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Georgia Rebuilds: After the August Conflict with Russia, Political and Economic Challenges Remain
Wednesday, November 19, 2008

By Shelly Han, Winsome Packer, and Kyle Parker

From October 14-18, Commission staff traveled to Georgia to assess recovery efforts following the conflict with Russia in early August. Through a series of meetings with Georgian officials, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the European Union, the U.S. embassy, as well as private companies, Georgian citizens, human rights groups, local and foreign analysts, and non-governmental organizations, the staff learned that tremendous progress has been made in restoring critical infrastructure and returning many internally displaced persons to their homes. However, the political and economic situation in Georgia remains fragile.

While the origins of the conflict that began on August 7 are still being debated, what is clear is the tremendous cost politically, economically and socially to Georgia. Human Rights Watch, one of the few NGOs that gained access to South Ossetia immediately after the conflict, estimates that 95 percent of Georgian villages in South Ossetia were razed, and an untold number of houses have been looted and burned. South Ossetians told HRW that the burning of houses was deliberate in order to prevent the return of Georgians. HRW estimates that most of the damage was done by South Ossetian irregulars or foreign “volunteers” - not Russian troops. Russian troops had effective control of the territory but chose not to enforce law and order, making them complicit in these crimes.

HRW was not able to corroborate any of the Russian allegations of Georgian atrocities inside South Ossetia, though it has accused Tbilisi of using cluster bombs. HRW has documented instances of excessive use of force by Georgian troops, but is still sorting out the facts surrounding these actions.

International Monitoring Efforts Lack Access, Coordination

Both the OSCE and the European Union have deployed monitors to Georgia, but have not been granted access to South Ossetia. Representatives of the EU Monitoring Mission to Georgia told Helsinki Commission staff that the monitors were unarmed and not there to provide security. Rather, their stated mission was to observe Georgian and Russian compliance with the August 12 and September 8 peace agreements between Russia and Georgia.

There also seemed to be little effort to coordinate the two observation missions. Both the EU and OSCE representatives downplayed questions about a lack of coordination (as reported in Vienna by the OSCE Head of Mission in Georgia). They said that it was a matter of time and process dictating how they proceeded.

Economic Cost of Conflict

The economic consequences of the conflict for Georgia have been staggering. One of the keys to recovery will be boosting consumer confidence, and also reassuring investors that Georgia is a safe and stable market. Almost 24 percent of Georgia’s GDP comes from foreign direct investment (Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan are significant investors) and there are signs that FDI may decrease following the conflict. Out of a pledged $1 billion in aid, the United States is providing $250 million in direct budget support to the Georgian government to help repair infrastructure and build houses for IDPs. Other donors have agreed to provide a further $3.5 billion in aid which, if distributed properly, will help Georgia weather the crisis.

Commission staff visited the Black Sea port of Poti. Georgia’s main transit point for imports and exports, the port was bombed during the conflict, resulting in the death of 5 workers and an estimated US$10 million in damages. But by mid-October, commerce was almost back to normal. Georgia’s Coast Guard offices, which had been substantially damaged, were almost completely repaired. The Navy and the Coast Guard lost eight ships during the conflict, but their newer ships were evacuated to the southern port of Batumi and escaped with only minor damage.

One of the hardest hit regions was the area surrounding the city of Gori, Georgia’s “breadbasket,” where up to 60 percent of the agriculture was destroyed. The U.S. Agency for International Development is spearheading a wheat seed program to help farmers plant the next crop. Irrigation is also a significant issue, since much of the water was coming from South Ossetia and irrigation canals were damaged. Alternative irrigation sources were being quickly developed to help farmers continue supplying the market.

The OSCE, which was implementing extensive economic development projects in South Ossetia, has been forced to cease all programs in that region. Other micro-enterprise development programs, such as trout farms and beekeeping located in the buffer zones around South Ossetia, have been quickly re-started.

Another issue that could become a flash-point in the future is the Inguri Dam, a hydroelectric facility that supplies half of Georgia’s electricity needs. The dam itself is on territory that the Georgian government controls, but the facility that provides the electricity is on territory controlled by Abkhaz separatists and their Russian allies. They could theoretically turn off the electricity for many Georgians, but Georgian authorities could counter by shutting down the dam, thus denying the Abkhaz the ability to generate electricity.

Cost of Conflict is High for those Displaced from their Homes

The situation for internally displaced persons in Georgia is critical. On October 9 Commission staff visited an IDP camp in Gori that was slated to be dismantled later that day. Most of the residents were being returned to their homes in the “buffer zone” adjacent to the South Ossetian border that up until the day prior had been controlled by Russian forces. As the Russians withdrew, the Georgian government was working quickly to return the IDPs to their homes. In fact, international aid agencies believed Tbilisi was moving a bit too quickly, as safety concerns remained – specifically, unexploded ordinance in the buffer zone and reports of possible sabotage. Nevertheless, the IDPs were packing up their meager belongings and preparing to leave. Those who couldn’t do so - those from South Ossetia and Akhalgori - were going to be sent to centers in the Tbilisi area.

A number of aid agencies are providing assistance with food and other daily needs. One group, CHF International, provides assistance to IDPs that are living with relatives. These host families - many of whom were barely making ends meet - are stretched to the breaking point. CHF International provides fuel, extra bedding, food, or other aid that a household might need to support extra family members for an extended period of time.

The Georgian government has also launched a massive construction effort to build thousands of houses for the “new” IDPs. While this effort was praised by many, it could become a source of discontent among those displaced in previous conflicts and still living in substandard conditions.

Georgia Faces a Difficult Road Ahead

The effectiveness of international monitoring as a deterrent to future military conflict in Georgia is uncertain. It is clear from discussions with analysts that disagreements on the delineation of the South Ossetian “border,” particularly around the city of Akhalgori, will continue to be a point of contention. As more information becomes available on what actually happened in the lead-up to the conflict in early August, it also raises questions about the effectiveness of these missions as a deterrent. Independent reports suggest that there were nearly 100,000 Russian troops in the vicinity of South Ossetia immediately preceding the fighting and it is now clear that there was a serious breakdown of early warning mechanisms that were designed to prevent this type of conflict scenario.

The exact role of the monitors and their geographical range is in dispute. Russian officials continue to argue at the OSCE and other fora that the monitors are there to ensure stability and security. At the same time Russian officials are charging that the EU monitors are failing to maintain adequate security in the areas bordering South Ossetia and Abkhazia and that Georgian military and police forces are engaged in provocations and attacks against South Ossetians and Russian personnel inside South Ossetia. Ironically, the OSCE and EU Missions reported that their monitors still did not have access to South Ossetia, Abkhazia, and the Akhalgori district (now administered by Russian and South Ossetian forces). This raises concerns about Russia’s intent in denying monitors access to the regions now under their control, while demanding that the monitors ensure security in these areas.

Russo-Georgian relations, which have been tense for years, have reached a nadir in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Georgia and subsequent recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov made no attempt to conceal from U.S. Secretary of State Rice that getting rid of Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili was a key Moscow aim. As of this writing, however, he remains in office, despite Moscow’s efforts to unseat him and attempts by opposition forces to call him to account. He has so far weathered the political consequences of presiding over a stunning military defeat, the loss of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and having to deal with thousands more displaced people.

Responding to pressure from inside and outside the country, Saakashvili has pledged to introduce serious reforms, which would help promote stability within Georgia. How Tbilisi can reestablish normal relations with Moscow is harder to divine.

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    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.

  • 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.

  • 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

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • Helsinki Commission Leaders Appalled by Latest Attacks on Press Freedom in Russia

    WASHINGTON—Following recent threats to the life of Russian journalist Yelena Milashina by Chechnya’s leader Ramzan Kadyrov and the forced removal of her Novaya Gazeta article on the coronavirus response in Chechnya by Russia’s media regulatory agency, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) and Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) released the following statements: “I am appalled—though not surprised—that the Government of Russia is using a global pandemic to restrict media freedom at a time when access to accurate information is vital,” Chairman Hastings said. “Yelena Milashina does not deserve death threats for simply doing her job. I condemn these attacks; Novaya Gazeta must be able to operate freely to provide truthful and timely information to the Russian people.” “Independent journalists need to be protected so they can continue to do the important work of keeping the public informed, especially in times of crisis,” said Co-Chairman Wicker. “Chechen strongman Kadyrov has a history of support for lawlessness and extrajudicial killings, and his threats should be taken seriously. A government that fails to protect journalists like Yelena Milashina will also contribute to a culture where other citizens are afraid to speak out.” After the passage of an April 1 law criminalizing “misinformation” regarding the coronavirus, the Government of Russia has begun to target news agencies and individuals who have criticized the government’s response to the pandemic. RFE/RL’s reporting on Russia’s handling of the coronavirus has been targeted for review in the State Duma, and the apartment of an activist in St. Petersburg was searched and her electronics seized for calling attention to insufficient local quarantine conditions on social media. Journalist Yelena Milashina has received previous death threats from Ramzan Kadyrov for her reporting on Chechnya. In February 2020 she was attacked by unknown assailants in Grozny, Chechnya’s capital. She received an International Women of Courage Award from the U.S. State Department in 2013 and appeared at Helsinki Commission events on Russia’s North Caucasus in 2009 and 2010.  

  • Representative Millicent Fenwick

    By Annie Lentz, Max Kampelman Fellow On August 1, 1975, after years of negotiation and debate, the leaders of 35 nations gathered in Helsinki, Finland to sign the Helsinki Final Act, also known as the Helsinki Accords. The Helsinki Final Act—the founding document of today’s OSCE—is not a treaty, but rather an international agreement outlining 10 guiding principles for inter-state relations, among them respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. The Helsinki Final Act marked the first time that the Soviet Union had signed a transnational agreement that included language on protecting human rights. With the passage of the act came a wave of hope that renewed value would be placed on human rights and freedom in the signatory countries. However, U.S. public opinion was not behind the Helsinki Final Act. Public understanding of the document was mired in misperceptions, and the agreement remained controversial even after it was signed by President Gerald Ford. While the Helsinki Final Act was eventually met with hard-won respect in the U.S.—including that of Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who was originally skeptical of its utility—not all signatory countries adhered. The biggest transgressor was the Soviet Union, which jailed its citizens, restricted them from leaving the country, and limited their freedoms, all in direct violation of the Helsinki Final Act. Some in Congress began looking for ways to hold the Soviet Union accountable for its actions. The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (also known as the Helsinki Commission)—the brainchild of the courageous and tenacious Rep. Millicent Fenwick—was the result. Rep. Millicent Fenwick Millicent Fenwick was born in New York City on February 25, 1910. Raised in New Jersey, she became involved with politics in the 1950s through the civil rights movement. Finding her footing in New Jersey politics, Fenwick ran and won a seat in the New Jersey Assembly, ultimately becoming elected to Congress as a representative for New Jersey in 1974. She was 64 years old. Appalled by the Russian neglect of the Helsinki Final Act and the theft of freedom from its citizens, the newly elected Rep. Fenwick projected a resounding voice on the topic of human rights advocacy and accordance to the Helsinki Final Act. Rep. Fenwick’s activism was prompted by a 1975 visit to Russia, one week after the Helsinki Final Act was signed. As noted in Amy Shapiro’s book, Millicent Fenwick: Her Way, the visit brought on a revelation. “You read about an automobile accident and you’re shocked,” Rep. Fenwick said. “But you come upon that accident and see the blood on the victims and hear their cries – how different it is. Well, that’s what it was like to go to Russia and hear the cries of all these desperate people.” Specifically, Rep. Fenwick empathized with the case of Lelia Ruitburd, whose husband and son were arrested by the police at the Yalta Airport for conspiring to emigrate. While Ruitburd’s son was eventually released, her husband disappeared forever. Ruitburd lived the remainder of her life worried, anxious, and utterly alone, all because her family had hoped for a better life outside of the Iron Curtain. Witnessing such devastation first-hand, Rep. Fenwick leapt into action, becoming one of the two primary advocates for the creation of a U.S. body to observe and promote compliance with the human rights provisions of the Helsinki Final Act, alongside Sen. Clifford Case, also of New Jersey. Establishment of the Helsinki Commission Rep. Millicent Fenwick, President Gerald Ford, and Senator Clifford Case at the signing of Public Law 94-304. Rep. Fenwick’s advocacy manifested in Public Law 94-304 of June 3, 1976, the legislation that created the Helsinki Commission. Her partnership with Senator Case was instrumental in passing the law. The new law authorized the Helsinki Commission “to monitor the acts of the signatories which reflect compliance with or violation of the articles of the Final Act…with particular regard to the provisions relating to human rights and Cooperation in Humanitarian Fields.” This mandate extended to other areas covered by the Helsinki Final Act, including economic cooperation and the exchange of people and ideas between participating States.  The primary goals of the commission were to strengthen the legitimacy of human rights monitoring; to defend those persecuted for acting on their rights and freedoms; to ensure that violations of Helsinki provisions were given full consideration in U.S. foreign policy; and to gain international acceptance of human rights violations as a legitimate subject for one country to raise with another. Backlash for Oversight Within the U.S. the establishment of the Commission was controversial. Public Law 94-304 was signed against the advice of senior foreign policy advisors, including Secretary of State Kissinger. As noted in Shapiro’s book, Kissinger “preferred bilateral negotiations between Washington and Moscow rather than dealing with another thirty-plus nations assembled at the table,” and was equally skeptical of the value of the Helsinki Commission. When questioned whether the establishment of the Helsinki Commission was provocative, Fenwick maintained it was not. In an interview with Meet the Press in 1977, Fenwick argued, “It is not our actions that are probing this sensitive thing. It is the fact that the government of the Soviet Union signed something saying to its citizens that they have the right to travel, that they have the right to reunification of families, that they have the right to information.” Fenwick continued, “We must abide by the condition that the international organizations are living by.” After its establishment, Rep. Fenwick became an original member of the Helsinki Commission and served as a commissioner until she retired from Congress. Her time in the House of Representatives continued to be impactful and courageous. She was lauded by the press for her diligence and ethics, classified by Walter Cronkite as “the conscience of Congress.” She remained a strong opponent of corruption and a driving advocate for human and civil rights throughout her tenure. Rep. Fenwick set the tone for the continued commitment of the U.S. Congress to the Helsinki Final Act and established a base from which human rights could be prioritized in U.S. policy that is still in use today.

  • Reflecting on Chechnya

    By Mia Speier, Max Kampelman Fellow On December 11, 1994, Russian forces advanced into Chechnya, a republic in the North Caucasus near Georgia and Azerbaijan, to stop an attempt at secession. A Chechen separatist movement started to gain momentum following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Russians refused to allow any chance at separation. This marked the start of the First Chechen War, a conflict that erupted after decades of hostilities between the former Soviet government and the Chechen forces. The war dragged on for nearly two years, destroying the capital city of Grozny and killing tens of thousands of people—mostly civilians. The conflict, which started as an internal national movement, was complicated by flows of foreign money and foreign fighters. Militant Islamists joined the fight against Russia during the latter half of the war as part of a declared global jihad. Officials in Russia feared a repetition of the violence that occurred during the Soviet war in Afghanistan nearly a decade prior. Though Russia withdrew from Chechnya for a short time after the first war, the Second Chechen War broke out in 1999. This second war began after Putin blamed Chechen secessionists for bombings that killed Russian civilians, although there was no evidence of Chechen involvement in the bombings. Russian forces were sent into the republic again, and the Russian government succeeded in putting Chechnya under its control. Since then, the region has been a republic of Russia and is governed by Putin-appointed president Ramzan Kadyrov. Amid the conflict, however, the international community took steps to confront Russian aggression and violence in the region. On March 13, 1997, the U.S. Helsinki Commission convened a hearing called “The Future of Chechnya,” to discuss the efforts of Chechen citizens to free themselves from Russia’s painful yoke and fight back against Moscow’s defiance of international principles and the rule of law. The Helsinki Commission hearing focused on the 1994 Organization for Security and Cooperation Budapest Document that requires all participating States, including Russia, to ensure that their armed forces are commanded in a way that is consistent with international law. At the time of the hearing, an estimated 30,000 to 80,000 people had died in the territory, and tens of thousands of citizens had been displaced. The violence against and displacement of citizens in Chechnya was a clear violation of the Budapest Document. Then-Chairman Rep. Alfonse M. D’Amato chaired the hearing and noted that though many people were paying attention to the ongoing conflict in Bosnia at the time, it was important to also pay attention to the conflict in Chechnya and, more specifically, to think about the role of the OSCE in the region. “The world watched, horrified, as the Russian military used massive firepower against the Chechen guerrillas,” D’Amato said. “While the international community recognizes the principles of territorial integrity, there can be no doubt that in its effort to keep the Chechens in the Russian Federation, the Russian Government violated recognized international principles.” Since 1997, the Helsinki Commission has held several other public events related to human rights abuses, arbitrary arrests, abductions, and disappearances and the plight of Chechen refugees. In 2003, the commission penned a letter to then-Secretary of State Colin Powell urging the U.S. delegation at the United Nations Commission on Human Rights in Geneva to express concern over reported rights violations in Chechnya. Though it has been nearly 30 years since the First Chechen War, the situation in Chechnya remains bleak. In 2017, Congress passed a bipartisan resolution condemning widespread anti-LGBT persecution and violence in Chechnya after it was revealed that state law enforcement officials beat, imprisoned, and murdered hundreds of men perceived to be gay or bisexual. In June 2018, then-Chairman (and current Co-Chairman) Sen. Roger Wicker and Sen. Benjamin Cardin penned a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo urging the United State to invoke the OSCE’s Moscow Mechanism in response to escalating human rights abuses in Chechnya. The Moscow Mechanism allows for the establishment of a short-term fact-finding mission to address a specific human rights concern in the OSCE region. In November 2018, the 16 of the 57 OSCE participating States invoked the Moscow Mechanism to investigate the alleged disappearances, killings, and torture taking place in Chechnya—all of which were concerns raised at a Helsinki Commission hearing just months prior.  Though Russia failed to cooperate with the fact-finding mission, the resulting report concluded that the evidence clearly confirmed the allegations of very serious human rights violations and abuses in the Chechen Republic of the Russian Federation. Today, multiple reports of journalists and bloggers in Chechnya being beaten or murdered calls for even more concern for individual freedom and civil liberties in the region. In early February, Yelena Milashina, a prominent Russian journalist and lawyer who exposed the cruelty against gay Chechen men, was beaten in Grozny. Imran Aliev, an outspoken Chechen blogger who criticized President Ramzan Kadyrov, was found murdered in France earlier this year. Aliev’s death is one of many deaths and disappearances in recent years of Chechen dissidents throughout Europe, sparking heightened fears of Chechen death squads hunting down those seeking asylum outside of the republic.

  • Chairman Hastings Introduces LITE Act to Strengthen Ties with U.S. Allies, Support Visionary Leadership on Both Sides of the Atlantic

    WASHINGTON—Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) yesterday introduced the Leadership Institute for Transatlantic Engagement (LITE) Act (H.R.6239) to strengthen ties with U.S. allies, protect democratic institutions, and support visionary leadership on both sides of the Atlantic. “Numerous challenges are putting western democracies and the transatlantic partnership at risk, including disparities in wealth, health, employment, education, and justice that lead citizens to question whether democracy can deliver on its promise of freedom and opportunity for all,” said Chairman Hastings. “We must find new and better ways to help democratic leaders ensure that laws are equitable, transparent, and enforced; elections are free and fair; and the same protections, rights, and laws are extended to all in their constituencies.”  LITE would further codify transatlantic leadership exchanges and knowledge-building activities to equip western policymakers with legislative, communications, conflict resolution, and other leadership tools to strengthen democratic institutions in their societies as well as the transatlantic relationship.  Recognizing the rapid and ongoing demographic change on both sides of the Atlantic, LITE focuses on inclusive and intergenerational solutions to current challenges and would empower individuals across generations and from diverse backgrounds with the knowledge, tools, opportunity, and access to fully participate in their democracies. In addition, LITE would assist in community reunification by helping leaders develop strategies to build resilience against the exploitation of community grievances that can lead to dangerous divisions in society. For more than a decade, the Helsinki Commission has convened U.S. and European policymakers with the State Department and other partners under the banner of the Transatlantic Minority Political Leadership Conference and Transatlantic Inclusion Leaders Network to support increased political representation in western democracies.  In 2019, Helsinki Commission held hearings featuring European lawmakers, and focusing on global leadership, democracy, and public diplomacy.  In February 2020, the Helsinki Commission hosted more than 30 young legislators from OSCE participating States and partner countries to discuss the role of young people in peace and security efforts and forge a transatlantic network for political action to address emerging human rights and security challenges.

  • Chairman Hastings Introduces Bill to Promote Diversity and Inclusion in the Federal Workforce

    WASHINGTON—Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) yesterday introduced H.R.6240, a bill to establish a government-wide diversity and inclusion plan to ensure fair access and opportunity to federal jobs for all Americans.  “Estimates indicate that by 2050, more than half of the U.S. workforce will be made up of Americans from diverse populations,” said Chairman Hastings. “Effectively governing our nation will require that we fill federal jobs—whether they are in the military, intelligence, foreign service, health, or education sectors—with an equally diverse federal workforce who can meet the needs of our country.” The bill would require the development of a government-wide diversity and inclusion plan to ensure that all branches of the federal government are engaged in multi-year strategic planning to recruit, hire, promote, retain, and support workers representing America’s diverse talent pool. It also calls for a review of diversity in government contracting and grant-making. “Diversity and inclusion are the underpinnings of democratic societies,” said Chairman Hastings. “It is time to ensure that those from all segments of our society have an equal opportunity to contribute to the future of our nation as part of the vibrant workforce that is at the heart of our democracy.” The introduction of the bill follows the February 2020 GAO report highlighting problems in the State Department and legislative initiatives to increase diversity in the national security workforce.  Advancing societies that are safe, inclusive, and equitable is central to the work of the Helsinki Commission. The commission supports programs to address inequities in employment, political participation, and other sectors for women and minorities and strives to empower communities to unite against bias and discrimination to foster truly democratic, inclusive, and free societies.

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