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First Person: Encountering Auschwitz
Monday, September 24, 2018

By Rachel Bauman,
Policy Advisor

During the annual OSCE Human Dimension Implementation Meeting (HDIM) in Warsaw, I joined 21 other members of the U.S. delegation on my first visit to the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial Museum, the site of the former concentration and death camp in Nazi-occupied Poland.

The mass murder of Jews, Poles, Romani people, Soviet political prisoners, and other groups by the Nazi state is almost too monstrous for comprehension, especially from a distance. Fewer and fewer Holocaust survivors remain, and though many of their memories have been preserved, soon there will be no witnesses to speak to the horrors of the past.

What remains of Auschwitz-Birkenau, perhaps the most notorious death camp, is a testament to the millions of people slaughtered by the Nazi regime. Auschwitz I, though significantly smaller than Birkenau, is largely intact, and houses powerful exhibitions giving a deeply personal glimpse into a tragedy that often seems too large to grasp.

For me, the faceless masses of black-and-white history book photos were brought into sharp relief through collections of objects found after Soviet forces liberated Auschwitz on January 27, 1945.  Enormous piles of eyeglasses, human hair shaved from the bodies of women dragged from the gas chambers, and children’s shoes were on display as a reminder of the simple trappings of humanity denied to the victims.

We laid a wreath at the Wall of Death, an execution site, and finished the tour with a silent walkthrough of a gas chamber, illuminated by the holes in the ceiling from which Zyklon-B pellets rained down on the trapped prisoners.

At Birkenau, we walked along the original train tracks where wagonloads of people were selected to either die in the gas chambers or labor in terrible conditions in which disease, starvation, and exposure meant that the average prisoner perished mere months after arrival.  The remains of the killing factory, hastily destroyed upon the approach of the Soviets, are a haunting illustration of the scale of Nazi atrocities.

The final death toll of Auschwitz is estimated at 1.3 million, with Jews accounting for about 90 percent of the murdered.  One in six Jews killed during the Holocaust were killed at Auschwitz. 

The evils of anti-Semitism, racism, and persecution of minority groups still exist today. At the Birkenau memorial to the victims, Ambassador Brownback reminded us that the United States must continue to defend human rights around the world.

Helsinki Commission Chief of Staff Kyle Parker and U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback

Helsinki Commission Chief of Staff Kyle Parker (left) and Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback (right) lay a wreath at Auschwitz at the Death Wall where those who attempted to escape were shot.

As we prepared to depart, the clouds lifted over Birkenau, revealing a sunny sky, in stark contrast with the heavy grief of the morning.  Each of us processed the visit differently, but all experienced a renewed sense of the importance of our mission upon returning to the HDIM.

Excerpt from the Document of the Cracow Symposium on the Cultural Heritage of the CSCE Participating States (1991)

"… The participating States will strive to preserve and protect those monuments and sites of remembrance, including most notably extermination camps, and the related archives, which are themselves testimonials to tragic experiences in their common past. Such steps need to be taken in order that those experiences may be remembered, may help to teach present and future generations of these events, and thus ensure that they are never repeated…

"… The interpretation of sensitive sites of remembrance can serve as a valuable means of promoting tolerance and understanding among people and will take into account social and cultural diversity…"

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    By Annie Lentz,  Max Kampelman Fellow Popularly and ambiguously dubbed “fake news,” malign efforts to spread false facts often are wrongly lumped together with politicians’ diatribes against negative media coverage. Well-orchestrated disinformation campaigns do exist around the world, using algorithms, social platforms, and advertisements as a means of deceiving the public and undermining democracy. Due to its proliferation and widespread attention, the definition of so called “fake news” has been lost. Even the meaning of the terms it is defined by are ambiguous. In fact, misinformation and disinformation are not synonymous. Misinformation refers the inadvertent spread of false information, while disinformation refers to the purposeful circulation of deceptive news stories by both state and nonstate actors. Disinformation plagues the modern world in increasingly sophisticated and pervasive ways largely due to widespread use of social media. Whether it’s shared through Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, or WhatsApp, fake news is easy to share, difficult to identify, and almost impossible to stop. Easy to Share The trickle-down effect of counterfeit news campaigns is massive. A single fake story has the potential to reach millions, propagated by bots and trolls and manipulation of social media content algorithms. For example, a heavily edited interview from conservative CRTV portrayed a fictional conversation between one of their hosts and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez where the Congresswoman admitted to know nothing of the legislative process. Although CRTV eventually said it was satire, the video was viewed almost 1 million times within 24 hours prior to CRTV’s clarification. This was not an isolated incident. Thanks to the universality of social media, with Facebook and Twitter having a global presence economically and socially, cultures around the world are all susceptible to manipulation through such platforms. Following the 2019 European Union elections—second only to India as the largest democratic elections in the world—the European Commission documented “ongoing disinformation campaigns” by Russian sources. Officials went on to demand Facebook, Google, and Twitter “step up their efforts” in combatting fake news; they classified the fight as enduring, saying, “Malign actors constantly change their strategies. We must strive to be ahead of them.” The influence and impact of Russian disinformation efforts remains unknown and therefore future elections in both the EU and elsewhere remain at risk. Difficult to Identify Several aspects of the communication space make disinformation hard to identify. When reading content from a seemingly trustworthy source, even if there is no evidence of professionalism, most naturally consider the information to be trustworthy. However, that is not always the case and those creating and spreading propaganda are well-versed in mimicking reputable sources in structure and design. Moreover, the more specific the topic and narrow the scope, the easier it is for disinformation to spread as consumers lack the background and context to identify red flags, which are becoming ever harder to detect. According to Politifact, earlier this year a Facebook post about Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, claiming he was trying to take away health care from millions of Americans, went viral. This claim was a mischaracterization of his stance on federal funding for health care and falsified his personal history with the program. Regardless, the false narrative spread to thousands of people who lacked the in-depth background knowledge to recognize the inaccuracy. Disinformation is not limited to false news stories or phony websites; it also extends to doctored photos and videos, like the CRTV interview previously mentioned. The Washington Post’s guide to fact-checking video makes the point, “Seeing isn’t believing.” Even high-profile politicians can be fooled by such disinformation. One doctored video appearing to show Nancy Pelosi drunk that was retweeted by President Trump, who shared the false narrative with more than 62.8 million followers. Even content originating from seemingly trustworthy sources can be deceptive. For example, pro-Brexit campaigns from the UK Independence Party (UKIP) during the EU referendum vote in 2016 told a false story through misleading photos (actually from the border of Slovenia) of thousands of immigrants pouring into the UK. Though the poster and campaign were widely condemned, it is impossible to measure the number of voters that may have been influenced. However, the very existence of such misleading material threatened the democratic integrity of the referendum. The Russia Problem While there are many guilty parties—like those who spread doctored stories and videos leading up to India’s elections in April and May of 2019 and incited hatred between Buddhists and Muslims in Sri Lanka and Malaysia on Facebook—the biggest culprit behind the growth of widespread disinformation is the Russian Government. The Kremlin has used sophisticated disinformation campaigns to justify its actions in Crimea and eastern Ukraine, interfere in the 2019 European Union elections, and attempt to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential elections. However, Kremlin interference isn’t isolated to politics. RT America, cited as a principle meddler in the 2016 presidential elections, aired a campaign of stories about health risks associated with 5G signals, none of which were supported by scientific facts. Such efforts from “the Kremlin’s principal international propaganda outlet” match what experts cite as the Kremlin’s ultimate goal: to amplify voices of dissent, sow public discord, and exacerbate social divides. Impossible to Stop … or Not? There is no global police force to defend against disinformation. There are platform-specific efforts, such as Facebook’s regulations for political advertising; grassroots efforts, like Factitious, an online game designed to teach students to identify fake news stories; and coalitions like the one formed by Facebook, Google and Twitter after the March 15 massacre in Christchurch, New Zealand, when the tech giants signed an agreement with world leaders to fight hate speech online. However, with the amount of disinformation growing every day and no unified or cohesive approach from both the public and private sector to aggressively and actively combat online propaganda, these efforts are akin to putting a Band-Aid on a broken leg. Any attempts to regulate disinformation are constrained by the right to free speech. If the response is too broad–whether from a corporation like Facebook or a government entity–it quickly challenges the fundamental freedoms afforded to citizens. On the one hand, stopping false facts from spreading and inundating social media benefits democracy and freedom the world round. On the other hand, the people’s right to free speech must be respected. Any meaningful efforts to battle disinformation must carefully balance the protection of the community against the protection of the individual. In addition, those with the best ability to fight against disinformation—private companies like Facebook and Twitter—have no true legal obligation to do so and may have alternative interests in terms of profit. Until Congress shined a light on this problem, there were no serious efforts on the part of social media platforms to fight against foreign influence. As social platforms and their users maintain the right to freedom of expression, the ability of Congress to require them to undertake any specific efforts is lacking. However, that hasn’t stopped them from trying. There are other solutions. One is promoting better media literacy among citizens, so they can more easily identify false or misleading information. Another is “sourcing” news stories, so readers know the true origin of a story—a story about a local issue in Kansas may in fact emanate from Russia, for example. The content would still be available, but readers would have a better awareness of potential manipulation by outside actors. To combat the ripple effect of disinformation, media self-regulation to verify sources and stories before publishing them is another effective tool. The most important and most effective way to confront disinformation is by understanding it. Through events like the 2017 Helsinki Commission hearing on Russian Disinformation, and OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media Harlem Désir’s efforts to lead the OSCE in combatting disinformation, additional progress can be made. Disinformation is a disease to which no one is immune; the longer the virus goes untreated, the worse it becomes.

  • 2019 Human Dimension Implementation Meeting

    From September 16 to September 27, OSCE participating States will meet in Warsaw, Poland, for the 2019 Human Dimension Implementation Meeting (HDIM), organized by the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR).  As Europe’s largest annual human rights conference, the HDIM brings together hundreds of government and nongovernmental representatives, international experts, and human rights activists for two weeks to review OSCE human rights commitments and progress. During the 2019 meeting, three specifically selected topics will each be the focus of a full-day discussion: “safety of journalists,” “hate crimes,” and “Roma and Sinti.” These special topics are chosen to highlight key areas for improvement in the OSCE region and promote discussion of pressing issues. Human Dimension Implementation Meeting 2019 Since the HDIM was established in 1998, the OSCE participating States have a standing agreement to hold an annual two-week meeting to review the participating States’ compliance with the human dimension commitments they have previously adopted by consensus. The phrase “human dimension” was coined to describe the OSCE norms and activities related to fundamental freedoms, democracy (such as free elections, the rule of law, and independence of the judiciary), humanitarian concerns (such as refugee migration and human trafficking), and concerns relating to tolerance and nondiscrimination (such as countering anti-Semitism and racism). Each year, the HDIM allows participating States to assess one another’s implementation of OSCE human dimension commitments, identify challenges, and make recommendations for improvement. The HDIM agenda covers all human dimension commitments, including freedoms of expression and the media, peaceful assembly and association, and religion or belief; democratic elections; the rule of law; tolerance and non-discrimination; combating trafficking in persons; women’s rights; and national minorities, including Roma and Sinti. Unique about the HDIM is the inclusion and strong participation of non-governmental organizations. The United States has been a stout advocate for the involvement of NGOs in the HDIM, recognizing the vital role that civil society plays in human rights and democracy-building initiatives. OSCE structures allow NGO representatives to raise issues of concern directly with government representatives, both by speaking during the formal working sessions of the HDIM and by organizing side events that examine specific issues in greater detail. Members of the U.S. delegation to the 2019 HDIM include: Ambassador James S. Gilmore, U.S. Permanent Representative to the OSCE and Head of Delegation Christopher Robinson, Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs Roger D. Carstens, Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor Elan S. Carr, Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism Alex T. Johnson, Chief of Staff, U.S. Helsinki Commission

  • TOOLS OF TRANSNATIONAL REPRESSION

    As modern technology has allowed political dissidents and human rights defenders to operate from almost anywhere on the planet, repressive regimes have searched for opportunities to reach those who threaten their rule from afar.  To silence dissent from abroad, autocrats often turn to the International Criminal Police Organization, known as INTERPOL, to file bogus criminal claims seeking the arrest and extradition of their political targets. This abuse of INTERPOL Red Notices and Diffusions enables autocratic governments to harass and intimidate their opponents thousands of miles away, even within free and democratic societies. The U.S. Helsinki Commission convened an expert panel to highlight how autocrats today use INTERPOL and other means such as surveillance, abduction, and assassination to punish dissent overseas. Witnesses suggested how the United States and other democratic nations can defend against these threats to the rule of law domestically and internationally.

  • Simulating a Baltic Security Crisis

    By Brittany Amador, Intern On August 29, 2019, U.S. Helsinki Commission personnel, joined by Congressional staff from several relevant offices, participated in a simulated security crisis in the Baltic region centered on the U.S. and NATO response to a hypothetical act of Russian aggression. The event followed the Helsinki Commission’s historic field hearing on Baltic Sea regional security, where members of Congress convened senior Allied and partner leaders from Poland, Lithuania, Estonia, Sweden, and Finland, as well as the United States European Command (EUCOM) and the U.S. Mission to NATO, to better understand current and evolving security threats in the region.  Participants in the simulation. Ambassador (ret.) John Heffern, a former Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Europe and Eurasian Affairs and Deputy Chief of Mission to the U.S. Mission to NATO, led the simulation. Ambassador Heffern, who currently serves as a Distinguished Fellow of Diplomacy and Entrepreneurship at Georgetown University, was assisted in the facilitation of the game by Andrew Carroll, an officer with the United States Air Force who recently completed his Max Kampelman Policy Fellowship at the Helsinki Commission. 2d Lt Andrew Carroll describing the parameters of the simulation. During the three-hour event, attendees played the roles of various regional actors, and debated possible actions in response to realistic scenario inputs. Participants were provided immediate feedback on their strategic decisions, knowing in real time the impact of their simulated actions. The scenario underlined the challenges and opportunities inherent in any response to a security crisis in the Baltic Sea region. Ambassador (ret.) John Heffern explaining tactical movements.

  • Why the Helsinki Commission still matters

    Forty four years ago, President Gerald Ford joined 35 other heads of state, including longstanding American adversaries, to sign one of the most significant international agreements of the 20th Century—the Final Act of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, better known as the Helsinki Accords. The accord committed the United States, Europe, and the Soviet Union to respect human rights, to manage the spread of dangerous weapons, to foster economic opportunity, and to ending the territorial disputes in Europe that had already twice plunged the world into war. The U.S. Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, better known as the Helsinki Commission, was created to uphold these commitments. Since its inception, the Helsinki Commission has provided a crucial voice for defending freedom, opportunity, and human rights across the world. Composed of members of Congress from both parties and chosen from the House and Senate, the Helsinki Commission represents our democracy’s commitment to preserving and advancing the peace, freedom, and prosperity across the world that previous generations of Americans sacrificed so much to achieve. That is why I am honored to be among the latest members of Congress to be appointed to serve on the Helsinki Commission. The world has changed dramatically since the Helsinki Commission began, but the need to defend the principles of freedom, opportunity and human rights is greater than ever. Rising authoritarian powers are contesting the principles of democracy like never before--these powers are undermining a fair and free electoral process by interfering with elections across the democratic west and directly invading their neighbors. The most shocking part is that the United States’ own commitment to values is being challenged from within—from the very officeholder once considered the leader of the free world. The challenges that democracies face today signify the work that this Commission is doing is now more important than ever. Who better to respond to a president who rejects the pillars of traditional American foreign policy than a bipartisan commission composed of members of Congress? I am hopeful that my Republican colleagues on this Commission, who understand the importance of American leadership on the issues of human rights and democracy, will feel the same way. I am eager to get to work and face the challenges that this position presents. I look forward to having the opportunity to make a positive impact on the world, as well as ensuring that the priorities of the great state of Texas are represented on an international stage. It’s on those of us entrusted by the American people with representing them in Congress to make clear to the world that despite what they may hear from the White House, our country is still the same country that showed up, negotiated and implemented the Helsinki Accords—one that leads in defending freedom, opportunity and human rights across the world. Congressman Marc Veasey is a proud representative of Texas’ 33rd District in the U.S. House of Representatives.

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