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The Helsinki Commission, Forty Years Ago and Today
Profile: Spencer Oliver
Tuesday, February 07, 2017

Spencer Oliver saw the foundation of the Helsinki Commission as its first Chief of Staff, from 1976 to 1985. After subsequent service as Chief Counsel at the House Foreign Affairs Committee, he served as the first Secretary General of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly from October 1992 to December 2015.

Spencer Oliver, a personal witness to the diplomacy that brought trans-Atlantic relations from the Cold War era to the present, recently paid a visit to the Helsinki Commission offices he first opened in 1976.  After a nine-year tenure as the Commission’s first Chief of Staff, Mr. Oliver remained involved with the Helsinki Process through his subsequent career in the Congress and at the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly. Mr. Oliver gave a short interview on the Commission’s accomplishments over four decades, and prospects for the future.

Before the establishment of the Helsinki Commission in 1976, Oliver observed, “human rights were not really a component of U.S. foreign policy. It was the Commission that made a strong effort for President Carter to make human rights a definite element in his foreign policy portfolio.”

He recalled a private foreign policy strategy meeting in the fall of 1976 with then-candidate Jimmy Carter’s foreign policy team. Then-Helsinki Commission Chairman Dante B. Fascell, a U.S. Representative from Florida, made a pitch about why human rights should be on Carter’s agenda.  Senator Hubert Humphrey, a very close friend and advisor to Carter, slammed his hand on the table and said, “By golly, Dante’s right! Human rights ought to be one of the principal pillars of the Carter foreign policy!”

After Carter took office, Chairman Fascell and his staff, including Mr. Oliver, met with the new President’s Secretary of State, Cyrus Vance, to discuss a plan to make human rights a U.S. foreign policy priority. They recommended that: 1) the State Department position of “Coordinator of Humanitarian Affairs” be elevated to a full Bureau for Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs; 2) Patricia M. Derian, a civil rights activist from Mississippi, become the first Assistant Secretary of State to head that Bureau; 3) the Assistant Secretary also become the State Department’s representative on the Helsinki Commission; and 4) the Helsinki Commission be fully integrated into inter-agency CSCE planning and the U.S. Delegation to the upcoming CSCE Review Meeting in Belgrade. The Secretary agreed and implemented these recommendations, despite resistance within the State Department.

“Without Dante Fascell and Patt Derian, human rights probably would not have had the place it eventually did in American foreign policy,” Oliver observed.

Oliver mentioned with sadness the passing of Derian in May 2016.

Mr. Oliver explained that the Helsinki Commission was also partly responsible for creating the practice of human rights implementation, review, and accountability. At the 1977 Belgrade Review Meeting, the Helsinki Commission participants in the U.S. Delegation articulated specific cases of human rights abuses and violations of the Helsinki Accords committed by the Soviet Union. In response, the Soviet delegation shot back with criticisms of U.S. human rights issues, such as racism and poverty, to which the United States responded by investigating and reporting factually on these concerns. By publishing a human rights compliance report, the United States set a precedent for accountability on the part of all Helsinki Final Act signatory states.

“The Helsinki Accords,” Oliver explained, “were not just about how the countries treat one another, but also about how countries treat their own citizens.”

Noting that, today, Russia’s human rights conditions are worse than they have been since the collapse of the USSR, Mr. Oliver recalled moments that looked more promising. Accompanying Fascell to Moscow in April 1986, he was among the first American officials to meet with Mikhail Gorbachev after his consolidation of power as leader of the Soviet Union. In a four-hour meeting at the Kremlin on a Saturday morning, Mr. Oliver expected Gorbachev to find recourse to concerns raised by displaying the same defensiveness and counter-criticism as previous Soviet leaders. Instead, Gorbachev was honest about the issues his country was facing, and expressed his intention to enact economic and political reforms to open the Soviet Union up to the rest of the world. Mr. Oliver left that meeting feeling encouraged about the direction of the USSR.

This progressive streak in Russian leadership was short-lived, as illustrated by Vladimir Putin’s increasingly authoritarian rule and denial of basic freedoms. Mr. Oliver believes that Putin’s rise to power and current popularity result from the turmoil and economic devastation of the 1990s, compounded with his tight grip on the media. “There’s no country in the world where the dictator controls the media and he isn’t running at 80 percent in the polls,” he said.

In terms of U.S. policy towards Russia, Mr. Oliver believes that strengthening and widening those economic sanctions already in place would put the most pressure on the Russian government to change its ways. “When the Russians invaded Crimea, they broke every one of the ten principles of the Helsinki Final Act,” he said.  “We should let the Russians know that we don’t intend to back off until they change their ways.” In the meantime, the Commission can continue to play an important role maintaining the gains made in promoting human rights through bilateral as well as multilateral diplomacy.

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Secretary of State Henry Kissinger famously decried the Helsinki Final Act, saying, “They can write it in Swahili for all I care… The Conference can never end up with a meaningful document.” Opposition to the Helsinki Final Act was not limited to Foggy Bottom. The Wall Street Journal published the editorial “Jerry, Don’t Go” just prior to President Ford’s departure to sign the document in Finland, reflecting widespread opposition from U.S. foreign policy hawks and Americans across the country who descended from the “captive nations” of Eastern Europe. What most observers at the time overlooked, however, was the Helsinki Final Act’s uniquely comprehensive definition of “security.” The Act contains 10 principles guiding inter-state relations, including respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms; respect for sovereign equality; recognition of the territorial integrity of states; and the commitment of states to fulfill in good faith their obligations under international law. 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A Record of Results The value of the OSCE and the effectiveness of American involvement are evident in the organization’s more recent evolution and achievements. This is no Cold War relic. We have seen examples of multilateral success in many initiatives, beginning with its quick embrace of newly independent states, from the Balkans to Eastern Europe and Central Asia. As multiethnic states broke apart, the OSCE created a high commissioner on national minorities in 1992 to address ethnic tensions and proactively prevent conflict between or within states over national minority issues. Participating states developed mechanisms to respond to the most recalcitrant actors, such as the unprecedented suspension of Yugoslavia the same year for the “clear, gross, and uncorrected” violations of Helsinki principles by the regime of Slobodan Milosevic against Bosnia and Herzegovina. Under OSCE auspices, internal political confrontations in Serbia in 1996 and Albania in 1997 were resolved through high-level engagement before they became a broader threat to peace and prosperity in Europe. The United States led the way, generating the political will to act quickly and with resolve. Robust field missions also were created in the 1990s to respond to conflicts, first in the Balkans and then extending into Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, and Central Asia. In some places, such as Kosovo, the OSCE often was the only acceptable international monitor or facilitator on the ground, serving as the eyes and ears of the international community, bringing opposing sides together, and mitigating spillover effects in neighboring countries. Today, the OSCE’s civilian Special Monitoring Mission (SMM) to Ukraine is the only independent observer group in the war zone. Established in 2014 to monitor implementation of the Minsk Agreements, its approximately 700 monitors provide clear and unbiased reporting of ceasefire violations and human costs of the conflict. Approximately half of the U.S. contribution to the OSCE goes toward funding the SMM. The mission faces challenges, including attempts to sabotage its work and concerns about security. The latter was tragically demonstrated by the death of Joseph Stone, a U.S. paramedic killed last year when his vehicle struck a landmine in separatist-controlled territory. Without the SMM’s reporting, however, we would lack critical information to understand and address ongoing Russian aggression against Ukraine. Kremlin propaganda would have a clear field to disguise the true nature and scale of the conflict. The OSCE also sets the gold standard for election observation across the region. The organization’s trained observers partner with international lawmakers, including ourselves, to analyze election-related laws and systems and the effectiveness of their implementation. The evaluations that these missions produce are critical benchmarks for OSCE countries and support U.S. efforts to promote human rights, democracy, and the rule of law around the world. Pressure from the organization and its participating states has been a major factor in the release of political prisoners in countries like Azerbaijan. For example, the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, and the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly publicly condemned Baku for its targeting of investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova and the broader use of its judicial system to repress political opponents, journalists, and minorities. The Helsinki Commission also weighed in. In May 2016, Ismayilova was released from prison. Our actions in this and similar cases demonstrate global leadership. We welcome the recent nomination of a new U.S. permanent representative to the OSCE. This important post has remained vacant for far too long. We urge our Senate colleagues to swiftly consider the nominee, who will be responsible for leading America’s vigorous defense of democracy and human rights in the region. Let us also not overlook the fact that our work in the OSCE in relation to Russia is not simply to counter Moscow’s anti-democratic ambitions. Follow-up meetings to the original Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe became one of a shrinking number of places where East-West dialogue could take place during the Cold War. Likewise, after Russia was suspended from the G8 in March 2014, today’s OSCE provides one of the few remaining opportunities to engage with Russia and hold the Kremlin accountable to principles it has endorsed. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov attends OSCE ministerial meetings, where he easily – and with great success – engages with senior officials from around the region. That alone should encourage our secretary of state to be present. Secretary Tillerson attended the 2017 ministerial, and we urge Secretary Pompeo to do the same. Future Challenges Along with successes, we also have seen areas where multilateralism has fallen short. Areas like Nagorno-Karabakh, Transnistria, Chechnya, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia have consumed OSCE attention and resources, but unfortunately, the organization’s actions have not thawed these frozen conflicts. The OSCE may have kept things from getting worse than they might have been otherwise; this is something to praise, but cannot yet be counted as a win. These efforts have been hindered in part by the otherwise positive requirement that major decisions in the organization require consensus. This rule is vital to the OSCE’s success. The organization can convene all parties on an even footing and – because no country can claim that it didn’t voluntarily agree to its commitments – the rule gives unique force to the OSCE’s actions. However, decision-making by consensus also allows a single intransigent country to wield its veto as a weapon, even in cases of otherwise overwhelming agreement. In 2008, Russia successfully blocked the OSCE from establishing a field mission in Georgia as Russian-backed separatists occupied South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Since then, resistance to hosting or authorizing field missions, a core capability of the OSCE, has spread. Belarus kicked out its OSCE mission in 2011. Azerbaijan forced the mission in Baku to close in 2015, and two years later, it insisted on the shuttering of a mission in Armenia. Mongolia, the newest OSCE participating state, has repeatedly requested a mission to foster its continued democratic development and build closer ties with other participating states. Moscow consistently blocks that request. A related and ongoing problem is the lack of transparency of the OSCE’s decision-making. Opening its official deliberations to the public would help make those countries that thwart progress more broadly accountable for their recalcitrance. A more recent challenge comes from the government of Turkey. Ankara continues to use the 2016 coup attempt as pretext for not only violently repressing its citizens and detaining others, including Americans, but also for limiting the participation of non-governmental organizations in certain OSCE meetings. The OSCE is the only international organization that allows NGOs to participate equally with governments in meetings on human rights commitments, allowing these groups to raise their concerns directly. If Turkey has its way, human rights groups might be denied a seat at the table. It is easy to imagine which countries quietly hope this effort will succeed. The United States must continue to make it clear that it is not one of them. Indeed, the moral here is that the United States should not only support the strengths and potential of the OSCE, but we must also be present and potent when progress and principles are challenged within the organization. Our colleagues in both chambers of Congress have the passion and determination to do just that. In these days of partisan discord, we must remember – and treasure – the fact that Congress is broadly committed to the principles enshrined in the Helsinki Final Act: respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, democratic principles, and liberty. We see this in the establishment of the Helsinki Commission itself, a unique agency conceived by Congress to strengthen the legitimacy of human rights monitoring, defend those persecuted for acting on their rights and freedoms, and ensure that violations of Helsinki provisions are given full consideration in U.S. foreign policy. The OSCE’s broad membership and comprehensive definition of security make it an ideal platform to advocate for our interests in a vital region. Its institutions remain singularly placed to moderate regional conflicts, promote respect for human rights, and safeguard essential elements of democracy. We have not only the right, but also the duty, to hold countries responsible if they fail to adhere to the basic principles that we all agreed to in 1975. We also have the responsibility to hear and consider other participating states when they feel that the United States is not fully meeting our commitments. Leading by example means that we must be held accountable, too. At this critical juncture, when the rules-based order appears particularly fragile, any weakening or absence of the OSCE could irreversibly damage the chances for democracy and peace in the region. We must not allow that to happen – and the key is our own steadfastness, in words and deeds. Roger Wicker (@SenatorWicker) is chairman of the U.S. Helsinki Commission and a vice president of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly. A member of the Republican Party, he has represented Mississippi in the Senate since December 2007. He previously represented Mississippi for 13 years in the House of Representatives. Ben Cardin (@SenatorCardin) is ranking Senate member of the U.S. Helsinki Commission. He serves as special representative on anti-Semitism, racism, and intolerance for the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly. A member of the Democratic Party, he has represented Maryland in the Senate since January 2007 after 20 years in the House of Representatives.

  • Belarus Reality Check

    On October 22, 2018, over 50 international analysts, practitioners, diplomats and policymakers gathered in Vilnius, Lithuania, for the eighth Belarus Reality Check, a full-day review of the Belarusian economy, political and human rights developments, and changes in the regional security situation in and around Belarus. Former Helsinki Commission Senior State Department Advisor Scott Rauland joined representatives of the IMF, the World Bank, Lithuania’s Foreign Ministry, the EU Ambassador to Belarus, and dozens of analysts from Belarus, Lithuania, Latvia, Poland, Ukraine, Germany, and other European nations for the event. Political Developments in Belarus During the first panel, presenters noted that sovereignty and stability remain top priorities for the Government of Belarus. Despite a great deal of work by the OSCE’s Office of Democracy Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) in recent years, its recommendations to improve Belarusian elections have still not been implemented, and panelists were skeptical that any action would be taken before parliamentary and presidential elections scheduled for 2020.  Although the Belarusian political opposition remains divided and marginalized, several panelists believed that support for the opposition is growing.  Unfortunately, there was consensus that Russian malign influence in Belarus is also growing, primarily via Russian exploitation of social media platforms in Belarus. The Belarusian Economy The second panel featured four presentations that examined challenges facing the Belarusian economy and analyzed the country’s agonizing choice between beginning long-overdue reforms or remaining dependent on Russian subsidies for oil and gas to shore up failing state-owned enterprises (SOEs).  Panelists pointed out that— due largely to those subsidies—the Belarusian economy has fared better than many of its neighbors for years, and that Belarusians enjoy a better standard of living than a number of their Eastern European counterparts.  Polling by the IPM Research Center has shown that a top priority for Belarusians, and thus for the Government of Belarus, is low inflation.  According to the same study, most Belarusians are satisfied with the current state of affairs. Should the subsidies end, Belarus could face a true crisis.  Belarusian Foreign Policy The final panel discussed Belarusian relations with its neighbors—strangely including China, but omitting the U.S.  Positive trend lines were noted for Belarusian relations with all major countries except Russia, and international organizations have demonstrated increased interest in Belarus. In particular, OSCE Secretary General Greminger visited Belarus for a third time in 2018.  Anaïs Marin of France, recently appointed as UN Special Rapporteur on Belarus, remarked that progress had been made by Belarus on its 2016 National Action Plan on Human Rights, but described continuing Belarusian support of the death penalty as something that required continued scrutiny by the international community.  One analyst took EU policy to task for “aiming at progress, not results.”  Russian policy in Belarus, he claimed, is intended to produce results—namely, to keep Belarus under control and on a short leash.  Another panelist described the conundrum of trying to contain Russian influence in Belarus: “We can’t get rid of Russian influence (money) in Latvia or London; how can we expect to get them out of Belarus?” In a concluding question and answer session, Rauland—who served as charge d’affaires at the U.S. Embassy in Minsk from June 2014 through July 2016—asked the panel to comment on the diverging EU and U.S. strategies on Belarus, noting that the EU had decided to lift sanctions on Belarus completely in 2016, while the U.S. had merely suspended them while awaiting further improvements in human rights.  The panelist who responded to that question described EU policy as a mistake, noting that political prisoners had been released (the event which triggered sanctions relief by the EU), but that their civil rights had not been restored, something he felt should have been a condition for the EU completely lifting sanctions. Answers to a question earlier in the day, asking whether panelists were optimistic about the future for Belarus, may have captured the range of views of the participants best of all.  “Yes,” replied the first to answer.  “I’m ‘realistic’ about progress,” replied the next panelist.  “And I’m an optimistic realist,” concluded the third. The event was organized by the Eastern Europe Studies Centre with the support of USAID, Pact and Forum Syd, together with programmatic contributions from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

  • Who's Afraid of Civil Society?

    By Erika Schlager, Counsel for International Law “How will you mark the anniversary?” That’s what Timothy Garton Ash asked dissident playwright Vaclav Havel 30 years ago, prior to the 70th anniversary of the Czechoslovak state. The answer? A symposium on the incidence of the number “eight” in Czechoslovak history: 1918 (the creation of the modern Czechoslovak state), 1938 (Nazi Germany’s invasion of Czech lands), 1948 (the Communist takeover), 1968 (the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact invasion that crushed the Prague Spring) . . . and 1988. As a junior Helsinki Commission staffer, I attended that symposium. It was my first solo trip for the Commission. At the time, the 35 signatories of the Helsinki Final Act were meeting in Vienna to review the implementation of the Final Act, negotiate new commitments, and schedule future meetings. Czechoslovakia—the Czechoslovak Socialist Federal Republic, to be more precise—had proposed holding a future meeting in Prague as part of the Helsinki process work on economic cooperation. And why not? Budapest, the capital of another one-party communist state, had managed to become the host for a cultural forum in 1985. In Vienna, the Soviet delegation had boldly proposed holding a follow-up meeting on human rights in Moscow. However, Czechoslovakia—unlike Hungary, Poland or even the Soviet Union under Gorbachev—remained a firmly hardline communist regime through the 1980s, with significant restrictions on civil society.  According to the U.S. Department of State at the time, freedom of assembly was severely restricted. Efforts to hold independently organized meetings or demonstrations systematically resulted in arrests, criminal prosecutions, assaults on persons attempting to hold such events, sometimes using water cannon, dogs, tear gas and truncheons.  Nevertheless, as the Prague symposium approached, the United States had still not taken a position in Vienna on the Czechoslovak proposal. Earlier in the year, authorities in Czechoslovakia disrupted efforts by independent peace activists to hold a meeting in Prague by refusing to allow foreigners to enter the country to participate. If Czechoslovakia was unwilling to allow openness and access at such meetings, was it fit to serve as the host of a Helsinki process follow-up meeting? The November meeting would be kind of a test. My handler from the U.S. Embassy welcomed to my visit. The United States had recently declared a Czechoslovak diplomat in Washington persona non grata for actions inconsistent with his diplomatic status, a euphemism for spying. The U.S. Embassy, then led by Ambassador Shirley Temple Black, assumed it was only a matter of time before the Czechoslovak regime would kick an American out of Prague in retaliation. The embassy thought it might avoid that outcome if it cut off ties with dissidents. My visit gave the embassy’s political officer an opportunity to resume those ties.  Still, he warned me, I might be the convenient target of retaliation. Czechoslovakian authorities allowed foreign participants to attend the symposium, but by the time my plane landed, the principal organizers of the event, including Vaclav Havel, had been arrested. I was deposited at the Hotel Jalta, along with  others who had come from abroad to participate. The small black and white television in my room had a neatly typed card in front of it that said in English, “Do not attempt to change the station.” I spun the dial at every opportunity.  This is where I first met Max van der Stoel, the former Dutch Foreign Minister and man of inestimable integrity who later became the OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities.  Eventually, Vaclav Havel was released, and I met with him and other dissidents before heading to a “parallel” symposium on “8s” organized by exiles in Vienna. In Vienna, I also reported to the head of the U.S. delegation to the Vienna Follow-up Meeting, Ambassador Warren Zimmerman, about the events in Prague. On November 15, 1988, Ambassador Zimmerman announced the U.S. position on the Czechoslovak bid to host a follow-up meeting, noting that the lack of openness and access made U.S. endorsement impossible: . . . [T]he pattern of repression in Czechoslovakia, together with the persistent efforts of the Czechoslovak delegation to secure approval for Prague as host of an economic follow-up, lead me to state for the record the U.S. position on the candidacy of Czechoslovakia . . .  [A] prospective host should reflect commitment to openness and access, for its visitors and for its own citizens, that has been so well exemplified by the government of Austria at the Vienna meeting. By this simple and reasonable standard, the government of Czechoslovakia fails – and fails abysmally. For that reason, the United States will not join any proposal that any post-Vienna meeting be held in Czechoslovakia. That decision is irrevocable; it will not be subject to review or change during the life of the Vienna meeting. In June 1989, an American diplomat – my control officer for the November symposium – was declared persona non grata by the Czechoslovak authorities, in retaliation for the U.S. expulsion of another Czechoslovak diplomat from Washington, and expelled one-month short of the end of his three-year tour. In November 1989, the communist police violently broke up a peaceful pro-democracy demonstration and brutally beat many student participants. They also planted a false story in the opposition that a student demonstrator had been beaten to death. The secret police thought they would be able to reveal that the opposition report of a fatality was false and thereby discredit the growing dissident movement. Their plan backfired. Instead, as journalist Mary Battiata wrote, “a half-baked secret police plan to discredit a couple of dissidents apparently boomeranged and turned a sputtering student protest into a national rebellion.” The United States continues to advocate for openness and access for civil society at meetings organized in the Helsinki process.  Hopefully, it will continue to do so with the same firmness and determination it did 30 years ago.

  • Chairman Wicker Welcomes Nomination of James Gilmore as U.S. Ambassador to the OSCE

    WASHINGTON—Following yesterday’s nomination of Gov. Jim Gilmore to serve as Representative of the United States to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) issued the following statement: “I applaud the Trump Administration’s decision to appoint Gov. Jim Gilmore to this important post. Nominating someone of Gov. Gilmore’s stature sends a firm message to Vienna about America’s engagement in OSCE initiatives. I urge my Senate colleagues to move swiftly on this nomination.” Gov. Gilmore currently serves as President and CEO of American Opportunity Foundation. Previously, he served as Governor of Virginia, Attorney General of Virginia, and as Chairman of the Congressional Advisory Panel to Assess Domestic Response Capabilities for Terrorism Involving Weapons of Mass Destruction, a national panel established by Congress to assess federal, state, and local government capabilities to respond to a terrorist attack. Gov. Gilmore served in the United States Army for three years, where he was assigned to United States Army Intelligence in West Germany. He is a graduate of the University of Virginia and the University of Virginia School of Law. Gov. Gilmore is the recipient of the Air Force Exceptional Service Award and the Joint Service Commendation Medal for Service to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.  If confirmed, Gov. Gilmore will have the rank of Ambassador. With 57 participating States in North America, Europe, and Central Asia, the OSCE is the world's largest regional security organization. Headquartered in Vienna, Austria, the OSCE sets standards in fields including military security, economic and environmental cooperation, and human rights and humanitarian concerns. In addition, the OSCE undertakes a variety of preventive diplomacy initiatives designed to prevent, manage, and resolve conflict within and among the participating States.

  • A New Approach to Europe?

    President Trump has turned decades-old conventional wisdom on U.S. policy towards Europe on its head. His description of the European Union as a foe and embrace of populist leaders from Hungary’s Viktor Orban to Italy’s Giuseppe Conte have little historical precedent since World War II. With transatlantic relations in flux, observers wonder whether the approach that has guided our policy towards Europe since World War II has run its course.  At this Helsinki Commission briefing, distinguished experts on U.S.-European relations examined the historical context of the relationship and asked whether European integration remains in the U.S. national interest, and whether populist movements in Europe should be considered a threat or an opportunity. 

  • Beyond Tolerance

    George Washington penned a letter to the Touro Synagogue of Newport, Rhode Island in 1790, underscoring that “everyone shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.” Washington envisioned an America where religious pluralism was not just present but actively protected. This briefing examined the role of faith in the public square as a good in and of itself and as a public good. Eric Treene, Special Counsel for Religions Discrimination in the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice, noted a duality in the spirit of the American Constitution’s Establishment Clause and the 1777 Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom: neither should someone be forced to support a certain faith nor should he be made to suffer on account of his faith. Treene reemphasized that natural law solidifies our inalienable right to pursue religion and that the founding fathers believed that pluralism must not exclude certain religions. Treene said the Department of Justice strives to defend sincere and “deeply held” religious beliefs while permitting faith to flourish as much as possible without government intervention. Beyond the external ability to worship, Father Deacon Andrew Bennett, Canada’s first Ambassador for Religious Freedom and Director of the Cardus Religious Freedom Institute, underscored faith’s meaningful ability to address metaphysical and existential questions which have been answered by a myriad of faith traditions. Pluralism means that differing ethical and moral views are to be protected insofar as they are non-violent. Fundamentally, pluralism demands freedom of religion, and Father Deacon Bennett argued that a pluralistic society best promotes human flourishing. Dr. Sophie van Bijsterveld, Senator in the Dutch Parliament and Professor of Religion, Law and Society at Radboud University, noted that respect and tolerance, which are often invoked in the context of pluralism, are not clearly defined. To achieve these coexistent ends, she borrowed terms from the former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams to argue that government authorities may employ “programmatic secularism,” which deters religious activity, or “procedural secularism,” which welcomes religious activity. A contextual understanding of the word “secular” matters especially to current debates over the intersection between values and controversial political subjects like immigration, integration, foreign influencing, and radicalization, etc. Democratic governments struggle to define secularism, and they are further beset by broader definitions from international bodies like the European Court of Human Rights which seeks to protect religious liberties individually yet universally.   Equal treatment among varying cases has been a challenge, as Dr. van Bijsterveld noted that “equal treatment applies in equal circumstances [but] equal treatment…is not necessarily identical treatment.” While the legal uncertainty resulting from diverse religious practice does pose a challenge to legal institutions, overreliance on secularism in the name of fairness could also threaten equal treatment of religious activities. Ideally, secularism is a neutral ideology, but in Canada, Father Deacon Bennett expressed concern over a “prescribed diversity” and understanding of secularism which might fetter religious freedom. Under “prescribed diversity,” official support for any one ideology risks belittling or demonizing other forms of religious expression under what Father Deacon Bennett termed “illiberal totalitarianism in the public square.” A balance must be maintained so that faith is not reduced to an entirely private affair, compelling faith to vacate the public square. Treene commented on this difficult tension through the example of French laïcité, government-enforced secularism in the public square. The French government has not been a neutral referee in the fight between secularism and religious expression, and controversial decisions like the French headscarf ban have endeavored to solidify a secular foundation in the public square, arguably at the expense of religious expression. The degrees to which religion should counteract secularism or vice versa will continue to be debated, but the panelists all concurred that it is the role of society to respect inherent human dignity and to respect others’ rights to freedom of conscience, expression and association. As Dr. van Bijsterveld noted, this also includes mutual understanding between public authorities and religious communities. The implication of such cooperation is especially significant in a politically polarized society because greater amounts of religious freedom correlates with decreased levels of social conflict, according to recent scholarship at the Religious Freedom Research Project. Following George Washington’s encouragement of diverse religious practice in 1790’s America, we too should respect faith’s essential place in the public square in 2018, panelists argued.

  • Helsinki Commission Briefing to Explore Shifts in U.S. Approach to Europe

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following briefing: A NEW APPROACH TO EUROPE? U.S. Interests, Nationalist Movements, and the European Union Thursday, November 1, 2018 10:00 a.m. Senate Dirksen Office Building Room 562 Live Webcast: www.facebook.com/HelsinkiCommission President Trump has turned decades-old conventional wisdom on U.S. policy towards Europe on its head. His description of the European Union as a foe and embrace of populist leaders from Hungary’s Viktor Orban to Italy’s Giuseppe Conte have little historical precedent since World War II.  With transatlantic relations in flux, observers wonder whether the approach that has guided our policy towards Europe since World War II has run its course.  At this Helsinki Commission briefing, distinguished experts on U.S.-European relations will examine the historical context of the relationship and ask whether European integration remains in the U.S. national interest and whether populist movements in Europe should be considered a threat or an opportunity.   Expert panelists scheduled to participate include: Ted R. Bromund, Senior Research Fellow in Anglo-American Relations, Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom, The Heritage Foundation Paul Coyer, Research Professor, The Institute of World Politics Jeffrey Rathke, President, American Institute for Contemporary German Studies, Johns Hopkins University

  • Faith in the Public Square to Be Discussed at Helsinki Commission Briefing

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following briefing: BEYOND TOLERANCE Faith in the Public Square Monday, October 29, 2018 2:30 p.m. Russell Senate Office Building Room 188 Live Webcast: www.facebook.com/HelsinkiCommission Religious freedom is enshrined in the constitution and laws of the United States, Canada, and many western European countries. As participating States of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, they have repeatedly affirmed that religious freedom is a fundamental freedom and committed to respecting it. But over the past few decades, there have been shifts to language and attitudes of “tolerance” regarding faith in the public square. This briefing will examine faith in the public square as a good in and of itself, a social good, and essential for modern democracy. Panelists will discuss the interplay between public expressions of faith and law, policy, culture, society, and human flourishing in the United States, Canada, and Europe. They will also discuss philosophy underpinning original and shifting understandings of faith in the public square. The following panelists will offer brief remarks, followed by questions: Eric Treene, Special Counsel for Religious Discrimination, Civil Rights Division, U.S. Department of Justice Rev. Dr. Andrew Bennett, Canada’s Ambassador for Religious Freedom (2013-2016); current Director, Cardus Religious Freedom Institute Dr. Sophie van Bijsterveld, Senator, Dutch Parliament, and Professor of Religion, Law and Society, Radboud University

  • What’s Next in Putin’s Crosshairs?

    Since 1999, Vladimir Putin has led a Russian government that tramples on human rights and international norms. His government increasingly restricts freedom of the press and censorship is pervasive, especially for opinions critical of the government. Putin and his cronies are linked to murders of numerous political dissenters and journalists. Russian authorities persecute religious minorities that they deem “nontraditional,” such as Jehovah’s Witnesses and Tatar Muslims. The Kremlin tacitly approves the Chechen authorities’ continued gross violations of human rights including disappearances, torture, and extrajudicial killings based on suspected sexual orientation. Russian forces actively fight in eastern Ukraine, and earlier this year, the Kremlin further tightened its control of Crimea as it finished the illegal construction of a bridge crossing the Kerch Strait. Russian troops occupy the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia in Georgia and continue to occupy the Transnistria region in Moldova against the government’s wishes. Moscow continues to prop up Bashar Al Assad’s regime—who uses chemical weapons against civilians—by providing weapons and thousands of troops.Russian cyberattacks disrupt democratic institutions around the globe. Additionally, Russia still denies its involvement in the downing of Malaysian Flight 17, resulting in the deaths of 298 people. The United States and the European Union have responded to Putin’s provocations with sanctions designed to curb the Kremlin’s aggression. Despite these sanctions, which have damaged Russia’s economy and major corporations owned by Putin’s cronies, Putin has brazenly persisted in shattering international law and civilized norms. Today, it appears that the Kremlin is less interested in sanctions relief and is after something less tangible: moral equivalence. The more nations that accept that Russia’s actions are morally equivalent to those of Western countries, the more the world will overlook Putin’s disregard of international norms and human rights. Moral equivalence secures his public approval—and therefore power—within his own country and gives him impunity abroad. Download the full report to learn more. Contributor: Sean McAndrews, Max Kampelman Fellow

  • Helsinki Commission Welcomes Confirmation of New Human Trafficking Ambassador-at-Large

    WASHINGTON—Following the confirmation by the U.S. Senate of John Cotton Richmond to be Ambassador for Trafficking in Persons and the Director of the U.S. Department of State’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons (J/TIP), Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) and Co-Chairman Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04) issued the following statements:  “Ambassador Richmond brings a wealth of expertise, commitment, and compassion to his new role leading the federal government’s domestic and global response to human trafficking,” said Chairman Wicker. “He understands how to prosecute traffickers, protect victims, and prevent future trafficking.” “Ambassador Richmond has demonstrated a strong commitment to thorough research and evidence-based action on sex and labor trafficking,” said Co-Chairman Smith, who also serves as the Special Representative on Human Trafficking Issues to the Organization on Security and Cooperation in Europe Parliamentary Assembly President. “These traits will serve him well as he oversees the development of the State Department’s annual Trafficking in Persons Report—our most successful diplomatic tool to promote best practices and ensure accountability.” Most recently, Ambassador Richmond was the director of the Human Trafficking Institute, a nonprofit in Washington, D.C., devoted to empowering police and prosecutors to stop traffickers. He also has firsthand experience as a federal prosecutor in the U.S. Department of Justice’s Human Trafficking Prosecution Unit and has served as an expert on human trafficking for the United Nations and the European Union.  Additionally, he was the director for the International Justice Mission’s anti-slavery work in India. In his new role, Ambassador Richmond will coordinate federal government agency efforts to combat human trafficking and assist victims in the United States, as well as assist other countries in meeting their commitments under the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, especially Women and Children (Palermo Protocol). Ambassador Richmond will also oversee the development of the State Department’s annual Trafficking in Persons Report, which lays bare the record of 189 countries, summarizing a country’s progress and offering concrete recommendations for progress.  Both the report and the Ambassador-at-Large position were created by Co-Chairman Smith’s Trafficking Victim’s Protection Act of 2000 and its reauthorizations.  

  • Fighting Racism and Xenophobia against People of African Descent

    By Erika Schlager, Counsel for International Law and Dr. Mischa Thompson, Senior Policy Advisor From September 10 to September 21, 2018, the OSCE participating States held their annual Human Dimension Implementation Meeting (HDIM) in Warsaw, Poland.  Organized by the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), HDIM is Europe’s largest annual human rights conference, bringing together hundreds of government and nongovernmental representatives, international experts, and human rights activists for two weeks to review OSCE human rights commitments and progress.  During the 2018 meeting, three specially selected topics were the focus of a full-day discussion: freedom of the media; the rights of migrants; and combating racism, xenophobia, intolerance, and discrimination.  As part of its efforts to fight racism and xenophobia, ODIHR, with U.S. support, organized a workshop for activists addressing racism and xenophobia against people of African descent. During the two-day event, 18 participants of African descent from Europe and North America focused on the OSCE and other international human rights instruments that address discrimination. U.S. participants included Johnetta Elzie, who led calls for justice following the police killings of unarmed African-American men, including in Ferguson and Baltimore, and David Johns, who called for police to address hate crimes targeting transgender African-Americans.  The group discussed efforts by civil society to collect and report hate crimes data to ODIHR, coalition-building among diverse groups, strengthening advocacy in international fora, and building information exchanges in various countries.  The discussion also touched on the International Covenant on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination and International Decade for People of African Descent (2015-2024). Activists at the HDIM On September 20, the HDIM agenda focused specifically on racism, xenophobia, intolerance and discrimination. Workshop participants were invited to join government representatives and NGOs to discuss a broad set of challenges in both formal sessions and during side events. Canadian NGOs advocated for expunging marijuana drug charges disproportionately impacting Black men as part of legalization efforts in their country. Polish activists reiterated concerns that police are not adequately investigating hate crimes and, in some cases, have arrested undocumented migrants when they came to police to report a hate crime. A Hungarian participant sought support to address negative perceptions of refugees following the adoption of laws imposing criminal penalties on Hungarians who assist asylum seekers. A French participant spoke of discrimination impacting Black Muslims and the need to address racial and religious bias.  One participant questioned when a Swedish national plan addressing anti-black racism or “Afrophobia” would be implemented. A defamation case launched against European Parliamentarian Cecile Kyenge for calling the Italian political party The League “racist” led participants to question how racial prejudice and discrimination could be addressed if activists faced retribution for simply naming the problem.  Participants also expressed concern about a forecasted decline in diversity in the European Parliament that will follow a post-BREXIT loss of UK parliamentarians, at a time when political parties espousing “anti-foreigner” views are predicted by some to increase in power. Several countries responded to issues raised by the participants during the meeting. A representative for Sweden thanked civil society members for participating in HDIM and highlighted the government’s recent increase in funds and national plans to address racism, stating plans to address “Afrophobia are underway.” A U.S. representative indicated support for civil society participation in the meeting, calling civil society “brave,” and admonished the excessive use of force by law enforcement, particularly when linked when racial discrimination. The representative detailed the legal proceedings taken against the city of Ferguson by the U.S. Department of Justice that have resulted in implicit bias, community policing, mental health sensitivity, and other training to improve relations between police and the African-American community in Ferguson. Canada thanked participants for sharing their experiences and reiterated its commitment to addressing racism and discrimination.  Recommendations from participants in the September 20 session included: Increasing the representation of people of African descent in OSCE institutions and leadership positions Adopting national action plans to improve the situation of people of African descent, including implementing the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination and the International Decade for People of African Descent Collecting disaggregated data on hate crimes and discrimination in housing, education, employment, and other sectors impacting people of African descent Targeting programs for refugees and migrants of African descent, including an increased focus on integration Training initiatives to improve police interaction with African descent populations, including migrant and refugee populations Increasing support for civil society and work in partnership with civil society  

  • The Backpage.com Bust

    By Felicia Garcia, Max Kampelman Fellow On April 6, 2018, customers in search of sexual services on massive ad marketplace Backpage.com were met with U.S. law enforcement agency logos and the words “Backpage.com and affiliated websites have been seized.” Backpage.com, the world’s second largest classified advertising website—which operated in 97 countries and had an estimated value of more than $500 million—was seized for allegedly promoting and facilitating sex trafficking of adults and children. The website company has been accused of not only knowingly advertising sexual services, but also of turning a blind eye to the sexual exploitation of women and children. In all, the U.S. Department of Justice (DoJ) has charged seven individuals in a 93-count federal indictment for facilitation of prostitution and money laundering.  The seizure of Backpage.com occurred just days before President Trump signed a new law that allows trafficking victims and state prosecutors to target websites that create a market for human trafficking. The Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) and the Stop Enabling Sex Trafficking Act (SESTA)—referred to jointly as FOSTA/SESTA—were written to curtail online sex trafficking by making it “a federal crime to own, manage, or operate a website with the intent to promote or facilitate prostitution.”  The legislation allows state prosecutors to levy charges against individual websites without relying on the intervention of federal law enforcement. It also ensures that trafficking victims who were advertised on such websites can sue the websites that profited from their exploitation. With the combination of the Backpage.com seizure and FOSTA/SESTA, Bradley Myles, CEO and executive director of the Polaris Project, found that “the online sex market has rapidly transformed from centralized and crowded to dispersed and sparse. Drop in Online Sex Ad Volume One of the biggest victories of the Backpage.com seizure and SESTA/FOSTA law has been the immediate reduction in ads.  According to data collected by web search tool Memex and analyzed by Rob Spectre, CEO of childsafe.ai, commercial sex ads dramatically decreased immediately after the Backpage.com seizure.  According to Spectre, over the past several months there has been a marked downward shift in the online sex market, with an analysis of North America showing a 62 percent reduction in sex advertising online. Spectre found that nationwide, these ads dropped from approximately 2,750,000 in March to 1,000,000 ads in April—and many of these remaining ads are duplicates. Prior to the closure of Backpage.com, law enforcement agencies struggled to sift through millions of sex ads posted in search of likely trafficking victims using tools like Memex, TraffickJam, and Spotlight.  Their job was made even more difficult by the efforts of Backpage.com and others to hide the telltale signs of human trafficking—such as words or images that conveyed that the victim was a child—in the ads.  Traffickers risked posting their victims online because they could hide like a needle in the haystack; now they have less “haystack” to hide in. Buyers are also feeling the haystack effect. Previously anonymous because of the crowded marketplace, they can no longer easily hide from law enforcement—and this fear of discovery seems to have depressed demand. In attempts to fight trafficking, the New York Police Department Human Trafficking Team has operated a demand deterrence program where they posted fake ads every day and recorded the number of responses. After the Backpage.com seizure, responses to decoy ads dropped 64 percent. “Perception of risk in this population [of buyers] is now at an all-time high,” said Spectre. More Victims Coming Forward The dramatic decline in the online sex trafficking market also seems to have created conditions where sex trafficking victims are coming forward for services. In his research, Spectre found that "all victims' groups are reporting increases in self-referrals with some shelters indicating in the immediate aftermath that demand [for services] doubled. Beds have always been scarce in every American market—now LE [law enforcement] agencies are reporting they are almost impossible to find."  New Challenges While the dramatic decline in online sex ads is a remarkable accomplishment, the change in online slave markets will require law enforcement and NGOs to adapt to effectively continue the fight against human trafficking. For example, the seizure of Backpage.com left a market with buyers looking for a place to go.  Some more daring sex service websites are now competing fiercely for customers and finding ways to attract more traffic onto their sites by duplicating ads and soliciting first time buyers. Monitoring efforts by law enforcement that were previously focused on Backpage.com now must be scattered among dozens of smaller websites. Analyzing data collected from a diffuse market rather than a centralized one makes the process even more difficult—but not impossible. Since April, Memex, TraffickJam, and Spotlight have been updating their law enforcement tools to be effective in a post-Backpage.com market.  Companies also are finding creative ways to manage the new risks of selling sex online. Some online website companies that profit from prostitution and trafficking are moving offshore to reduce the risk of government interference, to continue their connections with their current customers, and to extend their reach to new customers. Such offshoring makes it more difficult—but not impossible—for U.S. law enforcement to prosecute these websites. Experts are also watching for any other unintended side effects of the Backpage.com closure, such as an increase in risky or illegal activity. For example, law enforcement agencies in Riverside County, CA, report that prostituted individuals are forced by their pimps or traffickers to meet the same quota as they were when they were advertising online, putting them in an even more dangerous situation as they are forced to work on the streets, private residences, and at truck stops. Adapting to these new challenges in the United States may require action from Congress, including funding to properly equip law enforcement agencies with efficient monitoring tools and dedicated staff to use those tools; promotion of cooperation and information-sharing among law enforcement agencies, non-profit organizations, and governments at the local, regional, and federal level; and demand reduction through preventative action and prosecution of buyers and traffickers. Since many companies are offshoring their business in fear of being sued by trafficking victims or prosecutors in the United States, other OSCE participating States must be vigilant to ensure that their State—and population—do not become the new victims of exploitative websites. In 2017, the OSCE Ministerial Council called on participating States to hold accountable those who misuse the Internet Communication Technologies to knowingly or recklessly facilitate access to children for sexual exploitation or child trafficking—such as by advertising children on websites—highlighting that such individuals should be prosecuted as traffickers.

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