Title

Examining the Prospects for Democratic Change in Belarus

Tuesday, December 04, 2007
1539 Longworth House Office Building
Washington, DC 20515
United States
Official Transcript: 
Members: 
Name: 
Hon. Alcee Hastings
Title Text: 
Chairman
Body: 
Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe
Witnesses: 
Name: 
Mr. Aleksandr Milinkevich
Title: 
Leader
Body: 
Movement for Freedom
Name: 
Mr. Anatoly Lebedka
Title: 
Chair
Body: 
United Civic Party of Belarus
Name: 
Ms. Enira Bronitskaya
Title: 
Human Rights Activist

The briefing focused on the prospects for change in Belarus, a country that is widely considered to have Europe’s worst record with respect to human rights and democracy.  The presence of the OSCE at the March 2006 Presidential elections was briefly mentioned, as were the fundamental flaws observed during these elections.

The witnesses testifying at this briefing evaluated the obstacles that pro-democratic activists face in Belarus. Violent and repressive tactics of the authorities were cited as major issues for good governance in the country. Several suggestions for improving the democratic quality of the government were proposed, including increasing activity through diplomatic channels.

Relevant countries: 
Leadership: 
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  • Helsinki Commission Condemns Murder of Russian Human Rights Activist Natalya Estemirova

    Senator Benjamin L. Cardin (D-MD), Chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (U.S. Helsinki Commission), Co-Chairman Congressman Alcee L. Hastings (D-FL) and Ranking Republican Members Senator Sam Brownback (R-KS) and Congressman Chris Smith (R-NJ) issued the following statements today upon learning of the killing of Russian human rights activist Natalya Estemirova. “I am saddened and outraged by the kidnapping and killing of Natalya Estemirova, one of the region’s great defenders of human rights. The reports of her abduction in Chechnya and subsequent shooting in the North Caucasus republic of Ingushetia remind us of the urgent need to address human rights concerns throughout Russia. President Medvedev’s condemnation of this murder and his pledge to ‘take all necessary measures’ to solve the crime are welcomed, but his words must translate into a prompt and complete criminal investigation by federal authorities that brings those responsible to justice,” said Chairman Cardin. “I agree with what President Obama recently said in Moscow that history has shown ‘governments which serve their own people survive and thrive; governments which serve their own power do not.’ Murder and intimidation of activists and journalists is both a serious violation of human rights and an affront to any democracy.” “In 2006, Ms. Estemirova met with the staff of the Helsinki Commission as part of our work to shine a light on the abuses in Chechnya. Lawlessness and violence too often define the lives of journalists and activists who are simply pushing the cause of freedom.” said Co-Chairman Hastings. “Ms. Estemirova led a courageous life of denouncing corruption, calling for a fair judicial system, and standing up for human rights. While her killers may have ended her life, they will never silence the voice she brought to these issues.” “President Medvedev has talked about the legal nihilism rampant in his country and has made positive gestures in the direction of reform, yet these killings continue. It is time to see real action and real reform regarding the rule of law and respect for human rights in Russia. The death of Natalya Estemirova must not be in vain,” said Senator Brownback. “Natalya Estemirova gave her life and now her death in the service to the cause of human suffering and justice,” said Congressman Smith, who authored a resolution that passed the House in 2007 to address the large number of unsolved murders of investigative journalists in Russia. “Being a human rights activist or an independent journalist in Russia has become among the most dangerous professions in the world. The Russian government needs to create an environment in which the flagrant slaughter of human rights activists is unacceptable.” The Helsinki Commission has held many hearings and briefings on Russia’s human rights record, including one recently focusing on the North Caucasus.

  • The Medvedev Thaw: Is It Real? Will It Last?

    This hearing discussed U.S. foreign policy towards Russia, focusing on how to improve relations while taking Russia’s compliance with human rights seriously.   The witnesses and Commissioners discussed the implications of Dmitri Medvedev becoming president and Vladimir Putin retaining power as Prime Minister.

  • Helsinki Commissioners Condemn Violence Against Roma

    Bipartisan Members of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (U.S. Helsinki Commission) today voiced strong concerns for growing violence against the Roma – Europe’s largest ethnic minority group. At a briefing examining the growing prejudice against Roma in Europe and subsequent acts of violence against Roma across Europe, Co-Chairman Congressman Alcee L. Hastings (D-FL) expressed concern for the treatment of Roma, who have been victimized in their own homes – from the killing of elderly to young children burned by fire bombs. “Governments must act with a sense of urgency in combating the pernicious racism that has contributed to the social, economic, and political marginalization of Roma, resulting in the gruesome and deadly attacks on Roma in recent months,” Co-Chairman Hastings said. “But beyond the violence, the continual dislocation of Roma most recently from their historic home in Sulukule, outside Istanbul, Turkey, shows a disregard for minorities and further sends a signal of exclusion. I call on all European countries to reverse this troubling trend.” Chairman Benjamin L. Cardin (D-MD) added: “In the wake of the recent European Parliamentary elections, we are seeing growth of political parties who espouse anti-immigration, anti-minority, and anti-Semitic policies. I urge governments across Europe to respect Roma human rights. They should fully integrate the continent’s largest ethnic minority group, do away with segregated schooling, and when crimes are committed, thoroughly investigate and hold criminals accountable for their acts of hate.” Helsinki Commissioner Congressman Joseph R. Pitts (R-PA) added: “Some people have compared the firebombing and other attacks on Roma in the Czech Republic and Hungary to the sniper attacks that took place in the area a few years ago. For Roma, who are the singular targets in this case, we can only imagine the fear that grips those communities. I urge the Czech and Hungarian Governments to do everything possible to bring the perpetrators of those attacks to justice and to ensure that they are prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.”

  • The Western Balkans: Challenges for U.S. and European Engagement

    This hearing discussed the recent progress of the seven countries of the Western Balkans with regards to internal stability, democratic development, minority rights, anti-corruption efforts, and the rule of law. The witnesses evaluated each country’s progress and that of the region as a whole. In addition, the hearing also focused on the on the election process in each country and whether they had met the OSCE standards for elections.

  • Belarus Imprisonment

    Mr. President, as Chairman of the Helsinki Commission, I would like to bring to the attention of the Senate a situation which is literally a matter of life and death for an American citizen, Emanuel Zeltser, who has been imprisoned in Belarus since March 12, 2008. Mr. Zeltser is in desperate and immediate need of serious medical treatment--including a coronary bypass operation. The poor human rights record of President Lukashenka's regime is well known. No American--indeed no human being--should be subjected to the kind of treatment Mr. Zeltser has been forced to endure during his incarceration. Despite Mr. Zeltser's grave health condition--he suffers from heart disease, type 2 diabetes, severe arthritis, gout, and dangerously elevated blood pressure--Belarusian authorities have repeatedly refused to provide Mr. Zeltser with his prescribed medications. He was initially denied two independent medical evaluations and he has reported being physically assaulted and abused while incarcerated. Amnesty International has urged that Belarusian authorities no longer subject Mr. Zeltser to "further torture and other ill-treatment.'' Mr. Zeltser was convicted of "using false official documents'' and "attempted economic espionage'' in a closed judicial proceeding. The U.S. Embassy in Minsk criticized the proceedings, noting that it was denied the opportunity to observe the trial. The State Department has repeatedly called for Mr. Zeltser's release on humanitarian grounds. So have others in Congress, especially my colleague on the Helsinki Commission, cochairman Representative Alcee Hastings. But now the situation appears dire. Earlier this month, Mr. Zeltser was examined by an American doctor. It was only the second time an American physician has been permitted to see Mr. Zeltser. The doctor concluded that "there is a clear and high risk of sudden death from heart attack unless the patient is immediately transferred to a U.S. hospital with the proper equipment and facilities. ..... Refusal to transfer Mr. Zeltser to a U.S. hospital is equivalent to a death sentence.'' Specifically, Mr. Zeltser is in dire need of a coronary bypass procedure. The doctor also determined that because he had been denied prescribed diabetes medication, Mr. Zeltser's left foot may need to be amputated. In response to a press inquiry in December, the State Department called for "the Belarusian authorities to release Mr. Zeltser on humanitarian grounds before this situation takes an irrevocable turn.'' Based on the recent doctor's report it is apparent that such an irrevocable turn is imminent unless this American citizen can be brought home promptly for the medical treatment necessary to save his life. Belarus has taken some tentative steps to improve its notably poor human rights record, in particular the release of several political prisoners last August. However, Mr. Zeltser's continued, and potentially terminal, imprisonment threatens to override those initially encouraging signs. As such, I strongly urge the Belarusian authorities to release Emanuel Zeltser on humanitarian grounds so that he may obtain the immediate medical treatment his doctor has concluded is required if he is to live.

  • Co-Chairman Hastings Chairs Meeting in Israel on Countering Discrimination in the Mediterranean Region; Meets with Prime Minister Olmert

    By Marlene Kaufmann, General Counsel During two days in December 2007 a unique meeting of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) occurred in Tel Aviv, Israel. For only the second time in eleven years, Israel was chosen by the OSCE participating States to host the annual Mediterranean Seminar -- a meeting designed to encourage dialogue about, and strategies for, improved cooperation between the OSCE participating States and their Mediterranean Partners for Cooperation -- Algeria, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Morocco and Tunisia. As Special Representative for Mediterranean Affairs of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, Co-Chairman Hastings had worked tirelessly to bring the Partners together in Israel for their annual seminar. Unfortunately, official participation by the Partner States was limited, with only Jordan and Egypt sending representatives to the plenary sessions. However, more than seventy delegates from thirty-five countries attended the seminar and robust participation by NGOs from both sides of the Mediterranean yielded spirited discussion and specific recommendations for future OSCE efforts to combat discrimination. Prior to joining the seminar, the Co-Chairman traveled to Jerusalem for a private meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. The two discussed prospects for negotiations toward a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict following the Annapolis conference, as well as continued threats to Israel’s security including Iran’s ongoing nuclear program. Co-Chairman Hastings also met with Jordanian Ambassador to Israel, Ali Al-Ayed, to discuss his country’s views on the security situation in the region as well as the impact of the massive displacement of Iraqi citizens, including more than a half million who have sought refuge in Jordan. More than 4.7 million Iraqis have been displaced since 2003, including 2 million who have fled to Syria, Jordan and other countries in the region. This is the largest population displacement in the Middle East since 1948. Co-Chairman Hastings has introduced legislation to address this growing humanitarian crisis which provides aid for Jordan and other countries in the region that are hosting Iraqi refugees. The Co-Chairman’s visit also included a briefing by Israel’s Director for relations with the United Nations and International Organizations and a tour of a newly constructed desalination facility in Ashkalon, the largest in the region. Desalination is a critical part of the social and economic infrastructure of the Middle East as it is in the Co-Chairman’s congressional district and the entire State of Florida. Under the broad theme “Combating Intolerance and Discrimination and Promoting Mutual Respect and Understanding,” seminar participants examined such topics as the implementation of OSCE tolerance-related commitments in the participating States and the Mediterranean Partners for Cooperation and lessons learned; promoting respect for cultural and religious diversity and facilitating dialogue; and countering discrimination in the OSCE and Partner states. In his opening remarks to the session on Countering Discrimination in the OSCE Participating States and the Mediterranean Partners for Cooperation, Co-Chairman Hastings pointed out that combating discrimination against individuals because of their race, religion, national origin or gender is a core principle of the Helsinki Process and is essential to stable, productive, democratic societies. “The reality,” said Hastings, “is that none of our societies is immune from the ignorance, indifference or outright hatred that fosters discrimination, intolerance, and ultimately destruction of every sort.” Co-Chairman Hastings noted that hate crimes had increased 8% in the U.S. during 2007 amidst the resurgence of the noose and swastika, unfair equation of Muslims and migrants with terrorism, violent attacks on gays, and the derogatory parodying of minority groups in the media and elsewhere in society. “Elsewhere in the OSCE, the situation is not any better,” he said. “A number of European countries have voted extremist political parties into office that openly espouse xenophobic, racist, and anti-Semitic views in the name of preserving national identity and security.” These scene-setting remarks were followed by presentations from a distinguished panel including Slovenian Ambassador, Mr. Stanislav Rascan, European Commission Ambaassador Mr. Lars Erik Lundin, Israeli lawyer Ms. Gali Etzion and Professor Gert Weisskirchen, a Member of the German Bundestag and Personal Representative of the OSCE Chairman-in-Office on Combating anti-Semitism. Their remarks, and the discussion that followed, focused on combating discrimination through legal measures, including legislative initiatives, as well as implementation by courts; education, in particular for young people; special challenges regarding discrimination against women, including religious laws; and the necessity of continuing dialogue between governments, parliaments and NGOs on ways and means to empower individual citizens. In his closing remarks, Co-Chairman Hastings strongly urged the participants to focus on implementation of anti-discrimination laws and regulations and promotion of civic programs that encourage tolerance. He pointed out that all of us as individuals, and in particular government officials, have an obligation to combat intolerance and discrimination, as well as promote mutual respect and understanding. Hastings also stated his intention to visit all Mediterranean Partner countries within a year in his capacity as Special Representative for Mediterranean Affairs of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly. On May 16, 2008, Co-Chairman Hastings again traveled to Israel, accompanying Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, and other senior Members of Congress to mark Israel’s 60th Anniversary. Co-Chairman Hastings and the delegation met with President Peres, Prime Minister Olmert, Defense Minister Barak and Foreign Minister Livni, as well as with the leaders of the Jewish, Christian and Muslim communities in Jerusalem. The Co-Chairman also accompanied Speaker Pelosi on a side trip to Baghdad where they met with Prime Minister Maliki and the Speaker of the Iraqi Parliament, the Council. December 2008 offered the opportunity for Co-Chairman Hastings to fulfill his promise to the OSCE Mediterranean Partners Seminar and again visit all the Mediterranean Partner countries. The Co-Chairman traveled to Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt and Israel where he met with parliamentarians and senior government officials. Co-Chairman Hastings also met with Jordanian officials in Egypt and expressed his intention to visit Jordan to complete his tour of the region in 2009. For details of the Co-Chairman’s December 2008 visit, see “U.S. Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Alcee L. Hastings Visits OSCE Mediterranean Partners to Advance Regional Cooperation,” Helsinki Commission Digest, Volume 40, Number 34.

  • Report on the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination Review of the US and Seventh Annual Meeting of the UN Working Group on People of African Descent

    By Mischa E. Thompson, Policy Advisor Moving into the 21st century, racism and discrimination continue to be a problem throughout the fifty-six European, North American, and Central Asian countries that make up the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), including in the United States. Recent reports by the OSCE, European Union’s Fundamental Rights Agency (2008, 2007), and European Network Against Racism have found that racial minorities and increasingly migrants are the targets of hate crimes and racial/ethnic profiling, in addition to experiencing discrimination in employment, housing, education, and other areas. Political parties espousing anti-migrant and racist positions are also on the rise, with the potential to undermine current efforts to implement tolerance and nondiscrimination initiatives throughout the region. Efforts to address these problems over the years have resulted in the development of multi-lateral instruments to stem the tide of racial discrimination. The International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD) is often considered a premier international instrument in this area. Adopted by the United Nations in 1965 and entering force in 1969, over 173 countries including the United States, have agreed to have their government policies reviewed to determine if they create or perpetuate racial discrimination. ICERD defines racial discrimination as “any distinction, exclusion, restriction or preference based on race, color, descent, or national or ethnic origin which has the purpose or effect of nullifying or impairing the recognition, enjoyment or exercise, on an equal footing, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural or any other field of public life.” According to the treaty, countries are required to amend or repeal laws and regulations deemed to be discriminatory and are allowed to introduce positive measures such as affirmative action when necessary. As such, countries are obligated to protect against inequality and discrimination in the enjoyment of human rights, including in the areas of education, housing, criminal justice, health, voting, labor, etc. While the 1975 Helsinki Final Act requires its members to respect human rights and fundamental freedoms “without distinction as to race, sex, language or religion,” no review mechanism comparable to the ICERD currently exists within the OSCE. In recent years, the OSCE participating States have urged ratification of the ICERD (e.g., Copenhagen 1990, Helsinki 1992, Maastricht 2003), adopted complimentary initiatives such as the Annual Hate Crimes Report, and conducted consultations and other activities within the United Nations on relevant initiatives. The ICERD and its implementing committee, the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD), therefore continue to remain a primary resource in outlining and determining the success of OSCE countries’ efforts to eliminate racial discrimination. For this reason, the 2008 CERD review of the United States and the status of U.S. efforts to combat racial discrimination were widely followed. From February 18 to March 7, 2008 the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) held its seventy-second session in Geneva, Switzerland. The Committee of eighteen independent experts, including a U.S. representative, is charged with periodically reviewing the performance of the 173 countries that have signed and ratified ICERD. During the seventy-second session, the Committee reviewed anti-discrimination efforts undertaken by the Governments of the United States, Fiji, Italy, Belgium, Nicaragua, Moldova, and the Dominican Republic. The United States appeared before the Committee on February 22 and 23 after having submitted a report in April 2007 on its efforts to eliminate racial discrimination after last appearing before the Committee in 2001. Over four hundred U.S. non-government organizations (NGOs) also compiled and submitted a “Shadow Report” to the Committee, which provided supplementary independent information in addition to the government perspective. Twenty-three persons made up the diverse high-level U.S. delegation, headed by Ambassador Warren Tichenor, Permanent Representative of the United States to the United Nations in Geneva. The delegation also included: Grace Chung Becker, Acting Assistant Attorney General in the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice, and Ralph Boyd, a former member of the U.N. Committee. Other members of the delegation were from the Departments of Interior, Justice, State, Homeland Security, and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. For the first time more than one hundred U.S. NGO representatives also attended the session as a “shadow” delegation. The review began with the United States noting the continuing problem and challenges of combating racial discrimination, but disagreeing with the Committee’s views on causes and solutions. Ambassador Tichenor stated that, “the United States supported the elimination of racial discrimination at home and abroad [...] and had made significant progress in improving race relations in the past [and] continued to work actively to eliminate racial and ethnic discrimination. However, challenges still existed, and a great deal of work remained to be done.” The United States then went on to argue that the causes of continuing racial disparities were poverty and other socio-economic variables, including poor choices made by minorities and discriminatory actions by non-state actors, as opposed to institutionalized practices stemming from past unjust government policies (e.g., slavery, segregation). The United States further argued that it should not bare the primary responsibility for addressing racial disparities because it was not solely responsible for creating the current situation. To bolster this argument, the United States also argued that the Committee’s interpretation of the intent of the ICERD was incorrect in terms of the government needing to play the lead role in combating racial discrimination and disparities. (Find excerpts from the U.S. statements at the end of this report.) This line of argument caused the Committee to question whether the United States still possessed the political will to comply with its ICERD commitments. Indeed, much of the proceedings involved Committee members reiterating the commitments ICERD countries have undertaken as signatories, including augmenting laws and regulations which “have the effect of creating or perpetuating racial discrimination wherever it exists.” Confusion was expressed as to why the U.S. government had supported efforts to end affirmative action in schools, while simultaneously highlighting the existence of racial disparities in all sectors of U.S. society. Further puzzlement was displayed as to why the United States was arguing against playing a lead role in combating discrimination, while at the same time introducing widely acclaimed new initiatives to combat discrimination such as the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s E-RACE Initiative and National Partnership for Action to End Health Disparities. The Committee also questioned the status of and anticipated plans for other U.S. efforts to address de facto discrimination, manifested by racial profiling, lack of equal access to quality housing, healthcare, and education, the failure to preserve Native American land rights and return Hurricane Katrina victims to their homes. Committee members also expressed disappointment in the United States. Several Committee members noted that they viewed the U.S. civil rights movement and resulting policies to address past inequities such as affirmative action, as models for policies they were considering and/or using in their own countries to address human rights concerns stemming from inequities and historical injustices. In some cases, these policies were developed following consultations with the U.S. government. Indeed, the Colombian Committee member remarked that he had participated in a visit to the United States as part of an Afro-Colombian delegation invited to view U.S. programs to combat racial discrimination. Members of the Committee also requested that the United States participate in the 2009 Durban Review Conference, a follow-up to the 2001 World Conference against Racism, as a means for continuing the conversation on eliminating racial discrimination. The United States responded that it had withdrawn negotiators from the first Durban Conference “because of pervasive anti-Semitism in its discussions” and would make a decision regarding participation at a later date. A summary of the U.S. Review before the Committee and Concluding Observations of the Committee included recommendations to the United States in areas ranging from affirmative action and immigration to voter disenfranchisement and the rights of Native Americans and tribal peoples. This includes a request for an interim report due in February 2009 on how the United States has implemented the Committee’s recommendations regarding: 1) racial profiling and counterterrorism efforts impacting Arab, Muslim, South Asian and others, 2) protecting Western Shoshone lands, 3) efforts to return displaced Hurricane Katrina victims, 4) decreasing minority youth imprisonment rates, and 5) organizing training programs and other initiatives to make government officials and parties at the state and local levels aware of U.S. responsibilities under the ICERD. This last point was repeatedly raised by the civil society shadow delegation. In particular they were concerned by “U.S. exceptionalism” – or the perception that United States tells other nations to abide by international human rights laws, but refuses to comply with those laws itself. The Committee also called for greater consultation and cooperation between the U.S. government and civil society in preparation of its next report due in November 2011 following concerns that civil society was not sufficiently consulted during the drafting of the 2007 report. Also, of relevance in addressing global efforts to eradicate racial discrimination was the seventh annual meeting of the United Nations Working Group on People of African Descent (WGPAD). Formed in April 2002, the Working Group studies and proposes solutions to the problems of racial discrimination faced by people of African descent living in the Diaspora, with a focus on improving their human rights situation. The Working Group met for its seventh Annual Session on January 14 to 18th, where it reviewed its proceedings of the past seven years on thematic issues that impact the experiences of persons of African descent in the following areas: administration of justice, media, equal access to quality education, employment, health, housing, participation in political, economic, and social sectors, racial profiling, and the empowerment of women of African descent. The WGPAD seventh Annual Session focused on the development of recommendations based upon these past sessions as a UN requirement in preparation for the 2009 Durban Review Conference. The United States participated as an Observer at the meeting. The Final Recommendations included calls for countries to: develop and/or adopt national action plans and monitoring bodies to combat racism and assist victims, address racial profiling and other disparities in the criminal justice system, introduce socio-economic data collection methods that include African descendants, counter negative media stereotypes, develop a best practices report and index on racial equality, and create a fund to support NGO participation in future WGPAD activities and meetings. The next WGPAD meeting is scheduled for January 12-14th and will focus on youth. Within the OSCE context, the WGPAD holds special importance as the only multilateral entity focused on the human rights situation of the more than five million persons that make up the African descendant or Black European population. In recent years, partially as a result of their high visibility in European countries, Blacks have increasingly become the targets of hate crimes and experienced discrimination in education, employment, housing, and other sectors. Additionally, Blacks are often the targets of anti-immigrant campaigns, including racial profiling, regardless of their citizenship (see also U.S. Helsinki Commission Hearing The State of (In)visible Black Europe: Race, Rights, and Politics). Initiatives such as the CERD and WGPAD have been critical to maintaining a global focus on countries’ efforts to monitor and combat racial discrimination in line with their human rights commitments. Additionally, they complement OSCE efforts in this area such as this year’s OSCE Supplementary Meetings in Vienna on Roma and national institutions to fight discrimination against minorities and migrants. Because of the role promoting equality and non-discrimination plays in the protection of human rights and ensuring peace and security in the OSCE region, the U.S. Helsinki Commission has also increased its focus in this area.

  • Turkmenistan: Prospect for Change?

    The purpose of this hearing was to examine Turkmenistan’s parliamentary elections- the first such election since the regime changed. The hearing focused on whether the election might mark a turning point at all for Turkmenistan as well as whether Turkmenistan has made progress on Democratic reforms. Positive signs were reviewed, particularly on education, but also areas of concern, such as reports of Turkmen officials pressuring young men not to apply for study programs in the United States. The distinguished witnesses and Commissioners reviewed the reform process and the significant advancements since the death of longtime President, Berdimuhamedov. In regards to areas of further reform and advancement, the hearing addressed measures in which the U.S. and the OSCE should respond to better the human rights condition in Turkmenistan.

  • 2008 Human Dimension Implementation Meeting

    The OSCE’s 2008 Human Dimension Implementation Meeting offered an opportunity to review compliance on a full range of human rights and humanitarian commitments of the organization’s participating States. Tolerance issues featured prominently in the discussions, which included calls for sustained efforts to combat anti-Semitism and other forms of discrimination. A U.S. proposal for a high-level conference on tolerance issues in 2009, however, met with only tepid support. Core human rights issues, including freedom of speech and freedom of religion, continued to draw large numbers of speakers. Throughout the discussions, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) expressed concern about Kazakhstan’s failure to implement promised reforms and questioned its readiness to serve as OSCE Chair-in-Office in 2010. Greece, slated to assume the chairmanship in January, came under criticism for its treatment of ethnic minorities. As in the past, the United State faced criticism for retaining the death penalty and for its conduct in counter-terrorism operations. Belarusian elections, held on the eve of the HDIM, came in for a round of criticism, while Russia continued to advocate proposals on election observation that would significantly limit the OSCE’s independence in such activities. Finally, discussion of the Russia-Georgia conflict was conspicuous by its near absence, though related human rights and humanitarian concerns will likely receive more prominence in the lead up to and during the December OSCE Ministerial in Helsinki. Background From September 29 to October 10, 2008, the OSCE participating States met in Warsaw, Poland, for the annual(1) Human Dimension Implementation Meeting (HDIM). The HDIM is Europe’s largest human rights gathering, convened to discuss compliance by the participating States with the full range of human dimension commitments they have all adopted by consensus. The meeting was organized by the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), according to an agenda approved by consensus of all 56 participating States. The HDIM is the only multinational human rights meeting in Europe where representatives of NGOs and government representatives have equal access to the speakers list. Indeed, over half of the statements delivered at this year’s HDIM were made by NGO representatives. Such implementation review meetings are intended to serve as the participating States’ principal venue for public diplomacy and are important vehicles for identifying continued areas of poor human rights performance. Although the HDIM is not tasked with decision-making responsibilities, the meetings can provide impetus for further focus on particular human dimension concerns and help shape priorities for subsequent action. Coming in advance of ministerial meetings that are usually held in December, the HDIMs provide an additional opportunity for consultations among the participating States on human dimension issues that may be addressed by Ministers. (This year, for example, there were discussions on the margins regarding a possible Ministerial resolution on equal access to education for Roma and advancing work in the field of tolerance and non-discrimination, including the possibility of convening a related high-level meeting in 2009.) OSCE rules, adopted by consensus, allow NGOs to have access to human dimension meetings. However, this general rule does not apply to “persons and organizations which resort to the use of violence or publicly condone terrorism or the use of violence.”(2) There are no other grounds for exclusion. The decision as to whether or not a particular individual or NGO runs afoul of this rule is made by the Chairman-in-Office. In recent years, some governments have tried to limit or restrict NGO access at OSCE meetings in an effort to avoid scrutiny and criticism of their records. This year, in the run up to the HDIM, Turkmenistan held the draft agenda for the meeting hostage, refusing to give consensus as part of an effort to block the registration of Turkmenistan NGOs which have previously attended the implementation meetings and criticized Ashgabat. Turkmenistan officials finally relented and allowed the adoption of the HDIM agenda in late July, but did not participate in the Warsaw meeting. Along these lines, the Russian delegation walked out in protest when the NGO “Russian-Chechen Friendship Society” took the floor to speak during a session on freedom of the media. At the 2008 HDIM, senior Department of State participants included Ambassador W. Robert Pearson, Head of Delegation; Ambassador Julie Finley, Head of the U.S. Mission to the OSCE; Ambassador Karen Stewart, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor; and Mr. Bruce Turner, Acting Director, Office for European Security and Political Affairs. Mr. Will Inboden, advisor on religious freedom issues, and Mr. Nathan Mick, advisor on Roma issues, served as Public Members. Ms. Felice Gaer, Chair of the U.S. Commission on Religious Freedom, and Mr. Michael Cromartie, Vice Chair, also served as members of the delegation. Helsinki Commission Chief of Staff Fred L. Turner and Senior State Department Advisor Ambassador Clifford Bond also served as members of the U.S. Delegation, along with Helsinki Commission staff members Alex T. Johnson, Ronald J. McNamara, Winsome Packer, Erika B. Schlager, and Dr. Mischa E. Thompson. In comparison with previous HDIMs, the 2008 meeting was relatively subdued – perhaps surprisingly so given that, roughly eight weeks before its opening, Russian tanks had rolled onto Georgian territory. While the full scope of human rights abuses were not known by the time the meeting opened, human rights defenders had already documented serious rights violations, including the targeting of villages in South Ossetia inhabited by ethnic Georgians. Nevertheless, discussion of the Russian-Georgian conflict was largely conspicuous by its near absence. Highlights The annual HDIM agenda provides a soup-to-nuts review of the implementation of core human rights and fundamental freedoms (e.g., freedoms of speech, assembly and association; prevention of torture; right to a fair trial), as well as rule of law, free elections and democracy-building issues. National minorities, Roma, tolerance and non-discrimination are also on the agenda. The United States continued its longstanding practice of naming specific countries and cases of concern. In accordance with OSCE procedures, the agenda included three specially selected topics, each of which was given a full day of review. This year, those subjects were: 1) education and awareness-raising in the promotion of human rights; 2) freedom of religion or belief; and 3) focus on identification, assistance and access to justice for the victims of trafficking. Of the three, the sessions on religious liberty attracted the most speakers with over 50 statements. A large number of side events were also part of the HDIM, organized by non-governmental organizations, OSCE institutions or offices, other international organizations, or participating States. These side events augment implementation review sessions by providing an opportunity to examine specific subjects or countries in greater depth and often with a more lively exchange than in the formal sessions. Along with active participation at these side events, the United States held extensive bilateral meetings with government representatives, as well as with OSCE officials and NGO representatives. At the end of the second week of the HDIM, Human Rights Directors from capitals also held a working meeting to discuss issues of mutual concern, with a special focus on United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325, on women, peace and security. This year, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom also hosted a reception to honor the OSCE Panel of Experts on Freedom of Religion or Belief, as well as the tenth anniversary of the U.S. International Religious Freedom Act and the 60th anniversary of the UN Declaration of Human Rights. Greece, scheduled to assume the chairmanship of the OSCE starting in January 2009, came under particular criticism for its treatment of minorities. Unlike the highly emotional reactions of senior Greek diplomats in Warsaw two years ago, the delegation this year responded to critics by circulating position papers elaborating the Greek government’s views. Greece also responded to U.S. criticism regarding the application of Sharia law to Muslim women in Thrace by stating that Greece is prepared to abolish the application of the Sharia law to members of the Muslim minority in Thrace when this is requested by the interested parties whom it affects directly. Issues relating to the treatment of ethnic, linguistic and religious minorities in the OSCE region are likely to remain an important OSCE focus in the coming period, especially in light of developments in the Caucasus, and it remains to be seen how the Greek chairmanship will address these concerns in light of its own rigid approach to minorities in its domestic policies. Throughout the HDIM, many NGOs continued to express concern about the fitness of Kazakhstan to serve as OSCE Chair-in-Office in 2010 given serious short comings in that country’s human rights record. In particular, Kazakhstan was sharply criticized for a draft religion law (passed by parliament, but not yet adopted into law). One NGO argued that a Kazakhstan chairmanship, with this law in place, would undermine the integrity of the OSCE, and urged participating States to reconsider Kazakhstan for the 2010 leadership position if the law is enacted. Juxtaposing Kazakhstan’s future chairmanship with the possible final passage of a retrograde law on religion, the Almaty Helsinki Committee asked the assembled representatives, “Are human rights still a priority – or not?” (Meanwhile, on October 5, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice visited Kazakhstan.) On the eve of the HDIM, Belarus held elections. Those elections received considerable critical attention during the HDIM’s focus on democratic elections, with the United States and numerous others expressing disappointment that the elections did not meet OSCE commitments, despite promises by senior Belarusian officials that improvements would be forthcoming. Norway and several other speakers voiced particular concern over pressures being placed on ODIHR to circumscribe its election observation activities. Illustrating those pressures, the Russian Federation reiterated elements of a proposal it drafted on election observation that would significantly limit the independence of ODIHR in its election observation work. The Head of the U.S. Delegation noted that an invitation for the OSCE to observe the November elections in the United States was issued early and without conditions as to the size or scope of the observation. (Russia and others have attempted to impose numerical and other limitations on election observation missions undertaken by the ODIHR and the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly.) Tolerance issues featured prominently during discussions this year, as they have at other recent HDIMs. Forty-three interventions were made, forcing the moderator to close the speakers list and requiring presenters to truncate their remarks. Muslim, migrant, and other groups representing visible minorities focused on discrimination in immigration policies, employment, housing, and other sectors, including racial profiling and hate crimes, amidst calls for OSCE countries to improve implementation of existing anti-discrimination laws. Jewish and other NGOs called for sustained efforts to combat anti-Semitism. Representatives of religious communities expressed concern about the confusion made by ODIHR in its Annual Hate Crimes Report between religious liberty issues and intolerance towards members of religious groups. This year, some governments and NGOs elevated their concerns relating to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender persons, increasingly placing these concerns in the context of the OSCE’s focus on hate crimes. A civil society tolerance pre-HDIM meeting and numerous side events were held on a broad range of tolerance-related topics. The United States and several U.S.-based NGOS called for a high-level conference on tolerance issues to be held in 2009. Unlike in prior years, however, no other State echoed this proposal or stepped forward with an offer to host such a high-level conference. In many of the formal implementation review sessions this year, NGOs made reference to specific decisions of the European Court on Human Rights, urging governments to implement judgments handed down in recent cases. During the discussion of issues relating to Roma, NGOs continued to place a strong focus on the situation in Italy, where Roma (and immigrants) have been the target of hate crimes and mob violence. NGOs reminded Italy that, at the OSCE Supplementary Human Dimension Meeting in July, they had urged Italy to come to the HDIM with concrete information regarding the prosecution of individuals for violent attacks against Roma. Regrettably, the Italian delegation was unable to provide any information on prosecutions, fostering the impression that a climate of impunity persists in Italy. As at other OSCE fora, the United States was criticized for retaining the death penalty, contrary to the abolitionist trend among the OSCE participating States. Of the 56 OSCE participating States, 54 have abolished, suspended or imposed a moratorium on the death penalty and only two – the United States and Belarus – continue to impose capital punishment as a criminal sanction. Two side events held during the HDIM also put a spotlight on the United States. The first event was organized by Freedom House and entitled, “Today’s American: How Free?” At this event, Freedom House released a book by the same title which examined “the state of freedom and justice in post-9/11 America.” The second event was a panel discussion on “War on Terror or War on Human Rights?” organized by the American Civil Liberties Union. Speakers from the ACLU, Amnesty International and the Polish Human Rights Foundation largely focused on issues relating to the United States, including the military commission trials at Guantanamo, and official Polish investigations into allegations that Poland (working with the United States) was involved in providing secret prisons for the detention and torture of “high-value” detainees.(3) In a somewhat novel development, Russian Government views were echoed by several like-minded NGOs which raised issues ranging from claims of “genocide” by Georgia in South Ossetia to grievances by ethnic Russians in Latvia and Estonia. Ironically, the Russian delegation, in its closing statement, asserted that this year’s HDIM had an “improved atmosphere” due (it was asserted) to the efforts by both governments and NGOs to find solutions to problems rather than casting blame. As at past HDIMs, some sessions generated such strong interest that the time allotted was insufficient to accommodate all those who wished to contribute to the discussion. For example, the session on freedom of the media was severely constrained, with more than 20 individuals unable to take the floor in the time allotted, and several countries unable to exercise rights of reply. Conversely, some sessions – for example, the session on equal opportunity for men and women, and the session on human dimension activities and projects – had, in terms of unused time available, an embarrassment of riches. Following a general pattern, Turkmenistan was again not present at the HDIM sessions this year.(4) In all, 53 participating States were represented at the meeting. At the closing session, the United States raised issues of particular concern relating to Turkmenistan under the “any other business” agenda item. (This is the sixth year in a row that the United States has made a special statement about the situation in Turkmenistan, a country that some view as having the worst human rights record in the OSCE.) For the past two years, there has been a new government in Turkmenistan. The U.S. statement this year noted some positive changes, but urged the new government to continue the momentum on reform by fully implementing steps it already has begun. In addition, the United States called for information on and access to Turkmenistan’s former representative to the OSCE, Batyr Berdiev. Berdiev, once Turkmenistan’s ambassador to the OSCE, was reportedly among the large number of people arrested following an attack on then-President Niyazov’s motorcade in 2002. His fate and whereabouts remain unknown. OSCE PA President João Soares addressed the closing plenary, the most senior Assembly official to participate in an HDIM meeting. The Russian-Georgian Conflict With the outbreak of armed violence between Russia and Georgia occurring only two months earlier, the war in South Ossetia would have seemed a natural subject for discussion during the HDIM. As a human rights forum, the meeting was unlikely to serve as a venue to debate the origins of the conflict, but there were expectations that participants would engage in a meaningful discussion of the human dimension of the tragedy and efforts to stem ongoing rights violations. As it turned out, this view was not widely shared by many of the governments and NGOs participating in the meeting. The opening plenary session foreshadowed the approach to this subject followed through most of the meeting. Among the senior OSCE officials, only High Commissioner on National Minorities Knut Vollebaek squarely addressed the situation in the south Caucasus. Vollebaek condemned the19th century-style politicization of national minority issues in the region and the violation of international borders. At the time of the crisis, he had cautioned against the practice of “conferring citizenship en masse to residents of other States” (a reference to Russian actions in South Ossetia) and warned that “the presence of one's citizens or ‘ethnic kin’ abroad must not be used as a justification for undermining the sovereignty and territorial integrity of other States.” Sadly, that sound advice went unobserved in Georgia, but it is still applicable elsewhere in the OSCE region.(5) The statement delivered by France on behalf of the countries of the European Union failed to address the conflict. During the plenary, only Norway and Switzerland joined the United States in raising humanitarian concerns stemming from the conflict. In reply, the head of the Russian delegation delivered a tough statement which sidestepped humanitarian concerns, declaring that discussion of Georgia’s territorial integrity was now “irrelevant.” He called on participating States to adopt a pragmatic approach and urged acknowledgment of the creation of the new sovereign states of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, terming their independence “irreversible” and “irrevocable.” Perhaps more surprising than this Russian bluster was the failure of any major NGO, including those who had been active in the conflict zone collecting information and working on humanitarian relief, to take advantage of the opportunity to raise the issue of South Ossetia during the opening plenary. As the HDIM moved into its working sessions, which cover the principal OSCE human dimension commitments, coverage of the conflict fared better. The Representative on Freedom of the Media remarked, in opening the session on free speech and freedom of the media that, for the first time in some years, two OSCE participating States were at war. During that session, he and other speakers called on the Russian Federation to permit independent media access to occupied areas to investigate the charges and counter-charges of genocide and ethnic cleansing. The tolerance discussion included calls by several delegations for Russia to cooperate and respond favorably to the HCNM’s request for access to South Ossetia to investigate the human rights situation in that part of Georgia. Disappointingly, during the session devoted to humanitarian commitments, several statements, including those of the ODHIR moderator and EU spokesperson, focused narrowly on labor conditions and migration, and failed to raise concerns regarding refugees and displaced persons, normally a major focus of this agenda item and obviously relevant to the Georgia crisis. Nevertheless, the session developed into one of the more animated at the HDIM. The Georgian delegation, which had been silent up to that point, spoke out against Russian aggression and alleged numerous human rights abuses. It expressed gratitude to the European Union for sending monitors to the conflict zone and urged the EU to pressure Russia to fully implement the Six-Point Ceasefire agreement negotiated by French President Sarkozy. The United States joined several delegations and NGOs calling on all parties to the conflict to observe their international obligations to protect refugees and create conditions for their security and safe voluntary return. In a pattern observed throughout the meeting, the Russian delegation did not respond to Georgian charges. It left it to an NGO, “Ossetia Accuses,” to make Russia’s case that Georgia had committed genocide against the people of South Ossetia. A common theme among many interventions was a call for an independent investigation of the causes of the conflict and a better monitoring of the plight of refugees, but to date Russian and South Ossetian authorities have denied both peacekeeping monitors and international journalists access to the region from elsewhere in Georgia. A joint assessment mission of experts from ODIHR and the HCNM, undertaken in mid-October, were initially denied access to South Ossetia, with limited access to Abkhazia granted to some team members. Eventually, several experts did gain access to the conflict zone in South Ossetia, though to accomplish this they had to travel from the north via the Russian Federation. One can only speculate why Georgia received such limited treatment at this HDIM. The crisis in the south Caucasus had dominated OSCE discussions at the Permanent Council in Vienna for weeks preceding the HDIM. Some participants may have feared that addressing it in Warsaw might have crowded out the broader human rights agenda. Others may have felt that, in the absence of a clear picture of the circumstances surrounding the conflict and with so many unanswered questions, it was best not to be too critical or too accusatory of either party. The EU (and particularly the French) were, at the time of the HDIM, in the process of negotiating the deployment of European observers to the conflict zone, and may have feared that criticism of Russia at this forum would have only complicated the task. In fact, the EU’s only oblique reference to Georgia was made at HDIM’s penultimate working session (a discussion which focused on human dimension “project activity”) in connection with the work of High Commissioner for National Minorities. (One observer of this session remarked that there seemed to be a greater stomach for dinging the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights for shortcomings in its work than for criticizing Russia for invading a neighboring OSCE participating State.) Finally, other participants, particularly NGOs, seemed more inclined to view human rights narrowly in terms of how governments treat their own citizens and not in terms of how the failure to respect key principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity are invariably accompanied by gross violations of human rights and can produce humanitarian disasters. Amid simmering tensions between Russia and Georgia which could erupt into renewed fighting, and completion of a report requested by the Finnish Chairmanship in time for the OSCE’s Ministerial in Helsinki in early December, Ministers will have to grapple with the impact of the south Caucasus conflict and what role the OSCE will have. Beyond Warsaw The relative quiet of the HDIM notwithstanding, French President M. Nicolas Sarkozy put a spotlight on OSCE issues during the course of the meeting. Speaking at a conference in Evian, France, on October 8, he responded to a call by Russian President Dmitri Medvedev, issued in June during meetings with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, for a new “European Security Treaty” to revise Europe’s security architecture – a move seen by many as an attempt to rein in existing regional security organizations, including NATO and the OSCE. President Sarkozy indicated a willingness to discuss Medvedev’s ideas, but argued they should be addressed in the context of a special OSCE summit, which Sarkozy suggested could be held in 2009. The escalating global economic crisis was also very much on the minds of participants at the HDIM as daily reports of faltering financial institutions, plummeting markets, and capital flight promoted concerns over implications for the human dimension. Several delegations voiced particular concern over the possible adverse impact on foreign workers and those depending on remittances to make ends meet. Looking Ahead The human rights and humanitarian concerns stemming from the war in South Ossetia will likely come into sharper focus in the lead up to the December OSCE Ministerial in Helsinki as talks on the conflict resume in Geneva, and OSCE and other experts attempt to document the circumstances surrounding the outbreak of fighting and current conditions. The coming weeks can also be expected to bring renewed calls for an overhaul of the human dimension and the ODIHR by those seeking to curb attention paid to human rights and subordinate election monitoring activities. It remains to be seen whether Kazakhstan will fulfill the commitments it made a year ago in Madrid to undertake meaningful reforms by the end of this year. There is also the risk that a deepening economic crisis will divert attention elsewhere, even as the resulting fallout in the human dimension begins to manifest itself. It is unclear what priorities the Greek chairmanship will be set for 2009, a year that portends peril and promise. Notes (1) OSCE Human Dimension Implementation Meetings are held every year, unless there is a Summit. Summits of Heads of State or Government are preceded by Review Conferences, which are mandated to review implementation of all OSCE commitments in all areas (military-security, economic and environmental cooperation, and the human dimension). (2) Helsinki Document 1992, The Challenges of Change, IV (16). (3) Interestingly, at the session on human rights and counterterrorism, moderator Zbigniew Lasocik, member of the United Nations Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture, noted that Poland’s Constitutional Court had, the previous day, struck down a 2004 law that purported to allow the military to shoot down hijacked commercial aircraft – even if they were being used as weapons like the planes that killed thousands of people on 9/11. The Court reportedly reasoned that shooting down an aircraft being used as bomb would infringe on the constitutional protection of human life and dignity of the passengers. (4) Turkmenistan sent a representative to the HDIM in 2005 for the first time in several years. While responding to criticism delivered in the sessions, the representative appeared to focus more on monitoring the activities of Turkmen NGOs participating in the meeting. Turkmenistan subsequently complained that certain individuals who had been charged with crimes against the State should not be allowed to participate in OSCE meetings. Turkmenistan officials did not participate in the 2006 or 2007 HDIMs. Participation in the 2008 meeting would have been a welcome signal regarding current political developments. (5) The HCNM had previously expressed concern regarding Hungary’s overreach vis-a-vis ethnic Hungarian minorities in neighboring countries. In 2004, Hungary held a referendum on extending Hungarian citizenship to ethnic Hungarians abroad – an idea that still holds political currency in some quarters of Hungary – but the referendum failed due to low voter turnout.

  • Belarus’ Parliamentary Elections Fail to Meet OSCE Democratic Election Commitments

    By Orest Deychakiwsky and Winsome Packer Policy Advisors The conduct of the September 28 parliamentary elections in Belarus fell significantly short of international standards, despite some hopes that there would be improvements following the August release of political prisoners, Belarus’ reluctance to recognize South Ossetia and Abkhazia and statements by senior Belarusian officials raising expectations. The Commission followed the run-up to the elections closely, holding a hearing on September 16 titled “Business as Usual? Belarus on the Eve of the Elections,” and issuing a press release expressing concern about the pre-election climate and encouraging last minute steps, including transparency in the vote count and full access for OSCE observers. [Both the hearing and the press release are available on the Commission’s website.] Two members of the Commission staff traveled to Belarus as part of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly’s delegation of the overall OSCE Election Observation Mission, observing in Minsk and Smolevichi. In its statement, issued the day after the election, the OSCE election observation mission concluded that despite minor improvements, the conduct of the parliamentary elections in Belarus “ultimately fell short of OSCE commitments for democratic elections.” On election day, voting itself was generally well conducted, though the vote count was assessed as bad or very bad in 48 percent of OSCE observations. The experiences of Commission staff on voting day were consistent with those of other OSCE observers. For the most part, the voting itself in the precincts staff visited went smoothly. However, the vote counting process was particularly problematic, given the lack of transparency. All 110 elected members of the Chamber of Representatives of the National Assembly (lower chamber of parliament) are pro-government. No opposition activists from out of 70 nominated by the democratic opposition were elected. The vote count in one Minsk precinct in which Commission staff observed jointly with a Swedish member of parliament was dramatically lacking in transparency. There were three candidates on the ballot in this precinct, including one opposition member. Both the OSCE and domestic observers were hindered from having a full view of the vote counting proceedings. The precinct electoral commission set tables up as barriers about three meters from the tables on which the ballots were being counted. Further obstructing the observers’ view of the ballot count were the electoral commission workers themselves, who were positioned in such a way as to make viewing difficult. Attempts by observers and a proxy of the opposition candidate to clarify which provisions of the electoral code permitted this behavior by the electoral commission went nowhere. All of the ballots – from the early voting, mobile voting, and regular voting were mixed in together. When an OSCE observer took a picture of the vote count, or, more accurately, of the election commission members blocking the vote count, the chairwoman interrupted the count to write a complaint against the observer. After about 20 minutes, the opposition candidate’s proxy notified her that according to Article 55 of the electoral code, “the count must be performed without a break until the results of the voting have been obtained.” Only at that point did the Chairwoman cease writing and resume the count. In the North-East Minsk district that other Commission staff monitored with an Irish senator, the experience was similar. The voting process at the eight polling stations that they monitored was orderly and transparent. The problems came in the counting process. Similar to the reports from other observers, Commission staff and the Irish observer were prevented from standing close enough to watch the vote counting in a manner that allowed them to see the names and other distinguishing information on the ballots, even though the importance of this facet of observation was stressed to the government by the OSCE and the Interior Minister assured observers in a briefing on September 25 that election monitors would be able to watch the counting from a close vantage point. In a far departure from this promise, the precinct officials refused to announce what boxes they were opening during the process. They would lift a box, dump its contents on a table on the other side of the room from where the observers were seated, and ten or so people would crowd around the table to separate the ballots and "count" the votes. Observers could not distinguish which ballots came from early voting versus the ballots cast on election day, or spoiled ballots. They refused to announce the results of the count or record them in the protocol as was delineated in the procedural manual provided by ODIHR. They then huddled with a calculator to tabulate numbers, write them on a piece of paper in complete silence. Afterward, the precinct chair posted all of their numbers on a bulletin board. They then gathered up the ballots and left the building without a word. It is apparent that further legal and cultural changes are required for truly democratic elections to occur in Belarus. Several problems that manifested themselves during the actual voting were that the material used to seal the ballot boxes was easily manipulable and could be removed and put back on (clay dough and a string). In a number of precincts, the early voting ballot boxes were not in plain view, as required by law. Early voting was significant in several precincts, up to 39 percent in one case. Before voting day, there appeared to be a certain willingness on the part of some in the West to give the benefit of the doubt to the authorities, in part due to the minor improvements that had taken place in the election campaign, such as slightly increased access of opposition representatives to district election commissions, and the decision to repeat the airing of the candidates’ five-minute campaign spots on state TV and radio stations. This, together with the release of political prisoners Aleksandr Kozulin, Syarhei Parsyukevich and Andrei Kim (which led to the temporary lifting of U.S. sanctions on two subsidiaries of Belarus’s giant petrochemical conglomerate Belnaftakhim), and Belarussian leader Alexander Lukashenka’s unenthusiastic response to Russia’s occupation of Georgia and refusal to date to recognize South Ossetia and Abkhazia created an atmosphere of optimism that Lukashenka would be willing to take steps towards democratic reform and engage in a dialogue with Europe and the United States. The stark lack of transparency in the vote count was also surprising to many because it flew in the face of Belarusian authorities’ pledges prior to the vote, and it was probably unnecessary. Given the overall election campaign climate, which did not allow for genuine political competition and where the opposition had extremely minimal representation on precinct election commissions, the vast majority of pro-governmental candidates would have won in any event. This is within the context of the wider extremely inhospitable environment for the democratic opposition, in which for almost 15 years the Lukashenka regime has tightly controlled the media; vilified the opposition; repressed the independent media; disappeared, detained, imprisoned, and beaten opposition members and democracy activists; harassed and suppressed non-governmental organizations and, in short, done its best to stifle independent thought. Notwithstanding the EU’s temporary lifting of some visa sanctions against senior Belarusian officials, Mr. Lukashenka may have yet again missed an opportunity to move Belarus towards democratic Europe, which would enhance Belarus’ independence, at a time when it especially needs to be strengthened, given intensifying Russian pressure on Belarus. Notwithstanding the flawed elections, both the United States and Europe have displayed a willingness to continue to engage in dialogue with Minsk and to encourage Belarus to move forward along the path of compliance with freely undertaken OSCE human rights and democracy commitments. The poor quality of the September 28 elections did not facilitate this process, as had been hoped by the West. Nevertheless, if the Belarusian authorities take steps to increase political freedom and respect for human rights, the real possibility exists for a gradual opening in U.S.-Belarusian relations – for Belarus to begin the process of reducing its self-imposed isolation and eventually taking its rightful place among the community of European nations.

  • The Role of OSCE Institutions in Advancing Human Rights and Democracy

    This hearing discussed the role of OSCE institutions in advancing human rights and democracy, highlighting the role of the United States. The United States was mentioned as a leading force of democracy promotion and protection of human rights. However, the witnesses mentioned certain issues like Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, rendition flights, and detention centers that suggest double-standards. The discussion centered on the importance of inclusive voice in government and the need to find a way to build pluralism into single-party developing democracies by establishing political parties that can be competitive, that can be critical of governments and that can bring new ideas and fresh faces into their government.

  • Guantanamo Detainees after Boumediene: Now What?

    The hearing reviewed the detainee-related policy issues – particularly for Guantanamo detainees -- that remain in the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Boumediene. Witnesses also had the opportunity to discuss a related question: what does Europe do with its terror suspects, and are there any lessons for the United States from the European experience? The Supreme Court ruled in a 5-4 decision in Boumediene v. Bush that foreign terrorism suspects held at the Guantanamo Bay detention facility have the right under the Constitution to challenge their detention in a U.S. civilian court.

  • Ingushetia: The New Hot Spot in Russia’s North Caucasus

    John Finerty, staff advisor at the Commission, led this briefing on the increased destabilization in the North Caucasus region of Russia, specifically in Ingushetia. After the conclusion of the second Chechen war, the North Caucasus region was once again experiencing an increase in violence.  Although the entire region was fraught with instability, Ingushetia attracted particular attention, having undergone a rise in terrorist and counter-terrorist operations, illegal detentions, kidnappings and extra judicial executions over the past year.  Panelists – Eliza Musaeva, Gregory Shvedov, and Magomed Mutsolgov -described Ingushetia’s history and the arbitrary lack of rule of law that had originated in Chechnya and crept into Ingushetia. They highlighted the prolific kidnappings in the regions that were specifically Chechnya related, which led to Ingushetia being talked about as a republic of its own.  Since then, the Russian government had conducted counterterrorism operations, leading the panelists to speculate about the potential for another war in the North Caucasus. 

  • Combating Sexual Exploitation of Children: Strengthening International Law Enforcement Cooperation

    The hearing examined current practices for sharing information among law enforcement authorities internationally and what concrete steps can be taken to strengthen that cooperation to more effectively investigate cases of sexual exploitation of children, including child pornography on the Internet. Despite current efforts, sexual exploitation of children is increasing globally. The use of the Internet has made it easier for pedophiles and sexual predators to have access to child pornography and potential victims. In May, the Senate Judiciary Committee passed the Combating Child Exploitation Act of 2008 (S.1738), which will allocate over one billion dollars over the next eight years to provide Federal, state, and local law enforcement with the resources and structure to find, arrest, and prosecute those who prey on our children.

  • Concern about Treatment of U.S. Citizen in Belarusian Detention

    Madam Speaker, as Chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, I would like to draw attention and concern to the case of Mr. Emanuel Zeltser, a U.S. citizen who was detained March 12th upon his arrival in Minsk, Belarus, charged with "use of forged documents.'' In the entire time that Mr. Zeltser has been detained, he has only been allowed visitation by the U.S. Embassy twice, on March 21st and April 25th. Upon the latter visit it was noted by the U.S. consul that Mr. Zeltser had been beaten several times and appeared in greatly weakened health. Mr. Zeltser suffers from Type 2 diabetes and a severe form of arthritis. Though his condition causes him severe pain and has further deteriorated during his incarceration, the authorities in the detention facility where he is held have reportedly denied him necessary medications. Without proper medications, Mr. Zeltser may not be able to survive the harsh conditions of his detention. Furthermore, according to his lawyer, Belarusian authorities have recently extended the period of Mr. Zeltser's term of detention. It is incumbent upon the Belarusian government to provide Mr. Zeltser full consular access, proper medical care, and ensure that he is not subjected to further physical abuse and degrading treatment--consistent with its international legal obligations and basic human rights standards. Time is of the essence in Mr. Zeltser's case, as further delays could lead to further deterioration of his health to the point of endangering his life. Madam Speaker, I call upon the Belarusian authorities to ensure that Mr. Zeltser immediately receives the medication his doctor has prescribed, and is protected from further ill-treatment, given access to U.S. consular representatives and any medical attention he may need. On April 25, the State Department requested the Government of Belarus to release Emanuel Zeltser on humanitarian grounds. I urge the Belarusian Government to favorably consider that request.

  • Hate in the Information Age

    The briefing provided an overview of hate crimes and hate propaganda in the OSCE region, focusing on the new challenges posed by the internet and other technology. Mischa Thompson led the panelists in a discussion of the nature and frequency of hate crimes in the OSCE region, including the role of the internet and other technologies in the training, recruiting, and funding of hate groups. Panelists - Rabbi Abraham Cooper, Mark A. Potok, Christopher Wolf, Tad Stahnke – discussed how best to combat hate crimes and hate propaganda and highlighted internet governance issues in the United States and Europe and how the internet extensively contributes to hate propaganda. Issues such as free speech and content control were at the center of the discussion.

  • Uzbekistan: Three Years after Andijan

    This briefing examined the human rights situation and state of civil society in Uzbekistan three years after Andijan, when hundreds of demonstrators were killed by Uzbek security force, and in the subsequent crackdown, restrictions were imposed to further stifle dissent. While the human rights situation remains dire, the Government of Uzbekistan continues to pursue engagement with the EU and U.S., positioning itself as a key strategic ally in regional energy and security concerns.  Panelists testifying at the briefing explored prospects for democratization in Uzbekistan and the possibilities of improving U.S.-Uzbek relations.  Additionally, they discussed the need for reforms in cotton production, Uzbekistan's largest source of income. 

  • Clearing the Air, Feeding the Fuel Tank: Understanding the Link Between Energy and Environmental Security

    Congress has an obligation to work to ensure a healthy and safe environment for the benefit of current and future generations.  To reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and achieve a healthier environment, we need a multi-faceted approach that addresses the tangled web of issues involved.  We need to foster both energy independence and clean energy. Given rising sea levels, the increasing severity of storm surges, and higher temperatures the world over, the impact of global climate change is undeniable.  Unless we act now, we will see greater and greater threats to our way of life on this planet.

  • Crossing Boarders, Keeping Connected: Women, Migration and Development in the OSCE Region

    The hearing will focus on the impact of migration on family and society, the special concerns of migrant women of color, and the economic contributions of women migrants to their home country through remittances. According to the United Nations, women are increasingly migrating on their own as main economic providers and heads of households. While the number of women migrants is on the rise, little is known about the economic and social impact of this migration on their home country.

  • OSCE Partner States and Neighbors Overwhelmed By Iraqi Refugees: Band-Aid Solutions to Implosion in the Middle East?

    This hearing, chaired by Commissioner Alcee L. Hastings, focused on the Iraqi refugee crisis.  Witnesses from the U.S. Department of State, Homeland Security, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees testified on the overall situation.  The mayor of Sodertalje, Sweden, which has taken in 5% of all Iraqi refugees, testified about the strain on his town’s resources and the need for action to address the crisis.  A representative of the Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Service testified that many more resources were needed to successfully integrate Iraqi refugees into American communities.

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