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Inside the Turkish Election
A Firsthand Account of the OSCE’s Election Observation Mission
Wednesday, July 11, 2018

By: Everett Price, Senior Policy Advisor
With Contributions from Scott Rauland, Senior State Department Advisor

On June 24, Turkey held its first presidential and parliamentary elections since the passage of controversial constitutional amendments last year that began Turkey’s transformation from a parliamentary to a presidential system. The victors in this election are to preside over the transition to this new form of government and begin to shape the operation of its revamped institutions.

In accordance with its commitments as a participating State of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Turkey formally invited the OSCE to observe the vote. This invitation paved the way for the OSCE’s first-ever full-scale deployment of election observers to Turkey. Although the OSCE observed previous elections in Turkey—including last year’s constitutional referendum—it had never done so with a full complement of hundreds of short-term observers that deploy all over the country to record their observations on election day. In the absence of short-term observers, OSCE observation missions rely primarily on a smaller cohort of long-term observers who spend as much as a month in the country monitoring every dimension of the campaign period and balloting. (Learn more about OSCE election observation.)

Altogether, the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) deployed 22 long-term observers and more than 300 short-term observers to observe the election across the country. Most STOs are drawn from cadres of experienced volunteers offered by individual OSCE participating States. In addition, the parliamentary assemblies of the OSCE (OSCE PA) and Council of Europe (PACE) contributed 72 and 32 members of parliament and parliamentary staff, respectively, to serve as STOs.

The U.S. Helsinki Commission regularly participates in OSCE PA election observation missions. What follows is a first-person account from two U.S. Helsinki Commission staff who served as short-term observers during the Turkish elections. These observations are not an authoritative account of the conduct of the Turkish election, however. Readers interested in such an account should review the OSCE’s official statement of preliminary findings and conclusions.


In the days before the election, experts from the OSCE’s ODIHR and the OSCE PA organize a series of in-depth briefings in Ankara to acquaint short-term observers with the context and process for the coming vote. In opening these briefings, Mr. Ignacio Sanchez Amor, a Spanish parliamentarian tasked as the special coordinator and leader of the OSCE short-term observer mission, noted numerous ways in which this election was exceptional.

Turks would be voting under a nearly two-year-old state of emergency imposed by the government following a failed coup attempt in July 2016. The state of emergency gave Turkish President Erdogan sweeping powers to rule by decree and authorized provincial governors to curtail basic freedoms, such as the freedom of movement and freedom of assembly. Presidential decrees purged tens of thousands of civil servants from their work, shuttered over a hundred news outlets, blocked thousands of websites, and contributed to the arrest of scores of independent journalists, often on dubious national security charges.

Sanchez Amor further commented that the transition to a presidential system and the country’s newly-approved election laws made this election especially complex. Most of the constitutional amendments approved in last year’s referendum would take effect after the election. The victorious presidential candidate, for instance, would be the first to assume unprecedented executive powers that international monitors and the chairman of the U.S. Helsinki Commission, Sen. Roger Wicker (MS), criticized as undermining the separation of powers. Likewise, successful parliamentary candidates would take up seats in a somewhat neutered institution that is given no say in ministerial appointments and can be unilaterally dissolved by the president.

One of the constitutional amendments abolished a previous prohibition on new electoral laws taking effect less than 12 months before an election. This meant that the June election would be governed by election regulations passed in November and March that President Erdogan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) had muscled through parliament without any opposition support. Opposition leaders sharply criticized provisions in the laws that allowed the government to relocate voting locations on security grounds, loosened rules governing the police presence around polling stations, and weakened protections against election fraud by admitting ballots that are missing a required polling station stamp.

Sanchez Amor also expressed concern that one of the country’s major presidential candidates had been in pre-trial detention since November 2016 and was being forced to campaign from his jail cell. This treatment of Selahattin Demirtas, the presidential candidate for the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), was one of many restrictions severely disadvantaging the HDP.


Campaign banners of two opposition parties stretched across a primary avenue in downtown Ankara.

The briefings we received from journalists, civil society organizations, and political parties largely focused on concerns that President Erdogan and the AKP enjoyed overwhelming and unfair advantages incompatible with a free and fair democratic process.

Independent journalists noted that Turkey is the world’s largest jailer of reporters with approximately 150 behind bars. They further remarked on dramatic changes in Turkey’s media landscape in recent years that had seen nine out of 10 mainstream TV channels, and most of the print media, fall under the ownership of government aligned businessmen. As a result, the ruling party benefited from nearly wall-to-wall positive media coverage. Additionally, under recent legal changes the Supreme Election Board was stripped of its ability to impose penalties on broadcasters for violating regulations that mandate equal election coverage.

All opposition parties complained about Turkey’s 10 percent election threshold—the highest in the world—that requires a party to garner 10 percent of the national vote to secure seats in parliament. During this election, they feared that the ruling party would manipulate the vote to deprive the pro-Kudish HDP of a ten percent share, allowing AKP as the likely runner-up in Kurdish-dominated areas to assume the seats forfeited by HDP. This would be the AKP’s quickest route to a commanding majority in the legislature.   

Opposition party leaders warned that the government could use a combination of tactics to suppress the vote for HDP, particularly in the Kurdish southeast. The government had already announced that it had invoked its new authorities to relocate and merge nearly a thousand polling stations in the southeast for security reasons, affecting more than 150,000 voters. Election authorities could also use the admission of unstamped ballots to artificially diminish HDP’s share of the vote. In addition, several briefers noted that deadly violence could be used to intimidate voters. Indeed, less than two weeks before the election a campaign-related altercation in the south left three HDP supporters dead, along with the brother of an AKP candidate for parliament. Many briefers noted that the pro-government media had cast the AKP as the victim of the melee, where in reality the fight had been instigated and escalated by the ruling party’s side.

The opposition’s indictment of the fairness of the election was met by an AKP-led campaign to smear those who might tarnish perceptions of the credibility of the outcome. The OSCE observation mission was one of the targets of this campaign. The government denied two OSCE PA parliamentarians entry to the country to participate in the election observation mission, citing political opinions they had expressed in the past. A government spokesperson decried the OSCE’s interim report on the election on June 15 as “political.” Additionally, just two days before the election, Turkey’s semi-official news agency published a story citing anonymous security sources that claimed OSCE observers planned to create “chaos” in the country.

It was in this climate of heightened mutual suspicion between the ruling party and the opposition, and between the government and the OSCE observation mission, that we deployed to Istanbul to undertake our election day observation.


We were assigned to observe the election at precincts in and around Sisli, a mixed-income neighborhood in central Istanbul that historically supports the secular opposition. Each precinct in Turkey contains numerous voting rooms, with a maximum of 400 voters assigned to each. In all we visited nine so-called ballot box committees (BBCs) in five precincts throughout the day.

Sisli delivered its largest share of votes (48.7 percent) to Turkey’s leading secular opposition party CHP in the last parliamentary election in November 2015, and overwhelmingly opposed the transformational 2017 constitutional amendments (71.8 percent). Given the district’s political profile, it was unsurprising to find observers from CHP and other secular opposition parties deployed in full force at our first precinct where we observed the opening procedures for the polls.

We arrived just before 7:00 a.m. as the ballot box committee (BBC) was assembling to open the sealed election materials and prepare for voting to begin. The seven-person BBC, chaired by a civil servant and composed of bureaucrats and political party representatives, began to count and record the number of ballot envelopes and presidential and parliamentary ballots—a tally that is important for later confirming that no election materials are unaccounted for. 

The mood was serious but amiable and cooperative. With a solitary exception, BBC members worked together constructively without so much as a hint of their diverging political loyalties. Soon, an NGO observer (who was accredited as a political party observer, since there is no legal framework for NGO observation) appeared with a tray of traditional Turkish tea for everyone, observers and BBC members alike. (Tea stands were ubiquitous at the entrance to polling stations, fueling weary poll workers throughout the day and contributing to a generally festive atmosphere around the otherwise dreary school buildings.) 


Voters congregate outside a polling station in central Istanbul on election day.

Over steaming cups of black tea, the poll workers set about the onerous task of applying the BBC’s identifying ink stamp to each of the more than 300 envelopes and presidential and parliamentary ballots—nearly 1,000 stamps in all. Every BBC we visited that morning noted that they had labored well after the polls opened to complete this cumbersome but mandatory and important process.

With two of their colleagues still engrossed in stamping and the eight o’clock opening just minutes away, the BBC’s other five members forged ahead with preparations, sealing the clear plastic ballot box with a wax stamp. More or less promptly at eight, the BBC chairwoman announced the opening of the polling station. 

An elderly gentleman who had already shuffled through the open doorway before the announcement immediately presented his ID to receive his ballot papers. His punctual appearance quickly revealed the disorganization of this particular BBC, which had failed to organize the somewhat convoluted voting procedure into an orderly workflow. 

Voters were to hand over their identification for confirmation against the printed voter rolls and then receive two oversized ballots for president and parliament, one undersized envelope, and a stamp to mark their choices. To cast their ballots, voters entered a curtained booth, marked one choice each for parliament and president, stuffed the large sheets into the small envelope, sealed it with a lick, and emerged to drop the envelope into the ballot box. Before departing, voters returned the stamp back to the BBC, signed the voter roll, and retrieved their identification and any bags or cellphones they left behind with the BBC.

Keeping track of identification cards, remembering to provide all four necessary voting materials (two ballots, envelope, and stamp), and managing the coming and going of voters proved difficult for our first BBC. In just the first twenty minutes the chairwoman twice pulled open a voting booth’s privacy curtain to locate a misplaced ID and missing stamp—an act that should rarely—if ever—occur, since it can compromise the secrecy of the vote. 

This procedural dysfunction may have slowed the vote and caused undue confusion for voters, but it had negligible if any implications for the outcome of the balloting. Indeed, the majority of other BBCs we visited were capably managed and all demonstrated admirable transparency. In each classroom we visited—and they were all classrooms—the BBC chair graciously welcomed us, answered our questions, and allowed us to review the voting materials.

Political party and NGO observers were common and none complained of being restricted in their work on election day. By the end of the day we had grown particularly accustomed to the sight of observers from the HDP party. These observers were almost uniformly impressive, assertive, young, and female. It became clear that what is generally described simply as a “pro-Kurdish party” has developed political purchase far beyond the Kurdish-dominated southeast, attracting many young, progressive Turks concerned with the rights of women and minorities. 


Presidential and parliamentary ballots and envelopes prepared for distribution to voters.

In our experience, the transparency protected by professional BBCs and capable local observers was only undermined by skittish security services who seemed uneasy about the role of international observers. Under new election laws passed earlier this year, Turkish police were allowed to patrol closer to polling stations and—for the first time—enter voting rooms at the request of any citizen. One instance of police involvement we witnessed was legal and appropriate; in several other cases it appeared to overstep the prescribed bounds.

At a polling station we visited in Gultepe, a more conservative neighborhood just outside Sisli, a heated argument erupted over a poll worker who allegedly exceeded his mandate in assisting a confused voter, sparking allegations of election interference. Consistent with their mandate, the police entered on at least three occasions during the prolonged shouting match to respond to the disturbance and to remove unauthorized people who had entered the voting room. These same police entered another time to exercise their prerogative to check our credentials but departed shortly after.

As the day wore on, however, our interactions with the police grew more frequent and contentious. At another polling station in Sisli, police greeted us almost immediately upon our arrival and insisted on escorting us throughout the building. When we entered a voting room to conduct our observations, the police followed us in without any discernible invitation and sat down to watch us until we were through. 

Arriving at our final polling station of the day, we were stopped at the entrance to have our credentials checked against a screenshot of approved individuals the policeman had received via the encrypted messaging application, WhatsApp. He informed us that several foreigners had been caught “posing as OSCE observers” so they were under orders to apply extra scrutiny. Although we were not on his screenshot, the officer relented after a few minutes’ delay and followed us inside while respecting the rules about entering the voting room.

After a short break, we returned to the same polling station to witness the closing and counting procedure, but this time the police refused us entry. They said they had still not been able to find us on their list, despite our accreditation by the Supreme Electoral Board. With the five o’clock closing swiftly approaching, we insisted on the importance of entering before the polls closed. They offered that we could observe the voting room from the hallway, but we were obligated to decline since the OSCE’s methodology requires unfettered access to the polling area. At the last minute, they said we could observe from a designated area inside the room. Once inside the room, it turned out no such area existed and the police displayed no interest in enforcing one. In contravention of the rules, however, they remained standing directly behind us inside the room nearly the entire time.


Consistent with OSCE observations across the country, vote counting at our BBC began promptly once the polls closed. In much the same sprit of cooperation we witnessed at the opening in another precinct, the members of this BBC worked smoothly together to perform the critical, final procedures: securing the voting materials and counting and recording the results. 

The BBC’s genuine effort to conduct this process fairly and transparently was marred by some critical procedural errors and the persistent presence of the police, which risked undue oversight by the security services of a sensitive political process. Most procedural faults took place early on and introduced avoidable opportunities for mistakes or manipulation. 

Rather than count the unused voting materials after the polls closed, for instance, the BBC departed from the prescribed procedure and counted them before the room was open to the public to observe the count. By depriving observers of the opportunity to verify this tally, the BBC undermined a safeguard that confirms the number of votes cast matches exactly the number of voters who participated. 

Another significant oversight involved the BBC’s failure to enter crucial figures directly into the official register, known as a “protocol.” By having one member of the committee simply jot down the tallies of voting materials on a scrap piece of paper, the BBC failed to guard against subsequent mistakes in transcription or intentional alterations. 

Oddly, the otherwise attentive and assertive political party observers in the room did not raise these issues with the BBC, possibly out of ignorance of the procedures or disinterest in the importance of these steps. They seemed most focused when it came to the centerpiece of the process: the all-important counting and adjudication of ballots.  In this, the BBC acquitted itself quite well—holding up each ballot in full view of all present, loudly announcing the vote, and recording it only once all were satisfied with the chairman’s judgment (i.e. valid, invalid, or blank). 


U.S. Helsinki Commission Senior State Department Advisor Scott Rauland reviews voting materials with Ballot Box Committee members.

Given the considerable pre-election controversy about the admission of unstamped ballots, it was surprising that no observer raised a question about whether the ballots or envelopes were appropriately imprinted with the BBC’s seal, which was often faint and on the reverse side of the papers. Late on the day of Turkey’s controversial 2017 constitutional referendum, the government unilaterally decided to count unstamped ballots despite the widespread understanding that the stamps protected against fraud. The number of admitted unstamped ballots last year allegedly accounted for the government’s slim margin of victory in that vote. As a result, opposition leaders protested earlier this year when the government used its absolute majority in the parliament to codify the validity of unstamped votes beginning with the 2018 presidential and parliamentary election. This decision created frustrating ambiguity about the need for the elaborate stamping process that tied up BBCs in the morning, sometimes for more than an hour. 

The last steps of the vote count turned out to be the most cumbersome. The astonishingly analog voting process created numerous frustrations, significantly delaying delivery of the ballots to the District Electoral Board responsible for tabulating all the votes in Sisli before forwarding them to the Provincial Electoral Board that oversees a third of Istanbul. The chairperson was consumed for almost an hour manually copying detailed voting results onto nearly a dozen copies of the official protocol for distribution to political party representatives and observers. Another time-consuming process involved sealing all the ballots and sensitive voting materials in a cloth sack using twine and a wax seal. All present watched in quiet agony as the chairperson struggled to melt the nub of wax with a lighter, singing his fingers and nearly setting fire to the bag in the process.

Out of the 250 votes counted in our BBC, leading opposition presidential candidate Muharram Ince prevailed with 65 percent of the vote and his party, CHP, took 50 percent of the parliamentary ballots. The simultaneous presidential and parliamentary election afforded voters the opportunity to split their votes between the two ballots. Specifically, many analysts speculated that opposition supporters would endorse Ince as the favored presidential candidate while casting a vote for HDP in the parliamentary election to help the party clear the ten percent threshold. The outcome in our BBC seemed to bear this theory out: Ince received 15 percent more support for president than his party did in the parliamentary vote, while HDP’s presidential candidate Demirtas secured only 4 percent in the presidential but his party garnered 24 percent in the parliamentary.


Once counting was complete in all the precincts’ voting rooms, members of the BBCs boarded a municipal vehicle with the sealed sacks and official protocols for delivery to the District Electoral Board. Per OSCE instructions, we jumped into a separate vehicle to tail the municipal van through the narrow streets of Istanbul to the DEB to confirm the official results were delivered directly without interference. 

A long line of vans packed with other BBCs was in front of the District Electoral Board waiting their turn to offload. When it came our turn I—accompanied by a police escort—followed the voting materials past heavily-armed guards and crowd control fencing into the building. It was a cramped but sprawling high-rise divided into a warren of small, austere rooms. A crush of poll workers pressed into the building’s narrow corridors trying to reach their designated room. In each room were half a dozen election workers waiting to receive election materials from every corner of the district, double-check the calculations in the protocol, and forward the results for district-level tabulation. 

After verifying the secure delivery of our BBC’s materials, I sought to follow the process a step further. Instead, I was offered a meeting with the judge who chairs Sisli’s electoral board. 


Supporters of President Erdogan and AKP celebrate their election victory in Taksim Square.

It was now well past 9:00 p.m., more than four hours since the polls closed. The judge sat in his office watching two sets of election returns roll in: semi-official results were being broadcast via cable news on a large television across the room while a map on his computer screen that read “Supreme Election Board” was being populated with the official numbers. Although it was impossible for me to tell what discrepancy might have existed between the figures at that moment, opposition leaders were simultaneously turning to social media to reassure their supporters that pro-government media were broadcasting premature results to discourage them. These hopeful claims appear to have been inspired more by optimism than reality—the official results released the next day differed little from what the media was reporting in the evening. At least in central Istanbul, the election results at that time of night were still in the early stages of being compiled at the district level.

The judge explained how in the coming hours the district’s protocols would be digitized, loaded onto a public website, and used to generate a district-level protocol of official election results. As chairman, his role would be to adjudicate disputes and discrepancies in the tabulation and certify the final results. Satisfied that I had followed the process as far as I could, our observation ended. 

Around 10:00 p.m., President Erdogan declared victory. With 52.6 percent of the vote, he had won outright in the presidential election, avoiding a runoff with the leading secular opposition candidate by a comfortable margin. In parliament, AKP fell just short of an absolute majority for only the second time in its 16 years in power. The AKP’s election coalition partner, the nationalist MHP party, surprised many with its strong performance, earning 49 seats in the 600-seat parliament and easily supplying the six seats AKP needs to reach 301 votes in the legislature. Importantly, HDP cleared the ten percent threshold and will be the third-largest party in parliament with 67 seats behind CHP’s 146. Altogether, an impressive 86.2 percent of the population had participated in the vote.


Over a late night dinner in a gentrifying secular neighborhood of Istanbul, I could hear some nearby diners discussing the election results with resignation over glasses of wine. Further off in the distance, the blaring of car horns announced the beginning of celebrations by the President’s supporters. I followed lines of cars festooned with Turkish flags and AKP banners as they streamed toward centrally-located Taksim Square. There, a spontaneous victory party had broken out. A jubilant AKP loyalist was being carried aloft, leading the gathering crowd in chants of “Allahu Akbar!” and “Recep Tayyip Erdogan!” 

The evening stroll between these two contrasting scenes was a journey across a wide social and political chasm in Turkey—a chasm the president may choose to widen or narrow in his new mandate. Recent studies have revealed acute polarization within Turkish society that reflects high levels of social distrust and political intolerance. These ills present critical challenges for governance.

During the campaign, President Erdogan pledged to lift the nearly two-year-old state of emergency upon his reelection. AKP statements since the election suggest that Erdogan may decline to renew the state of emergency when it expires on July 18. This would be an appropriate first step toward rebuilding trust and one the U.S. Helsinki Commission called for in an October 2017 letter to President Erdogan. But lifting the state of emergency might only be a superficial gesture if it is not accompanied by significant prisoner releases and amnesties—particularly for human rights defenders and journalists—as well as meaningful judicial reform to restore the credibility and independence of Turkey’s politicized justice system.

In accordance with its mandate, the U.S. Helsinki Commission will continue to monitor Turkey’s implementation of its commitments as an OSCE participating State to respect human rights and democratic principles. In this most recent election the Turkish people demonstrated formidable levels of political participation and civic engagement. Now and in the future, the government must succeed where it has recently failed to ensure that all its citizens have an opportunity to participate in Turkish society and institutions on the basis of fundamental equality.  


The morning after the election, a woman crosses Taksim Square.

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    Ukraine’s March 1998 parliamentary elections resulted in a parliament similar in composition to the previous parliament, albeit with a somewhat more Communist tilt. The left constituted about 40 percent of parliament’s membership, with the remainder a mix of centrists, independents and national democrats. The new parliament included many new faces - only 141 deputies from the old parliament were in the new one. The parliamentary elections were held under a new election law which replaced the majoritarian system, introducing a mixed electoral system where half of the 450 deputies are elected from single-mandate districts and half from national party lists. While there were violations, transgressions and irregularities during the campaign and voting, Ukrainian voters generally were able to express their political will freely, and the results of the elections do appear to reflect the will of the electorate. The elections were conducted under a generally adequate legal and administrative framework, but the late passage of laws and regulations relating to the election–as well as late decisions regarding the Crimean Tatars—led to confusion and uncertainty about the electoral process. The campaign was generally peaceful in most of the country. However, it was marred by some tension, including incidents of violence, especially in Odesa and Crimea. The failure to allow non-citizen Crimean Tatar returnees the opportunity to vote, in contrast to arrangements that allowed them to vote in the 1994 elections, also tainted the elections. The state apparatus did not always display neutrality, and there were instances of harassment and pressure on opposition media.

  • Bosnia

    During this briefing, Robert Hand, policy advisor at the Commission, led a discussion regarding Bosnia and its different regions. He spoke of the situation in Bosnia in 1998 and the power of ethnically-based political parties, retained through nationalism, corruption, and control of the media. Reconstruction in Bosnia has slow and challenging due to poor economic conditions and the continued displacement of certain populations. The witnesses - Luke Zahner, Candace Lekic, Jessica White, Roland de Rosier, Kathryn Bomberger, Brian Marshall - have served in regions all over Bosnia and gave valuable input on the differences between regions and their rehabilitations processes after the Dayton Accords. They also spoke of the influence of Republica Srpska and the Bosnian Federation on said regions.  Paying attention to these differences, they state, is important in that the United States wants to support only those that successfully implement the Dayton Accords.

  • Status of Religious Liberty for Minority Faiths in Europe and the OSCE

    The purpose of this hearing, which the Hon. Christopher H. Smith chaired, was to discuss the reality of disturbing undercurrents of subtle, but growing, discrimination and harassment of minority religious believers, as opposed to discussing the widespread documentation of torture and persecution of practitioners of minority faiths. In a number of European countries, government authorities had seemed to work on restricting the freedoms of conscience and speech in much of their governments’ actions. For example, in Russia, on September 26, 1997, President Boris Yeltsin signed the law called “On Freedom of Conscience and on Religious Associations,” which blatantly violated agreements of the OSCE which the former U.S.S.R. helped to initiate. Through use of witnesses, then, attendees of this hearing, namely commissioners, gained a deeper understanding of the religious liberty violations within OSCE member countries and insight into how to best influence governments to adhere more closely to internationally accepted human rights standards.

  • What's Next, Mr. Prime Minister? Democracy Hangs in the Balance in Slovakia on Constitution's Fifth Birthday

    Mr. President, 5 years ago, the speaker of the Slovak Parliament, Ivan Gasparovic, described his country's new constitution as `an expression of centuries-old emancipation efforts of the Slovak people to have a sovereign state of their own.' He also spoke of its `supreme binding force.' Since then, the people who present themselves as the guardians of Slovakia's statehood have undermined Slovakia's constitution. This is what they have done. This May, the Ministry of Interior ignored the Constitutional Court's ruling and altered an important referendum on NATO and on the direct election of the President, effectively denying the people of Slovakia their constitutionally guaranteed right to register their views through a referendum. Defending its actions, members of the Prime Minister's party insisted that they acted in conformity with the constitution--as they interpreted it--and that they were justified in placing their views ahead of the ruling of the highest court in the land. The actions of the ruling coalition in the case of Frantisek Gaulieder makes clear that the Meciar government has a profound and fundamental disregard for the constitution of Slovakia. Then there is the case of Frantisek Gaulieder. Frantisek Gaulieder is a member of the Slovak Parliament who was removed from office because he renounced his membership in Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar's party, the Movement for a Democratic Slovakia. On July 25, the Constitutional Court confirmed that the ruling coalition's action which deprived Gaulieder of his seat was unconstitutional and violated Gaulieder's rights. But members of the Prime Minister's coalition again claimed that they, and not the Constitutional Court, have the right to determine what the constitution means, and have declined to act to restore Gaulieder to his seat in Parliament. In short, the `supreme binding force' that Ivan Gasparovic spoke of 5 years ago no longer flows from the constitution, but from the will of Vladimir Meciar. When there are differences of opinion as to what a constitution means, whether those differences arise between branches of government or between the government and its citizens, in a state operating under the rule of law, it is the job of a constitutional court to interpret what the constitution means, not the Prime Minister or Parliament. Although this principle is taken for granted in many parts of Europe, and was established early in American history by the famous Supreme Court case of Marbury versus Madison, it has apparently not yet been accepted in Slovakia. Mr. President, the Slovak Democratic Coalition has moved, four times, to convene a special session of the Parliament in order to implement the decision of the Constitutional Court and restore Frantisek Gaulieder to his seat. Four times, however, Prime Minister Meciar's coalition has boycotted their own Parliament rather than face the following dilemma: restore Gaulieder to his seat--consistent with the Constitutional Court's decision--and risk the chance that others will follow Gaulieder's example and defect from the Prime Minister's party, or vote down the Slovak Democratic Coalition's proposal to restore Gaulieder to his seat and confirm that whatever form of government exists in Slovakia, it is not constitutional democracy, at least not as we understand it. Sooner or later, the Slovak Parliament will reconvene. When it acts, or fails to act, on the Gaulieder question, we will know whether Slovakia is committed to becoming a functioning constitutional democracy. If it is not, what it will become is an isolated State under constant international pressure and scrutiny, cut off from a promising and prosperous future by the arrogance and greed of its own leaders. As Vladimir Meciar is asked in his weekly news show, what next, Mr. Prime Minister?

  • Report on Human Rights and the Process of NATO Enlargement

    The Commission held a series of three public hearings on “Human Rights and the Process of NATO Enlargement” in anticipation of the summit of Heads of State and Governments of Member States of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to be held in Madrid, Spain, on July 8 and 9, 1997. The emergence of new democracies in Central and Eastern Europe and the demise of the Warsaw Pact created a security vacuum in the territory between the current eastern frontier of NATO and the Russian border. The first attempt to address the new security realities in the region occurred at the end of 1991 with the establishment of NATO’s North Atlantic Cooperation Council (NACC) as a forum for the evolution of a new relationship based on constructive dialogue and cooperation. In early 1994, the Partnership for Peace (PfP) was launched with the aim of providing a practical program to transform the relationship between NATO and states participating in PfP, moving beyond dialogue and cooperation to forge a genuine security partnership. (All 27 states of the Partnership for Peace (PfP) are OSCE participating States.) Simultaneously, NATO began to consider the possibility of enlarging the Alliance. The result was the 1995 Study on NATO Enlargement which addressed practical steps and requirements candidates for membership would have to satisfy. In December 1996, NATO foreign ministers called for a NATO summit at which one or more countries that wanted to join NATO would be invited to begin accession negotiations. The U.S. Congress was instrumental in stimulating the debate through several legislative initiatives. The NATO Participation Act of 1994 (PL 103-447) provided a reasonable framework for addressing concerns about NATO enlargement, consistent with U.S. interests in ensuring stability in Europe. The law lists a variety of criteria, such as respect for democratic principles and human rights enshrined in the Helsinki Final Act, against which to evaluate the suitability of prospective candidates for NATO membership. The Act stipulates that participants in the PfP should be invited to become full NATO members if they... “remain committed to protecting the rights of all their citizens....” Under section 203, a program of assistance was established to provide designated emerging democracies with the tools necessary to facilitate their transition to full NATO membership. The NATO Enlargement Facilitation Act of 1996 (PL 104-208) included an unqualified statement that the protection and promotion of fundamental freedoms and human rights are integral aspects of genuine security. The law also makes clear that the human rights records of emerging democracies in Central and Eastern Europe interested in joining NATO should be evaluated in light of the obligations and commitments of these countries under the U.N. Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the Helsinki Final Act.  

  • Report on the April 1997 Parliamentary, County, and Municipal Elections in Croatia

    On April 13, 1997, Croatia held its fifth set of elections since political pluralism was introduced in the former Yugoslav republic in 1989, and the fourth since achieving independent statehood in 1991. These were the first elections, however, held throughout the entire country in 7 years, signaling Croatia’s normalization after years of conflict, displacement and uncertainty. Seats were contested for the upper chamber House of Counties of the parliament, or Sabor, and for municipal and county councils. The very holding of elections in Eastern Slavonia—the one region forcibly taken by Serb militants in 1991 and yet to be reintegrated into the country—produced positive signs for reintegration through peaceful means and without another tragic mass exodus of ethnic Serbs. The results countrywide set the stage for presidential elections later in the year, and indicate Croatia’s overall political trends as the country moves beyond the turmoil associated with Yugoslavia’s violent disintegration, including the massive displacement of the population as territory was taken in 1991 and then retaken in 1995. The turmoil served to narrow the country’s overall political spectrum with a nationalist tinge, and the ruling Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) has relied on this situation to enhance its power. The fundamental question now is whether the party will accept defeat at the ballot box if the support of the population shifts as priorities change. As with previous elections in Croatia, the degree to which these elections could be considered free and fair was limited by the clear bias of the state-run broadcast media in its news coverage and by the effect of regular attempts to limit the diversity of the print media. Some administrative decisions regarding the elections seemed to be designed to benefit the ruling party, although the nature of these elections precluded the blatant stretching of what is legally permissible which had been evident in earlier elections. One decision prevented a domestic, civic-oriented non-governmental organization (NGO) from observing the polling, even from outside the confines of the polling station. People were generally permitted to vote freely and privately throughout Croatia on election day, except in Eastern Slavonia. There, a surprisingly strong turnout combined with the inadequate delivery of ballots and documents to polling stations, among other problems, causing the voting to be extended for an extra day. While there were some improvements over prior elections, these elections fell short of Croatia’s potential, especially as the country should now move more rapidly toward democracy. As more critical elections approach, it remains unclear whether the Croatian authorities will permit elections that could be considered free and fair if the result threatens their rule. The HDZ did retain its comfortable majority in the House of Counties and won most of the county and town councils, but opposition coalitions won outright, or at least enough to challenge the HDZ, in some of the bigger cities. The results in Eastern Slavonia, meanwhile, produced victories for a Serb coalition in just over one third of the municipalities, with the HDZ taking the remainder, a fairly predictable result that advances the issue of the region’s reintegration into the rest of Croatia. Croatia’s willingness to reconcile with its Serb population and to respect the human rights of its members, however, remains an open question.    

  • The Present Situation in Albania

    This briefing, moderated by the Honorable Eliot Engel, Co-Chairman of the Albanian Issues Caucus, examined the international response to the crisis in Albania since the collapse of the pyramid schemes in the beginning of the year, which led to protests, rebellion, and political stalemate.  The need for free and fair elections was emphasized in light of a political impasse over the holding of elections in June. Witnesses testifying at the briefing – including Julius Varallyay, Principle Country Officer for East Central Europe for the World Bank, Stefano Stefanini from the Italian Embassy, and Avni Mustafaj, former Director of Open Society Foundation for Albania – discussed the previous efforts that had been made to encourage political reforms and steps that needed to be taken in the future. The need for a comprehensive donor assistance program to complement international assistance was specifically address, as was the political reform on which this program would depend.

  • Slovakian Human Rights Issues

    Mr. President, I rise today to call to my colleagues' attention to human rights developments in Slovakia. These developments point Slovakia in the opposite direction from the road their neighbors have been traveling. Their neighbors accept western values and seek integration into western institutions, developments leading to individual freedom, political democracy, and economic prosperity in a free market system. In stark contrast, Slovakia is not in compliance with some important Helsinki process commitments and is showing signs of regression toward authoritarian, if not totalitarian relations between the state and its citizens.   This country, which showed so much promise upon gaining independence in 1993, has failed to press ahead with vitally needed democratic reforms, in contrast with so many other countries in the region, including other newly independent countries. While the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland have worked hard to qualify for EU membership and NATO accession, Slovakia has lagged behind. While states like Lithuania and Slovenia have emerged from repressive empires to bring prosperity and hope to their peoples, Slovakia has not. Even Romania, which has struggled profoundly with the transition from totalitarianism, has managed to undertake significant reforms in the past few months.   From the outset, members of the Helsinki Commission have supported the democratic transformation in Slovakia. We believe that a strong, democratic Slovakia will enhance stability and security in Europe. Unfortunately, human rights and democratization in Slovakia have taken a severe beating, both literally and figuratively, in recent months. The hopes raised by free and fair elections and by the passage of a democratic constitution have been dashed. Last month, I understand some officials in Bratislava criticized a congressional report on NATO enlargement and complained that the discussion of Slovakia's progress toward democracy was too superficial. Well, I will provide a little more detail for those who genuinely want to know what worries us here in Washington.   Parliamentary democracy in Slovakia took a bullet in late November, when parliamentarian Frantisek Gaulieder, after announcing his resignation from the ruling coalition's Movement for a Democratic Slovakia, was stripped of his parliamentary mandate through antidemocratic means that are unheard of anywhere else in Europe. His removal has been protested by the European Union and the United States at OSCE meetings in Vienna, but, so far, to no avail. Even more outrageously, there was a bomb attack against Mr. Gaulieder's home, while he and his family were present. This is a tactic that reminds me of the Communists, fascists, and other similarly bloody and ruthless groups.   The 1995 kidnaping of President Kovac's son is not only still unsolved, but the manner in which this matter has been investigated has fueled speculation that the government's own security forces were directly involved in this crime. The murder last year of Robert Remias, who may have had key evidence in this case, and the ineffectual investigation of that case has deepened these suspicions. Adding to this disturbing pattern, questions are already being raised about the official investigation of the December bomb attack on Frantisek Gaulieder's home: Mr. Gauliedier has reported that some of his testimony regarding the attack is missing from his police file, that the first investigator was removed after only 3 days on the case, and that the Slovak Minister of Interior has, shockingly, suggested that Mr. Gaulieder may have planted the bomb himself, the same `he-did-it-himself' story that no one believes regarding the kidnaping of Mr. Kovac, Jr. I am now informed that this investigation, like the Kovac and Remias cases, has been `closed for lack of evidence.' For a country supposedly seriously committed through its OSCE obligations to the establishment of a `rule of law' state, this is a damagingly poor performance.   In addition to these acts of violence, it has been reported that the President, the President's son, and members of the Constitutional Court have been subjected to death threats. In fact, in early December the Association of Slovak Judges characterized the anonymous, threatening letters addressed to Milan Cic, the Chair of the Slovak Constitutional Court, as an attack against the court as a whole and a means of political intimidation. It has also been reported that on February 24 an opposition political figure in Banska Bystrica, Miroslav Toman, was attacked by four assailants.   We see a country where politically motivated violence is on the increase, where public confidence in the government's intent to provide security for all Slovaks has plummeted, and where acts of violence and threats of violence have brought into question both the rule of law and the very foundations of democracy. The ruling coalition has continued to pursue an openly hostile agenda toward a free and independent media and free speech in general. During the course of the past year, two newspapers, Slovenska Republika and Naroda Obroda, have seen a total of 21 editors quit over alleged political interference with their work. Defamation suits launched by public officials appear to be a common vehicle for harassing one's political opponents. Most recently, on November 19, the government barred four journalists from attending a regular press conference after the weekly cabinet meeting because the journalists were believed to be unsympathetic to the government. Although this decision was ultimately rescinded after a public outcry, including a protest from the journalists' union, it was further evidence of the government's relentless efforts to curb any reporting it doesn't like. In fact, in one of the more shocking episodes of the battle for free speech in Slovakia, it has been reported that Vladimir Meciar, the Prime Minister of the country and, not insignificantly, a former boxer, warned journalist Dusan Valko just a few weeks ago that `I will punch you so that your own mother will not recognize you.' So much for Mr. Meciar's tolerance for other points of view and nonviolence.   The Slovak Government continues to pursue a minorities policy that would be laughable if it were not so wrong and harmful. This policy has included everything from banning the playing of non-Slovak national anthems last year to the more recent decision to bar the issuance of report cards in the Hungarian language, reversing long-standing practices. Such petty gestures are beneath the dignity of the Slovak people, whose heritage has survived more than a thousand years of foreign, and often markedly repressive, rule. The Slovak language and culture, now protected in an independent Slovakia, are not so weak that they can only flourish at the expense of others. More seriously, it should be noted that past repressive crackdowns on minorities, for example, in Cluj, Romania, and in Kosovo, Serbia, began by whittling away at the minority language opportunities that had traditionally been respected by the majority community. Accordingly, these seemingly small restrictions on the Hungarian minority in Slovakia may very well be the harbinger of more repressive tactics ahead. With this in mind, the failure of the Slovak parliament to adopt a comprehensive minority language law, and the recommendation of the Ministry of Culture that such a law is not even necessary, defy common sense. Current laws on minority-language use in Slovakia do not provide adequate or satisfactory guidance regarding the use of Hungarian for official purposes, as the recent report-card flap shows. Much harm can be done until a minority language law is passed based on a genuine accommodation between the majority and minority communities.   Finally, recent reductions in government-provided cultural subsidies have had a disproportionately negative effect on the Hungarian community. The Slovak Government's defense, that all ethnic groups have been equally disadvantaged by these cut-backs, is unpersuasive in light of the Culture Minister Hudec's stated intent to `revive' Slovak culture in ethnically mixed areas and to make cultural subsidies reflect that goal. While Hungarians suffer from a more direct form of government intolerance, other ethnic groups suffer more indirectly. Put another way, it is not so much government action which threatens Romani communities in Slovakia, it is government inaction. According to the most recent State Department report on Slovakia, skinhead violence against Roma is a serious and growing problem; three Roma were murdered as a result of hate crimes last year, and others have been severely injured. Some Roma leaders, in response to their government's inability or unwillingness to protect them, have called for the formation of self-defense units. Obviously, the Slovak Government is just not doing enough to address the deadly threats they face. Moreover, the repugnant anti-Roma statements that have repeatedly been made by Jan Slota, a member of the ruling coalition, have fostered this climate of hatred.   The fact that the Czech Republic, Germany, and other European countries also confront skinhead movements in no way relieves Slovakia of its responsibility to combat racism, just as Slovakia's skinhead problem does not relieve the other countries of their responsibilities. It is time and past time for Prime Minister Meciar to use his moral authority and political leadership to set Slovakia on the right course. He must make clear, once and for all, that Jan Slota, who also called the Hungarian minority `barbarian Asiatic hordes', is not his spokesman, and that the Slovak National Party's unreconstructed fascists do not represent the majority of the people of Slovakia.   Mr. President, the leadership of the Helsinki Commission, including my co-chairman, Representative Christopher H. Smith, and ranking members Senator Frank Lautenberg and Representative Steny Hoyer, have raised our concern about developments in Slovakia with Slovak officials on a number of occasions. Unfortunately, all we hear from the Slovak leadership is one excuse after another, and all we see is a search for one scapegoat after another: it's the Hungarians, it's the Czechs, it's the Ukrainian mafia, it's the hostile international community seeking to destroy Slovakia's good name, it's a public relations problem abroad, not real problems back home: in short, there is always somebody else to blame besides the people that are, in fact, running the country.   I don't mean to suggest that there have been no positive developments in Slovakia over the past 4 years. In fact, I have been especially heartened by the emergence of a genuine civil society that is increasingly willing to express its views on a broad range of issues. But positive initiatives by the Government have been too few and too far between. I make this statement today in the hope that the leadership in Bratislava will start to make real reforms, like their colleagues in Romania, and begin to restore the promising future that the people of Slovakia deserve. Their present policies are leading down a path toward international isolation, increasing criticism, and economic deprivation for their people. One Belarus is enough.

  • The Continued Use of Torture in Turkey

    This briefing analyzed the continued practice of torture despite the Turkish Constitution’s ban on torture and public pledges by successive government to end torture. Turkey’s obligations under numerous international conventions, including the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, the UN Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, and the European Convention for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment were emphasized. Witnesses testifying at the briefing – including Holly Cartner, Executive Director, of Human Rights Watch; Dr. Erik Holst, President of the Rehabilitation Center for Torture Victims, Denmark; and Doug Johnson, Executive Director of the Council of Europe’s Convention on Prevention of Torture – evaluated the lack of accountability for the perpetrators of the gross human rights violations that occur via the practices of torture that are regularly employed in Turkey. Special public hearings regarding these instances of torture, recognition of the need to act as a model for the world in pursuing justice, and respect for the victims of this abuse were all actions that were called for.

  • The Current Situation in Croatia

    This briefing addressed the political situation in Croatia in the context of impending elections for offices at the municipal and county levels, as well as for seats in the Chamber of Counties of the Croatian Sabor, that would be an important step in the process of reintegrating Easter Slavonia. Some issues that had been noted during past election monitoring operations, such as problems with the development of the independent media, a lack of transparency in the electoral system, and a tendency for decisions to favor the ruling party, were discussed. Witnesses testifying at the briefing – including Jonas Rolett of the National Democratic Institute; Vesna Pusic, a professor for the University of Zagreb; Milbert Shin of Human Rights Watch; and Nenad Porges, Deputy Chief of Mission for the Croatian Embassy – evaluated the opportunity for improvement in the elections, and the role that nongovernmental organizations like NDI and Human Rights Watch would play in this process. Several tactics for improving the electoral process in Croatia, including strengthening political parties and providing neutral, accessible information, were topics of discussion.

  • Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE)

    This briefing focused on the topics of European security and NATO enlargement, specifically in terms of the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe. Elements of the treaty that remained especially important, including the goal of avoiding destabilizing concentrations of forces in Europe and the goal of creating greater transparency and promoting information exchange among governments in Europe, were discussed. Witnesses testifying at this briefing spoke to the need for amendments and changes to the CFE, but maintained the relevance of the treaty to international security. Different strategies for making these changes related to Russian pressure and NATO involvement were presented. 

  • Political Turmoil in Serbia

    In this hearing, Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04) discussed, with witnesses, the developments in Serbia and what opposition forces had to say about the future of the country. Witnesses present included Miodrag Perisic, co-founder and vice president of Serbia’s first political opposition party (the Democratic Party); Branislav Canak, the president of a confederation of independent trade unions that wanted to organize workers throughout Serbia (the Independents); Veran Matic, Editor-In-Chief of B92, Belgrade’s independent radio station; and Obrad Kesic, program specialist for the Professional Media Program at the International Research and Exchanges Board. More specifically, Smith and witnesses discussed popular unrest against Milosevic’s refusal to accept election results regarding the ruling Socialist Party and its allies, underscoring more general displeasure with the Serbian government’s track record regarding the economy, human rights, and a lack of confidence that Serbians’ children would have a democratic and prosperous future.  

  • U.S. Statements on the Human Dimension, 1996 OSCE Vienna Review Conference and Lisbon Summit

    This compendium of statements illustrates the U.S. perspective that one of the key and distinguishing features of the OSCE is the interlocking framework of critical, politically binding commitments which provide a common set of principles to which all participating States can aspire. The OSCE draws its real strength and practical flexibility from participating states' commitments to the values of the original Helsinki Act, rather than from a legalized, treaty-based institutional structure. A fundamental strength of the OSCE is the review process, which provides a regular opportunity to assess a participating states' efforts to further the realization of the Helsinki Accords within its own borders, and in its relations with other OSCE states. The OSCE is increasingly a pillar of European security. By facilitating honest implementation review the OSCE can strengthen security links based on common values.

  • The Current Situation in Belarus

    This briefing evaluated the signs of serious deterioration in the political and economic situation as growing authoritarianism and repression of human rights that had become the subject of increasing concern both within and outside Belarus. The violation of Belarus' freely undertaken commitments under the OSCE in regards to basic rights and freedoms, freedom of expression, assembly, and association was also addressed. Witnesses testifying at the briefing – including Zyanon Paznyak, Chairman of the Belarus Popular Front; Jack Segal, Director of Ukrainian, Belarusian, and Moldovan Affairs for the State Department; Jan Zaprudnik, Former Editor of Radio Liberty, Belarus; and Antti Korkeakivi, CIS Legal Advisor for the Lawyers’ Committee for Human Rights – examined the role of President Lukashenko in the formation of the lawless regime in Belarus. Numerous violations of human rights were cited by all witnesses, and the role of Russian support for these types of policies was also discussed.

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