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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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  • Truth, Reconciliation, and Healing

      Today, many countries seek to address historic wrongs, heal wounds, bridge divisions, and build a shared future. Truth and reconciliation efforts to encourage restitution, reparations, and restorative justice have been called for in many places, including the United States, Western Europe, Canada, and the Balkans, while Holocaust survivors and other victims of Nazi persecution continue to seek justice worldwide. For example, in June, Amsterdam city councilors voted to apologize for the city’s role in the transatlantic slave trade. In April, Belgium’s Prime Minister Charles Michel apologized for the kidnapping of thousands of children born to mixed-race couples during its colonial rule in several African countries. In 2015, Sweden published a historic white paper on abuses and rights violations against Roma in the 20th century. A decade ago, Canada established a reconciliation process in response to the Indian Residential School legacy, which forced First Nation children to attend government-funded boarding schools. At this briefing, panelists reviewed lessons learned and discussed ways to heal and reunify societies divided by war, genocide, hierarchal systems of human value, and other tragedies stemming from extreme nationalism, racism, anti-Semitism, and other forms of ethnic and religious discrimination. Speakers addressed official government apologies, truth and reconciliation processes, restitution, reparations, and other policy prescriptions that have been used or are currently being considered to address historic wrongs and unify citizens in countries across Europe and North America.

  • International Election Observation in the U.S. and Beyond

    In 1990, the 57 participating States of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) pledged to hold free and fair elections. Election observation is one of the most transparent and methodical ways to encourage countries to uphold their commitment to democratic standards, and is a core element of the OSCE’s efforts to promote human rights, democracy, and the rule of law.  Since the 1990s, the OSCE has been invited to observe approximately 250 elections in countries throughout the OSCE region, including the United States and Russia. In addition to the OSCE, the United Nations, Organization for American States, European Union, and other multilateral organizations routinely participate in international election observation.  Civil society actors—including U.S.-based organizations like the National Democratic and International Republican Institute, the International Foundation for Electoral Systems, and the Carter Center—also observe elections around the world with the common goal of upholding democratic standards.  The briefing focused on the benefits and challenges of international election observation, best practices, and emerging issues like voting technology and security.

  • Partially Protected?

    The U.S. Helsinki Commission convened an expert briefing on the background, implementation, and legal and political implications of temporary protection for people in the United States and Europe who come from countries of conflict or natural disaster but not qualify for asylum. The discussion explored whether some European Union countries are choosing temporary protection even when asylum claims are credible. Alex T. Johnson, Chief of Staff for the Helsinki Commission, said in his opening remarks, “Chairman Hastings sees [protected status] as a priority, particularly in the United States and in the OSCE region because of the erosion of human rights and democratic institutions that we are seeing now. It’s particularly urgent as we look at our own domestic compliance with commitments in the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and how we partner with countries who are also exploring issues related to granted protected status for vulnerable communities in their midst.” Johnson also noted Chairman Hasting’s introduction of H.Con.Res. 5, which expresses support for Haitians residing in the United States with Temporary Protected Status (TPS). In the discussion that followed, Jill Wilson of the Congressional Research Service provided context on TPS and its implementation in the U.S. Wilson reported, “Ten countries are currently covered by TPS, benefitting some 400,000 individuals in the United States. The Trump administration has announced terminations for six of these ten countries on the grounds that the conditions on which the original designations were based no longer exist. These terminations are currently on hold pending court action.”  Recent efforts by members of the 115th and 116th Congress saw a greater number and variety of TPS-related bills that seek either to expand or restrict TPS and shift the decision-making power from the Secretary of Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to the U.S. Congress. Currently, the Secretary of the DHS, in consultation with other key government offices namely the U.S. State Department, has the power to designate a country for temporary protection in periods of six, twelve, or eighteen months based on three categories: armed conflict, natural disaster, or extraordinary circumstances that prevent the safe return of a country’s nationals. Marleine Bastien of the Family Action Network Movement shared her expertise on the current political and economic situation in Haiti, following the catastrophic earthquake in 2010 and subsequent natural disasters that resulted in major public health emergencies, about 300,000 displaced people, and severely damaged infrastructure. Despite these continuing poor conditions, Haiti’s TPS status is subject to termination. Bastien remarked, “We hope that Congress will take a close look at what’s going on in Haiti today…The conditions in Haiti continue to deteriorate. Haiti still qualifies for temporary protected status… TPS is still applicable, not only for the countries that qualify now, but for the countries in the future which may experience natural and political disasters.” Without its TPS re-instated, she said, Haiti does not have the capacity to resettle and support the 58,000 Haitians currently living in the U.S. Sui Chung, an attorney with the Immigration Law and Litigation Group in Miami, Florida, and Chair of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Committee of the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA) stated that unless legislation like the American Dream and Promise Act, H.R. 6 is passed, TPS recipients remain at risk of being detained or deported. Chung remarked, “Although the federal courts have enjoined the termination of TPS for some countries, these court orders are temporary. If a higher court rules unfavorably, those with TPS would be vulnerable to losing authorization to work and reside in the U.S., and they would be subject to deportation.” Chung stated that 94 percent of individuals under TPS are employed, generating about $5.5 billion in federal, state, and local taxes, with roughly $25 billion spending power. According to Chung, losing this population could cripple the U.S. economy and harm communities.  Catherine Woollard, Secretary General of the European Council on Refugees and Exiles, described Europe’s decision-making process for protection status as an inconsistent and unfair “asylum lottery” She argued that the lack of fairness and uniformity in granting TPS originates from the selection process, where the decision to grant protection status is left solely to the discretion of the twenty-eight European Union Member States rather than a universal eligibility process. Woollard noted, “Our analysis shows that these different protection statuses have a wide variation when it comes to the rights attached. Key rights that are of interest and necessity for people who are seeking protection vary. If you have refugee status, your residence rights are for a longer duration. For subsidiary protection, less time is granted for residential rights. In some cases, there are very stark differences.”

  • Why Moldova Matters

    Though typically viewed as a state torn between Russian influence and the West, Moldova faces not only external problems but also serious internal challenges. Following February elections marked by corruption and vote-buying, Moldova’s deeply divided parliament now must attempt to form a governing coalition. In addition, five years after Moldova signed an accession agreement with the European Union, questions remain about whether the country is willing—or even able—to undertake the comprehensive reforms required to join the EU. This briefing explored these and other issues against the background of the continuing Transnistria dispute and Moldova’s precarious role in the region. Helsinki Commission policy advisor Rachel Bauman opened the briefing by posing questions to the room: “Will Moldova’s deeply divided parliament be able to form a governing coalition? What influence will Moldova’s oligarch Vlad Plahotniuc have on the process of forming a government? And is there real political will in Moldova, especially right now after elections, to become a full-fledged member of the EU? And finally, what’s going on in the breakaway Russian region of Transnistria?” Dr. Cory Welt, Specialist in European Affairs at the Congressional Research Service, jumped in first to provide context for the conversation. Welt explained, “According to international and domestic observers, Moldova’s recent parliamentary elections were democratic but somewhat flawed. And these flaws included allegations of vote buying and the misuse of state resources. Nonetheless, the outcome of the elections appears to reflect longstanding domestic divisions within Moldova, between what you might characterize as a European-leaning majority and a Russian-leaning minority.” Jamie Kirchick, Journalist and Visiting Fellow at the Brookings Institution, reflected on his experience observing the 2018 elections in Moldova. Kirchick also spoke to the main question of the briefing, saying, Moldova “matters because the United States has been committed to a policy of a Europe whole, free and at peace, really since the end of the Cold War, and consolidating democracy and good government. And Moldova is a pretty sore spot. It’s the poorest country in Europe. It’s the site of very high corruption. It’s the site of Russian influence. It’s the site of a lack of territorial integrity. And we’ve seen now that there are three nations in this region – Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova – that all have Russian troops stationed on them. And this is something that should certainly concern the United States and its democratic allies.” H.E. Cristina Balan, Ambassador of the Republic of Moldova to the United States maintained that while Moldova has seen hard times, the country is working to improve. She highlighted its strong partnership with the U.S., fight against antisemitism, and growing economy as signs of development. Ambassador Balan concluded with a call to action, saying, “Of course, there is so much more work to be done, including addressing corruption issues, including increasing our national defense capability, including resolving the Transnistrian conflict, and many others. There is a lot of work to be done.” The questions from the audience were largely posed to Ambassador Balan and allowed for a deeper exploration into the economic and political realities of life in Moldova and the relationship, or lack thereof, with Russia.

  • Curbing Corruption through Corporate Transparency and Collaboration

    The United Kingdom has implemented some of the world’s most innovative anti-corruption policies. In particular, its public beneficial ownership registry is the only active one of its kind and its Joint Money Laundering Intelligence Taskforce models effective collaboration between law enforcement and the private sector. This briefing examined these policies and the United Kingdom’s broader strategy to counter illicit finance. Panelists discussed how the United Kingdom implements its policies, their successes and shortcomings, and what remains to be done. Though U.S. corporate transparency proposals take a non-public approach, panelists also discussed the lessons that the United States can draw from the British experience. John Penrose, M.P., U.K. Prime Minister’s Anti-Corruption Champion, explained the reputational risks associated with money laundering in the U.S. and U.K. financial markets to the rules-based system. Penrose explained the British approach of establishing a beneficial ownership registry, saying, “What we are trying to do in the U.K. is we are trying to set up something which will effectively create a global norm to say let’s all have some kind of a register about who owns and controls these companies.  We’re not asking for the moon.  As I said, we don’t need to know everybody who owns a piece of every company.  We just need to know who the controlling minds and the controlling interests are.” Edward Kitt, Serious and Organized Crime Network Illicit Finance Policy Lead at the British Embassy in Washington, covered the issues the U.K is facing with their beneficial ownership policy. Kitt explained, “One challenge we have is feedback to financial institutions on suspicious activity reports. Often, financial institutions will submit suspicious activity reports and they don’t hear any feedback as to actually what was the utility of that, how useful was that.” Even considering the difficulty the policy has experienced, Kitt maintained, “It’s not just a talking shop; it delivers. And… it’s assisted in identifying and restraining in excess of £9 million.  So, the results are palpable.” Mark Hays, Anti-Money Laundering Campaign Leader at Global Witness and the sole American panelist, reflected on his company’s investigations into corruption: “Simply put, if the U.S. wants to continue to show this leadership we need to match the U.K.’s efforts in establishing some modicum of disclosure for beneficial ownership transparency for companies.” Hays continued, “If we don’t, not only will we be failing to live up to this leadership test, but we will put ourselves at greater risk for becoming a haven for bad actors and their ill-gotten gains.” Nate Sibley, Research Fellow for the Kleptocracy Initiative at the Hudson Institute, spoke to how the UK’s policies could transfer to the U.S. Sibley described a House Financial Services Committee bill, “introduced by Representative Carolyn Maloney called the Corporate Transparency Act,” that ensures companies disclose beneficial owners. He went on to explain that the bill “would create a private beneficial ownership register. So not a public one like they have in the U.K., but one that was accessible only to law enforcement, under very strict and controlled circumstances.” Sibley outlined the ways that the U.S. federal system changes the prospect of the registry logistics, but maintained that it would still work in the U.S.

  • Shady Shipping

    Trade-based money laundering (TBML) is the process of disguising the proceeds of crime and moving value through trade transactions in an attempt to legitimize their illicit origins. This highly sophisticated form of money laundering has become a favorite method for transnational criminals, dictators, and terrorists to move ill-gotten gains to new jurisdictions. This event examined what TBML is, how it works, and why it has become such a ubiquitous method of laundering money. Panelists also discussed the broader interplay of illicit commerce, global corruption, and TBML. Finally, panelists recommended practical steps the United States and non-governmental organizations can take to counter TBML. David Luna, President and CEO of Luna Global Networks, shared his insights on the dark side of globalization and how it fits into the TBML paradigm. Luna outlined the need to increase understanding of the networks between illicit commerce and money laundering across legal and illegal means through convergence crimes. He spoke to the methodologies of “cleaning dirty money” utilized by kleptocrats, criminal organizations, and terrorist groups, while expressing the importance of tracing money and the value of goods to expose illicit crimes. Luna cited a 2015 World Economic Forum report to support his points, which estimated the value of transnational criminal activities between 8-15 percent of Gross Domestic Product, even by conservative standards, totaling around 80 trillion in the US market. John Cassara, retired Special Agent of the U.S. Department of the Treasury, spoke about the confusion surrounding TBML, both in understanding and enforcement. He explained that TBML is the largest method of money laundering because of excess ways to commit it: customs fraud, tax evasion, export incentive fraud, evading capitol controls, barter trade, and underground financial systems. Cassara explained how money is transferred under the noses of customs enforcement by undervaluing or overvaluing an invoice of an otherwise legal trade. Cassara asked, “If our highly trained police force can’t catch this, what about the rest of the world?” Lakshmi Kumar, Policy Director at Global Financial Integrity, described the difficulty with tracking TBML, both domestically and internationally. She outlined how domestic policy and law complicates internal tracking, while the lack of consistent transnational collaboration and information sharing complicates international tracking. Kumar spoke to the components of the trade chain and how hard it is to watch all the mechanisms with due diligence. Explaining the role of banks, Kumar noted that 80 percent of all international trade occurs through open account trading, in which banks aren’t involved or able to offer oversight. This allows for trade profits to be separated into various accounts, tricking the customs and enforcement agencies to enforce a lower level of taxation on the profits and the freights and allowing for TBML. In summary, even with world class law enforcement, the U.S. legal and financial frameworks needs to catch up in order to adequately combat TBML.

  • Power and Politics

    At this Helsinki Commission briefing, panelists explored the state of institutional resilience and political context for the election of Volodymyr Zelenskiy as Ukraine’s next president on April 21, 2019. This briefing also explored implications for transatlantic engagement and opportunities for reforms on issues related to the rule of law, media freedom, and corruption.

  • Developments in Hungary

    At this Helsinki Commission briefing, Susan Corke, Senior Fellow and Director of the Transatlantic Democracy Working Group at the German Marshall Fund; Melissa Hooper, Director of Human Rights and Civil Society at Human Rights First; and Dalibor Rohac, Research Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute explored recent developments in Hungary, including issues related to the rule of law and corruption. “Every nation that raises its voice for liberty and democracy matters, whether that’s a country that’s as big as the United States and with as large an economy as we have in America, or a smaller country. They’re each valuable. Each time one falls, each time a country – no matter how small – each time it moves away from democracy and moves towards a different system of governance, the capacity for the world to continue to deliver freedom for human beings is diminished. And so I would urge every country, no matter its size . . . to stay focused, maintain its commitment.” – Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo, February 12, 2019 Mr. Rohac discussed Hungary’s measurable decline on various indicators of good governance and the rule of law; patterns of politically organized corruption; and the implications of developments in Hungary for the United States. He observed that Hungary has experienced a steady erosion of freedom, the rule of law, and quality of governance according to virtually any indicator, including the assessments of the World Bank, the Heritage Foundation, and the Cato Institute. He noted that the Heritage Foundation’s index of economic freedom places the protection of property rights in Hungary in the mostly unfree territory. This stems in part from the seizure of pension fund assets as well as the concentration of ownership in the hands of Fidesz-connected oligarchs. The same index notes a marked decline in government integrity measures, placing Hungary into the oppressed territory on those sub- indices, with a score dramatically worse than in 2009. While Mr. Rohac observed that corruption is a problem across central Europe and across post-communist countries, Hungary’s case is notable for the extent to which corruption has been embedded into the political system, centralized, connected to the ruling party, and has served as a mechanism of political patronage and political mobilization. “[T]here is something special about the nexus of legal patronage and graft and authoritarianism. The two cannot be separated.” Panelists also described something of a paradox. On the one hand, the Orban government has exploited EU funds to build its corrupt oligarchy. Tax and procurement-related irregularities have been cited by the EU anti-corruption agency OLAF as the source of millions in suspect deals involving Orban’s family and friends, many of which also involve Russian state actors. On the other hand, the EU – precisely because it is not a federal government but depends on the consent of the EU member states – has limited ability to rein in this corruption and hybrid forms of governance. Mr. Rohac asserted that this embrace of crony authoritarianism by Hungary is a direct threat to U.S. interests in the region as well as to the West’s interests more broadly. He rejected the notion that competing for positive influence in the region means we should not hold our allies to high standards. He suggested that such a view is enormously detrimental because it’s precisely the authoritarianism, the graft, and the cronyism that opens the way for foreign revisionist powers to enter Hungary and influence the country, pulling it away from the West.  “The U.S. stood by Central European nations as they liberated themselves from communism in the 1990s, in the 90s when they joined the ranks of self-governing free nations of the West,” he observed. “The idea that the U.S. should now either be silent or cheerleader for policies that are now driving Hungary away from the West strikes me as a particularly misguided one.” Ms. Corke described the concerns about trends in Hungary and other countries in the Euro-Atlantic region which led to the formation of a bipartisan group, the Transatlantic Democracy Group, focused on democratic erosion and the need for U.S. leadership.  She joined with 70 signers for NATO’s 70th anniversary on a declaration to reaffirm commitment to democracy.  Ms. Corke is sometimes asked, “why is your group so concerned about Hungary? It’s a small country. Why are you so concerned about Central European University?” She observed that Central European University is a joint American-Hungarian institution and Victor Orban’s campaign against it is a highly symbolic move against a vital institution founded to promote the transatlantic values of democracy, openness, and equality of opportunity and was therefore a direct challenge to the United States. She concluded that Moscow is using Hungary and other NATO members as backdoors of influence, and that Hungary’s centralized, top-down state has enabled an increasingly centralized, top-down system of corruption. Ms. Corke also suggested that a lesson learned from recent developments in the region is that transparency is a necessary, but alone insufficient, condition to fight corruption.  She asserted that the concept of a linear progression of democracy is outdated and new approaches to supporting civil society are needed. In addition, Ms. Hooper stated that while the Obama-era policy of limited high-level engagement precluded some of the Hungarian government’s controversial actions, it did not appear to motivate fundamental change. The Trump-era policy of transactional engagement devoid of values has fared no better, she said, and the U.S. should therefore re-examine its policy toward Hungary.  First, the United States should reinvest in democracy promotion.  Second, the United States should announce publicly that it is reintroducing support for civil society in the region, and specifically in Hungary, due to a decline in the government’s ability to or interest in protecting democratic institutions.  Third, Congress should be more vocal and pointed in expressing its concern and even alarm in Hungary’s antidemocratic movement and should support for individuals such as journalists or other members of watchdog organizations that are targeted by government campaigns or blacklists.  Finally, the United States should not shy away from applying targeted sanctions, such as the Global Magnitsky law, when clear lines are crossed. When visa bans were used against some officials in 2014, they had an impact in Hungary. Background materials available for the briefing included panelist biographies; Department of State materials including statements by Secretary Michael Pompeo and U.S. Ambassador to Hungary David Cornstein; recent Helsinki commission statements and publications; and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum FAQs on the Holocaust in Hungary.

  • Asset Recovery in Eurasia

    Asset recovery—the process of repatriating funds previously stolen by corrupt officials—remains one of the most contentious points in the fight against transnational corruption. Though only a small percentage of stolen funds are ever recovered, major questions exist about the best ways to ensure that repatriated funds don’t simply reenter the same patronage cycle from which they came. This briefing explored approaches to repatriation in Armenia, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan. Panelists discussed best practices and challenges in asset recovery as well as appropriate policy responses, both by the state in question and the international community, and compared the respective approaches of the three countries. Brian Earl, who worked the Pavlo Lazarenko case for years as a detective in the FBI, spoke of uncovering massive amounts of unexplained assets that were initially generated by fraudulent schemes in Ukraine but were scattered abroad. Earl underscored the importance of a multiparty investigation between authorities from the United States, Ukraine, and Switzerland in unearthing evidence of fraud against Lazarenko. Joint investigative liberty and resources were crucial to asset recovery efforts in the 1990s—resources he said were drastically reduced once attention was turned away from investigating capital flight from former Soviet states to antiterrorism efforts after the September 11 attacks. Professor Kristian Lasslet of Ulster University asked the question of what to do with restituted assets when the government to which the asset belongs may be part of the corruption scheme. Lasslet cited the example of Kazakhstan Two, in which seized assets flowed back into questionable hands by bungled efforts from the World Bank and the Swiss government. He contrasted the case with Kazakhstan One, in which asset recovery was handled well at arm’s length of parties that may be interested in funneling assets back into the cycle of fraud. Sona Ayvazyan of Transparency International Armenia offered optimism in the Armenian government’s renewed approach toward transparency and anticorruption efforts but warned of the serious lack of capacity on asset recovery infrastructure. Though the leadership may be serious about removing corruption, she spoke of a discredited judiciary that poses serious problems for Armenia’s future anticorruption policies. According to Karen Greenaway from the FBI (ret.), civil society and non-governmental societies must reassert their role in the conversation on asset recovery. She highlighted the severe lack in bureaucratic infrastructure for asset recovery in many nations afflicted with corruption—particularly Ukraine. The paradox, she asserted, was between the structure of corruption, which is designed to dissipate large quantities of money very rapidly, and the system to repatriate those assets, which is painfully slow and often lacking in resources.  

  • Mosque and State in Central Asia

    From 2016 to early 2018, the U.S. government designated three of Central Asia’s five nations—Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan—as countries of particular concern (CPC) for engaging in or tolerating “particularly severe violations of religious freedom” like torture, abduction, and clandestine or prolonged detention without charges. In these countries, people of all faiths, or no faith at all, have endured onerous government-mandated harassment, fines, and imprisonment for even minor breaches of state regulations of religious belief and practice. To ensure regime stability and counter violent extremism, the governments of some Central Asian Muslim-majority countries impose strict and invasive violations of religious liberty on adherents of the Islamic faith. Islamic religious institutions and leaders are fully incorporated into the state bureaucracy. Exploring the faith outside the bounds of “official Islam” is forbidden and illegal. The Helsinki Commission convened an expert panel of regional and Islamic scholars to explain the different approaches to state regulation of Islam in Central Asia and the consequences of these policies for religious freedom, radicalization, and long-term political stability and social development.

  • In the Best Interest of the Child

    While foster families can offer critical and timely emergency care for children in need, study after study shows that children who stay in foster care without permanent parents suffer lifelong emotional harm and life-skills underdevelopment.  The extreme challenges faced by these children put them at risk for homelessness, human trafficking, unemployment, and even incarceration.  More than 20,000 young people aged-out of foster care in the United States in 2016—deprived of the support of their own or adoptive permanent families.  In some countries in Europe, children, especially those of immigrant parents, are removed from their families because the parents “lack parenting skills.”  These children in the United States and Europe are perhaps saved from an immediate emergency by government officials seeking to act in their best interest, but then exposed to the lifelong harm of not belonging to a functioning forever family.  What if these youths and their families of origin had been given the support they needed to stay together, such as mental health services, substance use treatment, in-home parenting skill training, and supportive community?   At this Helsinki Commission briefing, child protection policy experts discussed the social isolation factors that can make families vulnerable to crises, intervention strategies to prevent or shorten a child’s removal from the family, and the key features of the new Family First Prevention Services Act (P.L. 115-123), which is anticipated to prevent unnecessary removals of children from their parents when families can be kept safely together.

  • 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.

  • 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, said in his introductory remarks, "Terrorism remains one of the most serious threats to international peace and security. I look forward to continuing to actively engage in our common work and to ensure that the efforts of OSCE participating states to address this challenge are making the greatest possible difference in the lives of our citizens." Makis Voridis, the Greek parliamentarian who chairs the same OSCE PA committee, observed, "There is no national answer to international terrorism. So ... the efficient answer to that, is international cooperation, and this leaves a specific role to international organizations, to the international community… if we decide to share information, if we decide to meet our international obligations, if the states understand that this cannot be a national issue, I’m quite optimistic that we’re going to win this war." Bruce Hoffman, Visiting Senior Fellow for Counterterrorism and Homeland Security at the Council on Foreign Relations, noted, "ISIS clearly is here to stay, at least for the foreseeable future, and, just as problematically, al-Qaida hasn’t gone away. …international responses to terrorism have become much more fractionated and countries have become much more self-serving in focusing on protecting their own borders and not undertaking absolutely critical transnational and international cooperative efforts that are needed to counter terrorism." Leanne Erdberg, Director, Countering Violent Extremism, at the United States Institute of Peace, said, "Counterproductive behaviors that abuse human rights, have significant civilian casualties … are incredibly radicalizing factors… when the state takes away human rights… it just plays directly into the terrorists’ hands in terms of recruitment and radicalization. …painting opposition political groups as terrorists and closing civil society space is another way in which you’re just playing into the terrorists’ hands. If you crack down on nonviolent political actors, then you are basically sending a message that the only way to see change is through violence."  

  • 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.

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