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Long Shadow of Russian Money Raises Tricky Questions for Swiss BankersSunday, June 19, 2022
January used to be a big month for Swiss bankers and their Russian clients. Many of the Moscow elite had made a tradition of coming to the Alps for the orthodox new year, skiing with their families, then catching up with their financial consiglieri. In St Moritz, one banker recalls how he would book blocks of rooms for his clients. He would entertain them with snow polo, rolling out the charm as they clinked champagne glasses and watched horses charge across a frozen lake. This year he couldn’t tempt a single one. For the best part of a decade, Russian money has coursed through the Swiss banking world. But, as Russia’s relationship with the west has soured in recent years, what was once a source of bumper new profits for Switzerland’s banks has become a financial and reputational risk. In the run-up to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February, many wealthy Russians were moving to better safeguard their money from political interference, putting assets in the names of relatives or shifting them to less closely scrutinised jurisdictions, such as Dubai. In its wake, a vast sanitisation operation is under way at Swiss banks, to try and wind down relationships with sanctioned individuals. Neutral Switzerland has matched all of the EU’s punitive financial measures against Russia. More than 1,100 of the Russian elite — including figures such as coal and fertiliser billionaire Andrey Melnichenko and banker Petr Aven, both regular visitors to Switzerland — have become financial personae non gratae in a country many had assumed would keep their fortunes safe. The biggest banks, such as the publicly listed trio of UBS, Credit Suisse and Julius Baer, have declared they will cease all new business in Russia. For critics, though these are weasel words. It is their existing Russian clients that are the problem. No one is expecting many new fortunes to be minted in Russia any time soon. “Switzerland has a terrible history when it comes to Russian dirty money,” says Bill Browder, a longstanding Kremlin critic and a former Russian investor. He is sceptical of how much commitment there is among Swiss bankers to enforcing sanctions. “The Swiss want to be seen as doing something, but they don’t actually want to do anything,” he says. The US Helsinki Commission, an independent US government agency that observes human rights and the rule of law in Europe, agrees. In a report issued in May, it labelled the alpine state and its banks “a leading enabler of Vladimir Putin and his cronies”. The Swiss government responded by calling US secretary of state Antony Blinken in protest. A spokesperson for the Swiss government said president Ignazio Cassis “rejected the [report] in the strongest possible terms”. Like their counterpart in St Moritz, Swiss bankers the FT interviewed for this story all declined to be identified. Many more refused to speak at all. Switzerland’s banking secrecy laws are draconian — talking about clients can earn a lengthy jail term — and talking about Russian clients is even more taboo. “When we were onboarding a lot of these clients [in the 2000s], the entire approach was just very different. And you can’t really say that publicly now,” says one former banker who handled eastern European and Russian clients until retiring two years ago. “These [Russians] were people who had earned so much money, so quickly, that they didn’t know what to do with it. They were basically ideal clients. As long as you had no questions about where that money had come from . . . and, basically, we didn’t.” Quite how much Russian money there is in Switzerland is open to question. In March, the industry body representing Switzerland’s banks, the Swiss Bankers Association (SBA), caused a stir when it released details of a study estimating there was SFr150bn-SFr200bn ($154bn-$205bn) held in accounts for Russian citizens. At the end of last year, the total cash held on behalf of customers by Switzerland’s banks was SFr7,879bn, more half of which was wealth from abroad, according to the SBA. The disclosure prompted hand-wringing in the Swiss media. Commentators, even at conservative outlets such as the newspaper Neue Zürcher Zeitung, asked whether Switzerland should do business with autocratic regimes anywhere in the world any more. But others in the country have defended its economic relationships with Russia. The outspoken finance director of the canton of Zug, an important low-tax centre, said in March it was not his job to “act like a detective” and make judgments on Russian assets. In April, he announced that Zug, home to 37,000 companies, had no sanctioned assets to report back to Bern. Nevertheless, by April, the State Secretariat for Economic Affairs (SECO) announced that it had frozen SFr9.7bn of Russian assets. Authorities have insisted that the amount is proportionate to the scale of asset freezes in other leading financial centres. But Bern has been forced to row back in some cases, and in May it announced it was unfreezing SFr3.4bn of funds. Switzerland cannot freeze funds “without sufficient grounds”, says Erwin Bollinger, a SECO official, who adds that the government has received data on sanctioned accounts at more than 70 of the country’s banks. Direct disclosure by the banks has been patchy. Credit Suisse chief executive Thomas Gottstein told a conference in March that about 4 per cent of assets in his bank’s core wealth management business were Russian — a proportion that would equate to roughly SFr33bn. Meanwhile, UBS, the world’s largest private wealth manager, has disclosed it has $22bn of assets of “Russian persons not entitled to residency in the European Economic Area or Switzerland”, leaving open the question of how much it holds overall. Some 16,500 Russians are permanently resident in Switzerland, and more Russians are accepted for Swiss citizenship than any other nationality, according to the State Secretariat for Migration. Julius Baer has made no direct disclosure of the size or wealth of its Russian client base, though it has said, somewhat elliptically, that the value of assets held by its Moscow-based subsidiary is some SFr400mn. Information from the dozens of other smaller Swiss private banks is even scantier. Even leading industry figures wonder what is being left unsaid. One executive, who for the past two decades has been a senior figure in the private banking world in Switzerland, says he has almost no doubt that the significance of many banks’ close working relationships with sanctioned individuals is being underplayed. “You don’t have dozens and dozens of people employed on your Russia desks if you are not making money in Russia,” he says. Moreover, he adds, many Russian clients have done their business through Swiss banks’ subsidiaries abroad, such as those in Monaco, London or Asia. It is not clear to him whether all these assets have been caught by the Swiss rules. Swiss banks have a legal obligation to record the ultimate beneficial owners of all assets they handle worldwide, but doing so accurately can be tricky in jurisdictions where it is easy for third parties to mask who the owners are. Switzerland’s banks have moved dramatically from the freewheeling approach of previous years, when there was “a run on Russia”, says Thomas Borer, a former leading Swiss diplomat turned consultant, who has worked with prominent Russian clients. He now supports Switzerland’s sanctions policy. “Being militarily neutral does not mean being economically indifferent,” he says. But he argues that Swiss banking culture is still very different from elsewhere in the west. Even the biggest banks, he says, were clinging to relationships with Russian clients as the Ukraine crisis unfolded. The Financial Times revealed that, as late as March, Credit Suisse was asking investors to destroy documents that might expose Russian oligarchs it had done business with to legal risks. One senior relationship manager at a Zurich-based bank agrees. Even as sanctions came in, he says, the dominant approach was to ask, “how can we make this work for the client?” rather than “how do we do this for the government?”. But he defends the approach, saying: “Doing everything you can for your client is a Swiss commitment to excellence. If I was a watchmaker I would want to make the best watches with many complications. And if I was a policeman, then maybe I would want to be the best at catching Russian criminals. But I’m a banker.” There is still legal ambiguity in Switzerland over whether sanctions apply to family members and friends of listed individuals. This has provided a loophole bankers have helped at-risk clients to actively exploit in recent years. Swiss banks have seen “billions” of assets transferred to the names of spouses and children of Russian clients, in a trend that accelerated in the run-up to the war, says one banker. One bank chief executive admitted recently to the FT that there were many “grey areas” in applying sanctions. Part of the problem, he said, was that bank legal departments were struggling to obtain clarity from Bern on which asset transfers were deemed to be evading sanctions and which were not. Many who have been in the industry for a long time decry the new rules they must follow around taking new clients and being certain of the source of their wealth. “Know your customer used to mean just that: do you know the person? Now it is supposed to mean: do you know every little thing about their financial and private life?” says one Geneva-based banker. Many Russians themselves knew the banks were no longer safe havens, particularly since 2018 when Swiss banks began making significant concessions to information sharing on client accounts with other governments. Swiss residency did not protect billionaire Viktor Vekselberg in 2018, for example, when he was targeted by US sanctions; both Credit Suisse and UBS moved to terminate loans with him. The SBA says its members adhere to the highest international standards. Chief executive Jörg Gasser, argues Swiss banks have “no interest in funds of dubious origin” and have rigorous procedures in place to rapidly screen for sanctioned assets. “Swiss banks have been — and still are — very careful and diligent when it comes to accepting client funds,” he says, adding it is important to recognise the huge amount of legitimate business done with Russian entrepreneurs who are not subject to sanctions. For Mark Pieth, emeritus professor of criminal law at the University of Basel and a specialist in white-collar crime, the real story of the past decade is how Switzerland’s lawyers, rather than its bankers, have become the facilitators of hidden foreign money. “Swiss bankers were extremely cosy with Russians in the past,” he says. “Alongside London, this country was the porch for Russians into the west . . . but now I wouldn’t say the problem is so much with the banks — it is all the other intermediaries.” Swiss law gives remarkable sweep to attorney-client privilege, says Pieth, meaning lawyers can refuse to disclose almost anything to the authorities about their clients. The Swiss Bar Association strongly rejects this. “Professional secrecy does not protect against criminal acts,” it says. “Lawyers know the law and know what to do.” One senior industry figure defends the banks’ position unapologetically. He says everybody now wants to know the origins of their luxury jackets. But 10 years ago nobody was asking where they were made, by whom and with what materials. In banking, as in fashion, things have changed, he says, but nobody is haranguing the fashion world in the same way they are criticising banks. Fashion companies, though, have moved with the times and opened up, whereas Switzerland’s banks, for all their insistence on change and compliance, still want to maintain as much of the secrecy surrounding their clients as possible — even at a time of international crisis.
Supporting Ukrainian RefugeesWednesday, May 25, 2022
More than 6 million Ukrainians have had to flee their country due to Russia’s brutal war of aggression. Most have entered bordering EU states, with more than half of those going to Poland. Poland and other frontline countries acted swiftly not only by opening their borders to Ukrainians, but also by enacting policies and legislation to provide them with temporary status, housing, job training, healthcare, and access to education. For its part, the Biden Administration announced that it will take in 100,000 refugees, opening a path for Ukrainians to obtain humanitarian parole in the United States. In addition, the United States has provided significant humanitarian assistance and support to countries hosting refugees. Nevertheless, as Russia’s bloody assault on Ukraine enters its third month, there is no end in sight to what has become the largest refugee crisis in Europe since World War II. Witnesses discussed the responses and challenges that frontline countries face in supporting Ukrainian refugees and how the United States might strengthen its policies in response, including by making the process of applying for visas more efficient. Related Information Witness Biographies
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Why I’m Sad to Be on Russia’s All-Purpose Payback ListTuesday, May 24, 2022
Reading Russia’s latest sanctions list, permanently banning travel to the country by 963 people, saddened me — and not just because my name is on it. It’s a catalogue of hurt from a nation that seems ready to blame everybody but its leaders for its current troubles. The list is very long indeed, running to nearly 100 pages in my printout. Reading so many names, you sense that Russia is deliberately burning nearly all its bridges to the United States. Russia’s ruling elite feels abused by American politicians, business leaders, journalists, judges, think tanks — nearly everyone, it seems. Donald Trump can still visit Moscow, but scores of Republican members of Congress can’t. The list of excluded GOP senators ranges from moderates such as Roy Blunt of Missouri and Mitt Romney of Utah to hard-right stalwarts Ron Johnson of Wisconsin and Tom Cotton of Arkansas. The GOP doesn’t fare much better in the House. Moderates Liz Cheney of Wyoming and Mike Gallagher of Wisconsin can’t tour the Kremlin anymore, but neither can Jim Jordan of Ohio or Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia. As for Democrats, forget about it. The sanctions list includes the Democratic House leadership, including Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California, Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland and Democratic Whip James E. Clyburn of South Carolina. The Congressional Progressive Caucus can save its rubles, too. The members of “the Squad” are all banned. So are Pramila Jayapal of Washington state and Ro Khanna of California. It’s the same on the Senate side. Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer of New York and Whip Richard J. Durbin of Illinois: Nyet, nyet.
Support for Ukrainian Refugees to Be Discussed at Helsinki Commission HearingFriday, May 20, 2022
WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following hearing: SUPPORTING UKRAINIAN REFUGEES U.S. Policy and Visa Issuance Wednesday, May 25, 2022 2:30 p.m. Dirksen Senate Office Building Room 562 Watch live: www.youtube.com/HelsinkiCommission More than 6 million Ukrainians have had to flee their country due to Russia’s brutal war of aggression. Most have entered bordering EU states, with more than half of those going to Poland. Poland and other frontline countries acted swiftly not only by opening their borders to Ukrainians, but also by enacting policies and legislation to provide them with temporary status, housing, job training, healthcare, and access to education. For its part, the Biden Administration announced that it will take in 100,000 refugees, opening a path for Ukrainians to obtain humanitarian parole in the United States. In addition, the United States has provided significant humanitarian assistance and support to countries hosting refugees. Nevertheless, as Russia’s bloody assault on Ukraine enters its third month, there is no end in sight to what has become the largest refugee crisis in Europe since World War II. Witnesses will discuss the responses and challenges that frontline countries face in supporting Ukrainian refugees and how the United States might strengthen its policies in response, including by making the process of applying for visas more efficient. The following witnesses are scheduled to testify: Panel 1 Dana Francis, Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration,U.S. Department of State (TBC) Panel 2 H. E. Marek Magierowski, Ambassador of Poland to the United States Irina Manelis, Esq., Principal, Manelis Law
Helsinki Commission Slams Legislation in Belarus that Would Extend Use of the Death Penalty to Pro-Democracy and Anti-War ActivistsFriday, May 20, 2022
WASHINGTON—Following the approval of legislation in Belarus that would apply the death penalty to pro-democracy activists and those opposing Russia’s war in Ukraine, and ahead of the May 21 commemoration of the Day of Political Prisoners in Belarus, Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), and Ranking Members Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) and Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) issued the following joint statement: “With these amendments to the criminal code, Aleksandr Lukashenko and other senior officials in his regime seek to frighten brave Belarusian citizens into silence. These craven attempts to mute pro-democracy and anti-war activists are doomed to fail. Belarusians have demonstrated time and again that they are stronger than those who seek to oppress them, and that they will not cower even in the face of outright death threats from authorities. “The real criminals here are Lukashenko and his henchmen who attempt to muzzle political opponents, civil society, and the free press. We demand that all political prisoners in Belarus be released, and that Belarusian authorities cease their attempts to terrorize those who freely speak their minds.” Earlier this week, Lukashenko approved changes to the Belarusian criminal code that would extend the use of the death penalty against those convicted of “attempted acts of terrorism.” According to the U.S. Department of State, the Lukashenko regime “has levied politically motivated charges of ‘extremism’ and ‘terrorism’ against many of [Belarus’] more than 1,100 political prisoners and used such labels to detain tens of thousands more.”
Chairman Cardin, Colleagues Introduce Resolution Calling for Release of Russian Opposition Leader Vladimir Kara-MurzaMonday, May 16, 2022
WASHINGTON—Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), author of the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act, and colleagues introduced a resolution Monday honoring Russian opposition leader Vladimir Kara-Murza and his work for “freedom, democracy and human rights for the people of the Russian Federation.” Kara-Murza was detained in Moscow outside of his home one month ago, just days after testifying before the Helsinki Commission. The resolution calls for his release and urges calls for the U.S. Government to support the cause of democracy and human rights in Russia. Sens. Marco Rubio (FL), Dick Durbin (IL), Jim Risch (ID), Bob Menendez (NJ), Roger Wicker (MS), Ron Johnson (WI), Jeanne Shaheen (NH), Dan Sullivan (AK) and Chuck Grassley (IA) also are original cosponsors. “Vladimir Kara-Murza is a genuine hero, speaking truth to power in Russia, and mobilizing the world to support the Russian people,” said Chairman Cardin, who also is a senior member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “Without his leadership, several countries in Europe would not have enacted their versions of the U.S. Global Magnitsky laws that have broadened the impact of our own sanctions program. We call for his immediate release form unjust imprisonment in Russia.” Last week, Chairman Cardin led a bipartisan letter calling on the Biden administration to sanction publicly “every Russian official and associate involved with the false arrest, detention, and political persecution of Vladimir Kara-Murza.” The full text of the resolution follows. It is scheduled to be considered by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Wednesday. Calling for the immediate release of Russian opposition leader Vladimir Kara-Murza, who was unjustly detained on April 11, 2022. Whereas Vladimir Vladimirovich Kara-Murza (referred to in this preamble as “Mr. Kara-Murza”) has tirelessly worked for decades to advance the cause of freedom, democracy, and human rights for the people of the Russian Federation; Whereas, in retaliation for his advocacy, two attempts have been made on Mr. Kara-Murza’s life, as— (1) on May 26, 2015, Mr. Kara-Murza fell ill with symptoms indicative of poisoning and was hospitalized; and (2) on February 2, 2017, he fell ill with similar symptoms and was placed in a medically induced coma; Whereas independent investigations conducted by Bellingcat, the Insider, and Der Spiegel found that the same unit of the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation responsible for poisoning Mr. Kara-Murza was responsible for poisoning Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny and activists Timur Kuashev, Ruslan Magomedragimov, and Nikita Isayev; Whereas, on February 24, 2022, Vladimir Putin launched another unprovoked, unjustified, and illegal invasion into Ukraine in contravention of the obligations freely undertaken by the Russian Federation to respect the territorial integrity of Ukraine under the Budapest Memorandum of 1994, the Minsk protocols of 2014 and 2015, and international law; Whereas, on March 5, 2022, Vladimir Putin signed a law criminalizing the distribution of truthful statements about the invasion of Ukraine by the Russian Federation and mandating up to 15 years in prison for such offenses; Whereas, since February 24, 2022, Mr. Kara-Murza has used his voice and platform to join more than 15,000 citizens of the Russian Federation in peacefully protesting the war against Ukraine and millions more who silently oppose the war; Whereas, on April 11, 2022, five police officers arrested Mr. Kara-Murza in front of his home and denied his right to an attorney, and the next day Mr. Kara-Murza was sentenced to 15 days in prison for disobeying a police order; Whereas, on April 22, 2022, the Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation charged Mr. Kara-Murza with violations under the law signed on March 5, 2022, for his fact-based statements condemning the invasion of Ukraine by the Russian Federation; Whereas Mr. Kara-Murza was then placed into pretrial detention and ordered to be held until at least June 12, 2022; and Whereas, if convicted of those charges, Mr. Kara-Murza faces detention in a penitentiary system that human rights nongovernmental organizations have criticized for widespread torture, ill-treatment, and suspicious deaths of prisoners: Now, therefore, be it Resolved, That the Senate— (1) condemns the unjust detention and indicting of Russian opposition leader Vladimir Vladimirovich Kara-Murza, who has courageously stood up to oppression in the Russian Federation; (2) expresses solidarity with Vladimir Vladimirovich Kara-Murza, his family, and all individuals in the Russian Federation imprisoned for exercising their fundamental freedoms of speech, assembly, and belief; (3) urges the United States Government and other allied governments to work to secure the immediate release of Vladimir Vladimirovich Kara-Murza, Alexei Navalny, and other citizens of the Russian Federation imprisoned for opposing the regime of Vladimir Putin and the war against Ukraine; and (4) calls on the President to increase support provided by the United States Government for those advocating for democracy and independent media in the Russian Federation, which Vladimir Vladimirovich Kara-Murza has worked to advance.
Helsinki Commissioners Lead Bipartisan Ask for Biden to Sanction Russians Responsible for Jailing Opposition Leader Vladimir Kara-MurzaThursday, May 12, 2022
WASHINGTON—U.S. Senator Ben Cardin (MD), author of the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act and Chair of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (Helsinki Commission), along with Helsinki Commission Ranking Member Senator Roger Wicker (MS) and Commissioners Senators Jeanne Shaheen (NH) and Sheldon Whitehouse (RI) are urging President Joe Biden to publicly sanction “every Russian official and associate involved with the false arrest, detention, and political persecution of Vladimir Kara-Murza.” The lawmakers made the plea last week in a letter that also was signed by U.S. Representatives Steve Cohen (TN-09), Co-Chair of the Helsinki Commission; Joe Wilson (SC-02), Ranking Member of the Helsinki Commission; Gerald Connolly (VA-11); John Curtis (UT-03); Brian Fitzpatrick (PA-01), Ruben Gallego (AZ-07); Richard Hudson NC-08); Sheila Jackson-Lee (TX-18); Marcy Kaptur (OH-09); Bill Keating (MA-09); Adam Kinzinger (IL-16); Tom Malinowski (NJ-07); Peter Meijer (MI-03); Mike Levin (CA-49); Gwen Moore (WI-044); Burgess Owens (UT-04); Katie Porter (CA-45); Maria Elvira Salazar (FL-27); Abigail Spanberger (VA-07); and Marc Veasey (TX-33). “Kara-Murza is a Russian opposition politician who has long stood up against Russian dictator Vladimir Putin. He embodies what Russia might be one day when it is democratic and free,” the lawmakers wrote. “As Russia loses its brutal war of aggression against Ukraine, we must consider what might come next in that country. Kara-Murza offers a vision of a Russia free from imperialist kleptocracy. He has bravely answered the call of many Ukrainians for Russians to take a stand and oppose this bloody and senseless war. He must be immediately freed and allowed to continue his work.” The full letter is below and can be downloaded at this link. President Joseph R. Biden, Jr. The White House 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., NW Washington, DC 20500 Dear President Biden, We urge you to name and sanction every Russian official and associate involved with the false arrest, detention, and political persecution of Vladimir Kara-Murza. Kara-Murza is a Russian opposition politician who has long stood up against Russian dictator Vladimir Putin. He embodies what Russia might be one day when it is democratic and free. We also urge you to examine whether to sanction those involved in the persecution and imprisonment of other Russian political prisoners. Kara-Murza is a Russian patriot who has fought for decades for democracy in Russia and a prosperous future for his country. For this, the regime in Russia has poisoned him twice. On April 11, while in Russia, Kara-Murza called this regime “a regime of murderers.” He was then arrested, and now faces trumped up charges that may result in years of unjust imprisonment. Kara-Murza was the key Russian activist behind the passage of the Magnitsky Act and its adoption by our allies. The late Senator John McCain called him “one of the most passionate and effective advocates for the passage of the Magnitsky Act.” Kara-Murza himself, like his mentor Boris Nemtsov before him, has called the Magnitsky Act the most “pro-Russian law passed in the United States in the history of our countries.” Nemtsov was murdered in front of the Kremlin. The Magnitsky Act is the appropriate tool to sanction those involved in the persecution of Kara-Murza. We ask that you coordinate with our allies to sanction these individuals at the same time. The European Union, the United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia now all have Magnitsky sanctions laws of their own. As Russia loses its brutal war of aggression against Ukraine, we must consider what might come next in that country. Kara-Murza offers a vision of a Russia free from imperialist kleptocracy. He has bravely answered the call of many Ukrainians for Russians to take a stand and oppose this bloody and senseless war. He must be immediately freed and allowed to continue his work. Sincerely,
Arrest and Detention of Vladimir Kara-MurzaThursday, May 12, 2022
Mr. President, one month ago, Russian authorities arrested Vladimir Kara-Murza, a tireless advocate for a democratic Russia and longtime Putin critic, on the street near his apartment in Moscow. While he was in detention for a fabricated administrative violation, they charged him further with ‘‘spreading deliberately false information’’ about the armed forces of Russia, which was criminalized under a Russian law passed after the full-scale invasion of Ukraine. He is currently in pretrial detention and could face up to 15 years in prison if convicted. Vladimir is a friend and frequent visitor to the offices of many Members of Congress, myself included. His wife and children live in Virginia, and he splits his time between the United States and Russia, where he was born and raised. Vladimir has a special relationship with the Helsinki Commission and a keen interest in using parliamentary diplomacy to rally other nations against the Putin regime’s undemocratic and violent policies, particularly the war in Ukraine. Vladimir was instrumental in the development and passage of the Magnitsky Act. In fact, a number of colleagues and I recently sent a letter to President Biden urging that the administration impose Magnitsky Act sanctions on every Russian official and associate involved in Vladimir’s false arrest and unjust detention. That Vladimir continues to return to Russia after multiple poisonings, arrests, and other tribulations is a testament to his profound courage and dedication to his fellow citizens. He feels that he cannot, in good conscience, call on Russians to risk their freedom and lives to resist the evils and complacency of Putin’s Russia if he is comfortably out of harm’s way himself. Two weeks before his arrest, Vladimir testified at a Helsinki Commission hearing on propaganda and censorship in Russia, where he warned that speaking out against the war in Ukraine is now grounds for prosecution in Russia, yet he refused to be silent. Though now deprived of his physical freedom and in grave danger, Vladimir’s spirit is unbroken; he is unafraid; and he continues to believe that Russia will one day become a democratic, European state. He sees the Ukraine war as the last desperate gasp of Putinism, the beginning of the end. In our many meetings over the years, Vladimir has always reminded us of the need to remember prisoners of conscience and speak their names. As Vladimir now ranks among these hundreds in Russia, and even more throughout the rest of the world, we will remember him. I call upon my colleagues to do the same; there is hope and power in not being forgotten. Mr. President, I ask unanimous consent that the letter to President Biden that I referred to a moment ago be printed in the RECORD. There being no objection, the material was ordered to be printed in the RECORD, as follows: MAY 5, 2022. President JOSEPH R. BIDEN, JR., The White House, Washington, DC. DEAR PRESIDENT BIDEN: We urge you to name and sanction every Russian official and associate involved with the false arrest, detention, and political persecution of Vladimir Kara-Murza. Kara-Murza is a Russian opposition politician who has long stood up against Russian dictator Vladimir Putin. He embodies what Russia might be one day when it is democratic and free. We also urge you to examine whether to sanction those involved in the persecution and imprisonment of other Russian political prisoners. Kara-Murza is a Russian patriot who has fought for decades for democracy in Russia and a prosperous future for his country. For this, the regime in Russia has poisoned him twice. On April 11, while in Russia, KaraMurza called this regime ‘‘a regime of murderers.’’ He was then arrested, and now faces trumped up charges that may result in years of unjust imprisonment. Kara-Murza was the key Russian activist behind the passage of the Magnitsky Act and its adoption by our allies. The late Senator John McCain called him ‘‘one of the most passionate and effective advocates for the passage of the Magnitsky Act.’’ Kara-Murza himself, like his mentor Boris Nemtsov before him, has called the Magnitsky Act the most ‘‘pro-Russian law passed in the United States in the history of our countries.’’ Nemtsov was murdered in front of the Kremlin. The Magnitsky Act is the appropriate tool to sanction those involved in the persecution of Kara-Murza. We ask that you coordinate with our allies to sanction these individuals at the same time. The European Union, the United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia now all have Magnitsky sanctions laws of their own. As Russia loses its brutal war of aggression against Ukraine, we must consider what might come next in that country. KaraMurza offers a vision of a Russia free from imperialist kleptocracy. He has bravely answered the call of many Ukrainians for Russians to take a stand and oppose this bloody and senseless war. He must be immediately freed and allowed to continue his work. Sincerely, Ben Cardin, Jeanne Shaheen, Roger Wicker, Sheldon Whitehouse, U.S. Senators. Steve Cohen, Gerald Connolly, Brian Fitzpatrick, Richard Hudson, Marcy Kaptur, Adam Kinzinger, Peter Meijer, Gwen Moore, Katie Porter, Abigail Spanberger, Joe Wilson, John Curtis, Ruben Gallego, Sheila Jackson Lee, Bill Keating, Tom Malinowski, Mike Levin, Burgess Owens, Marı´a Elvira Salazar, Marc Veasey, Members of Congress.
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Swiss Release Some Frozen Russian AssetsThursday, May 12, 2022
The Swiss government on Thursday reported 6.3 billion Swiss francs ($6.33 billion) worth of Russian assets frozen under sanctions to punish Moscow's invasion of Ukraine, a drop from early April as around 3.4 billion francs in provisionally blocked assets were released. The figure marked a decrease from roughly 7.5 billion Swiss francs in funds the government reported frozen on April 7. Government official Erwin Bollinger pointed to fewer funds -- 2.2 billion francs -- newly frozen than those that had been released. read more "We can't freeze funds if we do not have sufficient grounds," Bollinger, a senior official at the State Secretariat for Economic Affairs (SECO) agency overseeing sanctions, told journalists. Pressure has increased on Switzerland -- a popular destination for Moscow's elite and a holding place for Russian wealth -- to more quickly identify and freeze assets of hundreds of sanctioned Russians. read more The U.S. Helsinki Commission, a government-funded independent commission which looks at security, cooperation and human rights issues in Europe, in early May called Switzerland "a leading enabler of Russian dictator Vladimir Putin and his cronies", who the commission said used "Swiss secrecy laws to hide and protect the proceeds of their crimes". The Swiss government rejected the accusations "in the strongest possible terms", while Swiss President Ignazio Cassis had requested the U.S. government "correct this misleading impression immediately" during a telephone call with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken. Swiss banks hold up to $213 billion of Russian wealth, Switzerland's bank lobby estimates, with its two largest lenders UBS (UBSG.S) and Credit Suisse (CSGN.S) each holding tens of billions of francs for wealthy Russian clients. read more Credit Suisse alone froze some 10.4 billion Swiss francs of that money through March under sanctions imposed in connection with the invasion. read more Credit Suisse's reporting did not make clear how much of that money was frozen in Switzerland. While banks and asset managers can provisionally freeze funds, SECO officials on Thursday said funds needed to be released if they could not establish the assets were directly owned or controlled by a sanctioned individual. "The amount of assets frozen is not a measure of how effectively sanctions are being implemented," Bollinger said, adding asset freezes were "by far" not the most important measure in a wide-ranging packet of sanctions. ($1 = 0.9948 Swiss francs)
Russia's Swiss EnablersThursday, May 05, 2022
Long known as a destination for war criminals and kleptocrats to stash their plunder, Switzerland is a leading enabler of Russian dictator Vladimir Putin and his cronies. After looting Russia, Putin and his oligarchs use Swiss secrecy laws to hide and protect the proceeds of their crimes. Close relations between Swiss and Russian authorities have had a corrupting influence on law enforcement personnel in Switzerland and have led to the resignation of numerous officials, including the head prosecutor of Switzerland. A recent Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project investigation found that Credit Suisse catered to dozens of criminals, dictators, intelligence officials, sanctioned parties, and political actors, and identified problematic accounts holding more than $8 billion in assets. According to the Financial Times, Credit Suisse also asked investors to destroy documents linked to yacht loans made to oligarchs and tycoons. This briefing examined the relationship between Switzerland and Russia in light of Putin’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Panelists discussed how a compromised Switzerland affects U.S. national security and whether the United States should rethink its strategic bilateral relationship with Switzerland. Related Information Panelist Biographies How the Swiss Law Enforcement Capitulated to the Russians in the Magnitsky Case - Bill Browder
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Swiss Attacked for Going Easy on Seizing Russian BillionsThursday, May 05, 2022
The $7.6 billion in Russian assets seized to date by Swiss authorities is “insulting,” outspoken Kremlin critic Bill Browder said at briefing on Russian money in Switzerland. It’s “a lot of money in absolute terms but Switzerland is one of the main destinations for dirty Russian money,” said Browder. Given the Swiss Bankers Association has said there’s as much as 150 to 200 billion Swiss francs ($202 billion) in Russian assets in the country’s banks “I would almost say it’s slightly insulting,” he said. Browder, who has also highlighted what he perceives to be Swiss prosecutors’ soft approach to investigating Russian financial crime, called on the U.S. to review its cooperation framework with its Swiss counterparts, during the hearing organized by the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe on Thursday. “Based on my experience, it would lead me to believe the Swiss are knowingly turning their head the other way when it comes to some of the other oligarchs,” said Browder. The Swiss government said a month ago it had blocked 7.5 billion Swiss francs ($8 billion) in Russian assets in the country to date, as it issues sanctions that mirror those imposed by the European Union on those seen as close to Vladimir Putin. That figure represented a jump of 30% from their previous tally two weeks earlier and Swiss officials say the number will continue to rise as more assets hidden behind shell companies or in the names of associated are painstakingly uncovered. Switzerland surprised the world in early March by departing from its tradition of neutrality and saying it would fully embrace the European Union measures against Russia. But critics including Browder contend that the country needs to go much further. Read more: Swiss Hunt for Russian Wealth Criticized Despite $6 Billion Haul Erwin Bolliger, the chief of the Swiss Secretariat for Economic Affairs which is enforcing the sanctions, has tried to explain the gap by pointing out that are plenty of legitimately-held Russian investments in Switzerland. “There is merit in Bill’s suggestion to review the law enforcement relations between the U.S. and Switzerland,” said Mark Pieth, a law professor at the University of Basel and corruption expert, said at the hearing. Up until now, Switzerland’s approach to clamping down on dirty Russian money in the country has shown a “lack of courage,” Pieth said.
Russian War Crimes in UkraineWednesday, May 04, 2022
Well-documented Russian bombings and missile strikes in Ukraine have decimated hospitals, schools, and apartment buildings, including a theater in Mariupol where hundreds of children were sheltering and the Kramatorsk rail station where thousands were waiting to escape the Russian onslaught. The withdrawal of Russian troops from towns like Bucha, Chernihiv, and Sumy has revealed horrific scenes of civilian carnage, mass graves, and reports of rape and torture. Several world leaders have accused Russia of committing genocide against the people of Ukraine. In March, 45 Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) states began proceedings to “establish the facts and circumstances of possible cases of war crimes and crimes against humanity…and to collect, consolidate, and analyze this information with a view to presenting it to relevant accountability mechanisms.” The resulting report, issued on April 14, found “clear patterns of international humanitarian law violations by the Russian forces” and recommended further investigations to “establish individual criminal responsibility for war crimes.” The Government of Ukraine, Ukrainian NGOs, and the International Criminal Court are collecting evidence for use in future legal proceedings. Witnesses at the hearing discussed the findings of the OSCE report, examined evidence being collected to document Russian war crimes in Ukraine, and analyzed paths to bring perpetrators to justice. Related Information Witness Biographies
Helsinki Commission Regrets Closure of OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to UkraineMonday, May 02, 2022
WASHINGTON—On April 28, the OSCE announced that Russia had definitively forced the closure of the Special Monitoring Mission (SMM) to Ukraine, following its veto of the mission’s mandated activities as of April 1. In light of this announcement, 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) issued the following joint statement: “Moscow’s choice to force the closure of the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine is only its latest offense against the rules-based international order. The brave monitors and staff who served the mission, in place since 2014, did exactly what they were supposed to do. Despite continual harassment and under constant threat, they reported objectively on ceasefire violations, informing the international community about the brutal reality of Russia’s war against Ukraine. The monitors’ clear and continuous reporting allowed the world to draw its own conclusions about the roots of Russia’s aggression. Moscow’s move to force the mission to close only underlines its desire to hide this ugly fact. “As we commend the service of these brave monitors and condemn Russia’s obstruction, we renew our call on Moscow to immediately release all Ukrainian SMM staff members who have been detained in occupied parts of Ukraine. “We also mourn the recent loss of Maryna Fenina, a Ukrainian national serving with the SMM who was killed by Russia’s shelling in Kharkiv on March 1, and we will never forget American paramedic Joseph Stone, who was killed while serving in support of the mission when his vehicle struck a landmine in Russian-controlled territory in eastern Ukraine on April 23, 2017.” The SMM was established in 2014 as an unarmed, civilian mission and served as the international community’s eyes and ears on the security and humanitarian situation in the conflict zone. It operated under a mandate adopted by consensus among the 57 OSCE participating States, including the United States, Russia, and Ukraine.
Helsinki Commission Briefing to Examine Swiss Enabling of Russian OligarchsFriday, April 29, 2022
WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following online briefing: RUSSIA’S SWISS ENABLERS Thursday, May 5, 2022 10:00 a.m. Register: https://ushr.webex.com/ushr/j.php?RGID=r72f85e0c40a09b609b328a9481f54063 Long known as a destination for war criminals and kleptocrats to stash their plunder, Switzerland is a leading enabler of Russian dictator Vladimir Putin and his cronies. After looting Russia, Putin and his oligarchs use Swiss secrecy laws to hide and protect the proceeds of their crimes. Close relations between Swiss and Russian authorities have had a corrupting influence on law enforcement personnel in Switzerland and have led to the resignation of numerous officials, including the head prosecutor of Switzerland. A recent Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project investigation found that Credit Suisse catered to dozens of criminals, dictators, intelligence officials, sanctioned parties, and political actors, and identified problematic accounts holding more than $8 billion in assets. According to the Financial Times, Credit Suisse also asked investors to destroy documents linked to yacht loans made to oligarchs and tycoons. This briefing will examine the relationship between Switzerland and Russia in light of Putin’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Panelists will discuss how a compromised Switzerland affects U.S. national security and whether the United States should rethink its strategic bilateral relationship with Switzerland. The following panelists are scheduled to participate: Bill Browder, Head, Global Magnitsky Justice Campaign Miranda Patrucic, Deputy Editor in Chief, Regional and Central Asia, Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project Mark Pieth, President of the Board, Basel Institute on Governance
Following in the Footsteps of Tsar Nicholas IIWednesday, April 27, 2022
As Vladimir Putin attempts to turn back the clock to the Russian Empire of the pre-Soviet era, he also adopts a tool of political manipulation used in Imperial Russia—fostering violent extremist organizations as a means to a political end. Tsar Nicholas II used this technique with terrorist organizations like the Union of the Russian People and the Black Hundreds, and Putin follows his example today with the Russian Imperial Movement and Imperial Legion. The Russian Imperial Movement Putin advances his political agenda by allowing the Russian Imperial Movement (RIM)—a white supremacist extremist organization based in St. Petersburg—to freely exist and operate in Russia and beyond. RIM holds ultranationalist and monarchist views and believes in two pillars of authority: the political power of the tsar and the spiritual power of the Russian Orthodox Church. The U.S. State Department labeled RIM a Specially Designated Global Terrorist entity in April of 2020, making them the first white supremacist extremist organization to receive the title. RIM received the designation due, in part, to their paramilitary training course, Partizan. The course—ostensibly teaching survival skills, marksmanship, and hand-to-hand combat—functions as RIM’s citizen-to-terrorist pipeline. Attendees have gone on to join RIM’s paramilitary unit, the Imperial Legion, and fight alongside pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine. And Russians are not the only ones enrolling. In 2016, two members of Sweden’s largest neo-Nazi organization, the Nordic Resistance Movement, bombed a café and a migrant center and attempted to bomb a refugee center in Gothenburg, Sweden. The subsequent investigation discovered that the bombers were trained at Partizan. RIM has attempted to broaden its network beyond Europe. American neo-Nazi Matthew Heimbach, former head of the Traditionalist Workers Party, met with RIM representatives, and RIM offered paramilitary training to organizers of the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. There are also reports that members of the Imperial Legion fought in conflict areas in Syria and Libya. The Russian Imperial Movement is vocally anti-Putin, decrying him and his regime. Despite this criticism and RIM’s monarchist beliefs, Putin has been lenient toward the group and allows it to operate as long as its attention remains turned away from domestic politics. Though reinstatement of a tsar remains a foundational pillar of RIM’s doctrine, it is not their main selling point. Dr. Anna Kruglova, a lecturer in Terrorism Studies at the University of Salford, finds RIM’s large web following surprising “since the group has a relatively narrow agenda—monarchist ideas are not particularly popular in Russia as only 8 percent of Russian people would want monarchy restored, according to one poll.” RIM’s appeal for potential members and Putin himself lies in its vicious ethno-nationalism. RIM demands that Russia maintain influence over all territories where ethnic Russians reside, particularly in Ukraine. For instance, Partizan-trained Russians fought alongside pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine in 2014 as members of the Imperial Legion. In the words of Denis Gariev, an instructor at Partizan, “We see Ukrainian-ness as rabies. A person is sick. Either quarantine, liquidation, or he’ll infect everyone.” Putin also values RIM as a tool to sow discord in the West. RIM supports and collaborates with other white supremacist extremist organizations, even in the United States, and trains individuals like the Swedish NRM bombers. RIM is convenient for Putin: it poses no real threat as a monarchist organization yet benefits his attempts to colonize Ukraine and destabilize the West. The Union of the Russian People The Union of the Russian People (Soyuz russkovo naroda, or SRN) was a right-wing, fanatically anti-Semitic political movement active in the 1900s. They came to prominence in the wake of the Russo-Japanese war. After the Russian Empire’s devastating defeat, there was such discontent and domestic unrest that strikes and mutinies flooded the empire, forcing Tsar Nicholas II to enact constitutional reforms. This moment, known as the 1905 Revolution, left the Russian Empire shaken and greatly polarized. Fears that the imperial system would collapse led to a rise in reactionary extreme right-wing ideologies and groups, one of which was SRN. Members of SRN and its paramilitary branch, the Black Hundred, were fervent monarchists and bore the colors of the Romanov family—the reigning imperial dynasty in Russia from 1613 to 1917—as their insignia. They also had deep ideological connections with the Russian Orthodox Church and identified Jews as the source of all evil in Russia. From 1905 to 1906, the Black Hundred carried out relentless pogroms, killing hundreds of Jews across the Russian Empire. The ruling class at the time held mixed opinions on SRN, ranging from hesitance to fanaticism. Lower-ranking officials viewed the Black Hundred’s pogroms as a convenient way to keep Jewish and ethnic minority populations in their place. The tsar called them a “shining example of justice and order to all men.” SRN was a convenient political tool for the tsar. Tsar Nicholas II believed anti-Semitism united people behind the government, and that Jewish capitalism and Jewish socialism were revolutionary forces that threatened his regime. In this way, SRN and the Black Hundred, while too radical for many members of the Duma and the public, served the tsar’s political interests. Utilizing extremism as a political weapon is not a new tool in Russia’s repertoire. As Putin harkens back to a grand Imperial history and conducts brutal military invasions into former Soviet states, like Ukraine, and political invasions of others, like Belarus, he demands comparison to the power-grasping techniques of the past. As Tsar Nicholas II’s grip on power loosened with civil unrest in the Russian Empire, he supported extremism to preserve his regime. Putin repeats this pattern today as he lets the Russian Imperial Movement and the Imperial Legion train neo-Nazis to wreak havoc and terror in the West.
Helsinki Commission Leaders Condemn Detention of OSCE Officials by Russian-Led Forces in UkraineTuesday, April 26, 2022
WASHINGTON—Following the detention of four Ukrainian nationals serving as members of the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission in Russian-controlled areas of eastern Ukraine who reportedly were accused of illegal activities including treason and espionage, Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), and Ranking Members Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) and Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) issued the following joint statement: “The targeting and detention of OSCE officials by Russian-controlled forces is utterly unacceptable. Those detained must be released immediately. We will hold Russian officials responsible for any mistreatment they suffer.” On April 24, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) confirmed that four Ukrainian staff members of the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine (SMM) had been detained and held “for engaging in administrative activities that fall within their official functions as OSCE staff.” The SMM had served a critical function as the eyes and ears of the international community in the conflict zone since 2014, until a Russian veto forced its mandated activities to cease on April 1. Since then, Ukrainian mission members had been carrying out minimum necessary administrative tasks focused on efforts to ensure the safety and security of its mission members, assets, and premises throughout Ukraine, including in Russian-controlled areas.
Helsinki Commission Urges OSCE PA to Adopt Ukrainian Declaration Recognizing Russia’s Actions as GenocideMonday, April 25, 2022
WASHINGTON—Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), who serves as Head of the U.S. Delegation to the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (PA), along with other Helsinki Commissioners who hold leadership roles in the commission and the OSCE PA, today released a letter urging the assembly to adopt a declaration by the parliament of Ukraine that recognizes Russia’s actions in Ukraine as genocide. Co-Chairman Cohen was joined in the letter to OSCE PA President Margareta Cederfelt by Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), who serves as the OSCE PA Special Representative on Anti-Semitism, Racism and Intolerance; Senate Ranking Member Sen. Roger Wicker (MS), who serves as an OSCE PA vice-president; Commissioner Rep. Richard Hudson (NC-08), who chairs the OSCE PA Committee on Political Affairs and Security; and House Ranking Member Joe Wilson (SC-02). The letter read in part: “It is clear to us that Russian dictator Vladimir Putin and his military regime are engaging in acts of genocide against Ukraine and its people and we urge the OSCE PA to also endorse the Rada’s declaration and issue a similar statement. “We do not come to this conclusion lightly, and we recognize the importance of precision in employing such terminology. However, given the overwhelming evidence—from Putin and his regime’s many comments denying the existence of Ukrainian nationhood and the deliberate targeting of civilians, to the wholesale destruction of Mariupol, the mass graves that now pockmark Ukrainian lands, and reports of forced deportation of Ukrainian people including children to Russia where they are being indoctrinated in “reeducation camps” in attempts to destroy Ukrainian identity—we cannot be silent. The OSCE PA must raise its voice and speak with unity and unmitigated clarity about the unspeakable horrors that are unfolding in Ukraine and be truthful about what is happening there… “Given Russia’s disregard for the 10 Helsinki principles guiding relations between participating States, its manipulation of OSCE rules for its own destructive ends, and its encouragement of neighboring Belarus to be complicit in its war crimes and genocidal actions, the Parliamentary Assembly should make clear where we as a credible body stand. Russia’s horrific war of choice in Ukraine and this unfolding genocide must be described just as it is.” The full letter is available online.
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.