Podcast: Seeking Justice in Serbia
Twenty years after U.S. citizens Ylli, Agron, and Mehmet Bytyqi were brutally murdered in Serbia in the aftermath of the 1999 conflict in Kosovo, their brother Ilir documents his family’s fight for justice in the face of inaction by Serbian authorities. Ilir is joined by family lawyer Praveen Madhiraju and Helsinki Commission senior policy advisor Robert Hand. "Helsinki on the Hill" is series of conversations hosted by the U.S. Helsinki Commission on human rights and comprehensive security in Europe and beyond. The Helsinki Commission, formally known as the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, promotes human rights, military security, and economic cooperation in 57 countries in Europe, Eurasia, and North America. Transcript | Episode 2: Seeking Justice in Serbia | Helsinki on the Hill
Racial Justice and the Helsinki Commission
The Helsinki Commission has long supported racial justice in the United States and worldwide through its commitment to champion the tenets of the Helsinki Final Act, which states “. . . for all, without distinction as to race, sex, language or religion.” The commission promotes understanding of critical issues including minority rights, anti-Semitism, discrimination against Roma, and racism through hearings, briefings, events, legislation, and other initiatives. In 2020, the commission launched a series entitled "Human Rights at Home" that gathered the testimony of subject matter experts through public hearings on the current human rights situation in the United States and the U.S. commitment to adhere to its promises as an OSCE participating State. Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) and other commissioners including the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly’s Special Representative on Anti-Semitism, Racism, and Intolerance Senator Ben Cardin regularly introduce and support legislation addressing diversity, inclusion, and racial justice issues in the United States and abroad. For example, the National Security Diversity and Inclusion Workforce Act of 2019 requires national security agencies to publicly report diversity and inclusion efforts; the African Descent Affairs Act of 2019 establishes a “U.S. strategy to protect and promote the human rights of people of African descent worldwide;” and the LITE Act strengthens partnerships with U.S. allies, protects democratic institutions, and supports transatlantic leadership. Through statements, articles, reports, and podcasts, the commission explores and comments on discrimination, intolerance, and racial justice. The commission also enlists and engages with diverse leaders across the OSCE region through initiatives like the Transatlantic Minority Political Leadership Conference (TMPLC) and Transatlantic Inclusion Leaders Network (TILN). Hearings, Briefings, and Events Legislative Initiatives Articles and Reports Statements and Speeches Political Participation and Leadership "Helsinki on the Hill" Podcast Series In the News Hearings, Briefings, and Events Hearings 2020 Human Rights at Home: Values Made Visible Human Rights at Home: Implications for U.S. Leadership 2019 Public Diplomacy, Democracy, and Global Leadership The State of Diversity and Inclusion in Europe Responding to Hate 2012 The Escalation of Violence Against Roma in Europe 2008 Racism in the 21st Century: Understanding Global Challenges and Implementing Solutions The State of (In)visible Black Europe: Race, Rights, and Politics Human Rights, Civil Society, and Democratic Governance in Russia: Current Situation and Prospects for the Future The Challenges to Minority Communities in Kosovo 2007 Combating Hate Crimes and Discrimination in the OSCE 2002 Romani Human Rights: Old Problems, New Possibilities 2000 Human Rights of the Romani Minority 1998 Romani Human Rights in Europe Briefings 2020 8:46 (George Floyd) 2019 Truth, Reconciliation, and Healing 2018 Race, Rights, and Politics Attacks on Roma in Ukraine Screening and Discussion: “And We Were Germans” 2017 Parliamentarians and Commissioners Discuss Europe’s Changing Landscape and Brexit Muslims & Minorities in the Military The Situation of Roma 2014 Anti-Semitism, Racism and Discrimination in the OSCE region 2013 Europeans of African Descent ‘Black Europeans’: Race, Rights and Politics 2010 Roundtable Discussion: Minorities in France Minority Political Participation in the Obama Era Ethnic and Racial Profiling in the OSCE Region Fostering Effective Ethnic Minority Political Participation in the OSCE Region 2009 Hard Times and Hardening Attitudes: The Economic Downturn and the Rise of Violence Against Roma 2007 Combating Hate Crimes and Discrimination in the OSCE Events 2019 Countering Hate: Lessons from the Past, Leadership for the Future 2018 Inaugural Padweek Addresses Racial Discrimination Across Europe 2017 International Roma Day 2017 Helsinki Commission to Screen Acclaimed Film Aferim! (Bravo!) Parliamentarians and Commissioners Discuss Europe’s Changing Landscape and Brexit #MovetheCouch: Transatlantic Leaders Convene in Brussels 2012 Diversity, Inclusion, and U.S. Foreign Policy Wisdom Session 2009 Black European Summit: Transatlantic Dialogue on Political Inclusion Legislative Initiatives 2021 Chairman Hastings Introduces Federal Jobs Act to Increase Diversity, Ensure Access to Federal Jobs for All Americans Chairman Hastings Introduces Initiatives to Promote Rights and Recognize Achievements of People of African Descent Chairman Hastings Introduces LITE Act to Foster Shared Values, Restore Faith in Democratic Institutions on Both Sides of the Atlantic 2020 Chairman Hastings, Helsinki Commissioners Moore, Cleaver, and Veasey Lead Call for Comprehensive Action to Address Anti-Black Racism Abroad Chairman Hastings Introduces LITE Act to Strengthen Ties with U.S. Allies, Support Visionary Leadership on Both Sides of the Atlantic (H.R. 6239) Chairman Hastings Introduces Bill to Promote Diversity and Inclusion in the Federal Workforce (H.R. 6240) 2019 Chairman Hastings Introduces Bill to Protect and Promote Rights of People of African Descent Worldwide (H.R. 1877) Chairman Hastings Recognizes Black European Fight for Inclusion (H.R. 256) National Security Diversity and Inclusion Workforce Act of 2019 (S. 497) Hastings, Wicker, Watkins, and Cardin Introduce Resolutions Celebrating Romani American Heritage (H.R. 292 and S. 141) Articles, Reports, and News 2020 The Future of American Diplomacy OSCE Supplementary Human Dimension Meeting Examines Intolerance and Discrimination during Pandemic The Shared Experiences of African-American and Roma Communities Human Rights and Democracy in a Time of Pandemic 2019 On the Road to Inclusion Countering Hate: Lessons from the Past, Leadership for the Future Inclusive Leadership Summit 2018 Fighting Racism and Xenophobia Against People of African Descent The OSCE and Roma 2017 Transatlantic Inclusion Leaders Network 2017 Workshop Commissioner and Special Representative Ben Cardin Counters Anti-Semitism and Promotes Diversity Report of U.S. Senator Benjamin L. Cardin, OSCE PA Special Representative on Anti-Semitism, Racism and Intolerance, 2017 Winter Meeting Romani Political Participation Key to Change 2014 Diversity on the Rise 2012 Helsinki Commission Welcomes Unveiling of Berlin Memorial for Romani Genocide Victims 2010 Transatlantic Minority Political Leadership Conference OSCE Holds Conference in Astana on Tolerance and Non-Discrimination Copenhagen Anniversary Conference U.S. Commission Denounces France’s Roma Evictions The Burqa Ban and the Erosion of Human Rights 2009 Black European Summit International Roma Day Bracketed by Rising Extremism and Violence 2008 Report on the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination Review of the US and Seventh Annual Meeting of the UN Working Group on People of African Descent Racism and Xenophobia: The Role of Governments in Addressing Continuing Challenges Italian Fingerprinting Targeting Romani Communities Triggers Protests; OSCE Pledges Fact-Finding Commission Staff Participates in Conference on Roma; Greece Slated to Serve as OSCE Chair in 2009 Iraq Refugee Crisis: The Calm Before the Storm? 2007 Continuing the Fight: Combating Intolerance and Discrimination Against Muslims Sustaining the Fight: Combating Anti-Semitism and Other Forms of Intolerance within the OSCE 2006 Accountability and Impunity: Investigations Into Sterilization Without Informed Consent in the Czech Republic and Slovakia 1996 Ex Post Facto Problems of the Czech Citizenship Law Statements and Speeches 2020 Respecting Human Rights and Maintaining Democratic Control During States of Emergency Statement at the Meeting of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly Bureau Chairman Hastings, Rep. Meeks Issue Statement on Foreign Affairs Funding for Diversity and Global Anti-Racism Programs Chairman Hastings Marks International Roma Day, Notes Consequences of Systemic Racism Exposed by Pandemic 2019 Chairman Hastings Welcomes Release of Country Reports on Human Rights Helsinki Commission Chairman Condemns Mob Attacks on Roma in Europe 2015 Helsinki Commission Calls for Renewed Commitment to Defending Human Rights of Roma 2014 Statement from Helsinki Commission Chair on the Grand Jury Decision in the Michael Brown Shooting Case U.S. Helsinki Commission Commemorates Romani Revolt at Auschwitz, Deportation oh Hungarian Jews 2012 Roma Bridge Building 2011 Senator Cardin’s Response to Rep. King’s U.S. Anti-Muslim Hearings Attacks in Hungary and the Czech Republic 2010 Helsinki Commission Statement on International Human Rights Day Anti-Roma Actions Erupt in France, Europe 2009 Helsinki Commissioners Condemn Violence Against Roma U.S. Helsinki Commission Chairman Cardin and Co-Chairman Hastings Condemn Turkish Government Destruction of nearly 1,000-year-old Roma Neighborhood Helsinki Commission Applauds Unveiling of Romania Holocaust Monument Slovak Romani Sterilization Victims Win Damages U.S. Helsinki Commission Chairman Cardin and Co-Chairman Hastings Release Statement on Plight of Roma 2008 Helsinki Commission Welcomes Groundbreaking of Romani Memorial in Berlin U.S. Helsinki Commission Urges Respect for Human Rights of Roma Teach About the Genocide of Roma Recognizing Europe’s Black Population 2007 Remarks at the OSCE Conference on Combating Discrimination and Promoting Mutual Respect and Understanding 2005 Racist Manifestations in Romania Deserve Government Response The Decade of Roma Inclusion 2004 Mass Murder of Roma at Auschwitz Sixty Years Ago Roma Still Waiting for Their “Brown V. Board of Education” 2003 Action Plan on Improving the Situation of Roma and Sinti within the OSCE Area Political Participation and Leadership Transatlantic Minority Political Leadership Conference (TMPLC) Transatlantic Minority Political Leadership Conference Report 2019 Transatlantic Minority Political Leadership Conference Report 2018 Transatlantic Minority Political Leadership Conference Report 2017 Legislators Roundtable "Equity and Inclusion Policies for a Changing World" 2016 Second Annual Transatlantic Minority Political Leadership Conference Report 2011 Transatlantic Minority Political Leadership Conference Report 2010 Black European Summit: Transatlantic Dialogue on Political Inclusion 2009 Black European Summitt Report 2009 Transatlantic Inclusion Leaders Network (TILN) Transatlantic Inclusion Leaders Network Workshop 2019 TILN Leading Through Change 2019 Transatlantic Inclusive Leaders Network Workshop 2018 TILN Stregthening Our Democracies Through Inclusive Leadership 2018 Transatlantic Inclusion Leaders Network (TILN) Workshop 2017 #MovetheCouch: Transatlantic Leaders Convene in Brussels 2017 Five Years of the Transatlantic Inclusion Leaders Network 2016 TILN Fifth Anniversary: Celebrating Five Years and Looking Toward the Future TILN Workshop 2015 TILN Workshop 2014 TILN Workshop 2012-2013 TILN Conference U.S. State Department Remarks 2012 OSCE/ODHIR Romani Political Participation Key to Change Advancing Empowerment, Equity, and Human Rights Article Advancing Empowerment, Equity, and Human Rights Report GMF/DOD Mission Critical: Inclusive Leadership for the Security Sector 2017 Mission Critical: Diversity and Inclusion Best Practices for Military 2013 “Helsinki on the Hill” Podcast Series 2020 Communities at Risk The Roma 2019 Equitable and Inclusive Democracies
OSCE Election Observation
In 1990, OSCE participating States pledged to hold free and fair elections and to invite foreign observers to observe its elections. Elections observation has since been recognized as one of the most transparent and methodical ways to encourage States’ commitment to democratic standards and has become a core element of the OSCE’s efforts to promote human rights, democracy, and the rule of law. In 2020 alone, the OSCE has been invited to observe elections in nearly 20 OSCE participating States (Azerbaijan, Croatia, Georgia, Iceland, Ireland, Kyrgyzstan, Lithuania, Moldova, Monogolia, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Poland, Serbia, Slovakia, Tajikistan, Ukraine, and the United States).* History of OSCE Election Observation All OSCE participating States have committed to holding democratic elections that meet the same basic standards: universal access, equality, fairness, freedom, transparency, accountability, and privacy in voter submission. Because violations of these commitments can endanger stability in the OSCE region, as well as within an individual country, OSCE nations also agreed to open their elections to observers from other participating countries. To encourage compliance and confidence in the results of the observation missions, countries agreed to observe elections together under the OSCE umbrella. Since the 1990s, OSCE election observers have been present at more than 300 elections throughout the OSCE region. While some OSCE countries benefit from foreign observation more than others – especially those that formerly had one-party communist systems and little experience with democracy – the OSCE also observes elections in more established and stable democracies, such as the United States, Canada, Germany, and the United Kingdom. Even these countries can benefit from consideration of the objective conclusions of those with an outside, comparative perspective. Perhaps more important, observation across the OSCE region removes any sense of stigmatization associated with the repeated hosting of election observation missions as well as any argument against hosting by those political leaders in some countries who continue to resist holding even reasonably free and fair elections. As one of the original 35 members of the OSCE, the United States has participated actively in OSCE election observation missions, both by providing observers for foreign elections as well as by inviting the OSCE to observe every general and midterm election since 2002. Election Observation Methodology ODIHR's election monitoring methodology takes account of the situation before, during, and after an election. All aspects of the electoral process are considered, to include a review of the legal framework; the performance of elections officials; the conduct of campaigns; the media environment and equitable media access; the complaints and appeals process; voting, counting, and tabulation; and the announcement of results. Recently, ODIHR has further expanded its methodology to explore the participation of women and national minorities. Election Observers OSCE election observation missions often are undertaken jointly by the OSCE Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) and the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (PA). A typical election observation mission comprises around 12 core team members, as well as several dozen long-term observers and several hundred short-term observers. The missions, which combine strong technical expertise and sound political judgement, include ODIHR officials, professional analysts, parliamentarians, and others on loan from OSCE member countries. To ensure that no single country’s point of view is overrepresented, the OSCE limits the number of observers from any one country. No matter where they are from, observers commit to an election observation code of conduct, which limits their role to observing and reporting. Observers have no authority to instruct, assist, or interfere in the voting, counting, tabulation, or other aspects of the electoral process. Election Observation, Reporting, and Recommendations Ahead of the elections, observers receive briefings from the host government, political parties, civil society, and media representatives. Long-term observers also follow pre-election activities including candidate and voter registration, political campaigns, and media coverage. On Election Day, two-person teams of short-term observers fan out across the country to observe the conduct of the election, including opening of polling stations; checking whether ballot boxes are empty and properly sealed; the counting of ballots; the handling of spoiled or unused ballots; and the transmission of polling station results. Observers monitor how voters are processed, the accuracy of voter registries, and whether voters are able to vote in secret and in an environment that is free from intimidation. After the elections, long-term observers note how electoral complaints and appeals are handled. The OSCE election observation mission publishes preliminary findings immediately after the elections, with a final comprehensive report issued a few weeks later. The final report includes in-depth analysis of the election’s political context and legislative framework; election administration; voter and candidate registration; the election campaign; the media; participation of women and national minorities; and the voting, counting, and tabulation processes. Impact The OSCE methodology represents the global standard for quality election observation. By analyzing election-related laws and systems, as well as the effectiveness of their implementation, election observation missions help document whether elections in OSCE countries are free and fair for voters and candidates alike. Its expertise has been shared with other regional organizations, and the OSCE has contributed to observation efforts outside the OSCE region. The Helsinki Commission Contribution The U.S. Helsinki Commission was the first to propose concrete commitments regarding free and fair elections more than a year before they were adopted by the OSCE in June 1990. By that time, Commissioners and staff had already observed the conduct of the first multi-party elections in seven East and Central European countries transitioning from one-party communist states to functioning democracies. As the OSCE developed its institutional capacities in the mid-1990s, the Commission joined the efforts of an increasing number of observer teams from across the OSCE region, which evolved into the well-planned, professional election observation missions of today. Commissioners and staff have observed well over 100 elections since 1990. More broadly speaking, the United States support OSCE observation efforts, to include deployment of civilian, parliamentary, and diplomatic observers abroad, but also supporting OSCE’s observation of domestic elections, with a focus on countries where resistance to democratic change remains the strongest. Learn More Elections: OSCE Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights Election Observation: OSCE Parliamentary Assembly * Following Needs Assessment Missions designed to assess the situation and determine the scale of a potential observation activity in a particular country, election observation was deemed unnecessary in some cases.
Justice at Home
Promoting human rights, good governance, and anti-corruption abroad can only be possible if the United States lives up to its values at home. By signing the Helsinki Final Act, the United States committed to respecting human rights and fundamental freedoms, even under the most challenging circumstances. However, like other OSCE participating States, the United States sometimes struggles to foster racial and religious equity, counter hate and discrimination, defend fundamental freedoms, and hold those in positions of authority accountable for their actions. The Helsinki Commission works to ensure that U.S. practices align with the country’s international commitments and that the United States remains responsive to legitimate concerns raised in the OSCE context, including about the death penalty, use of force by law enforcement, racial and religious profiling, and other criminal justice practices; the conduct of elections; and the status and treatment of detainees at Guantanamo Bay and elsewhere.
Human rights within states are crucial to security among states. Prioritizing respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, defending the principles of liberty, and encouraging tolerance within societies must be at the forefront of America's foreign policy agenda. Peace, security, and prosperity cannot be sustained if national governments repress their citizens, stifle their media, or imprison members of the political opposition. Authoritarian regimes become increasingly unstable as citizens chafe under the bonds of persecution and violence, and pose a danger not only to their citizens, but also to neighboring nations. The Helsinki Commission strives to ensure that the protection of human rights and defense of democratic values are central to U.S. foreign policy; that they are applied consistently in U.S. relations with other countries; that violations of Helsinki provisions are given full consideration in U.S. policymaking; and that the United States holds those who repress their citizens accountable for their actions. This includes battling corruption; protecting the fundamental freedoms of all people, especially those who historically have been persecuted and marginalized; promoting the sustainable management of resources; and balancing national security interests with respect for human rights to achieve long-term positive outcomes rather than short-term gains.
Max Kampelman Fellowships
The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe seeks candidates for its Max Kampelman Fellowship program. Named for a longtime U.S. Ambassador to the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, Kampelman Fellows represent the next generation of American leaders in security policy, human rights, and strategic communications. Kampelman Fellows join a team of world-class experts at an independent, bicameral, bipartisan, inter-branch federal agency. The Helsinki Commission advances American national security and national interests by promoting human rights, military security, and economic cooperation in 57 countries. Kampelman Fellowships last three months, with fellows expected to work 30 hours per week. Fellows are paid $25 per hour and are offered ongoing enrichment, professional development, and networking opportunities facilitated by senior commission staff. Meet the current Kampelman Fellows. Policy Fellowships Policy fellows will work in political and military affairs, economic and environmental matters, or respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, based on their areas of interest, expertise, and needs of the Commission. Under the direction of commission policy advisors, policy fellows research topics and trends relating to international military, economic, and human rights issues throughout the 57-country OSCE region; assist staff advisors with hearings, briefings, congressional delegations, legislation, and publications; attend congressional hearings, panels, and events; and perform administrative duties. Each fellow is expected to write at least one article for potential publication on the commission website during his or her fellowship period. Communications Fellowships Under the direction of the communications director, communications fellows support projects and initiatives in all areas of the commission’s portfolio. Communications fellows assist with media outreach activities; help publicize Commission hearings and briefings; staff Commission events; develop web content; and craft creative and engaging content to be shared on social media. They also assist with other special communications projects and perform administrative duties. Each fellow is expected to write at least one article for publication on the commission website during his or her fellowship period. Qualifications The Kampelman Fellowship program is open to recent undergraduates (the beginning of the fellowship term should be less than one year since graduation), current graduate students, and undergraduate students with previous internship experience. All Kampelman Fellowship candidates should have a keen interest in learning more about international affairs, the inner workings of Congress, and the relationship between the legislative and executive branches in the realm of foreign policy. Proficiency in a second OSCE language is an asset. Pursuant to Section 704 of the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2017, Pub. L. No. 115-31 (May 5, 2017), as amended, an applicant must be one of the following: (1) a citizen of the United States; (2) a person who is lawfully admitted for permanent residence and is seeking citizenship as outlined in 8 U.S.C. 1324b(a)(3)(B); (3) a person who is admitted as a refugee under 8 U.S.C. 1157 or is granted asylum under 8 U.S.C. 1158 and has filed a declaration of intention to become a lawful permanent resident and then a citizen when eligible; or (4) a person who owes allegiance to the United States. Policy-Focused Fellows: A broad liberal arts education is ideal. Applicants should demonstrate excellent writing, analysis, research, and oral presentation skills, as well as an interest in government, international relations, and human rights. Communications-Focused Fellows: Candidates with a focus on marketing, communications, journalism, public relations, or related disciplines are encouraged to apply. Applicants should demonstrate excellent writing and editing skills; a good working knowledge of photography, cutting-edge web content management systems, and new media platforms; and an interest in government, international relations, and human rights. How to Apply Please send the following application package to csce[dot]fellowships[at]mail[dot]house[dot]gov. Brief cover letter indicating the following: Why you want to work for the Commission, including relevant background or personal experiences Your specific areas of interest as they relate to the work of the Commission Your availability (start and end dates, as well as hours per week) Résumé of no more than two pages Academic transcript(s) (official or unofficial) Writing sample of three pages or less In the subject line of your e-mail application, please indicate whether you are applying for a policy fellowship or a communications fellowship and for which term you are applying. Only complete applications received by the deadline will be considered. Please do not contact the commission, or the offices of our commissioners, to inquire about the status of your application. Finalists will be notified if they have been selected for an interview. Upcoming Terms and Application Deadlines Spring 2022 (January 18 – April 22): Deadline for applications is November 5, 2021 at 11:59 PM EST Summer 2022 (April 25 – July 29): Applications will be accepted from October 25 until January 25, 2022 at 11:59 PM EST Fall 2022 (September 12 – December 16): Applications will be accepted from March 12 until June 12, 2022 at 11:59 PM EST
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.