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First Person: #UkraineElections2019
Friday, April 19, 2019

By Rachel Bauman, Policy Advisor
and Kyle Parker, Senior Senate Staff Representative

 

Bright morning sunlight streamed through the windows of School No. 119 in Odesa as the first ballot was cast for the March 31 presidential election in Ukraine. We, along with our third team member, a Danish parliamentarian, had arrived an hour earlier to watch as a stern but amiable middle-aged woman—who seemed especially proud to speak Ukrainian to her Russian-speaking electoral commission colleagues—instructed them on proper procedure for the day. The ballot boxes must be sealed properly, privacy in the voting booths maintained, proper identification verified, and voter lists checked and double checked. Coffee, tea, and small talk were in good supply to combat the grogginess of a morning made even earlier by the switch to daylight savings time shortly after midnight on election day.

Ukraine Election Observation | March 31, 2019

This election, with 39 candidates vying for the presidency, required the longest ballot in Ukraine’s history at 80 centimeters (more than two and a half feet) long. Not only did this present a printing challenge, but we saw numerous voters seeming to wonder just how many folds would be needed to easily deposit their ballot through the narrow slot and preserve the secrecy of their selection. Ukraine’s election law is surprisingly strict in this regard and imposes criminal penalties on voters who deliberately reveal their selections, whether by showing someone personally, taking a picture of their ballot, or bringing someone else into the voting booth with them. Notably, we observed no incidence of anyone deliberately violating ballot secrecy.

We were among over a thousand foreign observers of the election invited by the Government of Ukraine, consistent with its OSCE commitments. We joined approximately 100,000 domestic observers to inspect the nearly 30,000 electoral precincts across the country—excluding parts of the Donbas and Crimea, due to the ongoing war and Russia’s illegal occupation, respectively. All of the domestic observers that we encountered were observing on behalf of an individual candidate, usually for Yuriy Boyko, Petro Poroshenko, or Yulia Tymoshenko. We did not encounter any of the foreign and domestic NGOs also observing the election.

Throughout the day, we traveled to numerous polling stations, spending almost an hour at each, to watch for irregularities or violations of election law. Most electoral commissioners went out of their way to proudly display what was an organized and transparent electoral system. All afforded us full access to every part of the voting process. A few commissioners even seemed flattered to host foreign observers from the OSCE, an acronym well known in Ukraine for the prominent role the OSCE has played in assessing previous elections, including those that led to the Orange Revolution in 2004 and that served to ratify the dramatic change of government in 2014.

In any election observation, the most critical part of election day is the counting of ballots after the polls have closed and unused ballots have been checked against the total numbers of ballots issued and votes cast. With these procedures scrupulously followed, the chairwoman at the precinct where we were assigned gave the okay to open the ballot boxes and tally the votes. By that time, the sun had set and the flickering fluorescent lighting in the school hallway where the voting took place was so dim and distracting that everyone—commissioners, observers, and the school’s custodial staff—moved tables, chairs, and the sealed ballot boxes to a better lit atrium so a proper count could proceed. One by one, a grinning commissioner (we later discovered he was candidate Volodymyr Zelenskiy ’s representative on the commission) cut the plastic seals on each box and, with pomp, dumped their contents onto a table surrounded by other commissioners eager to see who won and to finish the work they had begun before sunrise, some 18 hours earlier.

First, the control sheet deposited in each box before the polls opened was located and set aside. Then, the chairwoman divided the candidates among commissioners so they could begin to stack ballots as they were unfolded and inspected. On a few occasions, a voter’s selection was unclear and so the ballot was presented to the entire commission for scrutiny, followed by a vote on how and whether to record the ambiguous ballot. Many of the 39 candidates on the ballot received no votes and there was often a wisecrack and laughter when any of these candidates received a vote, or even two! Despite the daunting fullness of the ballot boxes, due in part to the physical size of the ballot, the count proceeded apace with only a couple instances of needing to recount a candidate’s stack of votes to reconcile the final numbers needed for the formal protocol. This document would soon be posted outside the precinct for public inspection and sent up the chain to be included in the national tally.

Security throughout the count was so strict that an ailing observer was nearly prohibited from leaving the precinct while the count was underway. After seeking the approval of the commission chairwoman, police finally unlocked the doors and allowed the observer to depart. These rules, as explained to us, were in place to prohibit any ballots from being brought into or out of the precinct. Based on the increasing grumblings of commissioners as night turned to early morning, this prohibition on leaving seemed to motivate commissioners to stay focused on their duties lest they risk witnessing another sunrise at their polling station.

The OSCE’s post-election preliminary statement corresponded to our observation of a smooth, even festive in some cases, electoral process that complied with Ukraine’s domestic laws and fulfilled the country’s international commitments. Given the frequent opportunities Ukraine has had to exercise its democratic muscle in recent years, few on the international observation mission led by the OSCE expected anything but the free and fair process we witnessed. As the gold standard of international election observation, the OSCE’s recommendations over many electoral cycles have helped Ukrainian officials to improve the conduct of their elections. Further, praise from the OSCE following election day is powerful validation of the process in the eyes of Ukraine’s voters and gives other states a democratic model to emulate.

No sooner had the election ended than the hundreds of thousands of electoral commissioners overseeing Ukraine’s nearly 30,000 local electoral precincts started to prepare for the presidential runoff election on April 21—this time with just two names on the ballot and a decisive outcome. These commissioners are the unsung heroes of a maturing democracy that is simultaneously at war in the East and on an irreversible path to the West. At least they will get a proper break before having to, once again, regroup and oversee Ukraine’s parliamentary elections expected to take place in the fall of this year.

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  • Remarks from Sen. Cardin Concerning COVID-19 Emergency Responses

    OSCE PA Webinar: Respecting Human Rights And Maintaining Democratic Control During States of Emergency Thank you, Mr. President Tsereteli and Secretary General Montella, for organizing this dialogue.  Director Gisladottir and Mr. Abramowitz, thank you for the work each of you is doing to shine a light on the human rights and democracy implications of emergency measures introduced in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as the implications of other government actions taken during this public health crisis that may threaten the health of our democracies. As parliamentarians, we have a responsibility to ensure that the measures we introduce and which our governments implement are consistent with OSCE standards on human rights and democracy, including the 1991 Moscow Document’s commitments regarding states of emergency. Those actions must be necessary, proportional, transparent, and temporary. Emergency provisions which restrict freedom of speech or freedom of the media are especially concerning and may actually undermine our efforts to address this health emergency. We need to ensure that journalists, medical professionals, scientists and others can provide the public with information we need to battle covid.  Muzzling independent voices undermines public confidence in government at a time when that confidence and public cooperation is critical to the success of the safety measures we need.  And yes, sometimes this means governments are going to hear they they’re not getting it right and sometimes governments will need to make course corrections. But there’s a big difference between addressing bad news and suppressing bad news.  A robust civil society is a critical partner to each of our governments and will strengthen our resilience.  Unfortunately, just this virus exploits vulnerabilities of pre-existing conditions, some governments may exploit the human rights limitations already in place before this pandemic, including laws or practices that unduly restrict civil society, or limit the freedoms of expression, association, or assembly. President Tseretelli, your appointment of a Special Representative on Civil Society last August could not have come at a more important time.  I hope members of this assembly will advance efforts to protect the core fundamental freedoms that are essential for civil society voices to be heard and support the work of my colleague, Special Representative Pia Kauma. We also need to ensure that civil society voices continue to be heard within the OSCE.  As we look ahead to how the participating States organize human dimension activities this year, and particularly the annual Human Dimension Implementation Meeting, it is critical that we preserve the access and openness that have made the OSCE such an important forum for human right defenders.  Whether OSCE meetings are in person or online, those standards of access should be preserved. Finally, democratic institutions, including as the rule of law, the independence of the judiciary, and free elections, must be preserved even during states of emergency.  I think this is really one of the most important contributions of the 1991 Moscow Document — it speaks to these exact points: “A state of public emergency may not be used to subvert the democratic constitutional order.” “The participating States will endeavor to ensure that the normal functioning of the legislative bodies will be guaranteed to the highest possible extent during a state of public emergency.”  “The participating States will endeavor to ensure that the legal guarantees necessary to uphold the rule of law will remain in force during a state of public emergency.”  We may need to make changes in how our courts hear cases or the mechanics of our elections.  But a health emergency does not diminish our commitment to ensure the integrity of our democratic institutions. The United States will proceed with our elections in a manner that ensures the public’s safety and respects the rights of voters, and consistent with our OSCE commitments.  Thank you.

  • Respecting Human Rights and Maintaining Democratic Control during States of Emergency

    Statement at the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly Webinar: Respecting Human Rights and Maintaining Democratic Control during States of Emergency President Tsereteli, Secretary General Montella, it is good hear from you.  I am pleased to see that this Assembly has found ways to communicate, cooperate and collaborate — in spite of the distances that keep us apart, and as an expression of our shared commitments to our roles as legislators. At last year’s annual session, I was the lead sponsor of a supplementary item on “the role of civil society — individuals and non-governmental organizations — in realizing the aims and aspirations of the OSCE.”  The resolution we adopted in Luxembourg acknowledges the critical role civil society plays in enhancing security and cooperation across all OSCE dimensions. I appreciate President Tsereteli appointing our colleague, the Honorable Pia Kauma, as the Assembly’s Special Representative to be an advocate for civil society engagement and she has done a great job so far. I am sorry, but not surprised that some governments have taken the need for emergency measures as an opportunity for repressive measures. Hungary is the only OSCE participating State that does not have a sunset clause for the expiration of its emergency measures, or requiring parliamentary approval for an extension.  Parliamentary oversight is absolutely essential, especially when governments seek to exercise extraordinary powers. I believe we must also pay particular attention to those measures that relate to freedoms of assembly, association, and expression.  I am also troubled by the heavy-handed disciplinary and punitive approach utilized in some areas, which exacerbates existing discriminatory and unconstitutional policing.  I want to thank you, Director Gisladottir, for your attention to this and speaking out against the hate crimes and scapegoating of minorities, refugees and migrants. In the next legislation that will come before the U.S. Congress, I will support provisions to address hate crimes and other forms of discrimination in our societies recently highlighted by the pandemic. The February 25 profiling murder of Ahmaud Aubrey by his neighbors in the state of Georgia demonstrates the urgency of our fight for equity and justice for all beyond our current crisis. But I would like to pause here for a moment, to reflect on violations of fundamental freedoms that some governments had already imposed even before now.  If a law or practice violated OSCE human rights and democracy norms before the pandemic, circumstances now will surely not cure that violation. Threats against journalists, restrictions on academic freedom, imprisoning people for their political views, and impeding or even criminalizing NGOs’ access to and communication within and outside their own countries — all of that is still inconsistent with OSCE commitments, and the pandemic does not change that.  Principle VII of the Helsinki Final Act still holds: individuals still have the right to know and act upon their rights. I therefore add my voice to the international calls from OSCE institutional bodies and others around the world for the release of all prisoners of conscience given this pandemic. Prison populations are particularly susceptible to community spread. To address dangerous overcrowding, governments should work first and foremost to release those imprisoned for exercising their internationally recognized rights or those wrongly imprisoned contrary to international commitments.  I regret Turkey's decision in particular to approve a plan to release 90,000 prisoners that excluded relief for any of the thousands of political prisoners, including opposition politicians, civil society activists, employees of U.S. diplomatic missions, and many more. Which brings me back to the important work of Special Representative Kauma.  Civil society is not a luxury, it is essential.  If anything, it becomes even more important during an emergency when governments may legitimately exercise powers, but those powers may not be unlimited, unchecked, or unending.  A vibrant civil society plays a critical role in holding governments to account, particularly at times of great social stress.  Those human rights groups, the parent-teacher organizations, book clubs, or food banks— all enrich our societies. Colleagues, this pandemic has upended elections across the OSCE region.  According to the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly’s factsheet, forty OSCE participating States — including my own — have elections scheduled for this year. As we all rise to meet the challenge of conducting elections safely, we must maintain transparency regarding the entire electoral process, especially any changes to the timing of elections, methods of voting, or measures that impact campaigning.  The United States is already debating these issues in preparation for November. Even in a pandemic, international and domestic election observation remains vital.  We must find a solution to ensure that they are engaged and included even now. 

  • Hastings, Wicker, Moore, and Hudson Mark the Third Anniversary of Joseph Stone’s Death in Ukraine

    WASHINGTON—Three years after the death of Joseph Stone, a U.S. paramedic serving with the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission (SMM) in Ukraine, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) recalled Stone’s tragic death in the Russia-driven conflict and lamented the suffering of civilians who remain the chief victims of Kremlin aggression.  Stone was killed on April 23, 2017, when his vehicle struck a landmine in Russian-controlled territory in eastern Ukraine. “Another year has passed since Joseph Stone lost his life, and still Moscow’s war in eastern Ukraine rages on,” said Chairman Hastings. “Stone was killed as he helped document the senseless human suffering inflicted by the Kremlin’s assault on Ukraine. Even amidst a global pandemic, we must not forget the civilians with courage like Stone, who remain on the frontlines of conflict zones globally.” Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) underlined the Russian Government’s responsibility for the war’s ongoing toll and affirmed that the Kremlin would continue to face consequences for its aggression. “The Kremlin continues to fuel this war while denying its direct involvement,” said Co-Chairman Wicker. “Joseph Stone’s death three years ago was a direct result of Russian aggression, which is only part of Vladimir Putin’s broader campaign against Ukraine. Our sanctions will remain in place until Moscow changes course and Ukraine’s territorial integrity is restored.” Helsinki Commissioner Rep. Gwen Moore (WI-04) celebrated Stone’s contributions to regional security and condemned the threats OSCE monitors continue to face in the field. “Born in my district in Milwaukee, Joseph Stone was a courageous young man whose life tragically ended much too soon.  All OSCE states, including Russia, must do everything possible to support the OSCE monitors who, to this day, face unacceptable threats and restrictions as they shine a light on the daily cost of this needless war,” said Rep. Moore. Helsinki Commissioner Rep. Richard Hudson (NC-08), who also chairs the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly Committee on Political Affairs and Security, called for the immediate lifting of new, baseless restrictions imposed by Russian-led forces under the pretext of COVID-19. “Even as OSCE monitors seek to report on the COVID-19 outbreak’s impact on vulnerable populations, Russian-controlled forces are using so-called quarantine restrictions to deny them access,” Rep. Hudson said.  “The increasing limitations by Moscow-led forces also stall crucial humanitarian shipments and services by international organizations. This obstruction and harassment must cease immediately.” The SMM was established in 2014 to monitor implementation of the Minsk agreements, which were designed to bring peace to eastern Ukraine. It is an unarmed, civilian mission that serves as the international community’s eyes and ears on the security and humanitarian situation in the conflict zone. The SMM operates under a mandate adopted by consensus among the 57 OSCE participating States, including the United States, Russia, and Ukraine. It currently fields roughly 750 monitors, approximately 600 of whom are in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of Ukraine. The United States supports the SMM by providing 54 monitors (the largest contingent) and has contributed more than $140 million to the mission since its inception.

  • Chairman Hastings Denounces Unchecked Power Granted To Hungary’s Prime Minister Orban

    WASHINGTON—Following the Hungarian Parliament’s decision on Monday to accept Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s request for unlimited power to rule by decree in response to the coronavirus pandemic, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) issued the following statement: “Prime Minister Orban has taken gross advantage of the fear and uncertainty brought on by a global pandemic to secure the power to rule by decree in perpetuity. Instead of focusing on the well-being of Hungarian citizens likely to suffer from the coronavirus, he has chosen to prioritize preserving his parliamentary majority and permanently consolidating his control of the Hungarian Government.  “At both the global and national levels, defeating the coronavirus will require extraordinary social solidarity, not unchecked executive power.  The further concentration of powers in Hungary will only pave the way for the further concentration of corruption.” Among other provisions, the new law allows for up to a five-year prison sentence for spreading false or distorted information regarding the fight against the coronavirus, which could be used against journalists reporting on the state of Hungary’s hospitals or health care delivery.  The law also suspends elections.  Hungary has recently completed a cycle of elections (parliamentary, European Parliament, and municipal) with no other major elections scheduled until 2022. In the meantime, by-elections and referenda are prohibited.  The law, which lacks a sunset clause, may only be repealed by a two-thirds vote of parliament, or terminated by the Prime Minister himself. In 1991, Hungary—along with all other OSCE participating States—adopted the Moscow Document in the aftermath of a coup attempt in Russia. The agreement includes specific provisions on states of emergency.  In particular, the OSCE participating States agreed to “in conformity with international standards regarding the freedom of expression, take no measures aimed at barring journalists from the legitimate exercise of their profession other than those strictly required by the exigencies of the situation.”   On March 30, OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) Director Ingibjörg Sólrún Gísladóttir warned that emergency legislation being adopted by governments across the OSCE region, including Hungary, must include a time limit and guarantee parliamentary oversight. Since 2010, Viktor Orban has systematically dismantled a system of checks and balances, facilitating the consolidation of control by the Fidesz government. In April 2019, the Helsinki Commission hosted a briefing to explore developments in Hungary, including issues related to the rule of law and corruption.  

  • E.U. Tries Gentle Diplomacy to Counter Hungary’s Crackdown on Democracy

    European leaders were reluctant to pick a fight with Prime Minister Viktor Orban a day after he secured powers to rule by decree indefinitely. BRUSSELS — The European Union’s written response to Hungary’s effective suspension of democracy omitted one important word: Hungary. A day after the Hungarian Parliament passed sweeping emergency measures allowing the far-right populist leader Viktor Orban to rule by decree indefinitely, ostensibly as part of the country’s response to the coronavirus, the European Commission on Tuesday reminded its members to respect rights. But it was a muted first response from the one institution that can take on Mr. Orban, and it appeared aimed at balancing the political imperative of cooperation in the era of the coronavirus with the risk of emboldening him. “It’s of utmost importance that emergency measures are not at the expense of our fundamental principles and values,” Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, said in a statement that made no mention of Mr. Orban or Hungary. The European Commission is the European Union’s executive branch, and it often describes itself as “the guardian of the treaty” that created the bloc of 27 democracies. But Mr. Orban has long been in an open struggle with parts of that treaty. He has said frankly that he does not believe in liberal democracy — which the European Commission says is fundamental to the European Union’s values. The severe measures adopted Monday in Budapest may dramatically ratchet up the confrontation between the Orban government and European Union institutions in Brussels. Hungary’s new legislation suspends elections and also allows the prime minister to suspend existing laws and rule by decree. One vaguely worded section also says that people found to be spreading “falsehoods” or “distorted truths” that obstruct the authorities from protecting the public may be punished with prison sentences of up to five years. That new tool that may allow Mr. Orban to further curb the press freedoms long in his cross hairs. To be sure, in the face of the epidemic, European countries have all to lesser or greater extent adopted emergency measures curbing liberties, including measures that require citizens to register any movement and observe curfews. But Hungary’s new rules are the most far reaching. And rights experts, political analysts and academics say that, given Mr. Orban’s track record and espousal of “illiberal democracy,” the measures he says he is taking to fight the virus could become fixtures in Hungarian public life, used to crack down on opposition well after the threat of the virus passes. European Union officials believe that the statement issued Tuesday, which came from Ms. von der Leyen personally, sent a clear message to Mr. Orban — even without naming him. European Commission lawyers are now closely watching how he enforces Hungary’s new measures, the officials said. But they said that now — as Europe battles to stem the spread of the virus and mitigate its catastrophic economic damage, and with many nations suspending some liberties — was not the moment to pick a fight with just one member. That measured approach surprised some observers, despite the fact that the commission often takes a conciliatory stance toward wayward members in a bid to entice them to reform voluntarily. (That has never worked with Hungary.) “It is bizarre,” Daniel Freund, a member of the European Parliament who belongs to the German Greens political party, said of Ms. von der Leyen’s statement. “The decision that the Hungarian Parliament took yesterday is a watershed moment,” Mr. Freund said. “Now you have to do something, or we really lose democracies.” Mr. Freund and other members of the European Parliament believe that even before the European Commission opens a formal investigation into Hungary’s new law, which would take months, it should use existing rules to put pressure on Mr. Orban. “If we end up after the crisis with a virus well fought but democracy lost in several member states, that’s an unacceptable situation,” Mr. Freund said. Daniel Kelemen, a professor European Union politics and law at Rutgers University, said the epidemic could prove an opportunity for the Hungarian leader. “Throughout his consolidation of power, Orban has counted on the European Union to be distracted with other crises,” he said. “But now,” Mr. Kelemen said, “the scale of this crisis does call for consolidation of power for the executive, so it gives him more effective cover for this next stage of escalation.” Mr. Orban’s hold on power was unparalleled by European Union standards well before Monday’s vote authorizing him to rule by decree. In practical terms, Mr. Orban and his allies already controlled the legislative and executives branches of government, and had stacked the Constitutional Court. With Mr. Orban’s parliamentary opposition unable to slow his political machine, the European Union has shown itself to be the only entity capable of curbing his power, but the results have been mixed. Lengthy and cumbersome European Union legal proceedings could not stop Mr. Orban and his allies from taking over the Hungarian media landscape, weakening the independence of the judiciary, levying a special tax on nongovernmental organizations receiving foreign funding, or ejecting the Central European University from the country. In the end it may be Mr. Orban’s love for European financial aid, not freedoms, that acts as a brake on his government. “Aware that the European Union is watching, Orban is likely to tread modestly at first,” said Mujtaba Rahman, the head of Europe at Eurasia Group consultancy. “He will not wish to put at risk the €5.6 billion windfall granted to Hungary by the European Parliament last week as its portion in the union’s efforts to battle the coronavirus." President Trump has warmly embraced Mr. Orban. Mr. Trump’s ambassador in Hungary has spoken glowingly about Mr. Orban’s grip on power and said that Mr. Trump would love to have the powers of his Hungarian counterpart. But Mr. Orban’s autocratic tendencies have long alarmed others in Washington, particularly lawmakers who serve on the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, known as the Helsinki Commission. A congressional delegation visited Hungary last year to investigate democratic backsliding.

  • Helsinki Commission Leaders Commend Political Compromise in Georgia

    WASHINGTON—After a March 8 announcement that Georgia’s political leadership reached a deal paving the way for the adoption of compromise electoral reforms ahead of the October 2020 parliamentary election, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) and Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) released the following statements: “Debate and compromise, two hallmarks of democracy, have rebuilt hope that Georgia’s leaders can bridge divisions and meet the demands of the people for accountability in electoral processes and outcomes,” Chairman Hastings said. “Having led an international election observation mission to Georgia, I commend the hard work it took to reach this agreement and the role of international ambassadors, particularly U.S. Ambassador Kelly Degnan, in facilitating it. As the agreement’s implementation proceeds, I hope to see prioritization of the parties’ joint commitment to address perceptions of politically-motivated criminal charges in recent months.” During the January 2008 presidential election in Georgia, Chairman Hastings served as head of the OSCE PA election observation mission and was appointed by the OSCE Chairman-in-Office as the Special Coordinator leading all OSCE short-term observers. “As a longtime champion of the United States’ strategic partnership with Georgia, I am glad to see Georgia’s political leaders take the path of dialogue to resolve this months-long crisis,” said Co-Chairman Wicker. “The coming months should serve as an opportunity for the Georgian people to regain confidence in the ability of their democratic institutions to represent their voices and render independent justice.” In December 2019, Co-Chairman Wicker sent a letter to Georgian Prime Minister Giorgi Gakharia urging the ruling Georgian Dream party to address growing public discontent with preparations for the 2020 national election and a string of decisions that undermined public confidence in the rule of law. Since November, Georgia has been embroiled in a political crisis sparked by the surprise defeat in parliament of constitutional amendments that would have transitioned the country to a fully proportional electoral system for 2020 parliamentary elections. In response to a political crisis last summer, Georgian Dream Party Chairman Bidzina Ivanishvili pledged his party would pass the amendments, which enjoyed broad support from Georgian political factions and international democracy advocates. Despite this pledge, a group of Georgian Dream parliamentarians voted last month to scuttle the proposal, prompting angry reactions across the Georgian political spectrum. This political controversy coincided with criminal prosecutions against several prominent opposition figures that created the appearance of selective enforcement of the law. Georgian Dream parliamentarians also disregarded an opposition boycott last week to approve 14 justices to lifetime appointments on the Supreme Court despite serious questions about some of their legal qualifications. 

  • Human Rights and Democracy

    For nearly three decades, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) has been at the forefront of efforts to promote human rights and democracy throughout the 57-nation OSCE region. Although best known for international election observation, ODIHR has also been instrumental in countering various forms of intolerance, helping governments combat human trafficking, protecting human rights defenders, and implementing OSCE commitments to fundamental freedoms. The U.S. Helsinki Commission convened the hearing to demonstrate bipartisan support for ODIHR, to reinforce the U.S.’s support related OSCE initiatives, and to hear about the ongoing work of ODIHR.  Commission Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) chaired the hearing and was joined by Commissioners Rep. Robert Aderholt (AL-04), Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), Rep. Gwen Moore (WI-04), and Rep. Marc Veasey (TX-33). Rep. Wilson’s opening remarks highlighted the historic achievements of ODIHR, which include assisting countries to “transition from communism to democracy,” supporting “civil society participation in OSCE events,” and facilitating “strong cooperation with the Parliamentary Assembly.”  In her first appearance before Congress, ODIHR Director Ambassador Ingibjörg Sólrún Gísladóttir addressed multiple challenges that have impeded the effectiveness of ODIHR activities. She then outlined ODIHR’s role in offering proactive solutions.  In particular, Ambassador Gísladóttir stressed the importance of dialogue and asserted that democracy is about “respect and trust, an acceptance of differing opinions, an exchange of views, and the willingness to share power and seek compromise.” She concluded on an optimistic note, emphasizing unity within the OSCE and its “commitment to democracy and to the wellbeing of its people.” Although conscious of ODIHR’s efforts, commissioners voiced concerns that some OSCE participating States are not complying with their commitments to uphold basic human rights standards. Commissioners specifically acknowledged restrictions on religious freedom in Russia, poor conditions for activists and journalists, and rising anti-Semitism and discrimination against the Roma people across the region. This hearing continued the Helsinki Commission practice of regularly engaging with senior OSCE officials.The Commission typically holds hearing with the foreign minister of the country holding the rotating chairmanship of the OSCE. The Commission has also held hearings with previous ODIHR directors as well as the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media.

  • 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.

  • Director of OSCE Office For Democratic Institutions and Human Rights to Testify at Helsinki Commission Hearing

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following hearing: HUMAN RIGHTS AND DEMOCRACY Obstacles and Opportunities in the OSCE Region Wednesday, January 29, 2020 10:00 a.m. Longworth House Office Building Room 1334 Live Webcast: www.youtube.com/HelsinkiCommission For nearly three decades, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) has been at the forefront of efforts to promote human rights and democracy throughout the 57-nation OSCE region. In her first appearance before Congress, ODIHR Director Ambassador Ingibjörg Sólrún Gísladóttir will discuss the organization’s flagship work in international election observation; countering anti-Semitism and other forms of intolerance; and helping governments to combat human trafficking, protect human rights defenders, and better implement their commitments to fundamental freedoms including assembly and religion. The OSCE, the world’s largest regional security body, is based on a comprehensive concept of security that recognizes that respect for human rights and functioning democratic institutions underpin regional peace and security. ODIHR provides support, assistance, and expertise to participating States and civil society to promote democracy, rule of law, human rights, and tolerance and non-discrimination. ODIHR observes elections at the invitation of participating States, reviews legislation, and advises governments on how to develop and sustain democratic institutions. The office also works closely with the OSCE’s field operations and organizes Europe’s largest annual human rights meeting, bringing together annually hundreds of government officials, international experts, civil society representatives and human rights activists.  

  • 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.

  • First Person: Nothing Unusual

    By Rachel Bauman, Policy Advisor Election day began like every November day in Belarus: black. Without the time change that makes a late-autumn morning in DC bearable, darkness enveloped Belarus until almost 9:00 a.m. We would be rising much earlier than that to observe the opening of the polls for the November 17 parliamentary election. This was my second election observation, after the first round of the Ukrainian presidential election in March 2019. That election was widely considered free and fair—a great achievement for a new democracy plagued by a Soviet legacy. In Belarus, the last election generally considered free and fair was the 1994 election of President Alexander Lukashenko, who remains in power, with essentially complete control over the government, 25 years later.   Most Belarus-watchers suspected that much of the number-fudging was done before the arrival of election day observers. Early voting took place throughout the week before election day, providing an opportunity to inflate turnout numbers. Multiple opposition candidates could not even make it on the ballot due to selectively-imposed restrictions and technicalities applied to stamp out the competition well before voting took place. Neither I nor the other members of my election observation team (two diplomats already in Minsk: one from the U.S. Embassy, and one from the Swedish Embassy), expected many surprises from the conduct and outcome of the elections. The day started smoothly enough, with a standard, albeit sparsely attended, opening. As we moved on to other polling stations throughout the day, the conditions were mainly the same: observers registered with the chair of the election commission for that precinct and were seated at a table specifically for observers, both national and international. Sign directing voters to polling sites in Belarus. Because the vast majority of OSCE PA observers remained in the Minsk region, and we had traveled a few hours northeast to Vitebsk, we came across only Belarusian observers, whether from trade unions, political parties, or other groups. The observer tables were far enough away from the action that in most cases we could not see much of the voter sign-in and identification check process. When we asked to see the voter lists, we were denied in multiple instances. This was startling for me; in Ukraine, we wandered freely throughout polling stations and had access to everything. Nevertheless, the mood was festive and the people friendly. Music—from disco to Soviet favorites to patriotic tunes—played in the background at several polling places. We received candies in one location and a proud explanation of the region’s main industry in another. A few photos were taken with us, and at one polling place a neighboring observer remarked how interested she was that I had come all the way from the United States just for the election in Belarus! Despite the fun and frivolity, it became clear to us by the end of the day that, though we had seen no gross violations in conduct, the whole process lacked the transparency I had witnessed in Ukraine, or that should be expected in any OSCE country committed to democratic norms.   Nowhere was this more apparent than during the count. As usual, we were confined to the observers’ table just far enough from where the action was taking place to limit real observation. The mobile voting, early voting, and election day ballots were collected and counted in one pile, silently. Because we could not fully see or hear the count, there was no way of knowing whether it was accurate, even though the precinct chairwoman came over occasionally to riffle through the marked ballots for us. By only 9:15 p.m.—the polls had closed at 8—the count was finished and a winner declared. Votes being counted at a polling site. Our next step was to follow our companions from the polling station to the District Election Commission, where they would deliver the results protocol and election materials. After watching a few deliveries from around the area and encountering many familiar faces from earlier in the day, we decided to head back to the hotel, arriving at a remarkably early 10:30 p.m. Though it was still a long and exhausting day, many such elections, including the one I’d observed in Ukraine, had counts lasting long into the night. The next morning’s results were both surprising and unsurprising. It was no great shock to see that the reported turnout was over 77 percent—suspiciously high for elections to a body with no real power. According to the Statement of Preliminary Findings and Conclusions, the OSCE International Election Observation Mission noted that early voting turnout in particular (35.77 percent) seemed inflated compared to the reports of observers. More disturbingly, not a single opposition candidate was elected (there had been two in the previous parliament). That Lukashenko would not permit even a semblance of pluralism calls into question the seriousness of his seeming attempts to court the West when faced with a revanchist and controlling Russia—a topic which the U.S. Helsinki Commission explored in a hearing held shortly after the election. Observers would be wise to watch the trajectory of the country as Lukashenko navigates his tricky relationships with the West and Russia. Ultimately, stability—in large part the stability of his own job—will be first in his mind as the 2020 Belarusian presidential election swiftly approaches. A major political upheaval is not likely in the cards. When my colleague stationed in Grodna asked a young independent observer if he’d seen anything interesting or unusual during election day, the observer responded, “Unusual? No. Nothing unusual. This is Belarus. There has been nothing unusual for 25 years.”

  • 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.

  • Helsinki Commissioners Introduce Ukraine Religious Freedom Support Act

    WASHINGTON—Helsinki Commission Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) and Commissioner Rep.  Emanuel Cleaver, II (MO-05) yesterday introduced the bipartisan Ukraine Religious Freedom Support Act (H.R. 5408) in the House of Representatives. The legislation combats Russia’s religious freedom violations in the Crimea and Donbas regions of Ukraine. Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) plans to introduce a companion bill in the Senate next week. “For more than five years, Russia has illegally occupied Crimea and controlled part of the Donbas with the armed groups it commands. Kremlin personnel and proxies abduct, imprison, and torture people in those regions for their faith,” said Rep. Wilson. “Russian officials are culpable, and this bill helps ensure they are held accountable.” “The Kremlin persecutes peaceful religious communities in occupied Crimea and crony-controlled eastern Donbas even more brutally and broadly than it does in Russia,” said Rep. Cleaver. “The Russian Government is violating international humanitarian law and its international commitments to respect and protect religious freedom. Creating consequences for the Kremlin for this lawlessness will mean justice for the people of Ukraine.” 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 clarifies that Russia should be held responsible for violations in territory it occupies illegally or controls, 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 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 illegally occupy it. Since April 2014, Russia has controlled parts of the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine with non-state armed groups and illegal entities it commands. 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. Original co-sponsors of the legislation include Helsinki Commissioners Rep. Gwen S. Moore (WI-04), Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (PA-01), Rep. Marc A. Veasey (TX-33), and Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09). Rep. Anna G. Eshoo (CA-18), Rep. Mark Meadows (NC-11), Rep. Mike Quigley (IL-05), Rep. Gus M. Bilirakis (FL-12), Rep. Daniel W. Lipinski (IL-03), Rep. Andy Harris, M.D. (MD-01), and Rep. Marcy Kaptur (OH-09) are also original co-sponsors.

  • Public Diplomacy, Democracy, and Global Leadership

    For more than a century, the United States has advanced shared human rights, economic, and security policy goals in the transatlantic relationship by cultivating people-to-people ties through public diplomacy initiatives.  As democracies around the world face new challenges emanating from demographic shifts, technological advancements, and evolving security threats, the need for public diplomacy initiatives that cultivate leaders who espouse democratic principles, including inclusive and representative governance, grows more relevant. The U.S. Helsinki Commission convened a hearing to focus on U.S.-led public diplomacy international exchange initiatives that strengthen democratic institutions by targeting young and diverse leaders, encouraging civic engagement, and fostering social inclusion and cohesion in the OSCE region. Presiding over the hearing, Chairman Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) stated, “This year, under my leadership, the Helsinki Commission has held events on the importance of international election observation, good governance, and focused on democratic backsliding in particular countries as part of our continued commitment to the underlying principles of the Helsinki Final Act.  Common to all of these issues is the role good leaders can play in ensuring free and fair elections; laws that are equitable, transparent, and enforced; and laying the groundwork to ensure protections and rights for all in their constituencies […] for the long-term stability of our nation and the transatlantic partnership.”  In his opening remarks, Chairman Hastings also noted that he planned to introduce legislation to support of leadership exchanges and knowledge-building between diverse transatlantic policymakers, and to encourage representative democracies. He also announced a February program for young OSCE parliamentarians to strengthen their political inclusion and advance peace and security efforts. Chairman Hastings was joined by Commissioners Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, II (MO-05) and Rep. Marc Veasey (TX-33). Rep. Veasey raised the importance of metrics in assessing the impact of leadership programs and soft diplomacy, while Rep. Cleaver stated, “For the first time since the end of World War II, the extreme right is actually winning seats in the German Parliament,” highlighting increased security risks related to public diplomacy programs operating in countries that have seen an increase in hate crimes and racial prejudice. Witnesses included Cordell Carter, II, Executive Director of the Socrates Program at the Aspen Institute; Stacie Walters Fujii, Chair of the American Council of Young Political Leaders; and Lora Berg, Counselor for Inclusive Leadership at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. Carter reviewed the Aspen Institute’s public policy programming on transatlantic relations and discussed the importance of promoting democratic values, including efforts to strengthen the capacity of congressional staff and encourage dialogues around the United States on being an “inclusive republic.”  He concluded by asking Congress to create more opportunities for public discourse on issues that threaten the stability of democracies around the world. Fujii discussed the importance of international exchanges in supporting democracies and the work of American Council of Young Political Leaders (ACYPL). ACYPL was founded in 1966 to strengthen transatlantic relationships by promoting mutual understanding among young political leaders in Western Europe and the former Soviet Union.  Critical aspects of the program include offering international leaders the opportunity to come to the U.S. to observe campaigning, polling stations, election returns, and the response of the American people to elections, complemented by follow-on educational conversations about democratic processes in their countries.  Berg highlighted the importance of public diplomacy initiatives in advancing inclusive leadership and observed that nations gain in richness and capacity when diversity is reflected in leadership. She also noted that inclusive leadership not only plays an important role in promoting social harmony, but it also helps to ensure economic growth, stating that “the places with the highest social cohesion are the most reliable for investment.” Berg explained that the GMF’s Transatlantic Inclusion Leaders Network (TILN) grew out of work she engaged in while working for the Department of State. TILN is an innovative network of young, diverse leaders across the United States and Europe supported by the Helsinki Commission and State Department.    Berg argued for the expansion of U.S. Government-supported public diplomacy inclusive leadership initiatives targeting youth and diverse populations in western democracies, including through public-private partnerships, the creation of a public diplomacy officer position in Europe to foster Europe-wide next generation transatlantic leadership, and increased political participation measures domestically and abroad for diverse populations.   

  • Helsinki Commission to Review Role of Professional Exchanges in Strengthening Democratic Institutions

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following hearing: PUBLIC DIPLOMACY, DEMOCRACY, AND GLOBAL LEADERSHIP An Approach for the 21st Century Thursday, December 5, 2019 10:00 a.m. Longworth House Office Building Room 1334 Live Webcast: www.youtube.com/HelsinkiCommission For more than a century, the United States has advanced human rights, economic, and security policy goals in Europe by cultivating people-to-people ties across the Atlantic. More than 500 heads of state, 100 Members of Congress, and thousands of professionals have participated in U.S. Government-sponsored exchanges, including the State Department’s International Visitor Leadership Program, while public and private organizations have hosted similar programs to bring leaders together.    Witnesses at the hearing will explore the origins and role of professional exchanges and other public diplomacy programs that strengthen relationships with U.S. allies in the face of shared challenges including eroding trust in democratic institutions, demographic shifts, technological advancements, and evolving security threats. In particular, the hearing will focus on international exchange initiatives that strengthen democratic institutions by targeting young and diverse leaders, encouraging civic engagement, and fostering social inclusion and cohesion in the OSCE region.  The following witnesses are scheduled to participate: Lora Berg, Senior Fellow, Leadership Programs, German Marshall Fund of the United States Cordell Carter, II, Executive Director, Socrates Program, The Aspen Institute   Stacie Walters Fujii, Chair, American Council of Young Political Leaders (ACYPL)   Photo credit: German Marshall Fund of the United States

  • 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

  • First Person: The Role of the Peace Corps in Promoting Democracy

    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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