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Helsinki Commissioners Urge President to Prioritize Democracy, Human Rights in Foreign Policy
Friday, May 05, 2017

On May 3, Helsinki Chairman Senator Roger Wicker (MS), Ranking Commissioner Senator Ben Cardin (MD), and Helsinki Commissioners Senator Cory Gardner (CO), Senator Marco Rubio (FL), and Senator Thom Tillis (NC) signed a letter encouraging President Trump to prioritize democracy and respect for human rights in the Administration’s foreign policy agenda.

The letter reads in part: “America has long been a leader in supporting individual rights. It was more than 240 years ago that the Founding Fathers declared  that all are created equal and endowed with inalienable rights, including life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. These principles have successfully formed the backbone of the American experiment in self- government. The rights the Founders recognized are not by any means solely ‘American,’ but rather are universal. Being fortunate to enjoy these freedoms ourselves, we have the moral imperative to promote democracy and human rights across the globe.”

The bipartisan letter was also signed by Senator Todd Young (IN), Senator Edward Markey (MA), Senator Bob Menendez (NJ), Senator Susan Collins (ME), Senator Dick Durbin (IL), Senator Patrick Leahy (VT), Senator Christopher Coons (DE), Senator Lisa Murkowski (AK), Senator Cory Booker (NJ), and Senator Jeff Merkley (OR). The full text of the letter can be found below.

Dear Mr. President:

As you carry out the responsibilities of the Office of the President, we in the Congress stand ready to work with you to ensure that America remains a leader in advocating for democracy and human rights. We urge your administration to make these issues a priority.

As you know, America has long been a leader in supporting individual rights.  It was more than 240 years ago that the Founding Fathers declared  that all are created equal and endowed with inalienable rights, including life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  These principles have successfully formed the backbone of the American experiment in self- government. The rights the Founders recognized are not by any means solely “American,” but rather are universal. Being fortunate to enjoy these freedoms ourselves, we have the moral imperative to promote democracy and human rights across the globe. 

At a Senate Foreign Relations Committee subcommittee hearing earlier this year titled “Democracy and Human Rights: The Case for U.S. Leadership” human rights activists shared their stories of living under oppressive regimes. They made clear that they believe that the United States has a critical role to play in safeguarding the fundamental rights of all people.

A world that is more democratic, respects human rights, and abides by the rule of law strengthens the security, stability, and prosperity of America. History has demonstrated time-and-again that free societies are more likely to be at peace with one another. Constitutional democracies are also less likely to fail and become breeding grounds for instability, terrorism, and migration. 

Democratic nations that respect good governance and the rights of their own citizens are also more likely to be economically successful, and to be stable and reliable trade and investment partners for the United States.  Our economic partnerships with Japan, Germany, Taiwan, the Republic of Korea, and numerous other nations’ today stand as testament to the wisdom of far-sighted U.S. policy that seeks to develop good governance and strong democratic institutions as necessary enablers for strong economic partnerships as well.

As we have seen over the past decade, there is a creeping authoritarian resurgence across the globe, against which we are the bulwark for individual rights and freedoms.  America, since its founding, has led this fight, not just for the rights of Americans found in the Constitution, but for the rights of all. 

By elevating democracy and human rights to a prominent place on your foreign policy agenda you can make a measurable difference and make America safer, more prosperous, and more secure.  There is longstanding and deep bipartisan Congressional commitment to advancing freedom around the world, just as Republican and Democratic administrations for decades have supported democracy and human rights, and we look forward to working with you on this important cause. 

We ask that, as you continue to formulate your foreign and defense policies, you put the promotion of democracy and human rights front-and-center as a primary pillar of America’s approach abroad.  As we move forward with the process of holding confirmation hearings for your nominees to key foreign policy positions we will be assessing their commitment to uphold these important American values as they carry out our nation’s foreign policy.

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    WASHINGTON–Today, U.S. Senators Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Ben Cardin (D-Md.) urged the Administration to approve badly needed defensive military assistance to the Armed Forces of Ukraine. The senators expressed concern over the Ukrainian military’s challenges defending its sovereignty against insurgents armed and trained by Russia and urged the Administration to provide the military capabilities to defeat the separatists, deter Russian aggression, and restore stability to the nation. “The United States must stand with Ukraine as they fight for the right to chart their own future,” Portman stated. “While economic and political support is vital, the goals this aid is designed to achieve will be impossible if the Ukrainian military cannot restore law and order and deter future aggression. We must provide Ukrainians with the military capabilities they need to protect their country and fulfill the promise of the Maidan.” "Ukraine’s people have shown remarkable courage and perseverance in the face of tremendous internal challenges and serious and ongoing external threats," said Cardin.  "We will continue to stand by the people of Ukraine as they work to overcome these challenges and forge a free, independent and democratic future.”  Portman and Cardin traveled to Ukraine earlier this year to show support for the Ukrainian people and to serve as election monitors for their presidential elections.  Full text of the letter can be found below. President Barack Obama The White House 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue Washington DC, 20500 Dear President Obama, We are writing to request that your administration approve badly needed defensive military assistance to the Armed Forces of Ukraine. The Ukrainian military is struggling to defend its sovereignty against insurgents armed and trained by Russia and needs to possess the military capabilities to defeat the separatists, deter Russian aggression, and restore stability to the nation. The tragic disaster of the attack on Malaysian Airlines flight MH-17, with strong evidence that it   was downed by Russian-led separatist militants in Ukraine, further illustrates the danger posed to the region and the international community by the continued conflict in Eastern Ukraine.  Until stability is restored, the democratically elected government of Ukraine will be unable to continue on the path of reform and modernization that the United States has encouraged it to follow. The United States has been instrumental in delivering vital economic and political assistance. Through the Support for the Sovereignty, Integrity, Democracy, and Economic Stability of Ukraine Act of 2014 and administrative actions, the United States has provided Ukraine with a $1 billion loan guarantee and over $50 million in additional political and economic assistance. The United States also helped Ukraine secure a $17 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund and an 11 billion Euro aid package from the European Union. We appreciate your work in helping to provide this assistance. However, the crucial political and economic reform goals this previously approved aid is designed to help meet will not be possible if the government of Ukraine is unable to defeat the separatists, deter foreign aggression, and maintain law and order over all areas of the country. The bipartisan Support for the Sovereignty, Integrity, Democracy, and Economic Stability of Ukraine Act of 2014 authorized $100 million to enhance security cooperation and assistance efforts with Ukraine and other countries in Central and Eastern Europe. We are concerned, however, that the level of military support the United States has provided to date is insufficient to providing the Ukrainian military with the capabilities it needs to secure its borders and deter future aggression. The Ukrainian military needs more sophisticated equipment to succeed in its mission and preserve the great strides Ukraine has made since the Maidan uprising. We believe that a variety of non-lethal systems such as advanced communications equipment, night-vision goggles, navigation equipment, and body armor as well as defensive military weapons would provide Ukrainian forces with the capabilities they need to restore order and discourage further foreign interference. We understand that both the Departments of State and Defense continue to coordinate with, assess needed capabilities of, and field requests from the Ukrainian security forces.  We would like to better understand what steps have been taken to provide assistance to the Ukrainian military and immediate plans to expand that support.  Specifically, what military capabilities has the government of Ukraine requested? Of these capabilities, what has your administration authorized to be provided to Ukraine, and what specific capabilities have been delivered to date?  Additionally, what is your overall strategy to carry out the requirements set forth in Sec. 7(c) of the Support for the Sovereignty, Integrity, Democracy, and Economic Stability of Ukraine Act of 2014? The people of Ukraine have chosen a more democratic, transparent, and inclusive future for their country and the United States has pledged to support them in their hour of need. Honoring this commitment means providing the assistance necessary to help Ukraine develop the full range of economic, political, and military tools it needs to fulfill this hopeful vision. We urge you to support more robust assistance to Ukraine.

  • Commission to Hold Hearing with OSCE Human Rights Appointees

    WASHINGTON—Today the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (U.S. Helsinki Commission) announced the following hearing: Anti-Semitism, Racism and Discrimination in the OSCE Region Tuesday, July 22, 2014 10:00 a.m. Dirksen Senate Office Building Room 562 Following an escalation of anti-Semitic hate crimes a decade ago, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) intensified efforts to combat prejudice and discrimination throughout Eurasia and North America. Since 2004, three Personal Representatives have been appointed annually by the OSCE Chair-in-Office (currently Switzerland) to address anti-Semitism; racism, xenophobia, and discrimination including against Christians and members of other religions; and intolerance and discrimination against Muslims. In an official joint visit to the United States, the Personal Representatives will address progress and ongoing challenges in the OSCE region a decade after the creation of their positions. The following witnesses are scheduled to testify: Rabbi Andrew Baker, Personal Representative on Combating Anti-Semitism Professor Talip Küçukcan, Personal Representative on Combating Intolerance and Discrimination against Muslims Alexey Avtonomov, Personal Representative on Combating Racism, Xenophobia and Discrimination, also focusing on Intolerance and Discrimination against Christians and Members of Other Religions

  • Chairman Cardin Mourns Passing of Ambassador Todman

    WASHINGTON—In response to the August 13, 2014, passing of Ambassador Terence A. Todman, Senator Ben Cardin (MD), Chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (U.S. Helsinki Commission) said, “I am deeply saddened to learn of the passing of Ambassador Todman. As one of the first African-Americans to serve as an Ambassador in Europe, he demonstrated the strength of our nation’s diversity overseas. Not only did he open doors in the diplomatic service for African-Americans and other minorities, but he also fought for the rights of Afro-descendant and other minority groups abroad. I hope others will join me in continuing the legacy of his work by supporting greater equality, diversity, and inclusion in our diplomatic workforce and societies across the globe.”

  • Importance of Good Governance to Comprehensive Security

    Remarks to the 2014 OSCE Japan Conference on Sharing Experiences and Lessons Learned between the OSCE and Asian Partners for Cooperation in Order to Create a Safer, More Interconnected and Fairer World in the Face of Emerging Challenges Thank you, Mr. Ambassador, for your kind introduction. It’s a pleasure to be here today. I’d also like to thank our Japanese hosts for their very gracious arrangements for this important conference. I am here on behalf of U.S. Senator Ben Cardin, the Chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the U.S. Helsinki Commission. The Helsinki Commission is unique in that the U.S. is the only OSCE participating State to create a distinct governmental agency to monitor member state compliance with OSCE commitments. One of the key priorities for our Commission is promoting good governance and combatting corruption, and we were pleased to see the tremendous progress achieved in this area in 2012 with the adoption of the Declaration on Strengthening Good Governance and Combatting Corruption, Money-Laundering and the Financing of Terrorism at the Dublin Ministerial. The Good Governance Declaration is comprehensive, laying out a strategy for the OSCE to combat corruption, strengthen civil society development and enforce accountability measures in the public and private sectors.  The declaration has given some new tools to the Economic and Environmental Coordinator’s office, which plays a critical role in strengthening stability and security in the OSCE region. And last year, the OSCE worked to promote sustainable energy solutions, advocate transparency and accountability, and to build capacity at all levels of society – government, private sector, and its citizens.  These achievements represent a foundation for further enhancing the 2nd Dimension. The U.S. and the EU have recently enacted laws that address the problem of transparency and accountability in the resource sector. In the United States, these laws were authored by the Chairman of the U.S. Helsinki Commission, Senator Ben Cardin. The laws require companies to publicly report payments they make to governments for oil, gas and mining extraction. The concept is that by injecting transparency into a traditionally opaque business environment, the ability of citizens to better understand the money flows allows them to then hold their governments accountable. The laws are meant to innovate the way business is done in this extremely important sector by breaking the cycle of instability and poverty in countries suffering from what is often called the “resource curse”. This innovation can help ensure that energy supplies are not disrupted, it gives citizens a tool to fight corruption, and it levels the playing field for companies. Now that the U.S. and the European Union are implementing these transparency rules, other markets with large resource extraction companies such as Australia and Canada are exploring similar requirements. And we expect that as these rules come online we will see other stock exchanges around the world follow suit. Corruption and lack of transparency in the extractive industries can fuel instability and even conflict, so it’s not hard to see why this type of transparency is catching on. The news is full of headlines on instability created by resource competition or corruption. And resource rich countries are consistently rated as some of the most difficult places to do business. In almost every case you can trace the root cause to the intractable corruption in that country. These transparency laws are the game changers that will help tilt the balance of power away from corrupt leaders. Transparency and accountability are going to make the job of extractive companies easier. They will work on a level playing field, they will work with more stable governments, and they will operate in more stable communities. And the OSCE has a role to play here as well. With the acknowledgment of the importance of combatting corruption in the Good Governance Declaration, the OSCE’s Economic and Environmental Dimension can serve as a valuable platform for increasing stability and security on energy related issues and, in particular, highlighting the link between security, energy, and the environment. As we look toward the Basel Ministerial and the Helsinki+40 process, we must build upon this work and examine how the 2nd Dimension can be further strengthened to advance solutions that build good governance. One of the ways that we can do this is to more actively engage civil society in the 2nd Dimension. We need to welcome multi-stakeholder groups, business groups and civil society leaders to the Economic and Environmental Forum and the Economic and Environmental Implementation meeting in order to generate greater awareness of good governance initiatives, develop new projects, and assess the effectiveness of participating States in implementing these commitments.    Let me close with a comment on Ukraine. I was there two weeks ago to observe the election. Despite the daily reports of violence, what we saw in the conduct of the election makes me hopeful that the newly elected government will be able to move the country forward. But what is painfully clear is that the corruption surrounding Ukraine’s energy sector was a key factor in fueling the protests that eventually led to the downfall of the government. Ukraine is not a big oil and gas producer itself, but it plays a major role as a transit country between Russia and Western Europe. Ukraine has started work on its candidacy for EITI but still has a long way to go so we are encouraging the new government to place a priority on getting that in place. The broader lesson from Ukraine is that secret deals lead to corruption. Corruption leads to economic stagnation.  Economic stagnation leads to political instability.  Political instability leads to violence and human rights abuses, and even opportunistic violations of sovereignty and territorial integrity. This is why we need to innovate the way we do business. This is why we need to focus on transparency and good governance. And this is why we need to empower civil society and media to hold their governments accountable. These are all areas where the OSCE has expertise and where the Asian Partners can provide assistance and experience. Thank you.

  • The Security, Economic and Human Rights Dimensions of US-Azerbaijan Relations

    The hearing addressed security, economic, and human rights dimensions of U.S. - Azerbaijan relations ahead of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly 2014 annual meeting, taking place in Azerbaijan. Helsinki Commission Chairman Benjamin Cardin opened the hearing by speaking to these three dimensions. Regarding human rights, there are several concerns. Azerbaijan's presidential elections fell short of international standards and there are several individuals who have been harassed and detained because of their desire to report on events in Azerbaijan, raising concerns about freedom of the media. Chairman Cardin was joined by Eric Rubin, Deputy Assistant Secretary at the U.S. Department of State, Thomas O. Melia, Miriam Lanskoy, and Brenda Shaffer.

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