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Five Years of the Transatlantic Inclusion Leaders Network
Thursday, August 25, 2016

2016 marks the fifth anniversary of the Transatlantic Inclusion Leaders Network (TILN), an innovative project of the U.S. Helsinki Commission, in cooperation with the U.S. State Department, German Marshall Fund, and other stakeholders that prepares diverse, young leaders with a global outlook.

TILN bridges the transatlantic divide between the U.S. and Europe by annually bringing together driven individuals from a range of political backgrounds for a week-long workshop focused on inclusive leadership. Workshops take place in European cities ranging from Copenhagen to Brussels to Turin – allowing participants to immerse themselves in international policy-making at national and regional levels.  Participants engage with public and private sector figures while shaping their personal missions and strengthening leadership skills to support careers in public service and transformative initiatives that will promote more equitable societies. 

The TILN project already boasts an impressive list of alumni, including U.S. Congressman Ruben Gallego, Swedish Parliamentarian Said Abdu, UN Expert on Minority Issues Rita Iszak, and other Parliamentarians, Ministers, Mayors, City Councilpersons, regional and local leaders.

During its five-year history, TILN annual workshops have highlighted issues of special interest to the US Helsinki Commission from the ongoing struggle to realize Roma and migrant rights to racism, anti-Semitism, and religious discrimination.  Additionally, many TILN alumni support innovative initiatives that promote equality and inclusion in their home countries through alumni Action Grants that allow former participants to maintain their connections, further the work of multinational inclusion, and maximize the impact of collective action.

For example, former German and Dutch participants have launched national inclusive leadership programs inspired by TILN. The German “Network Inclusive Leaders” program (NILE), created by Gabriele Gün Tank and Daniel Gyamerah of the TILN class of 2013, is a week-long seminar that provides 20 diverse young adults with an opportunity to engage with German political leaders, academics, artists, and others on anti-racism and anti-discrimination efforts.

Following the 2016 TILN event, Dutch alumni Mpanzu Bamenga and Kamran Ullah – along with GMF’s Marshall Memorial Fellows Ahmed Larouz and Mei Ling Liem – launched the “Inclusion Leaders Network” in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. The event successfully brought together more than 40 community and political leaders from different parties and sectors to discuss tools and strategies to increase inclusion in political, economic, and education sectors. Both the NILE and the Inclusive Leadership Network have enjoyed the support of the U.S. Helsinki Commission, State Department, GMF, and other stakeholders.

Hosted by Helsinki Commissioner Representative Alcee L. Hastings, TILN experts and alumni Simon Woolley, Assita Kanko, Gabriele Gün Tank, and David Mark also attended the 2014 three-day Quad Caucus meeting of the National Black Caucus of State Legislators (NBCSL), the National Asian Pacific Caucus of State Legislators (NAPACSL), the National Caucus of Native American State Legislators (NCNASAL), and the National Hispanic Caucus of State Legislators (NHCSL) in the United States. 

In his opening remarks to the Quad Caucus, Commissioner Hastings highlighted the importance of inclusive and representative governance in all countries.  The TILN delegation followed with a panel discussion on the similarity between the U.S. and Europe on experiences of Roma, Muslim, Afro-descent, and other diverse communities, leading to support for joint U.S.-Europe partnerships and initiatives from members of the Quad Caucus.

As a result of these meetings, the TILN alumni network was able to organize a speaking tour in Germany for Ajenai Clemmons of NBCSL – a 2015 TILN participant – to share the U.S. minority caucus model in Germany. The momentum of the Quad Caucus also advanced development of anti-discrimination legislation authored by TILN alumni Mpanzu Bamenga in the Netherlands, which was later adopted by Eindhoven City Council.

The U.S. Helsinki Commission congratulates TILN on five successful years, and looks forward to witnessing further fruits of the Network as alumni continue to advance inclusive policymaking, thought, and leadership in our societies.

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    Two U.S. lawmakers heading up an independent U.S. government human rights watchdog have introduced a resolution that calls on President Joe Biden to boot Russia from the United Nations Security Council, just days before the Kremlin’s flagging full-scale invasion of Ukraine is set to hit its 10-month mark.  The bipartisan Helsinki Commission, which called on U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken to protest Russia’s standing as a permanent Security Council member in October, wants Congress to argue that Russia’s war has violated the “purposes and principles of the United Nations” and asks U.S. government agencies to take steps to limit Russia’s privileges at the U.N., though it gives the administration some free rein to determine how it might act.   In the congressional resolution shared with Foreign Policy, Reps. Steve Cohen and Joe Wilson said that Russia had committed “flagrant violations” of the U.N. Charter that call into question its right to hold a Security Council seat, including the illegal annexation vote in four Ukrainian oblasts, the perpetration of atrocities in Ukrainian cities such as Bucha, nuclear saber-rattling, and creating risks to the world’s food supply.  Ukraine has also advocated for Russia to be removed from the council, though experts remain skeptical that such efforts will work. The U.N.’s governing charter doesn’t contain any provisions for removing a permanent member of the Security Council. While countries can be removed from the United Nations altogether, doing so would require a two-thirds majority vote in the General Assembly, including the consent of the council itself. “Russia would have to agree to it, and it’s just not going to happen,” said Louis Charbonneau, U.N. director with Human Rights Watch. China is also unlikely to agree to such a precedent.  Though House resolutions are not binding law, the move solidifies thinking both on Capitol Hill and within the Biden administration about how to curb Russian influence in Turtle Bay. The resolution pushes forward a previous effort from the Helsinki Commission—which was created in 1975 as part of a U.S. law that solidified the brief detente between the United States and the Soviet Union—calling on the State Department to initiate a process to strip Russia’s seat on the top U.N. body. One idea, backed by the commission as well as some legal scholars, seeks to challenge Russia’s status as the heir of the Soviet Union’s seat at the Security Council. As one of the initial signatories of the treaty that founded the Soviet Union, alongside Russia and Belarus, Kyiv could make a convincing claim to be the only successor state of the Soviet Union not to have flagrantly violated the principles of the U.N. Charter and issue credentials for one of its own diplomats to take the seat. As deciding on credentials is a procedural matter, it would only require nine of the 15 members of the council to vote in support of Ukraine, Thomas Grant, a senior research fellow at the University of Cambridge, has noted.  The feasibility of such a plan remains a subject of debate. And three decades after Russia took over the Soviet Union’s seat, challenging such precedent could also prove to be an uphill battle. “You’re looking at three decades of recognition of Russia in this place,” Charbonneau said.  But Russia’s long-standing intransigence, along with the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, has gotten both the United States and Ukraine to begin thinking about alternatives to diminish Moscow’s influence. Speaking at the U.N. General Assembly in September, Biden called for reforms of the Security Council, including the possibility of adding more permanent and nonpermanent members, such as for countries in Africa, Latin America, and the Caribbean. The United States also succeeded on Wednesday in ousting Iran from a United Nations panel on women’s rights.

  • Leaders warn social media ‘a ticking time bomb’ for antisemitism

    U.S. Ambassador Deborah Lipstadt, who is special envoy to combat antisemitism, on Tuesday called the rise of anti-Jewish tropes on the internet and social media “a ticking time bomb,” during a hearing held by the U.S. Helsinki Commission.  Lipstadt’s comments come just a day after President Biden’s announcement that his administration would establish a task force to coordinate government efforts to address antisemitism and other forms of religiously motivated bigotry.   Her comments also come just a few weeks after rapper Ye, formerly known as Kanye West, delivered an antisemitic rant on Infowars in which he stated that he liked Adolf Hitler.  Witness Rabbi Andrew Baker, much like Lipstadt, emphasized the dangers of how easily antisemitism can spread online during the hearing.  “Today antisemitism moves effortlessly around the world via the internet and social media. It infects groups and individuals who then carry out attacks on Jewish targets,” said Baker.  Though Lipstadt said that it was important to recognize the dangers social media presents in making antisemitic content more easily accessible, she was cautious not to blame social media for the recent rise in antisemitism in the U.S.   “I’m not sure we have an internet or social media problem, we have an antisemitism problem,” said Lipstadt. “I like to talk about or compare social media to a knife, a knife in the hands of a murderous person can take a life, a knife in the hands of a surgeon can save a life.” Lipstadt also made clear during the hearing that she wasn’t calling for more censorship or content moderation, but for more public condemnation of hate speech.   “The United States will always uphold free protections of speech in our Constitution, but having said that, we also have to condemn hate speech,” said Lipstadt. “We cannot legislate it out of existence, but we can certainly condemn it. Freedom of expression doesn’t mean we have to sit idly by.”  Baker also said that content moderation wouldn’t be able to solve the problem of antisemitism spreading online.  “Content monitors are no match for algorithms designed to push grievance as the basic business model,” said Baker. “We must find new ways to bring this under control.”   “We know that it spreads immediately, exhaustively, through social media, and that is a real fight we’re all up against.”   Lipstadt said that one of the best ways to fight against the rise of antisemitism online and in general was for high-profile individuals to decry antisemitism whenever and wherever they see it.  “Leaders have to speak out,” said Lipstadt. “Political leaders, religious leaders, celebrities, opinion makers, they have to speak out and say this is wrong.”  “So, I think the public profile people speaking out and saying this is unacceptable, is extremely important.”  Committee Chairman Ben Cardin (D-Md.) reiterated this point and said that he was proud that so many of his colleagues denounced former President Trump’s dinner at Mar-a-Lago with Ye and white supremacist Nick Fuentes.   “Leaders must put a spotlight on any type of antisemitic activities and be willing to condemn it. We saw just the opposite at Mar-a-Lago when the former president had dinner with Kanye West, a known antisemite, and Nick Fuentes, a white supremacist,” said Cardin.    

  • THE ALARMING RISE IN ANTISEMITISM AND ITS THREAT TO DEMOCRACY

    Antisemitic speech and attacks have been rising at an alarming rate in both the United States and Europe. Popular entertainers and public figures such as rapper and producer “Ye,” formerly Kanye West, have spread antisemitic tropes to their followers on social media or through public statements. Antisemitic disinformation and conspiracy theories proliferated in connection with the COVID-19 pandemic. Statements by public figures and online disinformation not only serve to normalize prejudice and discrimination, but they also can incite extremism and violent attacks. Antisemitic incidents in the United States reached an all-time high in 2021. Synagogues have been attacked in Colleyville, TX, Pittsburgh, PA, and San Diego, CA. The spread of antisemitism, Holocaust denial, and blaming of minority groups, as well as replacement and conspiracy theories have also spread to the political arena where they threaten to undermine democratic institutions. President Putin has even tried to justify Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine through perversely antisemitic statements claiming the invasion was an effort to “de-Nazify” the country, notwithstanding its Jewish president. In response, Senator Cardin earlier in December convened an initial roundtable at the U.S. Capitol of high-level officials across the government and the non-profit sector who are actively engaged in countering antisemitism to encourage better communication across government agencies and between the government and civil society organizations. The goal is to promote a unified, whole-of-society approach, including a national strategy to fight antisemitism. In addition, strengthening efforts to fight antisemitism at home also raises the ability of the United States to engage successfully with other countries to counter rising antisemitism abroad. Building on this roundtable, the Helsinki Commission held a hearing on December 13, 2022, featuring experts on combatting antisemitism. Witnesses testified on how to best respond to the global rise of anti-Semitism, reinforcing the important role multilateral coordination plays. In an environment where anti-Semitism spreads rapidly online, witnesses stressed that every country has a responsibility to combat anti-Semitism, as it has serious implications for democracy. Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) expressed his alarm at the shocking rise of antisemitic speech and attacks in recent years. He highlighted the destructive role of disinformation and the importance of educational programs, calling for a unified strategy to combat antisemitism across government and society: “We must speak out loudly and clearly against anti-Semitism when it occurs. As leaders, we must lead and fight against hate. We cannot allow anti-Semitism or any type of prejudice or intolerance to be normalized,” he said. Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09) raised questions about the cause of the recent rise in anti-Semitism. Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) condemned the rise of anti-Semitism around the world, highlighted the important work the U.S. Helsinki Commission and the OSCE have done to combat anti-Semitism, and called on countries to take more action: “... it is clear what I stated last week, that anti-Semitism cannot be tolerated in any situation or under any circumstances.  I’m very concerned by the rise of antisemitic incidents over the past several years, both in the United States and Europe.”  Rep. Ruben Gallego (AZ-03) expressed his disgust at the alarming rise of anti-Semitism in the United States and Europe, raising concerns about Holocaust denial and securing places of worship: “It seems that every day and every week there’s another bomb threat at a Jewish day school, another discovery of antisemitic graffiti spraypainted on a college campus, or, at its worst, a shooting at a synagogue.”  Rep. Marc Veasey (TX -33) inquired about what Congress should do to prevent the proliferation of old anti-Semitic tropes on platforms like Twitter or Meta: “According to the ADL, there was a 61 percent increase in antisemitic tweets referencing Jews or Judaism since they have – since Elon Musk has taken over the company.”  Senator Richard Blumenthal (CT), discussed how to improve hate-crime legislation as well as come to terms with the history of anti-Semitism in U.S. institutions: “One of the innovations that we included in hate-crimes legislation was to give judges the option in sentencing to require that the convicted defendant, the perpetrator, perform acts of community service that put him or her in direct – in direct contact with the community who was the victim of the hate crime." Senator Rosen (NV) described how she co-led a bipartisan and bicameral letter signed by 126 members of Congress to President Biden calling for the development of a unified national strategy to monitor and combat anti-Semitism: “I’m proud to say, just last night [Dec. 12, 2022] the White House heeded our call, announcing the formation of an interagency task force to combat anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. And its first order of business is to develop a national strategy to combat anti-Semitism." She also outlined specific actions that the U.S. must pursue including addressing online antisemitism, allocating increased resources to provide physical security for Jewish institutions, educating students about the Holocaust and anti-Semitism, improving hate crimes data collection and reporting, and advancing a whole-of-government approach to combat this issue. Ambassador Deborah Lipstadt, U.S. Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism at the U.S. State Department reiterated the importance of international coalition building and multilateral institutions in coordinating responses to antisemitism. She highlighted that anti-Semitism is often inextricably linked to prejudice and violence against other groups and religions: “Anti-Semitism is not a niche issue. It’s not just about helping or protecting Jews. As you entitled this hearing, it’s also a danger to democracy. Jews are the canary in the coal mine. If something is – if anti-Semitism is manifesting itself, other hatreds cannot be far behind." She also mentioned positive international developments, specifically in the Middle East, with the Abraham Accords, describing how countries are starting to rethink their attitudes about anti-Semitism. Rabbi Andrew Baker, Personal Representative of the OSCE Chairman-in-Office on Combating Anti-Semitism and Director of International Jewish Affairs at the American Jewish Committee (AJC) described the steps OSCE governments should take to tackle this issue. He emphasized the importance of accurate data collection, securing Jewish community buildings, and expanding Holocaust education in Europe. He also described that preventing the spread of anti-Semitism online is perhaps the most difficult part of the problem to solve: “We are outnumbered and out-funded by the social media giants. Content monitors are no match for algorithms designed to push grievance as the basic business model.” Members brought several concerns and questions to witnesses about the source of the recent rise of anti-Semitism, the importance of Holocaust education, how to best allocate resources to secure religious and community spaces, the value of hate crime distinctions, and the rapid spread of anti-Semitism online. For more information, please contact Janice Helwig, Senior Policy Advisor, at Janice.Helwig@mail.house.gov

  • Helsinki Commission Announces Hearing on Crowdsourcing Victory for Ukraine

      WATCH LIVE                                                                                                                                  CROWDSOURCING VICTORY Inside the Civil Society Campaign to Improve the Lethality and Survivability of the Ukrainian Military   Wednesday, December 7, 2022 2:30 p.m. Dirksen Senate Office Building Room 562 A unique aspect of Ukraine’s decentralized defense has been the rise of civil society organizations marshalling grassroots support for the Ukrainian war effort and humanitarian response. Unlike the USO or care packages Americans send our overseas troops, NGOs are effectively serving as the quartermaster for Ukraine’s troops, supplying tactical gear such as commercial drones, night and thermal vision optics, encrypted radios, and body armor. In many cases, these organizations have supplied this war-winning gear in greater volumes than Ukraine’s government itself, freeing agencies like the Ministry of Defense to focus on securing advanced weapons systems from Western suppliers. These civil society organizations exemplify the total mobilization of Ukrainian society at levels that have only been seen in the West during the Second World War. The hearing will examine logistical and regulatory challenges that often stymie efforts to surge needed gear to the front and will identify policy options for Washington and Brussels to declutter and harmonize an export framework that was never intended for a massive land war in Europe. It will also seek to answer the question of why frontline units with advanced Western weaponry still lack battlefield essentials such as combat optics, secure communications, and vehicles needed to transport casualties from the red zone to hospitals in the rear. The following witnesses are scheduled to testify: Dora Chomiak, President of U.S.-based NGO Razom for Ukraine Taras Chmut, Director of the Ukraine-based foundation Come Back Alive Serhiy Prytula, Founder and Chairman of the Ukraine-based Prytula Charity Foundation   Jonas Öhman, Founder and Head of the Lithuania-based NGO Blue/Yellow for Ukraine    

  • Cardin convenes antisemitism working group with administration, lawmakers, outside groups

    Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD) convened a cross-government working group on antisemitism on Capitol Hill this week, including lawmakers and representatives of multiple executive branch agencies, seeking to promote better collaboration across the federal government to combat antisemitism. The meeting was organized under the auspices of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (Helsinki Commission), which Cardin chairs. Attendees included: Sens. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) and Jacky Rosen (D-NV); Rep. Marc Veasey (D-TX); Melissa Rogers, the special assistant to the president and executive director of the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships; State Department Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Antisemitism Deborah Lipstadt; Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights Kristen Clarke; Brian Turner, the FBI executive assistant director of the Criminal, Cyber, Response, and Services Branch; and Department of Homeland Security Under Secretary for Strategy, Policy and Plans Robert Silvers. Representatives from the United States Holocaust Memorial Council, Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee also attended. According to a readout issued by Cardin’s office, “there was clear consensus, based on data from law enforcement and polling that the number of antisemitic incidents has been rising at an alarming rate.” The meeting was focused on improving communication within the government and with civil society organizations, “and attendees expressed a willingness to make that happen,” the summary states. “It was vital at this time, with so many blatant antisemitic incidents and public celebrity rants, that we bring together this group of professionals who are dealing with this issue daily,” Cardin said. “We can and should be doing more. A unified, national strategy on countering antisemitism is needed. While finding the proper balance between protecting free speech and protecting Americans from harm, we need to up our game, rebuild coalitions with other groups that have been the target of hate-based violence, and institutionalize coordination that counters antisemitism wherever it is found.” Veasey, a member of the Helsinki Commission and a co-chair of the House Bipartisan Task force for Combating Antisemitism, said in a statement to JI that the meeting was especially relevant “in the wake of former President Trump’s meetings with white nationalists.” “It’s imperative that we continue to discuss this issue consistently, and we must not allow antisemitism to become mainstream or a partisan issue,” he continued. Veasey said the group had “discussed support for President Biden’s recent comments regarding a whole-of-society approach towards combatting antisemitism and better coordination across governments and agencies.” Rosen told JI, “We have a responsibility to do everything we can to combat antisemitism in all of its forms, and I was glad to be a part of this conversation as we work to develop a unified strategy to tackle the alarming rise of antisemitic incidents.” George Selim, ADL’s senior vice president for national affairs, represented the group in the meeting. “ADL is grateful for the steps Congress and the Administration have already taken to combat antisemitism, but greater coordination across departments and a more intentional national strategy are necessary to address this threat,” Selim said. “We appreciate Senator Cardin taking the important step of convening a roundtable discussion with relevant federal agencies to discuss best practices, including focusing on interagency and NGO coordination, and welcomed the opportunity to share proposed initiatives from ADL’s COMBAT Plan to fight antisemitism.” In a statement, AJC said the meeting “was a critical convening of government and civil society at a time when antisemitism — which, at its roots is a threat to our democracy — has become more mainstream in America.” “AJC is appreciative of the strong efforts already taken by Congress and the Biden administration. We continue to advocate for a whole-of-government approach to tackle this current surge in Jew hate,” the statement continued.

  • Congressmen Cohen and Wilson Introduce Resolution Recognizing International Day of Political Prisoners

    WASHINGTON – Congressman Steve Cohen (TN-09), Co-Chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, and the Commission’s Ranking Member, Congressman Joe Wilson (SC-02), today introduced a resolution recognizing October 30 as International Day of Political Prisoners. Congressman Cohen was recently named the Special Representative on Political Prisoners by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly and has been speaking out and calling attention to the treatment of an estimated 1 million political opponents, dissidents, academics, human rights activists, journalists and others worldwide imprisoned for their commitment to democracy and transparency. The resolution calls attention to repressive regimes engaged in “systematic destruction of independent voices, including but not limited to the Russian and Belarusian Governments.”  It clarifies that October 30 was chosen because on October 30, 1974, “Soviet human rights activists and dissidents initiated the idea of marking the day of political prisoners in the USSR and consequently held a hunger strike that day while in jail.” The measure also says that the U.S. House of Representatives “deplores all forms of political repression and imprisonment” and supports State Department efforts to call attention the problem. See the entire resolution here.

  • Congressmen Cohen and Wilson Introduce Resolution Recognizing International Day of Political Prisoners

    WASHINGTON – Congressman Steve Cohen (TN-09), Co-Chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, and the Commission’s Ranking Member, Congressman Joe Wilson (SC-02), today introduced a resolution recognizing October 30 as International Day of Political Prisoners. Congressman Cohen was recently named the Special Representative on Political Prisoners by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly and has been speaking out and calling attention to the treatment of an estimated 1 million political opponents, dissidents, academics, human rights activists, journalists and others worldwide imprisoned for their commitment to democracy and transparency. The resolution calls attention to repressive regimes engaged in “systematic destruction of independent voices, including but not limited to the Russian and Belarusian Governments.”  It clarifies that October 30 was chosen because on October 30, 1974, “Soviet human rights activists and dissidents initiated the idea of marking the day of political prisoners in the USSR and consequently held a hunger strike that day while in jail.” The measure also says that the U.S. House of Representatives “deplores all forms of political repression and imprisonment” and supports State Department efforts to call attention the problem. See the entire resolution here.

  • Helsinki Commission Condemns Putin's Attacks on Civilians and Declaration of Martial Law

    WASHINGTON—In light of Vladimir Putin’s continuing terror attacks on Ukraine, Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), Ranking Member Sen. Roger Wicker (MS), and Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) issued the following joint statement: “Russia’s dictator Vladimir Putin has no right, or military ability, to claim swathes of Ukraine’s territory as part of Russia, including areas that Ukrainian forces have recently liberated. Attempting to declare martial law in these areas is a cynical ploy to legitimize the illegitimate, to make real the unreal, and paves the way for further Russian terror and genocide against the Ukrainian nation. “This month’s widespread and deadly strikes on civilian targets—including apartment buildings, playgrounds, and energy facilities and other critical infrastructure—demonstrate a desperate effort to conceal the Kremlin’s ongoing military collapse and to break the will of the Ukrainian people. But Ukrainians’ resolve will not waver, nor will our commitment to their freedom. “We will continue to support Ukraine in every way we can so that they can defend themselves and the democratic ideals we share. And we will call this war what it is—Russia’s genocidal, imperial conquest against a free people.”

  • Decolonizing the Russian Empire

        Russia’s war of conquest in Ukraine has shocked the world for its brutality and aggression. But the Kremlin’s violent designs in Ukraine, and other military adventures in the Caucasus and Eastern Europe, are part of a larger and longer legacy of Russian imperialism that directly threaten its neighbors and imprison a multitude of nations within its authoritarian empire. This side event explores the destructive effects of Russian imperialism and how the unfolding genocide in Ukraine is a natural outgrowth of these colonial policies. Drawing on regional perspectives of those victimized by Russia’s brutal empire, the panel will highlight the realities of Russian colonialism and what a process of decolonization—elevating marginalized voices and providing for their full political and civic self-expression—would mean for Russia and for its neighbors.

  • Helsinki Commission Deeply Concerned Over Latest Electoral Reform Initiative in Bosnia and Herzegovina

    WASHINGTON—Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) and  Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09) today expressed deep concern about an effort by the international community’s High Representative in Bosnia to impose changes on the country’s electoral system barely two months prior to general elections in early October. They issued the following joint statement: “We share the concerns of members of civil society, academia, and the political community in Bosnia and Herzegovina about the current proposal of the international community’s High Representative to make changes to Bosnia’s electoral system shortly before the upcoming general elections.  These changes effectively only benefit the leading ethnically-based political party among Bosnia’s Croats and further entrench the divisive force of ethnicity in Bosnian politics as a whole.  They fail to tackle the broader issues of citizen-based democracy that so obviously need to be addressed for the country to overcome destabilizing impasse and move forward. The timing of their introduction also is problematic. “The Helsinki Commission has long supported electoral reforms in Bosnia and Herzegovina that remove ethnicity from governance. Such reforms should be designed to give citizens a wider range of truly democratic choices, an ability to hold their elected official accountable, a deserved sense of stability, and needed hope for European integration.  We also have supported a more assertive role for the international community and its representatives in the country, including the Office of the High Representative, in responding to the lack of democracy and stability in Bosnia and Herzegovina. However, we believe that this specific action, if imposed now, will not represent the true progress Bosnia needs and may effectively make things worse.”

  • CO-CHAIRMAN COHEN APPOINTED AS OSCE PARLIAMENTARY ASSEMBLY SPECIAL REPRESENTATIVE ON POLITICAL PRISONERS

    WASHINGTON—Margareta Cederfelt, President of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (PA), has appointed Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09) as the first-ever OSCE PA Special Representative on Political Prisoners. “I welcome the chance to serve as the voice of political prisoners across the OSCE region,” said Co-Chairman Cohen. “Every day, we witness more political arrests of opposition politicians, journalists, activists and civilians in Russia, Belarus, and other participating States that are cracking down on free speech, freedom of the press, and free thought. Through this position, I am committed to working tirelessly to elevate the issue of political imprisonment as the egregious violation of human rights that it is.” In his new role, Co-Chairman Cohen will collect and share intelligence on political prisoners throughout the OSCE region; raise awareness of participating States with high rates of political prisoners; advocate for the release of political prisoners; and promote dialogue at the OSCE PA and OSCE executive structures about political imprisonment.  Commission Chairman Senator Ben Cardin and Congressman Chris Smith were reappointed as Special Representative on Anti-Semitism, Racism and Intolerance, and Special Representative on Human Trafficking Issues, respectively.

  • HELSINKI COMMISSION DIGITAL DIGEST JUNE 2022

  • The Helsinki Process: An Overview

    In August 1975, the heads of state or government of 35 countries – the Soviet Union and all of Europe except Albania, plus the United States and Canada – held a historic summit in Helsinki, Finland, where they signed the Final Act of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe. This document is known as the Helsinki Final Act or the Helsinki Accords. The Conference, known as the CSCE, continued with follow-up meetings and is today institutionalized as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, or OSCE, based in Vienna, Austria. Learn more about the signature of the Helsinki Final Act; the role that the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe played during the Cold War; how the Helsinki Process successfully adapted to the post-Cold War environment of the 1990s; and how today's OSCE can and does contribute to regional security, now and in the future.

  • Long Shadow of Russian Money Raises Tricky Questions for Swiss Bankers

    January used to be a big month for Swiss bankers and their Russian clients. Many of the Moscow elite had made a tradition of coming to the Alps for the orthodox new year, skiing with their families, then catching up with their financial consiglieri. In St Moritz, one banker recalls how he would book blocks of rooms for his clients. He would entertain them with snow polo, rolling out the charm as they clinked champagne glasses and watched horses charge across a frozen lake. This year he couldn’t tempt a single one. For the best part of a decade, Russian money has coursed through the Swiss banking world. But, as Russia’s relationship with the west has soured in recent years, what was once a source of bumper new profits for Switzerland’s banks has become a financial and reputational risk. In the run-up to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February, many wealthy Russians were moving to better safeguard their money from political interference, putting assets in the names of relatives or shifting them to less closely scrutinised jurisdictions, such as Dubai. In its wake, a vast sanitisation operation is under way at Swiss banks, to try and wind down relationships with sanctioned individuals. Neutral Switzerland has matched all of the EU’s punitive financial measures against Russia. More than 1,100 of the Russian elite — including figures such as coal and fertiliser billionaire Andrey Melnichenko and banker Petr Aven, both regular visitors to Switzerland — have become financial personae non gratae in a country many had assumed would keep their fortunes safe. The biggest banks, such as the publicly listed trio of UBS, Credit Suisse and Julius Baer, have declared they will cease all new business in Russia. For critics, though these are weasel words. It is their existing Russian clients that are the problem. No one is expecting many new fortunes to be minted in Russia any time soon. “Switzerland has a terrible history when it comes to Russian dirty money,” says Bill Browder, a longstanding Kremlin critic and a former Russian investor. He is sceptical of how much commitment there is among Swiss bankers to enforcing sanctions. “The Swiss want to be seen as doing something, but they don’t actually want to do anything,” he says. The US Helsinki Commission, an independent US government agency that observes human rights and the rule of law in Europe, agrees. In a report issued in May, it labelled the alpine state and its banks “a leading enabler of Vladimir Putin and his cronies”. The Swiss government responded by calling US secretary of state Antony Blinken in protest. A spokesperson for the Swiss government said president Ignazio Cassis “rejected the [report] in the strongest possible terms”. Like their counterpart in St Moritz, Swiss bankers the FT interviewed for this story all declined to be identified. Many more refused to speak at all. Switzerland’s banking secrecy laws are draconian — talking about clients can earn a lengthy jail term — and talking about Russian clients is even more taboo. “When we were onboarding a lot of these clients [in the 2000s], the entire approach was just very different. And you can’t really say that publicly now,” says one former banker who handled eastern European and Russian clients until retiring two years ago. “These [Russians] were people who had earned so much money, so quickly, that they didn’t know what to do with it. They were basically ideal clients. As long as you had no questions about where that money had come from . . . and, basically, we didn’t.” Quite how much Russian money there is in Switzerland is open to question. In March, the industry body representing Switzerland’s banks, the Swiss Bankers Association (SBA), caused a stir when it released details of a study estimating there was SFr150bn-SFr200bn ($154bn-$205bn) held in accounts for Russian citizens. At the end of last year, the total cash held on behalf of customers by Switzerland’s banks was SFr7,879bn, more half of which was wealth from abroad, according to the SBA. The disclosure prompted hand-wringing in the Swiss media. Commentators, even at conservative outlets such as the newspaper Neue Zürcher Zeitung, asked whether Switzerland should do business with autocratic regimes anywhere in the world any more. But others in the country have defended its economic relationships with Russia. The outspoken finance director of the canton of Zug, an important low-tax centre, said in March it was not his job to “act like a detective” and make judgments on Russian assets. In April, he announced that Zug, home to 37,000 companies, had no sanctioned assets to report back to Bern. Nevertheless, by April, the State Secretariat for Economic Affairs (SECO) announced that it had frozen SFr9.7bn of Russian assets. Authorities have insisted that the amount is proportionate to the scale of asset freezes in other leading financial centres. But Bern has been forced to row back in some cases, and in May it announced it was unfreezing SFr3.4bn of funds. Switzerland cannot freeze funds “without sufficient grounds”, says Erwin Bollinger, a SECO official, who adds that the government has received data on sanctioned accounts at more than 70 of the country’s banks. Direct disclosure by the banks has been patchy. Credit Suisse chief executive Thomas Gottstein told a conference in March that about 4 per cent of assets in his bank’s core wealth management business were Russian — a proportion that would equate to roughly SFr33bn. Meanwhile, UBS, the world’s largest private wealth manager, has disclosed it has $22bn of assets of “Russian persons not entitled to residency in the European Economic Area or Switzerland”, leaving open the question of how much it holds overall. Some 16,500 Russians are permanently resident in Switzerland, and more Russians are accepted for Swiss citizenship than any other nationality, according to the State Secretariat for Migration. Julius Baer has made no direct disclosure of the size or wealth of its Russian client base, though it has said, somewhat elliptically, that the value of assets held by its Moscow-based subsidiary is some SFr400mn. Information from the dozens of other smaller Swiss private banks is even scantier. Even leading industry figures wonder what is being left unsaid. One executive, who for the past two decades has been a senior figure in the private banking world in Switzerland, says he has almost no doubt that the significance of many banks’ close working relationships with sanctioned individuals is being underplayed. “You don’t have dozens and dozens of people employed on your Russia desks if you are not making money in Russia,” he says. Moreover, he adds, many Russian clients have done their business through Swiss banks’ subsidiaries abroad, such as those in Monaco, London or Asia. It is not clear to him whether all these assets have been caught by the Swiss rules. Swiss banks have a legal obligation to record the ultimate beneficial owners of all assets they handle worldwide, but doing so accurately can be tricky in jurisdictions where it is easy for third parties to mask who the owners are. Switzerland’s banks have moved dramatically from the freewheeling approach of previous years, when there was “a run on Russia”, says Thomas Borer, a former leading Swiss diplomat turned consultant, who has worked with prominent Russian clients. He now supports Switzerland’s sanctions policy. “Being militarily neutral does not mean being economically indifferent,” he says. But he argues that Swiss banking culture is still very different from elsewhere in the west. Even the biggest banks, he says, were clinging to relationships with Russian clients as the Ukraine crisis unfolded. The Financial Times revealed that, as late as March, Credit Suisse was asking investors to destroy documents that might expose Russian oligarchs it had done business with to legal risks. One senior relationship manager at a Zurich-based bank agrees. Even as sanctions came in, he says, the dominant approach was to ask, “how can we make this work for the client?” rather than “how do we do this for the government?”. But he defends the approach, saying: “Doing everything you can for your client is a Swiss commitment to excellence. If I was a watchmaker I would want to make the best watches with many complications. And if I was a policeman, then maybe I would want to be the best at catching Russian criminals. But I’m a banker.” There is still legal ambiguity in Switzerland over whether sanctions apply to family members and friends of listed individuals. This has provided a loophole bankers have helped at-risk clients to actively exploit in recent years. Swiss banks have seen “billions” of assets transferred to the names of spouses and children of Russian clients, in a trend that accelerated in the run-up to the war, says one banker. One bank chief executive admitted recently to the FT that there were many “grey areas” in applying sanctions. Part of the problem, he said, was that bank legal departments were struggling to obtain clarity from Bern on which asset transfers were deemed to be evading sanctions and which were not. Many who have been in the industry for a long time decry the new rules they must follow around taking new clients and being certain of the source of their wealth. “Know your customer used to mean just that: do you know the person? Now it is supposed to mean: do you know every little thing about their financial and private life?” says one Geneva-based banker. Many Russians themselves knew the banks were no longer safe havens, particularly since 2018 when Swiss banks began making significant concessions to information sharing on client accounts with other governments. Swiss residency did not protect billionaire Viktor Vekselberg in 2018, for example, when he was targeted by US sanctions; both Credit Suisse and UBS moved to terminate loans with him. The SBA says its members adhere to the highest international standards. Chief executive Jörg Gasser, argues Swiss banks have “no interest in funds of dubious origin” and have rigorous procedures in place to rapidly screen for sanctioned assets. “Swiss banks have been — and still are — very careful and diligent when it comes to accepting client funds,” he says, adding it is important to recognise the huge amount of legitimate business done with Russian entrepreneurs who are not subject to sanctions. For Mark Pieth, emeritus professor of criminal law at the University of Basel and a specialist in white-collar crime, the real story of the past decade is how Switzerland’s lawyers, rather than its bankers, have become the facilitators of hidden foreign money. “Swiss bankers were extremely cosy with Russians in the past,” he says. “Alongside London, this country was the porch for Russians into the west . . . but now I wouldn’t say the problem is so much with the banks — it is all the other intermediaries.” Swiss law gives remarkable sweep to attorney-client privilege, says Pieth, meaning lawyers can refuse to disclose almost anything to the authorities about their clients. The Swiss Bar Association strongly rejects this. “Professional secrecy does not protect against criminal acts,” it says. “Lawyers know the law and know what to do.” One senior industry figure defends the banks’ position unapologetically. He says everybody now wants to know the origins of their luxury jackets. But 10 years ago nobody was asking where they were made, by whom and with what materials. In banking, as in fashion, things have changed, he says, but nobody is haranguing the fashion world in the same way they are criticising banks. Fashion companies, though, have moved with the times and opened up, whereas Switzerland’s banks, for all their insistence on change and compliance, still want to maintain as much of the secrecy surrounding their clients as possible — even at a time of international crisis.  

  • Cardin, Wicker Recognition of Romani Americans Clears Senate Foreign Relations Committee by Voice Vote

    WASHINGTON—Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) and Ranking Member Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) lauded unanimous passage in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Thursday of S. Res.124, the first official acknowledgement by Congress of the genocide of the Romani people by the Nazis. The resolution, first authored by Cardin and Wicker in 2019 and reintroduced last year, also honors the history, culture and heritage of the estimated one million Romani people in the United States. It also commends the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum for its work promoting awareness of the Roma genocide. “Romani people have been part of every wave of European migration to the United States since colonial  times, and have settled in every region of the country, so it is inconceivable that today, 2022, is the first time Congress has recognized their incredibly rich history, culture and heritage,” said Senator Cardin, who is a member of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum Council. “Senator Wicker and I first introduced this resolution with the intent of shedding light on the many ways Romani Americans enrich the fabric of our nation, recognize a deadly chapter in Romani history, and, importantly, shine a light on the ongoing discrimination Roma face on both sides of the Atlantic. I believe more should be done to teach about Romani experiences during the Holocaust and in modern times.” “The Romani people are an important part of the American story, and they have proven resilient in the face of historic mistreatment,” Senator Wicker said. “This measure would raise awareness about their experience during the evils of the Holocaust. Remembering the past is essential to building a better future.” The Romani people have faced centuries of discrimination in both Europe and the United States. Though we have taken inspiration from their art and culture, Roma have been categorically excluded from many modern societies. During the Holocaust, the Romani people were subject to genocide at the hands of Nazi soldiers; it is estimated that anywhere between 250,000 and 500,000 Roma lost their lives during this time. On the night of August 2-3, 1994, 4,200 Romani men, women, and children were murdered during the liquidation of the Romani camp at Auschwitz. This date is now formally recognized as a day of commemoration by the European Union and other countries. April 8, the date of the first World Romani Congress in 1971, is now recognized as International Romani Day. The Cardin-Wicker resolution commends the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum for its work in promoting remembrance of the Holocaust and educating about the genocide of Roma. USHMM welcomed the introduction of this resolution last year, observing, “House and Senate passage will help raise awareness about the history of the Romani people, the richness of Romani culture, and to unequivocally reject the dehumanization of Roma and any violence directed against their communities.” The text of the resolution can be found below and at this link.   S. Res 124 Celebrating the heritage of Romani Americans. Whereas the Romani people trace their ancestry to the Indian subcontinent; Whereas Roma have been a part of European immigration to the United States since the colonial period and particularly following the abolition of the enslavement of Roma in the historic Romanian principalities; Whereas Roma live across the world and throughout the United States; Whereas the Romani people have made distinct and important contributions in many fields, including agriculture, art, crafts, literature, medicine, military service, music, sports, and science; Whereas, on April 8, 1971, the First World Romani Congress met in London, bringing Roma together from across Europe and the United States with the goal of promoting transnational cooperation among Roma in combating social marginalization and building a positive future for Roma everywhere; Whereas April 8 is therefore celebrated globally as International Roma Day; Whereas Roma were victims of genocide carried out by Nazi Germany and its Axis partners, and an estimated 200,000 to 500,000 Romani people were killed by Nazis and their allies across Europe during World War II; Whereas, on the night of August 2–3, 1944, the so-called “Gypsy Family Camp” where Romani people were interned at Auschwitz-Birkenau was liquidated, and in a single night, between 4,200 and 4,300 Romani men, women, and children were killed in gas chambers; Whereas many countries are taking positive steps to remember and teach about the genocide of Roma by Nazi Germany and its Axis partners; and Whereas the United States Congress held its first hearing to examine the situation of Roma in 1994: Now, therefore, be it Resolved, That the Senate— (1) remembers the genocide of Roma by Nazi Germany and its Axis partners and commemorates the destruction of the “Gypsy Family Camp” where Romani people were interned at Auschwitz; (2) commends the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum for its role in promoting remembrance of the Holocaust and educating about the genocide of Roma; (3) supports International Roma Day as an opportunity to honor the culture, history, and heritage of the Romani people in the United States as part of the larger Romani global diaspora; and (4) welcomes the Department of State’s participation in ceremonies and events celebrating International Roma Day and similar engagement by the United States Government.

  • Helsinki Commission Digital Digest May 2022

  • Why I’m Sad to Be on Russia’s All-Purpose Payback List

    Reading Russia’s latest sanctions list, permanently banning travel to the country by 963 people, saddened me — and not just because my name is on it. It’s a catalogue of hurt from a nation that seems ready to blame everybody but its leaders for its current troubles. The list is very long indeed, running to nearly 100 pages in my printout. Reading so many names, you sense that Russia is deliberately burning nearly all its bridges to the United States. Russia’s ruling elite feels abused by American politicians, business leaders, journalists, judges, think tanks — nearly everyone, it seems. Donald Trump can still visit Moscow, but scores of Republican members of Congress can’t. The list of excluded GOP senators ranges from moderates such as Roy Blunt of Missouri and Mitt Romney of Utah to hard-right stalwarts Ron Johnson of Wisconsin and Tom Cotton of Arkansas. The GOP doesn’t fare much better in the House. Moderates Liz Cheney of Wyoming and Mike Gallagher of Wisconsin can’t tour the Kremlin anymore, but neither can Jim Jordan of Ohio or Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia. As for Democrats, forget about it. The sanctions list includes the Democratic House leadership, including Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California, Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland and Democratic Whip James E. Clyburn of South Carolina. The Congressional Progressive Caucus can save its rubles, too. The members of “the Squad” are all banned. So are Pramila Jayapal of Washington state and Ro Khanna of California. It’s the same on the Senate side. Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer of New York and Whip Richard J. Durbin of Illinois: Nyet, nyet.

  • Helsinki Commission on Sanctions Extended by Russia on Commissioners and Staff

    WASHINGTON—After Saturday’s announcement by the Russian foreign ministry that the latest list of Americans permanently banned from traveling to Russia includes all members of Helsinki Commission leadership, the overwhelming majority of commissioners, and nearly 20 current and former commission staff members, Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), and Ranking Members Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) and Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) issued the following joint statement: “The Helsinki Commission and our professional staff have worked consistently throughout our history to ensure that all OSCE participating States—including Russia—live up to their commitments to human rights and the rule of law. Clearly our work has made a significant impression on Russian dictator Vladimir Putin and his cronies, if even staff who left the commission years ago are being sanctioned by the regime. With these actions to bar travel to Russia by experts on the country, Putin continues his campaign to isolate Russians from the international community. “We will continue to hold Russia to account for its clear, gross, and uncorrected violations of the Helsinki Final Act, including the war crimes committed during its invasion of Ukraine, its suffocation of free media and civil society domestically, and its egregious attempts to undermine democracy across the OSCE region.”   While this latest list is one of the largest issued by Russia, Chairman Cardin and many other members of the Helsinki Commission had previously been barred from traveling to Russia.

  • Swiss Release Some Frozen Russian Assets

    The Swiss government on Thursday reported 6.3 billion Swiss francs ($6.33 billion) worth of Russian assets frozen under sanctions to punish Moscow's invasion of Ukraine, a drop from early April as around 3.4 billion francs in provisionally blocked assets were released. The figure marked a decrease from roughly 7.5 billion Swiss francs in funds the government reported frozen on April 7. Government official Erwin Bollinger pointed to fewer funds -- 2.2 billion francs -- newly frozen than those that had been released. read more "We can't freeze funds if we do not have sufficient grounds," Bollinger, a senior official at the State Secretariat for Economic Affairs (SECO) agency overseeing sanctions, told journalists. Pressure has increased on Switzerland -- a popular destination for Moscow's elite and a holding place for Russian wealth -- to more quickly identify and freeze assets of hundreds of sanctioned Russians. read more The U.S. Helsinki Commission, a government-funded independent commission which looks at security, cooperation and human rights issues in Europe, in early May called Switzerland "a leading enabler of Russian dictator Vladimir Putin and his cronies", who the commission said used "Swiss secrecy laws to hide and protect the proceeds of their crimes". The Swiss government rejected the accusations "in the strongest possible terms", while Swiss President Ignazio Cassis had requested the U.S. government "correct this misleading impression immediately" during a telephone call with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken. Swiss banks hold up to $213 billion of Russian wealth, Switzerland's bank lobby estimates, with its two largest lenders UBS (UBSG.S) and Credit Suisse (CSGN.S) each holding tens of billions of francs for wealthy Russian clients. read more Credit Suisse alone froze some 10.4 billion Swiss francs of that money through March under sanctions imposed in connection with the invasion. read more Credit Suisse's reporting did not make clear how much of that money was frozen in Switzerland. While banks and asset managers can provisionally freeze funds, SECO officials on Thursday said funds needed to be released if they could not establish the assets were directly owned or controlled by a sanctioned individual. "The amount of assets frozen is not a measure of how effectively sanctions are being implemented," Bollinger said, adding asset freezes were "by far" not the most important measure in a wide-ranging packet of sanctions. ($1 = 0.9948 Swiss francs)

  • Jewish Democratic Lawmakers Unite in Condemnation of Lavrov's Hitler Remark

     All 25 Jewish Democratic lawmakers in the House of Representatives on Tuesday issued a rare but sharp joint condemnation of Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov over his comments comparing Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to Adolf Hitler. "The blatant antisemitism in recent comments by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov is appalling but sadly not surprising. Lavrov, Vladimir Putin, and the Russian regime are doing everything they can to divert attention from their unprovoked, unlawful invasion of Ukraine and the failings of their military in the face of a heroic Ukrainian response," 24 of the 25 Jewish lawmakers said in a joint statement after the Russian foreign minister said that Hitler also 'had Jewish blood', referring to Zelenskyy's Jewish origins, adding that "the wise Jewish people said that the most ardent antisemites are usually Jews." "Defaulting to antisemitic tropes, including blaming the Jews for the Holocaust and using the Holocaust to cover their own war crimes, reflects the gutless depravity of the Russian regime," they continued, adding that "Lavrov’s remarks on Italian TV were an affront to the memory of the six million Jews murdered by the Nazis, the survivors of the Holocaust, their families and the entire world Jewish community.” Rep. Steve Cohen, who co-chairs the U.S. Helsinki Commission that monitors human rights and international cooperation in the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, issued his own statement, where he decried Lavrov's "stooping to the basest antisemitism." The Tennessee Democrat charged that Lavrov and Russia are "clearly disconnected from reality, morality, humanity and sensitivity," adding that "this level of depravity is consistent with the reprehensible, repugnant and reptilian conduct of Putin's government." The statement is the second such rare showing of joint unity amongst the Jewish House Democrats, who rest across the political spectrum, in the past two months. Their comments follow senior Israeli officials, leading U.S. officials and Jewish leaders offering their own rejection of Lavrov's comments. Russia has since doubled down, with its foreign ministry accusing Israel of supporting neo-Nazis in Ukraine

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