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Helsinki Commission Honored for Work on Ukraine
U.S.-Ukraine Foundation Recognizes Commission for 40 Years of Support
Thursday, September 15, 2016

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.”

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The delegation also met with the leadership of the Central European University and expressed their support for it to remain open.  Among the government officials with whom the Members held meetings were the head of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Hungarian Parliament and the Prime Minister’s Chief of Staff.    The other Members of the Congressional Delegation are: Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD), the lead Senate Democrat on the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE), and Reps. Tom Cole (OK-04), Gregory Meeks (NY-05), Gwen Moore (WI-04), Steve Cohen (TN-09), Garret Graves (LA-06), and Val Demings (FL-10).   

  • OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media Harlem Desir to Appear at Helsinki Commission Hearing

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  • Minority Faiths Under the Hungarian Religion Law

    By Erika Schlager, Counsel for International Law This is a July 16, 2019, update to the article “Minority Faiths Under The Hungarian Religion Law," originally posted on July 8, 2017 (reprinted below). In 2011, Hungary adopted a new church law that entered into effect in 2012. The law stripped hundreds of faiths of their legal status overnight, deprived them of state resources to which they had previously been entitled, and resulted in other limitations. In December 2018, Hungary amended its religion law (effective as of April 15, 2019). The purpose of the amendment was to implement judgments of Hungary’s Constitutional Court as well as the European Court on Human Rights which held that Hungary’s religion law discriminated against faiths and churches. However, the amended law includes elements that, in practice, will continue discriminatory elements of the 2011 law for several more years and, in some respects, exacerbate the situation for minority faiths. The existing (2011) legal framework already distinguished among churches for the purposes of allocating government resources and benefits. The 2018 amendment added additional tiers to the categories, resulting in a more complex system. The four new tiers or categories are: religious association (with the right to be called a “church”), listed church, registered church and recognized church. Only the most “privileged” tier (recognized church) has the rights previously enjoyed by religious organizations recognized as churches before the passage of the 2011 law. Faiths which enjoyed legal recognition before the 2011 law but were stripped of that recognition under the 2018 law continue to be forced to accept the status of religious association and excluded from all the “privileges” granted to the higher categories. In other words, the 2018 amendment simply carries over the framework of the 2011 law. Additionally, the Hungarian Parliament – a body of elected officials – still decides which religious organizations are in the privileged tier (recognized church), making this an inherently political distinction. The amendment does make two improvements. First, it allows all religious organizations that secure state recognition to determine their own internal organizational structure. (Under the law passed in 2011, this was not the case.) Second, it permits people to donate 1% of their income tax to any religious organization that secures one of the four approved statuses. However, the amendment does not automatically enable organizations previously excluded from this support to receive it. On net, the December 2018 amendment fails to implement fully the court’s rulings or end the discrimination of the 2011 law, leaving some religious groups in limbo. The amendment did not provide a remedy for churches that were stripped of their status under the 2011 law, and faiths categorized in what is now the lowest tier (“religious association”) cannot be upgraded to the status of listed or registered churches without renouncing all future state, European Union, and foreign support or collecting the 1% income tax donation but remaining excluded from the benefits of "recognized" status during a prolonged transitional period. Minority Faiths Under The Hungarian Religion Law June 8, 2017 On April 25, 2017, the European Court on Human Rights announced a judgment in the case of the Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship v. Hungary.  This decision followed a 2014 finding by the Court that Hungary's 2011 law on religion violated the rights to freedom of association and freedom of religion.  In light of the failure of Hungary to end continuing violations, the April judgment awarded the Evangelical Fellowship €3 million in damages.  Religious Discrimination after the 2011 Law The case has its origins in changes made to Hungary’s religion law, which establishes a framework for the registration, or official recognition, of churches.  The law was rushed through parliament in June 2011 in a midnight parliamentary session as part of a massive three-year wave of 700 new laws, a new constitution, and five amendments to the Constitution passed between 2010 and 2013.  The “church law,” as it is known, came into force in 2012 and stripped legal recognition from over 300 previously recognized faiths; only 14 faiths retained their status under the new law.  The law gives the exclusive authority to the elected politicians in the Hungarian parliament to determine what constitutes a church, based on a parliamentary review of a religious community’s faith and rites; bylaws and internal rules; and elected or appointed administrative and representative bodies. The parliament then makes its decision according to a two-thirds vote.  Churches recognized by the parliament are granted a range of financial benefits and other privileges, including the ability to minister to co-religionists in public institutions such as schools, prisons and the military; unregistered faiths are denied these benefits.   Religions that lose their state recognition may have their assets confiscated by the state.  Hungarian Ombudsman Mate Szabo criticized the law when it was adopted and the Constitutional Court has twice struck down parts of the new religion law.  Parliament changed the law to allow unrecognized groups to identify as “churches” (translation:  “you can call yourself whatever you want”), but refused to alter the discriminatory framework that excludes unregistered faiths from the benefit of official status (translation:  “you’ll still have second-class status”).  In other words, there was no meaningful legislative change to address the law’s shortcomings.   The Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship, joined by several smaller groups, including Mennonites, two small reformed Jewish congregations, and a Buddhist congregation, brought the case that was decided by the European Court in 2014.  The European Court held that the “church law” is “inconsistent with the State’s duty of neutrality in religious matters that religious groups had to apply to Parliament to obtain re-registration as churches and that they were treated differently from incorporated churches with regard to material benefits without any objective grounds.”  Damages were awarded to the other religious communities in 2016, but the Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship continued to seek damages in light of continuing violations. In its April 2017 decision, the court awarded €3 million to the Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship.  The damages for discriminatory treatment included the loss of personal income tax donations and the corresponding supplementary State subsidy; the loss of State subsidies intended to support the applicant’s social and educational institutions; the loss of subsidies for religious teaching; and the loss of salary supplements paid to the staff employed by church institutions providing public-interest services. Unfortunately, the Court does not have the authority to compel Hungary to change its religion law and it is up to the Hungarian parliament to take the measures to comply with the ruling.  (The Court may award damages again – and again – in the case of continuing violations.) De-registered churches may be able to get a judgment for damages in Strasbourg, but only Budapest can provide a legal remedy.  The government may be trying to squeeze the Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship out of existence by depriving them of the benefits extended to other faiths and forcing them to devote resources to constantly litigate and re-litigate the same violations.  Smaller churches de-registered after 2011 have already largely been shuttered.  About the Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship The Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship broke from the Hungarian Methodist Church in the mid-1970s over the issue of collaboration with the communist regime. As a faith that would not bend to the communist regime, the Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship was subsequently forced underground and persecuted for engaging in charitable work with the poor at a time when the communist regime was loath to admit that poverty was a serious problem.  After the fall of the communist regime, in 1991 the Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship was officially recognized until stripped of this status under the 2011 law.  The Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship is known for its charitable and humanitarian work, particularly with Romani communities, and runs schools, homeless shelters, and soup kitchens. However, becausethe Hungarian tax authority has refused to issue a tax number to deregistered churches such as the Evangelical Fellowship, it is impossible for them to be designated them as recipients of a 1 percent charitable donation on tax forms.   Related Issues In 2017, the Hungarian Government has also proposed a Russian-style “foreign agents” law, which is currently scheduled for a vote by parliament, possibly on June 13. In recognition of criticism that, among the draft law’s many problems, it would stigmatize groups that receive foreign funding – including support from co-religionists in other countries – the current draft was altered to include a carve-out exception for religious organizations and sports.  If adopted, the law may spur the adoption of copycat laws in the region that might not have the same carve-outs for religious groups.  During a press conference in April, Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s chief of staff Janos Lazar suggested that Hungarian groups that receive foreign funding should be designated with a star.  He later apologized.

  • Responding to Hate

    In the past year alone, places of worship in Christchurch, Colombo, Pittsburgh, and Poway were targets of hate-based violence, resulting in the tragic loss of more than 300 lives.  Effectively countering hate crimes requires a comprehensive effort bringing together government institutions, criminal justice systems, civil society actors, and international organizations.  Religious actors and interfaith institutions play an important role in promoting safe and inclusive societies and reducing violence, hostility, and discrimination. Witnesses described how religious actors and interfaith institutions can work together to further human rights and protections for all in the OSCE region, and shared strategies to prevent and respond to hate crimes and violence targeting our societies in public places, including places of worship and social institutions.

  • Helsinki Commission Hearing to Examine Role of Religious Actors in Responding to Hate

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  • BALTIC SEA REGIONAL SECURITY

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  • Co-Chairman Wicker on Release of 2018 Report on International Religious Freedom

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  • Helsinki Commission Convenes Historic Field Hearing in Poland to Examine Regional Security Concerns

    WASHINGTON—For the first time in its 43-year history, the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the U.S. Helsinki Commission, will convene outside of the United States for a field hearing to underscore America’s commitment to security in the Baltic Sea region and its unwavering support for U.S. friends and allies. At this historic hearing, held less than 80 miles from Russia’s border, senior U.S. civilian and military leaders will outline America’s collaborative approach to enhancing security in the region. High-level officials from states including Lithuania, Poland, Finland, Sweden, and Estonia will provide regional perspectives on the evolving security environment in and around the Baltic Sea. BALTIC SEA REGIONAL SECURITY A Field Hearing of the U.S. Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe Tuesday, July 2, 2019 3:00 p.m. CET The Artus Court Gdańsk, Poland Watch Live: www.youtube.com/HelsinkiCommission Panel I: Mr. Douglas D. Jones, Deputy Permanent Representative, United States Mission to NATO Lt. Gen. Stephen M. Twitty, Deputy Commander, United States European Command Panel II: Minister Raimundas Karoblis, Minister of National Defense, Ministry of National Defense of the Republic of Lithuania Major General Krzysztof Król, Deputy Chief of the General Staff of the Polish Armed Forces, Republic of Poland Director-General Janne Kuusela, Director-General, Defense Policy Department, Ministry of Defense of the Republic of Finland State Secretary Jan-Olof Lind, State Secretary to the Minister for Defense, Ministry of Defense of the Kingdom of Sweden Permanent Secretary Kristjan Prikk, Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Defense, Ministry of Defense of the Republic of Estonia Other panelists may be added. Against the backdrop of the location of the first battle of World War II, panelists will discuss regional maritime threats—including Kremlin aggression—and possible responses; the current effectiveness of NATO’s deterrent posture in the Baltics; the transatlantic security architecture; and hybrid and emerging threats. Members of the media must register in advance at https://form.jotform.com/91692541401958 to attend this hearing. Preregistration closes at noon CET on Friday, June 28, 2019.

  • Chairman Hastings on Release of 2018 Report on International Religious Freedom

    WASHINGTON—Following the release of the 2018 Report on International Religious Freedom by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback, a former chairman of the Helsinki Commission, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) issued the following statement: “The Helsinki Commission welcomes the release of the annual International Religious Freedom Report. Robust reporting on the full range of human rights—including respect for religious liberties—is critical to the preservation of democratic institutions. “The report details a number of continuing concerns in countries including Hungary and Turkey. In Hungary, government officials have engaged in anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic rhetoric and publicly venerated World War II-era anti-Semites and Hitler allies. Amendments to Hungary's controversial 2011 religion law came into effect in April, but it is not yet clear if the new and more complicated law will end discrimination against the Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship and other faiths. In Turkey, long-standing concerns persist about respect for the rights of Alevis and non-Muslim minorities to freely manage their religious activities and internal affairs. “These violations of religious freedom are extremely troubling, especially since Hungary and Turkey—like all participating States of the OSCE—have committed to protecting freedom of religion or belief and preventing intolerance and discrimination based on religious grounds.” The annual State Department International Religious Freedom Report details religious freedom in every country. The report includes government policies violating religious belief and practices of individuals and religious groups, and U.S. policies to promote religious freedom around the world.

  • Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe and Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Commitments Regarding Freedom of Religion or Belief

    The 57 participating States of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe have repeatedly committed to recognizing and respecting freedom of religion or belief. The 35 participating States of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe–the forerunner of the OSCE–signed the Helsinki Final Act of 1975, which included: “The participating States will recognize and respect the freedom of the individual to profess and practice, alone or in community with others, religion or belief acting in accordance with the dictates of his own conscience.” The OSCE’s Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights has staff dedicated to freedom of religion or belief, led by a senior advisor. ODIHR legal reviews to help participating States comply with their OSCE commitments have included existing law and draft legislation on freedom of religion or belief. ODIHR only conducts such reviews after receiving a formal invitation from a participating State. A panel of OSCE/ODIHR experts on freedom of religion or belief assists OSCE/ODIHR, and the ODIHR director appoints the panel’s 14 members every three years. This compilation, developed by Helsinki Commission staff, covers CSCE/OSCE commitments on freedom of religion or belief in 16 documents from the Final Act to the OSCE Ministerial Council in 2015. It includes the document title, excerpted text, and links to the original document. Participating States have also made commitments relating to discrimination or hate crimes base on religion or belief.” Some examples are in “OSCE Human Dimension Commitments: Thematic Compilation.” This Helsinki Commission compilation only includes commitments on freedom of religion or belief. The Commission will update the compilation when new commitments on freedom of religion or belief are made.

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

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

  • Russia's Counterproductive Counterterrorism

    The Kremlin actively seeks to present Russia as a global leader in the practice of counterterrorism and countering extremism. However, Moscow’s policies and practices in this area may be problematic at best and counterproductive at worst. Witnesses offered expert views on how the Kremlin’s counterterrorism approach has evolved over time; its effectiveness; the extent to which it complies with Russia’s commitments to uphold human rights and fundamental freedoms; regional implications; and whether Kremlin actions dovetail—or not—with U.S. interests.

  • Hastings and Wicker Condemn Recent Arrest of Ivan Golunov

    WASHINGTON—Following the recent arrest of investigative journalist Ivan Golunov by Russian authorities, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) and Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) issued the following statement: “Journalism remains a dangerous profession in Russia, especially for reporters like Ivan Golunov who investigate corruption at the highest levels of government. His arrest proves once more that Russian authorities don’t simply fail to protect investigative journalists; they actively seek to muzzle them by alleging criminal behavior and even resorting to brute physical force.” Golunov, of the Latvia-based Russian news outlet Meduza, was arrested on drug charges on June 6 in Moscow—a common tactic used by Russian authorities to target journalists and dissidents.  In the hours after his arrest, he was denied numerous rights enshrined in Russian statutes, including a phone call to friends and family, an attorney, and a meal.  He also allegedly was beaten while in custody, and faces up to 20 years in prison. According to the 2019 World Press Freedom Index, Russia ranks 149 out of 180 countries in media freedom based on an evaluation of pluralism, independence of the media, quality of the legislative framework, and safety of journalists.

  • STANDARD FOR JUSTICE: JUNE 10, 2010

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

  • Helsinki Commission Hearing to Examine Russia’s Approach to Counterterrorism

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following hearing: RUSSIA’S COUNTERPRODUCTIVE COUNTERTERRORISM Wednesday, June 12, 2019 10:30 a.m. Rayburn House Office Building Room 2255 Live Webcast: www.youtube.com/HelsinkiCommission The Kremlin actively seeks to present Russia as a global leader in the practice of counterterrorism and countering extremism. However, Moscow’s policies and practices in this area may be problematic at best and counterproductive at worst. Witnesses will offer expert views on how the Kremlin’s counterterrorism approach has evolved over time; its effectiveness; the extent to which it complies with Russia’s commitments to uphold human rights and fundamental freedoms; regional implications; and whether Kremlin actions dovetail—or not—with U.S. interests.  The following witnesses are scheduled to participate: Dr. Michael Carpenter, Senior Director, Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement; former U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Russia; former National Security Council Director for Russia Rachel Denber, Deputy Director, Europe and Central Asia Division, Human Rights Watch Dr. Mariya Y. Omelicheva, Professor of Strategy at the United States National War College, National Defense University; author, “Russia’s Regional and Global Counterterrorism Strategies” and “Russia’s Counterterrorism Policy: Variations on an Imperial Theme”

  • Chairman Hastings Commemorates Eid al-Fitr

    WASHINGTON—In commemoration of Eid al-Fitr, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) today issued the following statement: “Today, I join Muslim communities across the OSCE region and around the world to celebrate Eid al-Fitr, which marks the end of the holy month of Ramadan. As Muslims have spent the last month observing Ramadan, they have devoted time in peaceful reflection and prayer, built stronger ties with other communities—religious and non-religious—to ponder our common values, and served those who are suffering from starvation, sickness, and conflict. “Sadly, during these cherished celebrations, we also must mourn recent horrific attacks around the world on places of worship, which targeted believers of nearly every religion. In the aftermath of such tragedies, faith communities joined hands to fend off those who try to exploit differences in the service of evil. In Pittsburgh, the Jewish community sought donations for the Christchurch mosque victims in New Zealand. An American Muslim crowdfunding campaign raised money for the Tree of Life synagogue victims in Pittsburgh. Local churches and synagogues in Connecticut stepped forward to help rebuild the New Haven mosque that arsonists destroyed. These examples are precisely what the spirit of Eid inspires: to spread harmony and build coalitions that promote change.  “On behalf of the U.S. Helsinki Commission, I wish those celebrating a blessed and festive celebration. Eid Mubarak.”

  • Chernobyl

    By Rachel Bauman, Policy Advisor and Kyle Parker, Senior Senate Staff Representative Disaster In the early morning hours of April 26, 1986, during a safety test designed to simulate a power outage, a combination of operator error and inherent flaws in reactor design led to an explosion and fire at Chernobyl Nuclear Power Station’s Reactor 4. The graphite fire burned uncontained for nine days, releasing radioactive particles over most of Europe, contaminating Ukraine and neighboring Belarus most severely. It took nearly two full days for Soviet authorities to begin the evacuation of the approximately 50,000 residents of the nearby city of Pripyat, located just a mile away from the power station. A public admission of the accident only came on the evening of April 28 following diplomatic pressure on the Kremlin from the government of Sweden where, earlier that day, monitors at the Forsmark Nuclear Power Plant north of Stockholm had detected elevated radiation levels and suspected an accident in the Soviet Union. Given the secrecy of the Soviet system, the subjectivity of first-hand accounts, and the breakup of the Soviet Union, some of the why and how of what happened remain controversial. This amusement park in Pripyat was scheduled to open on May 1, 1986, a few days before the disaster. Less than six months after the disaster, construction began on nearby Slavutych, a city to replace Pripyat and house the displaced workers from the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Station and their families. Much work remained to be done to contain and assess the April disaster, not to mention run the remaining three reactors, the last of which ceased to operate only in December 2000. The formal decommissioning process of Reactors 1, 2, and 3 began in 2015 and will continue for decades. To this day, many residents of Slavutych board a special train for the power station’s workers transiting Belarus to enter the Exclusion Zone for work at the plant and nearby storage facilities for spent nuclear fuel. Consequences Thirty-three years after that safety test at Reactor 4 went fatally wrong, the nuclear disaster at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Station remains the worst in world history, superseding the 1979 partial meltdown of a reactor at the Three Mile Island Nuclear Generating Station in Pennsylvania and eclipsing the meltdown of three reactors at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant following damage sustained by a catastrophic tsunami in 2011. The accident at Three Mile Island remains the worst in the history of U.S. commercial atomic energy and ranked a 5 (accident with wider consequences) on the International Atomic Energy Agency’s scale of assessing nuclear and radiological events. Chernobyl and Fukushima are the only two disasters to ever be ranked as a 7 (major accident), the scale’s maximum. Due to the differences in the half-lives of the specific contaminants, a full remediation and resettlement around Fukushima holds far greater promise than around Chernobyl. If radioactive leakage can be fully contained at Fukushima, there is a chance that the area could be declared completely safe for permanent human habitation in less than 100 years. By comparison, the first zone of exclusion immediately surrounding Chernobyl’s Reactor 4 is likely to remain unsafe for permanent habitation for thousands of years. The total human, environmental, and financial cost of the disaster is fraught with obvious political sensitivities, but even in the scientific realm, significant disputes remain. The unprecedented magnitude of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster frustrates efforts to draw a definitive conclusion on the lingering effects of the explosion and fire of 1986. While there is wide agreement that somewhere between 30 and 50 people died in the immediate aftermath as a direct result of the accident, consensus breaks down over estimates of a longer-term assessment of deaths attributable to the radioactive fallout from the disaster. Shortly after the disaster, a zone of approximately 1,000 square miles around Reactor 4 was established, evacuated, and condemned for permanent human habitation. This area—known as the Exclusion or Alienation Zone—has begun the long process of being reclaimed by nature. The area is divided between Zone 1 and Zones 2 and 3. The first zone is the immediate vicinity around the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Station and comprises roughly 15 percent of the total Exclusion Zone. It is also contaminated with transuranium elements that decay over a period of thousands of years, placing this area off-limits indefinitely. Zones 2 and 3 comprise the remaining territory and were largely contaminated with elements that decay much faster. Some of this shorter-term contamination is already gone and the rest could be gone in the coming decades. The Exclusion Zone is as alive as it is hauntingly empty. Forests encroach on what were once fertile fields. Butterflies flutter above concrete cracked open by saplings. Wild horses roam by day and wolves by night, and entropy takes its toll on man-made construction. It almost seems that the flora and fauna suffered more from proximity to humans than they now do from lingering radiation in the contaminated soil—a phenomenon known as the ecological paradox. Containment In those first critical hours after the explosion, when firefighters heroically battled a radioactive blaze, efforts were made to erect temporary barriers around the damaged core of Reactor 4. Those emergency efforts continued once the fire was out, but the hasty construction allowed radiation to continue to escape the confines of the reactor and was structurally unsuitable for containing the deadly transuranium elements inside. In 2018, with the support of the international donor community, Ukraine completed construction on the New Safe Confinement facility designed to safely entomb Reactor 4 for as long as 100 years. Helsinki Commission policy advisor Rachel Bauman inside the structure containing Reactor 4. Support from the West, most notably the United States, is critical to safety. Currently, Western contractors are working with Ukrainian partners to complete the construction of a long-term storage facility for spent nuclear fuel from other reactors across the country. Construction is reportedly on, or slightly ahead of, schedule on this facility that is planned to eliminate Ukraine’s need to contract with Russia for its growing storage needs. Protecting the public from the widely dispersed radioactive particulate found within the Exclusion Zone is the main reason for the establishment of the zone itself as well as the multiple checkpoints encountered when leaving the zone. The most immediate danger to further contamination of habitable areas beyond the Exclusion Zone are wildfires; their smoke disperses contaminated debris into the atmosphere and in the direction of prevailing winds. Ukrainian firefighters have trained regularly with firefighters from the American West as they execute what is not only a domestic priority, but an international responsibility. Other regular challenges to the safe administration of the Exclusion Zone are trespassers pursuing adventure, souvenirs, or wild game. Risks include not only the obvious danger of radiation exposure, but also crumbling construction and poor communications should a rescue be needed. Trespassers also risk the safety of the broader public by inadvertently transporting radioactive materials outside the Exclusion Zone. A final, and enduring, challenge to securing the Exclusion Zone lies with waning public interest and thus political pressure to devoting scarce financial resources to protect this beautiful but contaminated landscape for the long term. The Future Government authorities plan to use Exclusion Zone 1 for dangerous industrial activities such as storing spent nuclear fuel or developing massive solar panel farms designed to replace some of the electricity that was once generated by the power station’s four reactors. The remainder of the Exclusion Zone will serve as a buffer between habitable areas and Zone 1 as well as a unique nature preserve and massive open-air laboratory to study any lingering effects of the disaster. Construction site of a future spent storage facility. As the passage of time has made parts of the Exclusion Zone safer, more and more visitors come to learn about those tragic events of the spring of 1986. Locals are beginning to tap a developing market for nuclear tourism, fueled by politicians, scientists, and thrill-seekers. When leaving the Exclusion Zone and passing through the last checkpoint, travelers are greeted by tour buses, flag-carrying guides, and a roadside kiosk selling cheap t-shirts. Increasing interest in Chernobyl tours, and particularly the photogenic abandoned town of Pripyat, ensure a steady stream of income. The city may no longer generate power, but it continues to generate interest.

  • Why Moldova Matters

    Though typically viewed as a state torn between Russian influence and the West, Moldova faces not only external problems but also serious internal challenges. Following February elections marked by corruption and vote-buying, Moldova’s deeply divided parliament now must attempt to form a governing coalition. In addition, five years after Moldova signed an accession agreement with the European Union, questions remain about whether the country is willing—or even able—to undertake the comprehensive reforms required to join the EU. This briefing explored these and other issues against the background of the continuing Transnistria dispute and Moldova’s precarious role in the region. Helsinki Commission policy advisor Rachel Bauman opened the briefing by posing questions to the room: “Will Moldova’s deeply divided parliament be able to form a governing coalition? What influence will Moldova’s oligarch Vlad Plahotniuc have on the process of forming a government? And is there real political will in Moldova, especially right now after elections, to become a full-fledged member of the EU? And finally, what’s going on in the breakaway Russian region of Transnistria?” Dr. Cory Welt, Specialist in European Affairs at the Congressional Research Service, jumped in first to provide context for the conversation. Welt explained, “According to international and domestic observers, Moldova’s recent parliamentary elections were democratic but somewhat flawed. And these flaws included allegations of vote buying and the misuse of state resources. Nonetheless, the outcome of the elections appears to reflect longstanding domestic divisions within Moldova, between what you might characterize as a European-leaning majority and a Russian-leaning minority.” Jamie Kirchick, Journalist and Visiting Fellow at the Brookings Institution, reflected on his experience observing the 2018 elections in Moldova. Kirchick also spoke to the main question of the briefing, saying, Moldova “matters because the United States has been committed to a policy of a Europe whole, free and at peace, really since the end of the Cold War, and consolidating democracy and good government. And Moldova is a pretty sore spot. It’s the poorest country in Europe. It’s the site of very high corruption. It’s the site of Russian influence. It’s the site of a lack of territorial integrity. And we’ve seen now that there are three nations in this region – Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova – that all have Russian troops stationed on them. And this is something that should certainly concern the United States and its democratic allies.” H.E. Cristina Balan, Ambassador of the Republic of Moldova to the United States maintained that while Moldova has seen hard times, the country is working to improve. She highlighted its strong partnership with the U.S., fight against antisemitism, and growing economy as signs of development. Ambassador Balan concluded with a call to action, saying, “Of course, there is so much more work to be done, including addressing corruption issues, including increasing our national defense capability, including resolving the Transnistrian conflict, and many others. There is a lot of work to be done.” The questions from the audience were largely posed to Ambassador Balan and allowed for a deeper exploration into the economic and political realities of life in Moldova and the relationship, or lack thereof, with Russia.

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