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Guantánamo Focus of Helsinki Commission Hearing
Friday, July 20, 2007

By Erika Schlager

On June 21, 2007, the Helsinki Commission held a hearing on "Guantánamo: Implications for U.S. Human Rights Leadership."

Chairman Alcee L. Hastings presided over the hearing, joined by Co-Chairman Senator Benjamin L. Cardin, and Commissioner Rep. Mike McIntyre. House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, a former Helsinki Commission Chairman, also participated. Prepared statements were also submitted by Commissioners Senator Christopher J. Dodd and Congresswoman Hilda L. Solis.

Testimony was received from John B. Bellinger III, Legal Advisor to the Department of State; Senator Anne-Marie Lizin, President of the Belgian Senate and OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA) Special Representative on Guantánamo; Tom Malinowski, Advocacy Director, Human Rights Watch; and Gabor Rona, International Legal Director, Human Rights First. In addition, written testimony was received from the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights. (A transcript of the hearing, along with testimonies submitted for the record, is available on the Helsinki Commission's website. The Department of Defense was invited to send a witness, but declined.

Background: Guantanamo Raised at OSCE PA Meetings

Although the Helsinki Commission largely focuses its attention on issues relating to the other 55 OSCE participating States, the Commission has periodically examined domestic compliance issues. In recent years, no other issue has been raised as vocally with the United States at OSCE PA meetings as the status and treatment of detainees captured or arrested as part of U.S. counter-terrorism operations.

The issue came into particular focus at the OSCE PA’s 2003 Annual Session, held in Rotterdam, where a resolution [link] expressing concern over detainees at Guantánamo was debated and adopted. (The first detainees were transported to the detention facility in January 2002.) The vigorous debate in Rotterdam prompted then-Helsinki Commission Chairman Christopher H. Smith and then-Ranking Member Benjamin L. Cardin to lead a Congressional Delegation to the detention facility in late July 2003.

At the 2004 Annual Session, held in Edinburgh, convened shortly after the Abu Ghraib scandal broke, the Assembly adopted a resolution [link], introduced by then-Chairman Smith, condemning torture and urging respect for provisions of the Geneva Conventions. An amendment to that resolution was also adopted, expressing particular concern regarding indefinite detention without trial at Guantánamo.

In February 2005, Senator Anne-Marie Lizin, President of the Belgian Senate, was appointed by then-OSCE PA President Alcee L. Hastings as Special Representative on Guantánamo, with a mandate to report to the Assembly on the situation of detainees from OSCE participating States in the detention facility in Guantánamo. (Sen. Lizin continues to serve in that capacity at the request of the current OSCE Parliamentary Assembly President, Göran Lennmarker.) At the 2005 Annual Session, held in Washington, the Assembly adopted a resolution [link] on “terrorism and human rights,” reiterating concern regarding the Guantánamo detainees. Separately, Senator Lizin issued her first report on Guantánamo during the Washington meeting, calling for the detention facility at Guantánamo Bay to be closed. (Her report also touched on the positions of other OSCE participating States regarding the question of the detention of terror suspects.) During the Washington meeting, Department of Defense and Department of State officials also held a briefing for interested parliamentarians on Guantanamo and related issues.

In March 2006, Senator Lizin was able, under U.S. Department of Defense auspices, to make her first visit to the detention facility. She returned to the facility a second time on June 20, 2007, just prior to testifying at the Helsinki Commission's hearing. In addition, Senator Lizin presented additional reports on Guantánamo at the Assembly’s Annual Sessions in Brussels (2006) and in Kyiv (2007). She has continued to call for the closure of the detention facility. Her reports are available on the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly website [link].

Testimony

In opening the hearing, Chairman Hastings drew attention to the concerns that have been repeatedly raised about Guantánamo in the context of the Parliamentary Assembly. He also observed that "for all the 56 OSCE participating States, and not just the United States, the issue of how to safeguard human rights while effectively countering terrorism may be one of the most critical issues these countries will face for the foreseeable future."

The first witness to speak was Legal Adviser Bellinger. Since taking up that position in 2005, Mr. Bellinger has been actively engaged in discussions with U.S. allies and at international fora (particularly the United Nations in Geneva, where he presented U.S. reports under the Convention Against Torture and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights) regarding the status and treatment of detainees held by the United States as part of its counterterrorism operations. This was the first time, however, that he had testified before Congress on these matters.

Legal Adviser Bellinger briefly discussed the legal basis, under the law of armed conflict, for detaining combatants, and noted that the 9/11 Commission had recommended that the United States should work with other countries to develop an appropriate framework for the detention and treatment of terror suspects. He also described the considerable efforts he has made to engage allies in discussions on these matters. Bellinger acknowledged that President Bush has said he would like to close Guantánamo, but Bellinger argued that "closing Guantánamo is easier said than done." In particular, he suggested more needs to be done to address the question, where will the detainees go?

In her remarks to the Commission, Senator Lizin observed that, since her 2006 visit to Guantánamo, the number of detainees there has significantly decreased. Nevertheless, "Guantánamo remains one of the bases for [an] anti-American fixation in the world and contributes to the [negative] image of the United States abroad, including [among] friendly countries.” She reiterated her recommendation that Guantánamo be closed and noted that Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has also called for the camp to be closed. Senator Lizin noted that 80 detainees are no longer considered enemy combatants and that OSCE participating States could do more to facilitate the transfer of these individuals to third countries.

Both Tom Malinowski and Gabor Rona stressed that many Guantánamo detainees were not captured on the battlefield in Afghanistan, but were individuals turned over to the United States by bounty hunters responding to U.S. offers to pay large sums of money for turning in foreigners. Mr. Rona noted that, “[t]his government's own statistics say that 55% of the detainees were not found to have committed hostile acts. Only 8% were characterized as Al Qaida fighters, and 60% are detained merely because of alleged association with terrorists or terrorist groups."

Mr. Malinowski discussed the dangerous example that U.S. interrogation and detention practices have set for other countries around the globe. (Similar views were echoed in the written testimony submitted by the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights.) He also suggested that if the United States made a serious commitment to close Guantánamo, it would open the door for greater cooperation with other countries regarding the transfer of detainees.

Moreover, Malinowski observed that, since 9/11, “the Justice Department has successfully prosecuted dozens of international terror suspects in the civilian courts . . . since then, the system at Guantánamo has succeeded in prosecuting one Australian kangaroo trapper to a sentence of nine months, which is serving back home in Australia."

In his written and oral testimony, Mr. Rona took exception to the applicable legal framework advocated by the administration: "one need not choose between, on the one hand, affording terrorists the protections of prisoner-of-war status, to which only privileged belligerents are entitled, or, on the other hand, holding them in a law-free black hole. They can be targeted while directly participating in hostilities. And if captured, they can be interrogated, they can be detained, but in accordance with international and domestic law."

Members React

During the hearing, Chairman Hastings, Co-Chairman Cardin, and Majority Leader Hoyer all argued for closing the detention facility.

Chairman Hastings said he could not believe "that the American federal prison system cannot try 380 people." He argued that the United States "should take every prisoner out of Guantánamo, no matter his or her status, and move them to a federal prison in the United States of America [and then] either release persons who are not charged, or charge them, try them and confine them in an appropriate federal prison."

Regarding the notion that detainees were sent to Guantánamo because they were enemy combatants, Mr. Cardin remarked that there are “a lot of people who are combatants who are not at Guantánamo Bay," and that people were selected for transfer because of their perceived intelligence value. But in light of the many years that individuals have been held there, some for more than five years now, he argued that "the 380 people that are at Guantánamo Bay have no useful information that warrants a special facility for interrogation, which is what Guantánamo Bay was originally set up as . . . If Guantánamo Bay is needed today, it's needed as a penal facility. And as the Chairman pointed out, we have penal facilities. To keep a penal facility at such expense makes very little sense to the taxpayers of this country."

Finally, Majority Leader Hoyer, who had pressed for the convening of such a hearing in recent years, argued for the restoration of habeas corpus rights that had been terminated by be Military Commission Act of 2006. He argued, "when Saddam Hussein was taken out of a hole and captured, we afforded him his legal rights to hear the evidence against him, to contest that evidence and to be represented by counsel. When Slobodan Milosevic was brought to justice after murdering tens of thousands and sanctioning the ethnic cleansing of more than 2 million people, he was afforded his legal rights. And even the Butchers of Berlin who committed genocide, murdering millions of innocents, were afforded their legal rights at Nürnberg. This was not coddling those who committed atrocities. It was recognizing that if civilization is to be what we want to be, it will be because it follows the rule of law and not the rule of the jungle."

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    Madam President, reserving the right to object to the request from the Senator from Idaho, it is my understanding that the Senator’s modification would not include provisions that were included in the Housepassed legislation that modifies the global Magnitsky sanction regime. I just would like to speak for a moment, if I might. There is no question that we stand with the people of Ukraine against the unprovoked attack by Mr. Putin. We are inspired every day by the courage of the Ukrainian people and by their inspirational leader, President Zelenskyy. The United States has shown leadership, and I congratulate the Biden administration. We have led the free world in providing defensive lethal weapons to Ukraine to defend itself. We have provided humanitarian assistance, joining the global community, including dealing with 3 million Ukrainians that are now refugees in other countries and 10 million that have been displaced as a result of Mr. Putin’s unprovoked attack. And we have led on sanctions. We have led in getting the global unity to impose sanctions against not just the Russian sectors, but also against individuals. And when Mr. Zelenskyy spoke before the Members of Congress, he specifically mentioned the importance of these sanctions; and he asked us to expand those covered by the sanctions to include the enablers, those that are enabling Mr. Putin—the oligarchs—to be able to fund his aggression against Ukraine. So what did the House send over to us? In their bill, they sent over a global Magnitsky modification. It is identical to legislation that was filed by Senator PORTMAN and myself that included the revocation of PNTR for Russia, along with the global Magnitsky. First and foremost, it removes the sunset that is in the legislation that would sunset this year. Mr. Zelenskyy asked for us to be resolved in being willing to stand up to Mr. Putin, that it would take some time. A clear message is that we remove the sunset on the global Magnitsky statute. And we know how difficult it is to get legislation passed in this body. It also expands the global Magnitsky to include the enablers—exactly what Mr. Zelenskyy asked us to do—those that enabled—the oligarchs that allowed him to be able to finance this. The language that is included in here is very similar to the language that was included in President Trump’s Executive order. This is critical legislation. Now, let me just tell you how appropriate it is that it is included in a PNTR bill—because the first Magnitsky sanction bill—and Senator WYDEN was very important in getting this done—was included in the original PNTR bill for Russia, and we were able to get it done at that time. We then made it a global Magnitsky, and my partner on that was the late Senator McCain. It has always been bipartisan. My partner now is Senator WICKER. The two of us have joined forces to make sure we get it done now. It is critically important in order to impose banking restrictions on those that are targeted under the global Magnitsky, as well as visa restrictions on being able to travel. How important is it? Ask Mr. Usmanov, who is one of the principal oligarchs to Mr. Putin, who solves Mr. Putin’s business problems. Guess how he solves those problems? Well, his yacht has now been confiscated in Germany. That is how important these sanctions are and how we have to move them forward. So, if I understand my colleague’s request, it would deny the opportunity for us to act on the global Magnitsky, which Mr. Zelenskyy has specifically asked us to do. We would lose that opportunity. We would be sending this bill back to the House that is not in session, which means there will be a further delay in repealing PNTR for Russia, which is something we need to do now, today. We can get it to the President for signature today under the majority leader’s request. And as the majority leader has indicated, I support the energy ban—I support the Russian energy ban. President Biden has already taken steps to do that. And I agree with my colleague from Idaho. I would like to incorporate that in statute, but there is no urgency to do that as there is on repealing PNTR and the global Magnitsky. That is the urgency. That is what we need to get done today. That is what we can get to the President this afternoon under the majority leader’s request, and that will be denied if my friend from Idaho’s request were granted. So, for all those reasons, I object.

  • Containing Russia

    Russian dictator Vladimir Putin’s war on the Ukrainian people is an urgent threat to European security and global peace. Should his destructive gambit succeed in Ukraine, Russia will have dramatically expanded its de-facto border with NATO—including through a soft annexation of Belarus—as well as its ability to destabilize the democracies of Central and Western Europe.  Russian military success would threaten to draw a new iron curtain across Europe, dividing those protected by NATO’s security guarantees from those left exposed to Russian predation. This division could lead to significant remilitarization, a reappearance of Cold War tensions, and a reversion to historic cycles of European conflict. Beyond Europe, revisionist powers would be emboldened, and the United States and its Allies would be less able to deter them.  On March 23, 2022, the Helsinki Commission heard testimony from a panel of witnesses who recommended ways to deter Russian dictator Vladimir Putin’s from further escalating his unprovoked attack on Ukraine. Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) opened the hearing by denouncing Mr. Putin as a war criminal, calling for accountability for the heinous war crimes currently being committed in Ukraine. He lauded the heroism of the Ukrainian people and recognized Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky as a champion of democracy. “They’re an inspiration to all of us,” he stated. “President Zelensky [is] there fighting for the sovereignty of Ukraine, but he’s also fighting for the sovereignty of the free world.” Ranking Member Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) welcomed the assistance the United States already has provided, while simultaneously calling for greater action. “I call on the President today, the Secretary of State, and the White House to unleash the full package of sanctions that are available to them,” he said, “and to enhance the weaponry that we have already made available to our friends in Ukraine.” Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09) and Sen. Richard Blumenthal (CT) pledged  to support Ukraine and called for the facilitation of additional weaponry to the Ukrainian army and implementation of stronger economic sanctions of Russian oligarchs and their enablers. Before the witnesses testified, Ukrainian Ambassador to the United States Oksana Markarova addressed the commission, denouncing the Russian invasion of Ukraine as a violation of international law and a greater threat to the democratic world. “So what is happening in Ukraine is not only about Ukraine,” she asserted. “The very foundation of the world rule-based order, as we all knew and respected it after World War II, has been under attack today.” General Phillip Breedlove, former commander of U.S. European Command and NATO’s former Supreme Allied Commander Europe, testified that the Western response to Russia’s invasion has been almost entirely limited to economic measures, with no formidable action taken thus far in the diplomatic, informational, or military sphere. He supported the implementation of humanitarian corridors and humanitarian airlifts, both protected by NATO-enforced humanitarian no-fly zones. “We have allowed Mr. Putin to accomplish both the goals of deterring us and gaining initiative,” he stated. “I’m advocating that we and our Western partners reevaluate our strategic approach: Mr. Putin should be deterred, vice we in the West[HS1] . This requires moving away from a passive deterrent posture to affecting a more active deterrence.” Dr. Michael Kimmage, fellow at the German Marshall Fund and Department Chair at Catholic University of America, warned of historical precedents regarding containment of the Soviet Union, and how it applies contemporarily to Russia’s war in Ukraine. “Policy success should be measured not against maximalist dreams in which Putin, and with him Russian military power, exit the scene. Russian power is here to stay. Policy success should be measured against the much more achievable goal of containing this very power,” he said. Dr. Miriam Lanskoy, senior director for Russia and Eurasia at the National Endowment of Democracy, warned of the dangers of potentially isolating the Russian public from the global internet and media. She advocated for engaging with Russian citizens, while simultaneously opposing the Russian government. “Distinguish between Putin’s regime and its various enablers and the Russian people, preserve support and amplify the voices of Russian democrats now fleeing the country and those who remain inside,” she recommended. Related Information Witness Biographies

  • Doing More

    Russian dictator Vladimir Putin’s criminal war has enraged citizens of goodwill and galvanized support for Ukraine across the world. The United States has been a key supporter of Ukraine, providing weaponry, humanitarian relief, and other forms of urgent assistance, in addition to leveling crippling sanctions on Russia. However, Russian forces continue to bombard Ukrainian cities, targeting civilians and critical infrastructure. Russia’s brutal war is causing an unprecedented humanitarian catastrophe in Ukraine, and observers worry that Putin may next use chemical or other weapons of mass destruction. On March 16, President Zelenskyy appealed to the U.S. Congress to render additional aid to Ukraine, including the possibility of enforcing a no-fly zone. The briefing, held on March 18, 2022, explored the various military strategies available to the West in its defense of Ukraine. Panelists examined Ukraine’s militaristic capabilities, as well as the various risks associated with implementing military recommendations, such as humanitarian air corridors or NATO-enforced no-fly zones. Panelists at the briefing included General Wesley Clark, founder of Renew America Together and senior Fellow at the UCLA Burkle Center for International Relations; Dr. Stacie Pettyyjohn, senior fellow and director of the Defense Program at the Center for a New American Security; and Dr. Matthew Kroenig, director of the Scowcroft Strategy Initiative at the Atlantic Council. Helsinki Commission Senior Policy Advisor Michael Hikari Cecire moderated the briefing. Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09) opened the briefing by reaffirming his support for the facilitation of transferring Polish fighter jets to Ukraine, as well as his confidence in the strength and capability of the Ukrainian military. “The Ukrainian army has proven to be [pretty good] at knowing what they can do with their equipment,” he said. “It’s a conflict between rule of law and rule of gun.” Mr. Cecire explained that despite Russia’s obvious military advantages, the Ukrainian military has thus far successfully stymied Russian aggression. Unfortunately, as Russian forces grow frustrated with their lack of military progress, they have become increasingly indiscriminate in their attacks, targeting innocent Ukrainian civilians, and bombarding critical infrastructure, such as shelters and hospitals. General Clark advocated for a humanitarian airlift, implemented with U.N. approval, and a no-fly zone, as requested by Ukraine. He asserted that Russian dictator Vladimir Putin will eventually strike NATO territory with missiles, and that Putin’s threats of nuclear escalation should not deter Western states from defending a rules-based international order. “There’s a fallacy here, that somehow NATO inaction will translate into Putin’s refusal to escalate. This is a logical fallacy,” he said. “Putin will escalate as necessary to obtain his objectives. So I’m trying to find a third course of action between Ukrainian defense and Russian escalation, which is to provide the firebreak of a humanitarian rescue mission assigned into various locations that puts a firebreak into the fighting that could lead to a ceasefire, that could lead eventually to, coupled with the sanctions, a Russian pullback and withdrawal.” Dr. Pettyjohn discussed the risks of implementing humanitarian no-fly zones or humanitarian corridors, deeming them potentially escalatory and ineffective. A better alternative, she argued, would be for the international community to arm the Ukrainian people with mobile short-, medium-, and long-range air defenses, and to continue to provide precision standoff weapons. “The international community should help Ukraine, but not by following the post-Cold War playbook of implementing a no-fly zone,” she stated. “Against Russia, a no-fly zone would be even more difficult to implement and may not succeed… and it raises the potential for limited, or even more extensive than that, nuclear use, which is not something that I ever want to see in my lifetime.” Dr. Kroenig addressed the risk of nuclear escalation, arguing that although Russia’s threat of utilizing nuclear weapons in Ukraine should not be dismissed, the United States and NATO can enhance military support to Ukraine without escalating the risk on nuclear war. He advocated for the creation of humanitarian corridors, while cautioning against the establishment of a no-fly zone. “When it comes to no-fly zones or humanitarian corridors, I think I might split the difference between Dr. Pettyjohn and General Clark. I do think a no-fly zone would run a real risk of escalation,” he said. “But I think something like a humanitarian corridor could work, supported by ground convoys.” Related Information Panelist Biographies

  • Options to Contain Russia to Be Explored at Helsinki Commission Hearing

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following hearing: CONTAINING RUSSIA Opposing Russian Imperialism in Ukraine and Beyond Wednesday, March 23, 2022 2:30 p.m. Dirksen Senate Office Building Room 562 Watch live: www.youtube.com/HelsinkiCommission Russian dictator Vladimir Putin’s war on the Ukrainian people is an urgent threat to European security and global peace. Should his destructive gambit succeed in Ukraine, Russia will have dramatically expanded its de-facto border with NATO—including through a soft annexation of Belarus—as well as its ability to destabilize the democracies of Central and Western Europe.  Russian military success would threaten to draw a new iron curtain across Europe, dividing those protected by NATO’s security guarantees from those left exposed to Russian predation. This division could lead to significant remilitarization, a reappearance of Cold War tensions, and a reversion to historic cycles of European conflict. Beyond Europe, revisionist powers would be emboldened, and the United States and its Allies would be less able to deter them.  At this hearing, military experts and strategic thinkers will explore options for curtailing Moscow’s ability to wage war on Ukraine and neighboring states, especially those outside the protective umbrella of NATO. The hearing will begin with brief remarks by Ukrainian Ambassador to the U.S. Oksana Markarova. The following witnesses also are scheduled to testify: General (Ret.) Philip Breedlove, NATO’s Former Supreme Allied Commander Europe; Distinguished Professor of the Practice and CETS Senior Fellow, Georgia Tech  Dr. Michael Kimmage, Former Policy Planning Staff, U.S, Department of State; Professor of History, The Catholic University of America; Fellow, German Marshall Fund of the United States  Dr. Miriam Lanskoy, Senior Director for Russia and Eurasia, National Endowment for Democracy   

  • International Court orders Russia to suspend invasion of Ukraine

    Helsinki Commission Chairman Senator Ben Cardin joined ABC News to discuss a resolution submitted by himself and others, which was recently adopted by the Senate and called on the Putin regime to be held accountable for war crimes committed during Russia's invasion of Ukraine."I hope that one day in the near future we'll see [Mr. Putin] at the Hague, tried as a war criminal," he said. On March 23, the U.S. Department of State published a statement confirming that Russian forces have committed war crimes in Ukraine.

  • Experts to Explore Options to Further Assist Ukraine at Helsinki Commission Briefing

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following online briefing: DOING MORE Assessing Ukraine’s Defensive Needs Friday, March 18, 2022 10:30 a.m. Watch live: www.youtube.com/HelsinkiCommission Russian dictator Vladimir Putin’s criminal war has enraged citizens of goodwill and galvanized support for Ukraine across the world. The United States has been a key supporter of Ukraine, providing weaponry, humanitarian relief, and other forms of urgent assistance, in addition to leveling crippling sanctions on Russia. However, Russian forces continue to bombard Ukrainian cities, targeting civilians and critical infrastructure. Russia’s brutal war is causing an unprecedented humanitarian catastrophe in Ukraine, and observers worry that Putin may next use chemical or other weapons of mass destruction. On March 16, President Zelenskyy appealed to the U.S. Congress to render additional aid to Ukraine, including the possibility of enforcing a no-fly zone. This briefing will convene military and strategic experts to discuss ways to further assist the people of Ukraine as they resist Russia’s invasion. The discussion will examine air defense strategies, the feasibility and implications of no-fly zones, and other forms of materiel support. Expert statements and a brief, moderated Q&A will be available live to the public. This will be followed by an informal, off-the-record discussion for congressional staff and U.S. Government personnel. The following panelists are scheduled to participate: General (Ret.) Wesley Clark, Senior Fellow, UCLA Burkle Center; Founder, Renew America Together Dr. Stacie Pettyjohn, Senior Fellow, Center for a New American Security Dr. Matthew Koenig, Professor of Government, Georgetown University; Deputy Director, Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security Director, Scowcroft Strategy Initiative at the Atlantic Council  

  • "Game-Changer"

    Russian dictator Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has destroyed the international framework that has kept the peace in Europe since 1945, at a time when Baltic states Lithuania, Estonia, and Latvia already faced complex and evolving security challenges. Beyond Putin’s existential threats, the Baltic states now must deal with a Belarus that has become little more than a staging area for Moscow to wage war on its peaceful neighbors. China’s economic and diplomatic pressures also continue to weigh heavily. Yet these three relatively small countries nevertheless are demonstrating courageous, principled, and effective leadership on the international stage. On March 17, 2022, the Helsinki Commission heard from the chairs of the foreign affairs committees of the national parliaments of Lithuania, Estonia, and Latvia. The three witnesses offered views on opportunities to address the deteriorating security situation in Europe, including and especially through partnership with the United States. Ranking Member Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) opened the hearing by acknowledging the vulnerable position the Baltic States are in as they face security challenges from Russia, Belarus, and China. He also praised the economic, military, and moral support the Baltic States have provided to Ukraine. “Once again, in this crisis the three Baltic countries are punching above their weight,” he said. “And I have every expectation they will continue to do so.” Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09) emphasized the longstanding bonds between the Baltic countries and the United States, particularly throughout the era of Soviet occupation. “I suspect if the three Baltic countries were not members of NATO, you might have already met Vladimir Putin’s armies… we want to assure you that we are with you.” Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) underscored the deep and bipartisan commitment of the United States to Article 5 of NATO. “We stand with you on your sovereignty and will be there to protect the sovereignty of your countries against any attempt by Russia to interfere with that,” he said. Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) expressed appreciation for the commitment Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia have shown to promoting independence and freedom in Europe, and to their NATO membership. “The Baltic allies have been on the forefront of trying to stop the advance by Putin,” he said. He also praised the support the Baltic states are providing to Belarussian dissidents, activists, and opposition politicians. Commissioner Rep. Ruben Gallego (AZ-07) stressed the importance of the current moment for Baltic security and highlighted the Baltic Security Initiative, which bolsters the defense capabilities of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania in areas including air defense, maritime situational awareness, ammunition, C4ISR, and anti-tank capabilities. He said, “If we draw any lessons from the ongoing war in Ukraine, it’s that we need to ensure our allies and our partners are too prickly for any adversary or competitor to swallow.” Laima Andrikiene, Chair of the Foreign Relations Committee of the Seimas of Lithuania, testified that the global democratic order has been ravaged and called on the United States to position permanent combat forces in Lithuania in order to build credible defense against Russian military threats. She also urged international allies not to forget the threat China poses. “The case of Lithuania is a test for the entire democratic world of our ability to withstand economic coercion and to deter China from using coercion as a regular foreign policy tool to advance its goals,” she said. Marko Mihkelson, Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Riigikogu of Estonia, warned of the brutality and ruthlessness of the Russian war machine, referencing his prior career as a journalist, when he reported on the Chechen War. “Russia’s blatant aggression and military invasion in Ukraine has caused a fundamental shift in the European security architecture and threatens the peace and stability of democratic nations, not only in Europe but worldwide,” he said. “The future of our common security will be decided in Ukraine.” Rihards Kols, Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Saeima of Latvia, described the hybrid warfare tactics Russia is employing and the importance of supporting a well-educated and informed society in order to counter hybrid threats. Kols advocated for decisive action against Putin and warned against hesitance. He said, “Nothing is more provocative to a dictator than the weakness of free nations.” Members asked the three witnesses a range of questions on how best to defeat Russia’s aggression against Ukraine and deter further aggression by Putin’s regime against the Baltic states and elsewhere. Related Information Witness Biographies Press Release: Co-Chairman Cohen Leads Bipartisan Congressional Delegation to Defend Democracy and Ukrainian Sovereignty at OSCE PA Winter Meeting; Delegation Also Travels to Lithuania to Support Crucial NATO Ally.  Field Hearing: Baltic Sea Regional Security

  • Sen. Cardin: U.S. should increase sanctions on Russia

    Helsinki Commission Chairman Senator Ben Cardin spoke with José Díaz-Balart of MSNBC following Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky's address to Congress. Chairman Cardin discussed U.S. support for Ukraine in providing defensive weaponry and humanitiarian assistance. "[Zelensky's] message was clear: we need staying power to isolate Russia and Mr. Putin, we need to increase the cost by increasing the sanctions, and we need to provide Ukraine with the lethal defense weapons it needs in order to protect its skies," he said.

  • Helsinki Commission Urges Biden to Designate Ukraine, Georgia as Major Non-NATO Allies

    The Helsinki Commission, an independent U.S. government agency tasked with promoting human rights and security in Europe, has called on the Biden administration to upgrade the United States’ defense relationship with Ukraine. The commission seeks to help facilitate military and economic assistance to Kyiv as Russian forces move to encircle the Ukrainian capital. In a letter to U.S. President Joe Biden obtained by Foreign Policy, the commission urged the administration to designate Ukraine and Georgia, which was invaded by Russia in 2008, as major non-NATO allies (MNNA) and to reinvigorate U.S. support for the NATO accession of both countries.  “Although the United States has consistently supported Ukraine’s and Georgia’s NATO membership, Russia’s occupations and ongoing invasion expose the tragedy of long-stalled Euro-Atlantic enlargement,” wrote the commission, which is led by Democratic Sen. Ben Cardin and Democratic Rep. Steve Cohen. “Absent strong and proactive U.S. backing for Ukrainian and Georgian NATO membership, [Russian President Vladimir] Putin will continue to take ample advantage in his aspirations to upend security and cooperation in Europe and his neocolonial agenda,” the letter said. Both Ukraine and Georgia were promised membership to the defense alliance during the NATO summit in Bucharest, Romania, in 2008. But despite extensive reform efforts, neither country has been offered a timetable for accession.  The United States has provided billions of dollars of military assistance to Ukraine since it was first invaded by Russia in 2014, with more than $1.2 billion approved over the past year. “This designation is a fair reflection of our current bilateral defense relationships and does not commit the United States to military action,” the commission letter said, which also recommended that the administration consider extending the status to other non-NATO members along Europe’s eastern flank: Finland, Moldova, and Sweden. Much of U.S. military aid for Ukraine has been approved through a range of ad hoc government funding mechanisms. Granting the country MNNA status would open a variety of established channels to facilitate arms transfers, financial assistance, and information sharing, smoothing the way for further cooperation. It would also send a powerful signal of support for both Kyiv and Tbilisi. Unlike NATO membership, MNNA status does not entail any mutual security and defense obligations. On Thursday, the White House announced it would designate Colombia and Qatar as major non-NATO allies, bringing the total number of countries to receive the title up to 19.  The title has usually been reserved for countries with no ambitions or prospects of joining NATO, which prompted the Ukrainian ambassador to the United States, Oksana Markarova, to express wariness about the designation last year. “MNNA is a status for countries that do not plan/can not force political or geographical reasons to join NATO. This is definitely not about us,” she wrote in a Facebook post.  NATO accession is decided between the 30 members of the alliance, and an MNNA designation by the United States would not necessarily impede Ukraine’s membership prospects.  The Helsinki Commission, formally known as the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, was founded in 1976 as an independent government agency to monitor compliance with the Helsinki Accords, a major Cold War-era diplomatic agreement that sought to reduce tensions between the Soviet Union and the West as well as establish human rights and security norms. The commission is made up of 18 members of U.S. Congress drawn from both parties and representatives from the U.S. departments of State, Defense, and Commerce.

  • Helsinki Commission calls on Biden administration to push for Russia's expulsion from Interpol

    An independent US government agency is calling on the Biden administration to push for Russia to be permanently expelled from Interpol — a step further than the suspension the administration has already sought — citing the invasion of Ukraine and previous abuses by Russia, according to a letter obtained by CNN. Earlier this week, Attorney General Merrick Garland joined justice ministers from several allied countries to demand that Interpol immediately suspend Russia from accessing its systems, according to Justice Department spokesperson Anthony Coley.   Interpol, the International Criminal Police Organization, is a global agency which facilitates police across its 195 member countries to collaborate on criminal investigations. Interpol issues what are known as Red Notices to request the location and arrest of an individual pending their extradition. Friday’s letter from the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe commended the steps the US has taken so far, but added that the administration should call for the permanent suspension of Russia. “We urge you to use the U.S. position in Interpol (and in particular Interpol's Executive Committee and its Advisory Group on Financial Matters) to make it clear that any failure to act against Russia's abuse of lnterpol will have grave consequences for the U.S. contribution to Interpol's budget and Interpol's legal immunities in the United States,” the letter, directed to Garland and Secretary of State Antony Blinken, reads. The commission — also known as the US Helsinki Commission — was created by Congress in 1976 with a focus on human rights, military security, and economic cooperation. It is led by Sen. Ben Cardin and Rep. Steve Cohen. If Russia is suspended from Interpol, it would bar the country from continuing to participate and therefore put in requests for Red Notices, but it would not remove Red Notices that are already in the system, said Ted Bromund, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation and an expert in Interpol.

  • Helsinki Commission Recognizes Key Contributions from Allies and Partners

    WASHINGTON—In light of Russia’s continued criminal war on the peaceful citizens of Ukraine, Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), Ranking Member Sen. Roger Wicker (MS), and Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) issued the following joint statement: “Russian dictator Vladimir Putin’s barbaric war against the Ukrainian people has inspired global outrage and condemnation. Many countries have risen to the moment, especially our Baltic Allies, Poland, and Romania. We also recognize those other OSCE participating States that have taken particular risks and stepped up during this moment of great danger and clear moral purpose.  “We thank the Government of Turkey for its significant and robust support for Ukraine. Turkey has long been among Ukraine’s most ardent and consistent advocates, and its closure of the Bosporus and Dardanelles Straits to warships from Russia and Ukraine, consistent with the Montreux Convention, effectively supports Ukraine and the cause of European security. Turkey plays an indispensable role as a NATO Ally and strategic linchpin in Europe. We look forward to working closely with our Turkish allies on additional steps to support Ukraine. “We also recognize Moldova for serving as a safe haven for refugees and for its strong support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity. To date, on a per capita basis, Moldova has welcomed more refugees than any other country. Despite limited resources and the unlawful presence of Russian troops on its soil, President Maia Sandu and the Government and people of Moldova have shown their mettle. We congratulate Moldova on its European Union application. We see your heroic efforts and will continue to work diligently towards supporting Moldova’s transatlantic aspirations. “In addition, despite initially concerning and confusing statements, we applaud the Government of Georgia for its increasingly robust support for the people of Ukraine, particularly given Russia’s threats and occupation of Georgia’s territory. We are grateful for Georgia’s co-sponsorship of the UN General Assembly resolution condemning the Russian invasion of Ukraine, its participation in a call for the International Criminal Court to investigate Russian war crimes, and the strong statements of support by Georgian President Salome Zourabichvili in particular. We congratulate Georgia on its application to the European Union and look forward to doing our part to reinvigorate our bilateral partnership and deepening our transatlantic bond. “We are moving to limit Russia’s ability to wage war on its neighbors and will work closely with our friends to navigate this dangerous moment in history.” On February 28, the Turkish government exercised its authority as a custodian of the Bosporus and Dardanelles Straits, per the 1936 Montreux Convention, and closed their use to warring parties in the Black Sea. On March 2, Turkey provided the Ukrainian military with additional Bayraktar TB2 unmanned aerial combat vehicles. Since Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24, Moldova was among the first to open its borders to Ukrainian refugees and hosts more refugees per capita compared to any other European state. Russia illegally maintains a garrison of approximately 1,500 troops on Moldovan territory in Transnistria and supports a separatist government. On March 2, the Government of Georgia co-sponsored a UN General Assembly resolution that condemned Russia’s war against Ukraine. On the same day, Georgia joined 37 other countries formally calling for an International Criminal Court investigation of Russian war crimes in Ukraine. 

  • Foreign Affairs Committee Chairs of Lithuania, Estonia, and Latvia to Appear at Helsinki Commission Hearing

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following hearing: “GAME-CHANGER” The Baltics Under Pressure Thursday, March 17, 2022 10:00 a.m. Dirksen Senate Office Building Room 106 Watch live: www.youtube.com/HelsinkiCommission Russian dictator Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has destroyed the international framework that has kept the peace in Europe since 1945, at a time when Baltic states Lithuania, Estonia, and Latvia already faced complex and evolving security challenges. Beyond Putin’s existential threats, the Baltic states now must deal with a Belarus that has become little more than a staging area for Moscow to wage war on its peaceful neighbors. China’s economic and diplomatic pressures also continue to weigh heavily. Yet these three relatively small countries nevertheless are demonstrating courageous, principled, and effective leadership on the international stage. The chairs of the foreign affairs committees of the Lithuanian, Estonian, and Latvian parliaments will offer views on opportunities to address the deteriorating security situation in Europe, including and especially through partnership with the United States. The following witnesses are scheduled to testify: Laima Andrikiene, Chair, Foreign Relations Committee of the Seimas (Parliament of Lithuania) Marko Mihkelson, Chair, Foreign Affairs Committee of the Riigikogu (Parliament of Estonia) Rihards Kols, Chair, Foreign Affairs Committee of the Saeima (Parliament of Latvia)

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