North Macedonia's Leadership of the OSCE in a time of warTuesday, February 28, 2023
North Macedonia has taken up leadership of the world’s largest regional security organization—the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE)—a year into Putin’s brutal, full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Much of the OSCE’s focus over the past year has revolved around responses to the war, including using the organization to condemn Russian aggression and hold the government of the Russian Federation to account, to launch international investigations on Russian war crimes, and to reestablish an OSCE mission on the ground in Ukraine. The OSCE has remained at the forefront despite Russian efforts to block consensus and undermine the Organization and its work. Other challenges in the region include spillover effects of Putin’s war in Ukraine, the extension of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, and backsliding in some countries on human rights, democracy, and the rule of law. Anti-Semitic attacks and rhetoric continue to be on the rise, and vulnerable communities are targets of discrimination and violence. Combating human trafficking has taken on a renewed urgency as millions of vulnerable women and children have fled Ukraine. Attacks on independent media continues in some OSCE participating States, including Russia, Belarus and most recently, Kyrgyzstan. At this hearing, North Macedonia’s Foreign Minister and OSCE Chairperson-in-Office Bujar Osmani discussed North Macedonia’s priorities in the OSCE and how it will address Russia’s war on Ukraine and other regional challenges. For more information, please contact Janice Helwig of the Commission staff at 202-225-1901.
U.S. Delegation to the OSCE PA presents Joint Statement on Russia’s War in UkraineFriday, February 24, 2023
WASHINGTON— Today, the U.S. Delegation to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Organization on Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE PA) endorsed the “Joint Statement of Action on the One-Year Anniversary of Russia’s War Against Ukraine and the International Legal Order,” which was endorsed by the OSCE PA Bureau and published today at the conclusion of the 2023 OSCE PA Winter Meeting. Members of the U.S. Delegation include Head of Delegation and Helsinki Commission Co-Chair Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), Helsinki Commission Chair Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02), Ranking Member Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), Commissioners Rep. Robert Aderholt (AL-04), Rep. Richard Hudson (NC-09), and Rep. Marc Veasey (TX-33). Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (TX-18) and Rep. Lloyd Doggett (TX-37) also participated in the delegation. Following a dedicated debate marking the one-year anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the Assembly issued the statement to condemn Russia’s years-long clear, gross, and uncorrected violations of its commitments under the 1975 Helsinki Final Act and subsequent OSCE commitments. Click here to read the Joint Statement
HEARING: NORTH MACEDONIA’S LEADERSHIP OF THE OSCE IN A TIME OF WARFriday, February 24, 2023
Tuesday, February 28, 2023 1:00 p.m. to 2:00 p.m. Streaming: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xNgAOyC9f5g North Macedonia has taken up leadership of the world’s largest regional security organization—the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE)—a year into Putin’s brutal, full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Much of the OSCE’s focus over the past year has revolved around responses to the war, including using the organization to condemn Russian aggression and hold the government of the Russian Federation to account, to launch international investigations on Russian war crimes, and to reestablish an OSCE mission on the ground in Ukraine. The OSCE has remained at the forefront despite Russian efforts to block consensus and undermine the Organization and its work. Other challenges in the region include spillover effects of Putin’s war in Ukraine, the extension of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, and backsliding in some countries on human rights, democracy, and the rule of law. Anti-Semitic attacks and rhetoric continue to be on the rise, and vulnerable communities are targets of discrimination and violence. Combating human trafficking has taken on a renewed urgency as millions of vulnerable women and children have fled Ukraine. Attacks on independent media continues in some OSCE participating States, including Russia, Belarus and most recently, Kyrgyzstan. At this hearing, North Macedonia’s Foreign Minister and OSCE Chairperson-in-Office Bujar Osmani will discuss North Macedonia’s priorities in the OSCE and how it will address Russia’s war on Ukraine and other regional challenges.
Steadfast Support for Ukraine: United States Delegation Hosts Ukrainian and Partner Country Parliamentarians on the Margins of the OSCE Parliamentary AssemblyThursday, February 23, 2023
WASHINGTON – Today, the United States Delegation to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE PA), led by Senator Ben Cardin (MD), met with Mykyta Poturaiev, Ukraine’s Head of Delegation and additional representatives of the Ukrainian Rada in Vienna, Austria, along with the Heads of Delegation of Canada, Estonia, France, Latvia, Poland, and the United Kingdom. On the eve of the one-year anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the parliamentary leaders in attendance pledged their sustained and steadfast support for Ukraine to counter Russian aggression: “We will continue to stand with Ukraine for as long as it takes to restore Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty over its 1991 borders. A year after Russia’s unprovoked full-scale invasion of Ukraine, we recommit to combining our efforts to redress this injustice and hold Russia to account for its crimes, including by seeking its suspension from the Parliamentary Assembly (PA). We further urge the PA to host annual sessions and meetings in OSCE participating States prepared to block the participation of Russia’s representatives. We will not allow Russia’s reprehensible propaganda to go unchallenged at the OSCE PA or any other international forum. The world must hold Russia accountable for its aggression and for the war crimes, crimes against humanity, and acts of genocide it is committing against the people of Ukraine. All of us are committed to the recovery and reconstruction of Ukraine and seek restitution from Russia to this end. “To the people of Ukraine: as you suffer Russia’s attacks on your cities and fight the aggressor in the battlefield, know that you are never alone in your courageous struggle for a secure and democratic future. As missiles rain down and the lights go out, and as you mourn all those you have lost, we mourn with you and share your fight for Ukrainian victory. You have our admiration and above all, our gratitude, as we remain resolutely at your side in solidarity and partnership.” Joining U.S. Head of DelegationSenator Ben Cardin were delegation members Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02), Ranking Member Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), Commissioners Rep. Robert Aderholt (AL-04), Rep. Richard Hudson (NC-09), Rep. Marc Veasey (TX-33), and Representatives Sheila Jackson Lee (TX-18) and Lloyd Doggett (TX-37). The Ukrainian delegation consisted of Mr. Mykyta Poturaiev, Head of Delegation; Mr. Artur Gerasymov, Deputy Head of Delegation, Mr. Pavlo Frolov, Ms. Irina Gerashchenko, Ms. Evgeniia Kravchuk, and Ms. Nataliia Pipa. Heads of delegations present included Dr. Hedy Fry (Canada), Mr. Sven Sester (Estonia), Mr. Didier Paris (France), Mr. Rihards Kols (Latvia), Ms. Barbara Bartuś (Poland), and Sir John Whittingdale (United Kingdom).
Helsinki Commissioners Urge Austria to Deny Visas to Russian Delegation Ahead of OSCE PA Winter MeetingWednesday, February 15, 2023
WASHINGTON – Helsinki Commission leadership, Chairman Rep. Joe Wilson, Co-Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin, and Rep. Steve Cohen, on February 10, sent a letter to Austrian Minister of Foreign Affairs Alexander Schallenberg to reconsider granting visas to the Russian delegation to the Winter Meeting of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, taking place in Vienna next week. The Winter Meeting will coincide with the one-year anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, February 24th, 2022, and is set to be the first in-person gathering of the Parliamentary Assembly with Russian and Belarusian participation since the start of the war. The United States and European Union have sanctioned every member of the Russian delegation for having explicitly endorsed Vladimir Putin's war of aggression on Ukraine and his claim to have annexed vast swathes of Ukrainian territory. Read the letter in PDF form above.
Helsinki Commissioners Announce Re-Introduction of HARM ActWednesday, January 25, 2023
Today, Helsinki Commissioners Steve Cohen, Joe Wilson, Marc Veasey, Richard Hudson, Ruben Gallego and Brian Fitzpatrick along with Representatives Ted Lieu, Maria Salazar and Marcy Kaptur, re-introduced the Holding Accountable Russian Mercenaries (HARM) Act in the House of Representatives, bipartisan legislation that would require the Secretary of State to designate the Russian-based mercenary Wagner Group as a foreign terrorist organization (FTO). The Commission applauds this vital piece of legislation to hold Wagner accountable for the terror it inflicts in Ukraine and elsewhere. For more information click here. The HARM Act was first introduced in the last Congress by Helsinki Commission Chair Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) and Ranking Member Roger Wicker (MI), along with companion legislation in the House of Representatives led by Reps. Steve Cohen and Joe Wilson, Richard Hudson, and Marc Veasey.
in the news
Bipartisan reps introduce bill to designate Russia’s Wagner Group as foreign terroristsWednesday, January 25, 2023
A bipartisan group of House lawmakers introduced legislation on Wednesday to designate Russian mercenary company Wagner Group as a foreign terrorist organization (FTO). The Holding Accountable Russian Mercenaries (HARM) Act, sponsored by nine members of the lower chamber, would require the State Department to designate the Wagner Group an FTO within 90 days of becoming law. The lawmakers cited the paramilitary company’s history of human rights violations in Africa and ongoing deployment of private soldiers in Ukraine to fight with Russia, adding that the Wagner Group has received weapons from North Korea, a U.S.-designated state sponsor of terrorism. “Where the Wagner Group operates, atrocities follow,” said Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) in a statement. “The HARM Act will identify Putin’s private mercenary group as a Foreign Terrorist Organization and let the world know that its activities are both malign and illegal.” The Biden administration designated the Wagner Group as a transnational criminal organization last week and announced countries and entities supporting it would run afoul of the U.S. government. But an FTO designation would authorize the U.S. to slap criminal penalties on entities supporting Wagner Group, according to the lawmakers sponsoring the HARM Act. Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) said in a statement the Biden administration’s designation “does not go far enough” against Wagner, adding it should use the FTO label to “expose them in their true state as a murderous, criminal enterprise.” “The Wagner Group has been engaging in nefarious atrocities around the globe, all at the behest of war criminal Putin and his cronies,” Wilson said. Legislation to designate the Wagner Group an FTO was also introduced last year in both the House and Senate. There was a standoff between the Biden administration and some U.S. lawmakers last year over designating Russia as a state sponsor of terrorism. The administration said the designation, which comes with a raft of restrictions and penalties, could do more harm than good for Ukraine. Yevgeny Prigozhin, a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, formed the Wagner Group in 2014. The mercenary outfit has since meddled in conflicts across the world, from Africa to Syria and now Ukraine, where Wagner forces are fighting alongside Russian soldiers in the eastern Donetsk region. DOJ disrupts global ransomware gangTop FDA safety official resigns In November, the European Parliament passed a resolution urging the European Council to adopt a measure that would place Wagner Group on an EU terrorist list. Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.), who is vying for a Senate seat in 2024, also sponsored the HARM Act and called for “rebuking mercenary terrorist organizations like the Wagner Group.” “While Ukrainians stand up for freedom and democracy, the Wagner Group stands with authoritarian regimes like Russia,” Gallego said in a statement. “Declaring them a Foreign Terrorist Organization is a commonsense step to hold them accountable for their atrocities in Ukraine and across the globe.”
Helsinki Commissioners Announce Re-introduction of Combatting Global Corruption ActTuesday, January 24, 2023
On Tuesday, Helsinki Commissioners Rep. Steve Cohen, Rep. Joe Wilson, and Senator Ben Cardin re-introduced the Combatting Global Corruption Act in both the House and Senate, along with Rep. Bill Keating, Rep. Maria Elvira Salazar and Senator Todd Young. This bipartisan, bicameral legislation formally designates combatting global corruption as a key U.S. national security concern. It would require the State Department to identify corruption in countries around the world and publicly rank their levels of corruption in a three-tiered system. For more information click here. The Combatting Global Corruption Act was first introduced in the 117th Congress. Commission Chairman Senator Ben Cardin and Senator Todd Young introduced the Act in the Senate, along with companion legislation in the House of Representatives, led by Rep. Tom Malinowski and Rep. Maria Elvira Salazar. Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen, Commissioner Rep. Emmanuel Cleaver, Rep. Dan Crenshaw and Rep. Dean Phillips are original co-sponsors of the legislation.
OSCE’s 2022 Ministerial Council in Lodz: Russia Isolated as States Demand Accountability and Reaffirm CommitmentsFriday, December 09, 2022
By Janice Helwig, Senior Policy Advisor, Demitra Pappas, Senior Advisor Department of State, Shannon Simrell, Representative of the Helsinki Commission to the U.S. Mission to OSCE Foreign Ministers and senior officials from the 57 participating States and 11 Asian and Mediterranean partners of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) convened the OSCE Ministerial Council in Lodz, Poland on December 1-2. While the OSCE Ministerial is held annually, this year’s meeting was atypical, due to its taking place amid the greatest crisis in European security since World War II, namely Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. States Accuse Russia and Belarus of Violating Principles, Stand with Ukraine Polish-Chairman-in-Office, Foreign Minister Zbigniew Rau in his opening remarks pointedly blamed Russia for destroying the security order and attempting to undermine the Organization. Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February, abetted by Belarus, violated each of the politico-military, democratic, human rights, and economic and environmental commitments enshrined in the 1975 Helsinki Final Act, an agreement that underpinned European security for nearly 50 years. Most fundamentally, the Lodz Ministerial underscored participating States’ desire to return to the founding principles of the OSCE - the Helsinki Final Act – and to call out Russia’s violation of each. Participating State after participating State took the floor to reaffirm their OSCE commitments and to call Russia to account. Russia was entirely isolated, with only Belarus attempting, pathetically, to deflect blame on others for “corroding” the spirit of Helsinki. At each instance, participating States overwhelmingly reaffirmed their support for OSCE principles and denounced Russia’s war of aggression on Ukraine, declared solidarity with Ukraine, and demanded accountability for war crimes, the crime of aggression, and violations of international humanitarian law. Participating States also voiced strong support for the work of the OSCE’s autonomous institutions, including the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights and the Representative of the Freedom of the Media in particular, whose mandates and funding are often in Russia’s crosshairs. Many participating States also noted the importance of the three “Moscow Mechanism” reports issued this past year to document Russia’s violations of international humanitarian law in Ukraine and its repression of human rights at home. A joint statement delivered by Finland on behalf of 42 other participating States condemned Russia’s atrocities in Ukraine and called for perpetrators to be held accountable. OSCE Parliamentary Assembly President Margareta Cederfelt advocated establishing a high-level body to assess reparations from Russia. Two other aspects of the Ministerial were unique. Absent were the annual negotiations among participating States on decisions designed to enhance existing commitments on cooperative security, which the Polish Chair assessed as unfeasible due to Russian intransigence. Also absent was Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov, against whom Poland took a principled stand to exclude from attending. OSCE Continued Work in 2022, Despite Russia’s Objections States also used their interventions to welcome OSCE’s development of new approaches in 2022 with regard to sustaining its human rights work and presence in Ukraine to overcome Russia’s attempts to undermine the Organization. In the years leading up to the Ministerial, Russia had increased its abuse of OSCE’s consensus-decision making to block the Organization’s budget, to close OSCE’s three field missions in Ukraine, and to prevent the convening of OSCE’s signature, annual human rights conference, the Human Dimension Implementation Meeting (HDIM). Yet despite its concerted efforts, Russia failed to block OSCE’s human rights work or eradicate its work in Ukraine. “On the contrary,” as U.S. delegation head, Undersecretary of State Victoria Nuland observed in Lodz, the OSCE “has said no to Moscow’s efforts to divide it, to paralyze it, to destroy it.” Nuland added, the Organization has emerged “even stronger, more flexible, more resilient” under Poland’s stewardship and that of Secretary General Helga Maria Schmid. After Russia blocked the HDIM, the Polish Chairmanship convened the Warsaw Human Dimension Conference (WHDC) in September, conducting a full review of human rights commitments with the participation of more than one thousand governmental and civil society representatives in attendance. In November, the Secretariat stood up a donor-funded “Support Programme Ukraine” which reestablished an OSCE presence in the country. These are examples of how the OSCE has continued to promote Helsinki principles and deliver programming in spite of Russia’s attempts to undermine it. Side Events, Civil Society Parallel Conference Seek to Close Russia’s “Accountability Gap” A range of side events amplified concerns of participating States and civil society regarding the terrible human toll of Russia’s war and the need for accountability. The first side event explored the increased risk of human trafficking among Ukrainian citizens fleeing the conflict and the illegal abduction and forced adoption of Ukrainian children in Russia. The establishment of a Group of Friends on Children in Armed Conflict was also announced. A side event moderated by Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba outlined various means to hold Russia accountable for atrocities committed in Ukraine, including providing support to the Ukrainian Prosecutor General’s Office and to the International Criminal Court through the collection evidence of crimes and aiding in investigations. Minister Kuleba strongly advocated for the establishment of a Special Tribunal to prosecute Russia’s crime of aggression and received broad support. An event featuring Belarusian opposition leader, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya and other activists drew renewed attention to the plight of thousands of political prisoners in Belarus and called for the invocation of another Moscow Mechanism report to document ongoing human rights violations by the government of Belarus. Civic Solidarity Platform (CSP), a regional association of human rights civil society organizations, hosted its annual Parallel Civil Society Conference on November 30 which likewise called on participating States to ensure accountability for perpetrators of war crimes and other atrocities in Ukraine. In response to CSP’s long-standing call for closer collaboration between the OSCE and civil society, North Macedonia, which assumes the Chairmanship of OSCE in 2023, committed to appoint a Special Representative on Civil Society Organizations. Looking Ahead to 2023: North Macedonia Despite Russia’s isolation, its war against Ukraine continues even as Poland plans to pass the leadership of the Organization to North Macedonia as of January 1, 2023. As the incoming Chairman-in-Office, Foreign Minister Bujar Osmani pledged that North Macedonia’s tenure “will be guided by strict observance of OSCE principles and commitments.” He further stressed the cooperative nature of regional security, noting, “Safeguarding OSCE values and respect for international law must be a shared priority. This is of utmost importance. Rebuilding trust and engaging in meaningful dialogue presupposes full compliance with the agreed OSCE commitments and principles. We all have to be accountable for our actions. This is the formula for the way forward.”
Congressmen Cohen and Wilson Introduce Resolution Recognizing International Day of Political PrisonersFriday, October 28, 2022
WASHINGTON – Congressman Steve Cohen (TN-09), Co-Chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, and the Commission’s Ranking Member, Congressman Joe Wilson (SC-02), today introduced a resolution recognizing October 30 as International Day of Political Prisoners. Congressman Cohen was recently named the Special Representative on Political Prisoners by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly and has been speaking out and calling attention to the treatment of an estimated 1 million political opponents, dissidents, academics, human rights activists, journalists and others worldwide imprisoned for their commitment to democracy and transparency. The resolution calls attention to repressive regimes engaged in “systematic destruction of independent voices, including but not limited to the Russian and Belarusian Governments.” It clarifies that October 30 was chosen because on October 30, 1974, “Soviet human rights activists and dissidents initiated the idea of marking the day of political prisoners in the USSR and consequently held a hunger strike that day while in jail.” The measure also says that the U.S. House of Representatives “deplores all forms of political repression and imprisonment” and supports State Department efforts to call attention the problem. See the entire resolution here.
Decolonizing the Russian EmpireWednesday, September 28, 2022
Russia’s war of conquest in Ukraine has shocked the world for its brutality and aggression. But the Kremlin’s violent designs in Ukraine, and other military adventures in the Caucasus and Eastern Europe, are part of a larger and longer legacy of Russian imperialism that directly threaten its neighbors and imprison a multitude of nations within its authoritarian empire. This side event explores the destructive effects of Russian imperialism and how the unfolding genocide in Ukraine is a natural outgrowth of these colonial policies. Drawing on regional perspectives of those victimized by Russia’s brutal empire, the panel will highlight the realities of Russian colonialism and what a process of decolonization—elevating marginalized voices and providing for their full political and civic self-expression—would mean for Russia and for its neighbors.
Helsinki Commission Slams Shutdown of Novaya GazetaThursday, September 08, 2022
WASHINGTON—Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), Ranking Member Sen. Roger Wicker (MS), and Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) today condemned the shutdown of Novaya Gazeta in Russia, following the decision of a Moscow court to strip the outlet of its print media registration. They issued the following joint statement: “The Kremlin assault on the last vestiges of independent media in Russia confirms that Vladimir Putin is afraid of the truth. Novaya Gazeta has been a pillar of free Russian media since it was founded in 1993 by future Nobel Peace Prize winner Dmitry Muratov, with the support of late Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. “Putin has spent years attacking truth-tellers in Russia’s information space in order to build a country where lies and distortion of reality serve his interests. Russia’s horrific war against Ukraine, the atrocities committed by the Russian army, and the state-sponsored justification and praise of this violence are the terrible consequences of this dark and cynical manipulation. Russia needs independent journalism now more than ever.” In March 2022, the Helsinki Commission held a hearing on “Putin’s War on Truth,” which examined Vladimir Putin’s crackdown on independent media in Russia following the invasion of Ukraine. Helsinki Commission leadership lauded the award of the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize to Russia’s Dmitry Muratov, longtime editor-in-chief of Novaya Gazeta. Muratov dedicated his Nobel Prize award to his slain Novaya Gazeta colleagues Igor Domnikov, Yuri Shchekochikhin, Anna Politkovskaya, Stanislav Markelov, Anastasiya Baburova, and Natalya Estemirova. In a November 2009 Helsinki Commission briefing on violence against journalists and impunity in Russia, Muratov, who provided testimony, said, “I would like to ask you a huge favor. In every meeting, in any encounter with representatives of the Russian political establishment and government, please, bring up this meeting. Please ask these uncomfortable questions. Please try not to be too polite.”
Co-Chairman Cohen Discusses Role as Special Representative for Political PrisonerWednesday, September 07, 2022
WASHINGTON—Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Rep Steve Cohen (TN-09) today spoke at a virtual hearing of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA)about his new role as the assembly’s special representative for political prisoners. Co-Chairman Cohen thanked OSCE PA President Margareta Cederfelt of Sweden for naming him to the special representative role and expressed his disappointment at the increased need to call attention to attacks on human rights as conditions around the world continue to deteriorate. He spoke in particular on the cases of Russian politicians Vladimir Kara-Murza, Alexei Navalny, and the former mayor of Yekaterinburg, Yevgeny Roizman, as well as politicians, journalists and dissidents in Belarus, Egypt, Myanmar, and Cambodia. Co-Chairman Cohen said of Kara-Murza, arrested after returning home to Moscow: “I will not let him be forgotten.” He also said in part: “I appreciate President Cederfelt’s appointment and her faith in me to execute this position as special representative on political prisoners. I take it very seriously and have been working on it regularly, notifying through posts on social media, press releases and calling on governments to release political prisoners. Unfortunately, this role is becoming more and more significant as we have more and more political prisoners… “I’ve contacted Secretary Blinken to work with him and the State Department. We’ve brought attention to political prisoners not only in Russia and Belarus but also in Myanmar and Egypt and, unfortunately, in several of the OSCE countries there are political prisoners as well…Conditions all around the world are getting worse…and Russia is the worst.” See his entire remarks here.
NATO Refocused, Europe ReinforcedWednesday, August 10, 2022
By Jessika Nebrat, Max Kampelman Fellow Following the escalation of Russia’s war against Ukraine, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is playing a role it has not filled in years. Forced to reconcentrate its attention to Europe’s defense, NATO allies are demonstrating persistent resolve in countering Moscow’s expansionist tendencies. In doing so, NATO returns to a core facet of its founding mission: the defense against Moscow’s militarism. While NATO represents just one facet of the Euro-Atlantic security infrastructure, it is perhaps the most robust organization bound by formal agreements, dedicated to peacekeeping, and capable of enforcement. Its mission to “guarantee the freedom and security of its members through political and military means” echoes the first dimension principles outlined by the Helsinki Final Act, and aligns NATO with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the U.S. Helsinki Commission. In supporting each other’s work, these institutions mutually reinforce their shared values and bolster European security. History of NATO In the aftermath of the second World War, the United States, Canada, and several Western European nations sought to boost European economic reconstruction and protect themselves from Soviet domination. The 1947 Treaty of Dunkirk predated NATO in promoting Atlantic alliance and mutual assistance between France and the United Kingdom. The agreement was expanded in March 1948 as the Treaty of Brussels to engage Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands in military, economic, social, and cultural cooperation. In the same month, the United States hosted talks intended to unite both North American and Western European allies; as a result, NATO was officially signed into existence on April 4, 1949. The 12 founding member nations derived their legitimacy from United Nations (UN) Charter Article 51, which affirmed the right to collective defense. The foundational NATO Treaty mentioned collective defense only after declaring the parties’ commitments to finding peaceful resolutions of disputes, upholding UN principles, strengthening free institutions, and promoting economic collaboration. The Alliance formally defined its principal objectives to deter Soviet expansionism, oppose nationalist militarism on the continent, and bolster European political integration. Though it sought to deter military aggression, NATO’s original treaty did not provide any means of enforcing the agreed-upon principles. It was not until after the USSR’s 1949 detonation of an atomic bomb and the 1950 start of the Korean War that NATO approved a military command structure. In response, the Soviet Union established the Warsaw Pact in 1955. Though neither of the two ideologically opposed organizations used force during the Cold War, they engaged in an arms race that persisted until the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991. NATO after the Cold War Once NATO no longer had to defend against Soviet expansionism, the Alliance broadened the scope of its peacekeeping and security enforcement missions. In the 1990s, NATO forces were deployed: to Turkey during the Gulf Crisis; upon request to Russia and other Commonwealth of Independent States nations as part of a humanitarian mission after the fall of the USSR; to enforce a UN arms embargo and no-fly zone over former Yugoslavia; and in the Central Mediterranean during a period of tension with Libya. In the 21st century, NATO forces were also deployed during: the Second Gulf War; to the US and Afghanistan in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the only Article 5 invocation in NATO history; to mitigate rising ethnic tensions in North Macedonia; to counter terrorist activity in the Mediterranean; as counter-piracy escorts to UN World Food Programme ships transiting the Gulf of Aden; to train Iraqi security forces; to enforce a no-fly zone after the popular uprising in Libya; for peacekeeping in Sudan; and to provide disaster relief throughout Europe, the Middle East, and in the United States. NATO currently maintains active operations in Kosovo, the Mediterranean, Iraq, and throughout the African Union; it recently ramped up air policing as part of a peace-keeping response to the Russian Federation’s illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014, and the escalation against Ukraine this past February. Kremlin Narrative against NATO Over the years, Moscow has repeatedly resisted NATO enlargement – especially for countries it claims within its sphere of influence. Putin asserts that during a 1990 summit between President George H. W. Bush and President Gorbachev, the United States promised no further expansion of NATO; civil servants present at that meeting have refuted this claim, as has Mr. Gorbachev himself. In his conversation with Bush, Gorbachev repeatedly affirmed that nations have the right to make their own alliances. Though internal U.S. analyses of the 1990s suggested that expansion eastward may not be politically expedient, such positions never became official policy. The United States has remained resolute in its recognition of sovereign choice, and expansion has been driven by requests from former Soviet and Warsaw Pact states wary of Russian revanchism. The Kremlin has deployed an opposing narrative to justify Russian military engagements in Georgia in the early 2000s, and more recently in Ukraine. Putin sees the inclusion of either nation in NATO, and the political and economic liberalization that go with it, as threats to his regime’s stability. NATO membership would limit Russian interference in the internal affairs of either state. Additionally, if Russia’s neighbors and fellow post-Soviet states can become true democracies, provide higher quality of living, and ensure the rule of law, then why can’t Putin’s Russia? Any argument that NATO expansion threatens Russia misrepresents the organization, which is a diverse coalition dedicated to mutual defense and development. Moreover, such an assertion overlooks the efforts NATO has made to include and collaborate with Russia in the pursuit of cooperative security. NATO Back to its Roots By illegally and brutally invading Ukraine in February 2022 – a dramatic escalation of the grinding conflict started in 2014 – Putin has galvanized European and Western unity. Hearkening to its origins and returning attention to Eastern Europe, NATO is recommitting itself to “counter Russia’s attempts to destroy the foundations of international security and stability.” The international community is largely on board. In its collective attention beyond security, NATO – alongside other organizations – highlights not only the potential for, but the responsibility of the international community to condemn human rights violations, uphold the rule of law, and pursue economic health, all efforts that further challenge the Kremlin’s narrative that it can lead (or that there even needs to exist) an opposing bloc. Alarmed by Moscow’s renewed expansionism, Sweden and Finland have abandoned decades of neutrality in favor of NATO membership. They are on track towards the fastest accession process in history, and anticipate a smooth integration. Both already engage in the wider European community through membership in such organizations as the European Union and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Their force structures are robust, and well-versed in NATO procedures following decades of partnership; their accession will secure northeast Europe, expand NATO’s border with Russia, and reinforce NATO presence in the Arctic and Baltic Sea. Although the Kremlin initially vowed “military and political repercussions” were Finland and Sweden to join NATO, such threats have dulled to warnings about the installation of NATO military infrastructure nearer Russia’s borders; as Finland and Sweden’s NATO membership neared finalization, Putin even expressed “no problem” with these states joining the Alliance. It remains to be seen how this change will play out. After decades of orientation towards international stabilization, humanitarian, and counterinsurgency mission sets, NATO has been refocused on European deterrence and defense following the Kremlin’s violent assault on Ukraine. In addition to condemning Russia’s invasion and supporting Ukraine via such measures as the Comprehensive Assistance Package, NATO plays a critical role in championing European collective defense and discouraging any expansion of conflict.
Co-Chairman Cohen Calls for the Release of Political Prisoners in BelarusTuesday, August 09, 2022
Washington – On the second anniversary of the sham presidential election in Belarus, the Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman and OSCE PA Special Representative on Political Prisoners Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09) issued the following statement: “Two years ago today, Belarus’s autocrat Aleksander Lukashenko put up a show of an election that he had hoped would legitimize his unconstitutional power grab. Despite the many and well-documented cases of election abuse, the people of Belarus did not fall for the tricks of the one-man ruler of Belarus. They voted Lukashenko out, but, predictably, he refused to leave. He ignored the will of the people and chose vicious violence to suppress the peaceful dissent. “In the year following the unprecedented in scale peaceful rallies against the 2020 election results, Lukashenko’s troops arrested, tortured and imprisoned a reported 35,000 Belarusians for the simple act of demanding the government respect their choice and rights. He personally presided over the largest ever domestic repression that saw thousands behind bars and tens of thousands flee the country, including the opposition leader and likely legitimate winner absent election fraud, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who has been welcomed by neighboring countries. “Since that time, Lukashenko has continued a crackdown on civic participation in Belarus with arrests of civilians protesting the Russian war in Ukraine, changes to Belarus’s non-nuclear status, and the ongoing Lukashenko regime during last year’s March 25th anniversary of Belarus’s ‘Freedom Day,’ adding to the already sizeable number of politically motivated detainments in the country. “There are now close to 1200 individuals languishing in Belarusian prisons for speaking out against authoritarianism, corruption and war. Included among the political prisoners are: Syarhey Tsikhanouski, husband of Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya and potential candidate against Lukashenko detained in May 2020; Roman Protasevich, journalist and opposition figure accused of inciting mass protests and detained after a false bomb threat forced the landing of Ryanair flight FR4978 destined for Lithuania in Belarus in May 2021; Sofia Sapega, Russian citizen and girlfriend of Protasevich who also was aboard Ryanair flight FR4978; Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty Belarus Service journalists Ihar Losik, Andrey Kuznechyk and Aleh Kruzdzilovic; and Ales Bialiatski, founder of Viasna Human Rights Centre, a human rights organization based in Minsk that provides financial and legal support to political prisoners. These are but a few names representing political candidates, oppositionists, activists, journalists and other Belarusian and non-Belarusian citizens detained by Lukashenko’s regime. “Lukashenko must immediately order the release of all political prisoners and wrongfully detained individuals and stop the systematic violations of human rights. I call on the U.S. Department of State and our allies abroad to work together during this time of heightened tension with Belarus and Belarus’s benefactor, Russia, to ensure the unjustly imprisoned Belarusians are released at the earliest date possible.”
Co-Chairman Cohen Condemns Execution of Democracy Activists in MyanmarThursday, July 28, 2022
WASHINGTON—Following the execution of four democracy activists by Myanmar’s military junta, Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman and OSCE Parliamentary Assembly Special Representative on Political Prisoners Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09) issued the following statement: “I strongly condemn the execution of these courageous activists by Myanmar’s unelected and illegitimate regime. These men—Kyaw Min Yu, Phyo Zeya Thaw, Hla Myo Aung, and Aung Thura Zaw—were political prisoners who were deprived of their right to due process and a chance to defend themselves. The junta sentenced them to death in secret trials, once again demonstrating the complete lack of respect for human life and common decency as well as a total disregard for rules-based order by which countries should abide. “The regime has jailed thousands, including the Nobel Peace laureate and State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, after seizing power in a coup in February 2021. Following a series of closed-door hearings and a string of trumped-up charges and convictions each carrying additional sentencing, she was sentenced to a total of 11 years in prison as of April 2022. In an obvious attempt to ensure she is jailed for life, she still faces added bogus charges that could see her imprisoned for more than 190 years by some reports. This is appalling and concerning as the recent executions confirm that the junta will not hesitate to murder political prisoners to further strengthen their rule of terror. “The world should unite to pressure Myanmar to release all political prisoners. At least 117 activists have been sentenced to death since the coup. We must do everything in our power to ensure that they do not face the grim fate of their four compatriots.”
Co-Chairman Cohen Deplores Arrest of Ilya Yashin in RussiaThursday, July 28, 2022
WASHINGTON—In response to the arrest of Ilya Yashin, a Russian politician critical of Russia’s war in Ukraine, the Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman and OSCE PA Special Representative on Political Prisoners Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09) issued the following statement: “Putin’s government has been engaged in a systematic assault on Russian citizens who dare speak the truth about Russia’s atrocities in Ukraine. Ilya Yashin, a Russian patriot and a fierce critic of the war in Ukraine, is one of the victims of this regime. “Ilya spoke out against the war despite the cynical law Russia has adopted that punishes people speaking the truth on this conflict with up to 15 years in prison. He was arrested on trumped-up charges and is facing a lengthy jail term for no crime other than publicly speaking out against Russia’s war in Ukraine. Ilya is a political prisoner and should be given all protections afforded by this status. The Russian government has a complete disregard for international law and customs but if they have an ounce of respect for their own laws, they will immediately release Ilya and other political prisoners.” Ilya Yashin, a co-founder of the Solidarity movement, is a member of a Moscow city district council. Throughout his career, he advocated for fair elections, rule of law, and democracy in Russia. Prior to his arrest, Mr. Yashin was one of the few Russian opposition activists who had not been killed, forced to flee, or imprisoned.
Helsinki Commission Urges Administration to Work to Free Vladimir Kara-MurzaMonday, July 25, 2022
WASHINGTON—Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), Ranking Member Sen. Roger Wicker (MS), and Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) today released a letter urging the Biden Administration to “use every instrument in our toolbox” to free Russian political prisoner Vladimir Kara-Murza. The letter read in part: “The United States has a proud history of standing up for political prisoners and working relentlessly to help them return to freedom. We stared down the Soviet Union, Communist China, military regimes in Latin America and South-East Asia, and succeeded in helping secure the release of those who deserved freedom the most – innocent and peaceful activists and freedom fighters representing a vision for better governments in those countries. Mr. Kara-Murza represents a hope for a democratic Russia at peace with its neighbors and own citizens, and now is someone who the U.S. should advocate for his release… “The Helsinki Commission continues to raise the issue of political prisoners in Russia, Belarus, and other countries across the OSCE region, and specifically Vladimir Kara-Murza’s case…Now, we call on your Administration to use every instrument in our toolbox to secure the release of Mr. Kara-Murza. This is in the interest of our national security, his well-being, and importantly, the well-being of his incredibly brave children and spouse. Mrs. Kara-Murza and their three children reside in the U.S and despite the distance, the Kremlin has been poisoning – literally and figuratively – their lives for decades now. We should do everything in our power to help free Vladimir Kara-Murza and reunite him with his family.” On April 12, Vladimir Kara-Murza was arrested in Russia on charges of disobeying police orders when he allegedly “changed the trajectory of his movement” upon seeing Russian police officers at his home. This carried a 15-day sentence in jail. With five days remaining in his sentence, new charges were levied against him for spreading “deliberately false information” about Russia’s war on Ukraine. He now faces up to 15 years in prison. On March 29, he testified at a Helsinki Commission hearing examining Russian dictator Vladimir Putin’s war on truth, where witnesses discussed the Kremlin’s use of propaganda and censorship. “Those who speak out against this war are now liable for criminal prosecution,” he said. The Helsinki Commission has a long tradition of advocating on behalf of political prisoners worldwide. Earlier this month, Co-Chairman Cohen was appointed the first-ever OSCE Parliamentary Assembly Special Representative on Political Prisoners.
CO-CHAIRMAN COHEN APPOINTED AS OSCE PARLIAMENTARY ASSEMBLY SPECIAL REPRESENTATIVE ON POLITICAL PRISONERSThursday, July 21, 2022
WASHINGTON—Margareta Cederfelt, President of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (PA), has appointed Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09) as the first-ever OSCE PA Special Representative on Political Prisoners. “I welcome the chance to serve as the voice of political prisoners across the OSCE region,” said Co-Chairman Cohen. “Every day, we witness more political arrests of opposition politicians, journalists, activists and civilians in Russia, Belarus, and other participating States that are cracking down on free speech, freedom of the press, and free thought. Through this position, I am committed to working tirelessly to elevate the issue of political imprisonment as the egregious violation of human rights that it is.” In his new role, Co-Chairman Cohen will collect and share intelligence on political prisoners throughout the OSCE region; raise awareness of participating States with high rates of political prisoners; advocate for the release of political prisoners; and promote dialogue at the OSCE PA and OSCE executive structures about political imprisonment. Commission Chairman Senator Ben Cardin and Congressman Chris Smith were reappointed as Special Representative on Anti-Semitism, Racism and Intolerance, and Special Representative on Human Trafficking Issues, respectively.
On November 4, 2021, more than 40 members of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (PA) met remotely to discuss the current security challenges posed by developments in Afghanistan and the future of OSCE engagement with Afghanistan under the Taliban’s rule. Since 2003, Afghanistan has been an OSCE Partner for Cooperation and shares a border with several OSCE countries.
The debate, which was attended by seven members of the Helsinki Commission, took place as part of the OSCE PA’s annual Autumn Meeting. Each year, the Autumn Meeting focuses on debating one or more currently relevant issues confronting the OSCE region.
This year’s Autumn Meeting was originally planned to be in Dublin, Ireland, but a resurging COVID-19 pandemic forced the OSCE PA to rely on emergency procedures that allow for statutory meetings to be conducted remotely.
OSCE PA Leaders Outline Challenges Posed by Afghanistan
OSCE PA President Margaret Cederfelt opened the debate with an overview of the challenges presented by the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan. While three OSCE countries—Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Tajikistan—share a border with Afghanistan, developments there also have serious implications for the rest of the OSCE participating States. The worsening humanitarian crisis, the Taliban’s historical connections to terrorism, the negative economic fallout, the potential impact on neighboring countries, and deteriorating human rights, particularly for women and girls, were all of concern.
“Those who will suffer most from this is, of course, the ordinary people,” President Cederfelt emphasized, while highlighting the impending economic turmoil Afghanistan faces. “It is essential that human security is protected by safeguarding the fundamental rights of all Afghans.” President Cederfelt also underscored the need for international cooperation while addressing this situation, given its global security implications.
The three leaders of the PA General Committees highlighted aspects of the crisis related to their specific mandates.
Helsinki Commissioner Rep. Richard Hudson, who chairs the General Committee on Political Affairs and Security, noted, “Perhaps most alarming is the return of an international terrorist threat from Afghanistan.
He also highlighted the production and trade of narcotics and illegal drugs backed by the Taliban as a serious challenge with global implications, thanks to major trafficking routes.
“The security situation in Afghanistan is intrinsically linked with that of the OSCE region as a whole—but it will first and most immediately affect Afghanistan’s neighbors in Central Asia,” he said. “We must all be especially concerned about threats to the three OSCE participating States that have borders with Afghanistan: Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. This is perhaps the area in which our organization can have the greatest and most immediate impact."
The other two general committee chairs shared their concerns as well. Pere Joan Pons of Spain, who chairs the General Committee on Economia Affairs, Science, Technology, and Environment, highlighted Afghanistan’s current economic and environmental challenges, especially given the country’s vulnerability in the face of climate change.
Sereine Mauborgne of France, who chairs the General Committee on Democracy, Human Rights, and Humanitarian Questions, discussed the serious human rights violations faced by women, girls, and other vulnerable populations. In addition, many Afghans face urgent or extreme food and security issues; the Taliban lacks the capability to provide either for the Afghan people.
Director of the OSCE Conflict Prevention Center Tuula Yrjölä discussed Afghanistan’s relationship to the OSCE as a Partner for Cooperation and the potential role of the OSCE role in addressing the situation. She concluded that Afghanistan’s partnership status in the OSCE was based on shared values; its future may be in question under a Taliban government.
Helsinki Commissioners Participate in the General Debate
Following the introductory remarks, six members of the Helsinki Commission—including all four senior commission leaders—took the floor to voice their concerns and engage with other parliamentarians.
Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin, who also serves as the Head of the U.S. Delegation and the OSCE PA Special Representative on Anti-Semitism, Racism, and Intolerance, expressed disappointment at how quickly the democratic government and institutions in Afghanistan deteriorated, despite years of investment and support.
“One of the prime reasons was corruption,” explained Chairman Cardin. The rights of women and girls and ensuring humanitarian assistance reaches populations in need were two areas that he insisted be of focus as international efforts move forward.
Media freedom was of particular concern for Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen.
“Lower-level Taliban forces threaten and harass journalists,” he stated. “RFE/RL has reported that over the past weeks, its remaining journalists have been questioned by armed Taliban and door-to-door searched have been conducted looking for journalists affiliated with the United States.” Media freedom is among the fundamental freedoms the OSCE seeks to protect, and Co-Chairman Cohen insisted the Taliban must be held responsible for violating these rights.
Helsinki Commission Ranking Member Sen. Roger Wicker, who also serves as an OSCE PA Vice President, shared legislation he is sponsoring in Congress that seeks to strengthen the American response to Afghanistan and reiterated the dangers that religious and ethnic minorities in Afghanistan currently face.
Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson highlighted the dangers of terrorism and the oppressive rule of the Taliban.
“It cannot be business as usual with the Taliban,” he stated. “Together, we must use our leverage to prevent Afghanistan from again becoming a terrorist haven devoid of human rights.”
Chairman Cardin, Sen. Wicker, and Rep. Wilson all expressed concern over Afghanistan’s status as an OSCE Partner for Cooperation.
“Before we recognize any representative of Afghanistan in our assembly, we should make sure that they will adhere to the principles of the Helsinki Final Act,” Chairman Cardin stated.
Rep. Wilson argued that Afghanistan’s partner status should be reconsidered, and Sen. Wicker also emphasized the importance of the values shared by OSCE participating States and Partners for Cooperation.
“I would hope that it is our position going forward that the Taliban-led government in Afghanistan not be recognized as an OSCE Partner for Cooperation,” Sen. Wicker said.
Helsinki Commissioner Rep. Gwen Moore focused on the dangers for women and girls and the human rights violations they face. Despite advances made in women’s rights in Afghanistan during the past two decades, the return of Taliban rule has brought a resurgence of violence and restrictions, endangering the lives of women throughout the country. Many have fled Afghanistan, fearing for their safety, while others have remained to fight for their country.
While Rep. Moore strongly advocated for supporting resettlement efforts, she also emphasized that resettlement was a last resort.
“We must continue to press for the protection of these women in their own country,” she said. Ms. Moore also proposed that the OSCE PA create and maintain a project to monitor and support Afghanistan’s female parliamentarians.
Helsinki Commissioner Rep. Ruben Gallego stressed the importance of aiding Afghans still in Afghanistan.
“We must find ways to support Afghans in-country who are bravely calling for progress, and we must stand up for the human rights of those who suffer at the hands of the Taliban,” he said.
Rep. Gallego further argued that the international community must do more than simply aid in the evacuation of those fleeing the Taliban’s rule.
“We must also ensure that those who have been evacuated have long-term support in the resettlement process. The United States must do its part in accepting the bulk of Afghan refugees, and I have personally pushed in Congress to provide Afghans with the long-term resources they need to settle into a new life,” he stated, and asked all the participating parliamentarians to urge their countries to do the same.
OSCE Efforts Moving Forward
Throughout the debate, which highlighted various vulnerable populations and severe security threats that must be addressed in the future, one recurring theme was the need for international cooperation.
While President Cederfelt began the meeting by observing that it will be impossible to know the future, Rep. Gallego expressed one certainty.
“The end of America’s military commitment in Afghanistan does not mean we will turn a blind eye to Afghanistan’s people or the security of the region,” he said.