Title

Sea Rescues: Saving Refugees and Migrants on the Mediterranean

Tuesday, December 12, 2017
2:30pm
Russell Senate Office Building, Room 188
Washington, DC
United States
Official Transcript: 
Moderator(s): 
Name: 
Nathaniel Hurd
Title Text: 
Policy Advisor
Body: 
Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe
Witnesses: 
Name: 
Catherine Flumiani
Title: 
Minister Counselor
Body: 
Embassy of Italy to the U.S.
Name: 
Michalis Stamatis
Title: 
First Secretary and Consul
Body: 
Embassy of Greece to the U.S.
Name: 
Ludwig Blaurock
Title: 
Political and Military Counsellor
Body: 
European Union Delegation to the U.S.
Name: 
Laura Thompson
Title: 
Deputy Director General
Body: 
International Organization for Migration
Name: 
John Murray
Title: 
Marine Director
Body: 
International Chamber of Shipping

Ships on the Mediterranean Sea have rescued 117,000 refugees and migrants bound for Europe so far in 2017, and many more since the crisis first reached the continent in 2015. In the past two years, almost 12,000 refugees and migrants have died or gone missing.

Many of the sea rescues have been conducted by coast guard and naval ships from frontline European countries; the European Union’s Border and Coast Guard Agency, also known as Frontex; and EUNAVFOR MED Operation Sophia. Merchant ships have also played an important role in sea rescues of migrants and refugees on the Mediterranean. According to the International Chamber of Shipping, merchant ships have rescued more than 41,300 of them since 2015.

This briefing examined how rescue operations work; what ships are obligated to do when they become aware of a vessel in distress; issues of human trafficking and smuggling; how well governments, shipping companies, and international organizations coordinate and collaborate with each other on sea rescues; major challenges that currently exist for navies, coast guards, and merchant ships involved in rescue operations; and recommendations to address these challenges.

Relevant countries: 
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  • The Human Dimension is a Parliamentary Priority

    Each September, the OSCE focuses considerable attention on its body of commitments in the human dimension, ranging from human rights and fundamental freedoms, to democratic norms and the rule of law, to tolerance in society and other humanitarian concerns. For two weeks, the participating States and interested non-governmental organizations gather in Warsaw, Poland, to review implementation of OSCE commitments in each of these areas.  This Human Dimension Implementation Meeting (HDIM) is organized under the auspices of the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR). Other OSCE institutions, like the High Commissioner for National Minorities and the Representative on the Freedom of the Media, also participate in the exchange of views. Traditionally, the OSCE’s Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA) is also represented at the meeting, and its presence this year was particularly strong. About the OSCE PA The OSCE PA is one of the original institutions of the OSCE and consists of 323 parliamentarians who gather three times a year, including at an annual session each summer where resolutions are adopted. Today’s high-profile OSCE work on human trafficking, anti-Semitism, and media freedom began years ago with initiatives undertaken by the assembly and transferred at the urging of parliamentarians to national governments for concrete follow-up activity. Decision-making in the OSCE PA is usually based on a majority vote, which contrasts with the consensus needed among government representatives in OSCE diplomacy. This allows the Assembly to address issues, particularly in the human dimension, in a way that reflects the overwhelming opinion of the participating States but would be unlikely to succeed in other OSCE bodies, where representatives of offending countries can block action.  For example, in the past five annual sessions the OSCE PA has adopted resolutions condemning Russia’s clear, gross, and uncorrected violations of Helsinki principles in it aggression against Ukraine, including violations in the human dimension.  At the 2018 annual session in Berlin last July, Russian parliamentarians unsuccessfully opposed consideration and adoption of a text on human rights violations in Russian-occupied Crimea, and on the human rights situation in Russia itself. The OSCE PA also criticizes other countries’ record in the human dimension records—including actions of the United States—but the assembly’s criticism is generally commensurate with the severity of perceived violations. The OSCE PA defends ODIHR in its work facilitating implementation of commitments where needed, and civil society in its advocacy of human rights. At the 2018 annual session, parliamentarians condemned the ongoing efforts of Turkey and some other countries to restrict non-governmental voices at the HDIM and other human dimension events, or to dilute them with non-governmental organizations formed at the behest of some of the more repressive regimes in the OSCE region.  In Berlin, the OSCE PA called “on all OSCE participating States to welcome NGO participation in OSCE events, and to reject all efforts to restrict participation in OSCE human dimension events so long as these groups do not resort to or condone violence or terrorism, to ensure the broadest possible contribution from NGOs to the OSCE’s work and a full and unrestricted exchange of information and opinions.” OSCE PA Participation in HDIM 2018 OSCE PA President George Tsereteli addresses the 2018 Human Dimension Implementation Meeting in Warsaw. In 2018, five OSCE PA officers—all elected members of national parliaments—spoke at the HDIM.  OSCE PA President George Tsereteli of Georgia addressed the gathering’s opening session, observing that while the human dimension is also known as the “third dimension” of the OSCE’s comprehensive approach to security, it “should always be our first priority.” “When we put our OSCE hats on, our primary goal is to better the lives of the more than one billion people in the OSCE area,” said President Tsereteli. “Our duty is to respond to their desire to live in a free society, where democratic debate is encouraged and not stifled, where journalists are respected and not jailed or killed, where a simple citizen can trust that his or her voice counts and is not discarded.” Two of the OSCE’s nine Vice Presidents—Isabel Santos of Portugal and Kari Henriksen of Norway—also attended. Santos focused on the human rights of migrants, and Henriksen on promoting opportunities for women and children that will protect them from human trafficking. Two of the three officers of the OSCE PA’s General Committee on Democracy, Human Rights, and Humanitarian Questions were also in Warsaw. Committee chair Margareta Kiener Nellen of Switzerland addressed hate crimes and hate speech, including ways to combat them, while committee rapporteur Kyriakos Hadjiyianni of Cyprus focused on challenges to freedom of the media, ranging from rhetorical attacks to violence and incarceration of journalists. OSCE PA human rights committee rapporteur Kyriakos Hadjiyianni delivers remarks at the freedom of the media session at the 2018 HDIM in Warsaw. Other Human Dimension Activities Throughout the year, the OSCE PA deploys short-term election observation missions and represents the OSCE as a whole in reporting the preliminary conclusions immediately after elections take place. The assembly also has an active Ad Hoc Committee on Migration, chaired by Belgian parliamentarian Nahima Lanjri, which encourages humane treatment of refugees and migrants alike, including respect for their rights, in accordance with international norms.  Various Special Representatives of the OSCE PA President also have human dimension portfolios, including Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Chris Smith (Human Trafficking Issues) and Ranking Commissioner Sen. Ben Cardin (Anti-Semitism, Racism and Intolerance).

  • Viewing Security Comprehensively

    By Alex Tiersky, Senior Policy Advisor, Global Security and Political-Military Affairs What does an annual human rights dialogue have to do with peace and security? To the uninitiated, the answer may not be obvious. The OSCE’s annual Human Dimension Implementation Meeting (HDIM) focuses on the compliance by participating States with the Helsinki Final Act’s ten guiding principles for relations between states, including respect for human rights, and with its humanitarian commitments.  Like the OSCE’s annual reviews of the security and the economic/environmental dimensions, the HDIM is a deep dive into a specific group of issues embraced by the OSCE. Yet all three of these dimensions are inextricably intertwined. The 1975 Helsinki Final Act enshrined groundbreaking linkages between the rights of the individual and peaceful relations among states in the concept of comprehensive security. It explicitly recognized that democracy, fundamental freedoms, and the rights of persons belonging to minorities underpin regional peace and security. By signing the document, all OSCE participating States have agreed that lasting security cannot be achieved without respect for human rights and functioning democratic institutions. The Potential of Comprehensive Security Soviet dissident groups were among the first to recognize the potential of the Helsinki Final Act’s then-revolutionary linkages. According to Yuri Orlov in Ludmilla Alexeyeva’s memoir “Thaw Generation,” the founders of the Moscow Helsinki Watch Group observed that the act represented “the first international document in which the issue of human rights is discussed as a component of international peace,” empowering dissident groups to hold their own authorities to account for human rights violations by way of other governments’ assessments. American presidents have repeatedly underlined the significance of the comprehensive concept of security enshrined in the Helsinki Final Act. President Ronald Reagan, returning from discussions with his Soviet counterpart in October 1986, made clear that progress on lessening of tensions and possible arms control agreements would require trust between the two sides, and that this trust was in turn predicated on the Soviet government’s record on meeting human rights commitments: “… I also made it plain, once again, that an improvement of the human condition within the Soviet Union is indispensable for an improvement in bilateral relations with the United States. For a government that will break faith with its own people cannot be trusted to keep faith with foreign powers.” President George H.W. Bush in 1992 underlined that in the act, “participating States recognized respect for human rights as an ‘essential factor’ for the attainment of peace, justice and cooperation among nations.” President Barack Obama in 2015 hailed the act’s central conviction that “the security of states is inextricably linked to the security of their citizens’ rights.” The concept of comprehensive security also lay behind the establishment of institutions such as the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), which is tasked by the participating States with helping governments to meet their commitments to human rights and democracy. ODIHR describes its mission as “a cornerstone of the OSCE’s comprehensive concept of security.” Similarly, OSCE field missions helping OSCE participating States to strengthen their democracy and thereby their security through the implementation of the OSCE commitments in areas ranging from minority rights to media freedom. The relevance of human rights to building and upholding both internal and international peace has also been a reoccurring theme in the work of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly. For example, in June 2017  the rapporteur of the OSCE PA Committee on Democracy, Human Rights, and Humanitarian Questions urged OSCE “governments to prioritize commitments to protect fundamental human rights and freedoms of every individual in addressing such pressing issues as countering violent extremism.” Comprehensive Security and the Helsinki Commission The comprehensive concept of security also inspired today’s U.S. Helsinki Commission. The commission has heard on numerous occasions from serving government officials just how crucial the relevance of human rights within states is to security among states. For instance, at a Helsinki Commission hearing while serving as Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, Philip Gordon emphasized, “The OSCE’s comprehensive approach to security offers a vehicle for engagement across the political, military, economic, and human rights dimensions. ... one of the most important features of the OSCE is that it recognizes that security is not just about what happens between states or beyond borders, but what happens within them.” At the same hearing, then-Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor Michael Posner underlined, “Respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms within states is an essential element of security and prosperity among states. This principle lies at the core of the OSCE. Without a vigorous Human Dimension, the Helsinki Process becomes a hollow shell.” Helsinki Commissioners consistently emphasize the linkages between the various dimensions of security in all aspects of their work, including efforts to condemn torture; defend the rights of a free press; protect human rights and fundamental freedoms in the fight against terrorism; or underline the importance of individual liberty and the rule of law as the foundations of the NATO alliance. In 2017, all Senate members of the Helsinki Commission jointly introduced a introduced a bipartisan resolution urging President Trump to recognize the importance of the Helsinki Final Act and its relevance to American national security.  As Chairman Roger Wicker observed, “Peace and prosperity in the OSCE region rest on a respect for human rights and the preservation of fundamental freedoms, democratic principles, and economic liberty.” 

  • Race, Rights, and Politics

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

  • Helsinki Commission to Hold Briefing on Race, Rights, and Politics in Europe

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following briefing: RACE, RIGHTS, AND POLITICS: BLACK AND MINORITY POPULATIONS IN EUROPE Wednesday, September 12, 2018 10:00 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. Rayburn House Office Building Room 2220 Live Webcast: www.facebook.com/HelsinkiCommission Today, Europe is grappling with the complex intersection of national identity, immigration, and security concerns, as well as a rise in xenophobic violence. As a result, European states are facing increased scrutiny of their efforts to integrate minorities and migrants, with some questioning the commitment of European governments to democratic principles and human rights.   At the briefing, European political leaders will discuss the state of their democracies and recent efforts to address inclusion of Europe’s diverse populations, including findings from the European Parliament’s May 2018 People of African Descent Week and United Kingdom’s March 2018 Race Disparity Audit Report. The following speakers are scheduled to participate: MP Olivio Kocsis-Cake (Hungary)  MP Clive Lewis (United Kingdom)  MP Killion Munyama (Poland)  MP Aminata Toure (Schleswig-Holstein, Germany)  Nero Ughwujabo, Special Adviser to Prime Minister Theresa May, Social Justice, Young People & Opportunities (United Kingdom)  Alfiaz Vaiya, Coordinator, European Parliament Anti-Racism and Diversity Intergroup (ARDI)  Simon Woolley, Director, Operation Black Vote; Chair, Prime Minister’s Race Disparity Advisory Group (United Kingdom)

  • Transatlantic Relations in Flux

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

  • Wicker Chairs Hearing on Russian Occupation of the Republic of Georgia

    WASHINGTON—Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) today hosted a hearing on Russia’s decade-long occupation of the Republic of Georgia. In 2008, Russia invaded Georgia and seized the territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. The war in Georgia set the stage for Vladimir Putin’s subsequent war in Ukraine, including the illegal occupation of Crimea and the Donbas. “The invasion of Georgia demonstrated that Vladimir Putin is ready and willing to use his military and intelligence services to redraw international borders and meddle in the internal affairs of a neighboring state,” Chairman Wicker said during his opening statement. “The Helsinki Commission is holding this hearing to make sure the American people and the international community do not lose sight of the continued illegal occupation of Georgia — as well as its costs and implications.” Senator Wicker’s full opening statement is below. Good morning and welcome to this hearing on “Russia’s Occupation of Georgia and the Erosion of the International Order.” As you know, the Helsinki Commission monitors the compliance of OSCE participating states to the 1975 Helsinki Final Act.  In recent years, we have been compelled to pay particular attention to Russia’s clear, gross, and uncorrected violations of all ten principles of the OSCE’s founding document. In August 2008, Russian armed forces invaded Georgia in direct violation of the territorial integrity and political independence of states.  This initial invasion has sadly led to ten years of occupation, affecting a fifth of Georgia’s sovereign territory and causing incalculable political, economic, and humanitarian costs. The invasion of Georgia demonstrated that Vladimir Putin is ready and willing to use his military and intelligence services to redraw international borders and meddle in the internal affairs of a neighboring state.  Moreover, Mr. Putin clearly sought to sabotage Georgia’s progress toward membership in NATO, contravening the principle that sovereign states have the right to freely join security alliances of their choosing. The response to the Kremlin’s aggression against Georgia was not enough to deter Mr. Putin from trying his hand again in Ukraine in 2014.  In fact, Georgia and Ukraine are only the two most egregious examples of Russian challenges to the integrity of our borders, our alliances, and our institutions over the past decade. The Helsinki Commission is holding this hearing to make sure the American people and the international community do not lose sight of the continued illegal occupation of Georgia — as well as its costs and implications.  The experts before us will help assess if the United States is doing everything possible to restore Georgia’s territorial integrity and reverse Mr. Putin’s assault on the borders of a neighboring state and on the international order.   We also intend to ensure Georgia’s contributions to our common security are recognized and that we continue to help it advance along its path to Euro-Atlantic integration and full NATO membership. Under my chairmanship, Ranking Member Cardin and I have worked across the aisle to demonstrate the firm, bipartisan resolve of the United States Congress to restore Georgia’s territorial integrity and see the alliance make good on its promise of membership. To that end, in March of last year, we introduced Senate Resolution 106 condemning Russia’s continuing occupation and urging increased bilateral cooperation between the U.S. and Georgia. More recently, ahead of last week’s NATO summit, Senator Cardin and I — along with Commissioners Tillis and Shaheen — introduced Senate Resolution 557, underscoring the strategic importance of NATO to the collective security of the United States and the entire transatlantic region. This resolution explicitly “encourages all NATO member states to clearly commit to further enlargement of the alliance, including extending invitations to any aspirant country which has met the conditions required to join NATO.”  I am especially looking forward to hearing how our panelists assess the outcomes of the NATO Summit. Ladies and gentlemen, we will hear testimony this morning from a distinguished panel who will provide valuable perspectives on the current state of the conflict in Georgia, prospects for its resolution, and recommendations for U.S. policy. I am particularly pleased to welcome Georgia’s Ambassador David Bakradze to testify before us this morning. In addition to his firsthand experience managing Georgia’s strategic bilateral relationship with the United States, Ambassador Bakradze has worked at senior levels of Georgia’s government to deepen Tbilisi’s Euro-Atlantic partnerships. Prior to his appointment to Washington in 2016, the Ambassador served as the State Minister of Georgia for European and Euro-Atlantic Integration. Next, we will hear from Damon Wilson, Executive Vice President of the Atlantic Council. Mr. Wilson’s areas of expertise include NATO, transatlantic relations, Central and Eastern Europe, and national security issues. At the time of Russia’s invasion of Georgia, Mr. Wilson was serving as special assistant to President George W. Bush and senior director for European Affairs at the National Security Council. In that capacity, he played a leading role at a critical time in managing interagency policy on NATO, the European Union, Georgia, Ukraine, the Balkans, Eurasian energy security, and Turkey. Finally, we will hear from Luke Coffey, Director of the Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at the Heritage Foundation. Mr. Coffey was named to his post in December 2015 and is responsible for directing policy research for the Middle East, Africa, Russia and the former Soviet Union, the Western Hemisphere, and the Arctic region. Before joining Heritage in 2012, he served at the UK Ministry of Defence as senior special adviser to the British Defence Secretary, helping shape British defense policy regarding transatlantic security, NATO, the European Union, and Afghanistan. 

  • Russia's Occupation of Georgia and the Erosion of the International Order

    August 2018 marks the ten-year anniversary of Russia’s invasion of the territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia in Georgia. A decade on, one-fifth of Georgian territory remains under Russian occupation. During this hearing, expert witnesses explained what is occurring behind the Russian-imposed internal administrative boundary lines in occupied Georgia, as well as the implications of the continued occupation for U.S. interests and international security. The witnesses discussed potential actions and strategies that the United States and its allies can take to restore the territorial integrity of Georgia and respect for its sovereignty. Russia enforces its occupation through a large military deployment and, in concert, with de facto Ossetian and Abkhaz authorities, prevents NGOs and monitoring missions from entering the occupied regions. Despite the displacement of tens of thousands of ethnic Georgians as a result of the 2008 war, many thousands continue to reside in the territories where they face discriminatory policies aimed at marginalizing Georgian culture, including strict restrictions on Georgian language instruction in schools. Russian authorities continue to engage in what has been termed “creeping annexation” through the incremental advancement of the razor wire administrative line deeper into Georgian territory. Border crossings remain incredibly perilous for Georgians wishing to reach family, property, and communities on the other side of the occupation line. These travelers regularly face arbitrary detention, kidnapping, and sometimes death. De facto authorities do not launch credible investigations into the suspicious death of Georgians in their custody, contributing to an overwhelming climate of impunity. In their opening statements, U.S. Helsinki Commissioners affirmed the bipartisan, bicameral commitment in the U.S. Congress to Georgia’s territorial integrity and NATO. Commission Chairman Roger Wicker and Ranking Member Ben Cardin noted their joint introduction of Senate Resolution 106 that affirms the territorial integrity of Georgia and Senate Resolution 557, which expresses the strategic importance of NATO to U.S. security. All witnesses agreed that Georgia should be admitted to NATO as it has met or exceeded the benchmarks of a prospective member state. They recalled the alliance’s failure at its 2008 Bucharest Summit to extend membership invitations to Georgia and Ukraine that effectively signaled to Moscow NATO’s wavering commitment to the defense of these countries. Georgian Ambassador to the United States, David Bakradze, described his country’s readiness to join the alliance. In addition to its concrete commitment of troops to NATO missions, Georgia already spends more than 2% of its GDP on defense, he said. He further cited positive Georgian public opinion towards NATO as well as his government’s strategic orientation toward the West. Damon Wilson of the Atlantic Council and Luke Coffey of the Heritage Foundation agreed in their assessment that Russia’s occupation of Georgia should not give the Kremlin a veto over Tbilisi’s accession to the alliance. They both recommended a change to NATO’s practice of not inviting states with ongoing territorial disputes.

  • The Russian Occupation of South Ossetia and Abkhazia

    August 2018 marks 10 years of Russian occupation of approximately 20 percent of Georgia’s internationally recognized sovereign territory. The Russian occupation, and the ensuing recognition by Moscow of the “independence” of South Ossetia (referred to in Georgia as the Tskhinvali region) and Abkhazia, represent material breaches of international law and an active disregard for the Charter of the United Nations, and the founding principles of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) embodied in the Helsinki Final Act and subsequent OSCE commitments. This report offers a brief overview of the history of the outbreak of war in August 2008; the evolution of the unresolved conflict since that time; and an overview of the U.S. Helsinki Commission’s efforts to advance a resolution and restore Georgia’s territorial integrity. Download the full report to learn more. Contributors: Everett Price, Senior Policy Advisor and Alex Tiersky, Senior Policy Advisor

  • Members of European Parliament to Assess Transatlantic Relations at Helsinki Commission Briefing

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following briefing: TRANSATLANTIC RELATIONS IN FLUX Wednesday, July 18, 2018 10:00 a.m. Hart Senate Office Building Room 216 Live Webcast: www.facebook.com/HelsinkiCommission Following President Trump’s recent trip to Europe, leading European policymakers will address the state of transatlantic relations. Members of the European Parliament will discuss the potential impact of changing U.S. economic and security policies in the region, the future of the EU following Brexit, and the toll that increased migration has taken on European political cohesion. Opening remarks will be provided by Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS). The following Members of the European Parliament are scheduled to participate: MEP Nathalie Griesbeck (France), Chair, European Parliament Special Committee on Terrorism; Alliance of Liberals and Democrats MEP Claude Moraes (UK), Chair, European Parliament Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice, and Home Affairs; Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats MEP Michal Boni (Poland), European People's Party Additional speakers may be added.  

  • Helsinki Commission Hearing to Assess Russia’s Decade-Long Occupation of Georgia

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following hearing: RUSSIA’S OCCUPATION OF GEORGIA AND THE EROSION OF THE INTERNATIONAL ORDER Tuesday, July 17, 2018 11:00 a.m. Dirksen Senate Office Building Room 124 Live Webcast: http://www.senate.gov/isvp/?type=live&comm=csce&filename=csce071718 In 2008—just months after a NATO summit in Bucharest where Georgia and Ukraine failed to secure a concrete roadmap to membership despite U.S. support—Russia invaded Georgia and seized South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Today, Russia’s occupation of one-fifth of Georgia’s sovereign territory remains a critical threat to U.S. interests and international security. Moscow’s invasion of Georgia demonstrated the Kremlin’s willingness to use military force to unilaterally re-draw European borders and challenge the right of its neighbors to choose their own futures. The war in Georgia set the stage for Vladimir Putin’s subsequent war in Ukraine, including the illegal occupation of Crimea and the Donbas and the attempted annexation of Crimea. The human costs of the Russian occupation of Georgia have been tragic. Tens of thousands of Georgians remain internally displaced and face arbitrary detention, mistreatment, and even death if they attempt to visit their property and communities across the Russian-imposed internal administrative boundary. De facto authorities have also worked to eliminate Georgian language and culture from South Ossetia and Abkhazia.  Ten years after the invasion and the fateful 2008 NATO Bucharest Summit, the Helsinki Commission will convene expert witnesses to assess the present state of the conflict and its implications for U.S. interests and international security. The hearing will explore the continued costs of the occupation, as well as steps U.S. policymakers can take to restore Georgia’s territorial integrity and advance its full integration into the Euro-Atlantic community. Witnesses scheduled to testify include: His Excellency David Bakradze, Ambassador of Georgia to the United States Luke Coffey, Director of the Allison Center for Foreign Policy, Heritage Foundation Damon Wilson, Executive Vice President, Atlantic Council  

  • Chairman Wicker Introduces Resolution Emphasizing Importance of NATO to Regional Security

    WASHINGTON—Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) introduced a bipartisan resolution (S.Res.557) emphasizing the importance of NATO to the collective security of the transatlantic region and urging its member states to work together to strengthen the alliance at the July 11-12 NATO summit in Brussels.  “NATO remains the cornerstone of transatlantic and global security. This resolution underlines the need for our allies to boost their contributions to our collective defense. It also encourages practical steps at the upcoming NATO summit to bolster the alliance’s effectiveness against current and emerging threats,” said Chairman Wicker. “We must always work to strengthen the alliance if we want it to serve our collective security as well as it has in its first seven decades.”  Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), a senior member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and ranking Senate commissioner, is the lead co-sponsor of the resolution. Other original co-sponsors of S.Res.557 include Helsinki Commissioners Sen. Thom Tillis (NC) and Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (NH), who also co-chair the Senate NATO Observer Group. “NATO summits are important occasions to send messages of solidarity with our NATO allies and reaffirm our continued commitment to transatlantic principles, including democracy and the rule of law,” said Sen. Cardin. “This resolution underlines that NATO is rooted in a foundation of shared values, and that any backsliding on individual liberty, corruption, or human rights risks eroding that foundation.” S.Res.557 reaffirms the enduring commitment of the United States to NATO’s collective defense, enshrined in Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, and urges all NATO member states to be prepared to meet their respective Article 5 obligations.  It also pledges support for measures to deter Russian aggression against the territory of any NATO ally. The resolution underlines the need for NATO’s “open door policy” to remain in effect and for the alliance to extend an invitation to any aspirant country that has met the conditions required to join NATO. Finally, it urges leaders at the Brussels summit to ensure the alliance makes key changes to meet urgent security threats and counter new challenges. “As I stated when we re-established the NATO Observer Group, our alliance must be prepared to face a broad range of threats, including hybrid and cyber threats from Russia and other adversaries,” said Sen. Tillis. “A strong and committed NATO alliance remains vital as our community of democracies continues to expand and thrive.” “This resolution underscores the need for the United States to work closely with our allies to modernize NATO to respond to the ever-evolving threats facing western democracies, particularly from the Kremlin,” said Sen. Shaheen. “Continued cooperation with NATO allies will be integral to our efforts to safeguard our country’s national security and protect the United States.”

  • Amendment on U.S. military involvement in Poland

    Mr. President, I rise today to express my support for the amendment the senior Senator from Arkansas has offered to the H.R. 5515, the Fiscal Year 2019 National Defense Authorization Act, NDAA. Senator BOOZMAN’s amendment is a thoughtful one. It proposes to solicit information from the Department of Defense to help us carefully think through our response to the changed strategic situation in Europe. Russia’s military aggression and Military incursions in Georgia, Ukraine, and elsewhere have made it abundantly clear that we are no longer in the security environment that provided the context for the commitments we made in the 1997 NATO-Russia Founding Act. The United States and Poland have a long record of highly effective cooperation in military matters. Poland has made important contributions to operations in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan, and an American-led NATO battle group in Poland is playing an important role in reinforcing NATO’s eastern flank today. Still, a decision to permanently deploy U.S. forces to the territory of even such a stalwart ally should not be taken lightly. This amendment wisely requests that the Department of Defense provide its assessment of a number of factors that we will need to weigh when deciding whether to take such a step, including the reactions we should anticipate from other allies, possible responses by Russia, and more practical considerations including cost and timing. Poland needs no reminder about the external threats it faces. After all, it borders Ukraine. However, Poland faces an enemy within: democratic backsliding, which plays into Vladimir Putin’s hands as he aims to undermine democratic values across Europe. Since 2015, the Polish Government has challenged constitutionalism, eroded checks and balances, and indulged in historical revisionism. The breadth and depth of the government’s actions led the European Commission to conclude in December that Poland’s “executive and legislative branches have been systematically enabled to politically interfere in the composition, powers, administration and functioning of the judicial branch.” I discussed these concerns in a meeting with Polish Deputy Foreign Minister Marek Magierowski in February, including a controversial law, introduced on the eve of International Holocaust Remembrance Day, which may actually impede research, scholarship, and journalism about the Holocaust. The Department of State rightly observed that this law might have repercussions for “Poland’s strategic interests and relationships—including with the United States and Israel. The resulting divisions that may arise among our allies benefit only our rivals.” Independence of the judiciary will take another hit on July 3, when a new law will go into effect forcing the early retirement of up to 40 percent of Poland’s 120-member supreme court, the reintroduction of the Soviet-era feature of ‘‘lay judges,’’ and make final judgments subject to ‘‘extraordinary appeals.’’ These developments—very concerning both for Poland and the region—should be part of the administration’s dialogue with Warsaw on comprehensive transatlantic security.

  • First Person: Arctic Security in Flux

    By Alex Tiersky, Senior Policy Advisor As the Helsinki Commission’s global security and political-military affairs policy advisor, I regularly travel to observe and evaluate changing security conditions that have a direct impact on the interests of the United States.  In May, following an invitation to join a group of senior U.S. security experts in Norway to study the security challenges of NATO’s northern flank, I found myself in one of the northernmost towns in the world: Longyearbyen, on the archipelago of Svalbard, Norway. The delegation of government officials, independent experts, and journalists was organized by the Atlantic Council of the United States. We met with a variety of government officials and non-governmental experts over two days in Oslo, before flying more than 1,200 miles north to Svalbard, an Arctic archipelago halfway between the Norwegian mainland and the North Pole. In Svalbard we met with the Norwegian Coast Guard, the Svabard Satellite Station (SvalSat), the Norwegian Polar Institute, and the Svalbard Governor’s office. Among the many strands emerging from the week of off-the-record discussions, several stood out as key takeaways. Maintaining Close Relations with U.S. and NATO Norway’s security is inextricably linked to its defense relationship with the United States and with NATO more broadly, interlocutors told us. This distinguishes Norway from its neighbors Sweden and Finland, both of which have sought to provide for their defense primarily on a national basis.  As a result, Norway puts a premium on predictability in its relationship with the United States and with NATO, and would consider any threat to NATO cohesion as a national security concern. Maintaining unity is among the highest Norwegian priorities for the July NATO Summit in Brussels. Norway will continue to invest carefully in its defense capabilities and in its relationship with the United States, we were told. Norwegian officials hailed the long-standing defense relationship, exemplified by the pre-positioning of U.S. Marine Corps equipment in Norway since the 1980s, and more recently by the $35B Norwegian purchase of F-35s. Norway also is purchasing new conventional submarines, and replacing aging P-3 Orion and DA-20 Jet Falcon maritime patrol aircraft with the Boeing-built P-8A. The presence of more than 300 U.S. Marines performing cold-weather training in Norway, while still politically sensitive, is seen as a success by most political parties and was recently extended by Norway through 2018.  Independent analysts suggested that there was a strong likelihood the arrangement would likely be extended beyond 2018—and quite possibly lengthened in duration to a multi-year agreement—as well as increased  to include greater numbers of Marines (a move that was subsequently publicly announced). Concerns over Russian Activities Russia’s increased military activities in the north featured prominently in our discussions.  Norway’s Russia policy will continue to rely on a dual-track policy of deterrence and reassurance vis-a-vis its neighbor to the east, interlocutors suggested. However, they underlined that Norway must consider the rapidly advancing capabilities of the Russian armed forces, even if they are not directed at Norwegian territory. Norway closely monitored the major Russian military exercise ZAPAD 2017, which I witnessed in person.  While the exercise did not result in the direst scenarios feared in the Baltic region, its components in the north were significant and raised many concerns.  During the maneuvers, Russian armed forces demonstrated an ability to move land forces over strategic distances quickly and stealthily; cover them with an anti-access/area-denial (A2AD) bubble through measures including electronic warfare (which impacted civilian air traffic in the area), and deploy a follow-on deterrent in the dual-capable (nuclear/conventional) ISKANDER tactical ballistic missile. In addition to the increased tempo of Russian operations in the north, one particular concern is a new class of Russian submarines, the Yasen-class, which demonstrates a greater capacity for stealth and formidable armament, potentially holding much of Europe and the North Atlantic sea lanes at risk. The strategic Russian Kola Peninsula, only 140 miles from Norwegian border, represents the largest concentration of non-western military power in the world, interlocutors reminded us. This area also represents the heart of the Russian “bastion defense” concept.  Norway’s unique location and relatively tension-free relations with Russia allow Norway to play an important role in providing its allies with important intelligence and situational awareness on Russian activities in the North Atlantic region. In a larger context, interlocutors suggested that we should anticipate that Russia will continue to develop its arctic coastline, rich in natural resources and with increasingly accessible shipping to Asian markets.  This development, they argued, including the reinforcement of military infrastructure and ice breakers, makes sense in the context of protecting and enabling this economic potential and need not be seen as threatening. Svalbard is accessible to citizens and companies from all signatories to the 1920 treaty granting full sovereignty to Norway, an agreement that also forbids naval bases and fortifications on the archipelago (but not creating what some have misunderstood as a “demilitarized zone”).  Its “extreme northern location” offers a number of advantages, the delegation learned at the Svabard Satellite Station (SvalSat), the world’s largest commercial ground station for satellite control.  The station provides satellite coverage to owners and operators of polar orbiting satellites, linked by fiber-optic communication links between Svalbard and mainland Norway. Rising Temperatures in the Arctic Norwegian interlocutors emphasized that the Arctic should be recognized by all Allies as NATO territory in the north. As a result, the rapid warming of the Arctic, and the acceleration of the changing climate in the region that was witnessed in Svalbard, merited Alliance-wide attention, they argued.  A senior Norwegian Polar Institute scientist who has worked in Svalbard for 30 years told the delegation that the temperature change in the Artic was measurable, demonstrated, and greater than even the most pessimistic predictions of only a few decades ago, a dynamic he attributed directly to levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. The delegation had the opportunity to board a Norwegian Coast Guard vessel for a briefing on the guard’s responsibilities, which include monitoring an area seven times larger than the Norwegian mainland.  The distances involved posed significant challenges for the relatively small number of vessels to meet the Guard’s the goal of remaining “always present,” and fulfilling its responsibilities in the areas such as monitoring fisheries and search and rescue.  These challenges are becoming more acute, as the warming climate makes the waters increasingly accessible to maritime traffic of all sorts.

  • Inaugural PADWEEK Addresses Racial Discrimination across Europe

    On May 19, 2018, African-American Meghan Markle wed Prince Harry at St. George’s Chapel in Windsor, England. Black culture was celebrated throughout the event: Queen Elizabeth II’s first female black chaplain offered prayers, a black British choir sang African-American Ben E. King’s “Stand By Me,” and Chicago-based African-American Episcopalian bishop Michael Curry quoted civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr. during his wedding address, preaching on “the power of love.” However, the public discussion leading up to the wedding was riddled with racial stereotyping and prejudice spurred by Markle’s biracial identity—her father is white and her mother is black. British news outlets were heavily criticized for racial insensitivity after commenting on Markle’s “unconventional family,” and using phrases like “unlikely pairing” to further differentiate between the prince and Markle. Unfortunately, racial bias is not confined to Markle—now Duchess of Sussex—but instead extends to many black people in Europe. According to four comprehensive reports from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the European Commission, the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights, and Open Society Foundations, a significant percentage of the estimated 15–20 million people of African descent living in Europe have experienced high rates of prejudice and discrimination. Just days before the wedding, racial equality advocates from across Europe gathered in Brussels to address this problem. At the inaugural People of African Descent Week (PADWEEK), organized by the European Parliament Anti-Racism and Diversity Intergroup, Transatlantic Minority Political Leadership Conference, Each One Teach One, and the European Network Against Racism, more than 100 black European activists discussed current racial injustices in Europe and recommended ways for European leaders to respond to increasing hate and discrimination across the region. Attendees included black policymakers, business leaders, and human rights activists from across Europe. Helsinki Commissioners Rep. Alcee Hastings (FL-20) and Rep. Gwen Moore (WI-04) were two of nine honorary hosts. “Whether in America or Europe, we must all do more to uphold the democratic values of our nations,” Commissioner Hastings said in a statement. “Skin color should not determine one’s access to rights, protections, and opportunities in a democracy.” Though the agenda was full with discussions ranging from BREXIT to migration to Africa-EU relations, PADWEEK addressed issues of racial discrimination head-on and introduced new ways to find solutions. It called for change to a well-ingrained European system that has left black people by the wayside for centuries. Race and legal issues were raised repeatedly in discussions. German legal expert and human rights activist Thomas Ndindah called for justice for Oury Jalloh, an asylum seeker who burned to death in a German police cell while handcuffed to a mattress in 2005. Participants also questioned a so-called “Marshall Plan” for Africa, the name of which alludes to the American-European economic plan that helped rebuild Western Europe following World War II. Participants voiced concerns that African countries were not being viewed as equal partners in the negotiations or consulted on the name. Instead, many attendees viewed the plan as Europeans paying African governments to keep unwanted African migrants from reaching Europe, while at the same time purposefully attracting Africa’s highly skilled professionals to Europe. This raised one question: how would Africa benefit from this “Marshall Plan” for Africa if Africa’s brightest and best were contributing to countries elsewhere? The week ended with a list of recommendations from participants and a passionate speech by Mirielle Fanon-Mendes-France, daughter of twentieth century philosopher Frantz Fanon. She called on European institutions to deliver on longstanding promises to address the ongoing impact of colonialism and slavery on the present-day well-being of black Europeans. Recommendations from PADWEEK included: Recognizing the history of past injustices by adopting a European Black History Month and a Remembrance Day for victims of colonialism and enslavement Supporting empowerment and anti-discrimination initiatives by funding black-led civil and human rights organizations Adopting legislation in the European Parliament on an EU Framework for National Strategies for Equality and the Inclusion of People of African Descent in Europe

  • 2018 World Cup: The Beautiful Game and an Ugly Regime

    The 2018 World Cup hosted by Russia has created an unprecedented opportunity for the country’s kleptocrats to enrich themselves. Just as he did with the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, President Vladimir Putin has hijacked a world sporting event in an attempt to burnish his own image and enrich the Kremlin elite, rather than to celebrate sport and sportsmanship in Russia. However, unlike the 2014 Winter Olympics, the World Cup has required multiple infrastructure projects in not just one, but eleven, host cities. Oligarchs, as well as regional and national officials, have worked together to embezzle assets from the tournament stadium construction and refurbishment to side projects of accommodation and transport. Mistreated and forced laborers have completed this work. Contractors have used and manipulated Rus-sian and migrant workers to erect the stadiums and other structures that are essential to hosting a World Cup. For example, Russia has continued its unscrupulous use of North Korean forced labor to build St. Petersburg Zenit Arena, opened by President Putin himself in March 2017. Russia presented the World Cup to the FIFA voters in 2010 as a wholesome tournament, bringing the world together for a festival of sport. Instead, President Putin will give the world a corrupt tournament, built on the backs of forced and mistreated labor, and expose fans to a real risk of soccer violence and hatred. Although troubling trends in each of these areas can be seen in countries throughout the OSCE region, the offenses of the Kremlin are particularly egregious. Download the full report to learn more. Contributors: Michael Newton, Intern and Scott Rauland, Senior State Department Advisor

  • Ending the War in Ukraine

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

  • Kurt Volker to Discuss War in Ukraine at Helsinki Commission Briefing

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following briefing: ENDING THE WAR IN UKRAINE: KURT VOLKER, U.S. SPECIAL REPRESENTATIVE FOR UKRAINE NEGOTIATIONS Tuesday, May 8, 2018 2:00 p.m. Dirksen Senate Office Building Room 106 Live Webcast: www.facebook.com/HelsinkiCommission The Russian-manufactured war in Ukraine has killed more than 10,000 people, injured at least 25,000, and created a humanitarian crisis endangering millions more. Amid daily ceasefire violations and threats to critical infrastructure, civilians continue to bear the brunt of the cost of the needless, four-year-old conflict. In July 2017, the U.S. Secretary of State appointed Ambassador Kurt Volker as U.S. Special Representative for Ukraine Negotiations. Volker has since repeatedly met with senior Russian counterparts to explore ways to end the conflict, including the possibility of an international peacekeeping mission. At this Helsinki Commission briefing, Ambassador Volker will explore the way ahead for U.S. and international policy on Ukraine in the wake of President Putin’s re-election.  

  • Co-Chairman Smith Chairs Hearing on Plight of Russian Family, Possible UN Corruption in Guatemala

    WASHINGTON—Congress should investigate and hold accountable the United Nations’ International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) for its role in the prosecution of a Russian family in Guatemala fleeing Putin’s Russia, said Congressman Chris Smith (NJ-04), co-chair of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, at a Friday hearing titled “The Long Arm of Injustice.” The hearing examined CICIG’s role in the prosecution of the Bitkov family in Guatemala. “Congress has a special responsibility in this matter because the United States is one of the largest contributors to CICIG’s budget. There has been little congressional oversight of CICIG – it’s clearly time for that to change,” Rep. Smith stated at the hearing. The case of the Bitkovs was examined at the hearing, which featured testimony from the lawyers representing the family as well as from Bill Browder, a human rights advocate and founding director of the Global Magnitsky Campaign for Justice, who has investigated the case and CICIG’s role in it. The Bitkovs fled Russia in 2008 following a series of events that began in 2005 with Igor Bitkov refusing to let a senior official at one of Russia’s state banks, Sberbank, buy over half of his North-West Timber Company. His daughter Anastasia was kidnapped and repeatedly raped in 2006, and the family paid $200,000 to ransom her. In 2008, the banks demanded full repayment of their loan to Bitkov’s company despite the company’s good credit. The company was forced into bankruptcy, its assets sold at fire sale prices, and the Bitkovs fled Russia fearing for their lives after hearing of threats made against them. This case was a textbook scheme of Russian officials persecuting those who refuse to do business with them, Browder said. “First, in Russia people who run successful businesses are routinely victimized through a process called ‘Raiderstvo’. I was a victim of Raiderstvo and so were the Bitkovs. It is a standard practice in Russia where organized criminals work together with corrupt government officials to extract property and money from their victims,” stated Browder in his written testimony before the commission. Browder was expelled from Russia in 2005 after fighting corporate corruption there. After Russian authorities seized his companies, Browder’s lawyer Sergei Magnitsky investigated the matter; he was arrested and was tortured to death in Russia in 2009. Since then, Browder pushed for the passage and enactment of Magnitsky laws. After fleeing Russia, the Bitkovs entered Guatemala through a legal firm, Cutino Associates International, that offered them travel documents, and took on new identities there. However, they were eventually indicted and prosecuted for passport fraud, and although the country’s appeals court sided with them, a lower court ruled against them and sentenced them to long prison terms. CICIG was involved in the ultimate prosecution that resulted in their current sentences for passport fraud: 19 years in prison for Igor, and 14 years each for his wife Irina and their daughter Anastasia. The prosecution was “notoriously disproportionate and even more aggressive and shocking than high-impact crimes such as drug trafficking, murder or even terrorism,” stated Rolando Alvarado, a lawyer representing the Bitkovs, at the hearing. “They channelled their criminal prosecution before special courts that know of crimes of greater risk.” The very prosecution violated the law of the country, said another lawyer who represents the Bitkovs. “In Guatemala, the Palermo Convention is in force, as well as the Guatemalan Migration Law. Both laws establish that migrants cannot be criminalized for the possession or use of travel documents or ID documents. Even so, the State of Guatemala has decided to prosecute, illegally, these cases and has issued suspended sentences in other similar cases,” stated Victoria Sandoval, who also represents the Bitkov family. The role of CICIG was examined at the hearing, along with its relationship with Russian officials who were pursuing the prosecution of the Bitkov family in Guatemala. “The Russian government routinely abuses international institutions in order to persecute its enemies who are outside of Russia. In my opinion, the Russian government succeeded in compromising CICIG and the Guatemalan Prosecutor for their own purposes in the Bitkov case. CICIG and the prosecutor’s office have jointly taken up the Russian government’s vendetta against the Bitkovs with no good explanation,” Browder stated. “CICIG did not distance itself from this Russian persecution. They’ve touted it on their website and they’ve actively tried to overturn the Bitkovs’ vindication by the Appeals Court.” Rep. Smith further noted that “the facts of the case strongly indicate” that CICIG “became deeply involved in the Kremlin’s persecution of the Bitkov family. Indeed that CICIG acted as the Kremlin’s operational agent in brutalizing and tormenting the Bitkov family.” “And then there must be accountability for the grotesque wrong that has been done to them. There must be further inquiry, and we must get to the bottom of this,” Smith said. Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) said in a statement for the record, "The case of the Bitkovs illustrates the Kremlin’s pattern of abuse involving the world’s courts and legal institutions. Russia should be called out for the mafia state it is and the illegitimate and politically influenced decisions that come out of Russian courts not given the time of day. We must find a way to protect our institutions from malign outsider influence and avoid becoming unwitting participants in Kremlin vendettas." Sen. Marco Rubio (FL), Commissioner at the Helsinki Commission, said in a statement for the record, “This miscarriage of justice cannot be tolerated and today’s hearing is a strong first step in bringing this matter to light. It is important for both Kremlin and Guatemalan officials to understand that the world sees what is happening and will not accept Russian malign influence in the Western Hemisphere or the destruction of Guatemalan judiciary.” Sen. James Lankford (OK) said in a statement for the record, “We should be diligent in exercising oversight over any foreign entity which receives U.S. taxpayer funding to ensure our nation's own resources are used to advance national interests. I applaud the Commission for looking into the issue of the Bitkov family as well as exercising oversight over the U.S.-funded CICIG.” Sen. Mike Lee (UT) said in a statement for the record, "CICIG should be operating to root out real corruption, rather than building up or tearing down political winners and losers. It pains me to see sovereignty continually thrown by the wayside as has been the case in Guatemala. It is unfair to average citizens. It has been unfair to the Bitkovs. It is unfair to all who seek a free and prosperous Guatemala."

  • The Long Arm of Injustice

    In 2008, Igor and Irina Bitkov, along with their daughter Anastasia, fled Russia in fear for their lives. Having seen their successful company bankrupted in a textbook raider scheme, their daughter kidnapped and raped, and facing death threats, the Bitkovs took refuge and began a new life with new identities in Guatemala. The family now finds itself separated, imprisoned in squalid Guatemalan jail cells, and facing nearly twenty years in prison for alleged paperwork irregularities normally punishable by a simple fine. There are grave reasons to question the role of the government of Russia and the UN’s International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) in their imprisonment. “I am deeply concerned about grave injustices suffered by the Bitkov family—brutalized in Russia, now apparently re-victimized in Guatemala, where they languish in jail,” said Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04), who chaired the hearing. “Evidence indicating that the government of Russia may have enlisted the UN’s International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala to persecute this family is troubling and must be thoroughly scrutinized.” The hearing sought answers to key questions: Did the Kremlin enlist CICIG in its vendetta to destroy the Bitkovs? Is this another example of the frightening reach of Putin’s government and its ability to co-opt institutions designed to further the rule of law, as it has Interpol and Mutual Legal Assistance Treaties? Has the government of Russia corrupted a UN anti-corruption agency? What does this teach about the government of Russia, the UN, and the global fight against the scourge of corruption? The Helsinki Commission examined the specifics of the Bitkov case, including Russian influence on CICIG and Guatemala’s Attorney General’s office, and reviewed policy options to protect U.S. taxpayer-supported institutions from abuse and undue pressure from authoritarian governments. Selection of Additional Materials Submitted for the Record Response of William Browder to Questions for the Record Submitted by Rep. James McGovern Report: CICIG and the Rule of Law | Ligo ProPatria, Instituto de Servicios a La Nacion, Guatemala Immortal, ProReforma Sign-On Letter to the Helsinki Commission | Civil Society Representatives Letter to the Helsinki Commission | Ligo ProPatria, Instituto de Servicios a La Nacion, Guatemala Immortal, ProReforma Letter to the Helsinki Commission | Migration Groups Letter to President Maldonado of Guatemala | Bill Browder Letter to President Maldonado of Guatemala | Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker Invitation to Ivan Velasquez to Testify at Helsinki Commission Hearing Communication from Loreto Ferrer, CICIG Letter to the Helsinki Commission | VTB Bank Information from RENAP Cover Notes from Aron Lindblom,Diakonia Guatemala, Regarding: Letter to the Helsinki Commission | Indigenous Ancestral Authorities of Guatemala Letter to the Helsinki Commission | Christian Council of Guatemala Letter to the Helsinki Commission | Asociation de Mujeres Q'eqchi'es Nuevo Horizonte Letter to the Helsinki Commission | Comite de Unidad Campesina Guatemala Letter to the Helsinki Commission | Asociation Grupo Integral de Mujeres Sanjuaneras The Wall Street Journal: Kremlin Revenge in Guatemala (March 25, 2018) The Wall Street Journal: Russia’s Dubious Guatemala Story (April 15, 2018) The Wall Street Journal: A Crisis in Guatemala, Abetted by the U.N. (April 22, 2018) National Review: Microscopic Dots. Let's Look at Them. (April 25, 2018) National Review: Why Are They Doing This to the Bitkovs? (April 26, 2018) The Economist: A corruption spat in Russia endangers crime-fighters in Central America (April 28, 2018) Materials submitted by Victoria Sandoval, criminal and human rights attorney representing the Bitkov family Audio: CICIG supports VTB petitions Affidavit: Harold Augusto Flores confesses that he was threatened by CICIG Medical reports on Anastasia Bitkova issued by the National Forensic Science Institute BBC: Inside the 'world's most dangerous' hospital Ruling issued by the tribunal presided over by Judge Iris Yassmin Barrios  

  • A Crisis in Guatemala, Abetted by the U.N.

    In the struggle to defeat transnational crime in Central America, the U.S. is financing a United Nations prosecutorial body in Guatemala. Yet these U.N. prosecutors are thumbing their noses at the rule of law and seem to be using their power to politicize the Guatemalan judiciary. This is dividing and destabilizing a pivotal democracy in the region. The fragile Guatemalan state is in the crosshairs of Venezuelan dictator Nicolás Maduro and Cuba’s Gen. Raúl Castro. If their allies seize control of Mexico’s southern neighbor via its institutions, as Daniel Ortega has done in Nicaragua, it will have implications for Mexican and American security. The U.N. body, known as the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG by its Spanish initials), has been in the country since 2007. It has busted some criminals. But its unchecked power has led to abuse, and this should concern U.S. backers. Some of CICIG’s most vociferous defenders hail from Guatemala’s extreme left, which eschews equality under the law and representative democracy. CICIG’s rogue justice has come to the attention of Sen. Roger Wicker (R., Miss.), chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission. He has scheduled a hearing April 27 to review CICIG’s role in the Guatemalan prosecution and extralegal conviction of a Russian family on the run from Vladimir Putin’s mafia. As I detailed in March 26 and April 19 Americas columns, Igor and Irina Bitkov, and their daughter Anastasia, fled persecution in Russia and became victims of a crime syndicate in Guatemala that was selling false identity documents. Yet Guatemala and CICIG tried the family alongside members of the crime ring that tricked them. They were convicted and given unusually harsh sentences. Guatemalan law and the U.N.’s Palermo Convention say that such migrants are victims, and a Guatemalan constitutional appeals court ruled that the Bitkovs committed no crime. CICIG and Guatemalan prosecutors ignored that ruling, went to a lower court and got a conviction. CICIG will not say why, or why it didn’t prosecute the law firm that solicited the fake documents given to the Bitkovs. Matías Ponce is “head of communications” for CICIG but there is no contact information for him or his office on the CICIG website. I managed to get his cellphone number from a third party and, after repeated tries, made contact with him. I requested his email and wrote to him so I could share with readers CICIG’s explanation of what appears to be abuse of power. He sent me a boilerplate response about CICIG’s work against criminal networks but no answers to my questions. It is unlikely CICIG will answer questions before the Helsinki Commission. Its co-chairman, Rep. Chris Smith (R., N.J.), invited CICIG to appear at a similar hearing he proposed for April 24 in the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee monitoring human rights and U.N. entities. CICIG declined the invitation. That hearing was not scheduled, though the office of Foreign Affairs Chairman Ed Royce (R., Calif.) told me it’s not dead. If CICIG refuses to cooperate with the Helsinki Commission, it will fuel the feeling among rule-of-law advocates that it has something to hide. CICIG says it is in Guatemala merely to “support” the attorney general in her work “identifying and dismantling” criminal networks and is not involved in politics. But an academic analysis of CICIG by Jonatán Lemus, a Francisco Marroquín University political science professor, suggests otherwise. Mr. Lemus observes that “CICIG has also been criticized for the very same reasons others have praised it: becoming a player in judicial appointments, proposing some controversial reforms to the Guatemalan constitution, and the use of televised conferences to shift the public in its favor. From this perspective, instead of strengthening Guatemalan institutions, the Commission is making national institutions dependent on its assistance.” This dependence drives CICIG deeper into politics. As Mr. Lemus notes, “once immersed in a polarized political system,” an international body designed like CICIG naturally “will face incentives to behave as any domestic bureaucracy trying to maximize its power and resources to ensure its survival.” Without an explanation for the bizarre Bitkov convictions, Guatemalans are left to speculate about CICIG’s motives. Incompetence is one possibility. But once the injustice was publicized and not corrected, that reasoning collapsed. A foreign businessman also makes an easy target for a politically correct prosecutor seeking approval from anticapitalist nongovernmental organizations. Kremlin “influence” cannot be ruled out. Nailing the Bitkovs was a priority for Russia because the family had refused to “donate” large sums to the Putin kitty in Kaliningrad. It would hardly be surprising to learn that Moscow leaned on prosecutors and judges to put the family behind bars. There’s no doubt that something fishy went on, and CICIG prosecutor Iván Velásquez’s unwillingness to address it is troubling. The truth matters for the family, for Guatemala and for the U.S.

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