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Helsinki Commission Chairman Leads Delegation to Israel and Turkey before Attending OSCE Parliamentary Assembly Session
Monday, April 15, 2013

By Helsinki Commission Staff

En route to the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly’s Winter Meeting in Vienna, Austria, a delegation organized by the Helsinki Commission visited Israel and Turkey for talks on issues of key concern to U.S. foreign policy and the OSCE. These destinations in particular were selected to explore the impact on the OSCE region resulting from the ongoing tensions in the Middle East stemming from the active conflict and humanitarian crisis in Syria. The delegation was not only bipartisan but included Members from the Senate and House of Representatives, as well as two senior officials from the Department of Commerce.

The delegation, which departed February 15 and returned on February 23, was led by Helsinki Commission Chairman Senator Benjamin L. Cardin of Maryland and included Representatives Robert B. Aderholt of Alabama, Alcee L. Hastings of Florida and Mike McIntyre of North Carolina as well as Assistant Secretary of Commerce Michael C. Camuñez from the Helsinki Commission. Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Deputy Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Europe and Eurasia Matthew Murray also joined the delegation.

High Level Meetings in Israel

The delegation’s first stop was Jerusalem. Following a late arrival on Saturday, February 16, the delegation was briefed by Ambassador Daniel Shapiro and Consul General Michael Ratney in preparation for meetings on Sunday with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, President Shimon Peres, the Institute for Intelligence and Special Operations (Mossad), Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad and other officials.

High on the delegation’s agenda were U.S.-Israeli relations, including economic cooperation, the peace process, renewal of Israeli-Turkish relations and regional security. President Peres welcomed the delegation in his residence and praised the work of the Helsinki Commission on human rights. Chairman Cardin and President Peres engaged in a lengthy conversation regarding the nuclear ambitions of Iran as well as human rights in that country. They also focused on investment and economic development in the region, particularly the need to provide employment and entrepreneurship opportunities for young people in the Arab world.

Members of the delegation met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in his cabinet offices for a wide ranging discussion on Iran, the peace process, violence in Syria, Israel-Turkey relations and economic cooperation between our two countries. The Prime Minister also offered a candid assessment of the January 22 parliamentary elections in Israel and his efforts to form a new government.

Meeting with the delegation in the U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem, Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad provided an overview of the economic and security situation in the West Bank, the status of Palestinian-Israeli relations and the peace process. The Prime Minister indicated that there is outright disillusionment with the peace process among the Palestinian people. What is badly needed, he said, is a sense of renewal and energy by both parties to return to negotiations.

The remainder of the day included meetings with Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Intelligence and Atomic Energy, Dan Meridor, Central Bank Governor Stanley Fischer and a briefing by Israel’s Institute for Intelligence and Special Operations (Mossad). The delegation departed early the next morning for Turkey.

Fostering Security Cooperation with Turkey

Chairman Cardin's delegation stopped in Ankara, Gaziantep, and Istanbul while in Turkey. In Ankara, the delegation met with President Abdullah Gul, Deputy Prime Minister Ali Babacan, and Omer Onhon, former Turkish ambassador to Syria. The delegation prioritized international engagement in the Syrian conflict, the status of Syrian refugees, the urgency of improving Turkish-Israeli relations, the Middle East Peace Process, bilateral economic cooperation and ongoing human rights concerns in their consultations with Turkish government officials. The delegation was briefed by U.S. Ambassador Frank Ricciardone and his staff on bilateral U.S.-Turkish priorities and the security of U.S. embassies following the tragic February 1, 2013 attack on the embassy in Ankara.

In Gaziantep, Chairman Cardin's delegation was the first group from Congress to visit the American detachment of the newly established NATO Patriot missile batteries. Members met with the troops stationed near Gaziantep and were briefed on security concerns emanating from the Syrian conflict and NATO efforts to ensure the security of Turkish communities near the Syrian border. The delegation was briefed by regional staff of the U.S. Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance on their substantial efforts to meet the humanitarian needs of the Syrian people in refugee camps and ensure the necessary resources reach the internally displaced civilians within Syria.

The delegation then proceeded to visit the central Turkish camp for Syrian refugees in Kilis, which is one of more than 20 such camps along the border. After a briefing by the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Members had an opportunity to see the facilities. The Turkish government has independently made a substantial investment in Syrian humanitarian assistance through their camps. They urged the delegation to encourage the international community to contribute more financial support to address the lack of resources for the growing Syrian refugee population in the region. The delegation also met the camp leadership elected from among the refugees, which reflected the diversity of those displaced by the conflict. The camp leaders urged the delegation to act expeditiously to support the Syrian opposition before the positive perception of the United States irreparably diminishes among Syrian civilians.

In Istanbul, the delegation participated in a discussion on the success of bilateral economic cooperation and overcoming barriers to increase U.S. investment in Turkey hosted by the Joint American Business Forum of Turkey and the Turkish-American Business Council. Members then convened a roundtable discussion with a diverse group of Syrian opposition activists based in Istanbul. The activists expressed an urgent interest in the future U.S. role in addressing the security and humanitarian impacts of Syrian conflict. The delegation also had an opportunity to meet with graduate students of Bahcesehir University to discuss the importance of international academic exchanges and youth professional development.

OSCE Parliamentary Assembly Meets in Vienna

The congressional delegation concluded in Vienna, Austria, to represent the United States at the Winter Meeting of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA). Like the OSCE of which it is a part, the Parliamentary Assembly has been an important venue for important initiatives relating to the Helsinki Commission’s work. Those initiatives include addressing specific human rights concerns in numerous countries and combating intolerance in society, organized crime and official corruption, and trafficking in persons. They also include promoting transparency in government and business practices. The United States has traditionally maintained a robust presence in the Assembly, assuring European friends and allies of willing U.S. engagement on issues of common concern and ensuring that the Assembly’s work reflects U.S. interests. Representative Aderholt, for example, is currently an OSCE Vice President and sits on a subcommittee dealing with rules of procedure and an ad hoc committee focusing on reform and transparency of the OSCE.

The Winter Meeting is a two-day event held at the Hofburg premises of the OSCE, allowing diplomatic personnel from this multilateral organization to report to the parliamentarians on security, economic, environmental and human rights developments across Europe and into Central Asia. The Winter Meeting also provides a forum for open debate of topical issues and to present ideas for resolutions to be considered later in the year. In the decade since it was first organized, the Winter Meeting has become second in importance only to the OSCE PA’s Annual Session, which is held in June or July in different locations to consider these resolutions and adopt a declaration. In 2013, there were more than 200 parliamentarians in attendance.

Ambassador Ian Kelly, the U.S. Representative to the OSCE, briefed the delegation soon after its arrival on the regional issues of interest to the OSCE, as well as organizational developments, from a U.S. policy perspective. Ukraine has taken the OSCE’s chairmanship for 2013, and efforts continue to achieve progress on priority issues in time for a foreign ministerial scheduled for year’s end. As it approaches its 40th anniversary in 2015, the OSCE is also seeking to develop its structural and substantive abilities in order to remain relevant to European security, but it must do so in the face of efforts by Russia and like-minded states to undermine the OSCE’s human rights focus.

OSCE PA President Riccardo Migliori of Italy opened the Winter Meeting with a call to find “solutions for the future” based on “the road map signed in our past,” namely the 1975 Helsinki Final Act. The opening plenary was also addressed by Austrian National Council President Barbara Prammer, OSCE Secretary General Lamberto Zannier of Italy, and the Special Envoy of the OSCE Chair-in-Office, Viacheslav Yatsiuk of Ukraine.

Additional discussions were held in each of the Assembly’s three General Committees: the First Committee dealing with political affairs and security; the Second Committee with economic affairs, science, technology and the environment; and the Third Committee with democracy, human rights and humanitarian questions. Committee rapporteurs and guest speakers discussed current issues and the prospects for OSCE PA work in the coming year.

Assistant Secretary of Commerce Camuñez was a featured opening speaker for the Second Committee, focusing on economic issues in particular. Calling for a “truly 21st century approach” to engagement on these issues within the OSCE, he focused in particular on work being done on energy security and sustainability. He also called for operationalizing OSCE commitments on good governance and transparency adopted at the 2012 Dublin Ministerial Council of the OSCE and asked parliamentarians to play their role by passing needed laws and encouraging government policies that reflect OSCE norms and goals.

The Winter Meeting traditionally includes a closing joint-committee session to debate issues that are particularly relevant and timely. This year, the debate focused on how OSCE countries should respond to crises in Syria, the Sahara, and North Africa. Representative Hastings, speaking as the OSCE PA’s Special Representative on Mediterranean Affairs, made a presentation that called on the parliamentarians to consider being in the place of the Syrian people as they flee their homes and lose loved ones, including children, while the world watches. He called on the participating States to halt the flow of arms to Syria, and insisting the Bashar al-Assad “must go,” called for him to be held accountable for his crimes before the International Criminal Court. Chairman Cardin also spoke in the debate, reporting on the discussions the delegation had in Israel and Turkey regarding Syria and praising Turkey’s efforts to accommodate massive inflows of refugees.

During the course of the Winter Meeting, the OSCE PA convenes its Standing Committee, composed only of Heads of Delegation and officers, to shape the Assembly’s work. Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Representative Christopher H. Smith, who was unable to attend the Winter Meeting, and Rep. Hastings each submitted to the committee written reports on their activities as Special Representative on Human Trafficking and as Special Representative on Mediterranean Affairs, respectively. Chairman Cardin participated in a lengthy debate on OSCE election observation, calling for the Assembly and the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) to coordinate in the field and to take advantage of parliamentary leadership to make observation most effective.

The delegation used its time at the Winter Meeting to engage in bilateral meetings with parliamentarians and officials regarding Helsinki Commission concerns, including the OSCE Chair-in-Office envoy Yatsiuk, OSCE Secretary General Zannier and ODIHR Director Janez Lenarcic of Slovenia. Representative Hastings also organized a working session with visiting delegates from the Mediterranean Partner countries in order to plan activity for the coming year that will strengthen the partnership between the Mediterranean Partners – Algeria, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Morocco and Tunisia – and the OSCE. Representative Aderholt also met with human rights activist and opposition representative Andrei Sannikov to discuss common concerns in Belarus.

Beyond the Hofburg, the delegation also met with Ambassador Joseph MacManus, who represents the United States at United Nations organizations based in Vienna, and Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency Yukiya Amano of Japan. Nuclear proliferation was the main issue in these meetings. Chairman Cardin also was accompanied by the U.S. Ambassador to Austria, Willliam Eacho, as he paid tribute at the Austrian National Council to the Vienna-based organization CENTROPA and its American Director, Ed Serotta, for efforts to preserve Jewish memory in Central and Eastern Europe, the former Soviet Union, the Balkans and the Baltics for future generations.

By all accounts, the Winter Meeting represented two days of healthy debate and discussion. The U.S. Delegation played an active role throughout the meeting, making presentations and responding to statements of others.

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    WASHINGTON—Following the death yesterday of a U.S. paramedic serving in the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission (SMM) in Ukraine when his vehicle struck an explosive – likely a landmine –  in separatist-controlled territory in eastern Ukraine, Helsinki Commission Chairman Senator Roger Wicker spoke on the Senate floor this evening to condemn the incident; express his condolences to the family of the victim, Joseph Stone;  and call for the Russian government to end the cycle of violence that resulted in yesterday’s tragedy. “Had Russia lived up to the Minsk agreements, and ceased supporting, directing, funding, and fueling separatists in this region, there would have been no need for the [monitoring] mission to continue,” Senator Wicker said. “[The monitors] play an essential role in the understanding of the situation on the ground, often under extremely difficult circumstances…the tragic death of American Joseph Stone underscores the need for the OSCE monitors to have unfettered access across the front lines and across the border regions controlled by the separatists,” he continued. “I commend the Austrian foreign minister, who serves as OSCE Chair-in-Office, for calling attention to this tragedy and calling for an immediate investigation into these events. Those who are responsible … should be held accountable. Joseph Stone died serving his country by serving as a part of this international effort, and I extend my condolences this evening to his family and friends. I once again call on Russian leadership to put an end to the cycle of violence and to live up to its OSCE commitments,” Senator Wicker concluded. The SMM was established in 2014 to monitor implementation of the Minsk agreements designed to bring peace to eastern Ukraine. The SMM operates under a mandate adopted by consensus among the 57 OSCE participating States, including the United States, Russia, and Ukraine. Currently fielding roughly 700 monitors, nearly 600 of whom are in Donetsk and Luhansk regions, the SMM is an unarmed, civilian mission that serves as the international community’s eyes and ears in the conflict zone. It is the only independent monitoring mission in the war zone. The United States supports the SMM and its monitors by providing roughly 75 personnel and other resources to the mission.

  • Helsinki Commission Staff Attend OSCE Permanent Council

    By A. Paul Massaro III, policy advisor, Janice Helwig, Representative of the Helsinki Commission to USOSCE, Orest Deychakiwsky, policy advisor, Alex Tiersky, policy advisor, and Jackson Lines, intern On March 30, 2017, Ambassador David Killion, Chief of Staff of the Helsinki Commission, and Helsinki Commission Policy Advisors Paul Massaro and Everett Price attended the Permanent Council (PC) of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in Vienna. Helsinki Commission staff members occasionally have the opportunity to attend OSCE events, including PC meetings, which help inform the work of Congress with regard to the OSCE region. What is the Permanent Council? In contrast to OSCE Summit or Ministerial Meetings, which are held annually and provide political direction and standard setting for the OSCE, the Permanent Council is the regular body for political consultations and decisions concerning the day-to-day operational work of the OSCE, and also provides a forum to address current issues. PC Meetings are held once a week at the Ambassadorial level in Vienna, Austria, and usually consist of a report by the head of an OSCE field mission or an invited speaker, and discussion of current issues. Any decisions are taken by consensus.   The PC is generally closed to the public and press, although press may be allowed in for statements by high-level visitors, and academic and other visiting groups are occasionally allowed to observe the proceedings. The Helsinki Commission, joined by the State Department, has long recommended opening the Permanent Council and webcasting it as a way to improve transparency. The United States Mission to the OSCE (USOSCE) regularly posts statements it makes in the PC on its website and shares them on social media. March 30 Meeting The March 30 meeting included a report by Ambassador Michael Scanlan, Head of the OSCE Mission to Moldova, which focused largely on discussions of the future status of Transnistria within Moldova; a discussion of Russian intervention in Eastern Ukraine; and remarks on media freedom in Belarus and religious freedom in Russia. Ambassador Scanlan noted that, due to a lack of elections this year, 2017 is an important opportunity to address the Transnistrian autonomy issue in a meaningful way. Many participants expressed hope that a mid-May conference meant to open dialogue on the issue would make tangible steps towards Transnistrian autonomy. If a framework can be agreed upon, the PC volunteered the OSCE to mediate talks finalizing the deal. The United States, through its Chargé d’Affaires, Kate Byrnes, intervened on each issue. On Moldova, the United States reaffirmed its commitment to working with the 5+2 partners to find a comprehensive conflict settlement that respects the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Moldova and affords a special status for the Transnistrian region. On Ukraine, the United States summarized the appalling continuation of Russia’s ongoing aggression and detailed violations of the ceasefire. The U.S., Ms. Byrnes stated, “affirms its staunch support for Ukraine’s sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity within its internationally-recognized borders.” While no participant was willing to take responsibility for the escalation of tensions in Ukraine, all delegations remained concerned with the situation and agreed that both sides in the conflict need to abide by the Minsk Agreements if progress towards peace is to continue. The United States also condemned crackdowns on protestors in Russia and Belarus. The United States, EU, and the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights Director (ODIHR) Michael Link joined together to issue statements reminding Belarus of the need to uphold its obligations to human rights and fundamental freedoms as part of the OSCE. The U.S. and EU delegations also condemned the arrests of protestors in Russia. Both called for the release of those arrested, with a particular focus on Alexei Navalny. Finally, the United States expressed concern about a Russian court case against the Jehovah’s Witnesses that could lead to the disenfranchisement of the group in Russia, violating OSCE commitments to uphold freedom of religion.

  • Russian Military Aggression in Europe: A Resurgent Threat to Stability

    On March 21 and March 23, 2017, expert witnesses—including Gen. Curtis M. Scap-arrotti, NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander-Europe—testified in front of the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) about ongoing Russian activities in the European region. The impact of Russia’s military aggression and its failure to uphold fundamental international agreements were of paramount importance to Helsinki Commission Chairman Senator Roger Wicker (MS), a senior member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and Senator Jeanne Shaheen (NH), also a Helsinki Commissioner and a senior member of the Senate Armed Services and Foreign Relations Committees. Three key themes emerged in the Commissioners’ questioning: the challenges Russian military activities, including exercises, pose to the stability of the European security environment; Moscow’s flaunting of its security-related commitments; and the role of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in addressing these violations Download the full report to learn more.

  • First Person: Election Observation in Armenia

    By Everett Price, Policy Advisor As the Helsinki Commission’s policy advisor for Armenia, I participated in the election observation mission (EOM) to Armenia organized by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA) from March 31 to April 3, 2017. On April 2, the Republic of Armenia held its first parliamentary election since approving constitutional amendments in a popular referendum in 2015 that transition the country from a semi-presidential to a parliamentary system. The election was also significant as the first nation-wide vote held under sweeping 2016 revisions to the country’s electoral code that implemented a new process for allocating legislative seats, improved transparency, mandated advanced voter authentication measures, and increased female and minority representation quotas. I was one of a 63-member delegation of parliamentarians and staff deployed by the OSCE PA to serve as short-term observers to the Armenian election. This parliamentary delegation complemented the work of a team of 14 experts, 28 long-term observers, and over 300 short-term observers sent throughout the capital and across the country by the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR). Representatives from the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) and the European Parliament (EP) also participated. The OSCE PA and ODIHR regularly lead EOMs in the OSCE region at the invitation of the host country. (Learn more about OSCE election observation.) In the days before the vote, our OSCE PA observation team received extensive briefings on the election process and current political dynamics from ODIHR experts and from Armenian government officials, political parties, civil society, and media representatives. These briefings focused on allegations of electoral violations, the complexity of the electoral code, the role of international and local observers, and the tenor of the campaign. We heard a “unified message of concern” from civil society representatives.  Citizen activists, journalists, and opposition members told us that the ruling party would abuse its access to administrative resources to get out the vote and that it, and other parties, would engage in voter intimidation and vote buying.  They warned that while new electoral procedures might mitigate concerns about the casting and counting ballots, the ruling party and powerful oligarchs would wield improper influence outside the voting booth, diminishing the fairness of the vote. One political commentator assessed that the difficult economic situation experienced by many voters during this election season would make them especially susceptible to selling their vote. Briefers also discussed the complexity of Armenia’s new electoral code and the extent to which it would address past electoral violations. Significantly, this was Armenia’s first time employing electronic voter identification, multiple ballots, and a partial open list voting system that allows voters to express their preference for specific candidates. The code incorporated many recommendations from Armenian civil society, ODIHR, and other international experts and was generally assessed as a positive step forward. Concerns remained, however, about the complexity of voting procedures, voter registration policy, relatively weak campaign finance transparency provisions, and restrictions on citizen observer participation, among other issues.       Civil society activists specifically raised concerns about the overall number of citizen observers and the rules governing their access to polling stations. Armenia registered over 28,000 citizen observers in a country of less than 3 million people, prompting concerns about overcrowding at polling stations and questions about the origins of the organizations and individuals behind these observation missions. One civil society representative said that only 600 of the citizen observers were from known NGOs and that many of the rest are likely from NGOs established by political parties. Some worried that the large number of citizen observers was meant to suppress the participation of legitimate groups since the electoral code stipulates that a maximum of 15 citizen observers are allowed in a polling station at one time. Ruling party officials, meanwhile, noted that hundreds of citizen observers were foreigners registered under local NGOs. They intimated that these observers could be a vehicle for unwelcome foreign influence. One media representative characterized the content of the campaign as “the most primitive” in recent memory, while another political commentator lamented the “poverty of ideas” and “competition of personalities” on display. Several members of the media and some political party officials regretted that lack of any televised debate among candidates—only three of the nine parties and political coalitions on the ballot were willing to hold such a debate. What’s more, several journalists noted that many parties actively avoided the press and restricted most of their candidates from interacting with the media.    Before dawn on election day, two other observers and I deployed to our first assigned polling station to watch the opening procedures. At a school in downtown Yerevan, I watched as the precinct chairwoman capably organized the precinct committee that worked together to prepare the space and voting materials for the arrival of the day’s first voters. The importance of orderliness at this particular polling station became evident within the hour when presidential security arrived to prepare for Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan to cast his vote there. Despite this exceptional circumstance, in other ways the experience at this polling station typified the voting I observed elsewhere throughout the day. I saw non-credentialed citizens hovering watchfully—and in violation of the electoral code—outside the polling station and engaging voters—likely local party officials keeping tabs on voter participation. Inside the polling place there was some overcrowding, a malfunctioning electronic voter authentication device, and modest voter confusion about the voting procedure, which involved selecting among nine separate ballots and optionally marking a candidate preference on the reverse side. I visited a total of seven polling places that day, stretching from downtown Yerevan to the shores of Lake Sevan and the surrounding hinterland 60km northeast of the capital. In larger precincts I witnessed large contingents of party proxies and citizen observers monitoring the vote. In several instances, citizen observers credentialed under the name of a local NGO turned out to be from foreign countries and were unable to explain to me the mission of their organization, highlighting the opaque origins of some citizen observation efforts. In most precincts I saw a mix of credentialed and non-credentialed individuals from political parties and local NGOs mingling inside and outside the polling station, engaging voters, and generally making their presence felt. Our day ended in Yerevan where we observed the closure procedure at a polling place where about 700 votes had been cast. The precinct chairwoman carefully walked the precinct committee through the process step by step, openly acknowledging to us the difficulty of carrying out the complex procedure for the first time. The tallying took place transparently in front of us and in full view of several local observers and party proxies that stayed late into the night to oversee the count. We had the opportunity, along with our fellow observers, to ask questions of the precinct chairwoman about how she and her team were adjudicating individual ballots and counting votes. Although my observations here are anecdotal, they are consistent with the preliminary findings and conclusions of the international election observation mission that the elections “were well administered and fundamental freedoms were generally respected” although the vote was “tainted by credible information about vote-buying and pressure on civil servants and employees of private companies.” The end result was a vote that suffered from “an overall lack of public confidence and trust.” (Read the full Statement of Preliminary Findings and Conclusions.)        While Armenia’s democracy took some important strides in the procedural conduct of this election, much work remains to be done. With the vote tallying complete, Armenia now embarks on a critical period of transition to a parliamentary system that will be fully realized at the end of the President’s final term in April 2018. All political actors, but particularly the new governing coalition, must shoulder their responsibilities to ensure that this new system of governance earns the trust of the public it serves. To build this trust, Armenia would benefit from a process of political evolution that accompanies its institutional transition and procedural reforms. Specifically, Armenia’s political parties and new parliament would do well to ensure a competition of ideas replaces the all too common clashes of personalities and patronage networks on display during this election.

  • Romani Political Participation Key to Change

    On March 27 and 28, 2017, thirty-five Romani elected officials and civil society representatives participated in a two-day event held by the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) in cooperation with the U.S. Helsinki Commission, as part of the European Union’s “Roma Week.”  The event focused on opportunities to enhance Romani political participation as a means of strengthening the long-term strength and stability of the OSCE region.  As citizens of many OSCE participating States, Roma have long contributed to the prosperity of their countries in numerous ways, ranging from serving in the military to educating the next generation.  However, Roma are often described and perceived in negative terms, leading political leaders and others, to consider Roma a problem rather than a solution. Referring to the political rhetoric that instigated the tragic murders of Roma in 2008 and 2009, Romani-Hungarian researcher and Transatlantic Inclusion Leaders Network alumni Roland Ferkovics stressed, “Political narratives should not only motivate and influence people but should also unite…Political leaders must take Roma as equal partner(s) using narratives [that] focus on similarities instead of differences.” Diverse speakers from across the OSCE region also shared experiences and practices that have been successful in inspiring democratic change. “Standing for elected office and using one’s right to vote is a powerful tool for Roma communities in Europe to counter anti-Roma rhetoric, hate crimes and racism,” said Mee Moua, former President of Asian Americans Advancing Justice (AAJC), who also served as a Minnesota State Senator in the United States. Noting the importance of united communities, Killion Munyama, a member of the Polish Parliament and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, noted the importance of Roma having a seat at the decision-making table:  “Societies benefit from broad and diverse participation representing the voices of all communities in the public and political spheres.” Participants also stressed the urgency in ensuring the success of current Romani legislative initiatives and the importance of ensuring that legislative initiatives aimed at Roma, such as the EU Framework Strategy for Integration, are designed and implemented with the participation of Roma at all levels of government.  Other speakers at the event included MEP Terry Reintke, former MEP Livia Jaroka, and Jamen Gabriela Hrabanova of the European Roma Grassroots Organizations Network. Dr. Mischa Thompson of the Helsinki Commission participated as a facilitator.

  • International Roma Day 2017

    International Roma Day is observed annually on April 8, commemorating the anniversary of the1971 London meeting of Romani activists from across Europe. The 1971 London meeting, convened as the "World Romani Congress," was one of the first transnational gatherings of Roma.  Since 1990, International Roma Day has been an opportunity to celebrate Romani culture and counter anti-Roma prejudice that fosters political and economic marginalization.  Roma—Europe’s Largest Ethnic Minority Roma live throughout all European countries as well as the Americas and Australasia. In Europe, the Roma population is very conservatively estimated at 15 million, with large concentrations in Central, Eastern, and Southern Europe.  Roma have migrated to the United States since the colonial period. There are an estimated one million Americans with some Romani roots (recent or distant Romani ancestry).  Roma live throughout the United States, with larger communities in New York City, Baltimore, Chicago, and Los Angeles. They are sometimes the victims of racial profiling by law enforcement.  The last explicitly anti-Roma law in the United States was repealed in New Jersey in 1998. Romani Americans have served as public members on the U.S. delegation to several OSCE human dimension meetings.  In 2016, the President appointed Dr. Ethel Brooks to serve on the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum Council, bringing a Romani voice to that body. Helsinki Commission Advocacy on Romani Human Rights The Commission has long record of addressing human rights issues relating to Roma.  As early as 1990, a Helsinki Commission delegation in Bucharest raised alarm orchestrated attacks on Roma conducted as part of a larger crackdown on dissent.  Helsinki Commissioners have continued to engage regarding the situation of Roma through hearings, briefings, and congressional meetings with Roma in Europe and the United States.  In recent years, the Commission has supported Romani inclusion in annual initiatives for political leaders such as the Transatlantic Minority Political Leadership Conference (TMPLC) and Transatlantic Inclusion Leaders Network (TILN).  On March 27-28, the Commission worked in cooperation with the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights to hold a workshop during “Roma Week” at the European Parliament in Brussels titled, “Strengthening diverse leadership, participation and representation of Roma, including women and youth, in public and political life.”  Roma Day Events in the United States Harvard will host its fifth Annual Roma conference on April 10, where Helsinki Commission staff will participate. Scholars of Romani culture and Roma who work as academics, activists, and performers will convene a conference at New York University April 28-29. Later in the spring, on May 6, the 20th Annual Herdeljezi Music Festival will be held in the San Francisco area at the Croatian American Cultural Center. In the Washington area, the Embassy of the Czech Republic supported a March 30 screening of the documentary about the prejudice faced by the FC Roma football club. On May 17, the Czech Embassy will support a concert at the national Gallery of Art by Romani-Czech pianist Tomas Kaco. Learn More International Roma Day: Statement by U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson Celebrating International Roma Day: Statement by USOSCE Acting Deputy Chief of Mission Michele Siders International Roma Day: Statement by OSCE/ODIHR Director Michael Link

  • Consensus Denied? Challenges for OSCE Decision-Making in 2017

    Over the past decade, it has been increasingly difficult for the 57 participating States of the Vienna-based Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to achieve the consensus necessary to address key issues facing the OSCE region, as well as to make decisions that shape the internal functioning of the organization.   In contrast to the bloc-to-bloc confrontations of the Cold War, there often is overwhelming support from most OSCE countries for specific decisions or actions.  However, the Russian Federation regularly represents the single dissenting country; without consensus, under OSCE rules, the proposal fails.  Some participating States have tried to accommodate Russian recalcitrance, believing it will give Moscow a greater stake in the OSCE; others see Moscow’s obstructionism succeed and are tempted to play the same game. Such efforts only encourage greater intransigence and move the OSCE away from the core principles and values around which all participating States once rallied. Download the full report to learn more.

  • Chairman Wicker Questions SACEUR about Russian Activity, OSCE

    WASHINGTON – Helsinki Commission Chairman Senator Roger Wicker (MS), a senior member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, today questioned Gen. Curtis M. Scaparrotti, Commander, U.S. European Command / Supreme Allied Commander, Europe, about ongoing Russian activities in the European region. Chairman Wicker discussed the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe’s (OSCE) mission monitors on the ground in Ukraine, as well as the organization’s work to provide an accurate depiction of activities and compliance with international treaties. He also asked about Russian “snap” military exercises and whether or not those actions are in line with agreements currently in place. Gen. Scaparrotti stated that there is reason to be concerned about Russian activity trends in the Arctic and North Atlantic regions, as they are more aggressive and are expanding their posture in the area. He went on to recommend that the U.S. reestablish Cold War deterrence practices in the region. 

  • Chairman Wicker Highlights Importance of OSCE Mission in Stabilizing Europe

    At a March 21 U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) hearing on “U.S. Policy and Strategy in Europe,” Helsinki Commission Chairman Senator Roger Wicker underlined his commitment to Ukraine’s future and highlighted the importance of the mission of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). “The more Ukraine succeeds, the better off it is for us in the United States and the West, and I think it is one of the most profoundly important issues that we face in the next year or two,” stated Senator Wicker, who also serves as a senior member of SASC. Praising the OSCE’s monitoring mission in Ukraine as providing the “international community’s eyes and ears in the conflict zone,” Chairman Wicker underlined the challenges facing the consensus-based OSCE in addressing the increased aggression in Europe by Russia, one of its participating States. Citing the fundamental “Helsinki principles” on which the OSCE is based, Senator Wicker pressed a panel of experts for their views on the continued value of the OSCE. Ambassador William J. Burns, former U.S. Deputy Secretary of State who also served as U.S. Ambassador to Russia, stated that despite the OSCE’s limitations, the organization has continuing value. “It embodies some of the core values that we share with our European allies and partners in terms of sovereignty of states and the inviolability of borders—so that the big states don’t just get to grab parts of smaller states, just because they can,” he said. Burns further called for continued U.S. investment in the OSCE. Former NATO SACEUR General Philip M. Breedlove, USAF (Ret.), suggested that the Special Monitoring Mission in Ukraine was a particularly valuable expression of the OSCE’s work, underlining that “…with some of the fake news that was created in the Donbass and other places as Russia invaded, even though OSCE was challenged … often, [the monitoring mission] was the source of the real news of what was actually going on on the ground.” Ambassador Alexander R. Vershbow, former Deputy Secretary General of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization who also served as U.S. Ambassador to Russia, stated that the OSCE remains valuable, despite the challenges inherent in Russian actions, “…because of the norms and values that it upholds – even though the Russians are violating a lot of those right now – it gives us a basis on which to challenge their misbehavior.”  Praising the Special Monitoring Mission in Ukraine as “very courageous,” Vershbow underlined that while the OSCE faces serious limitations, “I don’t see any alternative right now in trying to manage a conflict like in Eastern Ukraine.”

  • Helsinki Commission Chairman Leads U.S. Delegation to Parliamentary Gathering of OSCE Countries

    Led by Helsinki Commission Chairman Senator Roger F. Wicker (MS), 10 Members of the U.S. Congress joined the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly’s annual Winter Meeting in Vienna, Austria, on February 23 and 24, 2017. Since the founding of the OSCE PA, Members of Congress have actively engaged their Canadian, European, and Central Asian counterparts at Winter Meetings and other OSCE PA events. Such engagement was particularly significant in 2017 in the context of an ongoing terrorist threat in Europe, Russian aggression against Ukraine and other neighboring countries, and the challenges of the massive influx of refugees and migrants into Europe from the Middle East and Africa. The transition to a new Administration in the United States made it more important than ever to reaffirm the commitment of the United States to security and cooperation in the region.  Approximately 250 parliamentarians from 53 participating States took part in the 2017 Winter Meeting, and active participation of the U.S. Delegation – the largest in OSCE PA Winter Meeting history – was warmly welcomed. In addition to Senator Wicker, the U.S. Delegation included Helsinki Commissioners Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20), Rep. Robert B. Aderholt (AL-04), Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), and Rep. Richard Hudson (NC-08), as well as Senator Lamar Alexander (TN), Rep. Eliot L. Engel (NY-16), Rep. Lloyd Doggett (TX-35), Rep. Steve King (IA-04), and Rep. Trent Kelley (MS-01). U.S. Delegation Speaks Out on Security, Religious Freedom, and Human Rights in Times of Crisis The bicameral, bipartisan Delegation was highly visible throughout the meeting. In addition to his role as Head of the U.S. Delegation in 2017, Senator Wicker serves as chairman of the Assembly’s General Committee on Political Affairs and Security (also known as the First Committee), which met during the Winter Meeting. Opening the committee session, Senator Wicker applauded the opportunity the Winter Meeting provides “to dialogue directly with senior officials working within the OSCE” and “to discuss pressing concerns with the Ambassadors representing all of our States on a continuing basis.”  “This dialogue,” he added, “is one way in which we, as representatives of our citizens, help to shape the future of the OSCE…  The role of this Committee remains as important as at any time in the history of our Assembly. Let us now get down to the work of discussing how we will collectively rise to the challenges of our time.” Representative Hudson participated in the First Committee’s debate on confronting terrorism.  Observing that some countries misuse laws regarding extremism and terrorism to persecute an entire religious community, Hudson agreed that “violent extremism and terrorism – including in the name of religion – are real threats that must be countered,” but argued that “religious affiliation itself is never a justification for detention and imprisonment.” As some governments have been accused in recent years of using outside threats and security concerns as justification for the denial of basic human rights to political opponents, “protecting human rights in a time of crisis” was chosen as a relevant and timely topic for the closing plenary debate. At the closing plenary, Representative King noted the magnitude and gravity of the threats Turkey faces today, including ISIS- and extreme Kurdish-sponsored terrorism as well as an attempted military coup.  He added, however, that the response must respect core obligations and should not be broadened into a crackdown on political rivals, independent voices and average citizens. Representative Aderholt, who also serves as one of nine Vice Presidents of the OSCE PA, remarked on contrasting developments in another country facing a crisis: Ukraine. He noted that the threat posed by Russian aggression since 2014 “could easily have led to a deterioration in Ukraine’s human rights situation, as well as increased corruption and societal intolerance,” but that, “to Ukraine’s credit, this has not happened.” He reminded delegates of the difficult and substantial reforms the country has undertaken in recent years and encouraged their implementation. He also detailed the “contrasting deterioration in the human rights of those parts of Ukraine which have been seized by Russia and its separatist proxies.” Beyond the Debates Chairman Wicker also represented the United States in a session which amended the Assembly’s rules of procedure to encourage greater discipline to avoid over-amending draft resolutions at Annual Sessions which take place each summer, and to ensure that those resolutions are placed on the agenda based on the degree of support they get from heads of delegation.  While in Vienna, the U.S. Delegation hosted two additional events to facilitate an exchange of views: one for 15 of the Parliamentary Assembly’s leaders and heads of delegation, including Austrian parliamentarian and current President Christine Muttonen; and a second for senior OSCE officials. Bilateral talks with the delegates from Georgia, Israel, Poland, Romania, and Russia took place on the margins of the meeting. The next gathering of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly will be its Annual Session, scheduled to take place in Minsk, Belarus, on July 5-9, 2017. About the OSCE PA Winter Meeting The Parliamentary Assembly was formed as the Cold War ended in the early 1990s to allow elected representatives to take a more active role in the multilateral diplomacy of what is today the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).   Winter Meetings initiate the Assembly’s work for the coming year and debate current issues. Unlike other Assembly meetings, Winter Meetings always take place in Vienna to facilitate greater interaction between the parliamentarians and both OSCE officials and diplomatic representatives of the 57 OSCE participating States.   

  • U.S. Congressional Delegation Expresses Bicameral, Bipartisan Commitment to Enduring Partnerships with Jordan and Israel

    Helsinki Commission Chairman Senator Roger F. Wicker (MS) led a bicameral and bipartisan delegation of nine Members of the U.S. Congress to Jordan and Israel from February 19-22, 2017 before traveling to Vienna for the Winter Meeting of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly. This was the first major U.S. Congressional delegation to visit Jordan and Israel, two of the United States’ strongest Middle East allies, since the start of the 115th Congress and the inauguration of President Donald J. Trump. As such, it manifested the United States’ lasting and bipartisan commitment to these partnerships that are vital to defending American interests overseas and at home. In addition to Senator Wicker, the U.S. Delegation included Helsinki Commissioners Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20), Rep. Robert B. Aderholt (AL-04), Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), and Rep. Richard Hudson (NC-08), as well as Senator Lamar Alexander (TN), Rep. Eliot L. Engel (NY-16), Rep. Lloyd Doggett (TX-35), and Rep. Trent Kelly (MS-01). In Jordan, the delegation met with King Abdullah II and reviewed the full horizon of threats and opportunities that lie ahead for Jordan and the United States, particularly concerning the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Iran, Syria, and the fight against terrorism. The King also shared his views about the economic and social challenges facing Jordan in the near- and medium-term, including slow economic growth, high unemployment, and a massive refugee population. Members of the delegation also had the opportunity to visit a Jordanian military unit and meet with the unit’s United States and United Kingdom military trainers to witness the depth of US-Jordanian cooperation and integration. The delegation also consulted with leading members of Jordan’s cabinet, parliament, business community, and civil society. In Israel, the delegation further discussed regional dynamics with Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, Deputy Minister for Diplomacy Michael Oren, and Ministry of Foreign Affairs Political Director Alon Ushpiz. In their capacities as U.S. lawmakers, members of the delegation also met with their counterparts from the Israeli Knesset, including members of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, to discuss the role of legislative institutions in fostering effective foreign policy. In each location the delegation held consultations with the United States’ leading diplomatic and military officers to learn about the work of the United States interagency to strengthen our foreign government partners, communicate our values, protect our personnel overseas, and defend the homeland. Jordanian and Israeli interlocutors commonly stressed the importance of reinvigorating American leadership in the region to address the emergence of power vacuums where pernicious influences thrive. The delegation heard concerns in both countries about the impact of Russia and Iran’s ascendant influence in regional conflicts, particularly Syria. These officials further emphasized the need for the US to shape a coalition of moderate regional countries that can challenge the reach of terrorist groups, radical ideologies, and Iran’s destabilizing foreign policy.    The U.S. delegation reaffirmed the United States’ commitment to Israel’s security, which faces threats from virtually every direction on a daily basis. Delegation members also elicited Jordanian and Israeli officials’ views about recent developments in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the prospects for peace, particularly the possibility of achieving a two-state solution. Neither Jordanian nor Israeli officials expressed optimism about the near-term feasibility of achieving a final status agreement and establishing a Palestinian state. Although they emphasized different obstacles to achieving peace, both sides acknowledged the significant challenge posed by weak Palestinian leadership and institutions. Members of the delegation also heard about the importance of U.S. foreign aid to Jordan and Israel, two of the world’s largest recipients of American foreign assistance. The delegation heard how such assistance fosters closer coordination and forges lasting partnerships that are unrivaled by the cooperation offered by other regional stakeholders, thus representing a critical mechanism of US influence.   

  • 16th Winter Meeting Features Special Debate on Human Rights in Times of Crisis

    The March 1, 2017 issue of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly's weekly "News from Copenhagen" features an overview of the OSCE PA Winter Meeting, held in Vienna on February 23 and 24. Helsinki Commission Chair Senator Roger Wicker chaired a meeting of the Assembly's General Committee on Political Affairs and Security (known as the First Committee) during the event.

  • Roundtable on Fighting Anti-Semitism Looks at Turning Words into Action

    On March 1, 2017, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) hosted a roundtable discussion in Washington focusing on the active role of civil society organizations in the United States and Europe to combat anti-Semitism and violent hate crime.  “Turning Words Into Action: Addressing Anti-Semitism and Intolerance in the OSCE Region” featured opening remarks by ODIHR Director Michael Link and Senator Ben Cardin, who serves as the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly Special Representative on Anti-Semitism, Racism, and Intolerance. Helsinki Commission Chairman Senator Roger Wicker offered closing remarks.  Director Link underscored the continuing importance of the OSCE in helping participating States meet their human rights commitments, including through the new OSCE/ODIHR Words Into Action to Address Anti-Semitism project to prevent and respond to anti-Semitism through security, education, and coalition-building initiatives.  “We...assist the participating States, state authorities, parliaments, civil society, [and] media, …concentrating especially...on security, on education and on coalition-building [including] the development of resources to better equip governments and civil society, to address the security needs of Jewish communities.  It includes the development and publication of the practical security guide, an online platform for reporting anti-Semitic hate crimes, hate speech, discrimination and other incidents of intolerance.” Noting the need for immediate action in response to recent threats made against Jewish institutions in the United States over the past month, OSCE PA Special Representative Senator Cardin reiterated the importance of the ODIHR project and collective responsibility of political leaders to act, including by supporting coalitions and youth-led initiatives.  He highlighted the importance of collaboration between local law enforcement, school administrators, and civil society in addressing security needs for Jewish communities citing recent incidents in the state of Maryland.  “Now, it’s not just Maryland.  It’s happening throughout the entire country...This is a problem throughout the OSCE region," he said. Senator Cardin continued, "It’s not limited to anti-Semitism...Nothing would help more to stop these calls about bomb scares or to stop the desecration of cemeteries or what we see at places of worship than [to] get some people prosecuted for these crimes and convicted for these crimes.  Any act of vandalism or violence is wrong.  But when it’s motivated by hate, it should be elevated to a higher level.  And that’s what we’ve done by our hate crime laws, and that’s what we’ve done by our special units in law enforcement.  And we need to support those efforts, put the spotlight on it and let the public know that we won’t tolerate that type of hate activities in our community.” Following the introductory remarks, expert panelists Cristina Finch, Head, Tolerance and Non-Discrimination Department, OSCE/ODIHR, Stacy Burdett, Director of Government Relations, Anti-Defamation League, Mark Weitzman, Director of Government Affairs, Simon Wiesenthal Center, Susan Corke, Director, Antisemitism and Extremism, Human Rights First, moderated by  Dr. Mischa Thompson of the U.S. Helsinki Commission, explored current challenges and recent initiatives in addressing anti-Semitism and increased prejudice and discrimination in the 57 participating States of the OSCE. Roundtable participants focused on the need for increased efforts to address the surge in anti-Semitic incidents in the U.S. and Europe, and ways to strengthen relationships between the Jewish community, law enforcement and other actors to address continuing prejudices and violence.  Additionally, they provided concrete recommendations for next steps for the OSCE/ODIHR and Members of Congress.    The event closed with remarks from Chairman Wicker, who emphasized the importance civil society and leadership to address the problem, noting, “It has to be encouraging that the president would mention Black History Month and anti-Semitism... in the first 60 seconds of his speech [before the Joint Session of Congress and] something that the international community would take notice of.”

  • Helsinki Commissioners Champion Security, Human Rights at OSCE PA Winter Meeting in Vienna

    WASHINGTON—Led by Helsinki Commission Chairman Roger Wicker (MS), five members of the Helsinki Commission and five other members of Congress traveled to the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (PA) Winter Meeting in Vienna last week to demonstrate the commitment of the U.S. Congress to  security, human rights, and the rule of law in the 57-nation OSCE region. “The OSCE Parliamentary Assembly is vital to shaping the future of our European partnership and contributing to upholding the Helsinki principles. I am pleased that we were able to debate a number of issues – including terrorism, human rights, refugees, and Ukraine – in a constructive way,” said Chairman Wicker. “Americans have a stake in uniting the community of participating nations in comprehensive security. I look forward to the opportunity to seek consensus on these and other issues.” Much of this debate took place in the General Committee on Political Affairs and Security (First Committee), which Wicker chairs. Senator Wicker (MS) was joined in Austria by Helsinki Commissioners Rep. Roger Aderholt (AL-04), Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), Rep. Alcee Hastings (FL-20), and Rep. Richard Hudson (NC-08). The Delegation also included Senator Lamar Alexander (TN), Rep. Lloyd Doggett (TX-35), Rep. Eliot Engel (NY-16), Rep. Trent Kelly (MS-01), and Rep. Steve King (IA-04), making the bipartisan, bicameral Delegation the largest U.S. delegation to a Winter Meeting in OSCE PA history. Speaking at the First Committee meeting, Rep. Hudson raised the issue of religious freedom, saying, “Violent extremism and terrorism – including in the name of religion – are real threats that must be countered and the related crimes prosecuted. However, religious affiliation itself is never a justification for detention and imprisonment.” He observed that several participating States, including Russia, misuse laws regarding extremism or terrorism to persecute entire religious groups. In a plenary debate on human rights in times of crises, Rep. Aderholt, who also serves as a vice-president of the OSCE PA, stated, “Since 2014, Ukraine has been in a time of crisis based on the threat posed by Russian aggression. Such a situation could easily lead to deterioration in the human rights situation as well as increased corruption and societal intolerance. To Ukraine’s credit, this has not happened … it must, of course, be noted that there has been a contrasting deterioration in the human rights record in those parts of Ukraine which have been seized by Russia and its separatist proxies.” During the same debate, Rep. King spoke on the situation in Turkey, noting, “Turkey has every right to undertake policies that serve the interests of national security within the bounds of its human rights commitments, including the Helsinki Final Act. There has never been a more critical time to reaffirm that document’s uniquely comprehensive idea of security that considers human rights and the building of democratic institutions as key pillars of a sustainable regional order.” While in Vienna, members of the Delegation also discussed issues confronting the OSCE with the organization's leading diplomatic representatives, as well as the acting U.S. representative to the OSCE. Prior to attending the Winter Meeting, several members of the Delegation also visited Italy, Jordan, and Israel. At the Naples-based headquarters of the U.S. Sixth Fleet, members were briefed on key military issues, including ongoing operations against ISIS; migration flows across the Mediterranean; and Russia’s increasingly assertive regional military posture and activities. In Jordan, Jordanian King Abdullah II received the Delegation and expressed his appreciation for the enduring support of the United States for his government and the Jordanian people. He underscored the importance of American leadership in the region and reviewed the regional and domestic challenges facing Jordan, particularly the security and humanitarian consequences of the civil war in Syria and war against ISIS. In Israel, the Delegation met with Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who stressed the grave and existential threat posed by Iran through its nuclear ambitions, advanced missile program, and regional terrorist proxies. He urged the U.S. to exercise leadership in the region to marginalize destabilizing forces and forge peaceful solutions to conflicts. The Delegation also met with Israeli Deputy Minister for Diplomacy Michael Oren and Political Director of the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs Alon Usphiz, who echoed calls for renewed American leadership in the region and expressed concerns about the instability that arises from power vacuums left by conflicts like the civil war in Syria.  

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