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Briefings

The Helsinki Commission organizes both public and staff briefings with expert witnesses on OSCE-related issues ranging from human rights and fundamental freedoms to terrorism and corruption.

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  • Fighting Terror

    As terrorist threats have multiplied in their scope and scale, the 57-member Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe plays an increasingly central role in facilitating international efforts to prevent and combat terrorism, including addressing conditions that create fertile ground for terrorist groups to recruit. At this U.S. Helsinki Commission briefing, leading American and European experts discussed where OSCE participating States converge and diverge on policies to counter terrorism and violent extremism. It also highlighted the positive work of the OSCE and OSCE Parliamentary Assembly in this area, as well as the role of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly’s Ad-Hoc Committee on Countering Terrorism. Participants discussed the state of transatlantic counterterrorism cooperation and recommended policy responses and best practices.  Congressman Richard Hudson, Vice-Chair of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly’s Ad Hoc Committee on Countering Terrorism, made introductory remarks.

  • All Bets Are Off

    Corruption—including bribery, doping fraud, and match-fixing—permeates international sport. Despite a 2015 FBI investigation into the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) that indicted more than twenty-five top FIFA officials and associates for alleged decades-long racketeering, wire fraud, and money laundering, international sport governance bodies remain compromised and U.S. athletes remain vulnerable. Corruption in sport has become an even more pressing concern following the U.S. Supreme Court’s May 14 decision declaring the Amateur Sports Protection Act unconstitutional, unleashing a sports gambling industry in the United States potentially valued at $400 billion. This lucrative and unregulated market may now be susceptible to the same globalized corruption that has come to define international sport. Panelists provided their insights into the structure of international sport, the globalization of sports gambling, and how to protect American sport from the corruption that has swept over the rest of the world.

  • Lies, Bots, and Social Media

    From the latest revelations about Facebook to ongoing concerns over the integrity of online information, the U.S. public has never been more vulnerable or exposed to computational propaganda: the threat posed by sophisticated botnets able to post, comment on, and influence social media and other web outlets to generate a desired outcome or simply sow distrust and disorder.  What can be done to confront and defeat these malevolent actors before they dominate civil discourse on the Internet? One possibility is the use of algorithmic signal reading which displays for users the geographic origin of a given post. Another answer may lie in improving how websites like Facebook curate their content, so the user can make more informed choices.  At this Helsinki Commission briefing, distinguished experts examined the implications of computational propaganda on national and international politics and explored options available to Congress and the private sector to confront and negate its pernicious influence.

  • A New Approach to Europe?

    President Trump has turned decades-old conventional wisdom on U.S. policy towards Europe on its head. His description of the European Union as a foe and embrace of populist leaders from Hungary’s Viktor Orban to Italy’s Giuseppe Conte have little historical precedent since World War II. With transatlantic relations in flux, observers wonder whether the approach that has guided our policy towards Europe since World War II has run its course.  At this Helsinki Commission briefing, distinguished experts on U.S.-European relations examined the historical context of the relationship and asked whether European integration remains in the U.S. national interest, and whether populist movements in Europe should be considered a threat or an opportunity. 

  • Beyond Tolerance

    George Washington penned a letter to the Touro Synagogue of Newport, Rhode Island in 1790, underscoring that “everyone shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.” Washington envisioned an America where religious pluralism was not just present but actively protected. This briefing examined the role of faith in the public square as a good in and of itself and as a public good. Eric Treene, Special Counsel for Religions Discrimination in the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice, noted a duality in the spirit of the American Constitution’s Establishment Clause and the 1777 Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom: neither should someone be forced to support a certain faith nor should he be made to suffer on account of his faith. Treene reemphasized that natural law solidifies our inalienable right to pursue religion and that the founding fathers believed that pluralism must not exclude certain religions. Treene said the Department of Justice strives to defend sincere and “deeply held” religious beliefs while permitting faith to flourish as much as possible without government intervention. Beyond the external ability to worship, Father Deacon Andrew Bennett, Canada’s first Ambassador for Religious Freedom and Director of the Cardus Religious Freedom Institute, underscored faith’s meaningful ability to address metaphysical and existential questions which have been answered by a myriad of faith traditions. Pluralism means that differing ethical and moral views are to be protected insofar as they are non-violent. Fundamentally, pluralism demands freedom of religion, and Father Deacon Bennett argued that a pluralistic society best promotes human flourishing. Dr. Sophie van Bijsterveld, Senator in the Dutch Parliament and Professor of Religion, Law and Society at Radboud University, noted that respect and tolerance, which are often invoked in the context of pluralism, are not clearly defined. To achieve these coexistent ends, she borrowed terms from the former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams to argue that government authorities may employ “programmatic secularism,” which deters religious activity, or “procedural secularism,” which welcomes religious activity. A contextual understanding of the word “secular” matters especially to current debates over the intersection between values and controversial political subjects like immigration, integration, foreign influencing, and radicalization, etc. Democratic governments struggle to define secularism, and they are further beset by broader definitions from international bodies like the European Court of Human Rights which seeks to protect religious liberties individually yet universally.   Equal treatment among varying cases has been a challenge, as Dr. van Bijsterveld noted that “equal treatment applies in equal circumstances [but] equal treatment…is not necessarily identical treatment.” While the legal uncertainty resulting from diverse religious practice does pose a challenge to legal institutions, overreliance on secularism in the name of fairness could also threaten equal treatment of religious activities. Ideally, secularism is a neutral ideology, but in Canada, Father Deacon Bennett expressed concern over a “prescribed diversity” and understanding of secularism which might fetter religious freedom. Under “prescribed diversity,” official support for any one ideology risks belittling or demonizing other forms of religious expression under what Father Deacon Bennett termed “illiberal totalitarianism in the public square.” A balance must be maintained so that faith is not reduced to an entirely private affair, compelling faith to vacate the public square. Treene commented on this difficult tension through the example of French laïcité, government-enforced secularism in the public square. The French government has not been a neutral referee in the fight between secularism and religious expression, and controversial decisions like the French headscarf ban have endeavored to solidify a secular foundation in the public square, arguably at the expense of religious expression. The degrees to which religion should counteract secularism or vice versa will continue to be debated, but the panelists all concurred that it is the role of society to respect inherent human dignity and to respect others’ rights to freedom of conscience, expression and association. As Dr. van Bijsterveld noted, this also includes mutual understanding between public authorities and religious communities. The implication of such cooperation is especially significant in a politically polarized society because greater amounts of religious freedom correlates with decreased levels of social conflict, according to recent scholarship at the Religious Freedom Research Project. Following George Washington’s encouragement of diverse religious practice in 1790’s America, we too should respect faith’s essential place in the public square in 2018, panelists argued.

  • A Truly Inclusive Society

    While the United States has an exemplary system of integration, empowerment, and protection from discrimination, individuals with intellectual disabilities like Down Syndrome have recommended numerous further improvements to U.S. law. This briefing explored best practices developed federally and locally in the United States to empower and integrate individuals with intellectual disabilities. Sara Hart Weir discussed how perceptions of the disabled community impair equality in many facets of society including education, housing, and financial independence, and discussed changes to the law that are still needed 30 years after the Americans with Disabilities Act. For instance, 80-year-old legislation named the “Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938” has unfairly permitted corporations to pay disabled employees less than minimum wage. This longstanding law was recently challenged by the National Down Syndrome Society through the TIME Act. Ms. Weir also supported continued work to build upon the recently adopted ABLE Act, which allows individuals with Down syndrome to save for their futures without losing benefits. She highlighted that many individuals with Down syndrome still face the choice between limiting their hours to part-time work or losing their much-needed Medicaid benefits. New, comprehensive legislation will be needed to address this problem if individuals with Down syndrome will be fully incorporated into the economy.   Kayla McKeon, the first registered lobbyist with Down syndrome, relayed the need for legal changes and social acceptance at an institutional level, stating, “To me, having Down syndrome is who I am but it has never stopped me for achieving my own hopes, dreams, and passions. What I want for my life and all individuals with disabilities is for us all to be treated just like everyone else. I want to live the American Dream.” The Special Olympian and lobbyist recalled being educated alongside her peers and receiving additional help as needed, as well as independence when needed. She is now attending college while working as the Manager of Grassroots Advocacy at the National Down Syndrome Society. Dr. Sheryl Lazarus, Director of the TIES Center, underscored the importance of including children with disabilities in educational settings alongside their peers, stating, “Early inclusion supports later inclusion. Early segregation almost ensures that there will be segregation later in life.” Dr. Lazarus encouraged teachers raise their expectations of disabled students’ cognitive abilities by promoting coursework such as math, reading, and social studies, not just self-care. She encouraged training and the availability of educational resources to ensure all teachers feel confident they can include children with disabilities in their classrooms. She noted that “the behavior of adults must change” to ensure that children with disabilities can reach their full potential. John Cronin, co-founder of John’s Crazy Socks, recounted that his disability “never held [him] back.” The Chief Happiness Officer of his $6 million company, he assists with public relations, merchandising, and same-day shipping to customers—who include presidents, prime ministers, and movie stars.  His passion drives his 8-hour work day, and he wants the world to know what tremendous feats people like him can accomplish. John’s Crazy Socks competes with corporate giants such as Amazon, yet the company is set apart by its social mission: to raise money for its partners and to demonstrate that hiring individuals with disabilities is a smart business decision. John’s Crazy Socks emphasizes employees’ abilities rather than disabilities and matches those abilities to the needs of the company. More than half of John’s Crazy Socks employees are differently-abled. Mark Cronin, CEO of John’s Crazy Socks, underscored that John’s Crazy Socks employees are paid above minimum wage, even though the law permits him to pay below minimum wage: “Our colleagues do not do minimum work, so we do not offer minimum pay.” He explained, “Employers will learn that those with differing abilities are an asset, not a liability. And the employers who learn this lesson the fastest, will be at an advantage and find greater success.”

  • Free-Trade Zones

    Free-trade zones (FTZs) are duty-free areas within a country’s borders designed to encourage economic development by allowing goods to be imported and exported under less restrictive conditions than are present elsewhere in that country. In many places, these zones generate jobs and revenue; however, they also are hospitable to illicit trade and money laundering. In the worst cases, law enforcement fails and FTZs become global hubs of criminal activity. According to Dr. Clay Fuller of the American Enterprise Institute, attempts to study FTZs are often thwarted by discrepancies in the definition and measurement of FTZs, a lack of coordination between the private and public sectors to collect data, and a dearth of globally aggregated data. Dr. Fuller agreed that FTZs have played a role in fostering corruption and suggested that better aggregate data is needed to reach further conclusions.  Essential to overcoming their challenges, FTZs must first be identified in a standardized format before the data can be accurately amalgamated. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has begun to study these problems from a global perspective through its Task Force on Countering Illicit Trade. Jack Radisch, Senior Project Manager at the OECD, reported that the trade in fakes is a $461 billion industry. This problem is exacerbated by FTZs, which can enable the movement of illegal goods. Stephane Jacobzone, Deputy Head of OECD’s Public Governance Division, expressed concerns about global “governance gaps,” such as those created by FTZs with poor oversight, which allow criminal activity to thrive. Pedro Assares Rodrigues, a EUROPOL Representative with the Europol Liaison Bureau, underscored the significance of global coordination by discussing the risk of FTZs to harbor terrorist activity. The United States and EUROPOL have united to combat global security threats through projects such as the Secure Information Exchange Network Application, allowing the US and EU to work efficiently and securely. Alongside Mr. Assares Rodrigues’ call for greater international coordination, panelists offered potential policy responses to criminal activities within the FTZs from both the private and public sectors.  For example, Dr. Fuller proposed that private companies should be enlisted to report data on FTZs, though he stipulated that government must protect the privacy of companies throughout the process. Dr. Fuller also added that countries that already participate in international data sharing agreements or multilateral conversations about FTZs should beseech their trading partners to join these same data-sharing partnerships.  Mr. Radisch and Mr. Jacobzone added that the OECD is working toward a comprehensive FTZ “code of conduct” that could eventually be adopted by member states.

  • Race, Rights, and Politics

    Today, Europe is grappling with the complex intersection of national identity, immigration, and security concerns, as well as a rise in xenophobic violence. As a result, European states are facing increased scrutiny of their efforts to integrate minorities and migrants, with some questioning the commitment of European governments to democratic principles and human rights.   The briefing featured European political leaders and civil society representatives of African descent, or black Europeans, who discussed the state of their democracies and recent efforts to address inclusion of Europe’s diverse populations, including parallel issues faced by black and minority populations on both sides of the Atlantic.  Helsinki Commissioner Representative Gwen Moore opened the event, stressing the importance of transatlantic cooperation to address increasing challenges to democracy and rising prejudice and discrimination in Europe and the United States. The speakers emphasized the need for greater protection of human rights of minorities of all backgrounds—racial and otherwise—including Polish, Romanian, Jewish, and Muslim populations, particularly in a modern Europe of sharp demographic change, BREXIT, and stagnating birth rates. They also discussed the need for migrant labor to revitalize and sustain European economies and social welfare systems.  Hungarian Parliamentarian Olivio Kocsis-Cake called for European policymakers to do more to address the situation of Roma. In response to a question on the European Parliament invoking Article 7 sanction procedures against Hungary—censuring it for violating “fundamental values” of the EU—he expressed hope that the EU’s rebuke would lead Hungarian PM Viktor Orbán to reconsider the “nationalist” and xenophobic policies he was advancing.   MP Killion Munyama of Poland spoke of his work on the Council of Europe Resolution 2222, which promotes minority political participation.  Parliamentarian Clive Lewis of the United Kingdom argued that BREXIT would negatively impact black populations—exacerbating existing housing, job, and education disparities—and that xenophobic rhetoric associated with the BREXIT campaign had led to a 20-30 percent spike in “race-hate” attacks. Against the backdrop of the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) party and the recent neo-Nazi protests in Chemnitz, Germany, Parliamentarian Aminata Toure of Schleswig-Holstein, Germany, reflected on her experience as the first black woman elected to her region’s parliament and one of only six black MPs in all of Germany. She called for more be done to empower the 23 percent of Germans with migrant backgrounds who find themselves massively underrepresented in governing structures, and are increasingly becoming targets of violence. Panelists Nero Ughwujabo and Simon Woolley discussed their separate efforts on implementing the United Kingdom’s March 2018 Race Disparity Audit Report to eradicate disparities across all sectors. The effort was heralded as a potential model for by which governments could address systemic inequalities amongs their own populations.  Ministers must “explain or change” disparities, with 90 million pounds dedicated towards the effort. Citing the UK effort as a model that could be emulated, Mr. Woolley contended that it is in every government’s self-interest to “unlock the potential on their doorstep” in minority populations. Civil society representatives Ali Khan and Jeffrey Klein argued that empowering black and minority populations was key, including by directing funding towards minority-led, grassroots organizations.  Groups do not need to be saved from without, but empowered from within. The panel concluded with speakers calling for solidarity and lasting cooperation in implementing democratic principles, and seeking recognition, representation, and access to equal opportunities for diverse communities. For more information on the Transatlantic Minority Political Leadership Conference, download the full report. 

  • Attacks on Roma in Ukraine

    Roma are the largest ethnic minority group in Europe and experience widespread discrimination and bigotry. Since the adoption of the 1990 OSCE Copenhagen Document, the U.S.  Helsinki Commission has actively monitored and advanced the OSCE’s human rights commitments to Roma.  Over the course of 2018, attacks on Roma in Ukraine have escalated dramatically. Several of the mob attacks have been filmed and broadcast in an attempt to intimidate Roma communities. The attacks have destroyed property, injured many, and killed at least one. Families, homes, and entire communities have been the target of these mob attacks.  Since April, the Roma Coalition reported eight attacks against Roma settlements in Ukraine, and more than 150 people have fallen victim to these attacks.  Although efforts have been made at the local, national, and international levels to counter this violence, much remains to be done. Helsinki Commission Counsel on International Law Erika Schlager explained, “These messages were intended to stoke fear and sow interethnic tension … by engaging sooner rather than later, it makes it more likely that the government can take the actions necessary to put an end to this kind of violence.” Halyna Yurchenko, coordinator of the NGO “Roma of Ukraine – TERNIPE,” added, “Most of the attacks were conducted on vulnerable groups quite below the poverty line and on those who live a traveling lifestyle. This traveling lifestyle is not a tradition but forced labor migration because of their difficult socio-economic situation.” Zola Kondur, founder of the Chiricli International Roma Women’s Fund, highlighted some of the other challenges that Roma face in Ukraine. For example, many Roma lack civil registration documentation such as birth certificates, passports, and proof of residence, which can prevent them from fully exercising rights such as the right to an education.  Although the panel agreed that education is one of the most vital components for the success and integration of Roma, obtaining an education in Ukraine without such legal documentation is difficult; such documentation is required for a student to enroll.  “The obstacle is that parents have to provide a lot of documents to prove that their child can attend the school belonging to that district” said Kondur. Even if a Roma child is enrolled successfully, Roma settlements are often situated far from schools; monthly contribution from parents; and they can face language barriers, and discrimination. The combination of no education and civil documentation makes obtaining a job difficult or even impossible. Although there are no official statistics for the current rate of unemployment of Roma, according to estimates from NGOs, only 38 percent of Roma are employed. Oskana Shulyar, Deputy Chief of Mission at the Embassy of Ukraine to the United States, acknowledged the grave humanitarian situation affecting Roma and explained how the Ukrainian government’s continuously tries to assist one of its nation’s most vulnerable groups.  “Ukraine is strongly committed to principles of tolerance and nondiscrimination of all ethnic groups, including the Roma community,” she said. Alongside the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Ukraine, law enforcement, and national security, grassroots organizations and local governments are working to create a safer community for Roma.  Shulyar stated, “We need the continuous support from our partners, including the United States … to support Ukrainian reforms.” Suggestions by the panelists to improve the situation of Roma in Ukraine and counter the increasing attacks on this vulnerable minority included better monitoring and assessment of hate crimes in Ukraine; careful identification of hate as a motive so that government can properly identify and counter increases in these crimes; and more effective efforts to prosecute and convict perpetrators of violent hate-motivated acts. Panelists also recommended that individuals or groups implicated in such violence be barred from state funding, and that Roma should be included in the policy making process, especially if there is consideration of updating Ukraine’s 2013 strategy for inclusion in light of the recent attacks. Click here to see the full timeline of the attacks.

  • Transatlantic Relations in Flux

    Following recent changes to the U.S. approach to economic and security policies in Europe, and a series of internal European developments—such as the recent influx of migrants and refugees, challenges to the rule of law, and Brexit—the transatlantic relationship is evolving rapidly. At the briefing, Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) discussed current obstacles in the transatlantic relationship and identified opportunities to strengthen the relationship moving forward.    MEP Claude Moraes of the United Kingdom kicked off the conversation by remarking on the importance of the European Union’s relationship with the United States. Moraes outlined concerns shared by the EU and the United States, ranging from commercial and security data transfers to counterterrorism and cybersecurity. “It’s about ensuring that we protect our democracies, our elections from interference, as we’ve seen from Russia,” Moraes said. Moraes also discussed the importance of security cooperation and BREXIT’s impact on the transatlantic relationship. “The EU is a good thing,” he said, noting that the EU magnifies the U.K.’s global ability to work with other countries on security and counterterrorism issues. For example, following BREXIT the U.K. is likely to lose some of its access to Europol, an EU-wide law enforcement agency that coordinates the sharing of intelligence, data, and other resources between EU Member States. Noting that the original goals of the 1975 Helsinki Final Act were to promote and defend democracy, MEP Michał Boni of Poland highlighted obstacles on both sides of the Atlantic to an ideal transatlantic relationship. On the U.S. side, he cited trade wars, waning diplomacy, and political uncertainty and instability. On the EU side, he lamented the rise of “illiberalism” across the continent, including challenges to democratic principles in Poland, Hungary, Romania, the Czech Republic, and Italy.   If the transatlantic relationship is to advance into the future, “we need now to start and to fight for the democracy, freedoms, and rule of law on both sides of Atlantic,” Boni said. French MEP Nathalie Griesbeck observed that the United States is the EU’s most important partner in the fight against terrorism and praised the skills of the U.S. intelligence community, noting that transatlantic intelligence-sharing efforts had prevented terror attacks across Europe.  “The European Union and the United States should use all available channels of communication in order to strengthen the transatlantic relationship [and] use the full potential of that cooperation to preserve the democratic, liberal, and multilateral order to promote stability and continuity on the continents […] even if the winds are sometimes bad,” she said. Panelists also addressed the question of whether migration to Europe could be capitalized upon to address the EU’s shrinking workforce and the need to preserve Europe’s economic future. They agreed that with efforts to attract highly skilled workers falling short, Europe must juggle political pushback against increased migration with the reality of an aging population. The MEPs also discussed the recent EU-Japan trade agreement, the EU’s Eastern Partnership, Turkey, the Western Balkans, and EU enlargement.

  • Roundtable on Illicit Trade

    Illicit trade—the transnational smuggling of illegal goods—has grown dramatically in the era of globalization thanks to modern technology, free trade zones, and the absence of the rule of law in many countries. Today, the shadow economy is booming and is estimated to account for up to 8 to 15 percent of world GDP. This roundtable brought U.S. government officials together with representatives of companies, associations, and organizations working to combat illicit trade. Participants discussed policy responses to the growing threat of illicit trade and how to build effective public-private partnerships. Officials from the intelligence community, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Department of State discussed their agencies’ roles in the struggle to stem the tide of illicit trade. Click here to see the full list of participants.

  • High Crimes and Pipelines

    Corruption continues to plague Ukraine’s energy sector. Despite the success of reforms to its state-owned gas company, Naftogaz, rampant corruption in regional distribution companies and elsewhere prevents Ukraine’s energy sector from realizing its potential. Coupled with the Russian assault on energy security in the form of Nord Stream 2, Ukraine finds itself at a crossroads: will it continue on the reformist path toward energy independence, or will its energy sector once again become defined by corruption? This briefing reviewed the challenges facing Ukraine’s energy sector with a focus on corruption’s role in preventing necessary reforms. Speakers provided expertise and insight as to how Ukraine’s energy sector fits into the larger picture of Ukraine’s fight against corruption. They also examined Russia’s malign influence in the country. Finally, the briefing offered policy responses to these issues.

  • Reality vs. Rhetoric

     Since President Trump’s inauguration, the administration’s Russia policy has been divided between rhetoric and reality. Two dueling narratives have emerged—one based on the conciliatory nature of the president’s words and tweets, the other arising from the hawkishness of implemented policy. The disparity has rendered difficult any objective assessment of administration policy toward Moscow.  During this briefing, the panelists examined this divergence and sought to contextualize the administration’s policy while providing recommendations for future action. According to the panelists, while rhetoric is undoubtedly important, for analysis it is far more useful to look to reality. In that regard, the Trump administration’s policy has been “the toughest since the Cold War.” This policy has taken two principal forms: increased military deterrence and an expanded sanctions regime. Militarily, the administration has instituted a tactical deterrence strategy that may serve as the foundation for a larger strategy of containment. Since 2017, the administration has initiated the sale of lethal arms to Ukraine, conducted air strikes against the Syrian regime and Russian private military contractors operating in Syria, increased funding in the NDAA for the European Deterrence Initiative from $3.7 billion to $6.3 billion, and enhanced the U.S. presence in Eastern Europe by expanding the size, scope, and frequency of allied training exercises in the region. The administration has supported this conventional deterrence policy with an equally strong political push against Moscow: a policy exemplified by the administration's imposition of the congressionally-designed CAATSA sanctions, which target oligarchs associated with the Putin regime. Beyond this, other political actions implemented by the administration include the largest expulsion of Russian diplomats in history, further sanctions imposed on Russian firms and cyber groups, and the appointment of Russia hawks to roles of National Security Advisor, Secretary of Defense, and Secretary of State. In addition to current policy, the panelists also looked to the future and gave their prescriptions on how the administration’s Russia policy should proceed. A discussion centered on two themes: further targeting President Putin’s support base and developing the United States’ ability to counter Russian hybrid warfare. The former is predicated on expanding the existing sanctions regime to better target the ability of Russian oligarchs to access the international financial system and targeting Putin's regime by exposing its corruption to the Russian people. The latter is a call for increased investment in cyber defense and eliminating the avenues by which Russian disinformation campaigns reach Americans. In response to a question from Helsinki Commission policy advisor Rachel Bauman regarding the role of Congress in future Russia policy, the panelists agreed that Congress could take the lead, serving as a check against the rhetoric of President Trump, and continue the strong policy the administration has implemented.    

  • Democracy Deferred

    After amending the constitution to extend the length of a presidential term and abolish term limits altogether, Azerbaijan’s ruler since 2003, Ilham Aliyev, recently prevailed in elections that secured his position until 2025. International election observers described this vote as “lack[ing] genuine competition” given the country’s “restrictive political environment and…legal framework that curtails fundamental rights and freedoms.” The presidential election took place after a year of growing concern over the state of fundamental freedoms in Azerbaijan. In March 2017, the government blocked nearly all remaining major sources of independent news; it continues to harass and detain independent journalists. That same month, the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative suspended Azerbaijan’s membership over the government’s onerous regulation of civil society organizations. In December 2017, the Council of Europe began exploring unprecedented punitive measures against Azerbaijan for flouting a European Court of Human Rights ruling ordering the release of former presidential candidate Ilgar Mammadov, jailed since 2013.  As Azerbaijan approaches 100 years of independence in May, the Helsinki Commission examined these recent developments and the country’s implementation of its freely undertaken human rights and democracy commitments.  In September 2017, Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04) introduced H.Res.537 calling on the U.S. Government to prioritize democracy and human rights in its engagement with Baku and examine the applicability of targeted sanctions against the most egregious violators of basic rights.

  • A Deadly Calling

    Over the last year, several journalists investigating public corruption have been murdered for their work in Europe and Eurasia. Two of these victims—Jan Kuciak of Slovakia and Daphne Caruana Galizia of Malta—came from states within the European Union. While protests erupted in Slovakia after Kuciak’s murder, ultimately leading to the resignation of the Prime Minister and other senior government officials, Caruana Galizia’s murder did not trigger a similar outcome. Those who hired her murderers continue to enjoy anonymity and impunity. The briefing examined the assassinations of journalists throughout Europe and Eurasia, why they are targeted, and how future murders can be prevented. It also investigated the shrinking space for investigative journalism in Europe and Eurasia, where there is less investment in investigative journalism and fewer outlets for investigations to be published.

  • Ending the War in Ukraine

    The Russian-manufactured war in Ukraine has killed more than 10,000 people, injured at least 25,000, and created a humanitarian crisis endangering millions more. Amid daily ceasefire violations and threats to critical infrastructure, civilians continue to bear the brunt of the cost of the needless, four-year-old conflict. In July 2017, the U.S. Secretary of State appointed Ambassador Kurt Volker as U.S. Special Representative for Ukraine Negotiations. Volker has since repeatedly met with senior Russian counterparts to explore ways to end the conflict, including the possibility of an international peacekeeping mission. At this Helsinki Commission briefing, Ambassador Volker explored the way ahead for U.S. and international policy on Ukraine in the wake of President Putin’s re-election. During his opening statement, Ambassador Volker noted that the conflict will only be resolved if Russia decides to remove its forces from the territory of Ukraine and to allow a genuine security presence to enter. He highlighted a proposal to institute a U.N.-mandated peacekeeping force that would help fulfill the Minsk Agreements by establishing security, controlling the border, and creating conditions to hold local elections. This peacekeeping force would be funded through voluntary contributions by nations and coordinated by a special representative of the secretary-general. In the Q&A, Ambassador Volker underlined that a U.N. mandate for such a mission would necessarily depend on Russian agreement. He noted that it is possible that after President Putin’s reelection, there may be greater political space for such a decision to take place, particularly as Russia continues to suffer significant economic and human costs from its occupation and will gain little by continuing the conflict. Regarding Crimea, Ambassador Volker noted that, although it is fortuitous there is no active military-style fighting, the centralized Russian rule has created a dire human rights situation on the illegally occupied territory. The Muslim Crimean Tartar population in particular has suffered greatly under Russian rule. As a result, many Crimean Tartars have fled for other parts of the country. He also stated that he has made it clear to his Russian counterparts that the United States does not accept Russia’s claimed annexation of Crimea. Ambassador Volker highlighted some areas where the OSCE’s role could be enhanced. He said that a U.N. peacekeeping force would support the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission (SMM) in executing its mandate in full. Furthermore, the OSCE could help provide supervision and training to local police forces to fill any potential security vacuum after illegal armed groups are removed. The OSCE could also be instrumental in creating and monitoring local elections.  Ambassador Volker closed the briefing by emphasizing the utility of working toward implementation of the Minsk Agreements rather than seeking to negotiate a new format. Even though the agreement has to date seen little implementation, attempting to create an alternative would just start a new open-ended negotiating process. He reiterated his belief that a U.N. peacekeeping force has the potential to unlock significant progress towards implementation of Minsk. He asserted that the United States would continue to be an active contributor to creating a prosperous and successful democratic Ukraine which could help foster a positive security and political environment in Europe going forward.

  • Fighting Human Trafficking in Travel and Tourism: New Challenges & Solutions

    Traffickers move trafficking victims on airplanes, buses, trains, and taxis—frequently relocating to avoid detection by law enforcement and to chase big markets, like major sporting events and vacation destinations. Hotels, often unknowingly, sell rooms to traffickers for exploitation.  Over the last decade, transportation and hotel professionals have recognized the role they can play on the front lines of identifying potential trafficking victims. Many organizations work alongside NGOs and the Departments and Homeland Security and Transportation to ensure that their employees are ready to respond to, rather than look away from, victims in plain sight.  However, some companies have been slow to join the fight. Legislation pending in Congress will require hotels and airlines to train their employees to spot and report signs of trafficking before the companies can become eligible to win government contracts. More decentralized systems of travel and tourism—such as Airbnb and Uber—may need new frameworks to ensure that their systems do not become the preference of traffickers on the move.

  • Revolution in Armenia?

    Under pressure from a surging popular protest movement, Armenia’s Prime Minister Serzh Sargsyan resigned on April 23, less than one week after taking office. The mass demonstrations were sparked by Armenia’s transition this month to a parliamentary system from a semi-presidential one. Small-scale protests emerged in mid-April as it became clear that parliament would elect Sargsyan, who served as president since 2008, to the newly empowered post of prime minister, and culminated with tens of thousands of demonstrators in Armenia’s central square. Protestors met news of Sargsyan’s resignation with jubilation, but after securing its principal demand, the loosely organized, youth-led movement faces uncertain prospects going forward. During the briefing, panelists discussed the key elements of the protests, the response from the U.S. and Russian governments, and Armenia’s political options moving forward. The protestors were predominantly young people – including many high school and university students. Panelists noted that youth were motivated to protest primarily due to concerns over economic opportunities, which have not significantly improved under 10 years of rule by the Republican Party of Armenia. Independent Research Analyst Elen Agehkyan noted the charisma of protest leader Nikol Pashinyan as playing a major role in mobilizing protesters. Dressing simply and marching with protestors, Pashinyan was seen as a “people’s leader”.  Panelists also remarked that the protests were noteworthy for their nonviolent nature. Protestors did not even erupt into violence when Pashinyan was detained overnight. Panelists also discussed the response from the U.S. and Russian governments. The International Republican Institute’s Regional Director for Eurasia Stephen Nix commended U.S. Ambassador Richard Mills for playing a positive role, noting that Ambassador Mills met with both the government and opposition and called on protestors to remain peaceful. The Russian government held a hands-off approach to the protests, releasing statements that the protests were strictly a domestic affair. Mr. Nix further outlined the constitutional provisions governing Armenia’s transition of power. He discussed scenarios for the coming weeks that might require emergency elections, depending on the ability of a prime minister candidate to secure the parliament’s approval for his appointment and government program. Nix further addressed the importance of U.S. government support to develop Armenian public institutions, political parties, and civil society that will be essential to sustaining any momentum toward reform. 

  • The Opioid Crisis and the Dark Web

    The opioid crisis is devastating the health and well-being of Americans. Following a dramatic increase in the use of prescription opioid painkillers in the late 1990s, the crisis now kills more than 40,000 people in the United States annually. Experts estimate that millions more abuse prescription opioids each year, many of whom later turn to heroin. Transnational criminal organizations are one of the driving forces behind the intensity of the opioid crisis. By taking advantage of anonymous online marketplaces and legal delivery services, they can smuggle deadly drugs like fentanyl into the United States in a low-risk, high-reward way. This briefing traced the criminal networks that produce these drugs, market them on the dark web, and smuggle them into the United States to better understand how the public and private sectors can more effectively respond to this crisis and save thousands of American lives.

  • How to Get Human Rights Abusers and Kleptocrats Sanctioned under the Global Magnitsky Act

    The workshop provided human rights organizations, transparency advocates, and congressional staff with the tools they need to effectively petition the U.S. government to review and potentially designate individuals and organizations for sanctions under the Global Magnitsky Act. Sanctions experts described, from an operational perspective, how the U.S. government identifies, vets, and ultimately sanctions individuals. They also discussed the evidentiary standards for sanctioning human rights violators vs. those engaged in serious acts of corruption. Finally, panelists shared investigative techniques, communications strategies, and responses to aggressive tactics used to intimidate human rights and transparency advocates.

  • The Russian Doping Scandal

    In 2016, Dr. Grigory Rodchenkov blew the whistle on Russia’s state-run doping program, revealing a deep web of deception and fraud that he had once helped facilitate. This revelation led to the total ban of Russia from the 2018 Winter Olympics and intensified the debate over corruption in sports. After fleeing Russia for fear of retaliation, Dr. Rodchenkov now lives a precarious life in the United States, relying on whistleblower protections and fearful that Russian agents may one day come knocking. This briefing featured Dr. Rodchenkov’s attorney, Jim Walden, for a conversation on combating fraud in sports and the role of whistleblowers in safeguarding the integrity of international competitions. It also included a discussion of Oscar-winning documentary Icarus, which chronicles Dr. Rodchenkov’s journey from complicit head of Russia’s anti-doping laboratory to courageous whistleblower. During the briefing, Mr. Walden described the elaborate system Dr. Rodchenkov led to bypass doping testing. He further went on to detail the punishments levied on the Russian government by the International Olympic Committee (IOC).  He said that the IOC has insufficiently punished Russia for its state-sponsored doping program by not fully banning Russia from the 2018 Winter Olympic Games in Pyeonchang. In addition, most of the 43 “lifetime” bans of doped Russian athletes have been overturned by the Court of Arbitration for Sport. Furthermore, Russia has not accepted responsibility and instead seeks to retaliate against Dr. Rodchenkov. For example, Russian officials have harassed Dr. Rodchenkov’s family, confiscated his property and launched an information campaign to discredit him. In addition, three of the guilty Russian athletes have sued Dr. Rodchenkov in New York State Supreme Court for defamation.  The Russian government has even retaliated against the IOC and World Anti-Doping agency (WADA) by hacking the IOC’s and WADA’s computers, disclosing confidential documents, and even threatening  to bring sanctions against IOC Members and WADA executives. Mr. Walden closed his statement with a legislative solution to combat Russian doping. He proposed creating a doping “long-arm statute” similar to the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act or amending the Controlled Substances Act  to give the U.S. power to persecute foreign officials and athletes that engage in doping and provide whistleblower protection. In response to a question from Helsinki Commission Policy Advisor Paul Massaro about the IOC’s response to the incident, Mr. Walden said that the IOC’s reaction was ineffective due to corruption, complicity, or ineptitude. When asked about the motivations behind Russia’s doping program, Mr. Walden noted that the doping program is unique to Russia because of the impact on sport in Russian society and added that the success of the Sochi Olympics greatly boosted Vladimir Putin’s approval ratings.

  • Screening and Discussion: "And We Were Germans"

    To celebrate Black History Month, the Helsinki Commission screened “And We Were Germans: The Life of Hans-Jürgen Massaquoi and Ralph Giordano.” The 30-minute film chronicles the journey of Hans-Jürgen Massaquoi, an Afro-German survivor of the Holocaust who emigrated to the United States and became the editor of Ebony magazine, one of the first monthly publications for African-Americans.  The film connects the experience of Afro-German and Jewish-German survivors of the Holocaust by recounting Massaquoi’s experience in Germany, including his relationship with Ralph Giordano, a lifelong Jewish friend. To introduce the film, Dr. Mischa Thompson of the Helsinki Commission spoke about the Commission’s focus on diverse and vulnerable populations from Roma and Jewish populations to national minorities and migrants in Europe and the United States since its inception. She also discussed Commissioner’s work on the situation of People of African Descent in Europe or Black Europeans, including hearings and legislation in the U.S. Congress and resolutions and events in the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly and OSCE.  The film was followed by a conversation with director John A. Kantara about the film and current situation of people of African descent in Germany and across Europe. Kantara discussed his motivation for making the film and what he considered to be the most moving parts of the process. He found inspiration after traveling with young Afro-Germans to Chicago and attending a cultural exchange with African-Americans where he met Hans Massaquoi. He was concerned that Black German history was not widely taught in schools, nor was there a strong awareness of the Afro-German population’s history from Germany's colonization of Namibia, Burundi, and Tanzania to the children of African-American soldiers stationed in Germany. Kantara made the film with the hope that he could change the lack of education regarding black history in Germany. Kantara also elaborated on what moved him during the filmmaking process, noting the importance of African-American struggles during the U.S. civil rights movement to Afro-Germans. He indicated that trying to organize people who have been affected by discrimination and racism is an important task, and was his primary aim throughout the filmmaking process. Kantara also offered his thoughts on the new release Black Panther, noting the large turnout in Berlin and special initiatives to screen the film for Afro-German youth. Kantara revealed that it was remarkable to see young black Germans relate to the movie, and identifying with the people and plot of the film.

  • Foreign Meddling in the Western Balkans

    Malign outside influence in the Western Balkans, in particular by Russia, is of increasing concern. The lack of a strong legal framework makes countries in the region especially vulnerable to foreign capital that can be used to sow instability, undermine integration, and delay democratic development. In the past decade, Russia has exponentially increased its economic investment in Balkan countries.  Without adequate governance and transparency, so-called “corrosive capital” will wield its financial power to distort policy making, lessen the European focus of the countries concerned, and potentially cause instability in the region. The Center for International Private Enterprise (CIPE) has worked with local private and civil society partners to analyze the economic governance gaps that allow “corrosive capital” to gain a foothold in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia, Montenegro, and Serbia. According to panelists, Russia’s economic footprint is most obvious in key strategic sectors, including real estate, banking, energy, and mining.  Russian foreign direct investment stock is close to 30 percent of Montenegro’s GDP and it exerts both direct and indirect control of approximately 10 percent of the economy of Serbia. The dependency of Balkan countries on Russian imports and financial loans is also a prevalent form of indirect power. As a result, when Montenegro joined NATO in 2017, the Russian Foreign Minister announced that Montenegro had sacrificed its economic relations with Russia. Russia further sanctioned Montenegro by discouraging travel to the country by Russian tourists, characterizing it as a dangerous place.  Although the anti-NATO campaign has not succeeded, it did indicate Russian intentions as well as local vulnerability to outside influence.  The economic presence of outside actors other than Russia was also discussed.  In general, the panelists emphasized the need to diversify foreign direct investment and reduce reliance on capital from non-democratic countries. Transparency in foreign investment and a depoliticization of corporate governance is also necessary. A free, independent and diverse media also will help ensure greater accountability in both the political and economic sectors. Helsinki Commission activity regarding the Western Balkans reflects ongoing concern for the countries of the region. With several Balkan states on the cusp of NATO and EU membership, it is particularly important for these countries to strive for greater democratic development and economic prosperity. The United States has played a significant role in the region, providing political, economic and military support.  If not seen through to completion of NATO or EU membership as desired, these states face the continued risk of backsliding.

  • European Security in 2018

    From the Kremlin-engineered conflict in Ukraine, which has killed over 10,000 people, wounded tens of thousands, and displaced over a million, to military exercises designed to intimidate Russia’s neighbors, Moscow’s actions have severely undermined security and stability throughout Europe – including that of U.S. allies and partners. From November 2014 until his retirement in December 2017, Lieutenant General (Ret.) Frederick Benjamin “Ben” Hodges helped lead the U.S. response to Russia’s military aggression as Commanding General of U.S. Army Europe. Hodges was credited by Gen. Curtis M. Scapparrotti, commander of European Command and Supreme Allied Commander Europe, with leading American land forces during one of the most volatile periods in recent European history and driving an increased U.S. force presence to deter further aggression and reassure allies. During the briefing, General Hodges offered his perspective on the importance of Europe to the United States, NATO’s success in maintaining stability in Europe, and the significance of the United States’ relationship with Germany. The economic relationship between Europe and the United States and the reliability of European partners underlined the continued strategic relevance of Europe to the U.S., Hodges argued. General Hodges also emphasized the importance of the strategic relationship between Germany and the United States. He noted the importance of Germany to our own economic prosperity, as well as access to military bases throughout the country, asserting, “We’ll always have a special relationship with the UK, for historical, cultural reasons. But in terms of what’s most important, it’s Germany.” In response to questions from Helsinki Commission Senior Policy Advisor Alex Tiersky, General Hodges outlined the U.S. Army’s support to Ukraine in the wake of ongoing Russian aggression, noting the utility of the training mission in Yavoriv to both sides, with American soldiers gaining critical insights on Russian tactics and technology. General Hodges also addressed the provision of lethal military assistance to Ukraine in the context of supporting Ukrainian sovereignty and, ultimately, a diplomatic solution to the conflict. Tiersky also asked about ZAPAD 2017, a Russian military exercise which took place across Russian and Belarus, as well as broader trends in Russian military exercises. Hodges underlined the lack of Russian transparency regarding ZAPAD, and described its broad scale and ambition.  The exercise had the positive effect of forcing impressive intelligence sharing among Allies, Hodges revealed, a dynamic he hoped would endure. Hodges also commented on Turkey’s strategic direction; NATO reform and defense spending commitments; cyber conflict; and the role of multilateral institutions.

  • Next Steps for Refugee and Migrant Youth in Europe

    "The reality is these children are not only Europe’s future, North Africa’s future, the Middle East’s future, we’re in a global world.  It’s also our future." - Dr. Mischa Thompson, Senior Policy Advisor, Helsinki Commission Although refugee and migrant arrivals to Europe have been declining since the beginning of the refugee crisis in 2015, thousands continue to arrive each year from countries throughout the Middle East and Africa, including Afghanistan, Syria, and Iraq. Of those, the number of youth whom arrive unaccompanied is increasing.  An estimated 15 to 20 percent of refugee and migrants are minors, and 5 percent unaccompanied.  The situations that cause children to arrive in Europe alone are very complex, but experts agree that more must be done to see that they are protected, supported, and integrated.  During the briefing, which highlighted the current situation of refugee and migrant youth in Europe, Sofia Kouvelaki, Executive Director of the Home Project in Athens, Greece, shared the story of two Syrian boys forced to leave their family and home in Syria.  “Two Syrian brothers, Adnan and Ayaz, age 10 and 11 years old […] reported witnessing firsthand bombings, killings, decapitations, and all forms of violence,” she recounted. “In 2015, the father managed to send enough money to finance their move to Europe via smuggling networks.  Adnan and Ayaz had to walk all the way to the Turkish coast through very dangerous routes.  They report being physically and sexually abused by the trafficker along the way, as well as being held at a house for a month where we suspect they were repeatedly raped.”  “They tried to reach to Greece three times,” she continued. “The first two failed and the kids were arrested and returned and detained in a Turkish refugee camp, where they experienced even more violence.  The third time, they managed to reach the Greek island of Chios [and] were detained for more than three months in a closed reception facility, co-existing with adults in horrible living conditions.”  “The youngest of the two brothers attempted to hang himself using his own t-shirt.  His attempt failed because the t-shirt was torn.  The child was hospitalized with his brother for five hours at the local hospital and then returned to the detention center due to a lack of appropriate accommodation on the island.  We were notified by a volunteer regarding this case.  And in collaboration with the public prosecutor for minors and the local authorities, we went to Chios and escorted the kids to one of our shelters.  The kids are now safe, and they’re receiving a holistic network of services [at a Home Project shelter],” she concluded. The story exemplifies the vulnerability of refugee and migrant youth traveling to Europe and the need for an increased focus on what expert Kathleen Newland, Co-Founder of the Migration Policy Institute, cited as some of the biggest problems: trafficking, detention, a lack of appropriate reception centers and shelters for children – circumstances that allow children to easily go missing.  “16-, 17-year-old boys form the bulk of this population,” she said.  “Unfortunately they are not seen as the most sympathetic group. People don’t necessarily think of almost adult males as being the most vulnerable.  But in fact, in Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, they are the most vulnerable to forcible recruitment, to being killed in the context of these conflicts.”  The Home Project offers a promising model for providing the basic needs of refugee and migrant youth- food, shelter, medical support, psychological support, psychiatric supervision, and tools for integration (language training, education, and employment).  It includes the Youth to Youth Program in collaboration with the American Community Schools of Athens with the goal being through education to connect the youth with employers.  According to Kouvelaki, “the ultimate goal is integration.” Newland cited a number of measures that countries are supposed to be implementing in accordance with the Convention on the Rights of the Child and other policies to protect and integrate refugee and migrant youth.  However, a lack of capacity in some cases combined with a xenophobic political climate in the EU, including anti-migrant policies in Hungary and Poland, has resulted in less than expected progress since the height of refugees coming to Europe in 2015.  This is particularly concerning given Europe’s traditional leadership role on human rights, and assertions that well-integrated refugees and migrants might be the key to Europe’s economic future in the face of declining population growth in many countries.

  • Combating Kleptocracy with the Global Magnitsky Act

    In 2016, Congress passed the Global Magnitsky Act, which seeks to prohibit the worst foreign human rights offenders and most corrupt officials operating anywhere in the world from entering into the United States and to block their U.S. assets. This law requires that each year on December 10 (Human Rights Day), or the first day Congress is in session thereafter, the President submit a report to Congress that includes a list of each foreign person sanctioned under the law during the preceding year. The anti-corruption provisions are of particular interest given how wide-ranging and unprecedented they are as a tool to combat kleptocracy. While combating corruption has traditionally focused on internal reforms and best practices, the Global Magnitsky Act enables the United States to target those individuals who steal from their populations and abuse the global financial system as well as those who facilitate their grand corruption. This briefing provided an overview of the scourge of corruption in the OSCE region and how the Global Magnitsky Act can be employed to combat it. It included a discussion of the types of individuals and groups that should come under consideration for placement on the sanctions list and the ramifications of any such placement.

  • The International Tribunal and Beyond: Pursuing Justice for Atrocities in the Western Balkans

    Between 1991 and 2001 the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, made up of six republics, was broken apart by a series of brutal armed conflicts. The conflicts were characterized by widespread and flagrant violations of international humanitarian law, among them mass killings of civilians, the massive, organized and systematic detention and rape of women, torture, and practices of ethnic cleansing, including forced displacement. In 1992 the U.N. established a Commission of Experts that documented the horrific crimes on the ground and led to the 1993 creation of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY). This month, after more than two decades of persistent, ground-breaking efforts to prosecute the individuals responsible for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide in the former Yugoslavia, the ICTY is concluding its work. As it prepares to close its doors, this briefing will assess the tribunal’s achievements and limitations, and most importantly, what still needs to be done by the countries of the region to seek justice in outstanding cases, bring greater closure to victims, and foster greater reconciliation among peoples. Panelists discussed these questions and suggested ways that the United States, Europe, and the international community as a whole can encourage the further pursuit of justice in the Western Balkans.

  • Sea Rescues: Saving Refugees and Migrants on the Mediterranean

    Ships on the Mediterranean Sea have rescued 117,000 refugees and migrants bound for Europe so far in 2017, and many more since the crisis first reached the continent in 2015. In the past two years, almost 12,000 refugees and migrants have died or gone missing. Many of the sea rescues have been conducted by coast guard and naval ships from frontline European countries; the European Union’s Border and Coast Guard Agency, also known as Frontex; and EUNAVFOR MED Operation Sophia. Merchant ships have also played an important role in sea rescues of migrants and refugees on the Mediterranean. According to the International Chamber of Shipping, merchant ships have rescued more than 41,300 of them since 2015. This briefing examined how rescue operations work; what ships are obligated to do when they become aware of a vessel in distress; issues of human trafficking and smuggling; how well governments, shipping companies, and international organizations coordinate and collaborate with each other on sea rescues; major challenges that currently exist for navies, coast guards, and merchant ships involved in rescue operations; and recommendations to address these challenges.

  • Ukraine: Report from the Front Lines

    For more than three years, civilians in eastern Ukraine have suffered the effects of a needless conflict manufactured and managed by Russia; an estimated 10,000 people have been killed and more than 23,500 injured. The humanitarian situation continues to deteriorate amidst almost daily ceasefire violations and threats to critical infrastructure. Joseph Stone, an American paramedic, was killed on April 23, 2017 while monitoring the conflict as an unarmed, civilian member of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Special Monitoring Mission (SMM) to Ukraine. SMM reports remain the only source of verifiable, public information on this ongoing conflict and the grave, daily impact it has on the local civilian population.  Mission personnel face regular and sometimes violent harassment by combined Russian-separatist forces seeking to limit the SMM’s access to the areas they control.  At this U.S. Helsinki Commission briefing, Alexander Hug, Principal Deputy Chief Monitor of the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine, detailed the humanitarian consequences of the ongoing conflict in Eastern Ukraine; provided an overview of the role of OSCE monitors and the threats they face in carrying out their duties; and offered thoughts on prospects going forward.  Alexander Hug has served in several roles at the OSCE, including as a Section Head and a Senior Adviser to the OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities as well as at the OSCE Mission in Kosovo. His career in conflict resolution includes work with the Swiss Headquarters Support Unit for the OSCE in northern Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Temporary International Presence in Hebron, and the EU Rule of Law Mission in Kosovo.    

  • Ukraine's Fight Against Corruption

    Today, Ukraine has an historic opportunity to overcome its long struggle with pervasive corruption. Never before in its past has the country experienced such meaningful reforms, with the most significant being the establishment of a robust and independent anticorruption architecture. However, much remains to be done. An anticorruption court is urgently needed, as is an end to the escalating harassment of civil society. This briefing of the U.S. Helsinki Commission introduced the Commission’s recently published report, “The Internal Enemy: A Helsinki Commission Staff Report on Corruption in Ukraine.” Briefers discussed the conclusions of this report as well as the fight against corruption in Ukraine more broadly.

  • Religious Freedom Violations in the OSCE Region

    All 57 participating States of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe have committed to recognize and respect religious freedom as a fundamental freedom. However, some OSCE countries are among the worst perpetrators of religious freedom violations in the world. On November 15, 2017 the U.S. Helsinki Commission hosted a briefing titled “Religious Freedom Violations in the OSCE Region: Victims and Perpetrators.” The panel included Ambassador Michael Kozak, Senior Advisor for the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor; Dr. Daniel Mark, Chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom; Dr. Kathleen Collins, Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Minnesota; and Phillip Brumley, General Counsel for Jehovah’s Witnesses. The briefing was moderated by U.S. Helsinki Commission Policy Advisor Nathaniel Hurd. Ambassador Kozak opened his remarks by emphasizing that freedom of religion is an important issue to the Trump Administration. He named Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan as the most concerning OSCE participating States currently violating their citizens’ right to freedom of religion. While he noted Uzbekistan is making some efforts to remove itself from the “Countries of Particular Concern” list, the country still has a ways to go. He discussed a law in Tajikistan that prevents any child under 18years of age from attending public religious ceremonies, saying this law not only violates citizens’ freedom of religion but also freedom of assembly. He then stressed the importance of keeping an eye on “Tier 2” countries such as Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Turkey, as all three countries are active in limiting the rights of minority religions. During the Q & A session, Ambassador Kozak explained that the State Department released the Annual International Religious Freedom Report three months after the legally required May deadline so the Secretary could participate in the rollout. He also acknowledged the State Department’s failure to meet the legally required deadline to issue its designation of Countries of Particular Concern 90 days after releasing the IRF report. The Ambassador himself took responsibility for missing the deadline, explaining that he has not yet provided the paperwork to the Secretary and saying the designations should be issued soon. Dr. Daniel Mark then spoke about the role of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) in the OSCE region. USCIRF monitors religious freedom abroad and makes policy recommendations in Washington. He recently traveled to Uzbekistan and also acknowledged the efforts of the country to improve its status on the “Countries of Particular Concern” list. He added that Uzbekistan was the one country that offers hope in the region, although the USCIRF is still waiting for more evidence on much needed reforms. He cited the strict registration of religious groups, tightly controlled possession of religious literature, and the thousands of Uzbek Muslims who continue to serve long-term prison sentences on fabricated charges. He also warned that extremism laws have become a new way to prevent peaceful religious expression in the region. Overall, he said the Commission is not optimistic about religious freedom in the region, which is arguably more restricted than ever before. During the Q&A session, Dr. Mark reiterated that the biggest constraint on religious freedom in Uzbekistan is the government-required registration on religious organizations. Without registration, a group cannot have property, services, or literature; however, registration is also a way for the government to start its control and surveillance. Dr. Kathleen Collins concentrated her time on the evolving situation in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. She suggested that governments in the region are looking towards each other and Russia to justify extremism laws that are really just another form of religious persecution. Dr. Collins spoke about a proposed amendment in the Kazak government that limit religious teaching to approved organizations, and the new requirement for 500 signatories for religious registration in Kyrgyzstan. Despite these laws, she noted that some churches have been able to build ties with local governments to provide social services that national and local governments do not prioritize, such as helping orphans and drug rehabilitation. During the Q&A session, Dr. Collins noted that governments and secular civil society actors in the region have undercut some of the efforts to gain more religious freedom. She said there is not a tradition of civil society working with religious actors as a result of deeply secular civil societies that tend to distrust religious actors. Dr. Collins added that mistrust developed during Communist rule has undermined different Christian communities working together to address issues of religious freedom. Finally, Phillip Brumley began by listing Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Russia as the most dangerous countries for Jehovah’s Witnesses in the OSCE region. Brumley explained how Russia’s extremism laws allowed the Russian government to classify Jehovah’s Witnesses as an extremist organization. He said Jehovah’s Witnesses residing in Russia can remain true to their faith but must keep it to themselves and refrain from gathering in groups to worship. He believes that Russia is the primary driver of religious freedom violations in the region. During the Q&A session, Brumley said he believes Russia is taking a long time in their attack on Jehovah’s Witnesses in order to give a veneer of giving Jehovah’s Witnesses due process of law. He noted that Jehovah’s Witnesses have been in Russia since before the Soviet Union and there are fourth and fifth generation Witnesses living in Russia who will continue to practice their faith, even under these new limitations.

  • Working Together to Reverse the Decline in Intercountry Adoptions

    The United States has a long tradition of intercountry adoption, and worked with 19 OSCE participating States and 5 partner States to find forever homes for more than 1,000 children last year.  However, overall intercountry adoptions have been on the decline in the United States since 2004, when Americans adopted almost 23,000 children worldwide.  In 2016, only 5,370 intercountry adoptions were completed.  While this decline may reflect an increase in economic stability and domestic adoptions in some children’s home countries, it may also reflect a need for change in the U.S. adoption processes and international aid priorities. On November 12, 2017, the U.S. Helsinki Commission held a hearing exploring reasons for the decline in intercountry adoptions, Congressional intent behind the Intercountry Adoption Universal Accreditation Act of 2012, the impact of the initial implementation of the Act by the U.S. Department of State, and legislative and other solutions to ensure that the maximum number of children in need are connected with families in the United States offering permanent homes. Suzanne Lawrence, Special Advisor for Children’s Issues at the Department of State, began by discussing the reasons for the decrease in adoptions. Many countries that had previously participated in international adoption have recently withdrawn from the process, or have recently changed their adoption policy to encourage in-country placement, she said. Other countries, concerned about their ability to provide oversight and ensure the child’s safety after international placement, have also restricted international adoptions. Ms. Lawrence pointed to progress on the later issue, noting the State Department’s successful effort to collect post-adoption reports on children adopted from Peru and Kazakhstan, which have led those governments to consider revising their restrictions on intercountry adoption. Speaking next, John Carver, the father of six children adopted from Russia and Belarus, described his experience as an adoptive father and the joy that adoption has brought his family. “Our children are our life. I mean, we have six kids and they give us the breath in our lungs. I mean, they give us a reason to get up in the daytime.” He also discussed the difficulties he and his wife faced while adopting their children, including the financial cost and the length of the process. Additional challenges appeared when their youngest daughter, Juliana, was diagnosed with cancer, and required a bone marrow transplant from her birthmother, Irina. With the help of the State Department, they were able to locate her in Belarus, and she agreed to come to the United States to donate her bone marrow. “We’ve developed a great relationship with Irina and she is our family now. I mean, she’s us, we’re her,” he said. Despite the transplant, Juliana tragically passed away in October 2016. In closing, Mr. Carver emphasized the good that adoption can do for children across the world. “There’s thousands of kids overseas who have no hopes and no dreams and, very candidly, no family to tuck them in at night,” he said. “They would love to have a forever family, they really, really would.” The next speaker was Ron Stoddart, president of the nonprofit Save Adoptions, and former executive director of Nightlight Christian Adoptions, the agency through which Mr. Carver and his wife adopted their six children. Mr. Stoddart emphasized the need for communication and cooperation between the State Department and adoption service providers to reverse the decline in intercountry adoptions. He also discussed the need to focus on adoption in all age groups, including infants and older children. He noted that while the number of intercountry adoptions fell to 5,370 in 2016, the number of children adopted under the age of one has fallen to zero. Mr. Stoddart expressed optimism that the tensions between adoption service providers and the State Department can be resolved, to the benefit of adoptive parents and children in orphanages across the world. “Are there problems with intercountry adoptions?  Of course there are.  We’re talking about a very emotional process between different cultures with different laws.  But these problems can be solved without throwing out the babies with the bathwater.” The final speaker, Kathleen Strottman, served as a legislative director to Senator Mary Landrieu, and worked on several pieces of adoption legislation in the U.S. Senate, including the Intercountry Adoption Act of 2000 and the Intercountry Adoption Universal Accreditation Act of 2012. Ms. Strottman gave an overview of the history of international adoption, describing its roots in the aftermath of the Korean And Vietnam Wars, and its global expansion in the 1980s, culminating in the Hague Adoption Convention in 1993.

  • Internet Freedom in the OSCE Region: Trends and Challenges

    On Tuesday, November 14, 2017 the U.S. Helsinki Commission held a briefing on internet freedom in the OSCE region. The panelists – Sanja Kelly, Director of Freedom House’s Freedom on the Net; Dariya Orlova, Senior Lecturer and Deputy Director for Research at the Mohyla School of Journalism in Kyiv, Ukraine; Berivan Orucoglu, Human Rights Defenders Program Coordinator at the McCain Institute; and Jason Pielemeier, Policy Director at the Global Network Initiative – discussed concerning developments in participating States. First, Sanja Kelly provided an overview of Freedom House’s work on internet freedom issues and described the recent edition of the Freedom on the Net report, which was released that very day. The report found that internet freedom declined for the seventh consecutive year around the world, but that the situation among OSCE participating States is more diverse. The region includes some of the report’s best performers, such as Estonia, Iceland, Germany and the United States, as well as some of its worst performers, with Russia, Turkey and Uzbekistan. She also noted the concerning finding that Russia is using the internet to interfere in domestic processes in other OSCE participating States. She pointed out that the “same manipulation techniques, including paid pro-government commentators, bots and fake news, that the Russian authorities have been using in their disinformation campaigns abroad, have long been used … against Russian independent journalists, political opponents and other critical voices.” After that, Dariya Orlova gave an account of the deteriorating internet freedom situation in Ukraine. To blame for this decline, she said, is the introduction of bans on several Russian internet services, including social media networks, email services and search engines. According to Dariya, there has been a lack of outspoken critique against these measures among domestic audiences. She also drew attention to the increasingly dangerous environment that online activists and journalists find themselves in. Then, she briefly explained some of the Kremlin’s tactics when it comes to weaponizing social media platforms. Berivan Orucoglu focused her remarks on the sharp decline in internet freedom that Turkey has experienced in the past few years. In her eyes, this reflects a crackdown on press freedom and freedom of expression more generally. In an effort to control the narrative, the Turkish government has jailed journalists, curbed dissent on social media, as well as in the mainstream media and otherwise intimidated critics. More often than not, national security reasons are cited as justification for these measures. In closing, Jason Pielemeier introduced his organization, the Global Network Initiative, to the audience and proceeded to place some of the aforementioned internet freedom trends into historical context. By doing so, he tried to understand the motivations of repressive regimes to clamp down on online activity. He also touched on more technical aspects of the discussion, such as data localization and the effects such measures have on intelligence operations.

  • The Situation of Roma

    The Helsinki Commission hosted a conversation with Swedish Member of the European Parliament (MEP) Soraya Post, one of only two Roma in the EU’s 751-member legislative body, and Dr. Ethel Brooks of Rutgers University, a U.S. Romani scholar and Member of the Board of the European Roma Rights Center and United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Council.  The briefing focused on Roma, the largest ethnic minority in the European Union, with an estimated population of 12 to 15 million. However, Roma are severely underrepresented in parliaments and other leadership roles across Europe, and face some of the highest level of discrimination on the continent.  MEP Post was introduced by Dr. Brooks. Together, MEP Post and Dr. Brooks outlined the incredible challenges Roma face in the form of social exclusion, political under-representation, and economic inequality.  Dr. Brooks stated that the experience of Roma included “racism, forced evictions, racially motivated attacks, police abuse, segregation, inhuman and degrading treatment, housing discrimination, expulsions and marginalization, educational segregation and the denial of access to schools, of unfair detention, hate speech, and hate crimes among other forms of violence [and the need to combat] structural forms of anti-Romani racism at all levels.”  MEP Post spoke specifically to the challenges she faces in the European Parliament as she works to ensure Romani interests and rights are defended, and highlighted the need for more concerted efforts to undermine anti-Roma discrimination at the national level.  MEP Post has spearheaded efforts in the European Union to address the situation of Roma, including drafting a recent report on improving the situation of Roma being discussed in the European Parliament.  Two weeks ago MEP Post introduced a resolution in the European Parliament on fundamental rights aspects of Roma integration in the EU, which was adopted by an overwhelming majority in the European Parliament.  The report and resolution are historic in that they call for efforts to addresses the structural, far-reaching aspects, practices, and manifestations of anti-Roma discrimination. Recommendations from the legislative efforts include setting up truth and reconciliation commissions at both the national and EU levels in member states and in the EU, documenting findings in an official white paper, and making the history of Roma part of the curricula in schools.  Other recommendations include ensuring that EU employment and education programs  reach Roma; clearly condemning and sanctioning anti-Roma hate speech in EU Member States and national parliaments; compensating Roma women subjected to forced sterilization; investigating and preventing unlawful removals of Roma children from their parents; and implementing measures to ensure equal treatment of Roma in the fields of education, employment, health and housing, as well as an improved EU framework for national Roma integration strategies after 2020.   The impetus for including a truth commission in the EU legislation came from a Swedish effort MEP Soraya Post led that resulted in a Swedish apology to Roma and a government white paper detailing anti-Roma abuses throughout Swedish history, ranging from laws banning Roma to enter the country from 1914-1954 to forced sterilization. The briefing ended with statements from the panelists on the importance of supporting efforts that unite societies, and noted recent OSCE efforts to increase Roma political participation as part of the solution. The Helsinki Commission has had a long track record of engagement on issues relating to the human rights of Roma including addressing mob violence against Roma; ending sterilization without informed consent of Romani women; addressing the denial of citizenship and the loss of identity documents for Roma, particularly in the context of the breakup of Czechoslovakia, the Soviet Union, and Yugoslavia; encouraging remembrance of and teaching about the genocide of Roma; and countering prejudice and discrimination against Roma in the context of our larger efforts to address racism and anti-Semitism. 

  • The Western Balkans: Perspectives from OSCE Field Missions

    Since the outbreak of the conflicts associated with Yugoslavia’s break-up in the early 1990s, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and its field missions have been a central part of the international community’s response. Early OSCE efforts to counter the spillover effects of those conflicts were followed by ongoing assistance in post-conflict recovery and reconciliation. Today, OSCE field missions continue to exist in virtually every country of the region. They encourage the reform and cooperation essential to the long-term stability of the region through activities that broadly support democratic institutions and governance, particularly to strengthen rule of law; programs to promote integration of minority communities, especially Roma, and to counter violent extremism, and more; and regular reporting to the OSCE Secretariat and participating States. On November 1, 2017 the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (U.S. Helsinki Commission) held a public briefing on OSCE field missions in the Western Balkans. Jeff Goldstein, the current Deputy Head of the OSCE Mission to Skopje, began by noting positive developments in Macedonia, including increased political participation in recent elections, and efforts by some parties to reach across ethnic lines. The increase in voter turnout, he said, “speaks to the fact that the citizens of the country both cared about politics and had faith that the democratic process could actually bring positive change to their lives.” He also highlighted the OSCE’s efforts to encourage the peaceful resolution of last winter’s political crisis, and discussed the Mission’s current focus on reforms in areas including the rule of law, freedom of the media, increasing the role of parliament, and further implementation of the Ohrid Framework Agreement. Ambassador Jonathan Moore, former Head of the OSCE Mission to Bosnia and Herzegovina, described the Mission’s in engagement with issues of education, rule of law, and countering violent extremism at a local level, and its policy of maintaining “credibility with everyone, presence everywhere, access to everyone, engagement with everyone.” To illustrate the success of the Mission’s local engagement, he discussed its work with a grassroots student movement to oppose the reintroduction of ethnically segregated schools in the town of Jajce. Amb. Moore was clear that the role of the Mission is to assist such organic developments and that, “the ultimate credit goes, of course, to the students themselves, who showed incredible tolerance, maturity, and commitment to a common future.” Michael Uyehara, former Deputy Head of the OSCE Mission to Serbia, highlighted the Mission’s “Follow Us” initiative, a program that brings together young women and female parliamentarians from Belgrade and Pristina in dialogue about their common issues. The initiative also commissioned a documentary about their conversation, which has been screened several times for audiences in Serbia and Kosovo. He also remarked on the enthusiasm of the local staff, who “believe in the OSCE Mission’s work and are deeply committed to the Mission’s objective of helping Serbia to advance politically and to overcome the legacy of the past.” Ambassador Marcel Peško, the current Director of the Conflict Prevention Centre in the OSCE Secretariat, discussed the OSCE’s capacity building efforts in the Balkans. Noting the difficult geopolitical environment in which OSCE activity takes place, he stressed the need to work with host governments to assist their reform agendas, and “to strengthen the resilience of government structures and the civil society to be able to address and cope with the challenges that are there in front of them.”

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