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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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The delegation was briefed by NATO Supreme Allied Commander Europe Gen. Curtis Scapparotti and Commander, U.S. Army Europe Lt. Gen. Christopher Cavoli. Members also visited Cyprus, where they met with Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades to discuss opportunities to advance U.S.-Cyprus relations, resume reunification negotiations on the island, and counter the threat of money laundering to Cyprus’ banking sector. Major General Cheryl Pearce of Australia, Force Commander of the United Nations Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus, briefed the delegation on UNFICYP’s mission and the status of conflict resolution efforts. Following her briefing, the delegation toured the UN Buffer Zone to examine the work of the UN’s peacekeeping force and the physical separation that afflicts the island.

  • Chairman Hastings Remembers 27th Anniversary of Khojaly Massacre

    WASHINGTON—On the 27th anniversary of the Khojaly Massacre, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) issued the following statement: “Khojaly, a town in the Republic of Azerbaijan, was home to a barbaric act of brutality that desecrated the norms and principles of international law, human rights, and freedoms. Armenian forces, with the support of the 366th motorized rifle regiment of the Russian army, stormed the besieged town of Khojaly engaging in acts so violent that their effects are still felt in the community, indeed the entire country, to this day… “Marking the anniversary of a tragedy is always a solemn occasion. However, as a member of the Azerbaijan Caucus, I believe it is important to recognize and remember those whose lives were lost. I ask my colleagues to join me in offering condolences to the people of Azerbaijan.” Chairman Hastings’ full statement was entered into the Congressional Record. On February 26, 1992, during the brutal war between Armenia and Azerbaijan, hundreds of Azerbaijani men, women, and children were killed by Armenian forces in Khojaly, in Nagorno-Karabakh.  

  • Slovak Chairmanship Convenes Conference on Anti-Semitism

    By Dr. Mischa Thompson, senior policy advisor and Erika Schlager, counsel for international law From February 5-6, 2019, Slovakia, the 2019 OSCE Chair-in-Office, convened government officials and civil society representatives in Bratislava to discuss best practices to combat anti-Semitism in the OSCE region. The event followed the 2018 Italian Chairmanship’s conference in Rome and took place shortly after International Holocaust Remembrance Day (January 27). The OSCE Chair-in-Office, Slovak Foreign Minister Miroslav Lajcik, opened the meeting, which was Slovakia’s first event of the year. Senator Ben Cardin, who serves as the OSCE Special Representative on Anti-Semitism, Racism, and Intolerance, participated by video and shared his most recent report prepared for the OSCE PA. U.S. Ambassador to Slovakia Adam Sterling represented the United States at the conference opening.     We are witnessing today a growth in anti-Semitic and xenophobic rhetoric across Europe and North America, not just on the fringes, but by political leaders who are fostering a permissive environment of hate.  Today’s conference is a timely call to action… As leaders, I ask that you join me today in working across the OSCE community to ensure that all people in our borders are able to live and worship in safety and dignity.  I also call on you to act by adopting a Plan of Action to Address Violence and Discrimination across the OSCE region so that we can win this fight. Sen. Ben Cardin, OSCE PA Special Representative   On the opening day of the conference, the White House announced the appointment of Elan S. Carr as the United States Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism. Many members of the Helsinki Commission, including Chairman Alcee L. Hastings, had urged the president to fill this Congressionally mandated position. As part of his first official trip, Carr participated in the Bratislava conference, where he met with representatives of civil society in his new capacity and held consultations with OSCE officials. Conference Follows Deadliest Anti-Semitic Attack in U.S. History For a second year in a row, an OSCE conference on anti-Semitism convened in the months following a deadly attack, fueled by anti-Semitism and extremism, in the United States. Just as the August 2017 events in Charlottesville were present in the minds of those gathering in Rome in January 2018, the memory of Jewish worshippers massacred at the Tree of Life Synagogue on October 27, 2018, where 11 people were murdered and several others wounded, underpinned every moment of the Bratislava conference. A January 29, 2019, indictment of the alleged shooter specifically asserts that he “willfully caused bodily injury to 11 deceased and 2 surviving victims because of their actual and perceived religion.” The charges illustrate the relationship between “ordinary” criminal acts such as murder, targeting individuals because of their identity, and other criminal violations of civil rights (in this case, obstruction of the free exercise of religious beliefs).   “Last October, in the deadliest anti-Semitic attack in U.S. history, a gunman killed eleven Jews as they gathered for services at a synagogue in Pittsburgh. As the White House stated: ‘This atrocity was  chilling act of mass murder. It was an act of hatred. Above all, it was an act of evil. … We all have a duty to confront anti-Semitism in all its forms everywhere and anywhere it appears.’” U.S. Ambassador Adam Sterling   Government Officials Pledge to Continue OSCE Efforts The first day of the conference featured OSCE Secretary General Thomas Greminger, OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) Director Ingiborg Gisladottir, World Jewish Congress CEO Robert Singer, and President of the Central Union of Jewish Religious Communities in Slovakia Igor Rintel. Rabbi Andrew Baker, the Chair-in-Office’s Personal Representative on Combating Anti-Semitism, reviewed progress that had been made in combating anti-Semitism over the past 15 years. Nevertheless, he observed that recent surveys indicate “[s]ignificant numbers of Jews have witnessed or experienced anti-Semitic attacks. Over a third are reluctant to wear anything in public that would identify them as being Jewish. A similar percentage will even avoid attending Jewish events for fear of an anti-Semitic encounter.” While asserting that, “[w]e can claim credit that through these years the OSCE has been in the forefront of the struggle,” he also observed that the “general climate has worsened, with growing racist and populist movements, a coarsening of public discourse in the easy ability of social media to amplify anti-Semitism and other forms of intolerance.” Government representatives reflected on the problem of anti-Semitism in their own countries, with some presenting rather favorable pictures. Many speakers during the conference noted the importance the definition of anti-Semitism by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (adopted in May 2016); several government officials reported how their countries are implementing the definition in practice. Four other panels focused on security of Jewish communities and individuals; the role of education in addressing anti-Semitism and promoting Holocaust remembrance initiatives; the role of media and social media; and the role of civil society and coalition building to address anti-Semitism and all forms of intolerance and discrimination.  Dr. Mischa E. Thompson, Helsinki Commission Senior Policy Advisor, speaking at the conference on media and social media. Christina Finch, the head of Head of ODIHR’s Tolerance and Non-Discrimination Department, reported on the completion of ODIHR’s unprecedented multi-year project, “Turning Words into to Action to Address Anti-Semitism.”  Grounded in the 2014 Basel Ministerial Declaration and funded by the German government, the project focused on security, education, and coalition building.  She outlined additional steps ODIHR is taking to help participating States implement the Security Guide developed as part of the “Words Into Action” project and the upcoming roll-out of an on-line Hate Incident Reporting Platform.  Hungary in Focus During the conference, remarks by Austrian Foreign Minister Karin Kneissl and Hungarian State Secretary Szabolc Takacs were notable for their broad negative portrayals of Muslims, refugees, and migrants as a source of anti-Semitism. One civil society speaker subsequently noted, “It gave me great unease that at a conference on anti-Semitism, far-right backed politicians are able to have a stage, to have a platform, to put forward highly Islamophobic content.  It gave me great unease that speakers from countries that have a terrible record with their Jewish communities, where Jewish communities face some of the most complicated struggles today, are able to say ‘everything is okay in my country.’  I was very happy that . . . our panel called out Hungary as a place where we have seen recently a lot of conspiracy theories, a lot of this very tactical rhetoric that without being blatantly anti-Semitic still manages to put anti-Semitic messages out there.” State Secretary Takacs also warned of the threat from extremist parties such as Jobbik, Hungary’s own far-right party. In fact, Hungary’s ruling party, Fidesz, generally has remained silent in the face of anti-Semitic and anti-Roma messages from Jobbik, implemented parts of Jobbik’s political program (including the adoption of the 2017 anti-NGO law), and amplified Fidesz’s own most notorious anti-Semitic and anti-Roma propagandist.  

  • Chairman Hastings Appoints Alex T. Johnson Helsinki Commission Chief of Staff

    WASHINGTON—Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20), Chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (U.S. Helsinki Commission), today announced the appointment of Alex T. Johnson as Helsinki Commission Chief of Staff. Johnson will be the commission’s first African-American chief of staff since it was established in 1976. “I am pleased to welcome Alex Johnson back to the Helsinki Commission,” said Chairman Hastings. “His broad range of experience—including several years at the U.S. Mission to the OSCE in Vienna—and deep understanding of issues related to fundamental freedoms and human security in North America, Europe, and Central Asia will keep the commission at the vanguard of regional policymaking.” “I have learned from Chairman Hastings over the years that transatlantic security is contingent on advancing human rights and human dignity, including for the most marginalized populations in the OSCE region,” said Johnson. “I am honored to once again empower our commissioners' legacy as the moral compass for transatlantic cooperation.” Johnson, a former policy advisor at the Helsinki Commission, returns to the organization after serving as the senior policy advisor for Europe and Eurasia at the Open Society Foundations, where he led U.S.-focused advocacy for 12 national foundations and regional programs ranging from Central Asia to Western Europe. An expert on European human rights and transatlantic security, he served as an Obama Administration official at the Pentagon, where he focused on furthering security cooperation with Eurasia and the Western Balkans. Johnson is also known for his research and leadership of advocacy coalitions of diverse foreign policy professionals and is recognized as a leader in advancing inclusion for the U.S. national security workforce. He is a term member of the Council on Foreign Relations and a member of the Truman National Security Project Defense Council. Johnson’s first day as chief of staff of the Helsinki Commission will be February 14, 2019.

  • Representative Alcee L. Hastings to Helm Helsinki Commission

    WASHINGTON—Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi has appointed Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) to chair the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, during the 116th Congress. “For more than four decades, the Helsinki Commission has championed human rights and democracy across North America, Europe, and Central Asia,” said Chairman Hastings. “While we have worked to keep these concerns on the U.S. agenda, much remains to be accomplished. Rogue actors are challenging the integrity of elections at home and abroad; Russia’s internal repression threatens its citizens while its external aggression imperils its neighbors; and members of vulnerable communities are targets of bigotry, discrimination, and violence. All of these challenges undermine comprehensive security in the region and place our societies at risk. “I’m honored to once again chair the Helsinki Commission, and look forward to continuing the bipartisan, bicameral cooperation that is vital to promoting human rights, military security, and economic cooperation in the 57 countries of the OSCE.” Chairman Hastings has served on the Helsinki Commission since 2001, and in 2007, he became the first African American to chair the commission. Hastings is also the only American to have ever served as President of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA), and is the former Special Representative on Mediterranean Affairs of the PA.

  • December 1, 1991

    By Alexa Zouboukos, Intern On December 1, 1991, 84 percent of eligible voters in Ukraine exercised their democratic rights in a referendum on independence and the election of their president, peacefully transferring power after the long struggle of the Cold War. If the fall of the Berlin Wall signaled a symbolic end to the war, then Ukraine partaking in the democratic process was a concrete outcome. Three U.S. Helsinki Commission staffers sent to monitor the elections—Orest Deychakiwsky, Michael Ochs, and Heather Hurlburt—reported on the implementation of regulations that we recognize in today’s U.S. elections. Some of these regulations included the collection of a certain number of signatures for a candidate to be placed on the ballot, campaign finance laws, and the methodology for marking and counting ballots. Despite many accounts of a free and fair election, however, there were also indicators of information suppression. Helsinki Commission staff noted that there were reports of pro-independence literature being withheld from Crimea and Mykolaiv. Limits to the free flow of information were not the only threat Ukrainians faced, but also “dark warnings by Mikhail Gorbachev, by the central Soviet media and, to some extent, Russian media about the difficulties and dangers Ukrainian independence would pose to Ukrainians themselves, to their neighbors and to international stability.” These threats to the will of Ukrainian people did not dampen their spirits; in fact, according to the report, “many Ukrainians later told Helsinki Commission staff that such attempts to intimidate them only made them more determined to see their cause through to the end.” Ukrainian citizens demonstrated this determination through a landslide referendum. Three-quarters of participants voted in favor of independence. Helsinki Commission staff also observed a distinct feeling of festivity at polling stations, reinforced by the testimonies of Ukrainians previously imprisoned in Siberia who said that this day was the realization of a long-held dream of independence from the Soviet Union. Ukrainians were aware that there would be greater struggles ahead, but also recognized that these could be opportunities to exercise their new sovereignty. December 1, 1991 did not mark the end of Ukraine’s conflicts with Russia, but it did finally allow Ukrainians to exercise rights that were long suppressed under the Soviet yoke.

  • Lies, Bots, and Social Media

    From the latest revelations about Facebook to ongoing concerns over the integrity of online information, the U.S. public has never been more vulnerable or exposed to computational propaganda: the threat posed by sophisticated botnets able to post, comment on, and influence social media and other web outlets to generate a desired outcome or simply sow distrust and disorder.  What can be done to confront and defeat these malevolent actors before they dominate civil discourse on the Internet? One possibility is the use of algorithmic signal reading which displays for users the geographic origin of a given post. Another answer may lie in improving how websites like Facebook curate their content, so the user can make more informed choices.  At this Helsinki Commission briefing, distinguished experts examined the implications of computational propaganda on national and international politics and explored options available to Congress and the private sector to confront and negate its pernicious influence.

  • Helsinki Commission Leaders Regret Closure of Central European University in Budapest

    WASHINGTON—Ahead of the impending December 1 closure of Central European University in Hungary, Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) and Ranking Senate Commissioner Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) issued the following statement: “We regret that Central European University (CEU) in Budapest will cease its operations in Hungary because of restrictions imposed by the Government of Hungary. Since its founding after the fall of communism, CEU has symbolized the renewal of academic freedom, Hungary's robust intellectual traditions, and the ties between Hungary and the rest of the world. With CEU’s closure, the Government of Hungary is shuttering a highly successful economic enterprise and an institution of higher learning that has earned respect around the world. “We commend Ambassador Cornstein for his efforts to foster a successful outcome. Although CEU met every condition demanded of it, the Hungarian Government was resolved not to take ‘yes’ for an answer.  At a time when this administration has worked to forge closer ties with Hungary, the Government of Hungary is taking an isolationist step, and Hungarians will lose this U.S.-accredited institution.” In 2017, the Hungarian legislature adopted a higher education law known as “Lex CEU,” which established criteria for universities operating in Hungary that award foreign-accredited degrees. In practice, the law affected only CEU. At the 2017 OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (PA) in Minsk, Belarus, parliamentarians from OSCE participating States expressed concern about the legislation, which “risk[s] undermining academic freedom, inhibiting research and development, and impeding scientific advancement.”

  • Helsinki Commission Briefing to Examine Computational Propaganda

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following briefing:   LIES, BOTS, AND SOCIAL MEDIA What is Computational Propaganda and How Do We Defeat It? Thursday, November 29, 2018 10:30 a.m. Senate Dirksen Office Building Room 562 Live Webcast: www.facebook.com/HelsinkiCommission From the latest revelations about Facebook to ongoing concerns over the integrity of online information, the U.S. public has never been more vulnerable or exposed to computational propaganda: the threat posed by sophisticated botnets able to post, comment on, and influence social media and other web outlets to generate a desired outcome or simply sow distrust and disorder.  What can be done to confront and defeat these malevolent actors before they dominate civil discourse on the Internet? One possibility is the use of algorithmic signal reading which displays for users the geographic origin of a given post. Another answer may lie in improving how websites like Facebook curate their content, so the user can make more informed choices.  At this Helsinki Commission briefing, distinguished experts will examine the implications of computational propaganda on national and international politics and explore options available to Congress and the private sector to confront and negate its pernicious influence. Expert panelists scheduled to participate include: Matt Chessen, Acting Deputy Science and Technology Advisor to the Secretary of State, U.S. Department of State Karen Kornbluh, Senior Fellow and Director, Technology Policy Program, The German Marshall Fund of the United States Nina Jankowicz, Global Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars' Kennan Institute

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