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First Person: The Role of the Peace Corps in Promoting Democracy
Tuesday, July 30, 2019

By Gabriel Cortez,
Charles B. Rangel Fellow & Returned Peace Corps Volunteer, Ukraine 2016-2019

Getting a high five has never felt as satisfying as it did in rural Ukraine. Even after three years serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer I cannot help but smile every time I remember one of my students extending their hand out for a “dye pyat.” I grew up in a large Mexican-American family in small-town California. Removed from the centers of international politics, the only diplomacy I knew was my brothers and sisters deciding who could use the family TV and when. Even as a kid I knew I wanted to be a part of something greater, to explore not only the United States but the other countries around the world, the ones they talked about in the news. The Peace Corps gave me and thousands of others that opportunity.

For 58 years, the Peace Corps has sent Americans young and old to live and work in communities worldwide. Over 235,000 volunteers have served in 141 countries, ranging from Mongolia and Albania to Morocco and China. Volunteers commit to 27 months of service in the country they serve, working in several sectors including education, health, agriculture, community development, and youth development. As of July 2019, there are around 7,000 Peace Corps volunteers serving in 62 countries. Montenegro, an OSCE participating State, is the newest addition to the Peace Corps family, with volunteers slated to launch the program in 2020.

The promotion of democracy is one of the central tenets of the Organization on Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the Helsinki Final Accords. To that end, the Helsinki Commission has monitored aspects of the transition to democracy throughout Europe, including challenges to the rule of law, free and fair elections, and the impact of corruption. Peace Corps volunteers work concurrently in this field to demonstrate the strength democracy brings and help promote civic engagement in their sites.


Schoolchildren from my site participating in an English Language Summer Camp in Krasyliv, Ukraine.

When President John F. Kennedy created the Peace Corps in 1961, the program was designed for large groups of Americans to live abroad and promote the American way of life, including the best aspects of democracy. That mission continues today in the OSCE region, with volunteers serving in Ukraine and eight other OSCE countries, including Armenia, Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, and Mongolia.

My Peace Corps service began in September 2016 but was inspired years prior. In 2014, when the Maidan Revolution occurred, I watched it on TV with amazement, drawn by the images of Ukrainians from all walks of life marching on their capital to advocate for a better future. Already eager to work with the Peace Corps, I knew from that moment that Ukraine was the country I wanted to serve in as a volunteer.

Peace Corps Ukraine, which began in 1992, is the largest Peace Corps program operating anywhere in the world. Nearly 300 volunteers have served in the education, youth development, and community development sectors, as well as the President’s Emergency Plan for Emergency AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) programs. When volunteers arrive, they dedicate the first three months to training, learning the Ukrainian and/or Russian languages, discovering local culture, and exploring Ukraine’s history. After training, volunteers move to their permanent sites where they live and work for two years, tasked with the three goals of the Peace Corps.

The first goal of Peace Corps is “to help the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women.” For Ukraine, this translates to projects focusing on English education, combatting corruption, and working with youth to develop healthy lifestyles. Since gaining independence in 1991, Ukraine has made progress in reorienting itself to the West; a strong partnership with the U.S. has been crucial in this journey. Peace Corps volunteers contribute to this mission every day. Whether it is through teaching English at schools, organizing a summer camp on gender rights, or helping a local NGO secure a grant to fund health projects, Peace Corps volunteers have a tremendous impact on the communities they live in. Volunteers ultimately help promote entrepreneurship and civic engagement, critical facets of the Helsinki Accords.

The second goal, and perhaps the most important in Peace Corps Ukraine, is “to help promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served.” As a former Soviet country, Ukrainians were disconnected from the world for over 70 years, learning about the United States through the limited movies, newspapers, and clothes smuggled past the Iron Curtain. Today, Peace Corps volunteers act as a bridge between both countries, promoting a positive image of the U.S. and bringing back a better understanding of Ukrainian culture. In communities like the one I served in, a small town with no other Americans, a volunteer’s presence is truly felt. I led discussions on race and gender, hosted events highlighting different American groups, introduced my students to American holidays, and much more. Acting as a cultural ambassador is an honor for any Peace Corps volunteer, and a role the program is founded upon.

The third and final goal of the Peace Corps is “to help promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.” Volunteers return from service eager to share their experiences with their friends and families. This may include organizing a speech at a local school, attending a Ukrainian-American event, or even joining an organization that focuses on Ukrainian issues. This allows returned Peace Corps volunteers the chance to talk to Americans about their experience in the country: their successes, challenges, memories, and more. In turn, Americans learn about Ukraine and other countries they have never had experience with or knowledge of.


Teacher training at the Window on America in Kharkiv, Ukraine

The Peace Corps is a unique agency that continues to change lives all over the world and receive bipartisan support in Congress. On the 49th anniversary of the Peace Corps, Co-Chairman of the Helsinki Commission Senator Roger Wicker (MS) noted, “The Peace Corps invests time and talent in other countries, but it pays dividends back here in the United States as well.”

Helsinki Commissioner Ranking Member Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) reaffirmed his support of the Peace Corps on its 55th anniversary, stating, “Peace Corps volunteers represent the best qualities of American foreign policy. They come from all walks of life and from across the country [and] are saving lives. I could not be more proud of these Americans.” The introduction of the bipartisan H.R.3456 - Peace Corps Reauthorization Act of 2019 demonstrates Congress’ commitment to the Peace Corps. Helsinki Commissioners Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), Sheila Jackson Lee (TX-18), and Gwen Moore (WI-4) are co-sponsors of the bill, which would increase support for current and returned Peace Corps volunteers.

Peace Corps volunteers work every day to develop the foundational tenets outlined by the Helsinki Accords. From promoting tolerance and non-discrimination, to developing education programs, to confronting corruption, Peace Corps volunteers exhibit the strength of the partnerships between OSCE participating States and work to improve the lives of others.

True progress is rooted in the sustainable and long-term projects of Peace Corps volunteers and their communities. In Ukraine, I saw firsthand the impact the Peace Corps can have in developing communities: a summer leadership camp for middle school students, a newly built community center with music and dance classes in a small village, and an accounting transparency workshop that reduced corruption in several city management offices. Substantive changes are happening every day in villages, towns, and cities across the country and throughout Peace Corps-partnered OSCE countries. Peace Corps volunteers exemplify the foundations of the Helsinki Accords, promote democracy abroad, and help bolster OSCE participating States and other nations like Ukraine build a bright, hopeful, and prosperous future, one high-five at a time.

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    WASHINGTON—Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) yesterday introduced the Leadership Institute for Transatlantic Engagement (LITE) Act (H.R.6239) to strengthen ties with U.S. allies, protect democratic institutions, and support visionary leadership on both sides of the Atlantic. “Numerous challenges are putting western democracies and the transatlantic partnership at risk, including disparities in wealth, health, employment, education, and justice that lead citizens to question whether democracy can deliver on its promise of freedom and opportunity for all,” said Chairman Hastings. “We must find new and better ways to help democratic leaders ensure that laws are equitable, transparent, and enforced; elections are free and fair; and the same protections, rights, and laws are extended to all in their constituencies.”  LITE would further codify transatlantic leadership exchanges and knowledge-building activities to equip western policymakers with legislative, communications, conflict resolution, and other leadership tools to strengthen democratic institutions in their societies as well as the transatlantic relationship.  Recognizing the rapid and ongoing demographic change on both sides of the Atlantic, LITE focuses on inclusive and intergenerational solutions to current challenges and would empower individuals across generations and from diverse backgrounds with the knowledge, tools, opportunity, and access to fully participate in their democracies. In addition, LITE would assist in community reunification by helping leaders develop strategies to build resilience against the exploitation of community grievances that can lead to dangerous divisions in society. For more than a decade, the Helsinki Commission has convened U.S. and European policymakers with the State Department and other partners under the banner of the Transatlantic Minority Political Leadership Conference and Transatlantic Inclusion Leaders Network to support increased political representation in western democracies.  In 2019, Helsinki Commission held hearings featuring European lawmakers, and focusing on global leadership, democracy, and public diplomacy.  In February 2020, the Helsinki Commission hosted more than 30 young legislators from OSCE participating States and partner countries to discuss the role of young people in peace and security efforts and forge a transatlantic network for political action to address emerging human rights and security challenges.

  • Chairman Hastings Introduces Bill to Promote Diversity and Inclusion in the Federal Workforce

    WASHINGTON—Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) yesterday introduced H.R.6240, a bill to establish a government-wide diversity and inclusion plan to ensure fair access and opportunity to federal jobs for all Americans.  “Estimates indicate that by 2050, more than half of the U.S. workforce will be made up of Americans from diverse populations,” said Chairman Hastings. “Effectively governing our nation will require that we fill federal jobs—whether they are in the military, intelligence, foreign service, health, or education sectors—with an equally diverse federal workforce who can meet the needs of our country.” The bill would require the development of a government-wide diversity and inclusion plan to ensure that all branches of the federal government are engaged in multi-year strategic planning to recruit, hire, promote, retain, and support workers representing America’s diverse talent pool. It also calls for a review of diversity in government contracting and grant-making. “Diversity and inclusion are the underpinnings of democratic societies,” said Chairman Hastings. “It is time to ensure that those from all segments of our society have an equal opportunity to contribute to the future of our nation as part of the vibrant workforce that is at the heart of our democracy.” The introduction of the bill follows the February 2020 GAO report highlighting problems in the State Department and legislative initiatives to increase diversity in the national security workforce.  Advancing societies that are safe, inclusive, and equitable is central to the work of the Helsinki Commission. The commission supports programs to address inequities in employment, political participation, and other sectors for women and minorities and strives to empower communities to unite against bias and discrimination to foster truly democratic, inclusive, and free societies.

  • Moldovan Governance and Accountability to be Discussed at Helsinki Commission Hearing

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following hearing: MOLDOVA Access and Accountability Tuesday, March 10, 2020 12:30 p.m. Rayburn House Office Building Room 2200 Live Webcast: www.youtube.com/HelsinkiCommission Presidential elections in Moldova are quickly approaching. However, the country’s self-proclaimed “technocratic” government has yet to demonstrate a departure from the country’s post-Soviet history of grand kleptocracy and political strife. Moldovans have demanded greater access to the global economy through European integration, yet some political leaders are pivoting East with substantial security implications for the enduring frozen conflict in the breakaway territory of Transnistria. To this day, Moldovans demand accountability for the more than $1 billion siphoned from Moldova’s biggest banks between 2012 and 2014. However, key former political leaders implicated in this and other crimes are alleged to have escaped international sanctions. Witnesses at the hearing will explore the societal fissures, security implications, and  governance challenges at stake in the Republic of Moldova.  Can a country marred by deep corruption reverse its trajectory, and is there even any will to do so in this government?  What role will civil society play in Moldova’s reconstruction?  Will Socialist president Igor Dodon prioritize relations with Russia over the West, or manage to navigate between the two?  This hearing will explore these questions and more. The following witnesses are scheduled to participate: Ambassador William H. Hill, Global Fellow, Woodrow Wilson Center for International Studies & former Head of the OSCE Mission to Moldova Tatyana Margolin, Regional Director – Eurasia Program, Open Society Foundations Valeriu Pașa, Program Manager, WatchDog.MD   

  • Helsinki Commission Chairman Condemns Russian-backed Syrian Government Offensive in Idlib

    WASHINGTON—In response to mounting casualties from clashes between Turkish and Russian-backed Syrian forces in northwestern Syria and the Turkish government’s decision to open its borders to refugee flows toward mainland Europe, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) issued the following statement: “A vicious Russian and Syrian government offensive in Idlib province is responsible for the unacceptable military escalation, civilian suffering, and displacement crisis we have witnessed in recent days and weeks,” said Chairman Hastings. “Presidents Putin and Assad must stop this assault immediately and comply with international humanitarian law requiring them to protect civilians and civilian infrastructure. I further urge the Trump administration to deploy appropriate resources to address these pressing security and humanitarian challenges, which will undoubtedly impact the OSCE region. We must sustainably meet the needs of the most vulnerable and the countless refugees resulting from Russian and Syrian aggression.” On February 27, Russian-backed Syrian forces killed at least 33 Turkish soldiers in the northwestern Idlib province of Syria. Following this incident, the Turkish government announced the opening of Turkey’s borders for refugees and migrants to go westward to European Union member countries, despite the March 2016 EU-Turkey agreement “to end the irregular migration from Turkey to the EU.” That agreement is founded on the multi-billion euro EU Facility for Refugees in Turkey established in 2015. According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees in a March 2 statement, the daily rate of refugees and asylum-seekers arriving in Greece from Turkey has increased in March.     Since early December, fighting in northwestern Syria has displaced more than 948,000 people, including 569,000 children and 195,000 women, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Turkey hosts more than 3.5 million Syrian refugees. Along with the United States, Tukey is a NATO ally. The United States, Russian Federation and Turkey, are  participating States of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

  • Congressional Delegation Led by Chairman Hastings Champions U.S. Leadership in Transatlantic Security, Human Rights

    WASHINGTON—Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) last week led a bicameral, bipartisan congressional delegation to the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly’s (OSCE PA) 19th Winter Meeting in Vienna, Austria. At the meeting, Chairman Hastings and other members of the delegation engaged with OSCE officials, delegations from other OSCE participating States, and diplomats to advance U.S. interests while assuring friends, allies, and potential adversaries of the U.S. commitment to security and cooperation in Europe.   The 11-member delegation was among the largest U.S. delegations ever to attend the annual gathering, which attracted more than 300 parliamentarians from 53 OSCE participating States. Chairman Hastings, a former president of the OSCE PA, was joined in Austria by Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS), Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02), and Helsinki Commissioners Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (MO-05), Rep. Gwen Moore (WI-04), Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), Rep. Robert Aderholt (AL-04), and Rep. Richard Hudson (NC-08). Rep. Gregory Meeks (NY-05), Rep. Lloyd Doggett (TX-35), and Rep. Andy Harris (MD-01) also joined the delegation, which benefited from the active support of Ambassador James Gilmore, the U.S. Representative to the OSCE.  In the Standing Committee, which oversees the OSCE PA’s work, Chairman Hastings highlighted recommendations resulting from a seminar for young parliamentarians on “Future Leadership for Political Inclusion in the OSCE Region,” hosted in Washington in early February by the Helsinki Commission and the OSCE PA. “We brought together some 35 young parliamentarians from 19 OSCE participating States and three partner States to learn from each other and incubate the solutions of the future,” Chairman Hastings said. “As I called on all of you at our last meeting in Marrakech, we must counter the economic and social despair afflicting our youth and we all have a role.”  At the same committee, Co-Chairman Wicker, who serves as a vice president of the assembly, shared his recent experience at the Munich Security Conference.  The committee also reviewed a written report submitted by former Helsinki Commissioner Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04), OSCE PA Special Representative on Human Trafficking Issues. In the committee focused on security issues, Rep. Hudson condemned Russia’s violations of Helsinki principles related to its aggression against Ukraine, while in the committee focusing on economic issues Rep. Harris cautioned Europe regarding the growing Chinese presence in the region.   During a special debate on confronting anti-Semitism and other forms of intolerance in the OSCE region, Helsinki Commission Ranking Member Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), who serves as the OSCE PA Special Representative on Anti-Semitism, Racism and Intolerance, delivered introductory remarks by video. “It is our responsibility to safeguard our democracies by speaking out and using our tools and voices as legislators against those who would divide our societies,” Sen. Cardin said. Later in the debate, Rep. Cohen urged participating States “to teach Holocaust history, which a fourth of the people in Europe or more don't understand or remember, and teach it so that the most horrific crime against humanity will be remembered so that it will not be repeated.” Rep. Cleaver linked anti-Semitism to broader trends of intolerance in society, and called OSCE participating States to action, stating, “There are many scary things in our world, but there is nothing quite able to generate fright like prejudice inspired by ignorance and nationalism manufactured by fear.” Rep. Hudson chaired a meeting of the OSCE PA Ad Hoc Committee on Countering Terrorism, and Rep. Moore participated in a similar meeting of the Ad Hoc Committee on Migration. On the margins of the Winter Meeting’s official sessions, members of Congress met with the Ukrainian delegation to the OSCE PA to discuss U.S. support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty in the face of unrelenting Russian aggression. Delegation members also met with OSCE Secretary General Thomas Greminger, Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights Director Ingibjörg Sólrún Gísladóttir, Special Representative and Coordinator for Combatting Trafficking in Human Beings Valiant Richey, and High Commissioner for National Minorities Lamberto Zannier.

  • Transatlantic Network of Young Legislators Releases Joint Declaration on Future Leadership for Political Inclusion in the OSCE Region

    WASHINGTON—Following a two-day seminar hosted by the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (U.S. Helsinki Commission) and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA) in early February, nearly 20 young legislators from OSCE participating States today issued the Joint Declaration on Future Leadership for Political Inclusion in the OSCE Region. The declaration builds upon discussions among seminar participants—all national legislators from OSCE participating States and Partners for Cooperation—about the important role young people can and must play in addressing emerging human rights and security challenges worldwide. Each signatory resolves that the respective legislative bodies included in the declaration will empower young leadership and pursue goals including enhancing parliamentary diplomacy, promoting a declaration of a climate emergency in every OSCE participating State, and ensuring common security. The declaration reads in part: “Whereas, the role of young people in promoting human rights, peace, and security efforts in both national and international fora must not be underestimated or diminished at this critical juncture for democracies around the globe; “Whereas, comprehensive security, be it politico-military security, economic and environmental security, or human rights, faces more hybrid, malicious, and multiplying threats than we realize; “Whereas, multilateral institutions like the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and the respective parliamentary assemblies, must maintain their stature and utilize its greatest asset for building a brighter future, the youth…” “Youth leadership driven by political inclusion is vital to combating the challenges of both today and tomorrow, including environmental degradation and democratic backsliding,” said U.S. Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20), who chairs the Helsinki Commission. “This declaration is simply the first, welcome step toward developing a robust transatlantic network of young legislators who will work toward a secure, sustainable future for us all.” “This was an excellent opportunity to follow up on a call made by our Assembly during our Berlin Annual Session to establish a forum of young parliamentarians to foster greater mutual trust between OSCE participating States,” said OSCE PA President George Tsereteli. “Young people can play a crucial role in fostering a culture of peace, in the prevention and resolution of conflicts, in tackling current urgent issues such as climate change, the fight against terrorism and migration.” The declaration has been signed by 17 legislators from the OSCE region, including U.S. Rep. Marc Veasey (TX-33) and US. Rep. Richard Hudson (NC-08). Both representatives serve as commissioners on the U.S. Helsinki Commission. Download the declaration.

  • Media Advisory: Chairman Hastings, OSCE PA President Tsereteli, and Commissioner Moore to Address International Gathering of Young Legislators on Capitol Hill

    WASHINGTON—To empower future leaders in the North America, Europe, Central Asia, and beyond, the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (U.S. Helsinki Commission), the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA), and other partners will convene a seminar for young legislators on Capitol Hill on Monday, February 3 and Tuesday, February 4, 2020. During the two-day program, leading young legislators from OSCE participating States, along with members of Congress and select guests, will discuss the role of young people in peace and security efforts in both national and international fora. Attendees also will engage with other political leaders to forge a transatlantic network for political action to address emerging human rights and security challenges. Members of the media are invited to attend the opening and closing sessions of the event. WHO:                      Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (opening and closing sessions)                                    Helsinki Commissioner Rep. Gwen Moore (opening session)                                    OSCE PA President George Tsereteli (closing session)                                    Other Members of Congress to be confirmed                                    Nearly 50 young legislators from 25 countries   WHERE:                  U.S. Capitol Visitor Center, Room HVC-210 (opening session)                                    U.S. Capitol Visitor Center, Room SVC-200/201 (closing session)   WHEN:                    Monday, February 3, 2020 (opening session)                                    12:30 p.m. to 1:00 p.m.                                    Tuesday, February 4, 2020 (closing session)                                    1:15 p.m. to 2:00 p.m. Members of the media must register in advance to attend the public sessions of the seminar by emailing csce[dot]press[at]mail[dot]house[dot]gov.

  • Life Under Occupation

    Nearly six years into Russia’s illegal occupation of Crimea, the human rights situation there continues to deteriorate. Russian authorities have restricted freedom of speech and assembly, suppressed civil society activity, persecuted religious and ethnic minorities, muzzled dissent, and continue to implement an aggressive process of “Russification” toward residents of the peninsula.  The U.S. Helsinki Commission convened the hearing to explore Russia’s ongoing assault on Crimea’s vulnerable minorities, as well as its blatant disregard for human rights. As an occupying power, Russia bears the full weight of responsibility for the abuses being inflicted on the population of Crimea. Panelists discussed Russia’s repression of basic freedoms in Crimea and persecution of those who don’t recognize Russian authority. Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) chaired the hearing and was joined by Commission Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) and commissioners Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (RI), Rep. Robert Aderholt (AL-04), and Rep. Marc Veasey (TX-33). Chairman Hastings’ opening remarks addressed Russia’s attempts to stymie Ukraine’s relationship with the European community and the brutal tactics used throughout Crimea’s occupation. Hastings shed a light on the harsh reality of Russia’s continued occupation, which is “aimed at forcing a proud people into submission, whether they be civil society activists, community or religious leaders, artists, journalists, or simply those whose religion and ethnicity are viewed with distrust and fear.”   This hearing featured testimony from Oleg Sentsov, a Ukrainian writer and filmmaker who was sentenced to 20 years in jail by a Russian court on trumped-up charges of terrorism in 2014. In 2018, Sentsov became a worldwide symbol of defiance and courage when he launched a hunger strike on behalf of all Ukrainian political prisoners being held by Russia. He was released in September 2019. Tamila Tasheva, Deputy Permanent Representative of the President of Ukraine in the Autonomous Republic of Crimea, and Melinda Haring, Deputy Director of the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center, also served as witnesses. Sentsov addressed Russia’s “fabricated legal cases” and “long-term imprisonment” against those who simply think differently. He also testified about the various forms of torture he endured in a Russian prison. Sentsov voiced his appreciation for the United States’ continued efforts to counter Russian aggression in Ukraine and asked that Congress maintain pressure on the Putin regime. Tasheva focused her testimony on Russia’s persecution and internal displacement of “disloyal” groups, specifically the Crimean Tatars. Tasheva also called for the creation of an “international platform for negotiations on the return of the temporarily occupied Autonomous Republic of Crimea and the city of Sevastopol to sovereign Ukrainian jurisdiction.” Haring addressed the lack of free press in Crimea, asserting that “the media is controlled by the government.” She praised Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Crimea service, which tracks developments in Crimea and broadcasts them in three languages to the Crimean population. Haring also warned that the situation in Crimea is worsening, and that Russia has “effectively turned Crimea into a Russian military base.”  Throughout the hearing, commissioners expressed their concerns for freedom of religion, freedom of movement, and freedom of the press in Crimea. Commissioners also assured witnesses that support for President Zelensky and the fight for freedom in Ukraine is bipartisan and resolute.

  • Election Observation 101

    On January 22, 2020, Helsinki Commissioner Rep. Mark Veasey (TX-33) moderated a roundtable at the Texas A&M School of Law titled “Election Observation 101: Strengthening Democracies Old and New in the 21st Century.”  Rep. Veasey—who also is a co-chair of the Congressional Voting Rights Caucus and a former member of the Elections Committee in the Texas House of Representatives—and expert panelists discussed the importance of election observation missions across the OSCE region. Rep. Veasey was joined at the roundtable by veteran election observer Lindsay Lloyd, director of the human freedom initiative at the George W. Bush Institute; Amanda Schnetzer, chief operating officer of Pointe Bello; and Helsinki Commission Chief of Staff Alex T. Johnson.  Law school dean Robert Ahdieh offered a warm welcome and reflected on his fondest memories of the Helsinki Commission as a young man living in Moscow, Russia. Rep. Veasey then set the stage with the 30-year celebration of the 1990 Copenhagen Document which established the international standards for “free and fair elections”, while Mr. Lloyd explained the dynamics of how teams are assembled. Mr. Johnson further clarified the role of observers as strict watchers or objective examiners, and never interventionists, and Ms. Schnetzer shared how her experience observing elections in Tunisia forever shaped her passion for civic engagement and democratic values.  “[In 2011], the people of Tunisia were voting... To see the looks on the faces of women, grandparents coming to poles for the first time, casting a vote, and bringing a grandchild in tow, to say ‘I have waited all my life to do this’ was simply inspirational,” Ms. Schnetzer said. “I saw the stark comparison in the United States because few get excited on the first day they get to vote… I wish that we could find a way to positively spark that enthusiasm here [in the U.S.].” Looking ahead to the U.S. elections in November 2020, all panelists agreed that more could be done to inform the American public about foreign observers and the benefits of international election observation. Election observers from both the OSCE Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights and the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly are expected to be invited by the United States Government to observe the 2020 elections. The OSCE was first invited to observe U.S. elections by the Bush Administration in 2002 and has been invited to observe every midterm and general election since (2004, 2006, 2008, 2010, 2012, 2014, 2016, and 2018) by the administration in office. However, the decentralized nature of the U.S. electoral system means some states prohibit or greatly restrict foreign observers. A few states explicitly permit foreign observation, or at least a sufficiently public observation to include those from other countries.

  • Anti-Kleptocracy Initiatives Supported by the Helsinki Commission

    Corruption has become a key foreign policy tool of U.S. adversaries. Russia, China, Venezuela, Iran, and other authoritarian regimes deploy it to undermine democracy, human rights, and the rule of law around the world.  They use it to destabilize countries where the rule of law is weak and gain access to elite circles in countries where the rule of law is strong. Such regimes also create an uneven playing field favoring autocrat-owned concerns by sidelining companies and businesspeople that comply with the rule of law. Several Helsinki Commission-supported anti-kleptocracy initiatives confront this threat by resourcing and streamlining U.S. efforts to build the rule of law abroad (H.R. 3843/S. 3026), exposing the names and misdeeds of kleptocrats around the world (H.R. 3441), ending impunity for foreign corrupt officials (H.R. 4140), and shining a light on ill-gotten gains hidden in the United States (H.R. 4361). Taken together, the passage of these bills would represent a decisive first step toward a reordering of U.S. foreign policy that prioritizes the fight against global corruption and the promotion of the rule of law around the world. H.R. 3843/S. 3026, the Countering Russian and Other Overseas Kleptocracy (CROOK) Act, the most comprehensive of the four bills, outline and would mandate a U.S. foreign policy strategy that focuses on global corruption as a key national security threat. The key operative mechanism of the bill is the establishment of an Anti-Corruption Act Fund, which is financed through a surcharge on certain high-value FCPA cases. The bill also would establish an interagency working group on anti-corruption and anti-corruption points of contact at U.S. embassies to coordinate use of the Fund and U.S. efforts to promote the rule of law abroad more generally. H.R. 3441, the Kleptocrat Exposure Act, and H.R. 4140, the Foreign Extortion Prevention Act, would each provide the Executive Branch authorities to push kleptocrats out of the global economy. H.R. 3441 would enable the Secretary of State to reveal publicly the identity of any individual whose visa has been banned for reason of human rights abuse or corruption, thereby providing invaluable information to foreign states, the private sector, journalists, civil society, and any other interested party. H.R. 4140 would enable the Department of Justice to build cases against foreign corrupt officials who extort U.S. persons abroad, a long overdue tool to level the playing field in international business between U.S. companies, which are barred from exporting corruption, and autocratic ones, which are encouraged to do so. Finally, H.R. 4361, the Justice for Victims of Kleptocracy Act, would create a formal mechanism to demonstrate U.S. solidarity with the victims of kleptocracy. It mandates that the Department of Justice create a website listing by country the total funds recovered by U.S. law enforcement that were stolen and hidden in the United States. It expresses further U.S. intent to return those funds to the benefit of the people from whom they were stolen at such a time as the United States can be sure that the money will not be stolen again. This simple transparency mechanism would resonate with journalists, civil society, and citizens of kleptocracies around the world and help them to hold their leaders to account. Fact Sheet: Anti-Kleptocracy Initiatives Supported by the Helsinki Commission

  • Helsinki Commission to Hold Hearing on Deteriorating Human Rights Situation in Crimea

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following hearing: LIFE UNDER OCCUPATION The State of Human Rights in Crimea Tuesday, January 28, 2020 10:00 a.m. Cannon House Office Building Room 210 Live Webcast: www.youtube.com/HelsinkiCommission Nearly six years into Russia’s illegal occupation of Crimea, the human rights situation there continues to deteriorate.  Russian authorities have restricted freedom of speech and assembly, suppressed civil society activity, persecuted religious and ethnic minorities, muzzled dissent, and continue to implement an aggressive process of “Russification” toward residents of the peninsula.  The hearing will feature Oleg Sentsov, a Ukrainian writer and filmmaker who was sentenced to 20 years in jail by a Russian court on trumped-up charges of terrorism in 2014. In 2018, Sentsov became a worldwide symbol of defiance and courage when he launched a hunger strike on behalf of all Ukrainian political prisoners being held by Russia. He and other witnesses will discuss the Russian Government’s continued assault on Crimea’s vulnerable minorities, as well as its blatant disregard for basic rights. The following witnesses are scheduled to participate: Oleg Sentsov, Ukrainian writer and filmmaker held prisoner by Russia for five years Tamila Tasheva, Deputy Permanent Representative of the President of Ukraine in the Autonomous Republic of Crimea Melinda Haring, Deputy Director, Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center; Senior Fellow, Foreign Policy Research Institute

  • An Assessment of the Open Skies Treaty

    By Juliet Michaelsen, Max Kampelman Fellow Recently, a somewhat obscure security and confidence-building measure returned to the headlines. In October 2019, reports surfaced that the Trump Administration was considering withdrawing from the Treaty on Open Skies, an overflight arrangement designed to boost military transparency and stability across 34 signatories in North American and Eurasia. What is the Open Skies Treaty? In 1955, President Eisenhower first proposed that the United States and Soviet Union allow aerial observation flights over each other’s territories to reduce the risk of miscommunication and subsequent war. Although initially rejected by the Soviets, the idea of Open Skies was revived by President George H.W. Bush in 1989. Bush built on Eisenhower’s vision, suggesting the agreement not just be between the United States and the Soviet Union, but also between NATO and the Warsaw Pact. In 1992, the Open Skies Treaty was signed by the United States, Canada, Russia, and 21 European states. Since the treaty entered into force in 2002, membership has increased to 34 states. The treaty requires that all participants allow observation aircraft to fly over their territory to observe and take pictures of military forces and activities. These images are shared with the observing and observed states, and available for purchase by other treaty signatories. The Open Skies Treaty’s fundamental purpose—enhancing military transparency and cooperation—flows from the same set of commitments that underpin both the Helsinki Commission and the Vienna-based Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). As Alexandra Bell noted during a Helsinki on the Hill podcast on Open Skies, this “increased openness between militaries will reduce tensions between states and limit the probability of conflict [because] if you know what another country has, if it’s clearly observable to you, you don’t have to plan for things that you’re just guessing about.” Assessing the Treaty During the treaty’s almost 18 years of implementation, the parties have conducted over 1,500 observation flights. The cooperation required to solve logistical problems (such as air traffic control) and inspect planes is one important confidence-building measure. Another is the fact that host countries also have personnel on any observation flight, thus ensuring the flight stays within its agreed plan. This collaboration increases mutual trust and encourages cooperation. Additionally, the Open Skies Consultative Commission, the implementing body of the Open Skies Treaty based at the Organization for Security and Cooperation’s (OSCE) headquarters in Vienna, provides one of the few remaining forums where the United States and Russia can discuss problems and collaborate on solutions. The treaty also allows the United States to provide an important benefit to its allies and partners, who typically ride on flights conducted by the United States. Specifically, as Rep. Emmanuel Cleaver II noted during a joint hearing of the Helsinki Commission and the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Europe, Eurasia, Energy and the Environment, the treaty “allows even small countries a way to get information on military activities around them [which] has been even more important given the Kremlin’s propensity to violate established borders.” One notable example came in December 2018 after Russia attached Ukrainian naval vessels near the Kerch Strait. The United States undertook an Open Skies flight, which was “intended to reaffirm U.S. commitment to Ukraine and other partner nations,” according to the Department of Defense, a message underscored by the flight’s inclusion of personnel from Canada, Germany, France, the United Kingdom, Romania, and—crucially—Ukraine. The Open Skies Treaty also has heightened transparency, specifically between the United States and Russia. Both countries have conducted numerous observation flights over the other’s territory. The United States and its allies have flown about 500 flights over Russia since the treaty’s implementation, including 16 in 2019 alone. According to the State Department, the United States participated in nearly three times as many flights over Russia as Russia has over the United States. The images captured by these flights serve as a crucial, credible, unclassified source of information about Russian forces at a time when Europe and the United States are often uneasy about Russia’s intentions. The Open Skies Treaty does face criticism by some politicians and analysts. For example, a Senate resolution introduced by Sens. Ted Cruz and Tom Cotton calls for the United States’ withdrawal from the Open Skies Treaty, citing Russia’s partial non-compliance as a major problem the treaty. Specifically, Russia has restricted Open Skies flights over its military hub in Kaliningrad and restricted the conduct of flights near its border with South Ossetia and Abkhazia. However, the State Department does not consider these problems insurmountable and has taken many steps to address these issues, including bringing the problem to the Open Skies Consultative Committee, restricting Russian flights over Hawaii, and denying access to two United States airbases. The Future of the Open Skies Treaty In the wake of President Trump’s reported plan to withdraw the United States from the Open Skies Treaty, many members of Congress have expressed support for the agreement and warned of the dangers of withdrawal. House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Rep. Eliot Engel first sounded the alarm in a publicly released letter to National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien on October 7, 2019. In the letter, Engel expressed concern about such reports and argued that “American withdrawal would only benefit Russia and be harmful for our allies’ and partners’ national security interests.” Soon after, numerous members of Congress came together to urge foreign policy officials to keep the treaty. House Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Adam Smith and Sens. Robert Menendez and Jack Reed (the ranking members of the foreign relations and armed services committees, respectively), joined Rep. Engel in writing a letter to Secretary of State Pompeo and Secretary of Defense Esper, highlighting the importance of Open Skies. A similar letter was sent to Secretary Pompeo by 11 Democratic senators two weeks later. In November 2019, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings co-sponsored the bipartisan “Open Skies Treaty Stability Act,” which would prevent the president from unilaterally withdrawing the United States from the treaty by setting conditions on any potential steps towards withdrawal. The bill specifically notes that “due to the significant benefits that observation missions under the Open Skies Treaty provide to the United States and United States allies, the United States should commit to continued participation in the Treaty; and the President should not withdraw the United States from the Open Skies Treaty.” Support for the Open Skies Treaty extends beyond Capitol Hill. For example, in an October 20, 2019, Wall Street Journal contribution, former-national security officials George Shultz, William J. Perry and Sam Nunn suggested that “Open Skies has become what Eisenhower envisioned—a critical confidence-building treaty that improves Euro-Atlantic security with every flight. The U.S. should preserve this agreement, particularly in a time of renewed tensions with Russia.”  Similar calls have come from abroad. The Political and Security Affairs Committee Chair of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA) strongly urged the United States to stay in the treaty, citing the increased transparency and cooperation fostered by the agreement. Meanwhile, Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry expressed their interest in “maintaining and implementing this treaty” in a statement to the Wall Street Journal. The vocal advocacy both within and outside of the United States for the continuation of the Open Skies Treaty sheds light on its important role in Euro-Atlantic security and cooperation.

  • Chairman Hastings Urges Ukraine to Grant Akhmetova Political Asylum

    WASHINGTON—Ahead of Tuesday’s trial to determine whether journalist and activist Zhanara Akhmetova will be granted political asylum in Ukraine or face extradition to her home country of Kazakhstan, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) released the following statement: “By granting asylum to Zhanara Akhmetova, the Government of Ukraine can demonstrate its commitment to protecting the fundamental freedoms of those who peacefully express political dissent. Her request for asylum clearly is motivated by real and dangerous political persecution in her home country. Ukraine must stand firmly on the side of human rights and allow Ms. Akhmetova to remain safely in the country.” Akhmetova fled to Ukraine in 2017 after she was targeted by authorities in Kazakhstan for her reporting and for peacefully expressing her political opinions through the Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan (DCK) movement, an opposition party associated with the main political opponent of former President Nazarbayev. Later that year, Ukrainian authorities detained her following a request by the Government of Kazakhstan, which previously has misused Interpol mechanisms to target opposition figures. In the past, Ukrainian authorities sometimes have cooperated with requests by the authorities of Central Asian states to return persecuted individuals. Persons affiliated with the DCK have previously faced mistreatment and torture at the hands of Kazakh authorities, suggesting that Akhmetova’s extradition would seriously endanger her safety. Ukrainian migration authorities have twice denied Akhmetova’s request for asylum, although Ukraine’s Supreme Court has ordered that the case be reconsidered as political.

  • Co-Chairman Wicker Introduces Ukraine Religious Freedom Support Act in Senate

    WASHINGTON—Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) yesterday introduced the Ukraine Religious Freedom Support Act (S. 3064) in the Senate. The legislation would combat Russia’s religious freedom violations in the Crimea and Donbas regions of Ukraine. Helsinki Commission Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) and Commissioner Rep.  Emanuel Cleaver, II (MO-05) introduced a bipartisan companion bill in the House of Representatives last week. “The Kremlin’s illegal land grab is accompanied by a brutal crackdown on religious freedom in Crimea and the Donbas,” said Co-Chairman Wicker. “This legislation would combat persecution of faith communities in Ukraine and ensure that Russian authorities are held responsible for their actions.” The Ukraine Religious Freedom Support Act would require the president of the United States to consider particularly severe violations of religious freedom in Russia-occupied or otherwise controlled territory in Ukraine when determining whether to designate Russia as a Country of Particular Concern (CPC) for such violations. The bill would clarify that Russia should be held responsible for violations in territory it controls or occupies illegally, not just for violations inside Russia’s internationally-recognized borders. The International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 requires the president to designate CPCs when their governments engage in or tolerate particularly severe violations of religious freedom. It also requires the president to take 15 specific actions, or other commensurate action, in response. Last year, on behalf of President Donald Trump, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo designated Russia for the Special Watch List of countries where violations are severe. Russian forces first invaded Crimea in February 2014 and continue to occupy it illegally. Since April 2014, Russia has controlled parts of the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine with non-state armed groups and illegal entities under its command. Under international humanitarian law, including the Geneva Conventions, Russia is responsible for religious freedom violations in Crimea and parts of the Donbas. As a participating State of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Russia has repeatedly committed to respect and protect freedom of religion or belief. The Helsinki Commission has compiled 16 documents outlining religious freedom commitments made by OSCE participating States.

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