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FIRST PERSON: UKRAINIAN PARLIAMENTARY ELECTIONS
Monday, July 29, 2019

By Alex Tiersky,
Senior Policy Advisor, Global Security and Political-Military Affairs

 

“Why aren’t you doing your job?!”

An unexpectedly tense early morning on July 21, 2019—Election Day in Ukraine: the polling station was more than 30 minutes late in opening. The shouted reprimand came from a voter, an older man who was one of several Kyiv residents who had been present and seeking to vote at this school in the center of the Ukrainian capital since well before 8:00 a.m., when the polls for the national parliamentary elections were supposed to open. His indignation was directed at the beleaguered leadership of the local polling station, who struggled to organize their work and follow the extensive procedures required to meet Ukrainian law and international best practices.

***

As an official election observer representing the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, I was at the polling station to observe the extent to which those best practices were followed. With my capable interpreter Natalya beside me, and in partnership with my experienced observation team partner Latvian MP Aleksandrs Kiršteins, I had arrived days earlier on the invitation of the Ukrainian government for a series of preparatory briefings. On Election Day, we would follow a prescribed plan of observation as part of a larger team of more than 800 international observers spread across Ukraine (with the exception of illegally occupied Crimea, and the Donbas region under the occupation of Russian-controlled forces, where holding a free and fair election would be impossible).

***

The disorganized polling station was the first stop of the day for our team. While this was my first time serving as an election observer, I didn’t need the extensive and detailed procedural checklist and questionnaire provided by the OSCE to know that something was seriously amiss. My Latvian colleague confirmed, based on his extensive observation experience, that the situation was extremely unusual.

The key problem seemed to be that the leadership of the team responsible for proper running of the polling station (the chair and the secretary, among others), recently had been replaced and the newcomers had little experience with their assigned duties. It was clear that they had done precious little preparation to be able to effectively direct the work of their team on Election Day. We had been warned during the extensive pre-election briefings provided by the OSCE that many local election officials across Ukraine had been replaced. The experts were concerned that this loss of institutional memory had the potential to hamper the operations of local electoral bodies—a warning that, in our case, proved prescient.

At 8:45 a.m., a full 45 minutes after its scheduled opening time and to the relief of several increasingly agitated voters and local observers, the polling station finally began to process votes. Judging that tensions at the school building had de-escalated and the situation had achieved some normalcy, we dutifully finalized our observation—promptly reporting our findings to the OSCE election experts compiling statistics from other teams deployed across the country—and moved on to observe voting procedures at several other polling stations. Before leaving, given the challenges at the polling station, we resolved to return in the evening to observe closing procedures and the counting of the vote.

***

We spent much of the rest of the day visiting several polling stations in the west of Kyiv. Contrary to our first observation, all the other polling stations we visited were extremely well-organized, with experienced and well-functioning teams of officials ensuring an orderly and transparent voting process. The civic pride demonstrated by the election officials and voters in properly exercising their democratic choice was evident in each location we visited. We witnessed voters of all ages casting their ballots in serene conditions, which we learned from other observation teams was largely the norm across Ukraine that day.

***

As the afternoon turned to evening, it was time to return to our initial polling station to assess closing procedures and the start of the counting of ballots. With the station closing as planned at 8 p.m. on the dot, we were quietly hopeful that the morning’s problems had been resolved.

Our optimism quickly proved misguided. The election officials were even more poorly directed by their leadership than they had been in the early hours of the day. After two hours of inconclusive progress toward beginning a count of actual ballots, the procedures ground to a halt in a cloud of remonstrations among several hard-working poll workers and local observers on one hand, and the polling station’s leadership on the other. In what I understood to be an extremely unusual development, the majority of the poll workers essentially sidelined their grievously underperforming leadership on the spot in order to better organize themselves. At this point, we needed to return to our home base to report on our observation, leaving behind several other international and local observers to witness what surely would be a long and challenging night of tabulation of ballots.

***

As we returned to the hotel, I reflected on the day’s remarkable events. It struck me how counterintuitive some might find it that we had been allowed to witness the poor performance by the leadership of this particular polling station. After all, who wants to air their dirty laundry in front of international observers taking careful note of every discrepancy?

It was then, for the first time, that I truly understood the key purpose of our election observation mission. OSCE participating States like Ukraine make the choice to invite international observation missions to their elections precisely because only in providing full transparency can a fair judgment on the electoral process be made.

In other words, our observation and reporting of the procedural imperfections we witnessed only underlined the relatively excellent performance witnessed by observation teams in the vast majority of other polling stations across Ukraine. Only through the full transparency provided by impartial external observers using a standardized methodology can the people of Ukraine be sure that their electoral process, to the maximum extent possible, allows for the full and fair expression of their democratic choice.

I feel honored to have been able to play even a very small part in this extremely consequential democratic process, and to help an OSCE participating State hold itself accountable to its commitment to the rule of law. I am already looking forward to the next opportunity to serve as an election observer.

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The need to cancel the Annual Session planned for July in Bucharest was a major disappointment, but the adoption of rules governing such emergency situations now permit some continuity of effort.

  • Cardin, Wicker Introduce Bill to Counter Corruption and Promote Good Governance

    WASHINGTON—U.S. Senator Ben Cardin (D-Md.) and Senator Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), incoming Chair of the U.S. Helsinki Commission and Co-Chair, respectively, have re-introduced legislation that would elevate the federal government’s anti-corruption activities. S.158, the Countering Russian and Other Overseas Kleptocracy Act, or CROOK Act, would establish an anti-corruption action fund to provide extra funding during historic windows of opportunity for reform in foreign countries and streamline work strengthening the rule of law abroad. “Vladimir Putin and other kleptocrats around the world seek to undermine democracy and hollow out the rule of law for their own personal gain. This bipartisan legislation would provide the authority and resources required to fight back against these reprehensible regimes,” said Senator Cardin, a senior member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “Countering corruption and promoting good governance is a national security priority.” “There is no better indicator of the need to confront corruption around the world than Vladimir Putin’s disgraceful actions against democratic activist Alexei Navalny,” Senator Wicker said. “By targeting individual wrongdoers, this legislation would help to counter the influence of corrupt actors on the world stage, whether they be from Russia, China, or Venezuela. Any steps we can take to crack down on illegal practices and strengthen the rule of law are welcome.” The anti-corruption action fund established in the Cardin-Wicker legislation would assist countries where U.S. assistance could significantly increase the chances of successfully transitioning to democracy, combating corruption, and establishing the rule of law. For example, Ukraine in 2014, Ethiopia after the election of a new Prime Minister who instituted important reforms in 2018, or Armenia after the December 2018 parliamentary election. This no-year fund would establish a mechanism to allocate aid and take advantage of ripened political will more quickly. The monies for this fund would derive from a $5 million surcharge to individual companies and entities that incur Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) criminal fines and penalties above $50 million. S.158 also would establish several complementary mechanisms to generate a whole-of-government approach to U.S. efforts to strengthen the rule of law abroad. These include an interagency taskforce; the designation of embassy anti-corruption points of contact to liaise with the task force; reporting requirements designed to combat corruption, kleptocracy, and illegal finance; and a consolidated online platform for easy access to anti-corruption reports and materials.

  • Cardin and Wicker Introduce Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Reauthorization Act

    WASHINGTON—U.S. Senator Ben Cardin (D-Md.), incoming Chair of the U.S. Helsinki Commission and author of the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act, and Helsinki Commission Co-Chair Senator Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) have introduced the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Reauthorization Act (S. 93).The bipartisan legislation would extend U.S. sanctions against violators of human rights and corrupt actors so they do not escape the consequences of their actions even when their home country fails to seek justice for their victims. “The Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act has been a powerful tool in our global effort to protecting human rights and fight corruption. I thank Senator Wicker for working with me to strengthen the law as a message to abusers and kleptocrats who think they can act with impunity,” said Senator Cardin. “This reauthorization will send a clear signal of our national commitment to defending democratic values and the international rules and standards that enable us all to live peaceably together. When human rights abusers and kleptocrats violate these norms, it is incumbent upon us to create concrete consequences.” “When it was introduced, the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act was a groundbreaking tool for combating human rights abuses and corruption around the world,” Senator Wicker said. “Since then, the law has helped to hold the worst violators accountable no matter where they are. I look forward to working with Senator Cardin to make this legislation permanent, so that the U.S. can continue to defend human rights abroad.” Actions taken under the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act continue to demonstrate the reach, flexibility, and broad scope of the Global Magnitsky authorities. The United States responded to serious human rights abuses and corruption globally, addressing some of the most egregious behavior this tool can attempt to disrupt and deter. These actions targeted, among other things, serious human rights abusers affecting millions of members of Muslim minority groups in northwest China’s Xinjiang province; corrupt actors in South Sudan involved in draining the country of critical resources; and Ugandan officials engaged in an adoption scam that victimized Ugandan-born children. These designations clearly demonstrate the importance of this tool, when appropriate, to target individuals and entities engaging in specified conduct. The Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Reauthorization Act (S. 93) seeks to harmonize the original Act (Title XII, Subtitle F of P.L. 114-328; 22 U.S.C. §2656 note) with Executive Order 13818 by: Removing the victim status requirement to ensure no victim is excluded; Adopting the “serious human rights abuse” and “violation of internationally recognized Human rights” standards to expand the actors and abuses eligible for sanctions; Simplifying the standard for corruption offenses; Supplementing the activity-based targeting standard with a status-based standard; and Allowing for the sanctioning of immediate family members. S. 93 calls for a report on the steps taken through diplomacy and assistance to foreign or security sectors to address persistent underlying causes of serious human rights abuses, violations of internationally recognized human rights, and corruption in each country in which foreign persons have been subject to sanctions. It also repeals the sunset clause in the original legislation.

  • Helsinki Commissioners Reintroduce Ukraine Religious Freedom Support Act

    WASHINGTON—Helsinki Commission Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) and Commissioner Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, II (MO-05) yesterday reintroduced the bipartisan Ukraine Religious Freedom Support Act (H.R. 496) in the House of Representatives. The House unanimously passed the original legislation, which targets Russia’s religious freedom violations in Ukraine, on November 18, 2020. “The Kremlin and its proxies continue to imprison and torture people on Ukrainian territory for their faith. Russian government perpetrators must be punished for these crimes,” said Rep. Wilson. “This legislation would ensure that the president of the United States has the authority and mandate to impose costs on Russian officials who are responsible for such assaults on religious freedom.” “The yoke of Putin’s occupation and oppression weighs heavily on Ukrainians. The desire to seek and follow the truth, to explore ultimate meaning, is written on every human heart,” said Rep. Cleaver. “We must stand up to the Russian government’s attempts to suppress the freedom of Ukrainians to follow their religious conscience.” 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 authorizes the president to hold Russia responsible for violations in Ukrainian territory it illegally occupies 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, including killings, torture, abduction, and detention. It also requires the president to then take 15 specific actions, or commensurate action, and ban the foreign officials responsible from entering the United States. The Secretary of State has placed Russia on the Special Watch List for countries with severe violations every year since 2018. The legislation also states, “It is the policy of the United States to never recognize the illegal, attempted annexation of Crimea by the Government of the Russia or the separation of any portion of Ukrainian territory through the use of military force.” 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. Participating States of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, including Russia, have 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. Brian Fitzpatrick (PA-01), Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), Rep. Richard Hudson (NC-08), and Rep. Gwen S. Moore (WI-04). Rep. Gus M. Bilirakis (FL-12), Rep. Anna G. Eshoo (CA-18), and Rep. Andy Harris, M.D. (MD-01) are also original cosponsors.

  • Helsinki Commission Digital Digest: January 2021

  • Helsinki Commission Leaders Decry January 6 Attack on U.S. Capitol

    WASHINGTON—Following the violent assault on the U.S. Capitol on January 6, Helsinki Commission leaders Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20), Sen. Roger Wicker (MS), and Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) issued the following statements: “I never thought that in my lifetime I would see our country’s democratic institutions literally under siege.  In America, we pride ourselves on the integrity of our elections and on a peaceful transition of power. We demonstrate this not only through our words but through our actions, both at home as well as abroad, where we ardently support freedom and democracy from Vancouver to Vladivostok,” said Rep. Hastings. “Wednesday’s violence was a vicious attack on democracy, the rule of law, and every value that our country holds dear. President Trump must immediately condemn the actions of his supporters and recommit to his oath to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution for the remainder of his term. Otherwise, the consequences could be unpredictable and potentially dire.” “Our country has long been a beacon of freedom and the orderly transfer of power. Wednesday’s attempt to disrupt our democracy through lawlessness and intimidation was intended to cast doubt on that principle but was doomed to fail. The guardrails held, and the work of the U.S. Congress continues,” said Sen. Wicker. “However, the divisions that led to this chaotic attack on the U.S. Capitol cannot be ignored. If the United States is to continue to inspire others who are fighting for their fundamental freedoms worldwide, we must work together to rebuild confidence in our institutions. In spite of our political differences, all Americans must make it clear that we will not stand for this kind of attack on the rule of law. And we must prosecute to the fullest extent of the law those who seek to undermine our democratic processes through violence.” “Violent behavior and blatant disregard for the rule of law can never be normalized in the U.S. or anywhere around the world. The American Capitol was attacked by a mob incited by a president who refused to accept the results from a free and fair election and who worked to overturn the will of the voters. If a foreign leader acted in such a blatant way to overturn legitimate election results, the full United States Congress rightly would forcefully condemn such autocratic and undemocratic actions,” said Sen. Cardin. “To move forward as a nation, members of both parties must stand together to reaffirm the resilience of our democracy, honestly confront the toxic voices in our society that seek to tear us apart, and so prevail over the dangerous extremism that led to this violent rampage.”

  • OSCE Ministerial Council Appoints Top Leaders, Adopts Several Key Decisions Amidst Constraints of COVID-19 and Conflict in Europe

    By Shannon Simrell, Representative of the Helsinki Commission to the U.S. Mission to the OSCE Foreign ministers of the 57 OSCE participating States convened on December 3 - 4, 2020, for the 27th OSCE Ministerial Council. For the first time, this annual gathering was convened in an entirely virtual format due to the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite a turbulent year, which included managing not only the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic but also the global anti-racism protests initiated following the killing of George Floyd; ongoing protracted conflicts in Moldova, Georgia, and Ukraine; fraudulent elections and systemic human rights violations in Belarus; and a renewal of active conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia, consensus was achieved on many, but not all, draft decisions. The United States delegation to the Ministerial Council was led by Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun. The delegation and included Deputy Assistant Secretaries of State George P. Kent, Michael Murphy, and Bruce Turner; Acting Assistant Secretary of State Philip Reeker; U.S. Ambassador to the OSCE James Gilmore; U.S Helsinki Commission Chief of Staff Alex Johnson; and Helsinki Commission staff Robert Hand, Janice Helwig, Rebecca Neff, Erika Schlager, Shannon Simrell, Dr. Mischa Thompson, and Alex Tiersky. A Call to “Turn a Corner” from Crisis to Cooperation Leveraging the meeting’s virtual format, national statements were livestreamed, offering transparency of the proceedings. Albanian Prime Minister and OSCE Chairperson-in-Office Edi Rama opened the meeting by recalling the solidarity of the signatories of the Helsinki Final Act and Charter of Paris and requesting that ministers “turn a corner” and demonstrate the political will required to address the multiple and complex challenges faced by the organization and across the region. In his remarks, Deputy Secretary Biegun reaffirmed U.S. priorities for engagement at the OSCE, underscoring the commitment to European peace and security and highlighting key challenges facing the OSCE region including Russia’s continued aggression in eastern Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia, and the destabilizing effect of its flagrant violations of the OSCE’s foundational principles.  He called upon Belarus to hold accountable those responsible for its human rights violations and electoral crisis, urged Armenia and Azerbaijan to engage with the Minsk Group Co-Chairs to attain a lasting end to the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, and warned States against using COVID-19 as a pretext to restrict civil society, independent media, or public access to information. Finally, he expressed concern about the increasing number of political prisoners and the rise in cases of anti-Semitism, anti-Roma racism, and other forms of hatred and hate crimes in the OSCE region since the onset of the pandemic.  Consensus Achieved on Organizational Leadership, Preventing Torture, Countering Corruption, and More Despite the challenges inherent in virtual negotiations, consensus was achieved on 11 texts spanning all three OSCE dimensions of comprehensive security and supporting the organization’s internal governance. Ministers agreed on the appointment of the OSCE’s top four leaders: Helga Schmid (Germany) as Secretary General, Maria Teresa Ribiero (Portugal) as Representative on Freedom of the Media, Matteo Mecacci (Italy) as Director of the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), and Kairat Abdrakhmanov (Kazakhstan) as High Commissioner on National Minorities.  The decisions broke a months-long impasse after Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, Turkey, and others blocked the reappointment of the previous executives, leaving the organization leaderless since July. Participating States also reached consensus on several decisions that added to OSCE’s body of commitments. One such decision concerned the prevention and eradication of torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, building on existing OSCE commitments. A version of the text was originally proposed in 2014 by Switzerland during their 2014 Chairpersonship of the OSCE. The initiative reflected the country’s historic leadership in the area of international humanitarian law and profound concerns regarding torture in the context of counterterrorism efforts.  The proposal was reintroduced over successive Ministerial Councils before its adoption in 2020.  The widespread use of torture and other horrific abuse by Belarusian authorities, documented by the November 2020 report under the OSCE Moscow Mechanism, added urgency to this decision this year.  As adopted, the decision includes explicit references to enforced disappearances and to incommunicado detention. Participating States also adopted decisions on preventing and combating corruption; strengthening co-operation to counter transnational organized crime; deepening cooperation with OSCE’s Asian Partners;  supporting the Transdniestrian settlement process (also known in the OSCE as the “5+2” format, which brings together representatives of Moldova, Transdniestria, the OSCE, the Russian Federation, Ukraine, the European Union, and the United States); and selecting North Macedonia to chair the organization in 2023. Unfinished Business Unfortunately, participating States did not reach consensus on several other important drafts, including one co-sponsored by the United States and Belarus based on lessons learned during the COVID-19 pandemic that would have set out new commitments for participating States to effectively combat human trafficking during times of emergency. Other proposals, including texts to modernize the Vienna Document (a wide-ranging confidence- and security-building measure that includes provisions requiring notification of significant military activities, as well as an exchange of information about armed forces, military organization, and major weapon and equipment systems), enhance public-private partnerships to counter terrorism, and counter trafficking in natural resources were scuttled by Russian, Azerbaijani, and Armenian intransigence.  Some drafts which did not reach consensus among all 57 states were turned into statements issued and signed by those countries that had supported their adoption. The United States signed onto nine such statements to support the concept of women, peace and security outlined in UN Security Council Resolution 1325; modernization of the politico-military framework of the Vienna Document; and a number of statements related to the OSCE’s role in addressing regional challenges like ending the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, improving human rights compliance by Belarus, countering Russian aggression in Ukraine and the Republic of Georgia, and addressing challenges relating to the COVID-19 pandemic.   The Albanian Chairperson, together with the OSCE’s 2019 Slovak Chairperson, and the OSCE’s three incoming Chairpersons (the “Quint”) issued two joint statements, one expressing concern about the ongoing conflict in Ukraine and another reaffirming the principles enshrined the Helsinki Final Act and the Charter of Paris for a New Europe. Side events highlight continuing challenges The Ministerial Council’s four side events highlighted priority areas for participating States and for the Parliamentary Assembly. Due to the virtual format, events on the Belarus Moscow Mechanism report, human rights violations in Crimea, combatting human trafficking during the COVID-19 crisis, and the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly’s call for renewed political will to address contemporary challenges, attracted hundreds of participants. Deputy Assistant Secretary Kent closed the Moscow Mechanism side event by promising to maintain a focus on the situation in Belarus, to support efforts to hold authorities accountable for torture and other human rights violations, and to ensure the voice of the Belarusian people is heard in determining their country’s future. At a side event organized by the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly titled “A Call to Action: Reaffirming a Common Purpose,” Helsinki Commission Ranking Member Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) affirmed the strong bipartisan support in the United States for the OSCE, and recognized it as vital forum to promote security, defend human rights and encourage democratic development in all OSCE countries. He argued that greater political accountability rather than organizational reform would make the OSCE more relevant and effective in the years ahead. “It remains the responsibility of the participating States to hold each other to account. In the face of repression at home or aggression abroad, the OSCE will succeed as a multilateral forum as long as those who are true believers stand united in defending the ten Helsinki principles and forthrightly raise violations in this forum.” ​ Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), Ranking Member, U.S. Helsinki Commission, OSCE MC 2020 Side Event on “A Call to Action” Due to challenges related to convening during the COVID-19 pandemic, the NGO network Civic Solidarity Platform did not organize its annual Civil Society Conference, which had been held in conjunction with each OSCE Ministerial Council since its first convening during the 2010 OSCE Summit in Astana. Instead, the network organized a series of webinars in December to maintain focus on key issues of concern. 2021: OSCE’s Swedish Chairpersonship “Back to Basics” Looking ahead to its 2021 Chairpersonship, Swedish Foreign Minister Ann Linde said that Sweden will work to get “back to basics:” defending the European security order, contributing to resolving conflicts, and upholding the OSCE’s comprehensive concept of security with a special focus on human rights, democracy, and gender equality.

  • Helsinki Commission Digital Digest: December 2020

  • Retrospective on the 116th Congress

    By Emma Derr, Max Kampelman Fellow “For more than four decades, the Helsinki Commission has championed human rights and democracy across North America, Europe, and Central Asia. While we have worked to keep these concerns on the U.S. agenda, much remains to be accomplished.” ​ Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20), Chairman, U.S. Helsinki Commission In the OSCE region, 2019 and 2020 were marked by unprecedented challenges stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic, calls for racial justice, systematic human rights issues, and ongoing regional conflicts amidst U.S. presidential, Congressional, and regional and local elections. Through these crises, U.S. Helsinki Commission leadership worked tirelessly to ensure that human rights and comprehensive security continued to be promoted through the United States’ foreign and domestic policy agendas. 2020 also marked the 30th anniversary of the Charter of Paris, which set unprecedented commitments to human rights, providing an opportunity for OSCE participating States to reflect and bolster human rights commitments during such a crucial time. Through hearings and briefings, legislative activities, public statements and reports, and engagement with other foreign policy actors, the Helsinki Commission has focused on human rights and security challenges both in the United States and abroad to advance the commission’s priorities in the 116th Congress: principled foreign policy; human rights at home; parliamentary diplomacy; and safe, inclusive, and equitable societies. Additional policy focuses include regional security, election observation, OSCE engagement, and anti-corruption work. View a comprehensive list of activities in the Helsinki Commission's report on the 116th Congress.  Principled Foreign Policy From respect for sovereignty and the territorial integrity of states to human rights and fundamental freedoms, commitments undertaken by OSCE participating States underpin peace and stability in the OSCE region and form the basis of comprehensive security for all people. The Helsinki Commission strives to ensure that the protection of human rights and democratic development are central to a principled U.S. foreign policy. During the 116th Congress, Belarus, Russia, Turkey, Hungary, Ukraine/Crimea, and the Balkans attracted particular attention, given the ongoing human rights and regional conflict issues in those countries. Belarus Following over two decades of authoritarian rule supported by the Kremlin, a political crisis erupted in Belarus in the summer of 2020. After August 9 elections, the Alexander Lukashenko regime claimed victory, and the country saw an unrelenting crackdown by Belarusian authorities on peaceful protests, civil society, and the media. According to international observers, Belarus has not had free and fair national elections since Lukashenko was first elected president in 1994. Unprecedented crowds continue to protest the election. Ahead of the election, Lukashenko eliminated his main political competition through disqualification or imprisonment. Numerous protestors, supporters of opposition candidates, and journalists were arrested as last-minute candidate Svetlana Tsikhanovskaya drew unprecedented crowds to her rallies. Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) called on President Lukashenko “to order the release of those who have been detained for political reasons and allow real political competition in Belarus.” After the elections and in reaction to the human rights abuses perpetrated by the Lukashenko regime, Chairman Hastings wrote to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin requesting that the U.S. administration revoke access to the U.S. financial system for the nine largest state-owned companies in Belarus. “The United States stands with the people of Belarus, who have a right to make free choices about their country’s future and to protest peacefully.” ​ Sen. Roger Wicker (MS), Co-Chairman, U.S. Helsinki Commission After the invocation by 17 OSCE participating States of the Moscow Mechanism to report on human rights concerns in Belarus and subsequent investigation, Professor Wolfgang Benedek—the selected rapporteur—joined the Helsinki Commission for a podcast to discuss his findings, including evidence of fraudulent elections, systematic human rights violations, and a general situation of impunity for perpetrators. Regional Security and Stability In May 2020, following reports that the Trump administration planned to withdraw from the Treaty on Open Skies, Chairman Hastings urged Congress to support the United States’ allies and partners in Europe, as “withdrawing from the Open Skies Treaty can only benefit Putin’s continuing campaign of aggression against Russia’s neighbors.” Chairman Hastings also authored an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for the 2021 Fiscal Year to reflect support for the Open Skies Treaty and stated his regret in November when the U.S. withdrew from the treaty. The Helsinki Commission held a joint hearing in November 2019 with the House Foreign Affairs Committee concerning the importance of the Open Skies Treaty for security and stability in Europe and released a podcast on the treaty’s benefits, the complexity of execution, and current challenges in implementation. In July 2019, for the first time in its 43-year history the Helsinki Commission convened outside of the United States for a field hearing to underscore America’s commitment to Baltic Sea regional security and emphasize its unwavering support for U.S. friends and allies. The commission also held a briefing to discuss the potential use of energy, specifically oil and gas projects, to achieve foreign policy goals, as well as the extent to which energy independence can reduce the ability of hostile actors to destabilize the European region by threatening to cut off access to energy supplies. Turkey, Hungary, Ukraine/Crimea, and the Balkans In April 2019, Co-Chairman Wicker and Ranking Member Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) introduced the Defending United States Citizens and Diplomatic Staff from Political Prosecutions Act to address arbitrary arrests which contribute to Turkey’s deteriorating respect for human rights under President Erdogan. In April 2019, the Helsinki Commission hosted a briefing on recent developments in Hungary concerning a steady erosion of freedom, the rule of law, and quality of governance. Later that year, the commission reported on an amendment to the Hungarian religion law, which continues to discriminate against people on the basis of their faith. In late 2019, Co-Chairman Wicker successfully pressed Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban to stop the blockage of the European Union version of the Magnitsky Act. The U.S. Magnitsky Act allows the use of sanctions as a tool to target alleged human rights abusers and corruption, and its European counterpart would do the same. In May 2020, Co-Chairman Wicker and Ranking Member Cardin urged U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to work with the European Union’s High Representative to advance EU Magnitsky Sanctions.  Following a mob attack in October 2019 on a Jewish community center providing office space to civil society groups in Budapest, Chairman Hastings and Ranking Member Cardin called the Hungarian government to take action during this “alarming escalation of violence toward minorities and civil society groups.” In 2020, the commission released a report detailing the escalating rhetorical attacks and legislative restrictions against civil society as Orban continues to consolidate power in Hungary. In December 2019, Helsinki Commission Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) and Commissioner Rep.  Emanuel Cleaver II (MO-05) introduced the bipartisan Ukraine Religious Freedom Support Act in the House of Representatives, and Co-Chairman Wicker introduced the act, cosponsored by Helsinki Commissioner Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (NH), to the Senate. The act, which would combat Russia’s religious freedom violations in the Crimea and Donbas regions of Ukraine, unanimously passed in the House of Representatives in November 2020 and awaits Senate action. In July 2019, the Helsinki Commission hosted a briefing about reunifying societies divided by war, genocide, and other tragedies in areas such as the Balkans, as well as promoting reconciliation and healing for Holocaust survivors and other victims of Nazi persecution who continue to seek justice worldwide. Twenty years after two U.S. citizens were brutally murdered in Serbia in the aftermath of the 1999 conflict in Kosovo, their brother Ilir joins the Helsinki Commission to share his family’s fight for justice in the face of inaction by Serbian authorities. Election Observation In 1990, all OSCE participating States pledged to hold free and fair elections and to invite international 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). These election observation missions have been recognized as one of the most transparent and methodical ways to encourage States’ commitment to democratic standards and have become a core element of the OSCE’s efforts to provide feedback on the election processes to the benefit of candidates and voters alike. Commissioners and staff have observed well over 100 elections since 1990, and in 2020 alone, the OSCE has been invited to observe elections in nearly 20 OSCE participating States, including the United States. In 2019, the commission held a briefing focused on the benefits and challenges of international election observation, best practices, and emerging issues such as voting technology and security. In addition, the use of disinformation to influence elections has become a pervasive and persistent threat in all 57 OSCE participating States. Ahead of the 2020 general elections, the commission held a briefing on the intersections and influences of disinformation and COVID-19 on the electoral process. Election observation is an important way to help monitor these effects on the workings of democracy. A limited election observation mission was deployed by the OSCE to observe the 2020 general election in the United States. Despite the challenges posed by the pandemic, the OSCE team was confident it produced a thorough, impartial, fact-based assessment that concluded the elections were free and fair, as well as “competitive and well managed despite legal uncertainties and logistical challenges” posed by the pandemic and the polarized political climate. OSCE Institutions and Policy During the past two years, the Helsinki Commission hosted hearings featuring both the Albanian and Slovakian OSCE Chairs in Office, as well as the OSCE Representative for Freedom of the Media Harlem Desir, to discuss OSCE institutional priorities such as human rights violations, conflict resolution, and the safety of journalists. In January 2020, the Helsinki Commission welcomed OSCE Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights Director Ambassador Ingibjörg Sólrún Gísladóttir, in her first appearance before Congress, to address challenges in the OSCE region related to human rights and democracy.  In December 2020, the Helsinki Commission held a hearing, “U.S. Priorities for Engagement at the OSCE,” where Ambassador Philip T. Reeker U.S. State Department Senior Bureau Official, who has been serving in the role of Acting Assistant Secretary for Europe and Eurasia since March 2018, emphasized that the United States is focused on upholding Helsinki Final Act commitments and pushing all participating States to live up to their own commitments to these principles. Human Rights at Home Like all other OSCE participating States, the United States must also examine how well—or how poorly—it is living up to its own OSCE commitments. In the 116th Congress, the Helsinki Commission took a hard look at human rights at home. “If the United States wants to remain a credible voice in the promotion of human rights abroad, we must fiercely protect them at home.” Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20), Chairman, U.S. Helsinki Commission In summer 2020 the Helsinki Commission launched a series of hearings focused on restorative justice related to public monuments and memorials, the safety of journalists, and implications of domestic human rights issues for U.S. leadership. The commission also convened political and civil rights leaders to discuss the impact of George Floyd’s tragic death on the need to shape policies that confront and prevent racism and racist acts. The Helsinki Commission dealt at further length with the safety of journalists and freedom of the media in the United States. In the aftermath of attacks on journalists covering protests calling for racial justice, Chairman Rep. Hastings expressed the need to take an “honest and critical look at America’s own record in recent weeks on protecting journalists and safeguarding press freedom.” The U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM) supports networks that reach more than 350 million people across the world, many of whom otherwise would not have access to independent, unbiased news. When USAGM failed to renew J-1 visas for foreign Voice of America (VOA) journalists, Chairman Rep. Hastings, Ranking Member Sen. Ben Cardin, and Helsinki Commissioners Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), and Rep. Marc Veasey (TX-33) demanded that U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM) CEO Michael Pack provide a detailed explanation and called for new policies to protect the personal security of VOA journalists working under the USAGM. Safe, Inclusive, and Equitable Societies Civil rights are human rights, and advancing societies that are safe, inclusive, and equitable is central to the work of the Helsinki Commission. Anti-racism initiatives have always been a priority for the commission, but they found particular focus in 2020 in conjunction with the exposure of systemic racism in police brutality and the disproportionate impacts of COVID-19 on minority populations.  Commissioners looked inward to the United States’ own domestic policies, as well as outward to other OSCE countries, to develop ideas and policies that promote principles of social inclusion, empowering diverse populations and enhancing the ability for everyone to fully participate in society. Over the past decade, Chairman Hastings has drawn attention to the racism and discrimination faced by black Europeans, recognizing their fight for inclusion. In March 2019, he introduced legislation establishing a strategy to protect the collective history and achievements of people of African descent and to promote the human rights of people of African descent worldwide, and a year later, he introduced a bill to implement a government-wide diversity and inclusion plan. “Across the globe we find racial disparities between those of African descent and other populations in education, employment, health, housing, justice, and other sectors. At the same time, hate crimes and racial profiling targeting black populations are increasing,” said Chairman Hastings. “A global strategy ensures we are monitoring whether countries around the world are providing equal protections and opportunity to all within their borders.” Chairman Hastings also collaborated with other Helsinki Commissioners to address racism globally. In July 2020, Chairman Hastings, along with Helsinki Commissioners Rep. Gwen Moore (WI-04), Rep. Cleaver, Rep. Veasey, and 35 other Members of the United States Congress, including the Congressional Black Caucus Chair, called for a sweeping plan of action following the European Parliament’s Juneteenth Day resolution supporting protests against racism and police brutality. Chairman Hastings and Rep. Gregory W. Meeks (NY-05) also issued a statement regarding foreign affairs funding for diverse, global anti-racism programs, commemorating John Lewis’ yearly leadership in securing these appropriations requests. In September, Chairman Hastings and other Helsinki Commissioners joined members of the European Parliament’s Civil Liberties Committee and Subcommittee on Human Rights to discuss combating racism and systemic discrimination on both sides of the Atlantic. In October, Ranking Member Cardin joined the office of the OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities for an online event that evaluated the applicability of the 2006 Recommendations on Policing in Multi-Ethnic Societies, highlighted relevant legislation, and discussed structural changes to address discriminatory police violence. Ahead of International Roma Day in 2020, the Helsinki Commission hosted a discussion about racism against Roma, the largest ethnic minority in Europe who have historically faced enslavement and continue to battle discrimination. The conversation focused on the state of Roma rights in Europe, as well as resolutions introduced by Helsinki Commission leaders to celebrate Romani American heritage. Reports from nearly every corner of the OSCE region suggest that minority groups have been impacted especially hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, and an extended episode of "Helsinki on the Hill" takes an in-depth look at the pandemic’s impact on vulnerable populations, such as the Roma, and the role of governments in addressing that impact. In December 2019, the Helsinki Commission convened a hearing to focus on public diplomacy initiatives that cultivate leaders who espouse democratic principles, including inclusive and representative governance. The commission also released a podcast discussing how to achieve equitable and inclusive democracies  through political inclusion and economic empowerment. Guests discussed their experiences on the front lines of the fight for greater diversity and inclusion in Europe, and in the transatlantic policymaking space more broadly.  Members of the Helsinki Commission have long supported diversity and inclusion efforts in international affairs including through the annual Transatlantic Inclusion Leaders Network (TILN) workshop, a hearing about the state of diversity and inclusion in Europe, and a new transatlantic democracy program for youth “On the Road to Inclusion.” In March 2020, Chairman Hastings introduced the Leadership Institute for Transatlantic Engagement (LITE) Act, calling for the creation of a transatlantic institute focused on strengthening democratic principles and values in the West, as well as pioneering inclusive and intergenerational solutions to current challenges that would empowering individuals across generations and from diverse backgrounds with the knowledge, tools, opportunity, and access to fully participate in their democracies. The commission also supports diversity in the diplomatic corps. Chairman Hastings, Co-Chairman Wicker, and Ranking Member Cardin joined bipartisan Congressional efforts to support annual funding for State Department and USAID diversity fellowship programs, as well as study abroad opportunities. Parliamentary Diplomacy Parliamentary diplomacy advances comprehensive security and democratic institutions in the OSCE region and acts as a tool to promote safe, inclusive and equitable societies. Commissioners have championed the development of parliamentary assemblies for regional organizations throughout the world and participate regularly in the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA), which offers opportunities for engagement among parliamentarians from OSCE participating States. The Helsinki Commission organizes bicameral U.S. delegations to OSCE PA meetings throughout the year. With 17 of 323 seats, the United States has the largest representation in the assembly. In the 116th Congress, commissioners explored ways to defend human rights, hold the Kremlin accountable, and maximize cooperation with OSCE Mediterranean partners at OSCE PA meetings. Commissioners visited Hungary, Tunisia, Israel, and Morocco in bipartisan delegations aiming to strengthen shared principles, and Commissioners reported on these visits at OSCE PA meetings as well. Co-Chairman Wicker led the largest bipartisan, bicameral U.S. delegation in history to the 28th Annual Session of the OSCE PA in July 2019 in Luxembourg. At this annual session, Helsinki Commission Ranking Member Cardin, who also serves as OSCE PA Special Representative on Anti-Semitism, Racism, and Intolerance, hosted a U.S. side event in his capacity as Special Representative on the topic of adopting an action plan to counter hate and foster inclusion. Following a two-day seminar organized by Helsinki Commission and the OSCE PA in February 2020, Future Leadership for Political Inclusion in the OSCE Region: A Seminar for Young Parliamentarians, nearly 20 young legislators from OSCE participating States issued a joint declaration emphasizing the important role young people must play in addressing human rights and security challenges across the world. The commission hosted OSCE PA officials for a briefing in December of 2019 to share a parliamentary perspective on the priorities and objectives of the Albanian chairmanship of the OSCE amid regional conflicts and resistance to democratic reforms in some countries in the OSCE region. The commission also regularly hosts hearings, convenes panels, and participates in events related to parliamentary diplomacy, highlighting the important role the OSCE PA and other parliamentary assemblies play in holding governments accountable to standards of cooperation and human rights. Corruption During the 116th Congress, the Helsinki Commission promoted efforts to combat corruption in the OSCE region, recognizing it as a threat to democracy, security, and human rights. The commission’s work focuses on authoritarian kleptocracy, a form of autocratic government that relies on financial globalization and secrecy to steal and maintain power. Members of the Helsinki Commission introduced the Rodchenkov Act, the Kleptocrat Exposure Act, the Combating the Illicit Trade in Tobacco Products Act (CITTPA), the Countering Russian and Other Overseas Kleptocracy (CROOK) Act, the Foreign Extortion Prevention Act, and the Transnational Repression Accountability and Prevention (TRAP) Act. The Rodchenkov Act passed through both chambers of Congress and was signed into law by President Trump on December 4, 2020. The act establishes criminal penalties for doping schemes, provides restitution for victims, protects whistleblowers from retaliation, and shares information with the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency. Passage of the bipartisan legislation was spearheaded by Co-Chairman Wicker and Commissioner Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (RI) in the Senate and former Commissioners Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (TX-18) and Rep. Michael Burgess (TX-26) in the House of Representatives. “This legislation is a great bipartisan accomplishment for the rights of athletes, the protection of whistleblowers, and our common goal of keeping criminals out of international sports,” said Co-Chairman Wicker.  The commission also organized briefings to draw attention to issues like money laundering and official corruption, as well as to share best practices on innovative corruption policies.

  • Co-Chairman Wicker on Secretary of State’s New Designations under International Religious Freedom Act

    WASHINGTON—Following U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s December 7 designations for Countries of Particular Concern (CPC) and the Special Watch List for the worst religious freedom violations, Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) issued the following statement: “Secretary Pompeo rightfully redesignated Tajikistan and Turkmenistan as Countries of Particular Concern. These governments continue to arrest, detain, and torture people for their faith, despite repeated CPC redesignations. It is time for the president to take actions required by the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, which include sanctions against foreign government officials who have committed or are responsible for severe and egregious religious freedom violations. “Russia’s continued presence on the Special Watch List underscores the need for the Senate to pass the Ukraine Religious Freedom Support Act. The Kremlin brutally persecutes religious communities in the parts of Ukraine it illegally occupies or otherwise controls by force. This legislation would ensure the president has the authority necessary to hold Russian government officials accountable for their brutality in Ukraine. “Under the leadership of President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, Uzbekistan commendably has released religious prisoners, registered more religious organizations, and maintained the ban on police raids against religious communities. However, it is essential that reforms continue. Uzbekistan should work with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and Council of Europe’s Venice Commission on its draft religion law to ensure that the final version complies with Uzbekistan’s OSCE commitments and international obligations.” As participating States of the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Russia, and Uzbekistan have repeatedly made commitments to recognize, respect, and protect religious freedom. Even though Turkmenistan has been a CPC since 2014 and Tajikistan since 2016, presidents have always waived taking the presidential actions against them required by the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998. Russia has been on the Special Watch List since 2018. In November 2020, the House of Representatives unanimously passed the Ukraine Religious Freedom Support Act (H.R. 5408) introduced by Helsinki Commissioners Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) and Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, II (MO-05). The Senate companion (S. 3064), introduced by Sen. Wicker and cosponsored by Helsinki Commissioner Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (NH), also awaits Senate action. Under binding international humanitarian law, like the Geneva Conventions, the Russian Government is responsible for religious freedom violations in Ukrainian territory it occupies or controls through armed groups it commands. The Ukraine Religious Freedom Support Act would authorize the president to consider Russia’s worst religious freedom violations in Ukrainian territory—not just violations in Russia—when determining whether to designate Russia as a CPC. Uzbekistan was a CPC from 2006 to 2017 and on the Special Watch List from 2018 to 2019. Sen. Wicker has repeatedly urged Uzbekistan to request a review of its draft religion law by the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institution for Human Rights. Sen. Wicker made the requests in a 2018 letter to Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Kamilov, during a 2018 Helsinki Commission hearing, and in a 2019 public statement. A recent joint review by ODIHR and the Venice Commission review concluded that although “the Draft Law brings some improvements compared to the existing legislation…the Draft Law also maintains major restrictions and suffers from deficiencies that are incompatible with international human rights standards.” The review included recommendations to make the law compliant.

  • Europe Whole and Free? The Future of the OSCE

    On November 20, the Woodrow Wilson Center, in cooperation with the U.S. Helsinki Commission, hosted “Europe Whole and Free: The Future of the OSCE.” The event discussed a divided Europe and the responsibility of the United States to help obtain peace on the continent. The event featured Helsinki Commission Ranking Member Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) and Commissioner Rep. Robert Aderholt (AL-04), as well as other leading voices on European security and cooperation. The event celebrated the 30th anniversary of the Charter of Paris for a New Europe, which was signed by 34 heads of state and government during a Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe Summit (CSCE) held in the French capital from November 19 to 21, 1990. The political agreement charted a path forward following Cold War confrontation and ushered in a new era as states made an unprecedented commitment to domestic individual freedoms, democratic governance, human rights, and transnational cooperation. By institutionalizing the CSCE as a platform to realize peace and security, this process created the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which today is the world’s largest regional security organization, comprising 57 participating States. Participants delved into the history of the Helsinki Final Act and the Charter of Paris, acknowledging that these agreements hold particular importance as milestones of European and transatlantic cooperation. They also expressed optimism concerning transatlantic cooperation under President-elect Joe Biden and stressed the importance of continuing dialogue regarding Charter of Paris commitments. “I think Joe Biden recognizes that U.S. involvement globally is going to be in the United States’ interest,” said Sen. Cardin. “You’re going to see a president who will embrace those allies that share our values, but he’ll engage all of the countries. But he’ll be anchored in our values, which, by the way, are the Helsinki Final Act values and reinforcing the Charter of Paris.” As democracy and human rights are systematically challenged in the OSCE region, Robert Ryberg, Deputy Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs of Sweden and incoming OSCE Chair-in-Office, noted that recent developments in Ukraine and Belarus demonstrate that nearly all serious challenges to the OSCE region’s security stem from situations where the fundamental principles of Helsinki and Paris are not respected. Many speakers pointed out the need for accountability within the OSCE and reinvigorated political investment from participating States in order to realize Chart of Paris ideals. “As no one participating in that Paris Charter could predict the collapse of the Soviet Union, which at that time was literally only a year away, we cannot yet see the contours of the world that will emerge from the lockdowns that we are seeing now and this disruption that the coronavirus has really brought to the entire world,” said Rep. Aderholt. “Whatever the future holds, I believe that a revitalized OSCE will be a powerful asset for our leaders as they navigate in a new era and as we continue to call upon all governments to respect inalienable rights.” Speakers also called for a reinvigoration, and in some cases reform, of the OSCE, as well as the promotion of multilateralism, as avenues to continue the vital work of the OSCE.   Photos Courtesy of the Woodrow Wilson Center and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of France​ 

  • A Parliamentary Perspective on the 30th Anniversary of the Charter of Paris

    On November 20, the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA) and the French Delegation to the OSCE PA hosted a commemorative event celebrating the 30th anniversary of the Charter of Paris for a New Europe. Speakers reflected on the momentous document and discussed how to the OSCE can continue to provide value within today’s complex international framework. The Charter of Paris was signed by 34 heads of state and government during a Summit of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) in the French capital from November 19 to 21, 1990. The political agreement charted a path forward following Cold War confrontation and ushered in a new era as states made an unprecedented commitment to domestic individual freedoms, democratic governance, human rights, and transnational cooperation. The agreement led to the institutionalization of the CSCE as well as the regularization of its meeting, setting the stage for the transformation of the ongoing conference to an organization, the OSCE, in 1995.  This included the founding of the Parliamentary Assembly in 1991.  As the Charter of Paris turns 30, speakers reflected on its history and expression of hope for unity, stability and peace – goals which seemed attainable at the time but appear more distant today. Ann Linde, the Minister for Foreign Affairs of Sweden and incoming OSCE Chairperson-in-Office, stressed the OSCE and OSCE PA’s critical role in resolving challenges that threaten the OSCE region’s collective security, such as Russia’s violation of Ukraine’s territorial integrity and the post-election crackdown in Belarus. OSCE PA President George Tsereteli said, “it is clear that we as politicians and parliamentarians need to work very hard.” He encouraged his colleagues to confront crises in democracy and strive to realize Charter of Paris commitments. Participants of the event acknowledged the need to strengthen participating States’ commitments to the charter’s ideals through cooperation and dialogue. These calls for action were within the context of current geopolitical conflicts, as well as an effort to find ways to reach consensus with Russia. “The OSCE has become the premier international organization promoting human rights… It is a proud record, but it’s a record that can be improved. The OSCE needs to work on openness, access to non-governmental organizations. But the problem within the OSCE states today is principally noncompliance of the states with the principles, not the deficiencies in the organization itself,” said Helsinki Commission Ranking Member and OSCE PA Special Representative on Anti-Semitism, Racism and Intolerance, Sen. Ben Cardin. “Every state can do better,” Cardin said. “So, let us on this 30th anniversary of the Paris Charter remember our mission to build, consolidate, and strengthen democracies as the only system of government of our nations. You cannot be neutral in democracy.”

  • Helsinki Commission Digital Digest: November 2020

  • The OSCE Celebrates 30 Years of the Charter of Paris

    By Emma Derr, Max Kampelman Fellow November 21, 2020, marks the 30th anniversary of the Charter of Paris for a New Europe,  a groundbreaking document of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE). The charter was signed by 34 heads of state and government during a CSCE Summit in the French capital from November 19 to 21, 1990. The political agreement charted a path forward following Cold War confrontation and division caused by Soviet domination in the east. It ushered in a new era as states made an unprecedented commitment to domestic individual freedoms, democratic governance, human rights, and transnational cooperation. By institutionalizing the CSCE as a platform to realize peace and security, this process transformed the multilateral Conference into the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which today is the world’s largest regional security organization, comprising 57 participating States. The charter states, “Europe is liberating itself from the legacy of the past. The courage of men and women, the strength of the will of the peoples and the power of the ideas of the Helsinki Final Act have opened a new era of democracy, peace and unity in Europe.” Known by many as the “Helsinki Process,” both the CSCE and its OSCE successor have been based on ten principles guiding relations between participating States, enshrined in the Helsinki Final Act. The charter marks a triumph of the comprehensive definition of security these principles represent and a moment of unity, which participating States hoped to maintain through enhanced cooperation. During the OSCE’s three-session Security Days event in October “Revitalizing Trust and Co-operation in Europe: Lessons of the Paris Charter,” former U.S. Secretary of State James A. Baker III, who played a leading role in the charter’s formation, recalled signing the agreement as an “optimistic, almost festive event.” “It encapsulated so much that was positive about the process that had begun with the Helsinki Final Act in 1975,” he said. “It envisioned a new and inclusive continent based largely on western values, particularly the value of democracy.” The Enduring Value of the OSCE Since 1990, the OSCE has acted as a forum for political dialogue and a platform for joint action across North America, Europe, and Asia through its institutions, structures, and field operations. As its occupation of Crimea and military intervention in Eastern Ukraine have led to Russia’s isolation and sanctions by the United States and others in recent years, the OSCE is one of the few remaining multilateral forums for American diplomats to directly engage with their Russian counterparts. As an organization promoting the principles of democracy and as a forum for conflict resolution, the OSCE is a valuable tool to hold authoritarian regimes accountable throughout the region, which stretches from Vancouver to Vladivostok. Chairman of the U.S. Helsinki Commission Rep. Alcee L. Hastings and U.S. Ambassador to the OSCE James S. Gilmore III see the OSCE as a forum where the United States remains engaged and committed to the ideals cemented in the Charter of Paris. “Through the OSCE, the United States directly confronts the deceit of Russia and other authoritarian powers. By raising our voices, through our participation and leadership, we reassure our friends that the United States stands with them and supports our shared values against the growing tide of autocracy,” Rep. Hastings and Amb. Gilmore stated in an August 2020 op-ed. The organization continues to play a critical role in regional conflicts in and amongst participating States. The OSCE’s Special Monitoring Mission (SMM) to Ukraine is the only independent observer group with a permanent presence in the war zone. “The OSCE’s broad membership and comprehensive definition of security make it an ideal platform to advocate for our interests in a vital region,” stated Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker and Ranking Member Sen. Ben Cardin in a 2018 article describing the OSCE’s timeless value. “Its institutions remain singularly placed to moderate regional conflicts, promote respect for human rights, and safeguard essential elements of democracy.” The OSCE operates field missions in 13 participating States with the goal of supporting the development of host countries’ democratic institutions, legal frameworks, and ability to meet various human rights, media freedom, and policing commitments. OSCE field mission staff are praised by Carnegie Europe Senior Fellow Thomas de Waal as “some of the unsung heroes of Europe’s darkest corners.” The Charter of Paris articulated a new era of economic commitments, and the OSCE provides frequent opportunities for representatives of OSCE governments to discuss best practices concerning free market economies, economic cooperation and environmental issues. The OSCE also organizes international election observation missions to transitional and well-established democracies alike, observing and reporting on adherence to democratic election commitments. New Challenges Much has changed since the end of the Cold War, and the anniversary of the charter provides an opportunity to renew commitments to cooperation and examine how the OSCE will meet current and emerging challenges. During October’s Security Days event, former OSCE Secretary General and former High Commissioner on National Minorities Ambassador Lamberto Zannier called for reinvigorated political support and investment by participating States to enable the OSCE to continue its vital work. He cited the post-Soviet transition in Ukraine and Serbian elections in Kosovo as examples of these efforts. During his remarks at the event, Baker concluded that in this spirit, the OSCE can find new methods of cooperation to meet 21 century challenges. “Our message should not be much different than it was three decades ago,” he said. “States should fulfill the promises they made in the Paris charter 30 years ago.” The 30th anniversary inspired other webinar discussions, such as IFSH Hamburg’s Event, “30 Years Charter of Paris: Lessons for Pragmatic Cooperation in the OSCE Area,” which discussed the strengths and weaknesses of the Charter of Paris, as well as potential reforms to the OSCE. The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) also engaged in the anniversary and hosted the event “(Dis)functional International Security Institutions? The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Today.” The OSCE’s Parliamentary Assembly and the French Delegation to the Assembly held an online, public discussion “The 30th Anniversary of the Charter of Paris: A Parliamentary Perspective,” on November 20, which discussed how to the OSCE can continue to provide value within today’s complex international framework. Finally, on November 20, the Woodrow Wilson Center in cooperation with the U.S. Helsinki Commission also hosted an event, “Marking the 30th Anniversary of the Charter of Paris for a New Europe - Europe Whole and Free: The Future of the OSCE.” The discussion included the U.S. Helsinki Commission’s Ranking Member Sen. Ben Cardin and Commissioner Rep. Robert Aderholt, as well as other leading voices on European security and cooperation.   Photos Courtesy of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of France​

  • OSCE ELECTION OBSERVERS RELEASE 2020 PRELIMINARY FINDINGS ON THE UNITED STATES GENERAL ELECTIONS

    By Emma Derr, Max Kampelman Fellow and Robert Hand, Senior Policy Advisor The U.S. election system has passed the “extreme stress test,” according to the head of the 2020 general election observation mission organized by the Organization for Cooperation and Security in Europe. International observers representing 39 OSCE participating States presented their preliminary conclusions at a press conference on November 4, 2020 in Washington D.C. The observation mission is a joint effort between the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) and the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (PA). Ambassador Urszula Gacek of Poland, who led the ODIHR observers, said the U.S. electoral system had been subjected to an “extreme stress test” this year due to COVID-19 and the polarized political climate. While announcing the mission’s findings, she concluded, “The American electoral process appears to have passed that test.” Observers deliver the post-election statement in Washington D.C. Photo courtesy of the OSCE PA. In 1990, all OSCE participating States pledged to hold free and fair elections and to invite international observers. To meet this OSCE commitment, in March 2020 the U.S. Department of State invited the OSCE to observe the November 3 elections. As part of the OSCE election observation process, the observers focus their reporting on issues such as legal framework, election administration, new voting technologies, campaign environment and finance, and coverage of elections by media. Recommendations are then issued to improve the electoral processes to benefit citizens. “The United States is leading by example, showing that election observation is a way to promote democracy both at home and abroad,” said OSCE Parliamentary Assembly member Michael Georg Link, who served as Special Coordinator and leader of the short-term observer mission. This is the ninth election the OSCE has observed in the U.S. since 2002. The OSCE began its work during the summer of 2020 by conducting a comprehensive review of the electoral process. A Needs Assessment Report was published in July, which recommended observation.  Once the core team of the observation mission was deployed,  an Interim Report was released in October. Head of OSCE PA election observation mission Kari Henriksen in Ann Arbor, Michigan​ in October. Photo courtesy of the OSCE PA. The Needs Assessment Report noted “the conduct of these elections will be the most challenging in recent decades” and that “in a highly polarized environment, there is an increased need for external and independent overview of the electoral process, including of the election day proceedings.” ODIHR sent a limited election observation mission (LEOM) to the United States on September 29, which included observing early voting. The core team was comprised of eleven experts from ten participating States, led by Gacek. On election day, 50 observers were deployed by ODIHR, alongside 65 observers that included parliamentarians and support staff from the OSCE PA, to 30 states and the District of Columbia. Michael Georg Link and Andreas Nothelle speak with a poll worker at a polling station in Washington D.C. on Election Day. Photo courtesy of the OSCE PA. Despite the challenges, the OSCE team was confident it produced a thorough, impartial, fact-based assessment. As Link noted, the OSCE’s role is not to draw a “thumbs up, thumbs down” political conclusion or compare results to other countries or even to previous elections in the same country. The mission hopes to foster post-election dialogue about its recommendations, and a final report is expected in January 2021. All OSCE election observation reports are accessible on the OSCE website.   Findings Overall Assessment The OSCE’s Preliminary Report concluded that the November 3, 2020 general elections were free and fair, as well as “competitive and well managed despite legal uncertainties and logistical challenges.” It also noted that the pluralistic and diverse media provided comprehensive coverage of the campaign. Freedom of expression was respected, and a wide range of available election-related information enabled voters to make an informed choice. Early and postal voting was significantly expanded, allowing for higher voter participation amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The work of election administration under difficult circumstances “enjoyed general confidence.” The elections were “extensively observed” by both partisan and non-partisan citizen observers, which increased the transparency of the election process. The preliminary report stated, “Election day was orderly and took place in a peaceful atmosphere without unrest or intimidation. Mitigating measures against the pandemic were generally in place and followed.” Any interruptions at polling places due to problems with voting equipment were quickly addressed. Political Polarization The 2020 presidential campaign was characterized by deep political polarization. During the year, controversy arose regarding the conduct of elections amid the COVID-19 pandemic which took hold in February and March.  The death of George Floyd in Minneapolis in late May elevated calls for racial justice, leading to peaceful protests as well as confrontation and instances of violence. The OSCE/ODIHR Election Observation Mission 2016 Final Report said that the last presidential campaign was characterized by harsh personal attacks and intolerant rhetoric by one candidate, a trend that continued in 2020. This year’s preliminary findings highlighted the incumbent president’s “discriminative and pejorative statements” and also noted that “the two leading presidential candidates accused each other of corruption, fraud, working for foreign interests, an inability to lead, and support for extremist groups.” Overall, the international election observers concluded that this rhetoric shifted the focus away from policies and party platforms and toward negative campaigning. Legitimacy of Elections The 2020 Interim Report noted that many ODIHR election observers expressed concerns about the  “the incumbent President’s repeated allegations of a fraudulent election process and postal vote in particular.” This led to concern over public trust in the process and outcome as well as the potential for political violence in the aftermath of elections. At the November 4 press conference, Link stated that “baseless allegations of systematic deficiencies, notably by the incumbent President, including on election night, harm public trust in democratic institutions.” Link and Gacek both said that the OSCE’s observations will be ongoing as the votes continued to be counted. “Nobody – no politician, no elected official – should limit the people’s right to vote. Coming after such a highly dynamic campaign, making sure that every vote is counted is a fundamental obligation for all branches of government,” said Link. Alternative Voting The preliminary findings indicate “an unprecedented volume of litigation over voting processes in the months before the elections, with over 400 lawsuits filed in 44 states.” The report states that such litigation, focusing on minimizing the COVID-19 health risks of in-person voting, created uncertainty and placed undue burden on voters and election officials. Despite these obstacles, opportunities to vote early were expanded due to the pandemic. The interim report said that even though there was concern over the level of preparedness of election officials with minimal exposure to postal votes, many states allowed absentee ballots to be processed before election day and allowed voters to correct mistakes that may have otherwise led to ballot rejection. According to the preliminary report, “Early voting was conducted in-person in 39 states and the District of Columbia, with voting periods ranging from 45 to 3 days. Long queues were reported in a number of states. All states provided voters with the option to cast a postal ballot…By election day, more than 100 million voters had already cast their votes.” The OSCE observed the processing and handling of postal ballots and reported no indication of systemic problems or issues. Secrecy of the vote is not guaranteed by all states for postal and out-of-country electronic voting, which the report—in line with several previous EOM reports—notes does not align with OSCE commitments. Election Observation On election day, the OSCE observed the election process and visited a limited number of polling stations. According to the preliminary report, “Election day was observed by numerous partisan and non-partisan citizen observers across the country, with rights and responsibilities ranging from observing signature and ballot verification to challenging the eligibility of a voter or of individual ballots.” Gacek lauded the enormous effort made by election workers and citizens working the polls, as well as a record voter turnout amidst pandemic challenges and legal uncertainty. “We were received very favorably -- made to feel very welcomed,” said Gacek. Five states and the District of Columbia permit observation by international observers by law, and eighteen states restrict observation. During the press conference, Link noted that there are a number of states where international election observers are not allowed inside polling premises. The OSCE has noted these restrictions since its 2004 report. Link said that he hoped state laws would be amended to allow for international observer access, as the current restrictions are not in line with OSCE commitments. However, Article 1 of the U.S. Constitution devolves the responsibility to conduct elections to the states. As a part of this power, each state has different laws about election observers.  Some do not allow international election observers into polling places. Other states do, but most are silent on the matter, leaving it to the discretion of election officials. Disenfranchisement Disenfranchisement has been an issue raised by OSCE election observation missions since 2008. For example, the OSCE noted that U.S. residents of the District of Columbia and overseas territories do not have voting representation in Congress. Also, an estimated 5.2 million citizens are not permitted to vote due to criminal convictions, even after serving their sentence. The OSCE notes that this restriction disproportionately affects African Americans and violates the principles of universal suffrage. Voter Registration and Identification As stated in previous reports of OSCE election observation missions to the United States, 2020 observers concluded in the “Statement of Preliminary Findings and Conclusions” that voter registration and identification requirements can be unduly restrictive for certain groups of citizens, such as Native Americans and low-income citizens. Identification documents are required in 34 states. Campaign Finance Since 2008, OSCE reports on U.S. elections noted a high level of campaign spending; this year, the mission estimated that campaign expenditures were expected to reach $14 billion. OSCE concerns include campaign finance laws that facilitate a lack of donor transparency and unlimited spending of Super PACs.

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