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Europe's Largest Annual Human Dimension Meeting Closes With Appeal from NGOs
Wednesday, November 10, 2004

By Erika Schlager
CSCE Counsel on International Law

From October 4-15, 2004, the participating States of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe met in Warsaw, Poland, for a Human Dimension Implementation Meeting.  Each year, the OSCE convenes a forum to discuss the participating States’ compliance with the full range of their OSCE human dimension commitments agreed on the basis of consensus.

The United States Delegation was headed by Larry C. Napper, former Ambassador to Kazakhstan and Latvia.  He was joined by Ambassador Stephan M. Minikes, Head of the U.S. Mission to the OSCE; Ambassador Michael G. Kozak, Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor; Ambassador Edward O'Donnell, Department of State Special Envoy for Holocaust Issues; J. Kelly Ryan, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees and Migration; and Matthew Waxman, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Detainee Affairs.  Members of the staff of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe also participated in the delegation.

In the tradition of engaging accomplished individuals from the private sector with human rights expertise, the U.S. Delegation included several public members:  Gavin Helf and Catherine Fitzpatrick, both experts on the countries of the former Soviet Union; Frederick M. Lawrence, Anti-Defamation League; and Mark B. Levin, Executive Director, NCSJ: Advocates on behalf of Jews in Russia, Ukraine, the Baltic States & Eurasia.

Broad Range of Issues Reviewed

During the first week of the meeting, formal sessions were devoted to a review of the implementation by participating States of the full range of their human rights and fundamental freedom commitments.  During the second week, three days were devoted to topics chosen by the Chair-in-Office, in consultation with the participating States.  This year, the special topics were: the promotion of tolerance and non-discrimination (following up on extra-ordinary conferences held earlier this year on anti-Semitism and on racism, xenophobia and discrimination); freedom of assembly and association; and “complementarity and co-operation between international organizations in promoting human rights.”

At the meeting’s mid-way plenary session, the United States expressed particular concern about the deteriorating situation in Turkmenistan.  In 2003, ten OSCE participating States took the unusual step of invoking the "Moscow Mechanism" for the first time in a decade.  They were prompted to do so after Turkmenistan authorities reacted to an attack on President Saparmurat Niyazov's motorcade on November 25, 2002, with a widespread human rights crackdown marked by torture, disappearances, and an escalation of Stalin-era practices.  Turkmenistan refused to cooperate with the mission established under the mechanism and, in 2004, refused to renew the accreditation of the Head of the OSCE Office in Ashgabat, Parachiva Badescu.  Although Turkmenistan again declined to send representatives to participate in the HDIM, the United States argued to the participating States that sustained OSCE engagement on these matters is necessary to counter Turkmenistan’s increasing self-isolation.

"Why is it that only the United States helps democracy in Belarus?  Where is Europe?"

--Human rights activist from Belarus

The need to protect human rights while countering terrorism was a strong theme throughout this year’s meeting.  In addition, the deteriorating situation for human rights defenders in much of the former Soviet region, concern about the elections in Belarus and Ukraine, the failure to implement meaningful reforms in Uzbekistan, and the plight of refugees and internally displaced persons, including Roma from Kosovo, were other issues raised.  In the second week session devoted to tolerance, the United States argued that the Chair-in-Office should appoint two personal representatives to address the problems of anti-Semitism as well as racism, xenophobia, and discrimination.

As at past human dimension meetings and meetings of the OSCE Permanent Council, the United States was criticized for retaining the death penalty, contrary to the abolitionist trend among other OSCE participating States. At present, the only other OSCE countries that still officially apply the death penalty are Belarus and Uzbekistan.

A U.S.-based nongovernmental organization repeatedly criticized the United States for failing to provide citizens of the District of Columbia the right to voting representation in the Congress.  Belarus issued even more sweeping criticism of U.S. electoral practices. Coming just days before Belarusian elections that the OSCE Election Observation Mission subsequently concluded “fell significantly short of OSCE commitments,” the rebuke by Belarus appeared to be a cynical move to preempt or deflect criticism of its own shortcomings.

The abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib was condemned by both governmental and non-governmental speakers.  In addition, some participants criticized the United States for the use of military commissions to try alleged terrorists and for a 2002 Department of Justice memorandum that outlined legal defenses and loopholes that might be used to evade statutory and international legal prohibition against torture.

Side Events Add Substance

One of the striking features of this year’s meeting was the significant increase in the quality and quantity of side events held in conjunction with the formal sessions.  Side events may be organized at the site of the meeting by non-governmental organizations, OSCE institutions or offices, other international organizations, or participating States.  They augment the implementation review by providing an opportunity to examine specific subjects or countries in greater depth.  Like the “corridor” discussions and informal meetings that are part and parcel of any OSCE meeting, side events are also a vehicle for discussing and promoting OSCE action or decisions.  In some instances, side events have presaged the deeper engagement of the OSCE participating States with a particular subject – for example, side events organized by non-governmental organizations on the problem of hate propaganda on the Internet prompted a more in-depth focus on this issue at an OSCE meeting hosted by France earlier this year.   Side events can also help fill gaps in the implementation review process.

This year, in the aftermath of the Beslan tragedy, most governments were reluctant to raise the problem of human rights violations in Chechnya.  Nongovernmental groups, however, organized a side event to provide a forum to focus on these issues.  They argued that, while the problems in Chechnya may seem intractable, human rights abuses do diminish when they are raised with the Russian Government.

In an effort to respond to concerns about detainee abuse, the United States organized a side event on the subject of detainee issues.  Department of Defense Deputy Assistant Secretary Matthew Waxman, head of a newly-created DOD office for detainee affairs, discussed steps taken by the United States to address the abuse of detainees at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere and to prevent such incidents from reoccurring.  The event was open to all participants in the HDIM and, following the presentation of his remarks, Waxman opened the floor for questions.

Azerbaijani officials prevented one human rights defender and religious freedom activist from attending the Warsaw meeting.  On October 6, authorities at the Baku airport blocked Imam Ilgar Ibrahimoglu from boarding his Warsaw-bound flight.   Ibrahimoglu was set to attend the HDIM session on religious freedom and speak out against the forcible seizure of his congregation’s mosque earlier this year.  (Similarly, two Kazakhstani human rights activists, Amirzahan Kosanov and Ermurai Bapi, were prohibited from leaving their country last year in an apparent attempt to prevent them from participating in the HDIM.)  On a more positive note, the meeting may have contributed to a favorable decision by the Armenian Government to approve a long-standing application by Jehovah’s Witnesses to be officially registered as a religious organization.  During the meeting, the U.S. House of Representatives and the United States Senate passed the Belarus Democracy Act (on October 4 and 7 respectively).

NGOs Rebut “Astana Declaration”

At the closing session of the HDIM, 106 human rights advocates from 16 countries presented a declaration countering criticism by several former Soviet states of the OSCE’s human rights work.  (On July 3, 2004, nine OSCE countries – Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Russian Federation, Tajikistan, Ukraine and Uzbekistan – issued a statement criticizing the human dimension activities of the OSCE.  A subsequent document signed in Astana, Kazakhstan by eight of the above signatories claimed that there are double standards in fulfillment of OSCE commitments concerning democracy and human rights.)  An NGO spokesperson also urged the OSCE participating States to continue to focus on the issue of freedom of assembly.

"The most important principle of international affairs ingrained in international legal documents--'respect for human rights is not an internal affair of a state'--must remain unshakable and must be defended."

-- Statement signed by human rights advocates and presented at the closing session of the 2004 OSCE Human Dimension Implementation Meeting

In a press release issued on October 14, 2004, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-NJ) welcomed the NGO declaration.  “While many of the men and women who signed this document engage in human rights advocacy at considerable personal sacrifice and risk, they have clearly stated – in their words – their ‘categorical disagreement with the negative evaluation of OSCE activity.’”

This year’s HDIM drew record attendance by 220 nongovernmental organizations from across the region.  This is the only multinational human rights meeting in Europe where non-governmental organization representatives and government representatives may speak with equal status.

As at past meetings, the United States held extensive bilateral meetings with government representatives.  In many instances, the focus and scope of those meetings reflected the presence of experts from capital cities.  Additional meetings were held with OSCE officials and representatives of nongovernmental organizations.  In the second week of the HDIM, Human Rights Directors from the OSCE countries also held a working meeting to discuss issues of mutual concern.

Looking Ahead

With a view to the 2005 calendar of human dimension activities, the United States suggested that there are several subjects that deserve focused attention next year.  These include: migration and integration; protection of religious freedom in the fight against terrorism; the challenges of new election technologies, such as electronic voting; and the role of defense lawyers.  The United States also welcomed the Spanish offer to host a follow-up event on tolerance next year in Cordoba and recommended that next year’s HDIM should include another special topic day on the fight against anti-Semitism, racism, xenophobia and discrimination.  The United States proposed that at least one of the Supplementary Human Dimension Implementation Meetings next year be held outside of Vienna, in order to make the meeting more dynamic and allow participants to take part who might not normally be able to travel to Vienna.  (Since 1999, three Supplementary Human Dimension Meetings have been held each year.  Existing modalities allow for them to be convened in various locations but, so far, all have been held in Vienna.)

During the closing session, the Dutch Delegation, on behalf of the 25 European Union member states and four candidate countries, noted that there had been insufficient time to address the agenda items during the first week of the HDIM and, during the second week, more time than some subjects warranted.  For example, there was insufficient time to accommodate all those who wished to take the floor during the discussion of national minorities and Roma; the session on freedom of speech and expression was held to standing-room capacity.  By contrast, the session mandated to discuss the OSCE’s “project work” closed early – as it has every year since the subject first appeared on the meeting agenda – when the speakers’ list was exhausted before the end of the allotted time.  Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) Director Christian Strohal agreed that "we should adapt our time management."

Changes might also, conceivably, be made to the process of compiling a summary of the “recommendations” made at the meeting, a process that grew out of a desire to have a more substantive record of the meeting (in addition to the little-known but publicly available Journals of the Day).  In fact, these summaries have generally turned out to be an unsatisfactory product, notwithstanding the considerable effort of those tasked with producing them.  By definition, summaries must leave a great deal out, and both governments and nongovernmental organizations have complained when their particular recommendations are among those omitted.  Moreover, the summary of recommendations is usually scrubbed of any country-specific recommendations, leaving only anodyne boilerplate language.  In its opening statement at this year’s HDIM, the Netherlands, on behalf of the European Union and four candidate countries, argued that the process of compiling ever longer recommendations had become “non-productive and counter-productive.”

At this year’s meeting, the ODIHR launched a highly effective new documents distribution system.  Through a bank of computers on site, participants were able to print copies of any document submitted for circulation.  (This replaced a paper system of distributing all copies of all statements to all participants.)  Moreover, this system allowed participants to email any document, making targeted distribution much more efficient and environmentally friendly.  With the full texts of interventions and additional written material so easily available, the rationale for creating a written summary of recommendations for the benefit of those who were not able to attend the meeting is less compelling.

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

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    Attendees at this hearing, over which Commissioner Dante B. Fascell presided, discussed the December 1979 invasion of Afghanistan by the former Soviet Union, an invasion that ran counter to international law due to Afghanistan’s status as sovereign and independent. The set of agreements that the Soviet Union signed on to in 1975 with 34 other countries (i.e. the Helsinki Final Act) incorporated rights inherent in a country’s sovereignty, refraining from the threat or use of force, the rights of peoples to self-determination, and acceptance of international conduct principles. In short, the Soviet Union’s invasion and attempted occupation of Afghanistan had struck at the very heart of these principles, and its invasion had severely damaged the international climate and greatly damaged East-West relations.

  • A Thematic Survey of the Documents of the Moscow Helsinki Group

    The Moscow Public Group to Promote Observance of the Helsinki Accords in the USSR (better known as the Moscow Helsinki Group) announced its formation at a press conference for Western journalists on May 12, 1976. The first statement of the Moscow Helsinki Group publicized the names and addresses of the founding members: Professor Yuri Orlov, Group leader; and founding members Lyudmila Alekseeva, Elena Bonner, Aleksandr Ginzburg, Petro Grigorenko, Malva Landa, Anatoly Marchenko, Vitaly Rubin and Anatoly Shcharansky. (Later, ten other human rights activists joined the Moscow Helsinki Group: Sofya Kalistratova, Ivan Kovalev, Naum Meiman, Yuri Mnyukh, Viktor Nekipelov, Tatiana Osipova, Feliks Serebrov, Vladimir Slepak, Leonard Ternovsky and Yuri Yarym-Agaev.) Believing that human needs and open information are directly related to international security, the Group seeks to inform the CSCE states and public opinion about violations in the USSR of the humanitarian provisions of the Final Act. The Moscow Helsinki Group hopes that the information it provides will be considered at those international meetings (the Belgrade Conference, the Madrid Conference and similar future meetings) which are envisioned in the Final Act, under the section "Followup to the Conference," to examine the fulfillment of obligations under the Helsinki Accords. The Group called itself the Group to Promote the observance of the Helsinki Accords to stress its loyalty to the authorities and its desire to cooperate if they revealed a conscientious attitude towards their Helsinki human rights obligations. The Group members called on other CSCE signatories to create similar citizens groups, since violations of the Final Act human rights provisions are possible in any country.

  • Fifth Anniversary of the Formation of the Ukrainian Helsinki Group

    On November 9, 1976, 10 brave men and women in Kiev organized a citizens' group to examine how the Soviet Government was living up to its Helsinki human rights pledges. Tragically, however, far from greeting this new civic endeavor, the Kremlin, in a savage campaign of official reprisal, singled out the Ukrainian Helsinki Group for especially harsh treatment. By 1981, 30 group activists were in Soviet camps, prisons, and places of exile. The four witnesses at the Helsinki Commission hearing provided expert testimony on Ukraine and the Helsinki process, and their fates gave an insight into the radically different ways in which our Government and that of the Soviet Union reacted to citizen interest in the Helsinki process.

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