Helsinki Commission Hearing to Examine Human Rights At HomeThursday, June 25, 2020
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
8:46 (George Floyd)Friday, June 12, 2020
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 BriefingTuesday, June 09, 2020
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.
Helsinki Commissioners Urge Hungarian Officials Not to Stoke Historic GrievancesFriday, June 05, 2020
WASHINGTON—Following the erection of a new memorial in Hungary marking the 100th anniversary of the Treaty of Trianon, which features the names of thousands of historic municipalities formerly part of pre-World War I Hungary, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) and Commissioner Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09) issued the following joint statement: “Some Central Europeans see the border changes made by the Treaty of Trianon as a liberation. Many Hungarians consider it an historic national trauma. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s government is no stranger to the politics of memory, and the unveiling of this monument offers yet another opportunity for him to cynically exploit the past for current political gains. “For a decade, Prime Minister Orban has trafficked in ‘greater Hungary’ maps, flags, and posters. Orban officials have claimed that the Treaty of Trianon was worse than the Holocaust or four decades of communism, trivializing both. He has overseen efforts to rehabilitate fascist-era figures and defended Hungary’s wartime regent, Miklos Horthy, as ‘an excellent statesman.’ In 2014, he erected another memorial that shockingly portrays Hungary as a victim, rather than ally, of Nazi Germany and airbrushes out Hungary’s role in the genocide of the country’s Jews and Roma. We urge the Government of Hungary to stop stoking historic grievances with neighbors and stop treating the past as a political prop.” Hungary’s new "Memorial to National Unity" lists approximately 12,000 historic names of towns now in Austria, Croatia, Poland, Romania, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, and Ukraine that prior to 1920 were part of the pre-World War I Kingdom of Hungary. At the time, ethnic Hungarians were the dominant minority and subjected other ethnic groups, including Serbs, Croats, Ukrainians, Germans, Romanians, and Slovaks, to discrimination and Magyarizaton, fueling demands among these groups for independence. The 1920 Treaty of Trianon, signed on June 4, 1920, formalized redrawn borders and the creation of new states. As a result, an estimated one-third of the ethnic Hungarian population in Europe, living in multi-ethnic regions, became minorities in territories joined to other states or in newly formed states. Hungary’s current borders were confirmed by the 1947 Treaty of Paris. According to a Pew Research Center study published earlier this year, two-thirds of Hungarians believe that parts of neighboring countries really belong to Hungary—the highest figure among NATO countries included in the survey.
OSCE Supplementary Human Dimension Meeting Examines Intolerance and Discrimination during PandemicMonday, June 01, 2020
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.
Human Rights and Democracy in a Time of PandemicTuesday, May 12, 2020
The outbreak of the novel coronavirus pandemic has prompted governments around the world to take extraordinary measures in the interest of public health and safety. As of early April, nearly two-thirds of the 57 participating States of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe had declared “states of emergency” or invoked similar legal measures in response to the crisis. Often such measures have enabled governments to enact large-scale social distancing policies and suspend economic activity to save lives and preserve the capacity of national public health infrastructure to respond to the spread of infections. At the same time, human rights organizations and civil society activists have expressed concern regarding the breadth of some emergency measures and recalled the long history of government abuse of emergency powers to trample civil liberties. Exactly three decades ago, OSCE participating States unanimously endorsed a set of basic principles governing the imposition of states of emergency, including the protection of fundamental freedoms in such times of crisis. In 1990 in Copenhagen, OSCE countries affirmed that states of emergency must be enacted by public law and that any curtailment of human rights and civil liberties must be “limited to the extent strictly required by the exigencies of the situation.” According to the Copenhagen Document, emergency measures furthermore should never discriminate based on certain group characteristics or be used to justify torture. Building on these commitments a year later in Moscow, participating States underscored that states of emergency should not “subvert the democratic constitutional order, nor aim at the destruction of internationally recognized human rights and fundamental freedoms.” The Moscow Document stresses the role of legislatures in imposing and lifting such declarations, the preservation of the rule of law, and the value of guaranteeing “freedom of expression and freedom of information…with a view to enabling public discussion on the observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms as well as on the lifting of the state of public emergency.” In some corners of the OSCE region, however, national authorities are violating these and other OSCE commitments in the name of combatting coronavirus. While many extraordinary responses are justified in the face of this crisis, government overreach threatens the well-being of democracy and the resilience of society at a critical time. Download the full report to learn more.
Wicker and Cardin Urge Pompeo to Work with EU High Representative to Advance EU Magnitsky SanctionsMonday, May 11, 2020
WASHINGTON—In a letter released today, Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) and Ranking Member Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) urged U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to ask the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Josep Borell, to expedite the adoption of EU sanctions on human rights abusers, include provisions for sanctioning corruption, and ensure that the EU sanctions regime bears Sergei Magnitsky’s name. The letter reads in part: “In this time of global crisis, dictators and kleptocrats are only increasing their bad actions, making it more important than ever that the EU move quickly to make the EU Magnitsky Act a reality... “It has become clear that corruption and human rights abuse are inextricably linked. The lack of provisions to sanction corruption would weaken the comprehensive Magnitsky approach. It would also lead to difficulties synchronizing U.S. and EU sanctions by enabling corrupt officials barred from the United States to continue operating in the EU, thus diminishing our deterrent and increasing Europe’s vulnerability to exploitation... “It was Sergei Magnitsky who started this very effort to end impunity for human rights abusers and corrupt officials. Omitting the name of Magnitsky, who was jailed, tortured, beaten, murdered, and posthumously convicted, would indicate a lack of resolve to stand up to brutal regimes around the world.” The U.S. Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act, which authorizes the President to impose economic sanctions and deny entry into the United States to any foreign person he identifies as engaging in human rights abuse or corruption, has been an important asset in the U.S. diplomatic toolkit. In December 2019, High Representative Borrell announced that all Member States unanimously agreed to start preparatory work for an equivalent of Global Magnitsky, adding that such a framework would be “a tangible step reaffirming the European Union’s global lead on human rights.” The Baltic States, Canada, and the UK already have adopted similar legislation. However, the current proposal for an EU Magnitsky Act does not include sanctions for officials involved in corruption, nor does it include any reference to Sergei Magnitsky by name. The full text of the letter can be found below: Dear Mr. Secretary, As the original sponsors of the Magnitsky Act, we aim to increase the impact of the legislation worldwide by encouraging our allies to join us in sanctioning bad actors. At the moment, the European Union (EU) has agreed in principle to adopt their own sanctions similar to those provided by the Global Magnitsky Act, but certain issues remain. Therefore, we ask that you work with Josep Borrell, High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, to ensure the EU adopts and implements the most thorough and effective sanctions package possible. Our first concern is that the EU seems to have stalled in putting together the details of their Magnitsky sanctions regime because of the global health crisis. In December, High Representative Borrell announced that there was political agreement to move forward on a Magnitsky-like piece of legislation, which his team would begin drafting. Since then, we fear this work has been sidelined. In this time of global crisis, dictators and kleptocrats are only increasing their bad actions, making it more important than ever that the EU move quickly to make the EU Magnitsky Act a reality. Our second concern is that the proposal for an EU Magnitsky Act does not include sanctions for officials involved in corruption. It has become clear that corruption and human rights abuse are inextricably linked. The lack of provisions to sanction corruption would weaken the comprehensive Magnitsky approach. It would also lead to difficulties synchronizing U.S. and EU sanctions by enabling corrupt officials barred from the United States to continue operating in the EU, thus diminishing our deterrent and increasing Europe’s vulnerability to exploitation. Finally, we are concerned that the EU is not planning to include Magnitsky’s name on the sanctions regime. It was Sergei Magnitsky who stood up to a ruthless, violent, and corrupt state and demanded fairness and accountability for his fellow citizens. And it was Sergei Magnitsky who started this very effort to end impunity for human rights abusers and corrupt officials. Omitting the name of Magnitsky, who was jailed, tortured, beaten, murdered, and posthumously convicted, would indicate a lack of resolve to stand up to brutal regimes around the world. Therefore, we request that you ask the High Representative Borrell to expedite the adoption of their sanctions, include provisions for sanctioning corruption, and ensure that the EU sanctions regime bears Sergei Magnitsky’s name. It is important that we do not let our guard down and continue our global leadership in this important area. Sincerely, Benjamin L. Cardin Roger F. Wicker Ranking Member Co-Chairman
Remarks from Sen. Cardin Concerning COVID-19 Emergency ResponsesFriday, May 08, 2020
OSCE PA Webinar: Respecting Human Rights And Maintaining Democratic Control During States of Emergency Thank you, Mr. President Tsereteli and Secretary General Montella, for organizing this dialogue. Director Gisladottir and Mr. Abramowitz, thank you for the work each of you is doing to shine a light on the human rights and democracy implications of emergency measures introduced in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as the implications of other government actions taken during this public health crisis that may threaten the health of our democracies. As parliamentarians, we have a responsibility to ensure that the measures we introduce and which our governments implement are consistent with OSCE standards on human rights and democracy, including the 1991 Moscow Document’s commitments regarding states of emergency. Those actions must be necessary, proportional, transparent, and temporary. Emergency provisions which restrict freedom of speech or freedom of the media are especially concerning and may actually undermine our efforts to address this health emergency. We need to ensure that journalists, medical professionals, scientists and others can provide the public with information we need to battle covid. Muzzling independent voices undermines public confidence in government at a time when that confidence and public cooperation is critical to the success of the safety measures we need. And yes, sometimes this means governments are going to hear they they’re not getting it right and sometimes governments will need to make course corrections. But there’s a big difference between addressing bad news and suppressing bad news. A robust civil society is a critical partner to each of our governments and will strengthen our resilience. Unfortunately, just this virus exploits vulnerabilities of pre-existing conditions, some governments may exploit the human rights limitations already in place before this pandemic, including laws or practices that unduly restrict civil society, or limit the freedoms of expression, association, or assembly. President Tseretelli, your appointment of a Special Representative on Civil Society last August could not have come at a more important time. I hope members of this assembly will advance efforts to protect the core fundamental freedoms that are essential for civil society voices to be heard and support the work of my colleague, Special Representative Pia Kauma. We also need to ensure that civil society voices continue to be heard within the OSCE. As we look ahead to how the participating States organize human dimension activities this year, and particularly the annual Human Dimension Implementation Meeting, it is critical that we preserve the access and openness that have made the OSCE such an important forum for human right defenders. Whether OSCE meetings are in person or online, those standards of access should be preserved. Finally, democratic institutions, including as the rule of law, the independence of the judiciary, and free elections, must be preserved even during states of emergency. I think this is really one of the most important contributions of the 1991 Moscow Document — it speaks to these exact points: “A state of public emergency may not be used to subvert the democratic constitutional order.” “The participating States will endeavor to ensure that the normal functioning of the legislative bodies will be guaranteed to the highest possible extent during a state of public emergency.” “The participating States will endeavor to ensure that the legal guarantees necessary to uphold the rule of law will remain in force during a state of public emergency.” We may need to make changes in how our courts hear cases or the mechanics of our elections. But a health emergency does not diminish our commitment to ensure the integrity of our democratic institutions. The United States will proceed with our elections in a manner that ensures the public’s safety and respects the rights of voters, and consistent with our OSCE commitments. Thank you.
Respecting Human Rights and Maintaining Democratic Control during States of EmergencyFriday, May 08, 2020
Statement at the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly Webinar: Respecting Human Rights and Maintaining Democratic Control during States of Emergency President Tsereteli, Secretary General Montella, it is good hear from you. I am pleased to see that this Assembly has found ways to communicate, cooperate and collaborate — in spite of the distances that keep us apart, and as an expression of our shared commitments to our roles as legislators. At last year’s annual session, I was the lead sponsor of a supplementary item on “the role of civil society — individuals and non-governmental organizations — in realizing the aims and aspirations of the OSCE.” The resolution we adopted in Luxembourg acknowledges the critical role civil society plays in enhancing security and cooperation across all OSCE dimensions. I appreciate President Tsereteli appointing our colleague, the Honorable Pia Kauma, as the Assembly’s Special Representative to be an advocate for civil society engagement and she has done a great job so far. I am sorry, but not surprised that some governments have taken the need for emergency measures as an opportunity for repressive measures. Hungary is the only OSCE participating State that does not have a sunset clause for the expiration of its emergency measures, or requiring parliamentary approval for an extension. Parliamentary oversight is absolutely essential, especially when governments seek to exercise extraordinary powers. I believe we must also pay particular attention to those measures that relate to freedoms of assembly, association, and expression. I am also troubled by the heavy-handed disciplinary and punitive approach utilized in some areas, which exacerbates existing discriminatory and unconstitutional policing. I want to thank you, Director Gisladottir, for your attention to this and speaking out against the hate crimes and scapegoating of minorities, refugees and migrants. In the next legislation that will come before the U.S. Congress, I will support provisions to address hate crimes and other forms of discrimination in our societies recently highlighted by the pandemic. The February 25 profiling murder of Ahmaud Aubrey by his neighbors in the state of Georgia demonstrates the urgency of our fight for equity and justice for all beyond our current crisis. But I would like to pause here for a moment, to reflect on violations of fundamental freedoms that some governments had already imposed even before now. If a law or practice violated OSCE human rights and democracy norms before the pandemic, circumstances now will surely not cure that violation. Threats against journalists, restrictions on academic freedom, imprisoning people for their political views, and impeding or even criminalizing NGOs’ access to and communication within and outside their own countries — all of that is still inconsistent with OSCE commitments, and the pandemic does not change that. Principle VII of the Helsinki Final Act still holds: individuals still have the right to know and act upon their rights. I therefore add my voice to the international calls from OSCE institutional bodies and others around the world for the release of all prisoners of conscience given this pandemic. Prison populations are particularly susceptible to community spread. To address dangerous overcrowding, governments should work first and foremost to release those imprisoned for exercising their internationally recognized rights or those wrongly imprisoned contrary to international commitments. I regret Turkey's decision in particular to approve a plan to release 90,000 prisoners that excluded relief for any of the thousands of political prisoners, including opposition politicians, civil society activists, employees of U.S. diplomatic missions, and many more. Which brings me back to the important work of Special Representative Kauma. Civil society is not a luxury, it is essential. If anything, it becomes even more important during an emergency when governments may legitimately exercise powers, but those powers may not be unlimited, unchecked, or unending. A vibrant civil society plays a critical role in holding governments to account, particularly at times of great social stress. Those human rights groups, the parent-teacher organizations, book clubs, or food banks— all enrich our societies. Colleagues, this pandemic has upended elections across the OSCE region. According to the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly’s factsheet, forty OSCE participating States — including my own — have elections scheduled for this year. As we all rise to meet the challenge of conducting elections safely, we must maintain transparency regarding the entire electoral process, especially any changes to the timing of elections, methods of voting, or measures that impact campaigning. The United States is already debating these issues in preparation for November. Even in a pandemic, international and domestic election observation remains vital. We must find a solution to ensure that they are engaged and included even now.
Chairman Hastings and Co-Chairman Wicker Commemorate World Press Freedom DayFriday, May 01, 2020
WASHINGTON—Ahead of World Press Freedom Day on May 3, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) and Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) issued the following statements: "Given these uncertain and unprecedented times, it is more important than ever that journalists and media professionals are able to work freely and without retribution," said Chairman Hastings. "Unfortunately, journalists remain in jail throughout the OSCE region, while states like Russia, Azerbaijan, and Hungary criminalize providing essential information and transparency about the COVID-19 pandemic. Independent media continues to be assaulted under the pretense of punishing allegedly 'false,' 'misleading,' or unofficial information. This is unacceptable." Read Chairman Hastings' full Congressional Record statement. “Journalists across the globe risk their safety, and some even their lives, to report the truth," said Co-Chairman Wicker. "On World Press Freedom Day, we honor a freedom that is a cornerstone of democracy and should always be protected in any healthy society. During this pandemic, good journalism and unflinching investigative reporting are essential as we work to mitigate the effects of the coronavirus and get our economies started again. Now more than ever, I urge all OSCE states to uphold this fundamental freedom." According to the latest reports from the Committee to Protect Journalists, 250 journalists are imprisoned worldwide for their work, 64 journalists are missing, and 1,369 journalists have been killed since 1992. Additionally, Reporters Without Borders' 2020 World Press Freedom Index found that global press freedom has deteriorated by 12 percent since 2013. Ahead of World Press Freedom Day, OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media Harlem Désir, along with the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Opinion and Expression and the Organization of American States Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression, issued a joint declaration on freedom of expression and elections in the digital age, particularly noting challenges to press freedom during the COVID-19 pandemic. On April 17, Chairman Hastings and Co-Chairman Wicker released a statement expressing concern with the latest attacks on press freedom in Russia amid the coronavirus pandemic, including death threats to Russian journalist Yelena Milashina by Chechnya’s leader Ramzan Kadyrov. Earlier in April, Chairman Hastings also denounced the unchecked power granted to Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban following his request to rule by decree in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Statement at the Meeting of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly BureauMonday, April 27, 2020
Mr. President, Secretary General Montella, thank you for giving me the opportunity to participate in this Bureau meeting. I commend you for your efforts to ensure that the work of the Assembly continues and that this body responds to the urgent challenges all of our countries face. I particularly welcome the information you have put online about the participating States’ responses to the covid-19 pandemic and the role of legislative bodies in formulating those responses. Parliamentary oversight is essential, not expendable, in an emergency. Since my last report in Luxembourg, I have focused on the profound threat of rising and increasingly deadly intolerance. Anti-Semitic, racist and xenophobic attacks in my own country, at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh and the targeted killings of Latin Americans in El Paso, Texas, underscore the urgency of this threat. Obviously, the pandemic creates new and additional challenges. But it is precisely at this moment that we cannot afford to lower our guard against discrimination and bigotry, when pandemic fears may fan the flames of intolerance. Minority and immigrant communities are already more vulnerable to the impact of the pandemic because of past inequalities. Those disparities may be compounded without appropriately targeted healthcare and economic responses. Covid-caused disruptions in education may also have long-term disproportionate consequences for those already impacted by discriminatory schooling. As parliamentarians, we have a responsibility to ensure that the measures we introduce and which our governments implement are consistent with OSCE standards on human rights and democracy, including the 1991 Moscow Document’s commitments regarding states of emergency. It is also vital that our parliamentary oversight extends to the use of military authorities and policing, which may have the potential to exacerbate relations with minority communities and erode public confidence in government at a time when that trust is critical for the effective implementation of responses to this virus. Disciplinary and punitive policies by national or local authorities run the risk of backfiring. As this body’s special representative on anti-Semitism and racism, I am alarmed by attacks on people who are being scapegoated for this virus. Parliamentarians should lead by example in countering disinformation, conspiracy theories, and other propaganda that stokes anti-Asian bigotry, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, and other forms of racism. In the face of an extraordinary threat, people may feel that ordinary constraints on governments do not apply. But too often, temporary changes introduced for emergencies have a way of becoming permanent. I welcome the statements by my Third Committee colleagues that have called for the participating States’ responses to meet the basic tests of necessity, transparency, and proportionality. It is also crucial that they include sunset provisions and subject to periodic review. When democratic norms erode, protections against hate crimes do too. Mr. President, I will be reporting more fully on my activities later this year at a more opportune time, when we will all be able to assess the very fluid, unfolding challenges. Covid-19 will undoubtedly lead to profound changes in all our countries for a long time to come. I thank you and my colleagues here today for the work you are doing to ensure that we meet a global crisis with global cooperation faithful to the commitments we have undertaken in the OSCE.
Chairman Hastings Marks International Roma Day, Notes Consequences of Systemic Racism Exposed by PandemicWednesday, April 08, 2020
WASHINGTON—To mark the occasion of International Roma Day on April 8, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) issued the following statement: “This year, we sadly must put aside many of the annual celebrations of Romani art, culture, music, and heritage that usually mark International Roma Day, and instead address the urgent concerns exposed by a global pandemic. “This health crisis has spotlighted many of the consequences of systemic racism long faced by Romani communities. Unequal access to care—or in some cases even basic sanitation and clean running water—puts not only Roma but also other socially excluded groups in great danger of infection. Now more than ever, governments must ensure that all members of society have permanent access to healthcare, functioning sanitation facilities, and clean water. “In addition, around the world—even in our own country—there are those who seek to use this crisis to fan the flames of bigotry. We must not tolerate or excuse such discrimination on the basis of fear. Stoking racism and xenophobia will not make us healthier or stronger. It will only divide and weaken us at a time when unity is most needed. “To successfully counter COVID-19, OSCE participating States must work with local community representatives to build trust, enhance the transparency of national initiatives, and bolster participation in critical public health efforts. Roma and other marginalized groups must not be forgotten. To quote from the OSCE Action Plan, ‘for Roma, with Roma.’” In the April 2020 episode of the Helsinki Commission’s “Helsinki on the Hill” podcast, Romani scholar and activist Dr. Margareta Matache discussed the state of Roma rights in Europe, as well as resolutions introduced by Helsinki Commission leaders to celebrate Romani American heritage. In April 2019, Chairman Hastings, Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS), Rep. Steve Watkins (KS-02), and Ranking Helsinki Commissioner Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) introduced resolutions in the U.S. House of Representatives (H.Res.292) and the U.S. Senate (S.Res.141) celebrating Romani American heritage. In 2003, OSCE participating States adopted an “Action Plan on Improving the Situation of Roma and Sinti within the OSCE Area.” These guidelines—recommendations for participating States and OSCE institutions—are intended to combat racism and discrimination; ensure equal access and opportunities in education, employment, housing, and health services; enhance Romani participation in public and political life; and address issues relating to Roma in conflict and post-conflict situations.
Chairman Hastings Denounces Unchecked Power Granted To Hungary’s Prime Minister OrbanThursday, April 02, 2020
WASHINGTON—Following the Hungarian Parliament’s decision on Monday to accept Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s request for unlimited power to rule by decree in response to the coronavirus pandemic, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) issued the following statement: “Prime Minister Orban has taken gross advantage of the fear and uncertainty brought on by a global pandemic to secure the power to rule by decree in perpetuity. Instead of focusing on the well-being of Hungarian citizens likely to suffer from the coronavirus, he has chosen to prioritize preserving his parliamentary majority and permanently consolidating his control of the Hungarian Government. “At both the global and national levels, defeating the coronavirus will require extraordinary social solidarity, not unchecked executive power. The further concentration of powers in Hungary will only pave the way for the further concentration of corruption.” Among other provisions, the new law allows for up to a five-year prison sentence for spreading false or distorted information regarding the fight against the coronavirus, which could be used against journalists reporting on the state of Hungary’s hospitals or health care delivery. The law also suspends elections. Hungary has recently completed a cycle of elections (parliamentary, European Parliament, and municipal) with no other major elections scheduled until 2022. In the meantime, by-elections and referenda are prohibited. The law, which lacks a sunset clause, may only be repealed by a two-thirds vote of parliament, or terminated by the Prime Minister himself. In 1991, Hungary—along with all other OSCE participating States—adopted the Moscow Document in the aftermath of a coup attempt in Russia. The agreement includes specific provisions on states of emergency. In particular, the OSCE participating States agreed to “in conformity with international standards regarding the freedom of expression, take no measures aimed at barring journalists from the legitimate exercise of their profession other than those strictly required by the exigencies of the situation.” On March 30, OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) Director Ingibjörg Sólrún Gísladóttir warned that emergency legislation being adopted by governments across the OSCE region, including Hungary, must include a time limit and guarantee parliamentary oversight. Since 2010, Viktor Orban has systematically dismantled a system of checks and balances, facilitating the consolidation of control by the Fidesz government. In April 2019, the Helsinki Commission hosted a briefing to explore developments in Hungary, including issues related to the rule of law and corruption.
Chairman Hastings Introduces LITE Act to Strengthen Ties with U.S. Allies, Support Visionary Leadership on Both Sides of the AtlanticFriday, March 13, 2020
WASHINGTON—Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) yesterday introduced the Leadership Institute for Transatlantic Engagement (LITE) Act (H.R.6239) to strengthen ties with U.S. allies, protect democratic institutions, and support visionary leadership on both sides of the Atlantic. “Numerous challenges are putting western democracies and the transatlantic partnership at risk, including disparities in wealth, health, employment, education, and justice that lead citizens to question whether democracy can deliver on its promise of freedom and opportunity for all,” said Chairman Hastings. “We must find new and better ways to help democratic leaders ensure that laws are equitable, transparent, and enforced; elections are free and fair; and the same protections, rights, and laws are extended to all in their constituencies.” LITE would further codify transatlantic leadership exchanges and knowledge-building activities to equip western policymakers with legislative, communications, conflict resolution, and other leadership tools to strengthen democratic institutions in their societies as well as the transatlantic relationship. Recognizing the rapid and ongoing demographic change on both sides of the Atlantic, LITE focuses on inclusive and intergenerational solutions to current challenges and would empower individuals across generations and from diverse backgrounds with the knowledge, tools, opportunity, and access to fully participate in their democracies. In addition, LITE would assist in community reunification by helping leaders develop strategies to build resilience against the exploitation of community grievances that can lead to dangerous divisions in society. For more than a decade, the Helsinki Commission has convened U.S. and European policymakers with the State Department and other partners under the banner of the Transatlantic Minority Political Leadership Conference and Transatlantic Inclusion Leaders Network to support increased political representation in western democracies. In 2019, Helsinki Commission held hearings featuring European lawmakers, and focusing on global leadership, democracy, and public diplomacy. In February 2020, the Helsinki Commission hosted more than 30 young legislators from OSCE participating States and partner countries to discuss the role of young people in peace and security efforts and forge a transatlantic network for political action to address emerging human rights and security challenges.
Chairman Hastings Introduces Bill to Promote Diversity and Inclusion in the Federal WorkforceFriday, March 13, 2020
WASHINGTON—Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) yesterday introduced H.R.6240, a bill to establish a government-wide diversity and inclusion plan to ensure fair access and opportunity to federal jobs for all Americans. “Estimates indicate that by 2050, more than half of the U.S. workforce will be made up of Americans from diverse populations,” said Chairman Hastings. “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.” The bill would require the development of a government-wide diversity and inclusion plan to ensure that all branches of the federal government are engaged in multi-year strategic planning to recruit, hire, promote, retain, and support workers representing America’s diverse talent pool. It also calls for a review of diversity in government contracting and grant-making. “Diversity and inclusion are the underpinnings of democratic societies,” said Chairman Hastings. “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.” The introduction of the bill follows the February 2020 GAO report highlighting problems in the State Department and legislative initiatives to increase diversity in the national security workforce. Advancing societies that are safe, inclusive, and equitable is central to the work of the Helsinki Commission. The commission supports programs to address inequities in employment, political participation, and other sectors for women and minorities and strives to empower communities to unite against bias and discrimination to foster truly democratic, inclusive, and free societies.
Reflecting on ChechnyaFriday, March 13, 2020
By Mia Speier, Max Kampelman Fellow On December 11, 1994, Russian forces advanced into Chechnya, a republic in the North Caucasus near Georgia and Azerbaijan, to stop an attempt at secession. A Chechen separatist movement started to gain momentum following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Russians refused to allow any chance at separation. This marked the start of the First Chechen War, a conflict that erupted after decades of hostilities between the former Soviet government and the Chechen forces. The war dragged on for nearly two years, destroying the capital city of Grozny and killing tens of thousands of people—mostly civilians. The conflict, which started as an internal national movement, was complicated by flows of foreign money and foreign fighters. Militant Islamists joined the fight against Russia during the latter half of the war as part of a declared global jihad. Officials in Russia feared a repetition of the violence that occurred during the Soviet war in Afghanistan nearly a decade prior. Though Russia withdrew from Chechnya for a short time after the first war, the Second Chechen War broke out in 1999. This second war began after Putin blamed Chechen secessionists for bombings that killed Russian civilians, although there was no evidence of Chechen involvement in the bombings. Russian forces were sent into the republic again, and the Russian government succeeded in putting Chechnya under its control. Since then, the region has been a republic of Russia and is governed by Putin-appointed president Ramzan Kadyrov. Amid the conflict, however, the international community took steps to confront Russian aggression and violence in the region. On March 13, 1997, the U.S. Helsinki Commission convened a hearing called “The Future of Chechnya,” to discuss the efforts of Chechen citizens to free themselves from Russia’s painful yoke and fight back against Moscow’s defiance of international principles and the rule of law. The Helsinki Commission hearing focused on the 1994 Organization for Security and Cooperation Budapest Document that requires all participating States, including Russia, to ensure that their armed forces are commanded in a way that is consistent with international law. At the time of the hearing, an estimated 30,000 to 80,000 people had died in the territory, and tens of thousands of citizens had been displaced. The violence against and displacement of citizens in Chechnya was a clear violation of the Budapest Document. Then-Chairman Rep. Alfonse M. D’Amato chaired the hearing and noted that though many people were paying attention to the ongoing conflict in Bosnia at the time, it was important to also pay attention to the conflict in Chechnya and, more specifically, to think about the role of the OSCE in the region. “The world watched, horrified, as the Russian military used massive firepower against the Chechen guerrillas,” D’Amato said. “While the international community recognizes the principles of territorial integrity, there can be no doubt that in its effort to keep the Chechens in the Russian Federation, the Russian Government violated recognized international principles.” Since 1997, the Helsinki Commission has held several other public events related to human rights abuses, arbitrary arrests, abductions, and disappearances and the plight of Chechen refugees. In 2003, the commission penned a letter to then-Secretary of State Colin Powell urging the U.S. delegation at the United Nations Commission on Human Rights in Geneva to express concern over reported rights violations in Chechnya. Though it has been nearly 30 years since the First Chechen War, the situation in Chechnya remains bleak. In 2017, Congress passed a bipartisan resolution condemning widespread anti-LGBT persecution and violence in Chechnya after it was revealed that state law enforcement officials beat, imprisoned, and murdered hundreds of men perceived to be gay or bisexual. In June 2018, then-Chairman (and current Co-Chairman) Sen. Roger Wicker and Sen. Benjamin Cardin penned a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo urging the United State to invoke the OSCE’s Moscow Mechanism in response to escalating human rights abuses in Chechnya. The Moscow Mechanism allows for the establishment of a short-term fact-finding mission to address a specific human rights concern in the OSCE region. In November 2018, the 16 of the 57 OSCE participating States invoked the Moscow Mechanism to investigate the alleged disappearances, killings, and torture taking place in Chechnya—all of which were concerns raised at a Helsinki Commission hearing just months prior. Though Russia failed to cooperate with the fact-finding mission, the resulting report concluded that the evidence clearly confirmed the allegations of very serious human rights violations and abuses in the Chechen Republic of the Russian Federation. Today, multiple reports of journalists and bloggers in Chechnya being beaten or murdered calls for even more concern for individual freedom and civil liberties in the region. In early February, Yelena Milashina, a prominent Russian journalist and lawyer who exposed the cruelty against gay Chechen men, was beaten in Grozny. Imran Aliev, an outspoken Chechen blogger who criticized President Ramzan Kadyrov, was found murdered in France earlier this year. Aliev’s death is one of many deaths and disappearances in recent years of Chechen dissidents throughout Europe, sparking heightened fears of Chechen death squads hunting down those seeking asylum outside of the republic.
Restrictions on Civil Society in HungaryFriday, February 28, 2020
Since returning to power in 2010, Viktor Orban has systematically dismantled a system of checks and balances, facilitating the consolidation of control by the Fidesz government, which is now in its fourth (third consecutive) term. This has included introducing significant changes to the legal framework for parliamentary elections; stripping hundreds of faiths of their state recognition in 2011 and then channeling money to religious groups that do not challenge government positions (increasing dependence of those groups on the state); overseeing the consolidation of most Hungarian media, first into the hands of government-tied oligarchy and then into a single foundation exempt from anti-trust regulation; and eroding judicial independence by, for example, expanding and packing the constitutional court. In light of restrictions imposed on political opposition, faith organizations, the media and the judiciary, the role of Hungarian civil society in holding the government to account (by, for example, suing the government for non-compliance with the Hungarian constitution or Hungary’s international legal commitments) has taken on heightened importance. At the same time, civil society organizations have become the targets of escalating rhetorical attacks and legislative restrictions, including laws that significantly lower the bar for what it takes to jail people who seek to exercise their freedoms of speech, assembly, and association. Download the full report to learn more. Contributors: Erika Schlager, Counsel for International Law and Daniela Ondraskova, Max Kampelman Fellow
Chairman Hastings on Anniversaries of Sumgait Pogrom and Khojaly MassacreThursday, February 27, 2020
WASHINGTON—Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) yesterday issued a floor statement on the anniversaries of the Sumgait Pogrom and the Khojaly Massacre, two pivotal tragedies in the in the decades-long conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the territory of Nagorno Karabakh. The statement reads in part: “Although separated by four years and 200 miles, the Sumgait Pogrom in 1988 and Khojaly Massacre in 1992 both demonstrated the heinous potential of interethnic hatreds to tear apart communities and trample human dignity. The commemoration of these horrific events is an opportunity to reflect on the innocent lives lost in this ongoing conflict as well as a chance to affirm the need for urgent steps to heal these wounds and sue for peace once and for all… “I strongly encourage the political leadership in Yerevan and Baku to use these solemn commemorations of Sumgait and Khojaly this week to turn a new page in this terrible conflict. The most fitting way to honor the lives of those lost would be through words of reconciliation and steps toward peace. Together, the peoples of Armenia and Azerbaijan can ensure such atrocities are never be repeated and that future generations will know a life of secure and prosperous coexistence.” Download the full statement.
Congressional Delegation Led by Chairman Hastings Champions U.S. Leadership in Transatlantic Security, Human RightsTuesday, February 25, 2020
WASHINGTON—Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) last week led a bicameral, bipartisan congressional delegation to the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly’s (OSCE PA) 19th Winter Meeting in Vienna, Austria. At the meeting, Chairman Hastings and other members of the delegation engaged with OSCE officials, delegations from other OSCE participating States, and diplomats to advance U.S. interests while assuring friends, allies, and potential adversaries of the U.S. commitment to security and cooperation in Europe. The 11-member delegation was among the largest U.S. delegations ever to attend the annual gathering, which attracted more than 300 parliamentarians from 53 OSCE participating States. Chairman Hastings, a former president of the OSCE PA, was joined in Austria by Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS), Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02), and Helsinki Commissioners Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (MO-05), Rep. Gwen Moore (WI-04), Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), Rep. Robert Aderholt (AL-04), and Rep. Richard Hudson (NC-08). Rep. Gregory Meeks (NY-05), Rep. Lloyd Doggett (TX-35), and Rep. Andy Harris (MD-01) also joined the delegation, which benefited from the active support of Ambassador James Gilmore, the U.S. Representative to the OSCE. In the Standing Committee, which oversees the OSCE PA’s work, Chairman Hastings highlighted recommendations resulting from a seminar for young parliamentarians on “Future Leadership for Political Inclusion in the OSCE Region,” hosted in Washington in early February by the Helsinki Commission and the OSCE PA. “We brought together some 35 young parliamentarians from 19 OSCE participating States and three partner States to learn from each other and incubate the solutions of the future,” Chairman Hastings said. “As I called on all of you at our last meeting in Marrakech, we must counter the economic and social despair afflicting our youth and we all have a role.” At the same committee, Co-Chairman Wicker, who serves as a vice president of the assembly, shared his recent experience at the Munich Security Conference. The committee also reviewed a written report submitted by former Helsinki Commissioner Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04), OSCE PA Special Representative on Human Trafficking Issues. In the committee focused on security issues, Rep. Hudson condemned Russia’s violations of Helsinki principles related to its aggression against Ukraine, while in the committee focusing on economic issues Rep. Harris cautioned Europe regarding the growing Chinese presence in the region. During a special debate on confronting anti-Semitism and other forms of intolerance in the OSCE region, Helsinki Commission Ranking Member Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), who serves as the OSCE PA Special Representative on Anti-Semitism, Racism and Intolerance, delivered introductory remarks by video. “It is our responsibility to safeguard our democracies by speaking out and using our tools and voices as legislators against those who would divide our societies,” Sen. Cardin said. Later in the debate, Rep. Cohen urged participating States “to teach Holocaust history, which a fourth of the people in Europe or more don't understand or remember, and teach it so that the most horrific crime against humanity will be remembered so that it will not be repeated.” Rep. Cleaver linked anti-Semitism to broader trends of intolerance in society, and called OSCE participating States to action, stating, “There are many scary things in our world, but there is nothing quite able to generate fright like prejudice inspired by ignorance and nationalism manufactured by fear.” Rep. Hudson chaired a meeting of the OSCE PA Ad Hoc Committee on Countering Terrorism, and Rep. Moore participated in a similar meeting of the Ad Hoc Committee on Migration. On the margins of the Winter Meeting’s official sessions, members of Congress met with the Ukrainian delegation to the OSCE PA to discuss U.S. support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty in the face of unrelenting Russian aggression. Delegation members also met with OSCE Secretary General Thomas Greminger, Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights Director Ingibjörg Sólrún Gísladóttir, Special Representative and Coordinator for Combatting Trafficking in Human Beings Valiant Richey, and High Commissioner for National Minorities Lamberto Zannier.
The Power and Purpose of Parliamentary DiplomacyWednesday, February 05, 2020
While diplomats largely drive a nation’s foreign policy, elected members of national parliaments, including the U.S. Congress, also play a crucial role in influencing policy priorities, holding governments accountable, and providing a firmer democratic foundation to the advancement of peace, cooperation, and human rights across the globe. Through the parliamentary assemblies of organizations that play a critical role in international peace and security—the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)—parliamentarians can advance national interests on the international stage. The U.S. Helsinki Commission convened the hearing to encourage inter-parliamentary dialogue and examine the role parliamentary diplomacy can play in responding to current challenges facing the OSCE and NATO. The hearing also demonstrated bipartisan U.S. support for multilateral engagement based on shared principles and common goals. Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) chaired the hearing and was joined by Commission Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) and Ranking Member Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), Commissioner Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02), and Rep. Filemon Vela (TX-34), a member of the U.S. delegation to the NATO Parliamentary Assembly. Chairman Hastings’ opening statement highlighted the value of effective parliamentary forums in contributing to security cooperation in Europe and around the world. Co-Chairman Wicker’s opening remarks emphasized that transatlantic dialogue has become even more important given continued Russian aggression. “If diplomacy is war by other means, we should no more abandon the plenary hall than the battlefield,” he stated.” George Tsereteli, a member of the parliament of the Republic of Georgia and President of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, and Attila Mesterhazy, a member of the parliament of Hungary and the Acting President of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, both testified at the hearing Tsereteli discussed the necessity of active and visible international cooperation. He specifically acknowledged the advantages of parliamentary diplomacy in facilitating “public discussions,” “additional communication channels between conflict parties,” and “fact-finding missions.” Tsereteli also addressed Russia’s rogue actions in Russian-occupied territories. While he voiced support for maintaining pressure on the Putin regime, he upheld the importance of continued dialogue and compromise. Mesterhazy’s testimony focused on the NATO Parliamentary Assembly’s recent achievements and its role in shaping the future of NATO. He contended that the NATO Parliamentary Assembly is a powerful complement to NATO because of the Assembly’s broad mandate, diverse membership, and utilization of majority voting. Mesterhazy also discussed Russian aggression in the region, asserting that “[the Ukraine War] is not a frozen conflict, it’s boiling” and commending the NATO Parliamentary Assembly for expelling the Russian delegation in 2014, following the illegal annexation of Crimea. The hearing provided insight on the parallels of multilateral engagement within the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly and the NATO Parliamentary Assembly. Commissioners and panelists were able to address various issues facing transatlantic security and remain hopeful for the future of parliamentary diplomacy and cooperation.
By Erika B. Schlager
Counsel for International Law
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.
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.”