Title

Human Rights and Democracy

Wednesday, January 29, 2020
10:00am
Longworth House Office Building, Room 1334
Washington, DC 20024
United States
Obstacles and Opportunities in the OSCE Region
Members: 
Name: 
Representative Joe Wilson
Title Text: 
Ranking Member
Body: 
Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe
Name: 
Senator Ben Cardin
Title Text: 
Ranking Member
Body: 
Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe
Name: 
Representative Robert Aderholt
Title Text: 
Commissioner
Body: 
Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe
Name: 
Representative Steve Cohen
Title Text: 
Commissioner
Body: 
Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe
Name: 
Representative Gwen Moore
Title Text: 
Commissioner
Body: 
Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe
Name: 
Representative Marc Veasey
Title Text: 
Commissioner
Body: 
Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe
Witnesses: 
Name: 
Ambassador Ingibjörg Sólrún Gísladóttir
Title: 
Director
Body: 
OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR)


For nearly three decades, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) has been at the forefront of efforts to promote human rights and democracy throughout the 57-nation OSCE region. Although best known for international election observation, ODIHR has also been instrumental in countering various forms of intolerance, helping governments combat human trafficking, protecting human rights defenders, and implementing OSCE commitments to fundamental freedoms.

The U.S. Helsinki Commission convened the hearing to demonstrate bipartisan support for ODIHR, to reinforce the U.S.’s support related OSCE initiatives, and to hear about the ongoing work of ODIHR. 

Commission Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) chaired the hearing and was joined by Commissioners Rep. Robert Aderholt (AL-04), Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), Rep. Gwen Moore (WI-04), and Rep. Marc Veasey (TX-33).

Rep. Wilson’s opening remarks highlighted the historic achievements of ODIHR, which include assisting countries to “transition from communism to democracy,” supporting “civil society participation in OSCE events,” and facilitating “strong cooperation with the Parliamentary Assembly.” 

In her first appearance before Congress, ODIHR Director Ambassador Ingibjörg Sólrún Gísladóttir addressed multiple challenges that have impeded the effectiveness of ODIHR activities. She then outlined ODIHR’s role in offering proactive solutions. 

In particular, Ambassador Gísladóttir stressed the importance of dialogue and asserted that democracy is about “respect and trust, an acceptance of differing opinions, an exchange of views, and the willingness to share power and seek compromise.” She concluded on an optimistic note, emphasizing unity within the OSCE and its “commitment to democracy and to the wellbeing of its people.”

Although conscious of ODIHR’s efforts, commissioners voiced concerns that some OSCE participating States are not complying with their commitments to uphold basic human rights standards. Commissioners specifically acknowledged restrictions on religious freedom in Russia, poor conditions for activists and journalists, and rising anti-Semitism and discrimination against the Roma people across the region.

This hearing continued the Helsinki Commission practice of regularly engaging with senior OSCE officials.The Commission typically holds hearing with the foreign minister of the country holding the rotating chairmanship of the OSCE. The Commission has also held hearings with previous ODIHR directors as well as the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media.

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    In 2021, Sweden chairs the world’s largest regional security organization—the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE)—which comprises 57 participating States stretching from North America, across Europe, and to Central Asia and Mongolia. Even as the OSCE begins to emerge from the global COVID-19 pandemic, it is tackling other critical challenges, including Russia’s ongoing aggression in Ukraine, protracted conflicts in Moldova and Georgia, and the pursuit of a lasting and sustainable peaceful settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict through the framework of the Minsk Group. Meanwhile, several countries are deliberately spurning their OSCE commitments to human rights, democracy, and the rule of law. Participating States including Russia, Belarus, and Turkey not only stifle dissent in their own countries but also seek to undermine the OSCE’s work defending fundamental freedoms and curtail civil society’s participation in OSCE activities. Other shared challenges include combating human trafficking, countering terrorism and corruption, and protecting vulnerable communities, including migrants, from discrimination and violence. At this virtual hearing, Swedish Foreign Minister and OSCE Chairperson-in-Office Ann Linde discussed Sweden’s priorities for 2021 and addressed current developments in the OSCE region. Related Information Witness Biography

  • Helsinki Commission Leadership Joins Inter-Parliamentary Discussion on Human Rights

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  • Swedish Foreign Minister Ann Linde to Appear at Helsinki Commission Online Hearing

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following online hearing: SWEDEN’S LEADERSHIP OF THE OSCE Priorities for 2021 Friday, June 11, 2021 9:15 a.m. to 10:15 a.m. Watch Live: https://www.youtube.com/HelsinkiCommission In 2021, Sweden chairs the world’s largest regional security organization—the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE)—which comprises 57 participating States stretching from North America, across Europe, and to Central Asia and Mongolia. Even as the OSCE begins to emerge from the global COVID-19 pandemic, it is tackling other critical challenges, including Russia’s ongoing aggression in Ukraine, protracted conflicts in Moldova and Georgia, and the pursuit of a lasting and sustainable peaceful settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict through the framework of the Minsk Group. Meanwhile, several countries are deliberately spurning their OSCE commitments to human rights, democracy, and the rule of law. Participating States including Russia, Belarus, and Turkey not only stifle dissent in their own countries but also seek to undermine the OSCE’s work defending fundamental freedoms and curtail civil society’s participation in OSCE activities. Other shared challenges include combating human trafficking, countering terrorism and corruption, and protecting vulnerable communities, including migrants, from discrimination and violence. At this virtual hearing, Swedish Foreign Minister and OSCE Chairperson-in-Office Ann Linde will discuss Sweden’s priorities for 2021 and address current developments in the OSCE region.

  • Helsinki Commission Commemorates 45 Years of Advancing Comprehensive Security in the OSCE Region

    WASHINGTON—To commemorate the 45th anniversary of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the U.S. Helsinki Commission, on June 3, Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) and commission leaders Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) and Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) issued the following statements: “The Helsinki Commission has played a vital role in elevating the moral dimension of U.S. foreign policy and prioritizing the protection of fundamental freedoms in our dealings with other nations,” said Chairman Cardin. “From fighting for fair treatment of Jews in the Soviet Union, to developing landmark legislation to address human trafficking, to demanding sanctions on human rights violators and kleptocrats, and so much more, the commission consistently has broken new ground.” “For 45 years, the commission has flourished as a bipartisan and bicameral platform for collaboration within the federal government. Its purpose is not to support a specific party or administration, but instead to advance transatlantic cooperation, promote regional security and stability, and hold OSCE participating States accountable to their promises,” said Sen. Wicker. “Our commissioners’ united front against threats to democracy and human rights worldwide has become a pillar of U.S. international engagement.” “I am grateful to have experienced the crucial role played by U.S. engagement in the Helsinki Process, both as an election observer in Bulgaria in 1990, and later as a lawmaker and commissioner,” said Rep. Wilson. “The Helsinki Commission is unique in its ability to adapt to evolving global challenges. The defense of human rights and democracy looks different now than it did during the Cold War, but we continue to unite over the same resilient principles and commitment to fundamental freedoms.” On June 3, 1976, U.S. President Gerald Ford signed the Helsinki Commission into existence through Public Law 94-304 to encourage compliance with the Helsinki Final Act of 1975—the founding document that lays out the ten principles guiding the inter-state relations among today’s OSCE participating States. The agreement created new opportunities to engage with European partners on human rights, cooperative security, economic opportunities, and territorial disputes, and the commission played an integral role in ensuring that human rights became a key component of U.S. foreign policy. Forty-five years after its founding, the Helsinki Commission continues to engage with participating States to confront severe and persistent violations of human rights and democratic norms. Since its establishment, the Helsinki Commission has convened more than 500 public hearings and briefings. It regularly works with U.S. officials in the executive branch and Congress to draw attention to human rights and security challenges in participating States, including racism, anti-Semitism, and intolerance; corruption; human trafficking; and Russia’s persistent violations of the Helsinki Final Act in its relations with Ukraine and other OSCE countries.

  • Helsinki Commission Condemns Lukashenko Regime for Forced Landing of Commercial Jetliner Leading to Arrest of Raman Pratasevich

    WASHINGTON—Following Alexander Lukashenko’s order to divert and forcibly land a commercial plane in Minsk in order to arrest Belarusian activist and journalist Raman Pratasevich and civil society activist Sofia Sapega, Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), Commission leaders Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) and Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02), and Commissioner Richard Hudson (NC-08) issued the following statements: “Dictators like Alexander Lukashenko increasingly seek to use extraterritorial surveillance, intimidation, harassment and even assassination against their political opponents,” said Chairman Cardin. “The kidnappings of Raman Pratasevich and Sofia Sapega from a commercial aircraft illegally forced by military aircraft to land in Minsk creates a precedent of terror that, if unchecked, could limit dissidents’ ability to travel freely. An international crime of this magnitude, engineered by the self-styled leader of Belarus, requires a strong international response, starting with Magnitsky sanctions on those involved.” “Lukashenko has already rigged elections, restricted freedoms, and repressed thousands of Belarusians. He has stooped to a new and alarming low by using military aircraft to force down a civilian airliner,” said Sen. Wicker. “He will only continue escalating his attempts to retain power unless he faces real consequences for his actions. We should develop a full-spectrum strategy against transnational repression to deter such brazen actions by dictators.” “The shocking abduction of Raman Pratasevich demonstrates that Alexander Lukashenko will do almost anything to silence perceived opposition,” said Rep. Wilson. “We demand that Lukashenko release all political prisoners without exception, and end his attacks against journalists, civil society, and all Belarusians peacefully exercising their rights.” “Holding civilian passengers hostage by creating a false threat and forcing a plane to land is an act of state terrorism,” said Rep. Hudson. “Unfortunately, we now have proof that Lukashenko’s dictatorship is a grave threat not only to Belarusians, but to the rest of the world. His regime should be treated as the rogue state that it is.” On May 23, a Ryanair plane flying from Athens to Vilnius carrying over 120 passengers was notified of a bomb threat, met by a Belarusian military jet, and forced to land in Minsk. The bomb threat was false, and upon landing, Belarusian authorities detained journalist Raman Pratasevich and Sofia Sapega, a Russian citizen studying in law at the European Humanities University, which was forced out of Belarus in 2004 and has relocated to Vilnius. Each could face up to 15 years in prison. Pratasevich, who had been living abroad for his safety since 2019, is a co-founder of the NEXTA Live Telegram channel, which has extensively covered this past year’s protests in Belarus and serves as a coordination hub for opposition activity. Belarusian authorities declared NEXTA an “extremist” outlet in October 2020. On May 24, video footage of Pratasevich appeared on Telegram, in which he states that his health is fine, the authorities have treated him lawfully, and that he is cooperating with them in their investigation. The Belarusian KGB is known for producing such videos of forced confessions. Lukashenko has crushed independent media and jailed journalists, activists, and political opponents in unprecedented numbers since Belarus’ falsified presidential elections in August 2020.

  • Preventing Mass Atrocities

    The mass atrocities and genocides committed in twentieth-century Europe spurred a worldwide consensus that there is a responsibility among states to both prevent and punish such heinous acts. The U.S. Helsinki Commission convened its first hearing of the 117th Congress on May 13, 2021 to examine the interests of the United States in taking an active role in preventing mass killings, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide; review warning signs that indicate risks for atrocities; and discuss the challenges of building and sustaining alliances among states in support of atrocities prevention. Presiding over the hearing, Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) emphasized the international consensus behind the legal obligation to prevent and punish mass atrocity crimes—large-scale and deliberate acts on civilians that constitute acts of genocide, crimes against humanity, ethnic cleansing, and war crimes—and the responsibility of the United States to recognize and act on early warning signs. Witnesses included Timothy Snyder, the Richard C. Levin Professor of History at Yale University and a permanent fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna, and Naomi Kikoler, the director of the Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. Snyder offered four recommendations to shape prevention-based policies against mass atrocities. First, foreign correspondents should be present abroad to provide reliable information, as widespread disinformation campaigns often take place before mass atrocities. Second, policymakers should aim to stem panic and assure that citizens can attain necessary resources—at the beginning of a mass atrocity, there is often a sense of scarcity and urgency. Third, prevention policies should focus on strengthening governments and civil society, as mass atrocities often occur in weak states. Fourth, the United States must embody human rights; in recent history, the weaponization of history has increased the risk of mass atrocities. Once states resort to military force to stop mass atrocities, Snyder noted, it is already too late. Therefore, prevention is key. Kikoler testified that mass atrocities are preventable, and effective action based on early warning signs can track, disrupt, and prevent such crimes. Kikoler pointed to troubling signs in the OSCE region, including hate speech targeting ethnic and religious minorities, existing armed conflict, and the rise of authoritarian governance. She also differentiated between upstream risks and imminent warning signs. Kikoler also explained that atrocity prevention is in the best interest of the United States, as mass atrocities can have a devastating destabilizing effect on entire regions. She noted that although the U.S. leads the world in developing tools for atrocity prevention, these tools can still be improved. Discussing the importance of holding those responsible for atrocities accountable, Snyder explained that accountability should extend beyond prosecution to include reputational and financial costs. Kikoler stressed the need to identify gaps in the atrocity prevention architecture, including those in domestic legislation criminalizing the commission of crimes against humanity. Chairman Cardin asked the witnesses for suggestions on improving implementation of the Elie Wiesel Genocide and Atrocities Prevention Act and for suggestions for legislative change. Kikoler recommended that when the next report is released, Congress should convene a hearing and ask the Department of State to review prevention strategies established to address the risks articulated for given states in the report. In addition, she proposed an annual briefing by the intelligence community to Congress on countries that may be at risk of genocide, and expanded atrocity prevention training for Foreign Service Offices in countries deemed at-risk. With support from Kikoler, Snyder suggested an award from American journalists who report on genocide and genocide prevention, or a fellowship providing funding to young Americans interested in reporting on countries at risk. Both witnesses drew attention to the courageous examples of Gareth Jones and Jan Karski, who reported on the Soviet-made famine in Ukraine and the Holocaust, respectively. To conclude the hearing, Chairman Cardin discussed the importance of learning from accurate history, understanding the role of non-governmental organizations in providing information on local communities, and correctly identifying the victim. He also reiterated the responsibility of policymakers to make atrocity prevention a priority in U.S. foreign policy. Related Information Witness Biographies Press Release: Senate Passes Cardin, Young Bipartisan Bill to Bolster U.S. Leadership in Genocide and Atrocity Prevention

  • Helsinki Commission Hearing to Examine Prevention of Mass Atrocities

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following online hearing: PREVENTING MASS ATROCITIES Thursday, May 13, 2021 9:30 a.m. Watch Live: www.youtube.com/HelsinkiCommission The mass atrocities and genocides committed in twentieth-century Europe spurred a worldwide consensus that there is a responsibility among states to both prevent and punish such heinous acts. At this online hearing, witnesses will discuss why it is in the best interests of the United States to take an active role in preventing mass killings, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide; warning signs that indicate risks for atrocities; and the challenges of building and sustaining alliances among states in support of atrocities prevention. The following witnesses are scheduled to testify: Professor Timothy Snyder, Richard C. Levin Professor of History, Yale University Naomi Kikoler, Director, Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

  • Cardin, Hudson Pledge Support to Ukraine in Bilateral Call Between OSCE PA Delegations

    WASHINGTON—In response to increased Russian aggression against Ukraine, Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) and Commissioner Rep. Richard Hudson (NC-08) initiated an exceptional bilateral meeting with members of the Ukrainian Delegation to the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA) on April 30.  Chairman Cardin, who serves as Head of the U.S. Delegation to the Assembly, and Rep. Hudson, who is a member of the delegation and chairs the OSCE PA’s General Committee on Political Affairs and Security, sought the meeting to express the support of the United States for Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty and to solicit the Ukrainian lawmakers’ perspectives on the ongoing crisis. Ukrainian participants included parliamentarians Mykyta Poturaiev (Head of Delegation) and Artur Gerasymov (Deputy Head of Delegation).  The exchange, which focused on the recent massing of Russian forces on Ukraine’s eastern border and in occupied Crimea, and the closure by Russia of parts of the Black Sea and the Azov Sea, also covered topics including: The militarization of occupied Crimea and widespread violations of fundamental freedoms there, with particular persecution directed toward Crimean Tatars The Crimean Platform, a Ukrainian diplomatic initiative to mobilize world leaders to raise the cost of Russia’s occupation of the peninsula, with the ultimate goal of de-occupation The effects of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline on Russian influence in Europe  The importance of continued reform processes in Ukraine, including in ensuring the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary and of Ukraine’s anti-corruption bodies Chairman Cardin and Rep. Hudson reiterated Congress’ strong and bipartisan support for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine. Chairman Cardin underscored that the United States stood with Ukraine in the face of Russian aggression, which “violated every principle of the Helsinki Final Act,” he stated. He added that the Ukraine Security Partnership Act unanimously approved by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on April 21 codified the U.S. security commitment to Ukraine and support for the Crimean Platform initiative, among other measures designed to strengthen the bilateral relationship. The United States remained “strongly and firmly united in our support for Ukraine,” Rep. Hudson said, pledging continued resolve in ensuring this message was clear to Russian authorities. Hudson, recalling a statement issued in his capacity as OSCE PA committee chair on April 7, also expressed readiness to engage fully in the parliamentary dimension of the Crimean Platform. In addition, the U.S. and Ukrainian delegates discussed plans for the 2021 Annual Session to be held remotely in late June and early July. 

  • Helsinki Commission Leaders Mark World Press Freedom Day

    WASHINGTON—On World Press Freedom Day, Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) and commission leaders Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) and Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) issued the following statements: “Press freedom is at the core of a healthy democracy,” said Chairman Cardin. “Over the last year, we have witnessed a sharp decline in access to information globally, and a rise in cases of violence against journalists. Some OSCE participating States have even used the COVID-19 pandemic as grounds to justify unnecessary restrictions on the press. Independent, professional journalism grounded in truth and transparency is the best antidote to the poison of disinformation and misinformation that plagues the OSCE region, during this global emergency and at all times.” “Strong democracies encourage a free press—one that informs the public, welcomes diverse voices, and holds leaders accountable,” said Sen. Wicker. “Unfortunately, in many nations autocrats abuse political, economic, and legal measures to intimidate, jail, and bankrupt members of the media who oppose them. On World Press Freedom Day, I commend the courageous journalists who work despite these threats.” “In the absence of press freedom, citizens are denied access to information and prevented from meaningful engagement in their communities,” said Rep. Wilson. “In some participating States, we continue to see violent attacks, arbitrary arrests, legal harassment, and other attacks against the legitimate work of journalists. These attempts to close off the information pipeline only highlight the weakness of such regimes, not their strength.” In its 2021 World Press Freedom Index, Reporters without Borders found that journalism is totally blocked, seriously impeded, or constrained in 73 percent of the countries evaluated. The data also reflect a dramatic deterioration in people's access to information and an increase in obstacles to news coverage. According to the study, Turkmenistan (at 178 of 180), Azerbaijan (at 167), Tajikistan (at 162), Belarus (at 158), Uzbekistan (at 157), Kazakhstan (at 155), Turkey (at 153), and Russia (at 150), rank the lowest in press freedom in the OSCE region. On April 30, Chairman Cardin and Helsinki Commissioner Sen. Marco Rubio (FL) reintroduced the World Press Freedom Protection and Reciprocity Act, which seeks to protect and promote worldwide press freedom and enhance reciprocity for U.S. news and media outlets. Earlier in April, Helsinki Commission leaders called on Belarusian authorities to release journalists and political prisoners. In 2020, the U.S. Helsinki Commission held a hearing to examine the troubling trend of violence against journalists, and review implementation of international press freedom commitments undertaken by the United States. In 2019, the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media testified before the U.S. Helsinki Commission on the state of media freedom in the OSCE region.

  • Helsinki Commission Digital Digest: April 2021

  • Helsinki Commission Leaders Call for Action to Support Navalny

    WASHINGTON—In response to the precarious health of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny in prison, threats to the future operation of his organization, and recent detentions of protestors calling for his release, Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) and commission leaders Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) and Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) issued the following statements: “The world is watching in horror as Alexei Navalny wastes away in a Russian prison cell, while being inspired by the bravery of Russians who came out to the streets to support him,” said Chairman Cardin. “The Biden administration should  continue to raise the cost on Vladimir Putin and his remaining allies for this most recent attempt to intimidate those who would take up Navalny’s call to action by challenging the Kremlin’s corruption and standing up for their own freedom.” “Alexei Navalny was lucky to survive one assassination attempt, but he returned to his homeland in a powerful example of civic courage,” said Sen. Wicker. “Now as he suffers once again in a Russian prison, we should consider Mr. Navalny’s suggestion of sanctioning those closest to Vladimir Putin—including notorious oligarchs like Roman Abramovich, Alisher Usmanov, Igor Shuvalov, and Nikolay Tokarev. We will be monitoring his condition carefully.” “By jailing Alexei Navalny, branding his anti-corruption organization as ‘extremist,’ and targeting supporters of a free Russia, the Kremlin reveals its contempt for the fundamental rights of the Russian people,” said Rep. Wilson. “This is simply the latest attempt by Vladimir Putin to cling to power and it will ultimately fail.” In August 2020, Alexei Navalny was the victim of an assassination attempt by FSB that used a Russia-developed chemical weapon in the Novichok family. He spent months recovering after being flown to Berlin for treatment. Navalny returned to Moscow on January 17, 2021, and immediately was arrested. Navalny is serving two years and eight months at one of Russia’s most notorious penal colonies, about three hours east of Moscow. He is accused of violating the terms of a suspended sentence related to a 2014 case that is widely considered to be politically motivated. He has severe back pain and numbness in his extremities. Prison authorities have prohibited him from seeing his own doctors, but recently allowed him to be examined outside the prison by independent physicians. Navalny spent three weeks on a hunger strike to protest his lack of access to an outside doctor and remains in critical condition. On April 16, the Moscow prosecutor’s office asked the Moscow City Court to label Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation and its regional headquarters, as well as his Citizens’ Rights Protection Foundation, as “extremist” organizations. If approved as expected, it will essentially outlaw these groups and criminalize their activity. On April 21, thousands of protestors came out across Russia in support of Navalny. More than 1,000 people were detained, including members of the press.

  • Wicker, Shaheen Reintroduce Bill to Hold Russia Accountable for Its Religious Freedom Violations in Ukraine

    WASHINGTON—Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) and Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (NH) today reintroduced the bipartisan Ukraine Religious Freedom Support Act (S.1310). It is a companion bill to H.R. 496, introduced by Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) and Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (MO-05), which unanimously passed the House Foreign Affairs Committee yesterday. “The Kremlin’s current repression in Ukraine mirrors an ugly chapter from Soviet times when believers were persecuted for their religious faith,” said Sen. Wicker. “Vladimir Putin and his proxies should face real consequences for their brutal attempts to curtail the religious freedom of Ukrainians who suffer under this ruthless Russian occupation.” “There is a bipartisan urgency in Congress to demonstrate support for Ukraine in opposition to Putin’s cruelty, including his barbaric assault against peaceful religious communities. I’m proud to work with this group of lawmakers to reaffirm that sentiment and to stand up for democratic values around the world,” said Sen. Shaheen. “This legislation is an important step forward to hold Putin to account for his unlawful aggression against the Ukrainian people and the fundamental freedoms they hold dear.” The Ukraine Religious Freedom Support Act would authorize and require the president of the United States to consider particularly severe violations of religious freedom in the Ukrainian territory of Crimea and the Donbas—not just violations inside Russia’s internationally-recognized borders—when determining whether to designate Russia as a Country of Particular Concern (CPC). The bill reaffirms that “it is the policy of the United States to never recognize the illegal, attempted annexation of Crimea by the Government of the Russia or the separation of any portion of Ukrainian territory through the use of military force.” Russian forces invaded Crimea in February 2014 and continue to illegally occupy and attempt to annex it. The Kremlin has controlled parts of the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine since April 2014 with non-state armed groups and illegal entities it created and commands. Under international humanitarian law, including the Geneva Conventions, Russia is responsible for religious freedom violations in Crimea and parts of the occupied Donbas. The International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 requires the president to designate CPCs when their governments engage in or tolerate “particularly severe violations of religious freedom,” including killings, torture, abduction, and detention. It also requires the president to then take 15 specific actions, or commensurate action, unless exercising waiver authority, and to ban the foreign officials responsible from entering the United States. The Secretary of State has placed Russia on the Special Watch List for countries with severe violations every year since 2018. All participating States of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, including Russia, have repeatedly committed to respect and protect freedom of religion or belief. The Helsinki Commission has compiled 16 documents detailing religious freedom commitments that OSCE participating States have made.

  • Helsinki Commission Leaders Troubled by Kyrgyzstan’s New Constitution

    WASHINGTON—Following the adoption of a new constitution in Kyrgyzstan on April 11, U.S. Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) and commission leaders Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) and Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) issued the following joint statement: “We are concerned that this new constitution will move Kyrgyzstan—long considered among the most democratic countries in Central Asia—toward authoritarian rule by concentrating power in the hands of the president, reducing the role of parliament, and minimizing checks and balances. “Vague provisions prioritizing the ‘moral and ethical values and public conscience of the people of the Kyrgyz Republic’ could be used to restrict human rights, including freedom of expression. We urge the Government of Kyrgyzstan to ensure that the country’s independent media and civil society can exercise their human rights and fundamental freedoms without interference.” The new constitution was approved via referendum, although voter turnout was low at just over 30 percent. President Sadyr Japarov, who took office after being freed from prison during unrest that followed a popular revolt sparked by fraudulent parliamentary elections last October, promoted the constitution’s stronger presidential role. Prior to the referendum, the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) and the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission jointly evaluated the draft constitution and concluded that the process adopting it did not follow the rule of law and took place with minimal public consultation or parliamentary debate, and that it raised “grave concerns over the lack of respect for the principles of the rule of law, separation of powers, and inherent lack of checks and balances.”

  • Cardin and Wicker on April 15 Sanctions Against Russia

    WASHINGTON—In response to President Biden’s Executive Order on harmful foreign activities of the Russian government and subsequent Treasury sanctions designations, Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) and Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) issued the following statements: “The Biden administration is holding Russia to account for its malign activities in a direct and transparent manner,” said Chairman Cardin. “I applaud the president for taking bold action in response to Russia’s cyberattacks, election interference, its occupation of Crimea, the war it started in eastern Ukraine, and overall human rights abuses and weaponization of corruption. The president should continue to be frank with Russia about the consequences for their actions. We will need to stay the course and continue to use the Magnitsky Act and executive authority to further contain this dangerous regime.” “I welcome all efforts to hold Vladimir Putin accountable for his violence at home and abroad, but this package leaves much to be desired,” said Sen. Wicker. “Instead of the bold action needed to change the Kremlin’s behavior, yesterday’s sanctions represent the latest in a series of incremental steps that exact minimal costs and will have minimal effect. The longer we wait to impose real consequences for Moscow’s bad acts, the longer the Russian people will continue to suffer under Putin’s brutal authoritarian regime.” On April 15, Treasury sanctioned 16 individuals and entities that attempted to influence the 2020 U.S. presidential elections on behalf of the Government of Russia. Along with the European Union, United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia, Treasury also designated five people and three entities in connection with Russia’s occupation of Crimea and human rights abuses there. Under the authority of a new Executive Order issued by President Biden, Treasury implemented new restrictions on the purchase of Russian sovereign debt as well as targeted sanctions on technology companies engaged in malicious cyber activities against the United States.

  • Helsinki Commission Leaders Call on Belarusian Authorities to Release Journalists, Political Prisoners

    WASHINGTON—In response to the ongoing crackdown on journalists and civil society in Belarus, including the detention of RFE/RL consultant Ihar Losik for almost 300 days on spurious charges, U.S. Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) and commission leaders Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) and Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) issued the following joint statement: “Despite Aleksandr Lukashenko’s attempt to intimidate Belarusians, the resounding call for freedom and democracy in Belarus has been heard around the world. Ihar Losik, Katsiaryna Barysevich, Dzianis Ivashyn, Katsiaryna Andreyeva, and Darya Chultsova are just a few of the brave Belarusian journalists who have been imprisoned for simply doing their jobs. “We stand in solidarity with the people of Belarus, and in admiration of the courageous journalists who provide critical information to their fellow citizens despite the serious risks they face. “We call on Mr. Lukashenko to release all political prisoners without exception, and to end the attacks against journalists, civil society, and all Belarusians peacefully exercising their rights.” Since the run-up to the fraudulent August 2020 election, and during the subsequent protests, Belarusian authorities have conducted a sweeping crackdown on journalists, civil society, and opposition politicians. Sen. Wicker immediately condemned the election results and violence against protestors in Belarus, and Rep. Alcee L. Hastings, then chairman of the Helsinki Commission, asked the U.S. administration to revoke access to the U.S. financial system for the nine largest state-owned companies in Belarus following the government’s violent suppression of peaceful protests. According to Belarusian human rights groups, there are now more than 350 political prisoners in the country. On March 31, the State Department announced that unless Belarus releases all political prisoners, the general license issued by the Treasury Department authorizing transactions with nine state-owned enterprises in Belarus will lapse in late April.  

  • Helsinki Commission Leaders Commemorate International Roma Day with Senate and House Resolutions

    WASHINGTON—Ahead of International Roma Day on April 8, Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), commission leaders the late Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) and Sen. Roger Wicker (MS), and House Foreign Affairs Committee Chair Rep. Gregory Meeks (NY-04) introduced resolutions in the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives celebrating Romani American heritage. Chairman Cardin, Sen. Wicker, and Rep. Meeks issued the following joint statement: “Romani people have been part of every wave of European migration to the United States from the colonial period to today.  They enrich the fabric of our nation and strengthen the transatlantic bond.  “Through this resolution, we celebrate Romani culture and pay tribute to our shared history. We applaud the efforts to promote transnational cooperation among Roma launched at the historic First World Romani Congress on April 8, 1971.” In addition to recognizing and celebrating Romani American heritage, these resolutions support International Roma Day, recognized around the world on April 8, and the robust engagement of U.S. diplomats in International Roma Day activities throughout Europe.  The resolutions also commemorate the destruction of the Romani camp at Auschwitz when, on August 2-3, 1944, Nazis murdered between 4,200 and 4,300 Romani men, women, and children in gas chambers in a single night, and commend the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum for its critically important role in promoting remembrance of the Holocaust and educating audiences about the genocide of Roma. Chairman Cardin serves on the United States Holocaust Memorial Council, the governing board of trustees for the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Former Helsinki Commission Chairman Hastings, who died on April 6, was a longtime champion of Roma rights. In addition to regularly meeting with Roma from across Europe, he supported efforts in Romania to address the legacy of Roma enslavement; criticized the mass expulsions of Roma from France, fingerprinting of Roma in Italy, and destruction of the historic Romani neighborhood Sulukule in Istanbul; and condemned proposals to restrict births of Roma in Bulgaria and racist violence against Roma wherever it occurred. Rep. Hastings supported the work of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in its scholarship and education about the genocide of Roma and the museum’s acquisition of the unique Lety concentration camp archives.  The Organization on Security and Cooperation in Europe works with national and local governments, civil society and international organizations to promote equal opportunities for and the protection of the human rights of Roma. 

  • Helsinki Commission Leaders Mourn Death of Former Chairman Alcee L. Hastings

    WASHINGTON—Following the death of former Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) earlier today, Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) and Helsinki Commission leaders Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) and Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) issued the following statements: “Alcee Hastings was a fighter and an incredible survivor. He never gave up—not when facing racism as a young man in the Jim Crow south, not when defending civil rights as a lawyer and jurist, not when championing human rights worldwide as chairman of the Helsinki Commission, and not in his long battle with pancreatic cancer,” said Chairman Cardin. “Alcee was committed to ensuring that America’s foreign policy reflects our enduring commitment to democracy, that fundamental freedoms are protected at home and abroad, and that all people can live in a society that is safe, inclusive, and equitable. Even as we mourn his passing, we celebrate a life well lived and a world made better by his service. Alcee was not just a colleague; he was a dear friend. Myrna and I extend our sympathies to his family at this difficult time.” “As chairman of the Helsinki Commission, Alcee Hastings was a powerful partner in advocating for the United States, human rights, democracy, and international cooperation,” Sen. Wicker said. “He broke barriers on the international stage as the first American elected to lead the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly while championing the interests of his constituents in Washington. Even as he battled cancer, he was never distracted or deterred from his public service. Gayle and I extend our deepest condolences to his family, friends, and staff during this difficult time.” “Roxanne and I are deeply saddened by the passing of Congressman Hastings,” said Rep. Wilson. “I will always treasure our time working together on the Helsinki Commission and I am grateful for his friendship and service to his country.” Rep. Hastings, who most recently chaired the Helsinki Commission in the 116th Congress, joined the commission in 2001. In 2007, he became the first African American to lead the Helsinki Commission.  Rep. Hastings remains the only American to have ever served as President of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA), where he also was the former Special Representative on Mediterranean Affairs. Rep. Hastings' Obituary at Legacy.com  

  • Senator Ben Cardin Returns to Lead Helsinki Commission

    WASHINGTON—The Presiding Officer, on behalf of the Vice President, yesterday announced the appointment of Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) as chair of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, throughout the 117th Congress. "For 45 years, the Helsinki Commission has tirelessly defended human rights and democratic institutions at home and abroad. It has promoted the enduring value of multilateralism and fought to ensure that the United States lives up to our core values, remaining a beacon of hope to those who are oppressed. However, the most trying time in our history may be ahead of us,” said Chairman Cardin. Over the past year, the world has suffered the crippling impact of COVID-19, which has disproportionately affected our most vulnerable citizens and allowed some governments to exploit the pandemic to limit fundamental freedoms. Racist violence has once again reared its ugly head in many OSCE participating States, including our own. Corruption threatens peace, prosperity, and human rights across the region, and the Kremlin remains intransigent in its overt violence against its neighbors as well as its covert attempts to undermine democratic institutions elsewhere. These challenges may seem daunting, but my fellow commissioners and I will always fight to promote human rights and fundamental freedoms, encourage tolerance within societies, battle corruption, and defend the principles of liberty and sovereignty.” Chairman Cardin has been a Helsinki Commissioner since 1993 and previously chaired the commission in the 111th and 113th Congresses. He is an outspoken champion for human rights and throughout his career in public service has advocated for accountability and transparency measures to promote good governance and to combat corruption. Since 2015, Chairman Cardin has served as the Special Representative on Anti-Semitism, Racism, and Intolerance for the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly. Chairman Cardin is the lead author of the Sergei Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act, a law that imposes sanctions on Russian individuals and entities responsible for the death of Russian lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky, as well as individuals who commit gross violations of human rights against rights defenders in Russia. He also authored the Global Magnitsky Human Rights and Accountability Act, which gives the United States the power to deny travel and banking privileges to individuals worldwide who commit gross violations of human rights against rights defenders and dissidents, and leaders who commit acts of significant corruption. Most recently, Chairman Cardin and Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) introduced the Countering Russian and Other Overseas Kleptocracy (CROOK) Act, which would establish an anti-corruption action fund to provide extra funding during historic windows of opportunity for reform in foreign countries and streamline work strengthening the rule of law abroad. Chairman Cardin also is one of the lead authors of Section 1504 of the Dodd-Frank Act, also known as the Cardin-Lugar Energy Security Through Transparency Act. The provision requires extractive companies listed on U.S. stock exchanges to disclose, in their SEC filings, payments made to governments for oil, gas and mining. Revenue transparency increases energy security and creates U.S. jobs by reducing the operating risk U.S. companies face. It also provides information so that people in resource-rich countries can hold their leaders accountable for the money made from their oil, gas and minerals.

  • Helsinki Commission Leaders Commemorate International Day Against Racial Discrimination

    WASHINGTON—Ahead of the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination on March 21, 2021, U.S. Helsinki Commission leaders Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20), Sen. Roger Wicker (MS), Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02), and Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) released the following statements: “Events of the past year have highlighted the harsh reality of what it means to be Black in America and in many countries around the world.  We must do more to address the global violence plaguing communities of color and dismantle the ideologies and structures that reinforce racial hierarchies,” said Rep. Hastings. “I have been greatly encouraged by the stand youth have been taking against racism with the hopes that their efforts will lead to a future where skin color, gender, religion, and other characteristics are no longer a determinant of one’s value or access to rights, protections, and opportunities.” “Every person deserves equal protection under law, regardless of race, color, or creed,” Sen. Wicker said. “I stand with those who are working to end the blight of racial discrimination in every country.” “We have witnessed terrible tragedies prompted by racism,” said Rep. Wilson. “The global community has a responsibility to root out discrimination and remove barriers to equal education, employment, and political participation.” “The COVID-19 pandemic has further exposed long-standing racism both at home and abroad. As the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly’s Special Representative on Anti-Semitism, Racism, and Intolerance, I am actively cooperating with our European partners to strive for peace, equality and equity,” said Sen. Cardin. “Impactful U.S. legislation, such as the End Racial and Religious Profiling Act of 2021 I recently introduced that would prohibit law enforcement from discriminatory profiling, will bring us closer to breaking the cycle of systemic racism.  I am pleased that my ERRPA legislation has passed the House as part of the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which is now under consideration in the Senate.  I urge my colleagues to join me in commemorating this important day that reminds us that the fight for justice is far from over.” The International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination is observed annually on March 21, following the UN General Assembly’s 1966 recognition of the deaths of 69 demonstrators who were killed by police when protesting apartheid in South Africa on March 21, 1960. The Helsinki Commission has hosted youth leadership initiatives and racial justice efforts, including a joint meeting with the European Parliament on combating racism and systemic discrimination and an event highlighting the world’s biggest data set of hate crime statistics, compiled by the OSCE’s Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights for participating States, civil society, and international organizations.

  • Helsinki Commission Leaders on Intelligence Report Outlining Foreign Attempts to Influence 2020 Election

    WASHINGTON—Following the release of a U.S. intelligence report outlining foreign efforts to influence the 2020 U.S. elections, including by the Kremlin, Helsinki Commission leaders Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20), Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) and Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) issued the following statements: “The Kremlin wants to sow uncertainty, chaos, and disorder in the United States and uses weapons of influence and disinformation to strike when we are most divided and vulnerable,” said Rep. Hastings. “International election observers noted earlier reports of foreign actors engaged in disinformation campaigns designed to degrade public confidence in the U.S. electoral process. Although the 2020 elections were free and fair, we cannot be complacent. We must strengthen our society and institutions against further attacks on our sovereignty.” “The Kremlin’s mobilization of bots, trolls, and agents of influence to exploit pre-existing divisions in American society and further polarize discourse will not stop with our most recent elections,” said Rep. Wilson. “America’s best defense will continue to be informed citizens, continued vigilance from the U.S. intelligence community, and sanctions and other punishments on those who seek to undermine our institutions.” “Reports of the Kremlin’s efforts to influence our elections and undermine faith in our democracy are troubling,” said Sen. Cardin. “We must be vigilant against such threats, not only in the United States, but wherever Putin attempts to strike next. Working with allies around the globe to bolster our defenses against malign disinformation campaigns is vital to safeguard our foreign policy and security interests.”     On March 16, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence released an unclassified version of a report assessing the scope of foreign threats to the 2020 U.S. elections. The intelligence community assessed that Russian president Vladimir Putin authorized “influence operations aimed at denigrating President Biden's candidacy and the Democratic Party, supporting former President Trump, undermining public confidence in the electoral process and exacerbating sociopolitical divisions in the United States.” The campaign, implemented by various Kremlin entities, focused on the use of proxies tied to Russian intelligence who peddled influence narratives in media and within the Trump administration. In September 2020, the Treasury Department imposed sanctions on one of the individuals mentioned in the report, Ukrainian parliamentarian Andriy Derkach. The report notes no attempts to interfere in technical aspects of the voting process.

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