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First Person: Faces of Ukraine
Monday, November 19, 2018

By Rachel Bauman,
Policy Advisor

In the ongoing war in Donbas, now entering its fifth year, most of the people on the front lines—in some cases, literally—of Ukraine’s struggle for democracy and sovereignty go unnoticed. Minorities like Roma also often have special challenges that must be comprehensively addressed in Ukraine as well as Europe more broadly.  To meet some of these Ukrainians and hear their stories firsthand, I, along with my colleagues Mark Toner and Alex Tiersky and Dr. Cory Welt of the Congressional Research Service, traveled to Ukraine to gain a more nuanced understanding of war, politics, and everyday life in Ukraine.

We were up before dawn for our first working day in Ukraine to make our way from the Kiev train station to Kramatorsk, a small industrial city in Donetsk Oblast that was briefly occupied by Russian-led forces in the early days of Russia’s war against Ukraine.  Kramatorsk and its surrounding regions are home to many internally displaced persons (IDPs) forced out of their homes by frequent shelling along the contact line separating Ukrainian government-controlled areas and Russian-occupied territories. 

Our first meeting that day vividly illustrated the destruction this senseless war has unleashed on the lives of average Ukrainians.  Together with representatives of the International Organization for Migration (IOM), which receives generous support from the U.S. Government, and U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch, we heard stories of struggle, tragedy, and resilience from some recipients of this aid.

One man told us that the cash-based assistance he received helped him make vital repairs to his car and house and buy clothing and food for his six children.  Two sisters expressed their gratitude for the small business grant they received, which allowed them to start anew when they realized they could not return to their home in Horlivka.  A tearful single mother recounted her struggle to subsist after her house was destroyed.  Another woman described the terrible nights spent in her basement seeking shelter from shelling.  All of them talked about the difficulties they faced—from long lines in harsh weather conditions to landmines and shelling—when trying to visit their families and homes on the other side of the contact line. 

Despite these traumatic and life-altering circumstances, the support of the United States and international and local religious programs have enabled these IDPs to start a new life in another part of Ukraine.

Our meeting with IDPs in Kramatorsk, Donetsk Oblast, along with U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch

We learned more about the conditions of IDPs in Kramatorsk from city representatives.  The group expressed their concerns about the high rent and limited housing opportunities in Kramatorsk that make it hard for IDPs to live there permanently. 

Of the 70,000 IDPs registered in Kramatorsk (a city of originally 120,000), only 50 percent live in the city. The other half are registered for benefits but continue to live in their homes along the line of contact or in the occupied zones. Those who live on the Russian-controlled side of the contact line must endure the arduous task of monthly travel to the other side to collect their benefits, including pensions.

Crossing the line has become so dangerous and stressful that some of the IDPs we met earlier said that, although they had friends and family on the other side of the contact line, they have stopped trying to cross it. We were as impressed by the resiliency of these displaced people and the NGOs that have sprung up to help them with their legal and humanitarian needs as we were struck by the bleak outlook so many of them have for a peaceful, prosperous future.

I also visited a small town about two hours from Kyiv with a sizeable Romani population to hear from the people themselves what it is like to live as a minority group in rural Ukraine. 

The brisk weather and overcast sky mirrored the gloominess and poverty of the town compared to Kyiv.  Since we arrived early, a Romani woman invited us into the small house where she lived with her partner and nine children.  She explained that she was having difficulty securing government benefits for her children, who were already living in poverty.  She watched over the house and children, and her partner had a chronic disease which rendered him unable to work, so they survived thanks to the charity of several religious organizations and the government payments they received. 

I heard similar stories about troubled relations with the regional and national governments from other members of the Roma community.  We met in the town library, a small, worn-down Soviet relic with no indoor plumbing that also serves as a local government office.  A portrait of Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and the Ukrainian trident adorned the wall behind the desk in the room. 

A group of local Roma, some with small children, came in and sat down, speaking among themselves in Russian and Ukrainian.  A colleague from the U.S. Embassy and I introduced ourselves and began to ask questions about life for Roma in the town. 

Everyone in the room insisted that they had no problems with their non-Romani neighbors, but noted that unemployment was a persistent problem; most adults in the group were illiterate or had only an elementary-level education.  Women generally tended to the children and the home, and the men foraged for mushrooms and berries or picked through trash for scrap metal and empty bottles. 

They said that all their school-age children, in spite of their difficult circumstances, were enrolled in the local school.  Some mothers complained of discriminatory treatment toward Roma children in schools but emphasized that this meant slightly preferential treatment for non-Roma children rather than outright abuse.  They vehemently denied experiencing any incidents of nationalist violence in their isolated village, like those that have occurred in and around larger cities like Lviv and Kyiv.

One of the Romani women that we met with invited us into her home, which she shares with her partner and nine children

The group became visibly agitated when discussing their relationship with the government and their attempts to receive social services.  To receive these services, they need to file a declaration of income; since their incomes are typically irregular, government officials will write in a higher income than exists in reality, affecting their social payments. 

Those who are illiterate are easily taken advantage of by regional officials (“they laugh at us,” one woman said), and often must sign documents they don’t understand.  Demands of some government officials for bribes also impede equitable access to social services for those who cannot afford to pay, one person mentioned. 

There were mixed responses about healthcare access.  One man said that he had been denied hospitalization three times, but most others claimed they had no problems, and all the women who were mothers had given birth in the nearest hospital. 

The village library where we met with members of the Romani community

This group of Roma has a great advocate in the form of Valentyna Zolotarenko, who accompanied us on our visit.  She lives in Kyiv and serves as a liaison between Roma communities and the national government, representing their interests with care, understanding, and firmness. 

Local government has also done a good job of ensuring that members of the Romani community have citizenship papers and proper documentation.  A local official who is particularly invested in the community told us upon departing of her personal concern for Roma in her town. 

“I imagine how it would be if I were the one being treated this way,” she told us in Russian.  “I cannot simply do nothing—these people are people just like you and me.”

Throughout our trip, we met numerous such people who are invested in the fight for Ukraine’s future, whether through civic activism, politics, or business.  We saw victims of a cruel and unnecessary conflict instigated and perpetuated by Russia, but we also saw courage, resilience, and a sense among civil society that there could be no turning back on human rights and other reforms.  It was an honor to witness the good work that Ukrainian NGOs, many supported with U.S. assistance, are doing to make a clear difference in the lives of others.

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    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following hearing: AT WHAT COST? The Human Toll of Turkey’s Policy at Home and Abroad Thursday, October 31, 2019 10:00 a.m. – 12:00 p.m. Rayburn House Office Building Room 2200 Live Webcast: www.youtube.com/HelsinkiCommission Sparked by the recent Turkish military offensive in northeastern Syria, increased tensions between the United States and Turkey have reignited the debate about the future of U.S.-Turkish bilateral relations. At the hearing, expert witnesses will discuss how the United States should respond to the Turkish Government’s continuing abuse of human rights and fundamental freedoms. Participants will review prominent cases of politically-motivated prosecution, failures of due process, and prospects for judicial reform as they relate to Turkey’s commitments as a member of both the OSCE and NATO. The panel also will evaluate President Erdogan’s plan to return millions of Syrian refugees to their war-torn country or push them to Europe, and the human consequences of his military incursion into Syria. The following witnesses are scheduled to participate: Henri Barkey, Bernard L. and Bertha F. Cohen Professor, Lehigh University Talip Kucukcan, Professor of Sociology, Marmara University Eric Schwartz, President, Refugees International Merve Tahiroglu, Turkey Program Coordinator, Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED) Gonul Tol, Director, Center for Turkish Studies, Middle East Institute (MEI) Additional witnesses may be added.

  • Inclusive Leadership Summit

    “The real political division lies between people who believe we should be more inward looking versus those who want a more globalized world.  If we don’t include citizens, then we diminish our values. Inclusivity is not a constraint, but a true opportunity we need to seize and build on.” - Drancy Mayor Aude Lavail-Lagarde, France By Nida Ansari and Dr. Mischa Thompson From September 18 to September 20, 2019, more than forty European and U.S. leaders representing 12 countries across Europe and the United States participated in the second annual Inclusive Leadership Summit held in Paris, France. Focused on Achieving Political Inclusion, the summit featured findings from a recent report and knowledge-sharing among participants on advancing the practice of inclusive leadership through four essential areas: inclusive representation in legislatures; inclusive policymaking; civic participation; and election systems. Hosted by the German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF), the Summit included alumni of the GMF, U.S. Helsinki Commission, and State Department-supported Transatlantic Inclusion Leaders Network.   As leaders incorporating inclusive practices into their organizations, participants emphasized the importance of the widening circle of representation in political discourse and establishing leadership networks to specific strategies and techniques to strengthen political inclusion. They also stressed the need for increased engagement with marginalized communities to ensure the development of policies that are inclusive of all members of society. Participants also discussed strategies for engaging political parties, navigating difficult political environments, and effectively promoting diversity across sectors to advance political inclusion. Participants also explored opportunities and pitfalls of political engagement through technology and the role of the private sector in advancing inclusivity. Dr. Mischa Thompson of the Helsinki Commission, facilitated a panel on how diverse government leaders have successfully envisioned and met inclusivity goals. Promoting safe, inclusive, and equitable societies is a priority of the Helsinki Commission for the 116th Congress. Commission efforts on inclusion have included briefings, hearings, legislation, and inter-parliamentary initiatives in the U.S. Congress and Europe. In addition, the Helsinki Commission frequently partners with the U.S. State Department and other stakeholders in the United States and Europe to empower diverse voices at the decision-making table to be able to effectively devise public policies that meet the needs of all members of society, rather than just a few.

  • Chairman Hastings Leads Bipartisan Delegation to Tunisia, Israel, and Morocco

    WASHINGTON—From September 28 to October 6, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) led a bipartisan, bicameral U.S. delegation to Tunisia, Israel, and Morocco to assess the state of security, human rights, and democracy in the Middle East and North Africa. The delegation concluded with the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (PA) Autumn Meeting in Marrakech, Morocco, where the strong U.S. presence demonstrated the consistent and bipartisan commitment of the United States to security and cooperation in the OSCE and neighboring Mediterranean regions. “As a Member of Congress, I spent decades traveling to the Middle East and North Africa,” said Chairman Hastings, who formerly served President of the OSCE PA as well as the OSCE PA Special Representative to the Mediterranean Partners for Cooperation. “This trip was an occasion to revisit long-standing relationships and discuss some of the most consequential dynamics impacting the Mediterranean region today.” Chairman Hastings was joined on the delegation by Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS); Helsinki Commission Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02), Helsinki Commissioner Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, II (MO-05), and Rep. Andy Harris (MD-01). In Tunisia, the delegation met with Interim President Mohamed Ennaceur, who noted that that the gravest threat facing his nation is the economic and social despair afflicting many young people. Members also held roundtable discussions with civil society groups and local and international election observers, who provided an assessment of the September 15 presidential election and prospects for country’s upcoming legislative election and presidential run-off. In Israel, the delegation met with both Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mohamed Shtayyeh. Members also met with civil society to assess possible threats to the rule of law impacting both Israelis and Palestinians, and with Christian leaders to explore interreligious relations and the mediating role Christian churches play in the Holy Land. During the OSCE PA Autumn Meeting, Chairman Hastings and other members of the delegation discussed ways to maximize cooperation with OSCE Mediterranean Partners in areas ranging from migration and human trafficking, to tolerance and non-discrimination, to energy and water, all in the context of good governance and democratic institutions. “In the coming days, I urge you, my distinguished colleagues, to continue exploring ways to integrate civil society in our work and to deepen engagement with the OSCE Mediterranean Partners, particularly through support for, and observation of their electoral processes,” said Chairman Hastings during the meeting. Co-Chairman Wicker, who serves as a vice-president of the OSCE PA and as the 2019 Head of the U.S. Delegation to the OSCE PA, chaired a session focusing on regional and national perspectives of cooperation across North Africa and the African continent. In Morocco, members also met with the Algerian, Moroccan, and Ukrainian delegations to the OSCE PA; OSCE PA President George Tsereteli; and OSCE PA Secretary General Roberto Montella.

  • Remarks to the Mediterranean Forum

    Autumn Meeting of the OSCE PA *NOTE: As prepared for delivery* Before arriving in Morocco, I led a bicameral and bipartisan Congressional delegation to Tunisia and Israel. While in these countries, my colleagues and I held high-level exchanges with national leadership, civil society, religious leaders, and others to assess the current state of regional security, human rights and democracy. As a Member of Congress, I spent decades traveling to the Middle East and North Africa.  I was never more proud of that engagement, than when I served as President of the Parliamentary Assembly and its  Special Representative to the Mediterranean Partners for Cooperation. This trip was an occasion to revisit longstanding relationships and discuss some of the most consequential dynamics impacting the Mediterranean region today. Our delegation arrived in Tunisia and Israel at sensitive political moments. Tunisia held its second democratic presidential election ever on September 15 and will follow in the coming weeks with its third-ever free legislative election and a presidential run-off. In Israel, the country’s second national election this year on September 17 once again delivered an ambiguous result, touching off a flurry of government formation negotiations with no end in sight. In Tunis, my colleagues and I met with Interim President Mohamed Ennaceur. I commended him for leading his country through a historic peaceful transition of power following the death of President Beji Caid Essebsi earlier this year. When I asked about the most serious existential threat facing Tunisia, he had a bracing assessment: that the gravest threat is the economic and social despair afflicting so many youth. We should heed President Ennaceur’s words and commit ourselves during this meeting of the Parliamentary Assembly to discussing ways to restore hope and opportunity for the youth in our societies. Early next year, I intend to do my part to respond to the call of President Ennaceur and others by hosting young parliamentarians from throughout the OSCE region and the Partners for Cooperation in Washington for a seminar that empowers our future leaders. I look forward to sharing details with your delegations in the near term. While in Tunisia, our delegation also held roundtables with civil society groups and local and international election observers. I was encouraged by the bold commitment of these groups to preserving and advancing the gains Tunisia has made since 2011 in respect for the rule of law, democracy, and fundamental freedoms. I remain concerned, however, that the ongoing imprisonment of one of the leading presidential candidates could undermine confidence in the democratic process. In Israel, our delegation met both with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mohamed Shtayyeh. Both leaders were candid in their assessments of the impasse in the peace process. While no clear opportunities emerged, I was affirmed in my belief that parliamentary diplomacy bridges divides. Prime Minister Netanyahu shared his sobering assessment of the global threat posed by Iran and the existential danger it poses to the people of Israel. I hope we will discuss ways of addressing this matter during our debates in the coming days. During a roundtable with Israel-based civil society, we heard warnings about possible threats to the rule of law impacting both Israeli citizens and Palestinians. In a separate meeting with the leaders of major Christian denominations, including Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem Theophilos III, we explored interreligious relations and the mediating role Christian churches play in the Holy Land. In Luxembourg this summer, this assembly passed a resolution I authored on the importance of integrating and protecting civil society engagement in the work of the OSCE and this Assembly. Our meetings with such groups in Tunis and Jerusalem confirms the value of consulting local activists in our work as parliamentarians at home and abroad. In the coming days, I urge you, my distinguished colleagues, to continue exploring ways to integrate civil society in our work and to deepen engagement with the Mediterranean Partners, particularly through support for- and observation of their electoral processes.

  • Safe and Dignified Return

    In July, nearly 300 parliamentarians from the 57 OSCE participating States met for the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (PA) 2019 annual session in Luxembourg, where they addressed in a final declaration the wide range of issues of current concern to the organization. Of these issues, none received more attention than those relating to human rights and humanitarian questions; the relevant section of the declaration contained more than 180 paragraphs. Leading subjects of concern included the treatment of investigative journalists, manifestations of discrimination and intolerance in society, gender inequality, and efforts to stifle dissent. The text also focused heavily on migration, including the rights of refugees. During the consideration of a final text for adoption, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (TX-18), who has been active in representing the United States at OSCE PA meetings in recent years and serves on the OSCE PA’s Ad Hoc Committee on Migration, proposed an amendment underlining the importance of the right of safe return of refugees. Her amendment, co-sponsored by other members of Congress and by parliamentarians from Cyprus, Georgia, Ireland, Italy, and North Macedonia, made clear that returns should not only be safe, but also voluntary and dignified. The adopted text, included in the Luxembourg Declaration, reads as follows: “The OSCE Parliamentary Assembly underlines that the right of voluntary, safe and dignified return for refugees and internally displaced persons to their homes and properties must be guaranteed;” The concept of voluntary return is at the heart of binding international law on refugees. The 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees states, “No Contracting State shall expel or return (‘refouler’) a refugee in any manner whatsoever to the frontiers of territories where his life or freedom would be threatened on account of his race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.” The convention originally was restricted to people who became refugees because of “events occurring in Europe before 1 January 1951.” The 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, which removed the convention’s time and geographic restrictions, maintains the binding “non-refoulement” obligation. There are only a few exceptions on “grounds of national security or public order” and only after “due process of law.” According to the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, presented in 1998 by the United Nations Secretary General’s Representative on Internally Displaced Persons, “Competent authorities have the primary duty and responsibility to establish conditions, as well as provide the means, which allow internally displaced persons to return voluntarily, in safety and with dignity, to their homes or places of habitual residence, or to resettle voluntarily in another part of the country.” The principles are not legally binding on governments, but they are the point of reference for how a government should respond to internally displaced persons.

  • Co-Chairman Wicker Welcomes Confirmation of Assistant Secretary Destro

    WASHINGTON—Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) today welcomed the confirmation of Robert A. Destro to serve as the Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor. The Assistant Secretary traditionally also serves as the State Department’s representative on the Helsinki Commission. “I am pleased that Assistant Secretary Destro has been confirmed to this critical post, and I look forward to working closely with him to promote security and human rights around the globe,” said Co-Chairman Wicker. “I encourage the White House to act quickly and formally appoint him to the Helsinki Commission. America’s voice is strongest and most effective when our executive and legislative branches work together. The Helsinki Commission offers a unique opportunity to reap the benefits of such a partnership.” Mr. Destro is a human rights advocate and a civil rights attorney with expertise in religious freedom issues and election law. He is also professor of law and founding director of the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies at The Catholic University of America.

  • Helsinki Commission Leaders Appoint Shannon Simrell as Representative to U.S. Mission to the OSCE

    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 Shannon Simrell as the Representative of the Helsinki Commission to the U.S. Mission to the OSCE (USOSCE). “On behalf of the Commission leadership, I am pleased to welcome Shannon Simrell as the Helsinki Commission’s representative to USOSCE for the 116th Congress,” said Chairman Hastings. “Her extensive experience with a wide variety of OSCE missions and institutions makes her an invaluable resource not only to the Helsinki Commission but also to Ambassador Gilmore and our other State Department colleagues.” For 25 years, Simrell has worked to advance U.S. comprehensive security objectives in the Balkans, Central and Eastern Europe, Caucasus, and Central Asia. Early in her career, Simrell organized short-term democratization and environmental study tours in the United States for emerging leaders in Central and Eastern Europe and Russia. Between 2006 and 2008, she served first as a democratization officer then as acting regional center director at the OSCE mission in Kosovo. Following her time in Kosovo, Simrell spent a decade recruiting, deploying, and supporting more than 2,300 American experts serving in nearly 100 OSCE permanent, special, and election observation missions on behalf of the U.S. Department of State.  During this time, she observed elections in Kosovo, Georgia, Ukraine, and Tajikistan, and conducted dozens of site visits to OSCE missions and institutions. Simrell replaces Janice Helwig, who returns to the Helsinki Commission in Washington to resume her previous position of senior policy advisor. Helwig’s portfolio will include Central Asia, trafficking in persons, and the OSCE’s human dimension.

  • A Global Pandemic: Disinformation

    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.

  • INTRODUCTION OF THE TRANSNATIONAL REPRESSION ACCOUNTABILITY AND PREVENTION ACT OF 2019 (TRAP ACT)

    Mr. HASTINGS. Madam Speaker, as Chairman of the U.S. Helsinki Commission—a congressional watchdog for human rights and democracy in Europe and Eurasia—I am frequently reminded of the new opportunities that technology and globalization present for human rights defenders around the globe. For those struggling to defend their liberty and human dignity, our interconnected world brings with it the possibility of sharing information, coordinating action, and demonstrating solidarity across thousands of miles in fractions of a second. It means that truth is more capable of piercing the veil of enforced ignorance erected by the world’s most repressive states Technology also further empowers dissidents in exile to connect with, and influence the foot soldiers of freedom who march on in their homelands. But with these new openings for liberty come novel approaches to repression. Authoritarian and autocratic regimes are appropriating agile, 21st century technology to prop up sclerotic systems of brutality and corruption. Technological developments have provoked greater feelings of insecurity in these brittle regimes and propelled them to extend their repression far beyond their borders, sometimes reaching into the refuge of democratic societies where political opponents, independent journalists, and civil society activists operate in safety. Madam Speaker, I recently introduced bipartisan legislation to tackle these emerging challenges with my friend and Helsinki Commission Ranking Member, Representative JOE WILSON of South Carolina We are confident that this legislation, supported by the bicameral leadership of the Helsinki Commission and other leaders on human rights, will place the United States on course to lead the free world in holding the line against these modern manifestations of political persecution, or what some have called ‘‘transnational repression.’’ The Transnational Repression Accountability and Prevention Act—or TRAP Act—is designed to counter one key instrument in the autocrat’s 21st century toolkit politically-motivated abuse of the International Criminal Police Organization, more commonly known as INTERPOL. INTERPOL is a legitimate and potent tool for international law enforcement cooperation—one that the United States relies on heavily to bring criminals to justice and thwart threats to security around the globe. Sadly, autocrats have recognized the potential for repression in INTERPOL’s worldwide communications system that ties into the law enforcement agencies of its 194 member countries. The Helsinki Commission regularly receives credible reports from human rights defenders, journalists, political activists, and businesspeople who have fallen victim to the efforts of corrupt regimes to ensnare them using INTERPOL’s system of international requests for arrest and extradition, known as Red Notices and Diffusions. These are the modern-day ‘‘traps’’ addressed by the TRAP Act. Because of these notices, innocent individuals live in fear of traveling mternationally and have been detained, had their bank accounts closed, and, sometimes, been returned into the hands of the very regimes from which they escaped. Madam Speaker, our legislation opens three new fronts agamst the threat of INTERPOL abuse. First, it clearly states that it is the policy of the United States to use our influence in INTERPOL to advance specific reforms that increase transparency and accountability for those that abuse the system while helping the organization to live up to its stated obligations to uphold international human rights standards and resist politicization It further establishes that the United States will use its diplomatic clout to confront countries that abuse INTERPOL and work to ensure the freedom of movement and ability to engage in lawful commerce of victims of this abuse the world over. Second, the TRAP Act exerts oversight over the United States’ internal mechanisms to identify, challenge, and respond to instances of INTERPOL abuse. The bill requires the Departments of Justice, Homeland Security, and State—in coordination with other relevant agencies—to submit to Congress an assessment of the scope and seriousness of autocratic abuse of INTERPOL, an evaluation of the adequacy of the processes in place domestically and at INTERPOL to resist this abuse, and a plan for improving interagency coordination to confront this phenomenon. Third, and perhaps most importantly, the TRAP Act places strict limitations on how the United States Government can use INTERPOL notices in legal or administrative proceedings that could interfere with the freedom or immigration status of individuals in our country. We have been deeply concerned by reports that some authorities in this country have improperly cited INTERPOL notices from autocratic countries to detain individuals and place them in danger of being returned to the very countries from which they fled. The TRAP Act will make crystal clear that autocratic regimes cannot use INTERPOL notices to weaponize the U.S. judicial system against their political targets. Madam Speaker, these measures are critical to restricting the freedom that some autocratic regimes have enjoyed to harass, persecute, and detain their political opponents around the world. Authoritarian and autocratic states like China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Turkey, Azerbaijan, and Venezuela must be called out by name and held to account for their repeated manipulation of legitimate law enforcement tools for petty political ends. Madam Speaker, I would also like to place the TRAP Act in the context of the other work that the U.S. Helsinki Commission has done to address the grave threat of transnational repression and malign influence by authoritarian regimes. The Countering Russian and Other Overseas Kleptocracy—or ‘‘CROOK’’ Act, the Kleptocrat Exposure Act, and the Rodchenkov Anti-Doping Act have all been the result of a focus by Commissioners and Commission staff on developing a bipartisan congressional response to the existential threat of global authoritarianism. We can no longer sit idly by, content that those who wish to do us harm are on the other side of the world. In this new age of autocracy, the threat is here—now—and it comes in the form of abusive Red Notices, dirty money, and bought-and-paid-for lawfare tactics The purpose of these tactics is to silence journalists and activists, hollow out the rule of law, and ensure that no one ever dare pursue this new class of transnational kleptocrats whose sole goal is the wholesale looting of the countries they claim to serve and the seamless transfer of those ill-gotten gains to our shores and those of our allies. 

  • 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

  • Helsinki Commission Leaders Introduce Transnational Repression Accountability and Prevention (TRAP) Act

    WASHINGTON—Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) and Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) today introduced the Transnational Repression Accountability and Prevention (TRAP) Act (H.R. 4330) in the House of Representatives. Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) and Ranking Member Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) introduced the TRAP Act (S. 2483) in the Senate on Tuesday. The legislation addresses politically-motivated abuse of the International Criminal Police Organization (INTERPOL) by autocracies. “Today’s autocrats don’t simply try to silence journalists, activists, and other independent voices at home. They also hunt them down in their places of refuge abroad,” said Chairman Hastings. “Such repressive regimes even manipulate INTERPOL—a legitimate and potent tool for international law enforcement cooperation—to trap their targets using trumped-up requests for detention and extradition. The United States must act to prevent this flagrant abuse and protect those who fight for freedom, human rights, and the rule of law." “Instead of facing consequences for their serial abuse of INTERPOL, autocratic states like Russia and China have instead jockeyed for senior positions in the organization,” said Co-Chairman Wicker. “The United States and other democracies should impose real costs for this global assault on the rule of law. This legislation would ensure that the United States remains at the forefront of defending the vulnerable against the long arm of state repression.” “The Transnational Repression Accountability and Prevention Act continues the tradition of U.S. leadership in combating INTERPOL abuse, holding perpetrators accountable, and advancing necessary reforms within the U.S. Government and INTERPOL to respond to this threat,” said Rep. Wilson. “This legislation makes it clear that the United States stands on the side of freedom for those who defy repression, resist corruption, and defend human rights wherever they seek refuge and a voice.” “Autocratic regimes are increasingly exporting their repression overseas, including to our own country. The United States must respond more forcefully to these attacks against the rule of law and deter the serial abuse of INTERPOL by repressive governments,” said Sen. Cardin. “This legislation is critical to establishing stronger protections for dissidents and other independent voices whom these regimes wish to apprehend in the United States on politically motivated charges.” The Helsinki Commission regularly receives credible reports from political dissidents, human rights defenders, and members of the business community who are the subject of politically-motivated INTERPOL Notices and Diffusions requested by autocratic regimes. These mechanisms, which function effectively as extradition requests, can be based on trumped-up criminal charges and used to detain, harass, or otherwise persecute individuals for their activism or refusal to acquiesce to corrupt schemes. Following reports that U.S. immigration authorities have cited such politically-motivated INTERPOL requests to detain some individuals and consider removing them from the United States, the TRAP Act formally codifies strict limitations on how INTERPOL requests can be used by U.S. authorities. The TRAP Act further declares that it is the policy of the United States to pursue specific reforms within INTERPOL and use its diplomatic clout internationally to protect the rights of victims and denounce abusers. The bill requires the Departments of Justice, Homeland Security, and State, in consultation with other relevant agencies, to provide Congress with an assessment of autocratic abuse of INTERPOL, what the United States is doing to counteract it, and how to adapt United States policy to this evolving autocratic practice. The State Department would also be required to publicly report on the abuse of INTERPOL in its annual Country Reports on Human Rights to create a transparent, public record of these violations of the rule of law. Russia is among the world’s most prolific abusers of INTERPOL’s Notice and Diffusion mechanisms. Other participating States of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE)—principally Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Turkey—and other authoritarian states, such as China, also reportedly target political opponents with INTERPOL requests that violate key provisions of INTERPOL’s Constitution, which obligate the organization to uphold international human rights standards and strictly avoid involvement in politically-motivated charges. Original co-sponsors of the legislation include Helsinki Commission members Sen. Marco Rubio (FL), Sen. Cory Gardner (CO), Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (RI), Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (PA-01), Rep. Richard Hudson (NC-08), Rep. Gwen Moore (WI-04), and Rep. Marc Veasey (TX-33). Rep. John Curtis (UT-03), Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (TX-18), and Rep. Tom Malinowski (NJ-07) are also original co-sponsors.

  • TOOLS OF TRANSNATIONAL REPRESSION

    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. Titled “Tools of Transnational Repression: How Autocrats Punish Dissent Overseas,” this U.S. Helsinki Commission hearing examined INTERPOL abuse among other autocratic practices aimed at suppressing dissent across borders, including surveillance, abduction, and assassination. Commission Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker chaired the hearing and was joined by Commission Ranking Members Sen. Ben Cardin and Rep. Joe Wilson and Commissioners Sen. Cory Gardner, Sen Sheldon Whitehouse, and Rep. Marc Veasey. Co-Chairman Wicker opened the hearing by stating that “the Helsinki Commission is particularly concerned by the politically motivated abuse of Interpol by autocratic states wishing to harass and detain their opponents overseas, often in the hopes of trying them on bogus criminal charges.” While acknowledging INTERPOL as a legitimate and potent law enforcement tool, Sen. Wicker noted that its “broad membership leaves it open to manipulation by authoritarians.” In his opening remarks, Ranking Member Cardin proposed ways to respond to the phenomenon of transnational repression include putting a spotlight on it through the hearing, passing legislation, and enforcing the Magnitsky sanctions. Ranking Member Wilson noted that INTERPOL abuse “is not only imperiling champions of freedom around the world, but undermining the very integrity of INTERPOL and, more broadly, the international system we’ve worked so hard to build.” Witnesses included Alexander Cooley, Director for Columbia University’s Harriman Institute for the Study of Russia, Eurasia, and Eastern Europe and Claire Tow Professor of Political Science at Barnard College; Sandra A. Grossman, Partner at Grossman Young & Hammond, Immigration Law, LLC; Bruno Min, Senior Legal and Policy Advisor for Fair Trials; and Nate Schenkkan, Director for Special Research at Freedom House. They described the roots of transnational repression, salient examples of its use, how INTERPOL systems should be reformed to safeguard the rights of the innocent, and INTERPOL abuse affects the American immigration system. Mr. Cooley recognized that while transnational repression is not a new phenomenon, there is a current upsurge in its use that stems from a global backlash against democratization. He further cited the role of globalization in creating new diaspora communities around the world and the rise of new information technologies as other factors contributing to the increasing incidents of transnational repression. Mr. Schenkkan recommended that the United States and other democratic states work to “blunt the tools of transnational repression,” including through INTERPOL reform, and to “to raise the cost of engaging in transnational repression,” such as by sanctioning its perpetrators. Mr. Min explained Fair Trials’ recommendations for INTERPOL reform, including ways to improve the review process of red notices and diffusions, further integrate due process standards into INTERPOL’s appeal process for red notices and diffusions, and increase the transparency of INTERPOL’s internal decision-making. Ms. Grossman addressed instances in which United States’ Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) used Red Notices to detain or otherwise render immigration determinations against individuals in this country, even though the Department of Justice does not recognize Red Notices as a legitimate basis for arrest. She recommended that the U.S. government take steps to improve the understanding of immigration officials concerning the proper handling of Red Notices. Mr. Cooley, Mr. Schenkkan, and Ms. Grossman all endorsed the Transnational Repression Accountability and Prevention (TRAP) Act introduced by the Commission’s leadership to address the abuse of INTERPOL internationally and the misuse of its communications by U.S. authorities.

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