental disability.

In opposing the plaintiffs’ claims, the Czech Ministry of Education attempted to deflect an examination of whether their placement in schools for the mentally disabled was the result of racial bias by claiming (among other things) that Romani parents have a “negative attitude” toward education. This assertion was particularly ironic, given the lengths to which the plaintiffs’ parents were willing to go – all the way to Europe’s highest human rights court – to ensure their children could get a good education.

“In countries with substantial Romani communities, it is commonplace for Romani children to attend schools that are largely comprised of Roma or to be relegated to Roma classes within mixed schools. In its most pernicious form, segregation is achieved by routing Romani children into ‘special schools’ – schools for the mentally disabled – or into classes for mentally disabled children within regular schools”.
- Report on the Situation of Roma and Sinti in the OSCE Area, issued by the OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities, 2000

Moreover, this broad sweeping generalization, originally made before the Czech Constitutional Court, was viewed by some as confirmation of racial prejudice in the Czech education system. Remarkably, it was repeated without comment in the European Court’s decision.  Putting aside the bias reflected in the Ministry of Education’s assertion, there is no evidence demonstrating that a parent’s “negative attitude” results in actual mental disability in his or her children.

Meanwhile, the Czech Government adopted some changes to the law on special schools which came into effect on January 1, 2005 (Law No. 561/2004) and on February 17, 2005 (Decree No. 73/2005).  To some degree, these changes were reactive to the issues raised by the Ostrava suit, including the criticisms of the procedures by which parental consent was purportedly obtained for the placement of children in special schools.  Nevertheless, non-governmental groups monitoring this situation argue that the changes have not dismantled an education system that remains effectively segregated and that the changes fail to provide redress or damages for the Romani plaintiffs from Ostrava who were denied equal access to mainstream schools.

The case in Strasbourg was heard by a seven-member Chamber of European Court and resulted in a 6-1 decision.  Significantly, the President of the Chamber issued a concurring decision, in which he stated that some of the arguments of the dissenting judge were very strong.  He also suggested that in order to hold that there had been a violation of the Convention in this case, the Chamber might have to depart from previous decisions of the Court.  In his view, overturning or deviating from past rulings is a task better undertaken by the Grand Chamber of the Court.  The applicants have three months to decide whether to appeal this decision to a 17-member Grand Chamber.

While the underlying issues which led Roma to bring this suit still persist, there are many indications that prejudices against Roma in the Czech Republic have diminished since the Ostrava case was first heard by the Czech Constitutional Court.  For example, when the European Court issued its holding in the case, a leading daily paper wrote that although the Czech Government “won” its case, there were still significant problems for Roma in the Czech educational system that needed to be addressed.

Limitations of the European Court Decision

Significantly, there were several issues the court did not address.

The suit in question was brought under Article 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which is the non-discrimination provision of the Convention, in conjunction with Article 2 of Protocol 1 to the Convention, which provides for a right to education.  In essence, discrimination in education based on race, ethnicity or social origin is prohibited.

When interpreting this standard, the Court referred to previous cases in which it held that States party to the European Convention “enjoy a certain margin of appreciation in assessing whether and to what extent differences in otherwise similar situations justify a difference in treatment.”  The Court also reiterated “that the setting and planning of the curriculum falls in principle within the competence of the Contracting States.”  In short, while European Convention norms prohibit discrimination in education, States still have considerable discretion in designing their education programs.  But while the Court reiterated this jurisprudence, it failed to indicate what is meaningfully left of Articles 14 and Protocol 1, Article 2?  What threshold must be crossed before the court will actually determine that alleged discrimination takes a case out of the discretion of the States party to the Convention and brings it within the reach of the Court?

Two other issues the court did not address do not relate so much to the court’s own jurisprudence, but from parallel developments in European Union norms in the field of non-discrimination.

“The European Parliament [ . . . c]alls on Member States in which Roma children are segregated into schools for the mentally disabled or placed in separate classrooms from their peers to move forward with desegregation programmes within a predetermined period of time, thus ensuring free access to quality education for Roma children and preventing the rise of anti-Romani sentiment amongst school-children.”
- European Parliament resolution on the situation of the Roma in the European Union, adopted April 25, 2005

In 2000, the European Union adopted “Directive 2000/43/EC of 29 June 2000 implementing the principle of equal treatment between persons irrespective of racial or ethnic origin,” more commonly known as the “Race Directive.”  The directive is binding on all current 25 Member States of the European Union and is intended to ensure a minimum level of protection from race discrimination in all EU countries in several areas, including education.  (The fifteen countries that were EU members as of 2000 had until July 19, 2003, to transfer the directive into national law; applicant countries had until the date of their accession.  The Czech Republic joined the EU in 2004 but, in fact, it has not yet adopted comprehensive anti-discrimination legislation.  Legislation was introduced in the parliament in late 2005, but the draft was narrowly rejected by the Senate in January 2006.)

The Race Directive requires Member States to adopt comprehensive anti-discrimination legislation that, among other things, requires anti-discrimination legislation to include both direct and indirect discrimination.  Indirect discrimination, which is at issue in the Ostrava case, is defined by the directive as occurring when “an apparently neutral provision, criterion or practice would put persons of a racial or ethnic origin at a particular disadvantage compared with other persons, unless that provision, criterion or practice is objectively justified by a legitimate aim and the means of achieving that aim are proportionate and necessary.”  The legislation should also shift the burden of proof in civil cases from the plaintiffs to the defendants once a prima facie case of discrimination has been made.

Thus, the EU Race Directive anticipates exactly the kind of case the plaintiffs in the Ostrava case presented.  Under the provisions of the directive, the overwhelming pattern of disparate treatment of Roma demonstrated by the plaintiffs should shift the burden of proof from them to the Czech Government.  (Notably, the directive was not applicable to the Czech Republic at the time of the Constitutional Court’s decision.)

While the European Court of Human Rights does not adjudicate compliance with or implementation of the EU Race Directive, the Court’s overall approach to the Ostrava case appears to lag behind the legal developments in the European Union and, potentially, render the European Court a less effective vehicle for addressing discrimination than other existing or emerging tools in Europe.

Regional Issues and Trends

On November 27, 2003, the OSCE Permanent Council adopted “Decision No. 566, Action Plan on Improving the Situation of Roma and Sinti within the OSCE Area.”  In particular, that Action Plan calls on the participating States to “[e]nsure that national legislation includes adequate provisions banning racial segregation and discrimination in education and provides effective remedies for violations of such legislation.”  In addition, participating States were urged to:

73.  Develop and implement comprehensive school desegregation programmes aiming at:

 (1) discontinuing the practice of systematically routing Roma children to special schools or classes (e.g., schools for mentally disabled persons, schools and classes exclusively designed for Roma and Sinti children); and

 (2) transferring Roma children from special schools to mainstream schools.

74. Allocate financial resources for the transfer of the Roma children to mainstream education and for the development of school support programmes to ease the transition to mainstream education.

Thus, all OSCE participating States, including the Czech Republic, have agreed, in principle, to the goal of integrating Roma in education and eradicating de facto segregated school where it may exist.

In 2004, the European Roma Rights Center issued a report, Stigmata: Segregated Schooling of Roma in Central and Eastern Europe, examining the experiences of five countries (Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Romania, and Slovakia).  The report describes the most common ways of segregating Romani children from non-Roma: channeling Roma into “special schools” for children with developmental disabilities; the de facto segregation that goes hand-in-hand with existence of Romani ghettos; having mixed-population schools where Romani children are segregated into all-Romani classes; and the refusal of some local authorities to enroll Romani children in mainstream schools. The report concludes that, unfortunately, “with the exception of Hungary, concrete government action aimed at desegregating the school system has not been initiated to date.”

In addition to the countries examined in Stigmata, the European Roma Rights Center has reported on unequal access to education for Roma in other countries, including Greece and Denmark.  In a 2004 Danish case, Roma were placed into separate classes in one particular locality.  Following complaints from a Romani non-governmental organization, the Danish Ministry of Education intervened to end this practice.  In the case of Greece, the Greek Helsinki Monitor has reported on several localities where Roma are denied equal access to schools.  These cases remain unresolved.

In Hungary and Bulgaria, some efforts to litigate this issue have made their way into the courts, with mixed results.

“Education is a prerequisite to the participation of Roma and Sinti people in the political, social and economic life of their respective countries on a footing of equality with others. Strong immediate measures in this field, particularly those that foster school attendance and combat illiteracy, should be assigned the highest priority both by decision-makers and by Roma and Sinti communities. Educational policies should aim to integrate Roma and Sinti people into mainstream education by providing full and equal access at all levels, while remaining sensitive to cultural differences.”
- OSCE Action Plan on Improving the Situation of Roma and Sinti within the OSCE Area, 2003

In October 2004, the Budapest Metropolitan City Court of Appeals upheld a lower court decision ordering a primary school and the local government of Tiszatarjan to pay damages to nine Romani families whose children were wrongly placed in “special schools” between 1994 and 1999.  In June 2005, a court dismissed a case brought against the Miskolc Municipality alleging city-wide segregation.  A Hungarian non-governmental organization which assisted in filing the suit, Chance for Children Foundation, is appealing.  Other legal disputes continue to surround a self-proclaimed “private school” in Jaszladany (established at least in part with municipal resources).  A study commissioned by the Ministry of Education found the “private school” violated the law and contributed to racial segregation.

Notwithstanding some recent government initiatives to address this problem in Hungary, desegregation initiatives have met resistance in significant quarters.  Former Prime Minister Victor Orban (who also heads of Hungary’s largest opposition party, FIDESZ), argued in a speech on January 29, 2006, that integrated schooling should not be mandatory, but left to local officials and parents to “choose” or reject.  In fact, the greatest resistance to integrated schooling often comes at the local level.

In Bulgaria – where the government continues to deal with Roma through an office for “demographic issues” – efforts to address the causes of segregation have largely originated with the non-governmental community.  Particularly promising results have been achieved in Viden, where community-based efforts, supported by international non-governmental organizations, have resulted in integrating Roma and ethnic Bulgarian school children.  Efforts to replicate that program elsewhere, however, have not been embraced by the government.

In addition, in a landmark holding, the Sofia District Court held on October 25, 2005, that the Bulgarian Ministry of Education, the Sofia Municipality and School Number 103 of Sofia violated the prohibition of racial segregation and unequal treatment provided in Bulgarian and international law.   In welcoming that ruling, the European Roma Rights Center declared, “After a period of 51 years, the soul of Brown v. Board of Education has crossed the Atlantic.”

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Delegation members then traveled to Birmingham, UK, for the Annual Session of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (PA). Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09) was Head of the U.S. Delegation to the PA and spearheaded U.S. efforts to forge a strong, unified response from international legislators to Russia’s ongoing war of aggression against Ukraine and its people. “All OSCE parliamentarians must stand in solidarity with our Ukrainian colleagues as they battle the Kremlin’s vicious, intolerable war on Ukraine,” said Co-Chairman Cohen. “We must do all in our power—through this forum and all others—to ensure that Ukraine is victorious against Russian aggression.” During the Annual Session, parliamentarians overwhelmingly approved a resolution introduced jointly by Sen. Wicker and the heads of the Ukrainian and Lithuanian delegations, responding to Russia’s war on the Ukrainian people and the greater Russian threat to European security. The document “condemns resolutely and unequivocally the ongoing, intensified, clear, gross and still uncorrected violations of Helsinki Principles as well as of fundamental principles of international law by the Government of the Russian Federation in its war of aggression against Ukraine, as well as the complicity of Belarus in this war of aggression, and calls on the governments of OSCE participating States to do the same.” Several members of the U.S. Delegation successfully introduced more than two dozen amendments, designed to keep the focus on Russia’s current aggression, to an array of other resolutions. In Birmingham, the delegation also co-hosted an event highlighting the growing problem of political repression in Russia and Belarus, especially in the context of protesting the war on Ukraine; met with Mikhail Khodorkovsky to discuss his organization’s work to support political prisoners and democracy in Russia; and held bilateral meetings with the UK’s parliamentary leadership, OSCE officials, parliamentarians from other OSCE countries. Helsinki Commissioner Rep. Richard Hudson (NC-08) was re-elected to his post as chair of the OSCE PA’s Committee on Political Affairs and Security. Following the Annual Session, the congressional delegation stopped in Finland and Sweden to welcome the historic decision of both countries to join the NATO Alliance. In Finland, members met with President Sauli Niinistö, and Finnish parliamentarians including First Deputy Speaker Antti Rinne and OSCE PA Vice President Pia Kauma. In Sweden, they met with Foreign Minister Ann Linde, Deputy Defense Minister Jan Olof-Lin, and a group of members of the Swedish parliament, led by Speaker Andreas Norlén and OSCE PA President Margareta Cederfelt. In addition to Co-Chairman Cohen, Sen. Wicker, and Rep. Hudson, the Congressional delegation included Helsinki Commission Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02), Commissioners Rep. Robert Aderholt (AL-04), Rep. Ruben Gallego (AZ-07), and Rep. Marc Veasey (TX-33), as well as Sen. John Cornyn (TX), Rep. Lloyd Doggett (TX-35), Rep. John Garamendi (CA-03), Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (TX-18), Rep. August Pfluger (TX-11) and Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04).

  • Black Sea Security Summit

    On the heels of the 2022 NATO Summit in Madrid, on July 1 the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, convened its first-ever multilateral dialogue among key regional allies and partners on Black Sea security. At this historic event on the shores of the Black Sea, members of the U.S. Congress, senior-level government officials from the region, and key international partners came together in a roundtable format to underscore the critical importance of the Black Sea region to European peace and security, and to establish a sustainable, collective approach to ending Russian aggression and enhancing mutual cooperation.   Co-chaired by Helsinki Commission Ranking Member Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) and Minister Bogdan Aurescu, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Romania, the summit featured a timely and collaborative exchange exploring major themes pertaining to regional security challenges: confronting Russian aggression and the relevance of the Black Sea to Euro-Atlantic security. The co-chairs were joined by senior-level regional government officials and a bipartisan delegation of members of both the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives, including Sen. John Cornyn, Rep. Joe Wilson, Rep. Richard Hudson, Rep. Ruben Gallego, Rep. John Garamendi, Rep. Robert Aderholt, and Rep. August Pfluger. Other participants included: Romania Minister Bogdan Aurescu, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Romania State Secretary Simona Cojocaru, State Secretary and Chief of the Department for Defense Policy, Planning and International Relations, Ministry of Defense of Romania MP Pavel Popsescu, Member of the Romanian Parliament; Chair, Defense Committee MP Ana Cătăuță, Member of the Romanian Parliament Ukraine Deputy Minister Oleksandr Polishchuk, Deputy Minister of Defense of Ukraine MP Alexander Goncharenko, Member of the Ukrainian Parliament Bulgaria Deputy Minister Yordan Bozhilov, Deputy Minister of Defense of Bulgaria Ambassador Radko Vlaykov, Ambassador of Bulgaria to Romania MP Kaloyan Ikonomov, Member of the Bulgarian Parliament; Chair, Bulgaria – USA Friendship Group Georgia First Deputy Minister Lasha Darsalia, First Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of Georgia Ambassador Nikoloz Nikolozishvili, Ambassador of Georgia to Romania Turkey Ambassador Füsun Aramaz, Ambassador of Turkey to Romania NATO Deputy Secretary General Mircea Geoană, Deputy Secretary General of NATO U.S. European Command Major General Jessica Meyeraan (USAF), Director of Exercises and Assessments, U.S. European Command Relevance of the Black Sea to Euro-Atlantic Security During the summit, participants underscored the importance of security in the Black Sea littoral in the face of Russian aggression. Deputy Secretary General of NATO, General Mircea Geoanӑ, emphasized the importance of the Black Sea to Euro-Atlantic security, stating that the region reflects “broader competition between revisionist and brutal and aggressive Russia and our democratic world.” According to General Geoanӑ, NATO is committed to supporting Ukraine through military, financial, and humanitarian means and providing security in the Black Sea littoral that reestablishes freedom of movement, shipping, and navigation. Bulgarian Deputy Minister of Defense, Yordan Bozhilov noted that the Russian invasion of Ukraine “has far-reaching destabilization implications at the regional level and beyond,” including the resulting energy and food crises. Georgian First Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, Lasha Darsalia, emphasized the political, economic, and security importance of the Black Sea region to Georgia and highlighted increased security in the region as an opportunity to increase “international cooperation and connectivity.”  He recalled Georgia’s support for Ukraine in the face of Russian aggression, characterizing the invasion of Ukraine as another step in Russia’s malign attempt to control the Black Sea region. U.S. Representative August Pfluger stressed the importance of the Black Sea region to energy security in the pursuit of decreasing dependence on Russian energy. Confronting Russian Aggression Throughout the summit, participants called for increased unity to confront Russian aggression. Ukrainian Member of Parliament, Alexander Goncharenko, requested a stronger NATO and US presence in Ukraine, after powerfully highlighting Ukrainian bravery in the face of Russian hostility. In reference to Russia’s weaponization of Ukrainian grain supply and the expansion of NATO, Gonchareko stated, “It is very good that the free world is finally uniting, but we must show strength. The first place we must show strength is in the Black Sea, as a humanitarian mission, to save millions of people. Thousands are killed in Ukraine, but millions will die from starvation.” Turkish Ambassador to Romania Füsun Aramaz underscored her country’s support of Ukrainian sovereignty. She acknowledged the common security goals of all participants at the summit and desires close alignment with NATO, but warned against over-militarization of the region, citing a potential to violate the Montreux Convention. “More vessels at sea or more fighter aircraft in the air alone do not mean more deterrence or stronger defense,” she stated. U.S. Major General Jessica Meyeraan of the United States European Command explained that the United States is supporting Ukraine by increasing understanding of Ukrainian security assistance requirements and “collaborating across over 40 nations to understand how we can quickly and effectively satisfy those security cooperation requirements.” Minister Aurescu explained that the projects that maintain regional security structures are the result of bilateral relationships between the United States and various littoral states and are essential in the face of Russian aggression and illiberalism that has resulted in regional and global crises. He also called to “increase the scale and visibility of the U.S. presence in the region,” beyond just a military presence through the creation of a multifaceted strategy based on strategic resilience. Rep. Hudson noted that “NATO stands ready” in the face of increasing threats in the region. In addition, Rep. Gallego emphasized the importance of deterrence by denial, clarifying that this sort of offensive is only possible through a completely integrated defensive approach.

  • HELSINKI COMMISSION DIGITAL DIGEST JUNE 2022

  • Helsinki Commission to Convene Black Sea Security Summit in Constanta, Romania

    WASHINGTON—On the heels of the 2022 NATO Summit in Madrid, on July 1 the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, will convene its first-ever multilateral dialogue among key regional allies and partners on Black Sea security. At this historic event on the shores of the Black Sea, members of the U.S. Congress, senior-level government officials from the region, and key international partners will come together in a roundtable format to underscore the critical importance of the Black Sea region to European peace and security, and to establish a sustainable, collective approach to ending Russian aggression and enhancing mutual cooperation. BLACK SEA SECURITY SUMMIT A Roundtable Dialogue Hosted by the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe Friday, July 1, 2022 1:00 p.m. (UTC+3) Constanța Art Museum Constanța, Romania Watch Live: https://youtu.be/DZskl6-k6No The Black Sea Security Summit plenary will feature a timely and collaborative exchange across two sessions exploring major themes pertaining to regional security challenges: Session 1: Confronting Russian Aggression Session 2: Relevance of the Black Sea to Euro-Atlantic Security The Black Sea Security Summit will be chaired by Helsinki Commission Ranking Member Sen. Roger Wicker (MS), who will be joined by a bipartisan delegation of members of both the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives. Regional participants include: Minister Bogdan Aurescu, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Romania State Secretary Simona Cojocaru, State Secretary and Chief of the Department for Defense Policy, Planning and International Relations, Ministry of Defense of Romania Minister Oleksii Reznikov, Minister of Defense of Ukraine First Deputy Minister Lasha Darsalia, First Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of Georgia Deputy Minister Yordan Bozhilov, Deputy Minister of Defense of Bulgaria Ambassador Füsun Aramaz, Ambassador of Turkey to Romania Ambassador Radko Vlaykov, Ambassador of Bulgaria to Romania MP Alexander Goncharenko, Member of the Ukrainian Parliament MP Kaloyan Ikonomov, Member of the Bulgarian Parliament; Chair, Bulgaria – USA Friendship Group Deputy Secretary General Mircea Geoană, Deputy Secretary General of NATO Major General Jessica Meyeraan (USAF), Director of Exercises and Assessments, U.S. European Command Members of the media must email stuparsa@state.gov in advance to attend this event. Preregistration closes Thursday, June 30, at 12:00 p.m. (UTC+3).

  • The Helsinki Process: An Overview

    In August 1975, the heads of state or government of 35 countries – the Soviet Union and all of Europe except Albania, plus the United States and Canada – held a historic summit in Helsinki, Finland, where they signed the Final Act of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe. This document is known as the Helsinki Final Act or the Helsinki Accords. The Conference, known as the CSCE, continued with follow-up meetings and is today institutionalized as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, or OSCE, based in Vienna, Austria. Learn more about the signature of the Helsinki Final Act; the role that the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe played during the Cold War; how the Helsinki Process successfully adapted to the post-Cold War environment of the 1990s; and how today's OSCE can and does contribute to regional security, now and in the future.

  • Helsinki Commission Applauds European Commission Recommendation to Grant Ukraine and Moldova Candidate Status

    WASHINGTON—Following the European Commission’s recommendation that Ukraine and Moldova be granted EU candidate status, Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), and Ranking Members Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) and Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) issued the following joint statement: “We applaud the historic decision of the European Commission to recommend EU candidate status for Ukraine and Moldova. All countries have the sovereign right to choose their own alliances and determine their own foreign policies. The people of Ukraine and Moldova have long cherished the dream of integration with the Euro-Atlantic West. The European Commission’s recommendation rewards their persistent efforts to pursue these aspirations, even in the face of relentless Russian aggression.  “The people of Georgia also have sacrificed much for their European identity over several decades, despite Russian warmongering and the challenges of painful reforms. They have demonstrated that they can rise to the challenge if and when the path is clear.  We believe they too should be offered an equally concrete roadmap to EU membership.  “Ahead of this week’s European Council meeting, we encourage our European friends to grant all three countries candidate status. The path to liberal democracy is never without occasional setbacks and detours, and always in need of vigilance, careful effort, and compromise. We believe candidate status will give all three countries a fighting chance in their common European dream.” On June 17, the European Commission recommended that Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia be provided pathways to EU membership and that Ukraine and Moldova be conferred candidate status with conditions. On June 23 – 24, the European Council will make its final decision regarding the three countries’ pending applications for EU membership.

  • Cardin, Wicker Recognition of Romani Americans Clears Senate Foreign Relations Committee by Voice Vote

    WASHINGTON—Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) and Ranking Member Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) lauded unanimous passage in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Thursday of S. Res.124, the first official acknowledgement by Congress of the genocide of the Romani people by the Nazis. The resolution, first authored by Cardin and Wicker in 2019 and reintroduced last year, also honors the history, culture and heritage of the estimated one million Romani people in the United States. It also commends the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum for its work promoting awareness of the Roma genocide. “Romani people have been part of every wave of European migration to the United States since colonial  times, and have settled in every region of the country, so it is inconceivable that today, 2022, is the first time Congress has recognized their incredibly rich history, culture and heritage,” said Senator Cardin, who is a member of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum Council. “Senator Wicker and I first introduced this resolution with the intent of shedding light on the many ways Romani Americans enrich the fabric of our nation, recognize a deadly chapter in Romani history, and, importantly, shine a light on the ongoing discrimination Roma face on both sides of the Atlantic. I believe more should be done to teach about Romani experiences during the Holocaust and in modern times.” “The Romani people are an important part of the American story, and they have proven resilient in the face of historic mistreatment,” Senator Wicker said. “This measure would raise awareness about their experience during the evils of the Holocaust. Remembering the past is essential to building a better future.” The Romani people have faced centuries of discrimination in both Europe and the United States. Though we have taken inspiration from their art and culture, Roma have been categorically excluded from many modern societies. During the Holocaust, the Romani people were subject to genocide at the hands of Nazi soldiers; it is estimated that anywhere between 250,000 and 500,000 Roma lost their lives during this time. On the night of August 2-3, 1994, 4,200 Romani men, women, and children were murdered during the liquidation of the Romani camp at Auschwitz. This date is now formally recognized as a day of commemoration by the European Union and other countries. April 8, the date of the first World Romani Congress in 1971, is now recognized as International Romani Day. The Cardin-Wicker resolution commends the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum for its work in promoting remembrance of the Holocaust and educating about the genocide of Roma. USHMM welcomed the introduction of this resolution last year, observing, “House and Senate passage will help raise awareness about the history of the Romani people, the richness of Romani culture, and to unequivocally reject the dehumanization of Roma and any violence directed against their communities.” The text of the resolution can be found below and at this link.   S. Res 124 Celebrating the heritage of Romani Americans. Whereas the Romani people trace their ancestry to the Indian subcontinent; Whereas Roma have been a part of European immigration to the United States since the colonial period and particularly following the abolition of the enslavement of Roma in the historic Romanian principalities; Whereas Roma live across the world and throughout the United States; Whereas the Romani people have made distinct and important contributions in many fields, including agriculture, art, crafts, literature, medicine, military service, music, sports, and science; Whereas, on April 8, 1971, the First World Romani Congress met in London, bringing Roma together from across Europe and the United States with the goal of promoting transnational cooperation among Roma in combating social marginalization and building a positive future for Roma everywhere; Whereas April 8 is therefore celebrated globally as International Roma Day; Whereas Roma were victims of genocide carried out by Nazi Germany and its Axis partners, and an estimated 200,000 to 500,000 Romani people were killed by Nazis and their allies across Europe during World War II; Whereas, on the night of August 2–3, 1944, the so-called “Gypsy Family Camp” where Romani people were interned at Auschwitz-Birkenau was liquidated, and in a single night, between 4,200 and 4,300 Romani men, women, and children were killed in gas chambers; Whereas many countries are taking positive steps to remember and teach about the genocide of Roma by Nazi Germany and its Axis partners; and Whereas the United States Congress held its first hearing to examine the situation of Roma in 1994: Now, therefore, be it Resolved, That the Senate— (1) remembers the genocide of Roma by Nazi Germany and its Axis partners and commemorates the destruction of the “Gypsy Family Camp” where Romani people were interned at Auschwitz; (2) commends the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum for its role in promoting remembrance of the Holocaust and educating about the genocide of Roma; (3) supports International Roma Day as an opportunity to honor the culture, history, and heritage of the Romani people in the United States as part of the larger Romani global diaspora; and (4) welcomes the Department of State’s participation in ceremonies and events celebrating International Roma Day and similar engagement by the United States Government.

  • European Energy Security Post-Russia

    Russia is weaponizing energy to prolong its unlawful invasion of Ukraine. Unfortunately, the sanctions that Europe and the United States have put in place have not been enough to curb Russian aggression thus far and the European Union pays Russia almost a billion euros a day for energy resources—mostly gas— that fund the Russian war machine.  Germany, in particular, has struggled to move away from its dependence on Russian gas. At the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Germany imported 55 percent of its gas from Russia. As of June 2022, Russian gas imports had decreased to 35 percent, with a goal to decrease to 10 percent by 2024, but progress is slow and buying any energy from Russia means that Germany continues to fund their unlawful invasion. Dr. Benjamin Schmitt, Research Associate at Harvard University and Senior Fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis, pointed to the resurgence of Ostpolitik, a German diplomatic theory which seeks to build relationships and spread good governance through trade. First introduced in the Cold War era, Ostpolitik was put into action once more in the early 2000s by former Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, who became infamous for lobbying for Kremlin-backed projects in office and for sitting on the board of the Russian state-owned energy company, Gazprom, after leaving office. However, Russia attempted to leverage such projects, including the Nord Stream 1 project and its ultimately bankrupted predecessor, Nord Stream 2, to increase the vulnerability of Western Europe toward Russia. According to Dr. Constanze Stelzenmüller, Senior Fellow at Brookings Institution, domestic political will exists in Germany to diversify energy sources, even if most are wary of making those changes immediately. German polling shows that one-third of Germans are willing to cut off Russian gas immediately, while two-thirds would prefer a slow gradual decrease in gas. Dr. Stelzenmüller explained that if Germany were to immediately cut off Russian gas supplies, it is likely that a recession would affect not only Germany, but also many surrounding Eastern European countries, most of which have less capacity to manage a recession. She stated, “Much of [Germany’s] manufacturing supply chains go deep into Eastern Europe. So, a recession in Germany would absolutely produce a massive, and perhaps worse, recession in our neighboring economies.”  Any actions taken against Russia should ensure that sanctions hit Russia harder than those countries imposing the sanctions. Mr. Yuriy Vitrenko, CEO of Naftogaz Ukraine, and Dr. Schmitt also emphasized the importance of the following recommendations outlined in the REPowerEU plan, the European Commission’s plan to make Europe independent from Russian energy before 2030, and the International Working Group on Russia Sanctions Energy Roadmap: Full European/US embargos on Russian gas. Creation of a special escrow account that will hold net proceeds due to Russia until the Kremlin ceases all hostilities. Diversification of energy dependance away from Russia through energy diplomacy that identifies other potential suppliers, like Qatar. Funding and construction of energy infrastructure around Europe. Termination of Gazprom ownership of all critical energy infrastructure in Europe. Designation of Russia as a state sponsor of terrorism, which would automatically trigger secondary sanctions on any country that imports Russian goods. Sanctioning of all Russian banks. Strengthening of Ukrainian capacity to participate in the energy sector through the creation of modern energy infrastructure during the post-war reconstruction period. Pass the Stop Helping America’s Malign Enemies (SHAME) Act, banning former U.S. government officials from seeking employment by Russian state-owned-enterprises, or Schroederization. Related Information Witness Biographies

  • European Energy Security Focus of Upcoming Helsinki Commission Hearing

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following hearing: EUROPEAN ENERGY SECURITY POST-RUSSIA Tuesday, June 7, 2022 2:30 p.m. Watch live: www.youtube.com/HelsinkiCommission The United States and European allies have largely cut Russia out of the global economy following its full-scale invasion of Ukraine. However, given European reliance on Russian natural gas and oil, sweeping energy sanctions have lagged. The European Union spends nearly a billion euros a day on Russian energy, and several EU Member States are struggling to wean themselves off Russian resources in order to implement a full embargo. This hearing will examine plans to create a Europe that is wholly free from Russian oil and gas. Witnesses will discuss the importance of a robust energy embargo to starving the Russian war machine; options to ensure that Ukraine’s energy needs are met; alternative sources of energy for Europe; and the perspective of Germany, which plays an outsize role as the most powerful economy in Europe and a primary consumer of Russian natural resources. The following witnesses are scheduled to participate: Yuriy Vitrenko, CEO, Naftogaz Ukraine Constanze Stelzenmüller, Senior Fellow, Brookings Institution Benjamin Schmitt, Research Associate, Harvard University; Senior Fellow, Democratic Resilience Program at the Center for European Policy Analysis

  • Russia Critics Press Congress for Curbing Moscow's Role in International Groups

    Critics of Moscow pressed lawmakers to sever remaining international connections with Moscow and punish what they called enablers of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s government—including Russian tycoons. “We recognize that the oligarchs are the appendages of Mr. Putin’s mafia state,” said Sen. Ben Cardin (D., Md.), the co-chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, known as the Helsinki Commission, which held a hearing Wednesday on Russia's financial ties abroad. “I can’t wait to see police tape around mansions in Miami," said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D., R.I.). Witnesses before the commission, a U.S. agency that has frequently scrutinized Moscow, sought to portray Russian billionaires and their network of lawyers and agents in the West as little different from Russian government employees and its lawyers abroad. Bill Browder, a prominent critic of the Kremlin’s human-rights record, called on the U.S. to withdraw from the mutual legal-assistance treaty that allows U.S. and Russian law enforcement to cooperate on investigations and secure witness testimony. Western countries should ban lawyers paid by the Russian government in one country from traveling to their countries, he said. The Kremlin used the Interpol international law-enforcement network in an effort to arrest Mr. Browder after his lawyer died in a Russian prison in 2009. Mr. Browder, who founded investment fund Hermitage Capital, said the U.S. and partner countries should seek to remove Moscow from Interpol or “basically threaten the funding of Interpol if Russia is not expelled.” Mr. Browder was the largest private investor in Russia until his expulsion from that country in 2005. Moscow should also lose its membership and face blacklisting by the Financial Action Task Force, a Paris-based intergovernmental body that audits the ability of nations to detect and disrupt illicit finance, said Daria Kaleniuk, co-founder of the Anti-Corruption Action Center in Ukraine. Mr. Browder and Ms. Kaleniuk were among five witnesses at the hearing.

  • Helsinki Commission Digital Digest March 2022

  • Containing Russia

    Russian dictator Vladimir Putin’s war on the Ukrainian people is an urgent threat to European security and global peace. Should his destructive gambit succeed in Ukraine, Russia will have dramatically expanded its de-facto border with NATO—including through a soft annexation of Belarus—as well as its ability to destabilize the democracies of Central and Western Europe.  Russian military success would threaten to draw a new iron curtain across Europe, dividing those protected by NATO’s security guarantees from those left exposed to Russian predation. This division could lead to significant remilitarization, a reappearance of Cold War tensions, and a reversion to historic cycles of European conflict. Beyond Europe, revisionist powers would be emboldened, and the United States and its Allies would be less able to deter them.  On March 23, 2022, the Helsinki Commission heard testimony from a panel of witnesses who recommended ways to deter Russian dictator Vladimir Putin’s from further escalating his unprovoked attack on Ukraine. Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) opened the hearing by denouncing Mr. Putin as a war criminal, calling for accountability for the heinous war crimes currently being committed in Ukraine. He lauded the heroism of the Ukrainian people and recognized Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky as a champion of democracy. “They’re an inspiration to all of us,” he stated. “President Zelensky [is] there fighting for the sovereignty of Ukraine, but he’s also fighting for the sovereignty of the free world.” Ranking Member Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) welcomed the assistance the United States already has provided, while simultaneously calling for greater action. “I call on the President today, the Secretary of State, and the White House to unleash the full package of sanctions that are available to them,” he said, “and to enhance the weaponry that we have already made available to our friends in Ukraine.” Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09) and Sen. Richard Blumenthal (CT) pledged  to support Ukraine and called for the facilitation of additional weaponry to the Ukrainian army and implementation of stronger economic sanctions of Russian oligarchs and their enablers. Before the witnesses testified, Ukrainian Ambassador to the United States Oksana Markarova addressed the commission, denouncing the Russian invasion of Ukraine as a violation of international law and a greater threat to the democratic world. “So what is happening in Ukraine is not only about Ukraine,” she asserted. “The very foundation of the world rule-based order, as we all knew and respected it after World War II, has been under attack today.” General Phillip Breedlove, former commander of U.S. European Command and NATO’s former Supreme Allied Commander Europe, testified that the Western response to Russia’s invasion has been almost entirely limited to economic measures, with no formidable action taken thus far in the diplomatic, informational, or military sphere. He supported the implementation of humanitarian corridors and humanitarian airlifts, both protected by NATO-enforced humanitarian no-fly zones. “We have allowed Mr. Putin to accomplish both the goals of deterring us and gaining initiative,” he stated. “I’m advocating that we and our Western partners reevaluate our strategic approach: Mr. Putin should be deterred, vice we in the West[HS1] . This requires moving away from a passive deterrent posture to affecting a more active deterrence.” Dr. Michael Kimmage, fellow at the German Marshall Fund and Department Chair at Catholic University of America, warned of historical precedents regarding containment of the Soviet Union, and how it applies contemporarily to Russia’s war in Ukraine. “Policy success should be measured not against maximalist dreams in which Putin, and with him Russian military power, exit the scene. Russian power is here to stay. Policy success should be measured against the much more achievable goal of containing this very power,” he said. Dr. Miriam Lanskoy, senior director for Russia and Eurasia at the National Endowment of Democracy, warned of the dangers of potentially isolating the Russian public from the global internet and media. She advocated for engaging with Russian citizens, while simultaneously opposing the Russian government. “Distinguish between Putin’s regime and its various enablers and the Russian people, preserve support and amplify the voices of Russian democrats now fleeing the country and those who remain inside,” she recommended. Related Information Witness Biographies

  • Doing More

    Russian dictator Vladimir Putin’s criminal war has enraged citizens of goodwill and galvanized support for Ukraine across the world. The United States has been a key supporter of Ukraine, providing weaponry, humanitarian relief, and other forms of urgent assistance, in addition to leveling crippling sanctions on Russia. However, Russian forces continue to bombard Ukrainian cities, targeting civilians and critical infrastructure. Russia’s brutal war is causing an unprecedented humanitarian catastrophe in Ukraine, and observers worry that Putin may next use chemical or other weapons of mass destruction. On March 16, President Zelenskyy appealed to the U.S. Congress to render additional aid to Ukraine, including the possibility of enforcing a no-fly zone. The briefing, held on March 18, 2022, explored the various military strategies available to the West in its defense of Ukraine. Panelists examined Ukraine’s militaristic capabilities, as well as the various risks associated with implementing military recommendations, such as humanitarian air corridors or NATO-enforced no-fly zones. Panelists at the briefing included General Wesley Clark, founder of Renew America Together and senior Fellow at the UCLA Burkle Center for International Relations; Dr. Stacie Pettyyjohn, senior fellow and director of the Defense Program at the Center for a New American Security; and Dr. Matthew Kroenig, director of the Scowcroft Strategy Initiative at the Atlantic Council. Helsinki Commission Senior Policy Advisor Michael Hikari Cecire moderated the briefing. Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09) opened the briefing by reaffirming his support for the facilitation of transferring Polish fighter jets to Ukraine, as well as his confidence in the strength and capability of the Ukrainian military. “The Ukrainian army has proven to be [pretty good] at knowing what they can do with their equipment,” he said. “It’s a conflict between rule of law and rule of gun.” Mr. Cecire explained that despite Russia’s obvious military advantages, the Ukrainian military has thus far successfully stymied Russian aggression. Unfortunately, as Russian forces grow frustrated with their lack of military progress, they have become increasingly indiscriminate in their attacks, targeting innocent Ukrainian civilians, and bombarding critical infrastructure, such as shelters and hospitals. General Clark advocated for a humanitarian airlift, implemented with U.N. approval, and a no-fly zone, as requested by Ukraine. He asserted that Russian dictator Vladimir Putin will eventually strike NATO territory with missiles, and that Putin’s threats of nuclear escalation should not deter Western states from defending a rules-based international order. “There’s a fallacy here, that somehow NATO inaction will translate into Putin’s refusal to escalate. This is a logical fallacy,” he said. “Putin will escalate as necessary to obtain his objectives. So I’m trying to find a third course of action between Ukrainian defense and Russian escalation, which is to provide the firebreak of a humanitarian rescue mission assigned into various locations that puts a firebreak into the fighting that could lead to a ceasefire, that could lead eventually to, coupled with the sanctions, a Russian pullback and withdrawal.” Dr. Pettyjohn discussed the risks of implementing humanitarian no-fly zones or humanitarian corridors, deeming them potentially escalatory and ineffective. A better alternative, she argued, would be for the international community to arm the Ukrainian people with mobile short-, medium-, and long-range air defenses, and to continue to provide precision standoff weapons. “The international community should help Ukraine, but not by following the post-Cold War playbook of implementing a no-fly zone,” she stated. “Against Russia, a no-fly zone would be even more difficult to implement and may not succeed… and it raises the potential for limited, or even more extensive than that, nuclear use, which is not something that I ever want to see in my lifetime.” Dr. Kroenig addressed the risk of nuclear escalation, arguing that although Russia’s threat of utilizing nuclear weapons in Ukraine should not be dismissed, the United States and NATO can enhance military support to Ukraine without escalating the risk on nuclear war. He advocated for the creation of humanitarian corridors, while cautioning against the establishment of a no-fly zone. “When it comes to no-fly zones or humanitarian corridors, I think I might split the difference between Dr. Pettyjohn and General Clark. I do think a no-fly zone would run a real risk of escalation,” he said. “But I think something like a humanitarian corridor could work, supported by ground convoys.” Related Information Panelist Biographies

  • Options to Contain Russia to Be Explored at Helsinki Commission Hearing

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following hearing: CONTAINING RUSSIA Opposing Russian Imperialism in Ukraine and Beyond Wednesday, March 23, 2022 2:30 p.m. Dirksen Senate Office Building Room 562 Watch live: www.youtube.com/HelsinkiCommission Russian dictator Vladimir Putin’s war on the Ukrainian people is an urgent threat to European security and global peace. Should his destructive gambit succeed in Ukraine, Russia will have dramatically expanded its de-facto border with NATO—including through a soft annexation of Belarus—as well as its ability to destabilize the democracies of Central and Western Europe.  Russian military success would threaten to draw a new iron curtain across Europe, dividing those protected by NATO’s security guarantees from those left exposed to Russian predation. This division could lead to significant remilitarization, a reappearance of Cold War tensions, and a reversion to historic cycles of European conflict. Beyond Europe, revisionist powers would be emboldened, and the United States and its Allies would be less able to deter them.  At this hearing, military experts and strategic thinkers will explore options for curtailing Moscow’s ability to wage war on Ukraine and neighboring states, especially those outside the protective umbrella of NATO. The hearing will begin with brief remarks by Ukrainian Ambassador to the U.S. Oksana Markarova. The following witnesses also are scheduled to testify: General (Ret.) Philip Breedlove, NATO’s Former Supreme Allied Commander Europe; Distinguished Professor of the Practice and CETS Senior Fellow, Georgia Tech  Dr. Michael Kimmage, Former Policy Planning Staff, U.S, Department of State; Professor of History, The Catholic University of America; Fellow, German Marshall Fund of the United States  Dr. Miriam Lanskoy, Senior Director for Russia and Eurasia, National Endowment for Democracy   

  • Experts to Explore Options to Further Assist Ukraine at Helsinki Commission Briefing

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following online briefing: DOING MORE Assessing Ukraine’s Defensive Needs Friday, March 18, 2022 10:30 a.m. Watch live: www.youtube.com/HelsinkiCommission Russian dictator Vladimir Putin’s criminal war has enraged citizens of goodwill and galvanized support for Ukraine across the world. The United States has been a key supporter of Ukraine, providing weaponry, humanitarian relief, and other forms of urgent assistance, in addition to leveling crippling sanctions on Russia. However, Russian forces continue to bombard Ukrainian cities, targeting civilians and critical infrastructure. Russia’s brutal war is causing an unprecedented humanitarian catastrophe in Ukraine, and observers worry that Putin may next use chemical or other weapons of mass destruction. On March 16, President Zelenskyy appealed to the U.S. Congress to render additional aid to Ukraine, including the possibility of enforcing a no-fly zone. This briefing will convene military and strategic experts to discuss ways to further assist the people of Ukraine as they resist Russia’s invasion. The discussion will examine air defense strategies, the feasibility and implications of no-fly zones, and other forms of materiel support. Expert statements and a brief, moderated Q&A will be available live to the public. This will be followed by an informal, off-the-record discussion for congressional staff and U.S. Government personnel. The following panelists are scheduled to participate: General (Ret.) Wesley Clark, Senior Fellow, UCLA Burkle Center; Founder, Renew America Together Dr. Stacie Pettyjohn, Senior Fellow, Center for a New American Security Dr. Matthew Koenig, Professor of Government, Georgetown University; Deputy Director, Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security Director, Scowcroft Strategy Initiative at the Atlantic Council  

  • Helsinki Commission Urges Biden to Designate Ukraine, Georgia as Major Non-NATO Allies

    The Helsinki Commission, an independent U.S. government agency tasked with promoting human rights and security in Europe, has called on the Biden administration to upgrade the United States’ defense relationship with Ukraine. The commission seeks to help facilitate military and economic assistance to Kyiv as Russian forces move to encircle the Ukrainian capital. In a letter to U.S. President Joe Biden obtained by Foreign Policy, the commission urged the administration to designate Ukraine and Georgia, which was invaded by Russia in 2008, as major non-NATO allies (MNNA) and to reinvigorate U.S. support for the NATO accession of both countries.  “Although the United States has consistently supported Ukraine’s and Georgia’s NATO membership, Russia’s occupations and ongoing invasion expose the tragedy of long-stalled Euro-Atlantic enlargement,” wrote the commission, which is led by Democratic Sen. Ben Cardin and Democratic Rep. Steve Cohen. “Absent strong and proactive U.S. backing for Ukrainian and Georgian NATO membership, [Russian President Vladimir] Putin will continue to take ample advantage in his aspirations to upend security and cooperation in Europe and his neocolonial agenda,” the letter said. Both Ukraine and Georgia were promised membership to the defense alliance during the NATO summit in Bucharest, Romania, in 2008. But despite extensive reform efforts, neither country has been offered a timetable for accession.  The United States has provided billions of dollars of military assistance to Ukraine since it was first invaded by Russia in 2014, with more than $1.2 billion approved over the past year. “This designation is a fair reflection of our current bilateral defense relationships and does not commit the United States to military action,” the commission letter said, which also recommended that the administration consider extending the status to other non-NATO members along Europe’s eastern flank: Finland, Moldova, and Sweden. Much of U.S. military aid for Ukraine has been approved through a range of ad hoc government funding mechanisms. Granting the country MNNA status would open a variety of established channels to facilitate arms transfers, financial assistance, and information sharing, smoothing the way for further cooperation. It would also send a powerful signal of support for both Kyiv and Tbilisi. Unlike NATO membership, MNNA status does not entail any mutual security and defense obligations. On Thursday, the White House announced it would designate Colombia and Qatar as major non-NATO allies, bringing the total number of countries to receive the title up to 19.  The title has usually been reserved for countries with no ambitions or prospects of joining NATO, which prompted the Ukrainian ambassador to the United States, Oksana Markarova, to express wariness about the designation last year. “MNNA is a status for countries that do not plan/can not force political or geographical reasons to join NATO. This is definitely not about us,” she wrote in a Facebook post.  NATO accession is decided between the 30 members of the alliance, and an MNNA designation by the United States would not necessarily impede Ukraine’s membership prospects.  The Helsinki Commission, formally known as the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, was founded in 1976 as an independent government agency to monitor compliance with the Helsinki Accords, a major Cold War-era diplomatic agreement that sought to reduce tensions between the Soviet Union and the West as well as establish human rights and security norms. The commission is made up of 18 members of U.S. Congress drawn from both parties and representatives from the U.S. departments of State, Defense, and Commerce.

  • Helsinki Commission calls on Biden administration to push for Russia's expulsion from Interpol

    An independent US government agency is calling on the Biden administration to push for Russia to be permanently expelled from Interpol — a step further than the suspension the administration has already sought — citing the invasion of Ukraine and previous abuses by Russia, according to a letter obtained by CNN. Earlier this week, Attorney General Merrick Garland joined justice ministers from several allied countries to demand that Interpol immediately suspend Russia from accessing its systems, according to Justice Department spokesperson Anthony Coley.   Interpol, the International Criminal Police Organization, is a global agency which facilitates police across its 195 member countries to collaborate on criminal investigations. Interpol issues what are known as Red Notices to request the location and arrest of an individual pending their extradition. Friday’s letter from the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe commended the steps the US has taken so far, but added that the administration should call for the permanent suspension of Russia. “We urge you to use the U.S. position in Interpol (and in particular Interpol's Executive Committee and its Advisory Group on Financial Matters) to make it clear that any failure to act against Russia's abuse of lnterpol will have grave consequences for the U.S. contribution to Interpol's budget and Interpol's legal immunities in the United States,” the letter, directed to Garland and Secretary of State Antony Blinken, reads. The commission — also known as the US Helsinki Commission — was created by Congress in 1976 with a focus on human rights, military security, and economic cooperation. It is led by Sen. Ben Cardin and Rep. Steve Cohen. If Russia is suspended from Interpol, it would bar the country from continuing to participate and therefore put in requests for Red Notices, but it would not remove Red Notices that are already in the system, said Ted Bromund, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation and an expert in Interpol.

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