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The Future of an Efficient Eurasian Transit System Stopped Dead in Its Tracks? A Report on the 18th Economic and Environmental Forum and the Future of Central Asian Road and Rail Transport
Monday, August 02, 2010

By Josh Shapiro, Staff Associate

The 18th Economic and Environmental Forum (EEF) was held this year on May 24-26, 2010, in Prague, Czech Republic with the theme of promoting good governance at border crossings, improving the security of land transportation, and facilitating international transport by road and rail in the OSCE region. The Forum brought together 42 of the 56 OSCE participating States, four Partners for Cooperation, multiple international organizations including the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) and the International Road Transport Union (IRU), and several business, academic, and non-governmental organizations.

The EEF is annually the central event of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s economic and environmental activities. The Forum gives political impetus to dialogue in this area and provides recommendations for future follow-up activities. The EEF takes place in two parts, of which this meeting in Prague is the second; the first part was held on February 1-2, 2010 in Vienna, Austria. Two preparatory conferences for the Forum have also been held, the first in Astana, Kazakhstan on October 12-13, 2009 and the second in Minsk, Belarus on March 15-16, 2010.

The 18th Economic and Environmental Forum in Review

Transport is a crucial factor, not only between Asia and Europe, but around the world. The need for simplified systems, which can cut down transit times and costs for products, will enable countries to thrive from the revenue and job creation that it possesses to affected countries. Along with these positive factors comes the downside of such a new system. More corruption, environmental pollution, and the need for more security measures will all become new factors.

The road to implementation of a fully integrated Eurasian transit system will be long and tough. A slew of major bumps along the way will surely slow the progress of long-term execution, which includes, but is not limited to, revising visa and customs procedures, rule of law issues between neighboring countries, smuggling of weapons and drugs, human trafficking concerns, and private and public sector corruption.

Concerns about the increase of prices of goods due to delays from the aforementioned issues and improving customs systems have arisen, given that many neighboring countries have complex differences between them. Enhancement of cooperation between these participating States will be a critical test to the vitality of this proposed transit network and whether it will survive the many problems it faces.

Prospects for the further development of efficient and secure transit transportation between Asia and Europe

Improving Eurasian transport links can promote mutual economic growth and help overcome the current global economic recession. Further development will help facilitate positive partnerships between participating States, and will help stabilize the region. Additionally, landlocked countries will benefit greatly from the new trade routes built with their neighboring transit countries.

The current state of transport links is in dire need of improvement. According to Russian Railways, building a 1520 millimeter gauge railway in Slovakia from Bratislava to Vienna, as well as associated logistics infrastructure, may be a breakthrough in developing the transport link from Europe through Central Asia to China. This proposed railway will attract freight traffic from numerous countries including Austria, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, Slovenia, Serbia and Croatia.

By building a new system, it will take approximately one-third of the transit time currently in place, helping move current maritime transport practices to more efficient and cost-effective road and rail transport. Rises in global economy are determined by transport, energy, climate, and water security. Building a new ground system will not, however, provide for a perfect method of transport, as an infrastructure without security is useless.

Review of the implementation of OSCE commitments in the economic and environmental dimension

The United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) prepared a Review Report focused on the facilitation of international transport and the security of inland transport. In the report, there is discussion of the many challenges that an integrated Eurasian transport system faces. For example, road traffic safety, border crossing challenges, capacity and quality of road and rail infrastructure are just a few of the obstacles. There must be a shift from a national transit perspective to a regional perspective. Once integrated, there must be a shift from a regional to an inter-continental approach.

Additional challenges include a development gap between countries, as some do not have the resources to build such an infrastructure. Investment in transport is a question of priority within a country, as some give precedence to other issues, regardless of what a neighboring participating State might do. CO2 abatement, traffic safety, and trade and transport facilitation need to be compared to security concerns. The lack of a current unified rail law is a major issue, and land transport security is currently well underestimated.

According to the UNECE, road safety should be given priority when looking at security issues. In fact, more people have been killed since World War II on the roads than in the War itself. Currently, road and rail networks are not integrated fully, especially in Central Asia, and the need for an adequate and coherent system will be challenging. According to Ms. Eva Monár of UNECE, inland water transport is currently operable; however, efficient integration into the modern day system is lacking because not all countries border a body of water.

The environmental impact of an expansion is of major concern, as air pollution causes health hazards and harms our atmosphere. The need for more efficient ‘green’ vehicles is recommended in some UNECE countries, as well as proposed paths around urban areas, reducing noise nuisance and smog.

Promoting Good Governance in International Transportation and at Border Crossings

Many barriers are faced in international transportation, including issues at border crossings. Approximately 40% of transit time is lost at border crossings as a result of bad governance and the lack of a simplified visa and customs process. Based off of numerous presentations, the need for cooperation between countries is a must and a proactive approach must be made. Procedures need to be modified so that freight traffic can move in a secure and regulated manner, and contractual frameworks need to be in place for joint liability between carriers and its customers. According to the International Rail Transport Committee (CIT), the OSCE could also play a role in locating and identifying efficient trade routes and motivate participating States to conduct pilot projects to check for potential issues.

An example was given at the Forum of a demonstration train that the Economic Cooperation Organization (ECO) ran from Islamabad, Pakistan to Istanbul, Turkey in the fall of 2009. The run proved to potential private investors to take another look at its promise for faster and efficient trade, and this example particularly demonstrated the importance of political will from the States that took part.

Regarding customs issues, The Arusha Declaration, adopted by the World Customs Organization in 1993 and revised in 2003, outlines a way forward to enhance integrity in the Customs environment. The revised Kyoto Convention is also key to implement, which harmonizes the customs clearing process. The major concern is the lack of integrity within the customs community and the strong need for governments to be fully committed to reduce corruption. For example, according to a representative of Azerbaijan, modernization of its procedures is already taking place and the amount of waiting time during its customs process has decreased ten-fold. Simplifying the documentation system and implementing a single window structure is the key, as well as training border patrol agents correctly on following up-to-date procedures.

The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development suggests that the implementation of existing conventions should be given priority and that public-to-public and public-to-private sector relations are both very important. The Rotterdam Rules were brought up, which were the result multilateral negotiations that took place within the United Nations Commission on International Trade Law for seven years starting in 2002. The Convention, signed by 21 countries including the United States, describes who is responsible and liable for what, and brings clarity under a single contract of carriage.

Ireland, which will chair the OSCE in 2012, noted that the EU’s single window market took more than 40 years to implement and the longer term benefit of such a system far outweighs the potential loss of sifting through free trade agreements.

Transport facilitation and Security in Central Asia and with Afghanistan

Afghanistan currently faces numerous challenges when trading with its neighboring countries and the world. According to Mr. Ziauddin Zia, Adviser to the Minister of Commerce and Industry of Afghanistan, the obstacles include implementing second-generation policy reforms, the exorbitant cost of doing business, a weak-knowledge economy, and poor infrastructure. Tremendous progress has been made in Afghanistan, though, which has recently been torn with violence and corruption.

There was a mention by Mr. Zia of the ‘World Bank’s Doing Business’ report, which lists economies on their ease of doing business, of which Afghanistan is ranked last out of 183 countries for the ease of trading across its borders. Poor road conditions hinder efficient trade, and the lack of access to Central Asia by rail limits the possibility of trade with neighboring States. In the long term, if reform in Afghanistan can be achieved in such challenging conditions, other countries can certainly do it as well.

Mr. Thomas M. Sanderson, Deputy Director and Senior Fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), stressed the economic significance and geopolitical importance of Afghanistan due to its strategic location as the land bridge between the subcontinent, Central Asian states, and the Persian Gulf. Legal frameworks and capacity building through the OSCE could place an added value to the region as well.

The Impact of Transportation on Environment and Security

Many risks are associated with transcontinental transport, including shipping hazardous waste and dangerous goods. There was a focus on many instances where these materials are shipped through non-EU countries, which do not have to adhere to guidelines already in place. The need to adopt legislation for a single method system to then work with prior European legislation was a discussion topic, as well as the need for construction of secure railcars and subsequently a study of accident prevention.

International training of monitoring personnel and trainers were brought to light, and the idea of translating more training manuals was suggested. Unfortunately, security is a major factor that is holding up talks to build an intercontinental rail transport system. Air transport is now secure but rail is certainly not. There are countless access points to terrorize a rail system, as opposed to scanning cargo and passengers in a secure arena such as an airport. Initial costs may increase to prevent terrorism and provide a more secure system, but the long-term economic benefits will make the venture worthwhile.

Specific Transport Security Aspects and the Role of the OSCE

The importance of land versus maritime transportation is quite evident, as virtually all freight is carried on roads at some point throughout the shipping-to-receiving process. The security aspect of land transportation is much more complex than that of sea, as there is much more potential of terrorist acts being carried through over such a vast area. Some argue, though, that there is an unwillingness of governments to compromise sovereignty in favor of international frameworks and measures.

Enhancing inland transport security is key, though currently it appears to be under-protected, especially in the international law perspective. ‘Good practice’ sharing is an effective and inexpensive way to enhance transport security. The United Nations Economic Commission for Europe has organized an ‘Inland Transport Security Discussion Forum’ to provide dialogue on inland transport security issues.

The threat of weapons of mass destruction remains but the need to focus on those areas in which cargo is relatively harder to protect is crucial. Closed methods of transport, including aviation (100% passenger and luggage screening) and maritime transport (almost 100% container scanning), might currently be used for global transit, though more of a look into inland transit needs to take effect. Inland transit remains open and accessible to security threats, and design safety standards on railcars and cargo vehicles need to improve.

Current financial uncertainty will place greater scrutiny on the decision-making process, especially in the aspect of security. A look at history and past events, such as the Madrid, London, and Russian train bombings, will need to be integrated into the managerial process; however, there is no existing model that fully meets the need of a counter-terrorism security appraisal.

Follow-up to the 18th Economic and Environmental Forum

The Eighteenth Economic and Environmental Forum is a clear example that the OSCE is taking efforts to provide dialogue to facilitate and secure road and rail transportation, and an effective Eurasian transport system will be a long-term undertaking. Cooperation from neighboring countries and the perseverance of its people to one day be a part of a larger system than just their own will lead to lower overall priced goods and more security for its citizens.

The U.S. welcomes further discussion by Kazakhstan, the current Chair-in-Office of the OSCE, of trade and transport ideas at the upcoming OSCE summit, as Kazakhstan is a land-locked country and could reap significant benefits from freer regional trade. Subsequent peace and stability would have a profound effect in the region, especially in Afghanistan where trade is hindered by corruption and the lack of efficient infrastructure. Although many agreements between participating States exist, overcoming the political and economic hurdles to effective implementation will remain the key impediment to success.

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Jim McGovern: To Regain Our Credibility on Human Rights, America Must Start At Home

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    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: 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.

  • OSCE Supplementary Human Dimension Meeting Examines Intolerance and Discrimination during Pandemic

    On May 25-26, 2020, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) held the year’s first Supplementary Human Dimension Meeting (SHDIM).  The event, which attracted more than 950 participants from 57 countries, focused on addressing intolerance and discrimination and was the OSCE’s first public event hosted in an entirely virtual format. During the event, representatives of governments, civil society, and OSCE institutions discussed the importance of immediate, robust, and coordinated responses to acts of scapegoating, racism, xenophobia, and anti-Semitism, especially during times of crisis. Participants underscored the need to reject hate speech both online and off, and shared best practices to prevent its escalation into violence. Recommendations centered on the shared goals of building inclusive and resilient societies that guarantee human rights for all. In her closing remarks, Shannon Simrell, the U.S. Helsinki Commission Representative to the U.S. Mission to the OSCE in Vienna, highlighted recent commission engagement on combating intolerance and discrimination. Under the leadership of Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20), the Helsinki Commission's ongoing commitment to building safe, equitable, and inclusive societies has been embodied by “On the Road to Inclusion,” a new interethnic, multicultural, inter-religious, and intergenerational initiative designed to build broad-based coalitions and crafts durable solutions, based on respect and meaningful engagement of all members of society.  In addition, Helsinki Commission Ranking Member Senator Ben Cardin (MD), who also serves as the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly Special Representative for Anti-Semitism, Racism, and Intolerance, has directed funding to support OSCE’s comprehensive and multi-year Words into Action project, which develops inclusion handbooks for governments and communities.  The second Supplementary Human Dimension Meeting of 2020, scheduled for June 22-23, will focus on freedom of expression, press freedom, and access to information.  Closing Remarks by Shannon Simrell, U.S. Helsinki Commission Representative to the U.S. Mission to the OSCE On behalf of the U.S. Helsinki Commission, I wish to congratulate the Chair in Office for organizing this historic event, thank the speakers for sharing your expertise, and recognize my colleagues and civil society representatives for your thoughtful engagement on these issues. In the past two days, we have heard not only about the importance of immediate and definitive responses to acts of hate and intolerance, but also the importance of a comprehensive and long-term approach to dismantle the social, economic, legislative, and technological roots of discrimination.  Crises such as the COVID-19 pandemic lay bare the significant work that still needs to be done across the OSCE region to address prejudice, racism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, and all forms of discrimination.  Helsinki commitments must be equally realized by everyone among us. Without exception. To ODIHR colleagues, thank you for your comprehensive approach to addressing hate crimes and intolerance while recognizing also the specific and varied challenges faced by various vulnerable groups, including Roma/Sinti, people of African descent, disabled, youth, women, and migrants and refugees.  In support of ODIHR’s vital role, I note that U.S. Senator Ben Cardin, in addition to his role as OSCEPA Special Representative for Anti-Semitism, Racism, and Intolerance, is proud to have directed funding to support phase two of the Words into Action project.  In addition, the Commission's commitment to building safe, equitable, and inclusive societies is further underscored by an initiative under the leadership of U.S. Helsinki Chairman Alcee Hastings, called “On the Road to Inclusion.”  This interethnic, multicultural, inter-religious, and intergenerational initiative builds broad-based coalitions and crafts durable solutions, based on respect and meaningful engagement of all members of society. I look forward to future events where we can continue not only our exploration of the hurdles, but an update on ways we are working to guarantee human rights for all.

  • Hastings and Wicker Call for Release of Kyrgyz Activist Azimjan Askarov

    WASHINGTON—In response to the May 13 decision of the Supreme Court of Kyrgyzstan to uphold the life sentence of Kyrgyz human rights defender Azimjan Askarov, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) and Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) issued the following statement: “We are extremely disappointed by the decision of Kyrgyzstan’s Supreme Court to reject the appeal of human rights activist Azimjan Askarov. This continues the travesty of justice that has left Mr. Askarov languishing in prison for more than a decade and demonstrates the serious shortcomings of Kyrgyzstan’s court system. We call on President Jeenbekov to release Mr. Askarov immediately, even on humanitarian grounds because of his poor health.” Azimjan Askarov was charged with incitement in relation to the murder of a policeman in 2010 during the ethnic violence in southern Kyrgyzstan that left hundreds of mainly ethnic Uzbeks dead. Although they were the vast majority of victims, ethnic Uzbeks, including Mr. Askarov, also were the majority of those accused of fomenting the violence. Prior to 2010, Mr. Askarov had worked to uncover police corruption and abuse in the community, and his arrest may have been retaliation. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) monitored his trials in 2010 and 2011 and documented “serious violations of fair trial standards…the failure of the authorities to adequately address the intimidation of defense witnesses and lawyers, to consider exculpatory evidence, and to effectively follow-up on visible signs of torture.” In 2016, the United Nations Human Rights Committee found that Kyrgyzstan had violated its international commitments and that Mr. Askarov had “been arbitrarily detained, held in inhumane conditions, tortured and mistreated, and prevented from adequately preparing his trial defense.” Mr. Askarov’s family have reported that his health continues to decline; they also are concerned about the possibility of his contracting COVID-19 in prison.

  • Human Rights and Democracy in a Time of Pandemic

    The outbreak of the novel coronavirus pandemic has prompted governments around the world to take extraordinary measures in the interest of public health and safety. As of early April, nearly two-thirds of the 57 participating States of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe had declared “states of emergency” or invoked similar legal measures in response to the crisis. Often such measures have enabled governments to enact large-scale social distancing policies and suspend economic activity to save lives and preserve the capacity of national public health infrastructure to respond to the spread of infections. At the same time, human rights organizations and civil society activists have expressed concern regarding the breadth of some emergency measures and recalled the long history of government abuse of emergency powers to trample civil liberties. Exactly three decades ago, OSCE participating States unanimously endorsed a set of basic principles governing the imposition of states of emergency, including the protection of fundamental freedoms in such times of crisis. In 1990 in Copenhagen, OSCE countries affirmed that states of emergency must be enacted by public law and that any curtailment of human rights and civil liberties must be “limited to the extent strictly required by the exigencies of the situation.” According to the Copenhagen Document, emergency measures furthermore should never discriminate based on certain group characteristics or be used to justify torture. Building on these commitments a year later in Moscow, participating States underscored that states of emergency should not “subvert the democratic constitutional order, nor aim at the destruction of internationally recognized human rights and fundamental freedoms.” The Moscow Document stresses the role of legislatures in imposing and lifting such declarations, the preservation of the rule of law, and the value of guaranteeing “freedom of expression and freedom of information…with a view to enabling public discussion on the observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms as well as on the lifting of the state of public emergency.” In some corners of the OSCE region, however, national authorities are violating these and other OSCE commitments in the name of combatting coronavirus. While many extraordinary responses are justified in the face of this crisis, government overreach threatens the well-being of democracy and the resilience of society at a critical time. Download the full report to learn more.

  • Wicker and Cardin Urge Pompeo to Work with EU High Representative to Advance EU Magnitsky Sanctions

    WASHINGTON—In a letter released today, Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) and Ranking Member Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) urged U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to ask the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Josep Borell, to expedite the adoption of EU sanctions on human rights abusers, include provisions for sanctioning corruption, and ensure that the EU sanctions regime bears Sergei Magnitsky’s name. The letter reads in part: “In this time of global crisis, dictators and kleptocrats are only increasing their bad actions, making it more important than ever that the EU move quickly to make the EU Magnitsky Act a reality... “It has become clear that corruption and human rights abuse are inextricably linked. The lack of provisions to sanction corruption would weaken the comprehensive Magnitsky approach. It would also lead to difficulties synchronizing U.S. and EU sanctions by enabling corrupt officials barred from the United States to continue operating in the EU, thus diminishing our deterrent and increasing Europe’s vulnerability to exploitation... “It was Sergei Magnitsky who started this very effort to end impunity for human rights abusers and corrupt officials. Omitting the name of Magnitsky, who was jailed, tortured, beaten, murdered, and posthumously convicted, would indicate a lack of resolve to stand up to brutal regimes around the world.” The U.S. Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act, which authorizes the President to impose economic sanctions and deny entry into the United States to any foreign person he identifies as engaging in human rights abuse or corruption, has been an important asset in the U.S. diplomatic toolkit. In December 2019, High Representative Borrell announced that all Member States unanimously agreed to start preparatory work for an equivalent of Global Magnitsky, adding that such a framework would be “a tangible step reaffirming the European Union’s global lead on human rights.” The Baltic States, Canada, and the UK already have adopted similar legislation. However, the current proposal for an EU Magnitsky Act does not include sanctions for officials involved in corruption, nor does it include any reference to Sergei Magnitsky by name. The full text of the letter can be found below: Dear Mr. Secretary, As the original sponsors of the Magnitsky Act, we aim to increase the impact of the legislation worldwide by encouraging our allies to join us in sanctioning bad actors. At the moment, the European Union (EU) has agreed in principle to adopt their own sanctions similar to those provided by the Global Magnitsky Act, but certain issues remain. Therefore, we ask that you work with Josep Borrell, High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, to ensure the EU adopts and implements the most thorough and effective sanctions package possible. Our first concern is that the EU seems to have stalled in putting together the details of their Magnitsky sanctions regime because of the global health crisis. In December, High Representative Borrell announced that there was political agreement to move forward on a Magnitsky-like piece of legislation, which his team would begin drafting. Since then, we fear this work has been sidelined. In this time of global crisis, dictators and kleptocrats are only increasing their bad actions, making it more important than ever that the EU move quickly to make the EU Magnitsky Act a reality. Our second concern is that the proposal for an EU Magnitsky Act does not include sanctions for officials involved in corruption. It has become clear that corruption and human rights abuse are inextricably linked. The lack of provisions to sanction corruption would weaken the comprehensive Magnitsky approach. It would also lead to difficulties synchronizing U.S. and EU sanctions by enabling corrupt officials barred from the United States to continue operating in the EU, thus diminishing our deterrent and increasing Europe’s vulnerability to exploitation. Finally, we are concerned that the EU is not planning to include Magnitsky’s name on the sanctions regime. It was Sergei Magnitsky who stood up to a ruthless, violent, and corrupt state and demanded fairness and accountability for his fellow citizens. And it was Sergei Magnitsky who started this very effort to end impunity for human rights abusers and corrupt officials. Omitting the name of Magnitsky, who was jailed, tortured, beaten, murdered, and posthumously convicted, would indicate a lack of resolve to stand up to brutal regimes around the world. Therefore, we request that you ask the High Representative Borrell to expedite the adoption of their sanctions, include provisions for sanctioning corruption, and ensure that the EU sanctions regime bears Sergei Magnitsky’s name. It is important that we do not let our guard down and continue our global leadership in this important area. Sincerely, Benjamin L. Cardin                                                       Roger F. Wicker Ranking Member                                                          Co-Chairman

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

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

  • Chairman Hastings and Co-Chairman Wicker Commemorate World Press Freedom Day

    WASHINGTON—Ahead of World Press Freedom Day on May 3, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) and Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) issued the following statements: "Given these uncertain and unprecedented times, it is more important than ever that journalists and media professionals are able to work freely and without retribution," said Chairman Hastings. "Unfortunately, journalists remain in jail throughout the OSCE region, while states like Russia, Azerbaijan, and Hungary criminalize providing essential information and transparency about the COVID-19 pandemic. Independent media continues to be assaulted under the pretense of punishing allegedly 'false,' 'misleading,' or unofficial information. This is unacceptable." Read Chairman Hastings' full Congressional Record statement. “Journalists across the globe risk their safety, and some even their lives, to report the truth," said Co-Chairman Wicker. "On World Press Freedom Day, we honor a freedom that is a cornerstone of democracy and should always be protected in any healthy society. During this pandemic, good journalism and unflinching investigative reporting are essential as we work to mitigate the effects of the coronavirus and get our economies started again. Now more than ever, I urge all OSCE states to uphold this fundamental freedom." According to the latest reports from the Committee to Protect Journalists, 250 journalists are imprisoned worldwide for their work, 64 journalists are missing, and 1,369 journalists have been killed since 1992. Additionally, Reporters Without Borders' 2020 World Press Freedom Index found that global press freedom has deteriorated by 12 percent since 2013. Ahead of World Press Freedom Day, OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media Harlem Désir, along with the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Opinion and Expression and the Organization of American States Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression, issued a joint declaration on freedom of expression and elections in the digital age, particularly noting challenges to press freedom during the COVID-19 pandemic. On April 17, Chairman Hastings and Co-Chairman Wicker released a statement expressing concern with the latest attacks on press freedom in Russia amid the coronavirus pandemic, including death threats to Russian journalist Yelena Milashina by Chechnya’s leader Ramzan Kadyrov. Earlier in April, Chairman Hastings also denounced the unchecked power granted to Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban following his request to rule by decree in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

  • Statement at the Meeting of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly Bureau

    Mr. President, Secretary General Montella, thank you for giving me the opportunity to participate in this Bureau meeting. I commend you for your efforts to ensure that the work of the Assembly continues and that this body responds to the urgent challenges all of our countries face. I particularly welcome the information you have put online about the participating States’ responses to the covid-19 pandemic and the role of legislative bodies in formulating those responses. Parliamentary oversight is essential, not expendable, in an emergency. Since my last report in Luxembourg, I have focused on the profound threat of rising and increasingly deadly intolerance. Anti-Semitic, racist and xenophobic attacks in my own country, at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh and the targeted killings of Latin Americans in El Paso, Texas, underscore the urgency of this threat.  Obviously, the pandemic creates new and additional challenges.  But it is precisely at this moment that we cannot afford to lower our guard against discrimination and bigotry, when pandemic fears may fan the flames of intolerance. Minority and immigrant communities are already more vulnerable to the impact of the pandemic because of past inequalities. Those disparities may be compounded without appropriately targeted healthcare and economic responses. Covid-caused disruptions in education may also have long-term disproportionate consequences for those already impacted by discriminatory schooling. As parliamentarians, we have a responsibility to ensure that the measures we introduce and which our governments implement are consistent with OSCE standards on human rights and democracy, including the 1991 Moscow Document’s commitments regarding states of emergency. It is also vital that our parliamentary oversight extends to the use of military authorities and policing, which may have the potential to exacerbate relations with minority communities and erode public confidence in government at a time when that trust is critical for the effective implementation of responses to this virus. Disciplinary and punitive policies by national or local authorities run the risk of backfiring. As this body’s special representative on anti-Semitism and racism, I am alarmed by attacks on people who are being scapegoated for this virus. Parliamentarians should lead by example in countering disinformation, conspiracy theories, and other propaganda that stokes anti-Asian bigotry, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, and other forms of racism. In the face of an extraordinary threat, people may feel that ordinary constraints on governments do not apply. But too often, temporary changes introduced for emergencies have a way of becoming permanent. I welcome the statements by my Third Committee colleagues that have called for the participating States’ responses to meet the basic tests of necessity, transparency, and proportionality. It is also crucial that they include sunset provisions and subject to periodic review. When democratic norms erode, protections against hate crimes do too. Mr. President, I will be reporting more fully on my activities later this year at a more opportune time, when we will all be able to assess the very fluid, unfolding challenges.  Covid-19 will undoubtedly lead to profound changes in all our countries for a long time to come. I thank you and my colleagues here today for the work you are doing to ensure that we meet a global crisis with global cooperation faithful to the commitments we have undertaken in the OSCE.  

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

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

  • Ongoing Transatlantic Engagement through the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly

    Madam SPEAKER, I rise to today to update my Congressional colleagues on continued discussions between members of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) Parliamentary Assembly. I would also like to share the desire of our international friends and allies to remain engaged with the United States during these challenging times.  My colleagues who serve with me on the U.S. Helsinki Commission and remain active include Representative Alcee Hastings of Florida, Representative Joe Wilson of South Carolina, Representative Steve Cohen of Tennessee, Representative Robert Aderholt of Alabama, Representative Gwen Moore of Wisconsin, Representative Chris Smith of New Jersey, as well as Senator Wicker of Mississippi and Senator Cardin of Maryland. As the United States Delegation to the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, we recognize the importance of building partnerships with our counterparts from other countries especially during such unprecedented times. As the Chairman of the Committee on Security, I recognize multilateral diplomacy works to U.S. interests when we take the initiative. Parliamentarians have a special role to play as elected officials in this process, showing the depth of each of our country’s commitment to security and cooperation not only in Europe, but around the globe.   During our most recent video conference, Italian Minister for European Affairs, Vincenzo Amendola, joined to update us on Italy’s response to COVID-19.  He stressed the need for continued cooperation in response not only to the health threat but also to the economic havoc the pandemic has caused. Shortly after our video conference concluded, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced the United States will provide an additional $225 million in health, humanitarian and economic assistance to boost response efforts worldwide. This is in addition to the $274 million already deployed to fight COVID-19.  In the past two decades, the Secretary noted, the United States has provided $140 billion in health assistance globally, helping to make us an undisputed leader in health and humanitarian aid. Some of this aide has been to countries in Europe, including Italy. I would add that this is not only a reflection of our country’s unmatched generosity over the decades, but our national interest as well. Many of the health threats we have faced come from beyond our borders, including COVID-19, and we have an interest in trying to respond effectively to those threats where they first develop, before they reach our shores. A final outcome of the recent video conference was endorsement of United Nation Secretary General Antonio Guterres’ recent call for a ceasefire regarding conflicts around the globe at this time when countries need to face a common pandemic threat. The Helsinki Commission provides Members of Congress with the opportunity to work with our friends and allies around the globe to promote our shared democratic values and work in a bipartisan fashion on core foreign policy issues. While our calls have been focused on fighting COVID-19 we are still tracking other international conflicts. For example, during the video conference I, along with other parliamentarians, raised the issue of the unwarranted Russian aggression in Ukraine and Georgia. I am encouraged by the level of engagement from my OSCE Parliamentary Assembly colleagues and will continue to work with them through this global pandemic. Madam SPEAKER, please join me today recognizing the importance of these discussions with our European allies and friends.  

  • Expressing the United States’ Solidarity with Friends and Allies in Europe

    Madam SPEAKER, I rise to report discussions I had last week during a video conference with members of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) Parliamentary Assembly, and their response to COVID-19. Let me stress at the outset that our country has not only treaty-bound allies in Europe, but genuine friends. Our friends and colleagues abroad welcomed Senator Roger Wicker and my participation on behalf of the United States to discuss how we will continue our important duties amidst the dire situation facing the globe. I reported on the increasingly dire situation here in the United States and the efforts of the U.S. Congress to provide relief to our citizens. We all expressed solidarity with each other and a determination to move forward.    Every country in Europe is affected by this pandemic, Madam Speaker, just as every state in the United States is affected. The President of the Lombardy in Italy spoke about the particularly critical situation his region is facing. In a crisis like this, while we have our primary responsibilities here at home, it is imperative we continue to help our international friends and partners. I assured our partners that the United States will continue to support our allies and provide considerable assistance to public health worldwide.  Such expressions of transatlantic unity, in my view, are important in times like these. They give our European friends and allies the confidence they need to move forward. It also helps to counter the considerable amount of misinformation and misperception currently spreading and dispel the malign influence attached to offers of help and friendship from elsewhere around the globe. We cannot let ulterior motives divide and weaken our ties at this time of vulnerability. In spite of this crisis, other threats to European security have not gone away. Russian aggression against its neighbors, terrorist threats, and protracted conflicts in Eastern Europe and the Caucasus all still exist, requiring our continued attention. Much of our parliamentary conversation focused on how we can address these continual challenges we face while we are unable to meet and deliberate in person as scheduled.  Despite the uncertainty, the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly will find a way and with a little creativity, will continue having these important discussions. A final point made in the video conference is the need to defend our democratic principles and human rights in a time where restrictions and limits are imposed that could be abused. Our country defended Europe from tyranny last century, so it is rewarding to see our friends and allies determined to preserve those gains moving forward into this century. Madam Speaker, we have the capacity to address the ongoing threats to our security even as we address this unprecedented public health crisis amidst an economic downturn. The bicameral group of legislators who serve on the U.S. Helsinki Commission do so in a bipartisan way, and when we participate in the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, we do so with our European friends and allies in this effort.  I concluded from my discussions last week that more difficult times may lie ahead, but by working together, we will persevere. Madam SPEAKER, please join me today recognizing the importance of these discussions with our European allies and friends.   Thank you, Madam SPEAKER. I yield back the balance of my time.

  • Congressional Delegation Led by Chairman Hastings Champions U.S. Leadership in Transatlantic Security, Human Rights

    WASHINGTON—Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) last week led a bicameral, bipartisan congressional delegation to the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly’s (OSCE PA) 19th Winter Meeting in Vienna, Austria. At the meeting, Chairman Hastings and other members of the delegation engaged with OSCE officials, delegations from other OSCE participating States, and diplomats to advance U.S. interests while assuring friends, allies, and potential adversaries of the U.S. commitment to security and cooperation in Europe.   The 11-member delegation was among the largest U.S. delegations ever to attend the annual gathering, which attracted more than 300 parliamentarians from 53 OSCE participating States. Chairman Hastings, a former president of the OSCE PA, was joined in Austria by Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS), Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02), and Helsinki Commissioners Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (MO-05), Rep. Gwen Moore (WI-04), Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), Rep. Robert Aderholt (AL-04), and Rep. Richard Hudson (NC-08). Rep. Gregory Meeks (NY-05), Rep. Lloyd Doggett (TX-35), and Rep. Andy Harris (MD-01) also joined the delegation, which benefited from the active support of Ambassador James Gilmore, the U.S. Representative to the OSCE.  In the Standing Committee, which oversees the OSCE PA’s work, Chairman Hastings highlighted recommendations resulting from a seminar for young parliamentarians on “Future Leadership for Political Inclusion in the OSCE Region,” hosted in Washington in early February by the Helsinki Commission and the OSCE PA. “We brought together some 35 young parliamentarians from 19 OSCE participating States and three partner States to learn from each other and incubate the solutions of the future,” Chairman Hastings said. “As I called on all of you at our last meeting in Marrakech, we must counter the economic and social despair afflicting our youth and we all have a role.”  At the same committee, Co-Chairman Wicker, who serves as a vice president of the assembly, shared his recent experience at the Munich Security Conference.  The committee also reviewed a written report submitted by former Helsinki Commissioner Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04), OSCE PA Special Representative on Human Trafficking Issues. In the committee focused on security issues, Rep. Hudson condemned Russia’s violations of Helsinki principles related to its aggression against Ukraine, while in the committee focusing on economic issues Rep. Harris cautioned Europe regarding the growing Chinese presence in the region.   During a special debate on confronting anti-Semitism and other forms of intolerance in the OSCE region, Helsinki Commission Ranking Member Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), who serves as the OSCE PA Special Representative on Anti-Semitism, Racism and Intolerance, delivered introductory remarks by video. “It is our responsibility to safeguard our democracies by speaking out and using our tools and voices as legislators against those who would divide our societies,” Sen. Cardin said. Later in the debate, Rep. Cohen urged participating States “to teach Holocaust history, which a fourth of the people in Europe or more don't understand or remember, and teach it so that the most horrific crime against humanity will be remembered so that it will not be repeated.” Rep. Cleaver linked anti-Semitism to broader trends of intolerance in society, and called OSCE participating States to action, stating, “There are many scary things in our world, but there is nothing quite able to generate fright like prejudice inspired by ignorance and nationalism manufactured by fear.” Rep. Hudson chaired a meeting of the OSCE PA Ad Hoc Committee on Countering Terrorism, and Rep. Moore participated in a similar meeting of the Ad Hoc Committee on Migration. On the margins of the Winter Meeting’s official sessions, members of Congress met with the Ukrainian delegation to the OSCE PA to discuss U.S. support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty in the face of unrelenting Russian aggression. Delegation members also met with OSCE Secretary General Thomas Greminger, Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights Director Ingibjörg Sólrún Gísladóttir, Special Representative and Coordinator for Combatting Trafficking in Human Beings Valiant Richey, and High Commissioner for National Minorities Lamberto Zannier.

  • Transatlantic Network of Young Legislators Releases Joint Declaration on Future Leadership for Political Inclusion in the OSCE Region

    WASHINGTON—Following a two-day seminar hosted by the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (U.S. Helsinki Commission) and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA) in early February, nearly 20 young legislators from OSCE participating States today issued the Joint Declaration on Future Leadership for Political Inclusion in the OSCE Region. The declaration builds upon discussions among seminar participants—all national legislators from OSCE participating States and Partners for Cooperation—about the important role young people can and must play in addressing emerging human rights and security challenges worldwide. Each signatory resolves that the respective legislative bodies included in the declaration will empower young leadership and pursue goals including enhancing parliamentary diplomacy, promoting a declaration of a climate emergency in every OSCE participating State, and ensuring common security. The declaration reads in part: “Whereas, the role of young people in promoting human rights, peace, and security efforts in both national and international fora must not be underestimated or diminished at this critical juncture for democracies around the globe; “Whereas, comprehensive security, be it politico-military security, economic and environmental security, or human rights, faces more hybrid, malicious, and multiplying threats than we realize; “Whereas, multilateral institutions like the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and the respective parliamentary assemblies, must maintain their stature and utilize its greatest asset for building a brighter future, the youth…” “Youth leadership driven by political inclusion is vital to combating the challenges of both today and tomorrow, including environmental degradation and democratic backsliding,” said U.S. Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20), who chairs the Helsinki Commission. “This declaration is simply the first, welcome step toward developing a robust transatlantic network of young legislators who will work toward a secure, sustainable future for us all.” “This was an excellent opportunity to follow up on a call made by our Assembly during our Berlin Annual Session to establish a forum of young parliamentarians to foster greater mutual trust between OSCE participating States,” said OSCE PA President George Tsereteli. “Young people can play a crucial role in fostering a culture of peace, in the prevention and resolution of conflicts, in tackling current urgent issues such as climate change, the fight against terrorism and migration.” The declaration has been signed by 17 legislators from the OSCE region, including U.S. Rep. Marc Veasey (TX-33) and US. Rep. Richard Hudson (NC-08). Both representatives serve as commissioners on the U.S. Helsinki Commission. Download the declaration.

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