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Helsinki Commission Examines Plight of Internally Displaced Persons
Hearing Focuses on Caucasus Region, Southeast Anatolia
Friday, August 01, 2003

By Knox Thames
CSCE Counsel

The United States Helsinki Commission held a hearing June 10, 2003, focusing on the plight of an estimated three million internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the Caucasus region and southeastern Anatolia. The region has become a temporary dwelling place to the single largest body of displaced persons in the region covered by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

Testifying at the hearing were Dr. Francis Deng, United Nations Secretary General's Representative on Internally Displaced Persons; Ms. Roberta Cohen, Co-Director of the Brookings-SAIS Project on Internal Displacement; Dr. Maureen Lynch, Director of Research for Refugees International; and Mr. Jonathan Sugden, Researcher in the Europe and Central Asia Division at Human Rights Watch.

Mr. Gabriel Trujillo, Mission Head for Doctors Without Borders of the Russian Federation was scheduled to testify, but encountered unexpected delays in Moscow. Mr. Nicolas de Torrente, Executive Director of Doctors Without Borders, U.S.A. graciously delivered Mr. Trujillo's opening statement.

Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-NJ) opened the hearing, describing how protracted conflicts in Georgia, Azerbaijan, Armenia and the North Caucasus of the Russian Federation have diminished the prospects of displaced persons safely returning home. He noted that few individuals have been allowed to return to southeastern Turkey, despite the lifting of the last state of emergency in late 2002. "We must address this problem now as thousands and thousands of individuals are suffering," said Smith. "More must be done to find just, realistic and durable solutions."

Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-CO) stated in written remarks, "As an American Indian, I am particularly sensitive to the plight of men, women and children who have been uprooted from their homes. Whether due to conflict, natural disaster or other causes, the displaced cling to the hope they will one day be able to return home." Campbell added that with millions waiting to return, "it is the responsibility of individual participating States and the international community to meet the needs of these individuals while working to create the conditions necessary for their return in safety and dignity."

Ranking Member Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-MD) emphasized the need for the hearing to both ascertain the precise situation of IDPs in the region and to bring greater attention to their needs. He expressed hope that the hearing would provide information and ideas on how the State Department and the U.S. Congress could play a role in assisting the internally displaced.

Commissioner Rep. Joseph R. Pitts (R-PA) called the condition of IDPs in the region "urgent," as they suffer not only from a lack of food, medical aid, and education, but also from the inability to return home. "Some fear government action against them. Others fear rebel action. Others fear both," Pitts noted.

Dr. Deng is the author of the UN Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement which recognized international norms for the rights of the displaced and the corresponding duties of states in protecting those rights. He provided an overview of the situation in the region, characterizing IDPs as having the same needs as refugees, "but worse." Since IDPs do not leave their country, they remain more or less within the conflict zone, faced with the same threats that caused their flight. While their home governments bear primary responsibility for their safety and security, Deng noted in many cases IDPs become in effect political hostages. By not resettling the displaced and allowing free integration, the government uses them as bargaining chips in the political conflict. When the government fails to act, the displaced often fall into a "vacuum of responsibility," Deng observed, noting that the world cannot sit and watch and do nothing.

Ms. Cohen offered a series of recommendations for the OSCE on issues pertaining to IDPs. "The OSCE, more than most regional organizations, has tremendous potential for dealing with the problem of internal displacement in the European region," stated Cohen. "It also has the responsibility to do so."

Although recognizing that in recent years the OSCE has expanded its involvement with problems of internal displacement, Cohen noted that these steps have been largely ad hoc and too small. She recommended that the OSCE systematically integrate internal displacement into its activities, particularly within the Caucasus region and southeastern Anatolia, using the UN Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement as a framework.

Cohen specifically urged OSCE bodies to ensure the right of IDPs to vote. In addition, Cohen identified the OSCE/ODIHR migration unit as the potential focal point for activities within the organization and contended that, if these recommendations are carried out, it would positively impact the situation in the Caucasus and Turkey.

Russian Federation

Gabriel Trujillo's prepared statement outlined the results of a Doctors Without Borders' survey conducted in February 2003 that polled over 16,000 displaced Chechens housed in camps in neighboring Ingushetia. When questioned about returning to Chechnya, an overwhelming majority of respondents said they were too afraid for their safety to return. Notably, individuals interviewed did not consider the availability of humanitarian aid available in Ingushetia as a reason to stay.

The ongoing violence has kept UNHCR from certifying Chechnya as a safe return destination. International aid agencies, including Doctors Without Borders, are choosing to limit or suspend their operations out of concern for the safety of aid workers. Mr. de Torrente pointed to recent abductions, including Doctors Without Borders volunteer Arjan Erkel still missing from nearby Daghestan after ten months, as exemplifying the security situation in the region. "If present security conditions in Chechnya and the neighboring republics are not adequate for humanitarian workers to carry out assistance activities," asked de Torrente, "why would they be considered adequate for civilian Chechens to return and resume their normal lives?"

Despite this lack of security, the UN estimates that more than 38,000 IDPs from Ingushetia returned to Chechnya last year. Respondents to the survey said people are left with little choice. They report that officials have threatened to cut off assistance in Ingushetia and block future aid in Chechnya for those refusing to leave immediately. Also, Russian troops reportedly are stationed near IDP camps and authorities limit assistance from international agencies, all to pressure IDPs to return to Chechnya.

De Torrente concluded, "The results of the survey are a clear indication that the basic rights of displaced people to seek safe refuge, to be protected and assisted properly in a time of conflict, and only to return home voluntarily as guaranteed by international humanitarian law are not being respected."

Turkey

Mr. Sugden described the situation in southeastern Turkey, where approximately 400,000 to one million people, mostly of Kurdish heritage, fled their villages during the conflict with the PKK. Relative peace returned to the region by 2001, yet the majority of Turkey's displaced have been unable to return home. Sugden noted that often local authorities will not permit villages to be re-inhabited, while in other cases the gendarmes or village guards block resettlement, often by threat or use of violence.

While the Government of Turkey has policies and programs aimed at returning the displaced to their homes, Sugden asserted, they have "consistently been underfunded and ill-conceived, falling far short of established international standards." Because of this, the international community has been reluctant to get involved. "Instead of helping villagers to get international assistance, the government, with its flawed plans, is actually standing in their path," he remarked. Sugden noted that the implementation of a fair and effective return program for the displaced populations in Turkey would also serve the country's goal of EU membership. He urged the Helsinki Commission to use its leverage in encouraging Turkey "as a matter of urgent priority" to convene a planning forum with the goal of creating a return program meeting international standards.

Azerbaijan and Georgia

Dr. Lynch estimated that in the South Caucasus there are currently some 250,000 displaced individuals from the Abkhazia and South Ossetia conflicts in Georgia and over 572,000 displaced from the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict in Azerbaijan. Although political solutions would provide the best opportunity for these groups to return home, the frozen nature of the conflicts makes that a remote possibility. In addition, Lynch asserted that the Georgian and Azeri Governments have failed to provide alternative integration opportunities, thereby maintaining the displaced as "political pawns."

In Azerbaijan, only about ten percent of IDPs live in camps. The rest have settled in abandoned hotels, railway cars, or underground dugouts, all of which represent serious health hazards from air and water quality to the risk of structural collapse. The lucky few provided with government-funded housing find themselves located far from jobs and on unirrigated land unsuitable for farming. Nevertheless, Dr. Lynch maintains that Azerbaijan is full of potential; it is an oil-rich country with a highly literate population. "The answer to Azerbaijan's trouble is not found only in resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict," he asserted, "Azerbaijan must protect itself from corruption and use all of its resources to look to the future."

In Georgia, the living conditions for IDPs are just as harsh, but with the added difficulty of only sporadic food aid. There is also a severe lack of even basic healthcare accessible to IDPs and virtually no psychosocial assistance. What healthcare is available is often too expensive for the displaced, resulting in many IDPs dying from curable ailments.

Dr. Lynch declared that both Azerbaijan and Georgia must develop long-term solutions for their displaced populations, but they must also allow relief aid to arrive unhindered. In particular, Georgia must lift the import tax it imposed on humanitarian goods, which is currently blocking effective aid distribution, and both countries must work to create economic opportunities for IDPs. She further urged governments to be transparent in their plans, thereby encouraging continued participation of the international community.

The United States Helsinki Commission, an independent federal agency, by law monitors and encourages progress in implementing provisions of the Helsinki Accords. The Commission, created in 1976, is composed of nine Senators, nine Representatives and one official each from the Departments of State, Defense and Commerce.

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    WASHINGTON—Following today’s announcement of the results of the constitutional referendum in Azerbaijan, in which the government reported 91 percent approval of sweeping constitutional changes, including extending the presidential term and increasing the president’s powers, Helsinki Commission Chair Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04) issued the following statement: “It is clear that the package of constitutional changes put to a vote yesterday is designed to degrade checks on the power of the president. Regardless of the final tally, this referendum is the culmination of a process that lacks legitimacy. The Azerbaijani government rushed these significant changes to a vote while depriving the Azerbaijani people of their fundamental rights necessary to freely debate the matters under consideration.  For weeks, political activists and journalists have withstood rounds of detention and harassment by the government, part of an effort to suppress the voices of those who oppose the government’s planned changes. Only a year ago, Azerbaijan blocked OSCE election observation of its parliamentary elections, illustrating Baku’s unwillingness to allow its citizens to cast ballots consistent with its OSCE commitments. I remain deeply concerned that this illegitimate process will further delay the democratic future Azerbaijanis desire and deserve. I renew my call for the Government of Azerbaijan to release all prisoners of conscience and drop charges and travel bans against them and their colleagues in civil society serving suspended sentences.” On September 8, Chairman Smith and other Members of Congress wrote an open letter to President Aliyev about the content of the Azerbaijani government's proposed amendments. In December 2015, Chairman Smith introduced H.R. 4264, the Azerbaijan Democracy Act, a bill that would deny U.S. visas to senior members of the Azerbaijani government until such a time that Azerbaijan makes substantial progress toward releasing political prisoners, ending its harassment of civil society, and holding free and fair elections.

  • Bipartisan Legislation to Bring Back Convicted Criminals Abroad Passes Subcommittee

    WASHINGTON—A bill that strengthens the ability of the United States to secure extradition of wanted fugitives and bring them home to face justice, sponsored by Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04), Chairman of the Subcommittee on Global Human Rights and International Organizations, today cleared a first and important hurdle and was adopted by the Subcommittee. The bill has 20 bipartisan co-sponsors—10 Republicans and 10 Democrats—and has now been referred to the full Committee for consideration. The Walter Patterson and Werner Foerster Justice and Extradition Act (H.R. 2189) is named after the innocent victims of two of the most infamous criminals in modern U.S. history—both of whom live openly abroad. It requires the President to provide Congress with an annual study on important aspects of U.S. extradition policy, assisting Congress as it takes action to address outstanding issues in the extradition system. Currently the President’s management of the extradition system is largely opaque to congressional oversight and hence resistant to reform—H.R. 2189 takes a big step toward changing that. “In many cases around the world, efforts to extradite convicted criminals have simply stalled, leaving surviving families without closure and our efforts to seek justice in limbo,” said Smith. “Instead of continuing to allow violent criminals to live openly abroad—apparently outside of our government’s reach—we must strengthen the Executive Branch’s ability to take action to successfully resolve extradition cases. That the murderers of Walter Patterson and Werner Foerster live openly abroad is an ongoing offense against the surviving family members of the men they murdered.” Walter Patterson was brutally killed in the course of a robbery by George Wright, who was convicted of murder, escaped prison, allegedly hijacked a commercial jetliner, and disappeared, only to be found living openly in Portugal, which  has denied extradition. Werner Foerster was a New Jersey state trooper shot during a routine traffic stop by terrorist Joanne Chesimard, who was convicted of murder, escaped prison, and made her way to Cuba, where she lives as a guest of the Cuban government—along with other fugitives the Cuban government refuses to return to the U.S. Smith is one of the foremost voices in the fight to return escaped fugitives to face U.S. justice. Since the discovery of George Wright in Portugal in 2012, he has held several meetings with and written to Portuguese government officials and corresponded with the Department of Justice on their efforts to secure the return of fugitives. In 2012, he chaired a hearing entitled “Justice in the International Extradition System: The Case of George Wright and Beyond.” H.R. 2189 enjoys the support of a diverse coalition of advocacy organizations, including Concerns of Police Survivors, the National Association of Police Organizations, the National Organization for Victim Assistance, the National Sheriffs’ Association, and the American Bail Coalition.

  • Moldova at a Crossroads

    Twenty-five years after its independence, Moldova is at a crossroads as it prepares for presidential elections scheduled for October 30. While it seeks to overcome significant internal challenges, the country is also squarely in the crosshairs of Russian destabilization efforts intended to maintain Moscow’s influence and strike at the foundation of Moldovan democracy. The experts at this briefing offered valuable insight on the significant internal and external challenges Moldova faces as it approaches presidential elections in October 2016. The speakers addressed continued threats to Moldovan territorial integrity and sovereignty; hostile Russian actions including disinformation campaigns, an economic blockade, and threatening rhetoric; and the roles of the Moldovan government and external actors, including the OSCE, in addressing Moldovan vulnerabilities. Commissioner Rep. Joe Pitts (PA-16) opened the briefing with a statement on Moldova and the Transnistrian conflict, as he has been deeply interested and engaged in Moldova throughout his career.  Witnesses Ambassador William Hill and Matthew Rojansky then discussed Moldova's internal and external challenges in greater depth. As a veteran diplomat in Moldova and the region, Ambassador William Hill assigned an absence of rule of law as Moldova’s central challenge. Mr. Rojansky, a renowned scholar on this subject, offered historical perspective on Russia’s objectives in maintaining instability in neighboring countries like Moldova. Before beginning audience Q&A, the event also welcomed comments from Tatiana Solomon, Chargé d’Affaires ad interim of the Moldovan Embassy, who thanked the witnesses and the Helsinki Commission for engagement on the issues discussed. All participants encouraged U.S. support for Moldova and the region as it works towards a stable, democratic, and prosperous future.

  • Hearing Addresses Genocide, War Crimes Driving Refugee Crisis in OSCE

    WASHINGTON—At a hearing convened today by Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04), witnesses unanimously expressed support for Chairman Smith’s recently introduced Iraq and Syria Genocide Relief and Accountability Act of 2016 (H.R. 5961), bipartisan legislation that provides relief to victims of genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes in Iraq and Syria, and accountability for perpetrators.   “The atrocities in Iraq and Syria have been so horrible, for so long, with so little action from the Administration, that it has been difficult to hope. Nevertheless, when [Secretary Kerry] declared genocide, we dared to hope that finally the Administration would hear the voices of the victims and act. Instead, the Administration has said the right words and done the wrong things,” said Chairman Smith. “Displaced genocide survivors cannot pay for food, medicine, or shelter with words from Washington,” Chairman Smith continued.  “When the Executive Branch fails to acts, then Congress must require it to act. That is why I recently authored and introduced the bipartisan Iraq and Syria Genocide Relief and Accountability Act of 2016, with Representative Anna Eshoo as my lead cosponsor.” Witnesses discussed ways to support religious and ethnic communities that have survived such atrocities. In addition, they encouraged the U.S. to fund the criminal investigation, prosecution, and conviction of the perpetrators, and identified gaps in U.S. criminal statutes that make it difficult to prosecute Americans or foreigners in the U.S. who have committed such crimes. Former U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes Issues David Scheffer said, “H.R. 5961 demonstrates an undeniable logic: the survivors of genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes in Iraq and Syria merit the fullest possible assistance of our government, including consideration of admission of victim refugees to the United States.” “The perpetrators of atrocity crimes not only in Iraq and Syria but elsewhere in the world should be subject to investigation and prosecution,” Scheffer continued. “Federal jurisdiction over crimes against humanity and war crimes remains non-existent or very limited…it is a raw fact that the United States is currently a sanctuary for alien perpetrators of crimes against humanity or war crimes.” “The Iraq and Syria Genocide Relief Act [is] a much needed, not to mention overdue, piece of legislation,” said Chris Engels, deputy director of the Commission for International Justice and Accountability. “Criminal investigations done contemporaneously with the criminal acts are essential to ensuring later accountability. Otherwise, as we have seen in the past, evidence is lost and those responsible for these mass human rights violations go unpunished.” Witnesses also highlighted the humanitarian vulnerabilities and lack of assistance that force the survivors to flee their homes and recommended ways to support entities effectively serving genocide survivors in-country, including faith-based organizations. Steve Rasche, legal counsel and director of resettlement programs for the Chaldean Catholic Archdiocese of Erbil, noted, “Since August 2014, other than initial supplies of tents and tarps, the Christian community in Iraq has received nothing in aid from any U.S. aid agencies or the UN. When we have approached any of these entities regarding the provision of aid assistance …we have been told that we have done too well in our private efforts…every morning we wake up and rob six Peters to pay 12 Pauls.” “The current policy prioritizes individual needs but does not consider the needs of vulnerable communities,” said Carl Anderson, Supreme Knight, Knights of Columbus. “On one hand, we have the unanimous policy of the elected branches of the United States Government stating that a genocide is occurring. On the other hand we have an aid bureaucracy that is allowing the intended consequence of the genocide to continue, even though it is in our power to stop it.” “There is nothing unconstitutional, illegal, unethical or unprofessional about prioritizing their right to survival as a community,” Anderson added, referring to Christian and other communities that face extinction in Iraq and Syria. Bill Canny, executive director for migration and refugee services at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), said, “We are gravely concerned by the small number of religious minorities who have been resettled in the United States during the current fiscal year.” “It is unclear at the time of this writing precisely why the percentage of Syrian Christians, who have been registered as refugees or resettled in the United States as refugees, is so low,” Canny continued. “It is clear, however, that Christians and other religious minorities have become a target for brutality at the hands of the non-state actor ISIS, and that they are fleeing for their lives, and that far too few of them have been attaining U.S. resettlement.” USCCB resettles more refugees annually in the U.S. than any other agency. Chairman Smith was joined at the hearing by a bipartisan group of lawmakers, including Helsinki Commission Co-Chair Senator Roger Wicker (MS), Ranking Commissioner Senator Ben Cardin (MD), and Commissioners Rep. Joe Pitts (PA-16) and Rep. Alan Grayson (FL-09). In 2013, ISIS began its brutal campaign of extermination and expulsion in Syria, expanding to Iraq in 2014. Many of those who survived these atrocities have been joining the flood of refugees streaming out of the region to Europe and other areas of safety. Resolving their plight is a key component to helping address the refugee crisis and has been of intense interest to countries in the OSCE region.

  • Atrocities in Iraq & Syria: Relief for Survivors and Accountability for Perpetrators

      The civil war in Syria, which began in early 2011 and since spread into Northern Iraq has devastated both countries. Estimates of the number of people who have died during Syria's civil war since March 2011 range from 250,000 to 470,000. In Iraq, the estimated range is between 19,000 and 41,650 deaths since January 2014. The people living in these regions have been subjected to an extensive list of atrocities  including genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes. Thosands of refugees have fled Iraq and Syria to seek refuge in the OSCE region. The desperate situation in these areas has resulted in the worst refugee crisis since World War II. With the war in Iraq and Syria showing little signs of abating the danger for vulnerable groups in these countries continues to worsen.  This hearing examined the current situation in Iraq and Syria regarding the persecution of religious and ethnic minorities, and looked at how the United States and the international community can best help protect persecuted people in this region and ensure that perpetrators of genocide and related crimes in Iraq and Syria are punished. It featured witnesses from CIJA, the former Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes Issues, and leaders from the Catholic community. “The atrocities in Iraq and Syria have been so horrible, for so long, with so little action from the Administration, that it has been difficult to hope. Nevertheless, when [Secretary Kerry] declared genocide, we dared to hope that finally the Administration would hear the voices of the victims and act. Instead, the Administration has said the right words and done the wrong things,” said Helsinki Commission Chairman Chris Smith (NJ), “When the Executive Branch fails to acts, then Congress must require it to act. That is why I recently authored and introduced the bipartisan Iraq and Syria Genocide Relief and Accountability Act of 2016, with Representative Anna Eshoo as my lead cosponsor."  Witnesses discussed ways to support religious and ethnic communities that have survived such atrocities. In addition, they encouraged the U.S. to fund the criminal investigation, prosecution, and conviction of the perpetrators, and identified gaps in U.S. criminal statutes that make it difficult to prosecute Americans or foreigners in the U.S. who have committed such crimes. Former U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes Issues David Scheffer said, “H.R. 5961 demonstrates an undeniable logic: the survivors of genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes in Iraq and Syria merit the fullest possible assistance of our government, including consideration of admission of victim refugees to the United States.” “The perpetrators of atrocity crimes not only in Iraq and Syria but elsewhere in the world should be subject to investigation and prosecution,” Scheffer continued. “Federal jurisdiction over crimes against humanity and war crimes remains non-existent or very limited…it is a raw fact that the United States is currently a sanctuary for alien perpetrators of crimes against humanity or war crimes.” “The Iraq and Syria Genocide Relief Act [is] a much needed, not to mention overdue, piece of legislation,” said Chris Engels, deputy director of the Commission for International Justice and Accountability. “Criminal investigations done contemporaneously with the criminal acts are essential to ensuring later accountability. Otherwise, as we have seen in the past, evidence is lost and those responsible for these mass human rights violations go unpunished.” Witnesses also highlighted the humanitarian vulnerabilities and lack of assistance that force the survivors to flee their homes and recommended ways to support entities effectively serving genocide survivors in-country, including faith-based organizations. Steve Rasche, legal counsel and director of resettlement programs for the Chaldean Catholic Archdiocese of Erbil, noted, “Since August 2014, other than initial supplies of tents and tarps, the Christian community in Iraq has received nothing in aid from any U.S. aid agencies or the UN. When we have approached any of these entities regarding the provision of aid assistance …we have been told that we have done too well in our private efforts…every morning we wake up and rob six Peters to pay 12 Pauls.” “The current policy prioritizes individual needs but does not consider the needs of vulnerable communities,” said Carl Anderson, Supreme Knight, Knights of Columbus. “On one hand, we have the unanimous policy of the elected branches of the United States Government stating that a genocide is occurring. On the other hand we have an aid bureaucracy that is allowing the intended consequence of the genocide to continue, even though it is in our power to stop it.” Bill Canny, executive director for migration and refugee services at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), said, “We are gravely concerned by the small number of religious minorities who have been resettled in the United States during the current fiscal year.” “It is unclear at the time of this writing precisely why the percentage of Syrian Christians, who have been registered as refugees or resettled in the United States as refugees, is so low,” Canny continued. USCCB resettles more refugees annually in the U.S. than any other agency. Chairman Smith was joined at the hearing by a bipartisan group of lawmakers, including Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Senator Roger Wicker (MS), Ranking Commissioner Senator Ben Cardin (MD), and Commissioners Rep. Joe Pitts (PA-16) and Rep. Alan Grayson (FL-09).                

  • Helsinki Commission Briefing to Examine Challenges to Moldovan Security, Including Russian Destabilization Efforts

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following briefing: “Moldova at a Crossroads” Thursday, September 22, 2016 4:00 PM Rayburn House Office Building Room 2456 Twenty-five years after its independence, Moldova is at a crossroads as it prepares for presidential elections scheduled for October 30. While it seeks to overcome significant internal challenges, the country is also squarely in the crosshairs of Russian destabilization efforts intended to maintain Moscow’s influence and strike at the foundation of Moldovan democracy. Speakers will address continued threats to Moldovan territorial integrity and sovereignty; hostile Russian actions including disinformation campaigns, an economic blockade, and threatening rhetoric; and the roles of the Moldovan government and external actors, including the OSCE, in addressing Moldovan vulnerabilities. The following experts are scheduled to participate: Ambassador William Hill, National War College, National Defense University Matthew Rojansky, Director, Kennan Institute, Woodrow Wilson Center

  • Helsinki Commission Honored for Work on Ukraine

    At yesterday’s 2016 Ukraine in Washington forum, the U.S.-Ukraine Foundation recognized the Helsinki Commission for four decades of support for Ukraine and Ukrainian dissidents. “Long before Ukraine’s independence and the formation of the House and Senate Ukraine Caucuses, we must remember there was the Congressional Helsinki Commission,” said Robert McConnell, co-founder of the U.S.-Ukraine Foundation. “It was doing everything possible to shine international klieg lights on Ukraine’s human rights issues, from its political prisoners to the illegality of the Ukrainian Catholic Church.”  The Helsinki Commission has a long history of supporting Ukrainians’ aspirations for human rights and democracy, even prior to independence when Ukraine – the largest non-Russian republic in the Soviet Union – was viewed as a particular threat to Moscow’s rule. Since 1991, the Commission has been a strong supporter of the development of an independent, secure, democratic Ukraine. The Commission was instrumental in introducing and ensuring passage of the original resolution calling for the U.S. to recognize Ukraine’s independence in the face of State Department opposition.  In the intervening 25 years, Helsinki Commission hearings, briefings, and other activities have highlighted issues including Chornobyl; the state of democracy and rule of law; the political situation in Ukraine; elections; and – more recently – Russia’s war against Ukraine and human rights violations in Crimea and the occupied territories of the Donbas.  “We know the Ukrainian people want freedom and democracy, whether it be in Crimea or other parts of the country,” said Helsinki Commission Chairman Christopher Smith (NJ-04). “Yet we find again that this persistent aggression by the Russians—which is reminiscent of Soviet times—continues to make the freedom, democracy, and prosperity that the people so richly deserve that much harder to achieve.” (View video.) Commissioners have also played an active role in the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly on Ukraine, especially in condemning Russia’s aggression and violation of all core OSCE principles enshrined in the Helsinki Final Act. Commission leadership has led several Congressional delegations to Ukraine, including three since Russia’s invasion, and the Commission has observed virtually every national election in Ukraine since 1990. “The Helsinki Commission’s efforts then and now must never be forgotten as they were – though often like cries in the wilderness – critically important in keeping the truth of Ukraine alive and in providing a rallying point for so many efforts that eventually helped Ukraine shed the Kremlin’s shackles,” McConnell said. “The Helsinki Commission for decades was like a beacon of hope. It was an outside promise for the Ukrainian Helsinki Group and a critical source of support for Ukrainian-Americans and so many others as they persevered in their quest for freedom against what seemed like insurmountable odds.”

  • Azerbaijan’s Constitutional Referendum Creates Crisis of Legitimacy

    WASHINGTON—In a recent letter to Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04) expressed deep concern about the country’s September 26 constitutional referendum, which proposes changes that would undermine Azerbaijan’s international obligations to protect democracy. The bipartisan letter urging President Aliyev to reconsider holding the referendum and to live up to his government’s commitment to human rights was also signed by Helsinki Commissioner Rep. Joe Pitts (PA-16) and Rep. Adam Schiff (CA-28). “By lengthening presidential terms and expanding presidential authorities, the proposed constitutional changes are susceptible to abuse that would entrench political authority, making it less responsive to the will of the Azerbaijani people,” the Members of Congress wrote. “We are especially troubled by amendments that would restrict fundamental rights that are vital to open public debate and government accountability.” Proposed changes to Azerbaijan’s constitution include extending the presidential term from five to seven years; removing the age limits for holding elected office; providing immunity for vice presidents; allowing the president to dissolve the national assembly and call early elections; and reorganizing the presidential line of succession. The Government of Azerbaijan has already faced international criticism for its crackdown on journalists, activists, opposition politicians, and members of religious minorities.  The referendum would further restrict fundamental freedoms by placing limits on freedom of expression when it provokes “hostility,” freedom of assembly when it “disrupt[s]…public morale,” and property rights when they violate “social justice and effective use.” “The upcoming referendum creates a grave crisis of legitimacy,” the letter read. “Neither the international community nor the Azerbaijani people can have confidence in a vote that takes place without free access to information, open debate, and transparency. That the Azerbaijani people are being asked to vote on measures that erode democratic principles makes the situation even more unacceptable.” In December 2015, Chairman Smith introduced H.R. 4264, the Azerbaijan Democracy Act, a bill that would deny U.S. visas to senior members of the Azerbaijani government until such a time that Azerbaijan makes substantial progress toward releasing political prisoners, ending its harassment of civil society, and holding free and fair elections. The full text of the letter is below. September 8, 2016 His Excellency Ilham Aliyev President of the Republic of Azerbaijan Presidential Palace Istiglaliyyat Street 19 Baku, AZ 1066 Dear President Aliyev, We write to you to express our deep concern regarding Azerbaijan’s upcoming constitutional referendum on September 26, 2016. We believe that the proposed changes to the constitution and the means for adopting them will undermine your government’s international obligations to protect democracy and human rights. By lengthening presidential terms and expanding presidential authorities, the proposed constitutional changes are susceptible to abuse that would entrench political authority, making it less responsive to the will of the Azerbaijani people. We are especially troubled by amendments that would restrict fundamental rights that are vital to open public debate and government accountability. Shortly following independence, the Government of Azerbaijan in 1992 joined the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) thereby expressing its commitment to the protection of fundamental rights and freedoms as one of the basic purposes of government. We regret that in the years hence Azerbaijan's human rights record fails to reflect this commitment. Time and again, the credibility of Azerbaijani elections has been marred by credible reports of ballot stuffing and irregularities with vote counting, as well as limitations on freedom of expression and freedom of association. These troubling precedents motivate our concern about the upcoming referendum. If successful, the vote would change the constitution to extend the presidential term from five to seven years, remove the age limits for holding elected office, provide immunity for vice presidents, allow the president to dissolve the national assembly and call early elections, as well as reorganize the presidential line of succession. Additionally, it would subject fundamental rights to vaguely worded restrictions, circumscribing freedom of expression when it provokes “hostility,” freedom of assembly when it “disrupt[s]…public morale,” and property rights when they violate “social justice and effective use.” We are deeply concerned that Azerbaijani voters are being asked to consider such consequential changes to Azerbaijan’s constitutional framework in a climate that makes free debate all but impossible. In recent days, it has been reliably reported that a number of political activists campaigning against the referendum and several journalists have been detained on trumped-up charges and some have faced mistreatment and torture at the hands of authorities. Even before the latest round of arrests and intimidation, half a dozen journalists were already in jail, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty has remained closed since December 2014, and other independent journalists and media outlets faced official harassment. The upcoming referendum creates a grave crisis of legitimacy. Neither the international community nor the Azerbaijani people can have confidence in a vote that takes place without free access to information, open debate, and transparency. That the Azerbaijani people are being asked to vote on measures that erode democratic principles makes the situation even more unacceptable. We urge you to reconsider this constitutional referendum and to re-invigorate your government’s flagging commitment to promote the freedom and dignity of its people by ceasing all harassment and proceedings that target political activists and journalists who peacefully express their visions for Azerbaijan. We are inspired by the example of these brave voices and hope that your government will recognize that Azerbaijan’s strength and stability derives from the liberty of its people. Sincerely, Christopher H. Smith Member of Congress Joseph R. Pitts Member of Congress Adam B. Schiff Member of Congress           

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