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Helsinki Commission Staff Examine Impact of International Efforts in Kosovo on Human Rights
Thursday, January 22, 2009

By Clifford Bond and Robert Hand
Helsinki Commission Staff

In early December 2008, Helsinki Commission staff visited Kosovo to review the changing mandates of a wide range of international actors in Kosovo. The visit coincided with the European Union’s deployment of a Rule of Law Mission in Kosovo, known as EULEX, which took place successfully but revealed the potential for regional instability.

The Commission staff delegation met with a variety of international and local actors in Pristina, Kosovo’s capital. It traveled to the Visoki Decani, a monastery of the Serbian Orthodox Church where it met with church representatives, and to the nearby town of Peja/Pec where it met with field representatives of the International Civilian Office (ICO) and the OSCE. The delegation also visited both sides of the divided northern city of Mitrovica where it visited displacement camps and the rebuilt neighborhood for the city’s Romani population in addition to other meetings.

The International Community

Kosovo asserted its independent statehood in February 2008, in the context of the plan put forward by former Finnish President, UN official, and Nobel laureate Martti Ahtisaari. In so doing, Kosovo’s leadership pledged to implement the plan in full, which means accepting international supervision and providing decentralized authority and numerous rights and privileges to the Serb and, to a lesser extent, other minority communities. The Ahtisaari plan, however, assumes agreement by all parties, but Serbia, backed by Russia at the United Nations, refuses to accept the loss of what it considers still to be its province. The United States and most European countries have recognized Kosovo’s independence, but a few European Union members remain either reluctant or strongly against doing so, either due to ties with Serbia or fear of separatist movements within their own borders. Spain was frequently singled out as the one country that not only opposes Kosovo’s independence but seems intent on undermining its recognition by others. Combined with the widespread need for consensus decision-making, most of the international community’s field missions must, to one degree or another, act neutrally on questions of status, to the detriment of their effectiveness and the enormous frustration of Kosovar Albanians who desire that Kosovo’s independence be respected.

The EULEX deployment brought these differing perspectives to the fore. In order to obtain an EU-wide agreement, a UN blessing and the acquiescence of Belgrade and local Serbs under Belgrade’s control, a compromise effort known as the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s “6-point plan” was put forward that prompted angry protest among the Kosovar Albanian majority and an official rejection from Pristina. Posters throughout the city proclaimed EULEX to be “Made in Serbia”. After several delays and despite continued ambiguity regarding which government was the actual host, the Mission deployed on December 9 throughout Kosovo, not just in areas under Pristina’s control. That the deployment proceeded smoothly and peacefully was viewed as a success, although ambiguities purposefully placed in its mandate to allow both Albanians and Serbs to maintain their positions, as well as the lack of political oversight and coordination among EULEX’s three areas of responsibility (police, courts and customs), likely mean that EULEX will face additional tests of its resolve in the future. For now, the most noteworthy result of the deployment is the anticipated end of inefficient UNMiK operations, which have come to symbolize the holding pattern in which Kosovo has found itself since 1999.

The deployment could also signal a more cooperative tone among Kosovo’s Serbs. In northern Mitrovica and contiguous areas bordering Serbia, there are signs that Belgrade may no longer support more militant and corrupt Kosovo Serb leaders. In the enclaves to the south, where the majority of Kosovo Serbs live, there may also be more room for local accommodation and inter-ethnic cooperation, with questions of status put to the side. Following Serbian elections in May that strengthened pro-democratic and pro-European forces in society, Belgrade seems to want at least more transparency and accountability in the “parallel institutions” it has so far financed, and it may try to reduce its subsidies. It also seems to want to avoid violence, especially any violence that could be blamed on the Serb side. It is unclear how far it will push to assert control and responsibility in light of UNMiK’s dwindling role, or whether it will allow EULEX and eventually the ICO to fill the void. Unfortunately, divisions within the European Union almost invite continued Serbian intransigence. Without being given a clear choice between trying to hold onto Kosovo and achieving European integration, the Serbian Government still plays the “Kosovo card,” which garners popular support at home without any apparent repercussions.

The situation on the Kosovar Albanian side is a bit clearer. Despite internal political posturing, there is really little difference within this community when it comes to defending Kosovo’s independence. The deliberations that led the EULEX deployment pushed the Kosovo government about as far as it could go. While the achievement of independence has so far made the Ahtisaari plan worth embracing, many of its provisions relating to Serb communities have been no easy sell, especially in the many localities where nationalism and intolerance continue to prevail. When governments of European countries which have recognized Kosovo’s independence nevertheless treat it as something less than an independent and sovereign state, the Kosovars are naturally outraged and increasingly distrustful. This could be countered somewhat by the establishment of embassies in the capitals of those countries who have thus far recognized Kosovo, particularly in Europe, staffed by competent diplomats in order to ensure that the Kosovo point-of-view is made clear to policy-makers. The United States should also counter European diplomatic tendencies to placate traditional regional powers and treat the new states of Europe as second-class states.

In the meantime, as those in government may try to adhere to their Ahtisaari commitments, those in opposition have also been able to capitalize on the situation. This poses a challenge to Kosovo’s shaky democratic institutions, which are still very much in transition. Some have expressed concern that the further development of democratic capacities could be thwarted by the need to meet unpopular international demands.

While EULEX moves forward and UNMiK winds down, other international players need to find their role. As one analyst commented, the international community has lost the coherence of its structure and has become a confusing maze to local parties.

The International Civilian Office is perhaps the most important, yet vulnerable, of the current players. A creation of the Ahtisaari plan, it is by definition not status neutral, and has a relatively strong mandate to supervise post-status Kosovo. Serb opposition to cooperation with the ICO makes this difficult, but the hesitancy of the status-neutral players to cooperate, coordinate and support the ICO will severely weaken its effectiveness to Kosovo’s long-term detriment.

The OSCE Mission in Kosovo, the organization’s largest, is facing even more difficult times. Once known for its solid monitoring of events throughout Kosovo and for developing democratic capacity, the early threat of Belgrade and Moscow to close the Mission cast a shadow over its future and a considerable portion of its personnel have moved to the ICO or otherwise left the OSCE in Kosovo. Mission leadership has also been controversial; while this may have stabilized with a new Head of Mission, the OSCE lost some serious ground. Most interlocutors felt that the Mission is a bit oversized, and needs to focus on core areas such as promoting free media, human rights and inter-ethnic dialogue, where the OSCE has genuine expertise and credibility.

KFOR, the NATO-led peacekeeping force, seems to be the one constant of the international presence that garners unquestioned respect and seems prepared to handle whatever instability may lie ahead. It is the acknowledged last resort for providing security, but its presence helps ensure a security baseline that will deter provocations and enhance confidence at the local level. KFOR representatives seem confident that lessons were learned from the violence of 2004 and that greater flexibility across lines of operations, more consistent rules for engagement and an unwillingness to let the particulars of status from getting in its way will be effective in keeping the peace in Kosovo.

A Need for Dialogue

Many of the problems which exist among both the Kosovar Albanian majority and the Kosovo Serb minority could be resolved through greater dialogue, both within Kosovo and between Belgrade and Pristina. There is some effort to achieve this through civic organizations and religious institutions, as well as business contacts. There is also some interaction in technical areas such as regarding missing persons from the 1998-99 conflict, or in the reconstruction of churches and other religious sites damaged or destroyed in the March 2004 riots. Unfortunately, a suitable venue for direct contact between Belgrade and Pristina needs to be found. Pristina is ready, at least in principle, but Belgrade is not.

One area where the Kosovo authorities could act more swiftly, without precondition, and likely to their own long-term benefit, is the resolution of outstanding property claims. The resolution of property claims is a major hindrance to the return of displaced persons, and it holds up legal usage of property even when a return is unlikely. In some cases at least, displaced Serbs and others may only wish to get their property back so they can sell it. While there may be solid reasons for wanting to encourage displaced persons to return to Kosovo -- and some efforts to do this were underway in December – ultimately each individual needs only the opportunity to make a free choice. To do this, those with outstanding property claims need to have their cases resolved. The issue of property claims came up repeatedly in meetings, and seems a greater issue than security and freedom of movement at present. Some hope the EULEX deployment could provide a second chance for property restitutions and returns.

Both sides, but especially some Kosovo leaders who formerly fought with the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), could probably also help facilitate the resolution of more missing persons cases, of which just under 2,000 remain. While there has been success in bringing government representatives and surviving family members together under international auspices, local efforts to help locate grave sites appear to be half-hearted, at best. It is unlikely that progress in this area will enhance community reconciliation efforts in any major way, but a positive signal to do more could lead to a broadening of dialogue on other issues. Ultimately, this remains a humanitarian issue that deserves additional effort no matter what.

At present, Kosovo authorities seem committed to implementing the Ahtsaari plan in its entirety. Relevant laws have been passed, and those involved in developing local self-government seem committed to implementation. The real test, of course, will come when the Kosovo Serbs decide to respond and engage and are able to do so without worry of retribution from Belgrade. One local analyst noted that developing the necessary trust between the two sides will be a process, and should be taken one step at a time rather than pushed.

The Plight of Roma in the North

A continual concern to the Helsinki Commission has been the plight of displaced Roma in northern Mitrovica, most of whom fled their original neighborhood, or mahalla, which was destroyed in 1999. Growing criticism of the conditions in the camps, particularly the health hazards caused by lead contamination, finally convinced the international community in 2005 first to establish a temporary relocation facility that was safer and to make a concentrated effort to rebuild housing where the original mahalla in the south was located. Romani families resisted the move, due to warranted lack of trust in the international community and a lack of awareness of how severe the health threat really was. Local Serbian leaders as well as Romani community leaders living elsewhere in Europe, however, originally also did much to discourage the move, both benefiting from a situation in which successful returns did not take place.

Commission staff visited the last of the original camps, Cesmin Lug, as well as the new camp adjacent to it, a former KFOR base known as Osterode. They also visited the original mahalla, which had additional apartment buildings and some private houses constructed since the last Commission visit in May 2007. Despite the availability of housing, residents of the camps continue to resist moving, despite continued concerns about health conditions. Local Serbian leaders, who now want the land where Osterode is located, seem no longer to be discouraging the move, and Roma living abroad likewise seem to have less influence on the situation. Security for Roma in the south, once a concern, seems less so now. Those who remain in the camps seem primarily motivated by a continued distrust of the international community as well as lingering hopes for a better offer. The inability of the local economy to provide income, particularly in the south, also plays a significant role, as does the desire to keep children in Serb-run schools, despite being segregated into separate classes. Meanwhile, there is increasing pressure from foreign governments to prioritize the resettling of Kosovo Roma they intend to deport, rather than those displaced in Kosovo and living in camps. It is clear that, while there has been some progress on this issue, a limited set of additional options will need to be considered to resolve the situation, including the possibility of permanent resettlement in the north.

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  • Ambassador Max Kampelman’s Contributions to the Helsinki Process

    By Emma Derr, Max Kampelman Fellow The Helsinki Commission’s flagship fellowship program recognizes former U.S. Ambassador Max Kampelman, who spent his life working toward comprehensive security at home and across the Atlantic. Over his career, which spanned more than half a century, Kampelman defended the principles of the Helsinki Final Act, strengthened the Helsinki process, and fought to reduce—and later eliminate—nuclear arms. One of his strongest legacies was his belief in bipartisanship, demonstrated by his service to both Democrats and Republicans and in his role as a U.S. ambassador. In the words of longtime Helsinki Commissioner Senator Ben Cardin (MD), “It was a privilege for me and so many of my colleagues to work with a great and good man, whose example reminded us every day: this is what leadership looks like.” Max Kampelman: The Ambassador Kampelman began his career as legislative counsel to Senator Hubert Humphrey before joining the private law practice of Fried Frank.  Although he practiced private law for the majority of his career, Kampelman continued to serve the United States when called on by presidents of both parties. In 1980, President Jimmy Carter asked Kampelman to represent the United States as the lead negotiator at the 1980 Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) meeting in Madrid, which sought to bring eastern European countries into compliance with the Helsinki Final Act. The meeting was supposed to last two to three months. It lasted three years. Under President Ronald Reagan, Kampelman continued to lead these negotiations until an agreement was reached in 1983. In 1990, in the aftermath of the fall of the Berlin Wall, OSCE participating States gathered to unite their different definitions of European security. Kampelman led the U.S. delegation to this historic meeting and advocated for democratic elections and universal human rights.   “He played a pivotal role in securing agreement on the first international instrument to recognize the specific problem of anti-Semitism and the human rights problems faced by Roma,” said Sen. Cardin. “Moreover, at a moment when Europe stood at a crossroads, Max Kampelman negotiated standards on democracy and the rule of law that remain unmatched.” “The Copenhagen document has been called by a number of professors of international law the most important international human rights document since the Magna Carta, and it spells out what a democracy means. If anybody was to come and join this process, they would be joining what is apparent, a series of 'oughts;' and that’s our task. Once the 'oughts' are there, we have a leg up toward the 'is.'”  ​ Amb. Max Kampelman in a 2003 interview The Copenhagen document strengthened the Helsinki Process by including unprecedented provisions, such as the commitment to democracy as the only form of governance. It also emphasized the rights of national minorities and the right to freedom of association, freedom of conscience, and freedom of expression. The CSCE eventually became today’s Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the world’s largest regional security organization. Max Kampelman: The Arms Advisor In addition to his work defending the Helsinki Final Act, Kampelman also negotiated arms control agreements and guided the United States through some of the most difficult periods of U.S.-Soviet relations. By the end of his career, Kampelman had engaged in more than 400 hours of face-to-face negotiations with the Soviets. He successfully protected the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), a system designed under Reagan to protect against potential nuclear attacks, from Soviet efforts to stifle it. He led negotiation efforts on the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty and the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), effectively reducing nuclear arms for the first time in history.   During the late phases of the Cold War, Kampelman helped arrange the release of political and religious dissidents from the Soviet Union. “We cannot wish it away. It is here and it is militarily powerful. We share the same globe. We must try to find a formula under which we can live together in dignity. We must engage in that pursuit of peace without illusion but with persistence, regardless of provocation." ​ Amb. Max Kampelman, ahead of 1985 arms negotiations Kampelman dedicated much of his later years to Global Zero, envisioning a world without nuclear weapons and encouraging statesmen Henry Kissinger, Sam Nunn, William Perry, and George Shultz, to advocate for this goal. For his service to his country, Kampelman received the Presidential Citizens Medal from President George H.W. Bush in 1989 and the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, from Bill Clinton in 1999. Max Kampelman’s Early Life Kampelman was born in New York in 1920 to parents who had immigrated from what was then part of Romania. He grew up in the Bronx and received a law degree from NYU in 1945. During World War II, he registered for alternate service as a conscientious objector. Kampelman enrolled in a strict food and work regimen known as the Minnesota Starvation Experiment to help authorities understand how to treat prisoner of war and concentration camp survivors. During this time, he finished his doctorate in political science from the University of Minnesota, titled "The Communist Party and the CIO: A Study in Power Politics." He opposed Communism and opposed war, but his feelings regarding nonviolence changed over time with the development of the atomic and hydrogen bombs, later leading him to renounce his earlier pacifist beliefs. Kampelman said his prevailing desire for American foreign policy was to turn the 21st century into the century of democracy. He died on January 25, 2013, at age 92.

  • OSCE Ministerial Council Appoints Top Leaders, Adopts Several Key Decisions Amidst Constraints of COVID-19 and Conflict in Europe

    By Shannon Simrell, Representative of the Helsinki Commission to the U.S. Mission to the OSCE Foreign ministers of the 57 OSCE participating States convened on December 3 - 4, 2020, for the 27th OSCE Ministerial Council. For the first time, this annual gathering was convened in an entirely virtual format due to the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite a turbulent year, which included managing not only the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic but also the global anti-racism protests initiated following the killing of George Floyd; ongoing protracted conflicts in Moldova, Georgia, and Ukraine; fraudulent elections and systemic human rights violations in Belarus; and a renewal of active conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia, consensus was achieved on many, but not all, draft decisions. The United States delegation to the Ministerial Council was led by Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun. The delegation and included Deputy Assistant Secretaries of State George P. Kent, Michael Murphy, and Bruce Turner; Acting Assistant Secretary of State Philip Reeker; U.S. Ambassador to the OSCE James Gilmore; U.S Helsinki Commission Chief of Staff Alex Johnson; and Helsinki Commission staff Robert Hand, Janice Helwig, Rebecca Neff, Erika Schlager, Shannon Simrell, Dr. Mischa Thompson, and Alex Tiersky. A Call to “Turn a Corner” from Crisis to Cooperation Leveraging the meeting’s virtual format, national statements were livestreamed, offering transparency of the proceedings. Albanian Prime Minister and OSCE Chairperson-in-Office Edi Rama opened the meeting by recalling the solidarity of the signatories of the Helsinki Final Act and Charter of Paris and requesting that ministers “turn a corner” and demonstrate the political will required to address the multiple and complex challenges faced by the organization and across the region. In his remarks, Deputy Secretary Biegun reaffirmed U.S. priorities for engagement at the OSCE, underscoring the commitment to European peace and security and highlighting key challenges facing the OSCE region including Russia’s continued aggression in eastern Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia, and the destabilizing effect of its flagrant violations of the OSCE’s foundational principles.  He called upon Belarus to hold accountable those responsible for its human rights violations and electoral crisis, urged Armenia and Azerbaijan to engage with the Minsk Group Co-Chairs to attain a lasting end to the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, and warned States against using COVID-19 as a pretext to restrict civil society, independent media, or public access to information. Finally, he expressed concern about the increasing number of political prisoners and the rise in cases of anti-Semitism, anti-Roma racism, and other forms of hatred and hate crimes in the OSCE region since the onset of the pandemic.  Consensus Achieved on Organizational Leadership, Preventing Torture, Countering Corruption, and More Despite the challenges inherent in virtual negotiations, consensus was achieved on 11 texts spanning all three OSCE dimensions of comprehensive security and supporting the organization’s internal governance. Ministers agreed on the appointment of the OSCE’s top four leaders: Helga Schmid (Germany) as Secretary General, Maria Teresa Ribiero (Portugal) as Representative on Freedom of the Media, Matteo Mecacci (Italy) as Director of the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), and Kairat Abdrakhmanov (Kazakhstan) as High Commissioner on National Minorities.  The decisions broke a months-long impasse after Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, Turkey, and others blocked the reappointment of the previous executives, leaving the organization leaderless since July. Participating States also reached consensus on several decisions that added to OSCE’s body of commitments. One such decision concerned the prevention and eradication of torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, building on existing OSCE commitments. A version of the text was originally proposed in 2014 by Switzerland during their 2014 Chairpersonship of the OSCE. The initiative reflected the country’s historic leadership in the area of international humanitarian law and profound concerns regarding torture in the context of counterterrorism efforts.  The proposal was reintroduced over successive Ministerial Councils before its adoption in 2020.  The widespread use of torture and other horrific abuse by Belarusian authorities, documented by the November 2020 report under the OSCE Moscow Mechanism, added urgency to this decision this year.  As adopted, the decision includes explicit references to enforced disappearances and to incommunicado detention. Participating States also adopted decisions on preventing and combating corruption; strengthening co-operation to counter transnational organized crime; deepening cooperation with OSCE’s Asian Partners;  supporting the Transdniestrian settlement process (also known in the OSCE as the “5+2” format, which brings together representatives of Moldova, Transdniestria, the OSCE, the Russian Federation, Ukraine, the European Union, and the United States); and selecting North Macedonia to chair the organization in 2023. Unfinished Business Unfortunately, participating States did not reach consensus on several other important drafts, including one co-sponsored by the United States and Belarus based on lessons learned during the COVID-19 pandemic that would have set out new commitments for participating States to effectively combat human trafficking during times of emergency. Other proposals, including texts to modernize the Vienna Document (a wide-ranging confidence- and security-building measure that includes provisions requiring notification of significant military activities, as well as an exchange of information about armed forces, military organization, and major weapon and equipment systems), enhance public-private partnerships to counter terrorism, and counter trafficking in natural resources were scuttled by Russian, Azerbaijani, and Armenian intransigence.  Some drafts which did not reach consensus among all 57 states were turned into statements issued and signed by those countries that had supported their adoption. The United States signed onto nine such statements to support the concept of women, peace and security outlined in UN Security Council Resolution 1325; modernization of the politico-military framework of the Vienna Document; and a number of statements related to the OSCE’s role in addressing regional challenges like ending the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, improving human rights compliance by Belarus, countering Russian aggression in Ukraine and the Republic of Georgia, and addressing challenges relating to the COVID-19 pandemic.   The Albanian Chairperson, together with the OSCE’s 2019 Slovak Chairperson, and the OSCE’s three incoming Chairpersons (the “Quint”) issued two joint statements, one expressing concern about the ongoing conflict in Ukraine and another reaffirming the principles enshrined the Helsinki Final Act and the Charter of Paris for a New Europe. Side events highlight continuing challenges The Ministerial Council’s four side events highlighted priority areas for participating States and for the Parliamentary Assembly. Due to the virtual format, events on the Belarus Moscow Mechanism report, human rights violations in Crimea, combatting human trafficking during the COVID-19 crisis, and the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly’s call for renewed political will to address contemporary challenges, attracted hundreds of participants. Deputy Assistant Secretary Kent closed the Moscow Mechanism side event by promising to maintain a focus on the situation in Belarus, to support efforts to hold authorities accountable for torture and other human rights violations, and to ensure the voice of the Belarusian people is heard in determining their country’s future. At a side event organized by the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly titled “A Call to Action: Reaffirming a Common Purpose,” Helsinki Commission Ranking Member Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) affirmed the strong bipartisan support in the United States for the OSCE, and recognized it as vital forum to promote security, defend human rights and encourage democratic development in all OSCE countries. He argued that greater political accountability rather than organizational reform would make the OSCE more relevant and effective in the years ahead. “It remains the responsibility of the participating States to hold each other to account. In the face of repression at home or aggression abroad, the OSCE will succeed as a multilateral forum as long as those who are true believers stand united in defending the ten Helsinki principles and forthrightly raise violations in this forum.” ​ Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), Ranking Member, U.S. Helsinki Commission, OSCE MC 2020 Side Event on “A Call to Action” Due to challenges related to convening during the COVID-19 pandemic, the NGO network Civic Solidarity Platform did not organize its annual Civil Society Conference, which had been held in conjunction with each OSCE Ministerial Council since its first convening during the 2010 OSCE Summit in Astana. Instead, the network organized a series of webinars in December to maintain focus on key issues of concern. 2021: OSCE’s Swedish Chairpersonship “Back to Basics” Looking ahead to its 2021 Chairpersonship, Swedish Foreign Minister Ann Linde said that Sweden will work to get “back to basics:” defending the European security order, contributing to resolving conflicts, and upholding the OSCE’s comprehensive concept of security with a special focus on human rights, democracy, and gender equality.

  • Retrospective on the 116th Congress

    By Emma Derr, Max Kampelman Fellow “For more than four decades, the Helsinki Commission has championed human rights and democracy across North America, Europe, and Central Asia. While we have worked to keep these concerns on the U.S. agenda, much remains to be accomplished.” ​ Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20), Chairman, U.S. Helsinki Commission In the OSCE region, 2019 and 2020 were marked by unprecedented challenges stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic, calls for racial justice, systematic human rights issues, and ongoing regional conflicts amidst U.S. presidential, Congressional, and regional and local elections. Through these crises, U.S. Helsinki Commission leadership worked tirelessly to ensure that human rights and comprehensive security continued to be promoted through the United States’ foreign and domestic policy agendas. 2020 also marked the 30th anniversary of the Charter of Paris, which set unprecedented commitments to human rights, providing an opportunity for OSCE participating States to reflect and bolster human rights commitments during such a crucial time. Through hearings and briefings, legislative activities, public statements and reports, and engagement with other foreign policy actors, the Helsinki Commission has focused on human rights and security challenges both in the United States and abroad to advance the commission’s priorities in the 116th Congress: principled foreign policy; human rights at home; parliamentary diplomacy; and safe, inclusive, and equitable societies. Additional policy focuses include regional security, election observation, OSCE engagement, and anti-corruption work. View a comprehensive list of activities in the Helsinki Commission's report on the 116th Congress.  Principled Foreign Policy From respect for sovereignty and the territorial integrity of states to human rights and fundamental freedoms, commitments undertaken by OSCE participating States underpin peace and stability in the OSCE region and form the basis of comprehensive security for all people. The Helsinki Commission strives to ensure that the protection of human rights and democratic development are central to a principled U.S. foreign policy. During the 116th Congress, Belarus, Russia, Turkey, Hungary, Ukraine/Crimea, and the Balkans attracted particular attention, given the ongoing human rights and regional conflict issues in those countries. Belarus Following over two decades of authoritarian rule supported by the Kremlin, a political crisis erupted in Belarus in the summer of 2020. After August 9 elections, the Alexander Lukashenko regime claimed victory, and the country saw an unrelenting crackdown by Belarusian authorities on peaceful protests, civil society, and the media. According to international observers, Belarus has not had free and fair national elections since Lukashenko was first elected president in 1994. Unprecedented crowds continue to protest the election. Ahead of the election, Lukashenko eliminated his main political competition through disqualification or imprisonment. Numerous protestors, supporters of opposition candidates, and journalists were arrested as last-minute candidate Svetlana Tsikhanovskaya drew unprecedented crowds to her rallies. Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) called on President Lukashenko “to order the release of those who have been detained for political reasons and allow real political competition in Belarus.” After the elections and in reaction to the human rights abuses perpetrated by the Lukashenko regime, Chairman Hastings wrote to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin requesting that the U.S. administration revoke access to the U.S. financial system for the nine largest state-owned companies in Belarus. “The United States stands with the people of Belarus, who have a right to make free choices about their country’s future and to protest peacefully.” ​ Sen. Roger Wicker (MS), Co-Chairman, U.S. Helsinki Commission After the invocation by 17 OSCE participating States of the Moscow Mechanism to report on human rights concerns in Belarus and subsequent investigation, Professor Wolfgang Benedek—the selected rapporteur—joined the Helsinki Commission for a podcast to discuss his findings, including evidence of fraudulent elections, systematic human rights violations, and a general situation of impunity for perpetrators. Regional Security and Stability In May 2020, following reports that the Trump administration planned to withdraw from the Treaty on Open Skies, Chairman Hastings urged Congress to support the United States’ allies and partners in Europe, as “withdrawing from the Open Skies Treaty can only benefit Putin’s continuing campaign of aggression against Russia’s neighbors.” Chairman Hastings also authored an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for the 2021 Fiscal Year to reflect support for the Open Skies Treaty and stated his regret in November when the U.S. withdrew from the treaty. The Helsinki Commission held a joint hearing in November 2019 with the House Foreign Affairs Committee concerning the importance of the Open Skies Treaty for security and stability in Europe and released a podcast on the treaty’s benefits, the complexity of execution, and current challenges in implementation. In July 2019, for the first time in its 43-year history the Helsinki Commission convened outside of the United States for a field hearing to underscore America’s commitment to Baltic Sea regional security and emphasize its unwavering support for U.S. friends and allies. The commission also held a briefing to discuss the potential use of energy, specifically oil and gas projects, to achieve foreign policy goals, as well as the extent to which energy independence can reduce the ability of hostile actors to destabilize the European region by threatening to cut off access to energy supplies. Turkey, Hungary, Ukraine/Crimea, and the Balkans In April 2019, Co-Chairman Wicker and Ranking Member Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) introduced the Defending United States Citizens and Diplomatic Staff from Political Prosecutions Act to address arbitrary arrests which contribute to Turkey’s deteriorating respect for human rights under President Erdogan. In April 2019, the Helsinki Commission hosted a briefing on recent developments in Hungary concerning a steady erosion of freedom, the rule of law, and quality of governance. Later that year, the commission reported on an amendment to the Hungarian religion law, which continues to discriminate against people on the basis of their faith. In late 2019, Co-Chairman Wicker successfully pressed Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban to stop the blockage of the European Union version of the Magnitsky Act. The U.S. Magnitsky Act allows the use of sanctions as a tool to target alleged human rights abusers and corruption, and its European counterpart would do the same. In May 2020, Co-Chairman Wicker and Ranking Member Cardin urged U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to work with the European Union’s High Representative to advance EU Magnitsky Sanctions.  Following a mob attack in October 2019 on a Jewish community center providing office space to civil society groups in Budapest, Chairman Hastings and Ranking Member Cardin called the Hungarian government to take action during this “alarming escalation of violence toward minorities and civil society groups.” In 2020, the commission released a report detailing the escalating rhetorical attacks and legislative restrictions against civil society as Orban continues to consolidate power in Hungary. In December 2019, Helsinki Commission Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) and Commissioner Rep.  Emanuel Cleaver II (MO-05) introduced the bipartisan Ukraine Religious Freedom Support Act in the House of Representatives, and Co-Chairman Wicker introduced the act, cosponsored by Helsinki Commissioner Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (NH), to the Senate. The act, which would combat Russia’s religious freedom violations in the Crimea and Donbas regions of Ukraine, unanimously passed in the House of Representatives in November 2020 and awaits Senate action. In July 2019, the Helsinki Commission hosted a briefing about reunifying societies divided by war, genocide, and other tragedies in areas such as the Balkans, as well as promoting reconciliation and healing for Holocaust survivors and other victims of Nazi persecution who continue to seek justice worldwide. Twenty years after two U.S. citizens were brutally murdered in Serbia in the aftermath of the 1999 conflict in Kosovo, their brother Ilir joins the Helsinki Commission to share his family’s fight for justice in the face of inaction by Serbian authorities. Election Observation In 1990, all OSCE participating States pledged to hold free and fair elections and to invite international observers. OSCE election observation missions often are undertaken jointly by the OSCE Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) and the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (PA). These election observation missions have been recognized as one of the most transparent and methodical ways to encourage States’ commitment to democratic standards and have become a core element of the OSCE’s efforts to provide feedback on the election processes to the benefit of candidates and voters alike. Commissioners and staff have observed well over 100 elections since 1990, and in 2020 alone, the OSCE has been invited to observe elections in nearly 20 OSCE participating States, including the United States. In 2019, the commission held a briefing focused on the benefits and challenges of international election observation, best practices, and emerging issues such as voting technology and security. In addition, the use of disinformation to influence elections has become a pervasive and persistent threat in all 57 OSCE participating States. Ahead of the 2020 general elections, the commission held a briefing on the intersections and influences of disinformation and COVID-19 on the electoral process. Election observation is an important way to help monitor these effects on the workings of democracy. A limited election observation mission was deployed by the OSCE to observe the 2020 general election in the United States. Despite the challenges posed by the pandemic, the OSCE team was confident it produced a thorough, impartial, fact-based assessment that concluded the elections were free and fair, as well as “competitive and well managed despite legal uncertainties and logistical challenges” posed by the pandemic and the polarized political climate. OSCE Institutions and Policy During the past two years, the Helsinki Commission hosted hearings featuring both the Albanian and Slovakian OSCE Chairs in Office, as well as the OSCE Representative for Freedom of the Media Harlem Desir, to discuss OSCE institutional priorities such as human rights violations, conflict resolution, and the safety of journalists. In January 2020, the Helsinki Commission welcomed OSCE Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights Director Ambassador Ingibjörg Sólrún Gísladóttir, in her first appearance before Congress, to address challenges in the OSCE region related to human rights and democracy.  In December 2020, the Helsinki Commission held a hearing, “U.S. Priorities for Engagement at the OSCE,” where Ambassador Philip T. Reeker U.S. State Department Senior Bureau Official, who has been serving in the role of Acting Assistant Secretary for Europe and Eurasia since March 2018, emphasized that the United States is focused on upholding Helsinki Final Act commitments and pushing all participating States to live up to their own commitments to these principles. Human Rights at Home Like all other OSCE participating States, the United States must also examine how well—or how poorly—it is living up to its own OSCE commitments. In the 116th Congress, the Helsinki Commission took a hard look at human rights at home. “If the United States wants to remain a credible voice in the promotion of human rights abroad, we must fiercely protect them at home.” Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20), Chairman, U.S. Helsinki Commission In summer 2020 the Helsinki Commission launched a series of hearings focused on restorative justice related to public monuments and memorials, the safety of journalists, and implications of domestic human rights issues for U.S. leadership. The commission also convened political and civil rights leaders to discuss the impact of George Floyd’s tragic death on the need to shape policies that confront and prevent racism and racist acts. The Helsinki Commission dealt at further length with the safety of journalists and freedom of the media in the United States. In the aftermath of attacks on journalists covering protests calling for racial justice, Chairman Rep. Hastings expressed the need to take an “honest and critical look at America’s own record in recent weeks on protecting journalists and safeguarding press freedom.” The U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM) supports networks that reach more than 350 million people across the world, many of whom otherwise would not have access to independent, unbiased news. When USAGM failed to renew J-1 visas for foreign Voice of America (VOA) journalists, Chairman Rep. Hastings, Ranking Member Sen. Ben Cardin, and Helsinki Commissioners Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), and Rep. Marc Veasey (TX-33) demanded that U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM) CEO Michael Pack provide a detailed explanation and called for new policies to protect the personal security of VOA journalists working under the USAGM. Safe, Inclusive, and Equitable Societies Civil rights are human rights, and advancing societies that are safe, inclusive, and equitable is central to the work of the Helsinki Commission. Anti-racism initiatives have always been a priority for the commission, but they found particular focus in 2020 in conjunction with the exposure of systemic racism in police brutality and the disproportionate impacts of COVID-19 on minority populations.  Commissioners looked inward to the United States’ own domestic policies, as well as outward to other OSCE countries, to develop ideas and policies that promote principles of social inclusion, empowering diverse populations and enhancing the ability for everyone to fully participate in society. Over the past decade, Chairman Hastings has drawn attention to the racism and discrimination faced by black Europeans, recognizing their fight for inclusion. In March 2019, he introduced legislation establishing a strategy to protect the collective history and achievements of people of African descent and to promote the human rights of people of African descent worldwide, and a year later, he introduced a bill to implement a government-wide diversity and inclusion plan. “Across the globe we find racial disparities between those of African descent and other populations in education, employment, health, housing, justice, and other sectors. At the same time, hate crimes and racial profiling targeting black populations are increasing,” said Chairman Hastings. “A global strategy ensures we are monitoring whether countries around the world are providing equal protections and opportunity to all within their borders.” Chairman Hastings also collaborated with other Helsinki Commissioners to address racism globally. In July 2020, Chairman Hastings, along with Helsinki Commissioners Rep. Gwen Moore (WI-04), Rep. Cleaver, Rep. Veasey, and 35 other Members of the United States Congress, including the Congressional Black Caucus Chair, called for a sweeping plan of action following the European Parliament’s Juneteenth Day resolution supporting protests against racism and police brutality. Chairman Hastings and Rep. Gregory W. Meeks (NY-05) also issued a statement regarding foreign affairs funding for diverse, global anti-racism programs, commemorating John Lewis’ yearly leadership in securing these appropriations requests. In September, Chairman Hastings and other Helsinki Commissioners joined members of the European Parliament’s Civil Liberties Committee and Subcommittee on Human Rights to discuss combating racism and systemic discrimination on both sides of the Atlantic. In October, Ranking Member Cardin joined the office of the OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities for an online event that evaluated the applicability of the 2006 Recommendations on Policing in Multi-Ethnic Societies, highlighted relevant legislation, and discussed structural changes to address discriminatory police violence. Ahead of International Roma Day in 2020, the Helsinki Commission hosted a discussion about racism against Roma, the largest ethnic minority in Europe who have historically faced enslavement and continue to battle discrimination. The conversation focused on the state of Roma rights in Europe, as well as resolutions introduced by Helsinki Commission leaders to celebrate Romani American heritage. Reports from nearly every corner of the OSCE region suggest that minority groups have been impacted especially hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, and an extended episode of "Helsinki on the Hill" takes an in-depth look at the pandemic’s impact on vulnerable populations, such as the Roma, and the role of governments in addressing that impact. In December 2019, the Helsinki Commission convened a hearing to focus on public diplomacy initiatives that cultivate leaders who espouse democratic principles, including inclusive and representative governance. The commission also released a podcast discussing how to achieve equitable and inclusive democracies  through political inclusion and economic empowerment. Guests discussed their experiences on the front lines of the fight for greater diversity and inclusion in Europe, and in the transatlantic policymaking space more broadly.  Members of the Helsinki Commission have long supported diversity and inclusion efforts in international affairs including through the annual Transatlantic Inclusion Leaders Network (TILN) workshop, a hearing about the state of diversity and inclusion in Europe, and a new transatlantic democracy program for youth “On the Road to Inclusion.” In March 2020, Chairman Hastings introduced the Leadership Institute for Transatlantic Engagement (LITE) Act, calling for the creation of a transatlantic institute focused on strengthening democratic principles and values in the West, as well as pioneering inclusive and intergenerational solutions to current challenges that would empowering individuals across generations and from diverse backgrounds with the knowledge, tools, opportunity, and access to fully participate in their democracies. The commission also supports diversity in the diplomatic corps. Chairman Hastings, Co-Chairman Wicker, and Ranking Member Cardin joined bipartisan Congressional efforts to support annual funding for State Department and USAID diversity fellowship programs, as well as study abroad opportunities. Parliamentary Diplomacy Parliamentary diplomacy advances comprehensive security and democratic institutions in the OSCE region and acts as a tool to promote safe, inclusive and equitable societies. Commissioners have championed the development of parliamentary assemblies for regional organizations throughout the world and participate regularly in the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA), which offers opportunities for engagement among parliamentarians from OSCE participating States. The Helsinki Commission organizes bicameral U.S. delegations to OSCE PA meetings throughout the year. With 17 of 323 seats, the United States has the largest representation in the assembly. In the 116th Congress, commissioners explored ways to defend human rights, hold the Kremlin accountable, and maximize cooperation with OSCE Mediterranean partners at OSCE PA meetings. Commissioners visited Hungary, Tunisia, Israel, and Morocco in bipartisan delegations aiming to strengthen shared principles, and Commissioners reported on these visits at OSCE PA meetings as well. Co-Chairman Wicker led the largest bipartisan, bicameral U.S. delegation in history to the 28th Annual Session of the OSCE PA in July 2019 in Luxembourg. At this annual session, Helsinki Commission Ranking Member Cardin, who also serves as OSCE PA Special Representative on Anti-Semitism, Racism, and Intolerance, hosted a U.S. side event in his capacity as Special Representative on the topic of adopting an action plan to counter hate and foster inclusion. Following a two-day seminar organized by Helsinki Commission and the OSCE PA in February 2020, Future Leadership for Political Inclusion in the OSCE Region: A Seminar for Young Parliamentarians, nearly 20 young legislators from OSCE participating States issued a joint declaration emphasizing the important role young people must play in addressing human rights and security challenges across the world. The commission hosted OSCE PA officials for a briefing in December of 2019 to share a parliamentary perspective on the priorities and objectives of the Albanian chairmanship of the OSCE amid regional conflicts and resistance to democratic reforms in some countries in the OSCE region. The commission also regularly hosts hearings, convenes panels, and participates in events related to parliamentary diplomacy, highlighting the important role the OSCE PA and other parliamentary assemblies play in holding governments accountable to standards of cooperation and human rights. Corruption During the 116th Congress, the Helsinki Commission promoted efforts to combat corruption in the OSCE region, recognizing it as a threat to democracy, security, and human rights. The commission’s work focuses on authoritarian kleptocracy, a form of autocratic government that relies on financial globalization and secrecy to steal and maintain power. Members of the Helsinki Commission introduced the Rodchenkov Act, the Kleptocrat Exposure Act, the Combating the Illicit Trade in Tobacco Products Act (CITTPA), the Countering Russian and Other Overseas Kleptocracy (CROOK) Act, the Foreign Extortion Prevention Act, and the Transnational Repression Accountability and Prevention (TRAP) Act. The Rodchenkov Act passed through both chambers of Congress and was signed into law by President Trump on December 4, 2020. The act establishes criminal penalties for doping schemes, provides restitution for victims, protects whistleblowers from retaliation, and shares information with the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency. Passage of the bipartisan legislation was spearheaded by Co-Chairman Wicker and Commissioner Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (RI) in the Senate and former Commissioners Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (TX-18) and Rep. Michael Burgess (TX-26) in the House of Representatives. “This legislation is a great bipartisan accomplishment for the rights of athletes, the protection of whistleblowers, and our common goal of keeping criminals out of international sports,” said Co-Chairman Wicker.  The commission also organized briefings to draw attention to issues like money laundering and official corruption, as well as to share best practices on innovative corruption policies.

  • Co-Chairman Wicker on Secretary of State’s New Designations under International Religious Freedom Act

    WASHINGTON—Following U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s December 7 designations for Countries of Particular Concern (CPC) and the Special Watch List for the worst religious freedom violations, Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) issued the following statement: “Secretary Pompeo rightfully redesignated Tajikistan and Turkmenistan as Countries of Particular Concern. These governments continue to arrest, detain, and torture people for their faith, despite repeated CPC redesignations. It is time for the president to take actions required by the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, which include sanctions against foreign government officials who have committed or are responsible for severe and egregious religious freedom violations. “Russia’s continued presence on the Special Watch List underscores the need for the Senate to pass the Ukraine Religious Freedom Support Act. The Kremlin brutally persecutes religious communities in the parts of Ukraine it illegally occupies or otherwise controls by force. This legislation would ensure the president has the authority necessary to hold Russian government officials accountable for their brutality in Ukraine. “Under the leadership of President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, Uzbekistan commendably has released religious prisoners, registered more religious organizations, and maintained the ban on police raids against religious communities. However, it is essential that reforms continue. Uzbekistan should work with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and Council of Europe’s Venice Commission on its draft religion law to ensure that the final version complies with Uzbekistan’s OSCE commitments and international obligations.” As participating States of the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Russia, and Uzbekistan have repeatedly made commitments to recognize, respect, and protect religious freedom. Even though Turkmenistan has been a CPC since 2014 and Tajikistan since 2016, presidents have always waived taking the presidential actions against them required by the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998. Russia has been on the Special Watch List since 2018. In November 2020, the House of Representatives unanimously passed the Ukraine Religious Freedom Support Act (H.R. 5408) introduced by Helsinki Commissioners Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) and Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, II (MO-05). The Senate companion (S. 3064), introduced by Sen. Wicker and cosponsored by Helsinki Commissioner Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (NH), also awaits Senate action. Under binding international humanitarian law, like the Geneva Conventions, the Russian Government is responsible for religious freedom violations in Ukrainian territory it occupies or controls through armed groups it commands. The Ukraine Religious Freedom Support Act would authorize the president to consider Russia’s worst religious freedom violations in Ukrainian territory—not just violations in Russia—when determining whether to designate Russia as a CPC. Uzbekistan was a CPC from 2006 to 2017 and on the Special Watch List from 2018 to 2019. Sen. Wicker has repeatedly urged Uzbekistan to request a review of its draft religion law by the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institution for Human Rights. Sen. Wicker made the requests in a 2018 letter to Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Kamilov, during a 2018 Helsinki Commission hearing, and in a 2019 public statement. A recent joint review by ODIHR and the Venice Commission review concluded that although “the Draft Law brings some improvements compared to the existing legislation…the Draft Law also maintains major restrictions and suffers from deficiencies that are incompatible with international human rights standards.” The review included recommendations to make the law compliant.

  • COVID-19 IMPACTS OSCE’S 2020 HUMAN DIMENSION WORK

    By Erika Schlager, Counsel for International Law; Janice Helwig, Senior Policy Advisor;  and Shannon Simrell, Representative of the Helsinki Commission to the U.S. Mission to the OSCE The regular and planned schedule of OSCE meetings for 2020 was significantly altered by the COVID-19 pandemic. It now falls to the 2021 Chair-in-Office, Swedish Foreign Minister Ann Linde, to steward the Organization—and its human dimension activities—through the next phase of the pandemic. Changes to the OSCE’s regular order began on March 14, when Austrian authorities ordered a lockdown in response to the emerging pandemic.  OSCE meetings in Vienna, where the OSCE is headquartered, were canceled for the second half of that month.  Pressing business was conducted remotely, which allowed the Permanent Council to renew the mandate for the Special Monitoring Mission (SMM) in Ukraine and adopt the SMM budget on March 19.  After a regularly scheduled recess from April 6 to April 17, some OSCE meetings resumed as the organization shifted to primarily online meetings.  Some used a “hybrid” or “blended” format, permitting in-person engagement in Vienna (to the extent that in-person gatherings were allowed by changing local health measures), reinforced by additional participation through videoconferencing.  Two-day Supplementary Human Dimension Meetings, the Alliance Against Trafficking meeting, and the Annual Security Review Conference were held in a hybrid format.  Some other meetings, such as the annual Human Dimension Seminar in Warsaw, were not held at all.  Separately, the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly canceled its annual session, which had been scheduled in Vancouver in July. 2020 Human Dimension Implementation Meeting As the participating States and the OSCE institutions strove to adjust to circumstances created by the COVID-19 pandemic, convening the annual Human Dimension Implementation Meeting (HDIM) presented particular challenges due to its length and complexity. Reflecting the extraordinary times, the 2020 Human Dimension Implementation Meeting was canceled by decision of the participating States. Spanning two weeks, the HDIM is significantly longer than other OSCE meetings. It typically draws more than a thousand representatives of government and civil society from across the OSCE’s expansive time zones. According to its mandate, the HDIM holds six hours of formal sessions each day covering the full range of human dimension concerns including freedoms of assembly, association, expression, and religion or belief; countering anti-Semitism, racism, and xenophobia; and democratic institutions such as free and fair elections, the rule of law, and independence of the judiciary.  Dozens of side events are also organized by nongovernmental organizations, OSCE institutions, other international organizations, and participating States, which meet for up to an additional six hours a day. Side events allow participants to focus on specific issues of concern in greater depth. The most significant aspect of HDIM is that civil society representatives may speak during formal sessions on equal footing with government representatives.  Governments and civil society alike use HDIM as a forum to cultivate contacts among and between civil society and governments.  As a practical matter, the critical human rights violations that would be the focus of any implementation review were unabated by the pandemic.  On the contrary, some governments used the pandemic to distract from their long-standing human rights shortcomings. In addition, the pandemic created additional areas of concern, such as government surveillance ostensibly related to health monitoring, punitive measures against real or alleged critics of a government’s pandemic responses, and the scope and duration of emergency measures adopted in response to the pandemic. When considering how to hold the HDIM in the context of COVID-19, organizers and participants alike debated how, or indeed whether, HDIM’s unique aspects could be shoe-horned into an on-line format. The United States argued that the HDIM could and should be convened in an adjusted, blended format.  “It is precisely because of the impact of the pandemic on human rights and democracy that the HDIM must be held. [. . .] 2020 is EXACTLY the year we need HDIM most.” Harry Hummel, advisor to the Netherlands Helsinki Committee with extensive experience attending HDIMs, noted that some of these challenges had already been met for the first two Supplementary Human Dimension Meetings and that hybrid meetings would have some advantages.  However, he concluded that all online or hybrid HDIM variants would have significant disadvantages for civil society, particularly since one of the most important components of the HDIM—informal, person-to-person contacts—could not be replicated virtually A majority of OSCE participating States agreed. After extensive consultations among participating States, the Chair-in-Office, and the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) —the OSCE institution mandated to organize the HDIM—the Permanent Council decided on September 11 that the HDIM (originally scheduled for September 21–October 2) would, exceptionally, not take place in 2020 due to the unprecedented, extraordinary, and unpredictable circumstances caused by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.  The Permanent Council also stated that this decision did not establish any precedent for the organization of future HDIMs. Following the announcement, Chairman Alcee Hastings stated, “We should use this time wisely by redoubling our efforts to ensure that all OSCE participating States implement their OSCE commitments. The pandemic has revealed—and in some cases amplified—human rights shortcomings, democratic weaknesses, racial inequities, and social vulnerabilities across the region.”  At a hearing before the Helsinki Commission on September 17, OSCE Chair-in-Office Edi Rama reaffirmed the importance of HDIM. He stated, “This is a huge loss for our organization. Together with [the] Permanent Council, [the] Human Dimension Implementation Meeting is a constituent part of the OSCE’s mechanism for the review and assessment of the implementation of our commitments.” Working to Keeping Human Dimension Issues Top of Mind To provide an additional platform in 2020 for human dimension issues, the OSCE held a series of webinars between September 28 and November 6, 2020, organized by ODIHR in cooperation with the Office of the Representative on Freedom of the Media (RFoM) and the Office of the High Commissioner on National Minorities (HCNM), and with the support of the 2020 Albanian OSCE Chairmanship.  The sessions focused on racism, xenophobia, and intolerance and discrimination; combating racism and discrimination against Roma; the rule of law; access to information and freedom of the media; democratic lawmaking; multilingual education; and human rights defenders. Some of the webinars touched on subjects such as the prevention of torture (part of the discussion on human rights defenders) and access to information that also were the subject of subsequent negotiations for Ministerial Council decisions.  Although the webinars raised important human rights issues, they could not substitute for the HDIM, particularly as their format and short duration did not permit significant dialogue with civil society. Looking Ahead to 2021 In a December 3 address to the annual OSCE Ministerial Council, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun called for sustained vigilance. “We must press governments to uphold their human dimension commitments, give audience to the voices of civil society, and hold a Human Dimension Implementation Meeting in 2021 where governments are called to account for their actions,” he said. As 2021 Chair-in-Office, Sweden will have the task of consulting with the participating States on the entire calendar of OSCE meetings and events, continuing to adjust plans as needed in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. There has been strong support among participating States for moving the HDIM, which is typically been held in the early fall, to earlier in the year to prevent any conflict with the annual United Nations General Assembly meeting.  Given the inability to hold a regular HDIM in 2020, if public health conditions permit, it would be ideal to move the HDIM forward in 2021.

  • Helsinki Commission Digital Digest: November 2020

  • The OSCE Celebrates 30 Years of the Charter of Paris

    By Emma Derr, Max Kampelman Fellow November 21, 2020, marks the 30th anniversary of the Charter of Paris for a New Europe,  a groundbreaking document of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE). The charter was signed by 34 heads of state and government during a CSCE Summit in the French capital from November 19 to 21, 1990. The political agreement charted a path forward following Cold War confrontation and division caused by Soviet domination in the east. It ushered in a new era as states made an unprecedented commitment to domestic individual freedoms, democratic governance, human rights, and transnational cooperation. By institutionalizing the CSCE as a platform to realize peace and security, this process transformed the multilateral Conference into the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which today is the world’s largest regional security organization, comprising 57 participating States. The charter states, “Europe is liberating itself from the legacy of the past. The courage of men and women, the strength of the will of the peoples and the power of the ideas of the Helsinki Final Act have opened a new era of democracy, peace and unity in Europe.” Known by many as the “Helsinki Process,” both the CSCE and its OSCE successor have been based on ten principles guiding relations between participating States, enshrined in the Helsinki Final Act. The charter marks a triumph of the comprehensive definition of security these principles represent and a moment of unity, which participating States hoped to maintain through enhanced cooperation. During the OSCE’s three-session Security Days event in October “Revitalizing Trust and Co-operation in Europe: Lessons of the Paris Charter,” former U.S. Secretary of State James A. Baker III, who played a leading role in the charter’s formation, recalled signing the agreement as an “optimistic, almost festive event.” “It encapsulated so much that was positive about the process that had begun with the Helsinki Final Act in 1975,” he said. “It envisioned a new and inclusive continent based largely on western values, particularly the value of democracy.” The Enduring Value of the OSCE Since 1990, the OSCE has acted as a forum for political dialogue and a platform for joint action across North America, Europe, and Asia through its institutions, structures, and field operations. As its occupation of Crimea and military intervention in Eastern Ukraine have led to Russia’s isolation and sanctions by the United States and others in recent years, the OSCE is one of the few remaining multilateral forums for American diplomats to directly engage with their Russian counterparts. As an organization promoting the principles of democracy and as a forum for conflict resolution, the OSCE is a valuable tool to hold authoritarian regimes accountable throughout the region, which stretches from Vancouver to Vladivostok. Chairman of the U.S. Helsinki Commission Rep. Alcee L. Hastings and U.S. Ambassador to the OSCE James S. Gilmore III see the OSCE as a forum where the United States remains engaged and committed to the ideals cemented in the Charter of Paris. “Through the OSCE, the United States directly confronts the deceit of Russia and other authoritarian powers. By raising our voices, through our participation and leadership, we reassure our friends that the United States stands with them and supports our shared values against the growing tide of autocracy,” Rep. Hastings and Amb. Gilmore stated in an August 2020 op-ed. The organization continues to play a critical role in regional conflicts in and amongst participating States. The OSCE’s Special Monitoring Mission (SMM) to Ukraine is the only independent observer group with a permanent presence in the war zone. “The OSCE’s broad membership and comprehensive definition of security make it an ideal platform to advocate for our interests in a vital region,” stated Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker and Ranking Member Sen. Ben Cardin in a 2018 article describing the OSCE’s timeless value. “Its institutions remain singularly placed to moderate regional conflicts, promote respect for human rights, and safeguard essential elements of democracy.” The OSCE operates field missions in 13 participating States with the goal of supporting the development of host countries’ democratic institutions, legal frameworks, and ability to meet various human rights, media freedom, and policing commitments. OSCE field mission staff are praised by Carnegie Europe Senior Fellow Thomas de Waal as “some of the unsung heroes of Europe’s darkest corners.” The Charter of Paris articulated a new era of economic commitments, and the OSCE provides frequent opportunities for representatives of OSCE governments to discuss best practices concerning free market economies, economic cooperation and environmental issues. The OSCE also organizes international election observation missions to transitional and well-established democracies alike, observing and reporting on adherence to democratic election commitments. New Challenges Much has changed since the end of the Cold War, and the anniversary of the charter provides an opportunity to renew commitments to cooperation and examine how the OSCE will meet current and emerging challenges. During October’s Security Days event, former OSCE Secretary General and former High Commissioner on National Minorities Ambassador Lamberto Zannier called for reinvigorated political support and investment by participating States to enable the OSCE to continue its vital work. He cited the post-Soviet transition in Ukraine and Serbian elections in Kosovo as examples of these efforts. During his remarks at the event, Baker concluded that in this spirit, the OSCE can find new methods of cooperation to meet 21 century challenges. “Our message should not be much different than it was three decades ago,” he said. “States should fulfill the promises they made in the Paris charter 30 years ago.” The 30th anniversary inspired other webinar discussions, such as IFSH Hamburg’s Event, “30 Years Charter of Paris: Lessons for Pragmatic Cooperation in the OSCE Area,” which discussed the strengths and weaknesses of the Charter of Paris, as well as potential reforms to the OSCE. The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) also engaged in the anniversary and hosted the event “(Dis)functional International Security Institutions? The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Today.” The OSCE’s Parliamentary Assembly and the French Delegation to the Assembly held an online, public discussion “The 30th Anniversary of the Charter of Paris: A Parliamentary Perspective,” on November 20, which discussed how to the OSCE can continue to provide value within today’s complex international framework. Finally, on November 20, the Woodrow Wilson Center in cooperation with the U.S. Helsinki Commission also hosted an event, “Marking the 30th Anniversary of the Charter of Paris for a New Europe - Europe Whole and Free: The Future of the OSCE.” The discussion included the U.S. Helsinki Commission’s Ranking Member Sen. Ben Cardin and Commissioner Rep. Robert Aderholt, as well as other leading voices on European security and cooperation.   Photos Courtesy of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of France​

  • Coronavirus in the OSCE Region

    By Emma Derr, Max Kampelman Fellow A novel coronavirus was first identified in Wuhan, China in December 2019. Termed COVID-19, the disease spread rapidly around the globe. As of October 2020, 1.18 million people have died from COVID-19, and over 227,000 of these deaths have occurred in the United States. COVID-19 is one of the most devastating public health crises since the Spanish Flu of 1918. From hospital beds to protective gear, governments across the world face significant challenges in combating its morbidity and death rates. In addition to the domestic coronavirus policies implemented at the national level, multilateral organizations such as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) have taken their own steps to curb the vast negative impacts of the novel coronavirus. Examples of Coronavirus Policy Responses across the OSCE Region Countries in the OSCE region have developed a wide variety of policies to combat the significant public health, political, and economic challenges caused by the coronavirus. As the number of cases has surged or declined in various countries, coronavirus restrictions are changing on a weekly basis. In most countries, policies exist at a national level, and many countries have also imposed regional restrictions. In the United States, state and local authorities impose their own restrictions. The varying responses of the United States, Sweden, France, and Turkmenistan illustrate the many coronavirus policy differences that exist in the OSCE region. The scientific publication “Our World in Data,” in collaboration with the University of Oxford, created a “Government Response Stringency Index” using nine response indicators, including school closures and travel bans. With 100 as the strictest ranking, the index currently ranks the United State at 62.5, France at 46.76, and Sweden at 37.04. Turkmenistan is not on the index. Government Response Stringency Index as of October 28, 2020. Graphic courtesy of Our World in Data.  United States In the United States, federal action largely has been confined to restrictions on international travel and immigration, with state governors enacting their own policies concerning closures and restrictions. State policies differ in scope and timeline but most center around issues such as face mask requirements, the number of people who can gather, health guidelines for business operations, social distancing measures, state travel restrictions and quarantine orders, restaurant and bar capacities, prohibitions on non-essential medical procedures, and in-person or online school decisions. Local officials, such as state health officers and mayors, have also imposed restrictions at the county or city level, sometimes in conflict with more or less stringent state-level guidance. State restrictions change rapidly, but the New York Times has created a map with up-to-date state data and policy actions. France The French government first locked down the country on March 17, requiring citizens to provide travel permits when leaving their homes. In May, France began to gradually reopen schools and public transport at the same time as other European countries, such as Belgium and Spain, eased restrictions. Masks are mandated on public transit and recommended when social distancing guidelines cannot be followed. According to France’s government website, as of October, local curfews were imposed in the Paris region, as well as eight other cities. These changes arrive amid a European “second wave,” which includes a spike in coronavirus cases in France. On October 29, another lockdown was announced and is expected to extend until December 1. All nonessential travel outside the home is strictly prohibited as it was with the first lockdown, but this time around, schools will remain open. Sweden In the spring of 2020, Sweden kept its borders open, and became one of the few OSCE participating States that did not go into lockdown. Instead, gatherings of over 50 people, sporting events, and visits to nursing homes were prohibited; bars, restaurants and schools remained open. The general advice issued by the Public Health Agency of Sweden reminds citizens to stay at home when experiencing symptoms, wash their hands regularly, and socially distance from one another. The agency does not recommend face masks in public spaces. Due to its high per capita death rate, Swedish health officials recently released national restrictions on nightclubs, as well as other regional measures. On October 26, new local guidelines were introduced in Uppsala and Malmo, where cases have been increasing. Residents were told to avoid public transport and to only socialize with people within their households. Turkmenistan Turkmenistan is the only OSCE participating State to deny that it has been affected by COVID-19. There is significant doubt both in the international community and among Turkmen NGOs that this is the case. There have been numerous deaths of high-level government officials and people in prisons reportedly due to “pneumonia.” Humanitarian concerns have been raised as patients with COVID-19 symptoms have been overwhelming hospitals. Although the World Health Organization visited the country and did not directly contradict the official narrative, following the visit, Turkmen authorities imposed “preventive” restrictions similar to those in other countries. The country has restricted travel and border crossings; closed restaurants, shopping malls, theaters, and parks; and mandated the use of masks and social distancing in public. OSCE Action The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) is the world’s largest regional security organization with 57 participating States. Leaders of OSCE institutions and offices have stated their continuing commitments to OSCE principles and stress the importance of unity and solidarity as its nations fight to control the pandemic.  “Now is the time for unity. The COVID-19 virus does not distinguish between peoples or countries; its threat is universal. This underscores that security is common, comprehensive and indivisible,” said the Chair of the OSCE Permanent Council Igli Hasani and his colleagues in a letter earlier this year. The OSCE seeks to provide leadership through guidelines and policy recommendations that address the challenges presented by the novel coronavirus. The organization has also been active in examining the economic, environmental, and security implications of the coronavirus across the OSCE region. “In today’s highly interconnected world, it is necessary to have strong solidarity and a cooperative approach at all levels: community, state, regional, and global,” stated Vuk Zugic, OSCE Coordinator of Economic and Environmental Activities. Minority Groups and Vulnerable Populations On the Helsinki on the Hill podcast “Communities at Risk,” Ambassador Lamberto Zannier, the former OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities and a current OSCE PA High-Level Expert, spoke about providing protection for the most vulnerable during this health crisis. “We felt that the issue of protecting the diversity of the society and ensuring that all social groups are included in the policies, and there is an equal treatment for all, was not at the forefront of the concerns of many governments,” he said. “We started to see problems of discrimination. We started to see problems with hate speech. We started seeing problems with access of some of the population to basic services.” In March, as OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities, Zannier released recommendations for short-term responses to COVID-19 to support social cohesion in OSCE states, and in April, the HCNM released a full set of policy recommendations that call on countries to take into account diversity when implementing state emergency measures, such as providing public services and media communications in minority languages. Voting and Elections The OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) is mandated to address issues related to democracy, human rights, and rule of law, including freedom of the press, freedom of movement, and democratic elections.  ODIHR released a report in October outlining best alternative voting practices in the context of COVID-19, focusing on secrecy, equality, and universality. Human Trafficking ODIHR also conducted an empirical survey of survivors of human trafficking and issued a report in June that examined the impact of COVID-19 on human trafficking trends and recommended how OSCE states could respond. According to OSCE PA Special Representative on Trafficking in Persons and former Helsinki Commission Chair Rep. Chris Smith, “The COVID-19 pandemic has increased the vulnerability of children to becoming victims of trafficking and sexual exploitation. Today, with most schools closed, children are spending more of their time online where they are vulnerable to being groomed by sexual predators and lured into trafficking situations. One way we can fight this and protect our children now is by education to keep them safe online and by developing age-appropriate training tools for children, parents and educators.” Parliamentary Diplomacy The OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA) has hosted several webinars focused on the effects of the coronavirus on human rights and democracy. The webinar titled “COVID’s impact on conflicts in the OSCE region” addressed obstacles to conflict resolution, humanitarian aid efforts, and implementation of the fundamental principles agreed to under the Helsinki Final Act. Helsinki Commissioner and Chair of the OSCE PA General Committee on Political Affairs and Security Rep. Richard Hudson attended the discussion and stated his concern over “the COVID-19 pandemic and its potential to further inflame existing conflicts in the OSCE area or potentially generate new ones.” He said it was important for the Parliamentary Assembly to stay informed on the OSCE’s role in the conflict cycle, specifically in Ukraine and Georgia. Other speakers emphasized his message and noted that people in conflict zones are on one of the most dangerous frontlines of the pandemic. In May, the OSCE PA hosted a webinar titled “Respecting Human Rights and Maintaining Democratic Control During States of Emergency.” In his comments, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) emphasized the importance of protecting fundamental freedoms. “I am sorry, but not surprised that some governments have taken the need for emergency measures as an opportunity for repressive measures,” he stated. “Hungary is the only OSCE participating State that does not have a sunset clause for the expiration of its emergency measures or requiring parliamentary approval for an extension.  Parliamentary oversight is absolutely essential, especially when governments seek to exercise extraordinary powers.” During the webinar, Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), Helsinki Commission Ranking Member and the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly Special Representative on Anti-Semitism, Racism, and Intolerance, also addressed concerning aspects of COVID-19 emergency responses. “Emergency provisions which restrict freedom of speech or freedom of the media are especially concerning and may actually undermine our efforts to address this health emergency. We need to ensure that journalists, medical professionals, scientists and others can provide the public with information we need to battle COVID,” he said. OSCE Field Missions OSCE field missions have been actively adapting to support host countries’ needs during this pandemic. Since April, several missions have helped to provide medical supplies and equipment to their host countries. The OSCE Presence in Albania, a field operation that cooperates with Albania’s Border and Migration Police, donated medical supplies to Albania’s Border Police in May. The team also visited border crossing points to assess existing protocols. The OSCE Programme Office in Dushanbe provided protective gear and sanitizing supplies to its partners in Tajikistan, and the OSCE mission to Montenegro delivered food and hygiene products to support the country’s Red Cross.  Handover of personal protective equipment to Regional Health Administration of Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region on July 25, 2020. (Photo courtesy of OSCE/Umed Qurbonov) The OSCE has also facilitated online medical trainings for border officials in Turkmenistan and donated IT equipment to the Canton 10 Ministry of Education to support Bosnia and Herzegovina. The Special Monitoring Mission in Ukraine has been impacted by the pandemic by restrictions on mission member movement, but the mission nevertheless continues to be a key international actor in the country, informing on developments in the conflict areas of Donetsk and Luhansk.

  • Hastings and Wicker Call for Free and Fair Elections, Anti-Corruption Action, and Protection of Human Rights in Kyrgyzstan

    WASHINGTON—In response to the tumultuous change of power in Kyrgyzstan, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) and Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) issued the following statement: “Kyrgyzstan should ensure that changes to its electoral system adhere to the rule of law, are transparent, and allow for input from civil society. Its citizens, many of whom took to the streets in protest over allegations of vote buying and corruption during the annulled October 4 parliamentary election, should have confidence that the system is fair and that new elections are conducted properly and reflect the will of the people. “For the country to move forward, authorities should seriously address endemic corruption and protect private businesses and foreign investment. We are also disturbed by reports of pressure and harassment directed toward political opposition, human rights activists, and journalists. We urge Kyrgyzstan to ensure that human rights are protected during this difficult time, including the rights of persons belonging to ethnic minorities. “We believe that the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe could play an instrumental role in assisting Kyrgyzstan with any electoral or constitutional changes, as well as preparations for and observation of new elections. It also could support the role of civil society and independent media. Kyrgyzstan should take full advantage of this possibility.” What started as a popular revolt by youth and opposition groups over fraudulent elections on October 4 and endemic corruption resulted in the resignation of President Jeenbekov and the installation of Sadyr Japarov as both Kyrgyzstan’s acting president and prime minister. OSCE election observers concluded that the October 4 parliamentary election “was competitive and candidates could, in general, conduct their activities freely” but “credible allegations of vote buying remain a serious concern” and “a number of controversial CEC decisions raised questions about its impartiality.” The country will hold both new parliamentary and new presidential elections. Presidential elections have been scheduled for January 10, but the timing for parliamentary elections remains unclear. Parliament has already made some changes to the electoral code and is discussing further reform. Japarov announced that he would step down as president in December to allow him to run for president and thereby get around a constitutional provision that bans the acting president from doing so.

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