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A Global Pandemic: Disinformation
Monday, September 16, 2019

By Annie Lentz,
 Max Kampelman Fellow

Popularly and ambiguously dubbed “fake news,” malign efforts to spread false facts often are wrongly lumped together with politicians’ diatribes against negative media coverage. Well-orchestrated disinformation campaigns do exist around the world, using algorithms, social platforms, and advertisements as a means of deceiving the public and undermining democracy.

Due to its proliferation and widespread attention, the definition of so called “fake news” has been lost. Even the meaning of the terms it is defined by are ambiguous. In fact, misinformation and disinformation are not synonymous. Misinformation refers the inadvertent spread of false information, while disinformation refers to the purposeful circulation of deceptive news stories by both state and nonstate actors.

Disinformation plagues the modern world in increasingly sophisticated and pervasive ways largely due to widespread use of social media. Whether it’s shared through Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, or WhatsApp, fake news is easy to share, difficult to identify, and almost impossible to stop.

Easy to Share

The trickle-down effect of counterfeit news campaigns is massive. A single fake story has the potential to reach millions, propagated by bots and trolls and manipulation of social media content algorithms. For example, a heavily edited interview from conservative CRTV portrayed a fictional conversation between one of their hosts and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez where the Congresswoman admitted to know nothing of the legislative process. Although CRTV eventually said it was satire, the video was viewed almost 1 million times within 24 hours prior to CRTV’s clarification.

This was not an isolated incident. Thanks to the universality of social media, with Facebook and Twitter having a global presence economically and socially, cultures around the world are all susceptible to manipulation through such platforms.

Following the 2019 European Union elections—second only to India as the largest democratic elections in the world—the European Commission documented “ongoing disinformation campaigns” by Russian sources. Officials went on to demand Facebook, Google, and Twitter “step up their efforts” in combatting fake news; they classified the fight as enduring, saying, “Malign actors constantly change their strategies. We must strive to be ahead of them.”

The influence and impact of Russian disinformation efforts remains unknown and therefore future elections in both the EU and elsewhere remain at risk.

Difficult to Identify

Several aspects of the communication space make disinformation hard to identify. When reading content from a seemingly trustworthy source, even if there is no evidence of professionalism, most naturally consider the information to be trustworthy. However, that is not always the case and those creating and spreading propaganda are well-versed in mimicking reputable sources in structure and design.

Moreover, the more specific the topic and narrow the scope, the easier it is for disinformation to spread as consumers lack the background and context to identify red flags, which are becoming ever harder to detect. According to Politifact, earlier this year a Facebook post about Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, claiming he was trying to take away health care from millions of Americans, went viral. This claim was a mischaracterization of his stance on federal funding for health care and falsified his personal history with the program. Regardless, the false narrative spread to thousands of people who lacked the in-depth background knowledge to recognize the inaccuracy.

Disinformation is not limited to false news stories or phony websites; it also extends to doctored photos and videos, like the CRTV interview previously mentioned. The Washington Post’s guide to fact-checking video makes the point, “Seeing isn’t believing.”

Even high-profile politicians can be fooled by such disinformation. One doctored video appearing to show Nancy Pelosi drunk that was retweeted by President Trump, who shared the false narrative with more than 62.8 million followers.

Even content originating from seemingly trustworthy sources can be deceptive. For example, pro-Brexit campaigns from the UK Independence Party (UKIP) during the EU referendum vote in 2016 told a false story through misleading photos (actually from the border of Slovenia) of thousands of immigrants pouring into the UK. Though the poster and campaign were widely condemned, it is impossible to measure the number of voters that may have been influenced. However, the very existence of such misleading material threatened the democratic integrity of the referendum.

The Russia Problem

While there are many guilty parties—like those who spread doctored stories and videos leading up to India’s elections in April and May of 2019 and incited hatred between Buddhists and Muslims in Sri Lanka and Malaysia on Facebook—the biggest culprit behind the growth of widespread disinformation is the Russian Government. The Kremlin has used sophisticated disinformation campaigns to justify its actions in Crimea and eastern Ukraine, interfere in the 2019 European Union elections, and attempt to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential elections.

However, Kremlin interference isn’t isolated to politics. RT America, cited as a principle meddler in the 2016 presidential elections, aired a campaign of stories about health risks associated with 5G signals, none of which were supported by scientific facts. Such efforts from “the Kremlin’s principal international propaganda outlet” match what experts cite as the Kremlin’s ultimate goal: to amplify voices of dissent, sow public discord, and exacerbate social divides.

Impossible to Stop … or Not?

There is no global police force to defend against disinformation. There are platform-specific efforts, such as Facebook’s regulations for political advertising; grassroots efforts, like Factitious, an online game designed to teach students to identify fake news stories; and coalitions like the one formed by Facebook, Google and Twitter after the March 15 massacre in Christchurch, New Zealand, when the tech giants signed an agreement with world leaders to fight hate speech online.

However, with the amount of disinformation growing every day and no unified or cohesive approach from both the public and private sector to aggressively and actively combat online propaganda, these efforts are akin to putting a Band-Aid on a broken leg.

Any attempts to regulate disinformation are constrained by the right to free speech. If the response is too broad–whether from a corporation like Facebook or a government entity–it quickly challenges the fundamental freedoms afforded to citizens. On the one hand, stopping false facts from spreading and inundating social media benefits democracy and freedom the world round. On the other hand, the people’s right to free speech must be respected. Any meaningful efforts to battle disinformation must carefully balance the protection of the community against the protection of the individual.

In addition, those with the best ability to fight against disinformation—private companies like Facebook and Twitter—have no true legal obligation to do so and may have alternative interests in terms of profit. Until Congress shined a light on this problem, there were no serious efforts on the part of social media platforms to fight against foreign influence. As social platforms and their users maintain the right to freedom of expression, the ability of Congress to require them to undertake any specific efforts is lacking. However, that hasn’t stopped them from trying.

There are other solutions. One is promoting better media literacy among citizens, so they can more easily identify false or misleading information. Another is “sourcing” news stories, so readers know the true origin of a story—a story about a local issue in Kansas may in fact emanate from Russia, for example. The content would still be available, but readers would have a better awareness of potential manipulation by outside actors. To combat the ripple effect of disinformation, media self-regulation to verify sources and stories before publishing them is another effective tool.

The most important and most effective way to confront disinformation is by understanding it. Through events like the 2017 Helsinki Commission hearing on Russian Disinformation, and OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media Harlem Désir’s efforts to lead the OSCE in combatting disinformation, additional progress can be made.

Disinformation is a disease to which no one is immune; the longer the virus goes untreated, the worse it becomes.

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The first goal of Peace Corps is “to help the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women.” For Ukraine, this translates to projects focusing on English education, combatting corruption, and working with youth to develop healthy lifestyles. Since gaining independence in 1991, Ukraine has made progress in reorienting itself to the West; a strong partnership with the U.S. has been crucial in this journey. Peace Corps volunteers contribute to this mission every day. Whether it is through teaching English at schools, organizing a summer camp on gender rights, or helping a local NGO secure a grant to fund health projects, Peace Corps volunteers have a tremendous impact on the communities they live in. Volunteers ultimately help promote entrepreneurship and civic engagement, critical facets of the Helsinki Accords. The second goal, and perhaps the most important in Peace Corps Ukraine, is “to help promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served.” As a former Soviet country, Ukrainians were disconnected from the world for over 70 years, learning about the United States through the limited movies, newspapers, and clothes smuggled past the Iron Curtain. Today, Peace Corps volunteers act as a bridge between both countries, promoting a positive image of the U.S. and bringing back a better understanding of Ukrainian culture. In communities like the one I served in, a small town with no other Americans, a volunteer’s presence is truly felt. I led discussions on race and gender, hosted events highlighting different American groups, introduced my students to American holidays, and much more. Acting as a cultural ambassador is an honor for any Peace Corps volunteer, and a role the program is founded upon. The third and final goal of the Peace Corps is “to help promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.” Volunteers return from service eager to share their experiences with their friends and families. This may include organizing a speech at a local school, attending a Ukrainian-American event, or even joining an organization that focuses on Ukrainian issues. This allows returned Peace Corps volunteers the chance to talk to Americans about their experience in the country: their successes, challenges, memories, and more. In turn, Americans learn about Ukraine and other countries they have never had experience with or knowledge of. Teacher training at the Window on America in Kharkiv, Ukraine The Peace Corps is a unique agency that continues to change lives all over the world and receive bipartisan support in Congress. On the 49th anniversary of the Peace Corps, Co-Chairman of the Helsinki Commission Senator Roger Wicker (MS) noted, “The Peace Corps invests time and talent in other countries, but it pays dividends back here in the United States as well.” Helsinki Commissioner Ranking Member Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) reaffirmed his support of the Peace Corps on its 55th anniversary, stating, “Peace Corps volunteers represent the best qualities of American foreign policy. They come from all walks of life and from across the country [and] are saving lives. I could not be more proud of these Americans.” The introduction of the bipartisan H.R.3456 - Peace Corps Reauthorization Act of 2019 demonstrates Congress’ commitment to the Peace Corps. Helsinki Commissioners Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), Sheila Jackson Lee (TX-18), and Gwen Moore (WI-4) are co-sponsors of the bill, which would increase support for current and returned Peace Corps volunteers. Peace Corps volunteers work every day to develop the foundational tenets outlined by the Helsinki Accords. From promoting tolerance and non-discrimination, to developing education programs, to confronting corruption, Peace Corps volunteers exhibit the strength of the partnerships between OSCE participating States and work to improve the lives of others. True progress is rooted in the sustainable and long-term projects of Peace Corps volunteers and their communities. In Ukraine, I saw firsthand the impact the Peace Corps can have in developing communities: a summer leadership camp for middle school students, a newly built community center with music and dance classes in a small village, and an accounting transparency workshop that reduced corruption in several city management offices. Substantive changes are happening every day in villages, towns, and cities across the country and throughout Peace Corps-partnered OSCE countries. Peace Corps volunteers exemplify the foundations of the Helsinki Accords, promote democracy abroad, and help bolster OSCE participating States and other nations like Ukraine build a bright, hopeful, and prosperous future, one high-five at a time.

  • FIRST PERSON: UKRAINIAN PARLIAMENTARY ELECTIONS

    By Alex Tiersky, Senior Policy Advisor, Global Security and Political-Military Affairs   “Why aren’t you doing your job?!” An unexpectedly tense early morning on July 21, 2019—Election Day in Ukraine: the polling station was more than 30 minutes late in opening. The shouted reprimand came from a voter, an older man who was one of several Kyiv residents who had been present and seeking to vote at this school in the center of the Ukrainian capital since well before 8:00 a.m., when the polls for the national parliamentary elections were supposed to open. His indignation was directed at the beleaguered leadership of the local polling station, who struggled to organize their work and follow the extensive procedures required to meet Ukrainian law and international best practices. *** As an official election observer representing the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, I was at the polling station to observe the extent to which those best practices were followed. With my capable interpreter Natalya beside me, and in partnership with my experienced observation team partner Latvian MP Aleksandrs Kiršteins, I had arrived days earlier on the invitation of the Ukrainian government for a series of preparatory briefings. On Election Day, we would follow a prescribed plan of observation as part of a larger team of more than 800 international observers spread across Ukraine (with the exception of illegally occupied Crimea, and the Donbas region under the occupation of Russian-controlled forces, where holding a free and fair election would be impossible). *** The disorganized polling station was the first stop of the day for our team. While this was my first time serving as an election observer, I didn’t need the extensive and detailed procedural checklist and questionnaire provided by the OSCE to know that something was seriously amiss. My Latvian colleague confirmed, based on his extensive observation experience, that the situation was extremely unusual. The key problem seemed to be that the leadership of the team responsible for proper running of the polling station (the chair and the secretary, among others), recently had been replaced and the newcomers had little experience with their assigned duties. It was clear that they had done precious little preparation to be able to effectively direct the work of their team on Election Day. We had been warned during the extensive pre-election briefings provided by the OSCE that many local election officials across Ukraine had been replaced. The experts were concerned that this loss of institutional memory had the potential to hamper the operations of local electoral bodies—a warning that, in our case, proved prescient. At 8:45 a.m., a full 45 minutes after its scheduled opening time and to the relief of several increasingly agitated voters and local observers, the polling station finally began to process votes. Judging that tensions at the school building had de-escalated and the situation had achieved some normalcy, we dutifully finalized our observation—promptly reporting our findings to the OSCE election experts compiling statistics from other teams deployed across the country—and moved on to observe voting procedures at several other polling stations. Before leaving, given the challenges at the polling station, we resolved to return in the evening to observe closing procedures and the counting of the vote. *** We spent much of the rest of the day visiting several polling stations in the west of Kyiv. Contrary to our first observation, all the other polling stations we visited were extremely well-organized, with experienced and well-functioning teams of officials ensuring an orderly and transparent voting process. The civic pride demonstrated by the election officials and voters in properly exercising their democratic choice was evident in each location we visited. We witnessed voters of all ages casting their ballots in serene conditions, which we learned from other observation teams was largely the norm across Ukraine that day. *** As the afternoon turned to evening, it was time to return to our initial polling station to assess closing procedures and the start of the counting of ballots. With the station closing as planned at 8 p.m. on the dot, we were quietly hopeful that the morning’s problems had been resolved. Our optimism quickly proved misguided. The election officials were even more poorly directed by their leadership than they had been in the early hours of the day. After two hours of inconclusive progress toward beginning a count of actual ballots, the procedures ground to a halt in a cloud of remonstrations among several hard-working poll workers and local observers on one hand, and the polling station’s leadership on the other. In what I understood to be an extremely unusual development, the majority of the poll workers essentially sidelined their grievously underperforming leadership on the spot in order to better organize themselves. At this point, we needed to return to our home base to report on our observation, leaving behind several other international and local observers to witness what surely would be a long and challenging night of tabulation of ballots. *** As we returned to the hotel, I reflected on the day’s remarkable events. It struck me how counterintuitive some might find it that we had been allowed to witness the poor performance by the leadership of this particular polling station. After all, who wants to air their dirty laundry in front of international observers taking careful note of every discrepancy? It was then, for the first time, that I truly understood the key purpose of our election observation mission. OSCE participating States like Ukraine make the choice to invite international observation missions to their elections precisely because only in providing full transparency can a fair judgment on the electoral process be made. In other words, our observation and reporting of the procedural imperfections we witnessed only underlined the relatively excellent performance witnessed by observation teams in the vast majority of other polling stations across Ukraine. Only through the full transparency provided by impartial external observers using a standardized methodology can the people of Ukraine be sure that their electoral process, to the maximum extent possible, allows for the full and fair expression of their democratic choice. I feel honored to have been able to play even a very small part in this extremely consequential democratic process, and to help an OSCE participating State hold itself accountable to its commitment to the rule of law. I am already looking forward to the next opportunity to serve as an election observer.

  • INVASION AND REVISION

    By Annie Lentz, Max Kampelman Fellow The Soviet-Afghan War, which lasted for more than nine years, began with the December 1979 invasion following a Soviet-orchestrated coup and the subsequent appointment of Soviet loyalist Babrak Karmal as president of a communist Afghan government. The coup was a direct violation of international law and global norms as Afghanistan was—and remains—a sovereign and independent nation. In June 1981, two Mujahideen insurgent coalitions—one moderate, one fundamentalist—formed to combat Soviet influence over the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan. These new groups contributed to an increase in organized, effective guerilla attacks against Soviet forces, leading to the eventual Soviet withdrawal from the country following their failure to quell the Mujahideen insurgency.  Four years earlier, the Soviet Union signed a collection of international agreements—including the Helsinki Final Act—committing to respect the rights of sovereign nations. By signing the Helsinki Final Act, the Soviet Union and 34 other countries pledged to refrain from exercising the threat or use of force, to observe the rights of peoples to self-determination, and to accept international principles of conduct, all commitments that the Soviet Union violated by invading Afghanistan. On July 22, 1981, during the early stages of the Soviet-Afghan war and shortly after the mobilization of the new Mujahideen coalitions, the U.S. Helsinki Commission held a hearing, “Soviet Violation of Helsinki Final Act: Invasion of Afghanistan,” to examine how the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan was not only a violation of international law but also of the terms of the Helsinki Final Act. Then-Chairman Rep. Dante Fascell chaired the hearing, saying, “The Soviet invasion has clearly undermined the spirit and intentions of the principles embodied in the Final Act. Most importantly the invasion of this formerly independent state has severely damaged the international climate and has done great harm to East-West relations.” Rep. Don Bonker, then-Chairman of the House Subcommittee on Human Rights and International Organizations, noted, “There is hardly a single international agreement, treaty, rule of law, custom or civilized behavior that the Soviets have not violated during their bloody occupation and suppression of the Afghan population.” He went on to urge the Reagan administration to use U.S. allies to convince the Soviets that an independent Afghanistan was in the best interest of all parties. Prior to the Helsinki Commission hearing, the international community’s response to the Soviet Union had been growing more severe. On top of escalating sanctions and embargoes which exasperated tensions from the Cold War, in 1980, the U.S. led a boycott of the Summer Olympics hosted in Moscow. In 1984, the Soviet Union did the same to the Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. The retaliatory actions continued through the end of the war, deepening the strain between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. Despite the signing of the Geneva Accords (1988), an international agreement aimed to resolve the situation in Afghanistan, the Mujahideen refused to accept the terms and continued fighting until Soviet forces (or the Soviet military) withdrew in 1989. The conflict resulted in upwards of two million civilian casualties and forced 5.5 million Afghans to flee as refugees. The failure of Soviet forces to win the war or quell the Mujahideen insurgency is thought to have contributed to the collapse of the Soviet Union. The failure to win the Cold War proxy battle having an extensive impact on Soviet politics and the perceived legitimacy of the Soviet government. The Soviet-Afghan War left the Afghan government in ruins. It would take years for significant progress to be made, and even then, the deteriorated state of the government and the economy left the country susceptible to extremist groups. In 1999 the United Nations Security Council adopted Resolution 1267 to combat terrorist entities in the country, including the Taliban, which can trace its origins to the aftermath of the Soviet-Afghan War. Unfortunately, the UN’s efforts proved insufficient, allowing for the rise of Al-Qaeda and other extremist groups. For the past few decades, the Helsinki Commission has worked closely to promote human rights and security in Afghanistan, holding hearings to support the country’s progress and recovery. The Commission has also worked to ensure the U.S. upholds its own international commitments. The Russian Government remembers the conflict differently. The Kremlin is using the 30th anniversary of Soviet troop withdraw for political gains, passing legislation this year to subsequently justify the conflict. Such legislation continues Vladimir Putin’s trend of historical revisionism and deepens the divide between the Kremlin’s political narrative and history.

  • HELSINKI COMMISSIONERS VISIT HUNGARY

    Pictured: Mate Szabo, Hungarian Civil Liberties Union (left) meets with Representative Tom Cole (right). From July 1 to July 3, three members of the U.S. Helsinki Commission visited Hungary as part of a bipartisan delegation led by House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer. The delegation included Senator Benjamin L. Cardin, Ranking Senate Commissioner and OSCE Parliamentary Assembly Special Representative on Anti-Semitism, Racism and Intolerance, as well as Commissioners Steve Cohen and Gwen Moore. It was the largest congressional delegation to visit Hungary in at least three years.  From left: Rep. Garret Graves, Rep. Val Demings, Helsinki Commissioner Rep. Steve Cohen, Helsinki Commission Ranking Member Sen. Ben Cardin, Amb. David Cornstein, House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, Minister of the Prime Minister’s Office Gergely Guylas, Rep. Tom Cole,  Helsinki Commissioner Rep. Gwen Moore, Rep. Gregory Meeks The delegation met with civil society representatives; independent investigative journalists; analysts with expertise on corruption, Russian malign influence, and security; experts on the judiciary; and democratic opposition representatives. In addition, the delegation met with the rector of Central European University and the head of Hungary’s Jewish communities. The delegation requested meetings with the Prime Minister, Minister of Foreign Affairs and Speaker of the Hungarian parliament. During the visit, the Members of Congress had an exchange of views with Gergely Gulyás, the Prime Minister’s Chief of Staff, and Zsolt Nemeth, the chair of the Hungarian National Assembly foreign affairs committee.  U.S. Ambassador to Hungary David Cornstein welcomed the delegation and accompanied the Members to their meetings, also hearing the diverse concerns raised. The purpose of the visit was to strengthen support for the shared principles of democracy and collective security to which the United States and Hungary have jointly committed and with a view to safeguarding fundamental freedoms, democracy, and the rule of law. In meetings with government officials, the members welcomed the Hungarian parliament’s approval of the Defense Cooperation Agreement on July 2. Following the conclusion of their visit to Hungary, the delegation traveled to Luxembourg to participate in the annual session of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly. Members of the delegation also spoke about their visit to Hungary at the Parliamentary Assembly meeting. Members of the Congressional delegation at the statue in Budapest of President Ronald Reagan. The statue was erected in 2011 to honor the American president’s efforts to end communism. It is on Liberty Square, facing the U.S. Embassy, with the Hungarian parliament visible in the background. Majority Leader Hoyer served as chair and co-chair of the Helsinki Commission (positions that rotate between the House of Representatives and Senate) from 1985 to 1994. During that critical period of transition before and during the fall of communism, he made Central Europe a focus of the Commission’s efforts to support human rights and democracy. He led delegations to Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, the German Democratic Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Romania, working closely with Secretaries of State George Schultz, James Baker, and Warren Christopher to advance democracy in the region. He also chaired roughly a dozen hearings focused specifically on human rights in Central Europe, including minority rights and religious liberties. As chairman of the Helsinki Commission, Majority Leader Hoyer participated in the 1989 Paris Meeting of the Conference on the Human Dimension and personally introduced a Helsinki Commission initiative that became a formal U.S. proposal: a call for free and fair elections throughout the OSCE region. That U.S. proposal became a key element of the 1990 Copenhagen meeting a year later and set the stage for the subsequent framework for OSCE election observation. Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (right) meets with independent journalists Szabolcs Panyi (left) and Anita Komuves (center). Photo: Attila Németh/U.S. Embassy or fotó: Németh Attila/Amerikai Nagykövetség. Majority Leader Hoyer also represented the United States at the 1991 Moscow Conference on the Human Dimension, a meeting notable for taking place shortly after the August coup attempt in Russia. The Moscow Concluding Document included an unprecedented provision explicitly recognizing that human rights and democracy are not strictly the internal affairs of participating States: “The participating States emphasize that issues relating to human rights, fundamental freedoms, democracy and the rule of law are of international concern, as respect for these rights and freedoms constitutes one of the foundations of the international order. They categorically and irrevocably declare that the commitments undertaken in the field of the human dimension of the CSCE are matters of direct and legitimate concern to all participating States and do not belong exclusively to the internal affairs of the State concerned. They express their determination to fulfil all of their human dimension commitments and to resolve by peaceful means any related issue, individually and collectively, on the basis of mutual respect and co-operation. In this context they recognize that the active involvement of persons, groups, organizations and institutions is essential to ensure continuing progress in this direction.”     Hoyer Leads Congressional Delegation to Hungary For Immediate Release:  July 3, 2019 Contact Info:  Annaliese Davis (202) 226-1290 WASHINGTON, DC – House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (MD) led a bipartisan Congressional Delegation to Budapest, Hungary, where they met with government officials, opposition leaders, independent media, and civil society activists.   “The United States continues to support efforts to strengthen democracy in Hungary, and we had many honest discussions during our time in Budapest,” said Leader Hoyer. “We were disappointed that we were unable to meet with Prime Minister Orban. The threat of oligarchs and party loyalists gaining control of independent institutions, the judiciary, and the media is alarming. The erosion of democratic checks and balances ought to concern everyone. We appreciated the opportunity to meet with civil society activists and share our support for the work they are doing to renew democracy in their country.  We will continue to promote strong democratic institutions in Hungary that hold its leaders accountable to protect the rights and freedoms of its people.”   “Our meetings with diverse political leaders, independent journalists, representatives of religious communities and civil society were informative and illuminating.  We remain convinced that a strong, democratic Hungary would be the most effective partner for the United States and our NATO allies,” said Senator Cardin, the lead Senate Democrat on the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE). “We regret that we were unable to speak directly with Prime Minister Orban regarding the steps his government has taken which have undermined core elements of democracy, opened the door to Russian malign influence, and enabled corrosive corruption. Our alliance is not only about shared interests but shared values, and hope alone will not make this reality.  The United States remains open, as an active partner, to find ways to strengthen democracy and the rule of law, protect civil society, and counter extremism that fuels anti-Semitism and undermines regional stability.”    “Hungary is a firm friend and a loyal ally, but all of us are concerned about the erosion of democratic institutions and the rise of Russian influence," said Congressman Cole. "We intend to work with our Hungarian friends across the political spectrum to ensure that their elections are free and fair, their judiciary independent, and their press vibrant and robust." The delegation prioritized meeting with human rights and anti-corruption leaders. The delegation also met with the leadership of the Central European University and expressed their support for it to remain open.  Among the government officials with whom the Members held meetings were the head of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Hungarian Parliament and the Prime Minister’s Chief of Staff.    The other Members of the Congressional Delegation are: Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD), the lead Senate Democrat on the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE), and Reps. Tom Cole (OK-04), Gregory Meeks (NY-05), Gwen Moore (WI-04), Steve Cohen (TN-09), Garret Graves (LA-06), and Val Demings (FL-10).   

  • BALTIC SEA REGIONAL SECURITY

    For the first time in its 43-year history, the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the U.S. Helsinki Commission, convened outside of the United States for a field hearing to underscore America’s commitment to security in the Baltic Sea region and its unwavering support for U.S. friends and allies. At this historic hearing, held less than 80 miles from Russia’s border, senior U.S. civilian and military leaders outlined America’s collaborative approach to enhancing security in the region. High-level officials from Lithuania, Poland, Finland, Sweden, and Estonia provided regional perspectives on the evolving security environment in and around the Baltic Sea. Against the backdrop of the location of the first battle of World War II, panelists discussed regional maritime threats—including Kremlin aggression—and possible responses; the current effectiveness of NATO’s deterrent posture in the Baltics; the transatlantic security architecture; and hybrid and emerging threats.

  • The Helsinki Process: A Four Decade Overview

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

  • Helsinki Commission Debuts Monthly Podcast Series, “Helsinki on the Hill”

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the launch of “Helsinki on the Hill,” a new podcast series that tells the human stories behind the commission’s work to promote human rights, military security, and economic cooperation in North America, Europe, and Central Asia. “Too often, the tragedies and triumphs of individuals get lost in the day-to-day business of policymaking,” said Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20). “Through ‘Helsinki on the Hill,’ we aim to share the stories that inspire us every day as we fight for truly comprehensive security for the citizens of all OSCE participating States.” Upcoming “Helsinki on the Hill” episodes include: Episode 1: In the Beginning. In the inaugural episode of "Helsinki on the Hill," the Helsinki Commission's first staff director, Spencer Oliver, shares how the Helsinki Commission evolved from its beginnings in the 1970s to become an organization that reflects the overarching commitment of the United States to security and cooperation in Europe, and that has played a vital role in introducing and promoting the concept of human rights as an element in U.S. foreign policy decision-making. Episode 2: Seeking Justice in Serbia. Twenty years after U.S. citizens Ylli, Agron, and Mehmet Bytyqi were brutally murdered in Serbia in the aftermath of the 1999 conflict in Kosovo, their brother Ilir documents his family’s fight for justice in the face of inaction by Serbian authorities. Episode 3: Civilians in the Crossfire. Alexander Hug, former principal deputy chief monitor of the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission in Ukraine, describes the toll taken on civilians in Eastern Ukraine’s war zone, the dangers faced by the unarmed civilian mission, and the urgent need to generate the political will to end the unnecessary conflict. To listen to the podcast, visit www.csce.gov/helsinki-hill. “Helsinki on the Hill” is also available on Spotify, iTunes, Google Play, and Stitcher.

  • U.S. Helsinki Commission Participates in D-Day Commemorations

    By Alex Tiersky, Senior Policy Advisor and Kyle Parker, Senior Senate Staff Representative On June 6, 1944, universally known as “D-Day,” history was forever altered by the largest multi-national amphibious landing and operational military airdrop in history. On that day, approximately 160,000 Allied troops, supported by more than 5,000 ships and 13,000 aircraft, braved the withering fire of Nazi Germany's fortifications on the beaches of Normandy to gain a foothold in continental Europe, commencing in earnest the liberation of Europe and the end of Adolf Hitler’s Nazi regime.  The program for the June 6 Ceremony for the 75th Anniversary of D-Day, Normandy American Cemetery, Omaha Beach, Colleville-sur-Mer, France.​ Members and staff of the U.S. Helsinki Commission traveled to Normandy to commemorate the 75th anniversary of that momentous day and to honor the bravery and sacrifice of more than 9,000 Allied Soldiers who were killed or wounded in the assault.  The presence of members of Helsinki Commission leadership, including Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker and Ranking Member Sen. Ben Cardin, attested to the continued strength of the transatlantic bond cemented by this seminal event.Their presence underlined once again the continued U.S. commitment to European security, and to promoting freedom, justice, and peace in the OSCE region and beyond. Army flight formation as part of the D-Day commemoration. The 2019 anniversary took on special resonance, as it is likely to be the last major opportunity for D-Day veterans—now in their mid-90s and older—to participate. Commission representatives began the morning of June 6, 2019 with a ceremony at the Normandy American Cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer. The hallowed ground, which sits on a cliff overlooking Omaha Beach, contains the graves of more than 9,380 of American soldiers, most of whom lost their lives in the D-Day landings and ensuing operations. Left, General Dunford, Chairman of Joint Chiefs speaks to Representative Michael Waltz (FL-06). At the ceremony, Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman U.S. Senator Roger F. Wicker recalled being moved by President Trump’s remarks. As Senator Wicker recently relayed at a hearing in Gdansk, "Under no circumstance can we be divided from our friends and allies, here or anywhere else.  I was reminded of this key principle when I participated in the commemoration of the 75th anniversary of D-Day in Normandy.  I am certain all of my colleagues are unanimous in their agreement with the sentiment President Trump expressed on that occasion: “To all of our friends and partners: Our cherished alliance was forged in the heat of battle, tested in the trials of war, and proven in the blessings of peace.  Our bond is unbreakable.”  A particularly poignant moment of the ceremony saw French President Macron turning to face several dozen veterans of that fateful day 75 years ago to tell them in their native tongue, "We know what we owe to you, veterans: our freedom. And on behalf of my nation I just want to say thank you." Canadian Prime Minister Trudeau speaks at the Juno Beach ceremony. Later on June 6, Commission representatives took part in a second ceremony, this one at Juno Beach (Courseulles-sur-Mer), where some 21,000 men (14,000 Canadian and 7,000 British) had landed 75 years before. The ceremony, presided over by French Prime Minister Édouard Philippe (in the presence of Speaker of the United States House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, among other dignitaries), featured solemn remarks from senior officials. However, perhaps most moving were a series of personal reflections from school-age children on the meaning of war, peace, and memory. Their innocent sincerity offered possibly the greatest tribute to what the heroes of D-Day fought and died for. 

  • STANDARD FOR JUSTICE: JUNE 10, 2010

    By Annie Lentz, Kampelman Fellow On June 10, 2010, seven senior Bosnian Serb officials were convicted of war crimes by the United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY). This was the largest trial to date held before the ICTY, which uncovered an organized and strategic attack against civilians and UN-protected safe areas in 1995 during the conflict in the Balkans. Bosnian Serb political and military leaders Radovan Karadžić and Ratko Mladic were later convicted of orchestrating the criminal plan. The trial began on August 21, 2006 and continued for 425 days until concluding on September 15, 2009. The inquiry featured testimony from 315 witnesses, with 5,383 exhibits of evidence totaling 87,392 pages. U.S. Helsinki Commission leaders expressed their support for the convictions handed down by the Tribunal, serving justice to those involved in the genocide of about 8,000 ethnic Bosniak men and boys residing in Srebrenica, an enclave  in Bosnia and Herzegovina which fell despite U.N. protection. Then-Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin said, “The ethnic cleansing that occurred in Bosnia was orchestrated by individuals who are now finally facing justice for their crimes. Others awaiting trial or who believe they may have escaped prosecution should take this as a sign that they too will answer for their crimes against humanity.” “The wheels of justice may not always turn as fast as victims’ families would like, but the convictions of Vujadin Popovic and Ljubisa Beara show the strength of the International War Crimes Tribunal to hold people to account,” said then-Co-Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings. Following calls from Helsinki Commission leadership and other human rights advocates, the ICTY was established in reaction to the atrocities committed during the decade of conflicts in the former Yugoslavia. It was the first international attempt to hold political leaders accountable for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide since the Nuremburg and Tokyo trials following World War II, and it established that the massacre committed in Srebrenica in July 1995 constituted genocide. Other crimes committed in Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Kosovo included mass ethnic cleansing campaigns in which millions were displaced, thousands of women and girls were raped, and many others were detained and tortured.  The death toll in Bosnia and Herzegovina alone is believed to have exceeded 100,000 individuals.  The ICTY concluded its work in 2017, having indicted 161 individuals in connection to crimes during the conflicts in the Balkans while setting global precedents regarding cases of genocide, crimes against humanity, violations of the laws or customs of war, and grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions. Ninety offenders were sentenced to serve prison time in 14 European states. The Tribunal also set the standard for how such atrocities should be handled to achieve international justice. In December 2017, the Helsinki Commission organized a public briefing to assess the accomplishments of the tribunal and ongoing efforts to pursue justice for atrocities in the Western Balkans.    

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