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Frank Assessment Presented on State of Rights in Russia
Wednesday, December 03, 2003

By John Finerty
CSCE Staff Advisor

The United States Helsinki Commission held a staff-level briefing on November 13, 2003 with Tanya Lokshina, Executive Director of the Moscow Helsinki Group, to discuss the status of human rights and democratic development in the Russian Federation. Ms. Lokshina was accompanied by Maureen Greenwood, Advocacy Director for Europe, the Middle East and North Africa at Amnesty International USA and Dr. Sarah E. Mendelson, Senior Fellow, Russia and Eurasia Program, Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Ms. Lokshina opened the meeting by noting the human rights community in Russia is greatly concerned about the arrest of former YUKOS chief executive Mikhail Khodorkovsky, reportedly Russia's richest man arrested on tax evasion and fraud charges after contributing money to political opposition parties. The case, she said, proves beyond doubt that the Russian state is out to get any independent voice.

Khodorkovsky is different from other politicians, she stated. While his fortune may have had questionable origins ("fraud and tax evasion are prevalent everywhere") Khodorkovsky's current corporate policy of transparency is not useful to a corrupt government bureaucracy. He also supported opposition forces in the Duma, ranging from free-market, pro-reform parties to the Communists.

"The action against Yukos sent a clear signal to other investors," Lokshina continued. "Do not be independent. Do not support transparent dealings with parties or civil society initiatives.... Now the rest of the business community is terrified to follow suit."

Regarding freedom of the media, Lokshina said there is no level of media not controlled by the state. Even non-state television channels are controlled by managers who are themselves controlled by the state. There is also little independent print media in Russia.

Ms. Lokshina, who had been in Grozny for the Chechen presidential elections, called the exercise a combination of comedy and tragedy. In the face of overwhelming indifference of the population and empty voting stations, the official statistics were not to be believed, she maintained.

On election day, Lokshina had not seen any voters except in special places arranged for foreign journalists. She also saw precinct protocols where 100% of the eligible voters had supposedly cast 100% of their ballots in favor of incumbent President Kadyrov - a virtual impossibility, given an inevitable percentage of disqualified (i.e., defaced or incorrectly filled out) ballots. To be sure, any serious competition for Kadyrov had been eased off the ballot long before election day.

Ms. Lokshina also saw the recent gubernatorial elections in St. Petersburg--with the heavy-handed use of "administrative resources" by the pro-Putin apparat playing a major role--as a harbinger of future elections throughout Russia. Parliamentary elections are scheduled to be held on December 7, with presidential elections expected in March 2004.

The three experts agreed that the recent Constitutional Court decision annulling the restrictive law on election coverage of candidates and election "propaganda" was a positive, albeit tardy, step.

Ms. Lokshina said one of the worst problems is the arbitrary law enforcement, and that "Everything that happens in Chechnya also happens in the rest of Russia. It is merely magnified in Chechnya." Personnel from police forces all over Russia serve time in Chechnya, and they bring back to their home towns the arbitrariness and impunity learned there. For example, the individuals who arrested Khodorkovsky stormed in wearing security service uniforms. It was later learned they were not security service employees, but ordinary police. Similarly, the recent sweep of the Open Society Institute premises in Moscow was reminiscent of security sweeps in Chechnya.

Sarah Mendelson of CSIS pointed out that aside from political parties, the Federal Security Service (FSB) is the least supported institution among the populace.

Ms. Lokshina stressed that Russian human rights organizations need support from the West. In many ways, it feels like Russia is going back to Soviet realities. The difference, though, is that instead of being treated like an enemy, Russia, despite abuses, is now being treated like a civilized state, which, she says, is dangerous.

When President Bush calls President Putin his friend, she said, it sends a clear message that the United States supports what is happening in Russia. America used to critique what is happening in Chechnya, for example. Russia, Lokshina contends, is becoming a threat to its own citizens and the world community at large. Uncritical Western support is counter to its own interests, she remarked.

Asked about reports of widespread public apathy in Russia, Dr. Mendelson said there is certainly a great deal of apathy, but there is a certain line over which the state cannot go. Ms. Lokshina added that some of the apathy has to do with lack of knowledge and heavy media control. For instance, it is frequently reported that Russians are not opposed to some level of censorship. In reality, though, this does not mean they do not want to know what is going on in Chechnya. What they want is to get rid of scams and con games ("chernukha"), i.e. "citizens would rather the government had control of the media than Boris Berezovsky."

Ms. Greenwood raised the issue of the situation of the Meshketian Turks living in tenuous circumstances in southern Russia. She appreciated U.S. initiatives on the subject but urged more follow-through regarding the possibility of granting refugee status to Meskhetian Turks desirous of emigrating. Greenwood also noted that not only have Meskhetian Turks experienced discrimination and harassment in southern Russia, but NGOs working on their behalf are now under pressure from local authorities.

Ms. Greenwood asked that the United States maintain the pressure to prevent Russia from forcing internally displaced persons (IDPs) back into Chechnya. She said international pressure had succeeded in stopping Russia from overtly closing the remaining camps, but there remains subtle, psychological coercion.

In response to an inquiry about the state of freedom of thought within the academic community, Mendelson related several instances of FSB harassment of academics. "In Moscow," she commented, "it simply feels like there is less oxygen. You cannot breathe."

Ms. Lokshina contends that the situation in the provinces is even worse.

Asked about specific policy recommendations, Lokshina favored a strong statement from the United States against the anti-democratic trends and continued U.S. assistance programs for civil society and human rights in Russia. Mendelson added that the United States has made a strategic investment in Russian democracy and civil society, but this investment is under funded and it is too early to "graduate" Russia from such programs.

The United States Helsinki Commission, an independent federal agency, by law monitors and encourages progress in implementing provisions of the Helsinki Accords. The Commission, created in 1976, is composed of nine Senators, nine Representatives and one official each from the Departments of State, Defense and Commerce.


United States Helsinki Commission Intern Jason Ekk contributed to this article.

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    Recent developments in the United States—including George Floyd’s tragic death at the hands of police and subsequent protests—have put U.S. human rights commitments to the test in the eyes of the world. On July 2, 2020, the Helsinki Commission held a hearing on “Human Rights at Home:  Implications for U.S. Leadership.” The online hearing was held in compliance with H.Res.965, which provides for official remote proceedings during the COVID-19 pandemic. Commissioner Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (MO-05), who chaired the hearing, observed, “The United States has long been a champion of human rights and democracy in our foreign policy.  Many of the OSCE’s groundbreaking commitments were actually spearheaded by the United States, including those relating to anti-Semitism, freedom of religion, free elections, and the rule of law, to name only a few…Today, we look inward as we examine the Black Lives Matter protests and related domestic compliance issues in the context of our OSCE human dimensions commitments and implications for U.S. foreign policy.” Witnesses included Nkechi Taifa, Founding Principal & CEO of The Taifa Group, LLC, Convener of the Justice Roundtable, and Senior Fellow, Center for Justice, Columbia University; the Honorable Malcolm Momodou Jallow, Member of Parliament (Sweden) and General Rapporteur on Combating Racism and Intolerance, Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE); and Ambassador (ret.) Ian Kelly, former U.S. Permanent Representative to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).  “It’s not a moment.  It’s a movement.” Witnesses emphasized that George Floyd’s death has created a movement, not just a moment, in efforts to address systemic racism, police violence, and secure justice. Nkechi Taifa called on the United States to implement fully international human rights commitments and obligations, without legal barriers. She observed that the world is at the midpoint of the United Nations International Decade for People of African Descent and concluded, “What we are witnessing today is the unprecedented possibility for change.” Malcolm Momodou Jallow observed that structural, institutional, and systemic racism— including racist violence—is not confined to the United States, but is also present in Europe.  The European project includes an antidiscrimination, antiracist dimension, with a fundamental commitment to reflect the lessons of the Holocaust and eradicate past European divisions through respect for the human rights of all. Failure to do so affects entire communities, thereby eroding social cohesion, trust in public authority, the rule of law and ultimately democracy.  Mr. Jallow also drew attention to the European Parliament’s resolution, adopted on Juneteenth (June 19), on the anti-racism protests following George Floyd’s death.  The resolution also recalled Europe’s colonial past and its role in the transatlantic slave trade; draws on the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights’ annual hate crimes report; and calls for closer cooperation between the European Commission and the OSCE.  “The OSCE should rise to that occasion.” Ambassador Ian Kelly stated that security among states depends on respect for human rights within states. Actions clearing peaceful protesters, at the expense of their basic rights, cost the United States moral authority to call other countries to account.  Ambassador Kelly credited the OSCE for its work to shine a light on the problems of intolerance but asserted more could and should be done in the OSCE context to expose abuses against people of color in the OSCE region.  By signing the Helsinki Final Act, the United States committed to respecting human rights and protect democracy, even under the most challenging circumstances. A willingness to respond to the human rights concerns that other countries raise with the United States in the Helsinki context has been instrumental in validating the promotion of human rights and democracy advocacy as a goal of U.S. foreign policy. The Helsinki Commission has addressed the implementation of OSCE commitments in the United States in various ways, including hearings, reports, and legislation. The video of the murder of George Floyd and the ensuing protests received wall-to-wall coverage throughout most of the OSCE participating States. Journalists from at least eight OSCE participating States—Canada, Finland, France, Germany, Russia, Sweden, Switzerland, and Turkey—suffered violence while trying to report on demonstrations. George Floyd’s death in police custody prompted demonstrations in nearly all western OSCE participating States, including more than 25 of the 30 NATO member states, supporting the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement and protesting systemic racism. In some Central European countries, the death of George Floyd has been compared to police brutality against Roma. In other countries, demonstrators have called for changes to their own national policing practices, the removal of symbols of their colonial past, and other policy changes. There have been no BLM sympathy demonstrations in Russia, where assembly (even protests by single picketers or dolls dressed as protesters) remains highly controlled. Heads of OSCE institutions, including the Director of the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights and the Representative on Freedom of the Media, have expressed concern about the actions of police, restrictions on freedom of assembly, and restrictions on press freedom. The OSCE Parliamentary Assembly President George Tsereteli, expressed similar concerns in a press statement on June 1. On June 8, 38 NGOs from the Civic Solidarity Platform, a decentralized advocacy network of independent civic groups from across the OSCE region, issued a rare joint statement of concern regarding “the United States government’s response to widespread peaceful protests against police violence.” Related Information Witness Biographies Human Rights at Home Safe, Inclusive, and Equitable Societies Briefing: 8:46 (George Floyd) Press Release: Hastings: To Promote Human Rights Abroad, We Must Fiercely Protect Them at Home Press Release: OSCE Media Freedom Representative concerned about violence against journalists covering protests in USA, calls for protection of journalists Press Release: Statement of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly President on the policing of protests in the United States Civic Solidarity Platform Statement: U.S. racism and police violence and the human dimension heritage of the OSCE Rep. Jim McGovern: To Regain Our Credibility on Human Rights, America Must Start At Home

  • Hastings and Wicker Denounce Fraudulent Vote in Russia

    WASHINGTON—Following this week’s manipulated vote to amend Russia’s constitution to further weaken the separation of powers, strengthen the presidency, and allow President Vladimir Putin to remain in office until 2036, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) and Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) issued the following joint statement: “As we have seen time and again in Putin’s Russia, the outcome of this vote was decided long before the ballots were tallied. “Thanks to a fraudulent plebiscite ‘legitimizing’ the rubber stamp of Russia’s parliament, the Russian people—along with those living under Russian occupation—will remain under the thumb of an increasingly powerful Putin who could rule until he is in his eighties. “State-sponsored fraud, coercion, and obfuscation make it impossible to know the true will of the Russian people, who deserve a responsive, democratic government in line with Russia’s OSCE commitments.” From June 25 to July 1, 2020, citizens of Russia and residents of illegally-occupied Crimea and Russia-backed separatist regions of the Donbas could vote either for or against a package of more than 200 amendments to Russia’s constitution. Because the vote was not technically classified as a referendum, regulations and procedures that would usually apply—including a required minimum voter turnout level—were disregarded. Russia’s Central Election Commission released preliminary results showing overwhelming support for the amendments hours before the last polls closed, which under normal circumstances would be illegal. The potential for voter fraud was increased by the Russian Government’s decision to spread the voting over the span of a week and introduce electronic voting in some areas, ostensibly to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Independent journalists have received credible reports of people being paid to create multiple false profiles to vote online, employees being coerced into voting by their superiors, and the use of online tools to track voter participation. Individuals documented ballot-stuffing and other irregularities at polling places.  The package of amendments was approved overwhelmingly and with little discussion by President Putin and both chambers of the Russian parliament on March 11, 2020, then rapidly cleared by the regional parliaments and the Constitutional Court. It required a nationwide vote to come into force. Vladimir Putin has ruled Russia either as president or prime minister for 20 years. He can now pursue two more six-year terms after his current term expires in 2024.

  • Co-Chairman Wicker Urges Swiss Government to Restore Confidence in Integrity of Magnitsky Investigation

    WASHINGTON—In a letter to Swiss Ambassador Jacques Pitteloud released today, Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) urged the Government of Switzerland to take the necessary steps to restore confidence in the integrity of the Magnitsky investigation and ensure its timely resolution. The letter reads in part: “Sergei Magnitsky’s story has become emblematic of the struggle of many Russians to fight the corruption of their own government at great risk to themselves. While I have been dispirited by the brutality shown the Russian journalists and civil society activists who carry on Magnitsky’s legacy of bravely telling the truth, I am also heartened by the tenacity of these individuals. They depend on countries like ours to hold their oppressors to account. “Given all that is at stake, I was surprised to learn that a Swiss Federal Police officer, Vincenz Schnell, went on a bear-hunting trip with Russian prosecutors paid for by Russian oligarchs. Though he has now been found guilty of accepting this and other gifts from Russia, the Magnitsky case has lingered for years and will be nearing its end when the statute of limitations expires in 2023.” Schnell’s former boss and top Swiss law enforcement official, Federal Prosecutor Michael Lauber, currently is facing impeachment proceedings following allegations of mishandling high-profile corruption and money laundering cases. For example, Lauber was forced to recuse himself from a U.S.-led investigation of corruption within FIFA, soccer’s international governing body, after it was discovered he was meeting with FIFA’s president. Russian officials were among the targets of this investigation for bribes paid to secure the World Cup. The full text of the letter can be found below: Dear Ambassador Pitteloud, I was troubled to learn that the most senior Russia specialist in Swiss law enforcement with responsibility for investigating the Magnitsky case was caught accepting gifts from Russian officials. The reports indicate that these gifts were meant to stymie the swift administration of justice in this case. As a member of the Helsinki Commission, I have followed this case from its inception. Sergei Magnitsky’s story has become emblematic of the struggle of many Russians to fight the corruption of their own government at great risk to themselves. While I have been dispirited by the brutality shown the Russian journalists and civil society activists who carry on Magnitsky’s legacy of bravely telling the truth, I am also heartened by the tenacity of these individuals. They depend on countries like ours to hold their oppressors to account. Given all that is at stake, I was surprised to learn that a Swiss Federal Police officer, Vincenz Schnell, went on a bear-hunting trip with Russian prosecutors paid for by Russian oligarchs. Though he has now been found guilty of accepting this and other gifts from Russia, the Magnitsky case has lingered for years and will be nearing its end when the statute of limitations expires in 2023. The last Swiss actions that I am aware of in the Magnitsky case were the 2011 freezing of $11 million against Olga and Vladlen Stepanov and the 2012 freezing of $8 million against Prevezon. In the United States, we have added the Stepanovs to the Magnitsky sanctions list, where their assets are frozen and visas cancelled for their role in the Magnitsky case. U.S. law enforcement also prosecuted Prevezon for using proceeds from the Magnitsky case to purchase New York real estate and Prevezon has now paid a $6 million settlement to our government. My Senate colleagues and I are committed to seeing justice done in the Magnitsky case and preventing Russian kleptocrats from reaping the proceeds of corruption. I hope to hear from you as to what steps your government has taken and will take in the future to restore confidence in the integrity of this investigation and ensure its timely resolution. Sincerely, Roger F. Wicker Co-Chairman

  • Helsinki Commission Hearing to Examine Human Rights At Home

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following online hearing: HUMAN RIGHTS AT HOME Implications for U.S. Leadership Thursday, July 2, 2020 11:00 a.m. Watch Live: www.youtube.com/HelsinkiCommission By signing the Helsinki Final Act, the United States committed to respecting human rights and the rule of law, even under the most challenging circumstances. Recent developments in the United States—including George Floyd’s tragic death at the hands of police and subsequent protests—have put U.S. human rights commitments to the test in the eyes of the world. During this online hearing, witnesses will discuss these events, the U.S. response, and the resulting implications for U.S. leadership in foreign policy. Witnesses scheduled to participate include: Ambassador (ret.) Ian Kelly, former U.S. Permanent Representative to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Malcolm Momodou Jallow, Member of Parliament (Sweden) and General Rapporteur on Combating Racism and Intolerance, Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) Nkechi Taifa, Founding Principal & CEO, The Taifa Group, LLC; Convener, Justice Roundtable; and Senior Fellow, Center for Justice, Columbia University

  • Hastings Urges Belarus to Allow Real Political Competition in Upcoming Elections

    WASHINGTON—In light of the recent crackdown on protesters and arrests of prominent presidential candidates leading up to the August 9 elections in Belarus, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) released the following statement: “Every OSCE participating State, including Belarus, commits to holding free and fair elections. Belarusian authorities have made this impossible by arresting and intimidating presidential candidates, journalists, and activists in the early stages of campaigning. There can be no free choice when the system is rigged in favor of the incumbent. I call on President Lukashenko to order the release of those who have been detained for political reasons and allow real political competition in Belarus.” Belarusian presidential candidate and popular YouTube personality Sergei Tikhanovsky was arrested in early June. His wife, who has decided to run in his place, has received numerous threats. Another presidential candidate and former head of Belgazprombank Viktor Babaryko was also detained, along with his son, after authorities raided the bank’s offices. Journalists, members of civil society, and others have been arrested during rallies and peaceful protests against Lukashenko’s regime. An estimated 140 people across Belarus were detained on June 19 alone, the last day for presidential candidates to collect signatures to get on the ballot. According to international observers, Belarus has not had free and fair national elections since Lukashenko’s election in 1994.

  • Hastings Urges Belarus to Allow Real Political Competition in Upcoming Elections

    WASHINGTON—In light of the recent crackdown on protesters and arrests of prominent presidential candidates leading up to the August 9 elections in Belarus, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) released the following statement: “Every OSCE participating State, including Belarus, commits to holding free and fair elections. Belarusian authorities have made this impossible by arresting and intimidating presidential candidates, journalists, and activists in the early stages of campaigning. There can be no free choice when the system is rigged in favor of the incumbent. I call on President Lukashenko to order the release of those who have been detained for political reasons and allow real political competition in Belarus.” Belarusian presidential candidate and popular YouTube personality Sergei Tikhanovsky was arrested in early June. His wife, who has decided to run in his place, has received numerous threats. Another presidential candidate and former head of Belgazprombank Viktor Babaryko was also detained, along with his son, after authorities raided the bank’s offices. Journalists, members of civil society, and others have been arrested during rallies and peaceful protests against Lukashenko’s regime. An estimated 140 people across Belarus were detained on June 19 alone, the last day for presidential candidates to collect signatures to get on the ballot. According to international observers, Belarus has not had free and fair national elections since Lukashenko’s election in 1994.

  • Hastings: To Promote Human Rights Abroad, We Must Fiercely Protect Them at Home

    WASHINGTON—Ahead of a 57-nation OSCE meeting on freedom of expression, media, and information, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) released the following statement: “In the United States, we have witnessed a devastating series of attacks by authorities against journalists covering the nationwide protests calling for racial justice following the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. In many cases, reporters have been injured, harassed, or arrested even after explicitly identifying themselves as members of the press. “If the United States wants to remain a credible voice in the promotion of human rights abroad, we must fiercely protect them at home. This Supplementary Human Dimension Meeting on the critical topic of freedom of expression, media, and information represents an important opportunity to take an honest and critical look at America’s own record in recent weeks on protecting journalists and safeguarding press freedom.” According to the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, as of June 15, there have been more than 430 reported press freedom violations since the beginning of the national Black Lives Matter protests on May 26. This includes at least 59 arrests; 268 assaults (including the use of tear gas, pepper spray, and rubber bullets and projectiles); and 57 cases of equipment/newsroom damage. OSCE Supplementary Human Dimension Meetings (SHDM) are convened three times annually on topics chosen by the OSCE Chairperson-in-Office. The first SHDM organized by the Albanian chairmanship,  “Addressing All Forms of Intolerance and Discrimination,” took place May 25-26, 2020. The June meeting on freedom of expression, media and information includes participation by non-governmental civil society organizations, the U.S. Helsinki Commission, and representatives from OSCE participating States.

  • Chairman Hastings Demands Release of Paul Whelan

    WASHINGTON—Following the sentencing of U.S. citizen Paul Whelan to 16 years in a maximum-security prison by a Russian court, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) issued the following statement: “In clear violation of Russia’s OSCE commitments, Paul Whelan was denied his right to due process. His long and harsh pre-trial detention, and the secretive nature of Paul’s trial and the spurious ‘evidence’ against him, show that Russia’s authorities are not concerned about justice. This is nothing more than a politically-motivated stunt that has inflicted serious damage on an American citizen. Paul Whelan must be released.” Paul Whelan was arrested in Moscow in December 2018, where he planned to attend a wedding. FSB agents broke into his hotel room and found a flash drive that Whelan’s Russian friend had told him contained photos from a recent trip.  Authorities claimed that the flash drive contained classified information. Whelan has been detained in Moscow’s Lefortovo prison, unable to contact his family and friends, alleging abuse from guards, and suffering from health problems.

  • Disinformation, COVID-19, and the Electoral Process

    Listen to audio of the briefing on Facebook.  Free and fair elections are one of the most fundamental measures of a democratic society. During the 2016 presidential elections, many Americans became aware for the first time that disinformation can be easily coupled with technology by state and nonstate actors to disrupt and muddy the information space in the months, weeks, and days leading up to an election.  The use of disinformation to influence elections has since become a pervasive and persistent threat in all 57 OSCE participating States, one which many still struggle to adequately address. With presidential, parliamentary, or local elections scheduled in 15 OSCE participating States before the end of 2020, the stakes could not be higher. The COVID-19 pandemic has added another level of complexity, as Russia, China, and Iran are all attempting to use the crisis to drive a wedge between the United States and Europe. Governments in the region are struggling to respond, with some enacting measures that further restrict the free flow of information and threaten press freedom. This briefing featured three expert panelists who each examined the implications of this emerging threat to the electoral process and explored opportunities for nations, state and local governments, the private sector, and civil society to collaborate to identify and mitigate disinformation’s corrosive effects.  Some of the more urgent concerns they noted were the increased politicization of the information space and the rise of nonstate actors.  Heather Conley, Senior Vice President for Europe, Eurasia, and the Arctic at the Center for Strategic International Studies, noted, “Russia does not create the weaknesses; they simply exploit them.  And this is where I think it’s very important to understand that in the U.S. system they’re exploiting, obviously, our partisanship.  So we are offering them the weakness, and then they use it wherever they can.” Nina Jankowicz, Disinformation Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center Science and Technology Information Program and author of the upcoming book How to Lose the Information War, said the goal is often simply to bombard the information space with so much conflicting information, the voter loses interest: “They want people to consume less news and to feel like participation at all stages of the process is futile, whether that means communicating with our elected representatives, participated in civil society, or even the act of voting itself.” She added that partisanship cannot be permitted to frame the response to disinformation. “Disinformation is not a partisan issue,” she said.  “If we’re to make any progress in protecting our democracies, we need to not only clearly recognize the threat that disinformation poses but reject its tactics whole cloth.  Any government that uses disinformation cannot hope to fight it.” Chatham House’s Sophia Ignatidou called for a US-EU approach to combatting disinformation that was rooted in international human rights. She noted, “The reason for doing that is that international human rights law is suitable to deal with an issue that doesn’t respect any physical boundaries.  And it can provide a more holistic view of the issue of disinformation which we are lacking sometimes.” Ignatidou also challenged one of the primary arguments that some of the big tech companies use to push back against regulation – freedom of expression – as misleading, because “the problem with disinformation is dissemination patterns and scale, not content, per se.  And freedom of speech does not equate [with] freedom of reach.” Other questions centered on the importance of OSCE election monitoring missions paying more attention to how disinformation impacts the atmosphere surrounding an election in the months leading up to it.  The discussion ended on a positive note as all three panelists, when asked to cite examples of successful efforts to mitigate disinformation, spoke about the importance of using trusted, credible voices at the grass-roots level and of building resilience among voters in a nonpartisan fashion.  Related Information Panelist Biographies Podcast: Helsinki on the Hill | Defending against Disinformation A Global Pandemic: Disinformation Hearing: The Scourge of Russian Disinformation Briefing: Lies, Bots, and Social Media

  • Helsinki Commission Chairman Condemns Reported U.S. Withdrawal from Open Skies Treaty, Calls For New START Extension

    WASHINGTON—Following reports that the Trump administration has notified other governments of its intent to withdraw from the Treaty on Open Skies, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) issued the following statement: “The Open Skies Treaty has underpinned transatlantic security for decades, and has always enjoyed bipartisan support precisely because of its contributions to our security and that of our allies and partners,” said Chairman Hastings. “The Trump administration’s ideological opposition to arms control agreements has undercut transparency and predictability in Europe at a time when U.S. leadership is needed most.  “The timing of this ill-advised decision so close to our elections is distasteful. The United States withdrawing from the Open Skies Treaty can only benefit Putin’s continuing campaign of aggression against Russia’s neighbors. I urge the administration to reconsider and instead work with Congress to double down on supporting our allies and partners in Europe, and particularly working to secure the prompt extension of the New START Treaty.” The Open Skies Treaty is designed to increase transparency, build confidence, and encourage cooperation among the United States, Russia, and 32 other participating states (including much of Europe as well as partners like Ukraine and Georgia), by permitting unarmed observation aircraft to fly over their entire territory to observe military forces and activities. The United States has conducted nearly three times as many flights over Russia as Russia has over the United States under the Treaty. The United States has also used the Treaty to support partners by conducting flights over hotspots such as the Ukraine-Russian border. The New START Treaty between the United States and Russia limits each side’s intercontinental ballistic missile launchers, nuclear-capable heavy bombers, and deployed nuclear warheads, and includes a substantial verification regime to ensure the sides comply with the Treaty’s terms. New START is due to expire in February 2021, unless both parties agree to extend it for no more than five years. 

  • Co-Chairman Wicker Commends Decision by Belarus to Refuse Extradition of Jehovah’s Witness to Russia

    WASHINGTON—Following the April decision by the Prosecutor General of Belarus to reject the Government of Russia’s request to extradite a Russian national to face criminal charges for being a Jehovah’s Witness, Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) issued the following statement: “I commend the government of President Alexander Lukashenko for releasing Nikolai Makhalichev and rejecting the Kremlin’s request to extradite him. If forced to return to Russia, Mr. Makhalichev would face detention, a criminal trial, certain conviction, and imprisonment—merely for practicing his sincerely-held religious beliefs. “In keeping with Belarus’ OSCE commitments and other international obligations, Belarusian authorities should continue to resist the extradition of Mr. Makhalichev to Russia, allow him to move freely, and respect his human rights and fundamental freedoms, regardless of whether the Government of Belarus grants him refugee status or another country gives him legal protection.” Background Amendments in 2006 to Russia’s Federal Law on Countering Extremist Activity criminalized a wide range of religious activities as “extremist,” without precisely defining extremism or requiring that such activities have a violent element. The Russian Government invoked the law as it began relentlessly targeting Jehovah’s Witnesses, a peaceful faith community, with investigations, raids, arrests, detention, trials, the closure of local congregations, website and literature bans, and more. In July 2017, the Supreme Court of Russia upheld an earlier ruling in favor of the Ministry of Justice that Jehovah’s Witnesses are an “extremist” group, criminalizing and effectively banning their activities, and ordering their property to be seized and liquidated. Since then, Russian authorities have conducted criminal investigations into at least 333 Jehovah’s Witnesses, including Makhalichev; courts have convicted at least 32 of them. The authorities have engaged in raids, detentions, house arrests, travel restrictions, property confiscations, and even torture. In February 2020, Belarusian police detained Makhalichev, citing the criminal charges against him in Russia. He then applied for refugee status in Belarus. The Russian Prosecutor General’s Office formally requested extradition in March. The Belarusian Ministry of Interior is currently adjudicating Makhalichev's refugee application. In September 2019, the Helsinki Commission held a hearing highlighting how the Kremlin and other autocratic governments engage in transnational repression against people they perceive as hostile to them: using tools such as INTERPOL to request arrest and extradition, and sometimes even surveilling, abducting, and assassinating targeted persons on foreign soil. Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L Hastings (FL-20), Co-Chairman Wicker, Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02), and Ranking Member Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) introduced the Transnational Repression Accountability and Prevention (TRAP) Act to combat such threats. Like all participating States of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Russia and Belarus have repeatedly committed themselves to recognizing, respecting, and protecting freedom of religion or belief. In December 2019, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo redesignated Russia for the Special Watch List of countries that have committed severe violations of religious freedom, per the Frank R. Wolf International Religious Freedom Act. Since 2017, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom has recommended designating Russia as a Country of Particular Concern under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998. Belarusian law authorizes the government to grant refugee status to a foreigner if he or she has a “well-founded fears of being persecuted in the country of his/her citizenship for the reason… of…religion,” and prohibits the government from expelling the applicant to that country, even if the government denies, revokes, or otherwise removes their refugee status. The law also requires the government to give foreigners requesting refugee status or related legal protection access to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees.

  • Helsinki Commission Briefing to Examine Corrosive Impact of Disinformation on the Electoral Process

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following briefing: DISINFORMATION, COVID-19, AND THE ELECTORAL PROCESS Thursday, May 21, 2020 10:30 a.m. – 11:30 a.m. Register to attend. Free and fair elections are one of the most fundamental measures of a democratic society. During the 2016 presidential elections, many Americans became aware for the first time that disinformation can be easily coupled with technology by state and nonstate actors to disrupt and muddy the information space in the months, weeks, and days leading up to an election.  The use of disinformation to influence elections has since become a pervasive and persistent threat in all 57 OSCE participating States, one which many countries still struggle to adequately address. With presidential, parliamentary, or local elections scheduled in 15 OSCE participating States before the end of the year, the stakes cannot be higher. The COVID-19 pandemic has added another level of complexity, as Russia, China, and Iran are all attempting to use the crisis to drive a wedge between the United States and Europe. Governments in the region are struggling to respond, with some enacting measures that further restrict the free flow of information and threaten press freedom. This briefing will examine the implications of this emerging threat to the electoral process and explore opportunities for nations, state and local governments, the private sector, and civil society to collaborate to identify and mitigate disinformation’s corrosive effects. Expert panelists scheduled to participate include: Heather Conley, Senior Vice President for Europe, Eurasia, and the Arctic, The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) Nina Jankowicz, Disinformation Fellow, Woodrow Wilson Center Science and Technology Information Program; author of “How to Lose the Information War” Sophia Ignatidou, Academy Associate, International Security Programme, Chatham House

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