Transcripts: Restrictions on Artistic Freedoms in the Soviet Union, October 29, 1985; and the Budapest Cultural Forum, December 11, 1985Tuesday, October 29, 1985
* Public Hearing on Restrictions on Artistic Freedom in the Soviet Union The Commission met, pursuant to notice, in room 210, Cannon House Office Building, at 10 a.m., Senator Alfonse M. D'Amato, chairman, and Representative Steny H. Hoyer, cochairman, presiding. In attendance: Commissioners and Senators John Heinz, Gordon J. Humphrey, and Dennis DeConcini; Commissioners and Representatives Dante B. Fascell, Don Ritter, and Christopher H. Smith. Also in attendance: Michael R. Hathaway, staff director, and Mary Sue Hafner, general counsel of the Commission. This hearing concerned restrictions on creative freedom in the Soviet Union. Public Hearing on the Budapest Cultural Forum The Commission met, pursuant to notice, in room 538, of the Dirksen Senate Office Building, at 11 a.m., Senator Alfonse M. D'Amato, chairman, and Representative Steny H. Hoyer, cochairman, presiding. In attendance: Senator Malcolm Wallop, Commissioner. Also in attendance: Michael R. Hathaway, staff director, and Mary Sue Hafner, general counsel of the Commission. In this hearing, the Helsinki Commission heard testimony on the most recent international meeting in the Helsinki process, the Budapest Cultural Forum.
Human Rights Situation in TurkeyFriday, October 01, 1982
A staff-level fact-finding mission from the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe visited Turkey from August 22-29, for talks on the whole range of CSCE-related issues as part of Western preparations for the forthcoming session of the Madrid Meeting in November, 1982. In the course of these wider Madrid related discussions, the staff delegation discussed human rights issues as well as the transition to democracy under the martial law authorities, with a wide-range of officials and private individuals, including lawyers, journalists, professors, former politicians, businessmen and representatives of various ethnic and religious minorities. The staff-level delegation was able to meet with almost all of those with whom it requested appointments, with the notable exception of former Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit who began serving a prison sentence the day before the delegation arrived and, consequently, under Turkish law, was not permitted to meet with the delegation. The delegation was able to meet with the other former Prime Minister, Suleyman Demirel. The staff-level fact-finding visit was the result of mounting concern in Congress and among a wide spectrum of non-governmental organizations as well as groups abroad with developments in Turkey since the takeover by the Turkish military on September 12, 1980. In the past several months, the Commission had been approached by representatives of several influential groups expressing misgivings over events in Turkey and requesting a hearing or an investigation by the Commission into these problems under the terms of the Helsinki Final Act. Among these groups were: the American Bar Association's Subcommittee on the Independence of Lawyers in Foreign Countries, the International Human Rights Law Group, Amnesty International, the New York Helsinki Watch Committee, the International League for Human Rights and the Armenian Assembly of America. In addition to these public groups, members of Congress as well as parliamentary colleagues from several NATO countries expressed their concern with conditions in Turkey and urged that the Commission undertake an investigation into these problems from the vantage point of the Helsinki Final Act. The Chairman of the Subcommittee on Human Rights and International Organizations of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. Don Bonker, requested the Commission to hold joint hearings with his Subcommittee on violations of human rights in Turkey.
The Assassination Attempt on Pope John Paul IIThursday, September 23, 1982
The subject of this hearing, which Commissioner Millicent Fenwick chaired, was whether or not there was the possibility of complicity, on the part of the Soviet and Bulgarian secret police, to Turkish terrorist Mehmet Ali Agca’s assassination attempt on Pope John Paul II. As per Principle VI of the Helsinki Final Act, signatory nations are to refrain from direct or indirect assistance to terrorist activities. Bulgaria and the Soviet Union were privy to this at the time of the hearing. The hearing utilized witnesses to shed light as to whether or not Bulgaria and the Soviet Union were honoring this commitment in Principle VI, which was not a guarantee, especially because of Mehmet Ali Agca’s potential involvement in a Turkish arms ring that Bulgarians supported. The hearing was part and parcel of an “essential” effort to carefully and impartially examine all evidence of possible Soviet and Bulgarian involvement with Agca.
Human Rights in Czechoslovakia: The Documents of Charter '77, 1977-1982Thursday, July 01, 1982
The documents in this publication reflect the efforts of Czechoslovak citizens to express their opinions on issues of importance to them and on rights guaranteed to them under Czechoslovak law, the Helsinki Final Act, and other international agreements. In Principle VII of the Helsinki Final Act, the participating States confirmed the "right of the individual to know and act upon his rights." They also agreed to "promote and encourage the effective exercise of civil, political, economic, social, cultural and other rights and freedoms all of which derive from the inherent dignity of the human person..." The signatories further pledged to "recognize and respect the freedom of the individual to profess and practice, alone or in community with others, religion or belief acting in accordance with the dictates of his own conscience." Sadly, these noble words ring hollow in Czechoslovakia, one of the 35 signatories to the Helsinki Final Act. In an effort to improve their country's adherence to the principles and spirit of the Helsinki document during the last five years -- over 1,000 czechoslovak citizens -- workers, scholars, clergymen, professionais, students, government employees, scientists and others -- have affixed their names to the manifesto of human rights known as Charter 77. Many have also worked actively with VONS -- the Committee for the Defense of the Unjustly Persecuted -- to report and document violations of basic human freedoms. While in most signatory countries these efforts on behalf of human rights would be applauded and rewarded, in Czechoslovakia both signers of Charter 77 and members of VONS have fallen victim to unrelenting government repression. Charter 77 clearly emphasizes that its aim is not to change the existing sociai system, but simply to demonstrate the need for "observance of laws" -- both domestic and international -- by the Czechoslovak authorities. As an example of this committment to international law and other agreements, Charter 77 called upon the Czechosiovak delegation to the Madrid Meeting of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe to honor its word and implement all the provisions of the helsinki Final Act, including Principle ViI. The constant surveillance, house searches, detentions, arrests, beatings and terms of imprisonment to which these courageous men and women are subjected are difficult to reconcile with the statements attesting to full implementation presented by the Czechoslovak delegations to both the Belgrade and Madrid review meetings.
THE CRISIS IN POLAND AND ITS EFFECTS ON THE HELSINKI PROCESSMonday, December 28, 1981
This hearing focused on the events in Poland, resulting from martial law, as direct violations of the human rights and other provisions of the Final Act and to determine what can be done to preserve human rights gains in that beleaguered country. It is clear now that the aim of this harsh crackdown was the suppression of the Polish workers' movement, Solidarity, as well as the rollback of the unprecedented political reforms and social renewal which that movement had stimulated during the past 16 months. Also discussed was the strategic importance of Poland to the U.S.S.R. and how these developments may show signs of vulnerabilities among the Soviet states.
Soviet Violation of Helsinki Final Act: Invasion of AfghanistanWednesday, July 22, 1981
Attendees at this hearing, over which Commissioner Dante B. Fascell presided, discussed the December 1979 invasion of Afghanistan by the former Soviet Union, an invasion that ran counter to international law due to Afghanistan’s status as sovereign and independent. The set of agreements that the Soviet Union signed on to in 1975 with 34 other countries (i.e. the Helsinki Final Act) incorporated rights inherent in a country’s sovereignty, refraining from the threat or use of force, the rights of peoples to self-determination, and acceptance of international conduct principles. In short, the Soviet Union’s invasion and attempted occupation of Afghanistan had struck at the very heart of these principles, and its invasion had severely damaged the international climate and greatly damaged East-West relations.
Implementation of The Helsinki Accords Vol. X – Aleksandr Ginzburg On The Human Rights Situation In The U.S.S.R.Friday, May 11, 1979
CSCE Chairman Dante Fascell presided over this hearing on the human rights situation in the USSR. Aleksandr Ginzburg,a Russian human rights activist who had finally been released from the Gulag Archipelago and subsequently returned to his family, testified. The hearing also focused on the repression and imprisonment of members of the Moscow Helsinki Monitoring Group, a Russian human rights advocacy organization whose work focused on pressure in support of the Helsinki Final Act. The hearing gave Ginzburg a platform to candidly discuss the as human rights abuses taking place in the USSR.
Implementation Of The Helsinki Accords Vol. VIII – U.S. Compliance: Human RightsTuesday, April 03, 1979
Commissioner Claiborne Pell and others in attendance, in this series of hearings, looked at their own country’s record on the Helsinki Final Act of 1975. This hearing signified the first time that a state belonging to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), or the “Conference,” had looked at its own record in such a manner, taking into account criticism by other signatories and private domestic monitoring groups, no less. This series of hearings’ purpose was to ascertain progress accomplished, learn what more needs to be achieved, and proclaim a reaffirmation of the U.S. commitment to the Helsinki Final Act’s full implementation.
Soviet Law and the Helsinki MonitorsTuesday, June 06, 1978
Between February 3, 1977 and June 1, 1978, twenty Soviet citizens active in the defense of human rights in five different Republics were arrested and imprisoned; two others, traveling abroad on Soviet passports, were stripped of their citizenship and denied the right to return to the USSR. All are members of the Public Groups to Promote Observance of the Helsinki Agreement in the USSR (the Soviet Helsinki Watch) or, in the case of two men, of its subsidiary Working Commission to Investigate the Abuse of Psychiatry for Political Purposes. The twenty-one men and one woman are being punished under a variety of different criminal charges. Their "crime," however, is identical: political dissent, expressed in the non-violent, open effort to spur Soviet authorities to implement the human rights and humanitarian undertakings of the August 1975 Final Act of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (the Helsinki Accord.) The following study by the staff of the U. S. Commission on . Security and Cooperation in Europe examines the workings of Soviet law and criminal procedure as applied in these cases of political dissent. It discusses the guarantees of Soviet law, including international covenants ratified by the USSR, against arbitrary arrest and unfair trial and compares those to the practices used against the Helsinki Watchers. From the study it is evident that those guarantees -- both substantive and procedural -- have been repeatedly violated in the persecution and prosecution of the twenty-two human rights activists. The violations uncovered range from improper conduct of pre-arrest house searches through illegally prolonged pre-trial detention to unlawful denial of the rights of the defense at the trial. This pattern of official conduct toward free, but dissenting political expression is not new in the Soviet Union. In the treatment of the Soviet Helsinki Watch, however, it has been systematic and can be termed, without question, a gross and intentional violation of both the pledges in the Final Act and the safeguards promised by the Soviet Constitution, Criminal Codes and Codes of Criminal Procedure.
Implementation of the Helsinki Accords Vol.I - Human Rights & ContactsWednesday, February 23, 1977
Hon. Dante Fascell, Chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, presided over this hearing on the implementation of the Helsinki Accords. This hearing focused on the Commisison's consideration of the provisions of the 1975 Helsinki Accords dealing with respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms and with freer movement of people and information. The purpose was to define what the Commission knew of implementation of the accords and of their violations, to explore proposals for advancing compliance, and to seek advice on the role the accords played bettering East-West relations. Hon. Fascell was joined by Leonard Garment, former U.S. Representative to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, and Vladimir Bukovsky, former Soviet political prisoner.
Podcast: Agents of the Future
The creation of the Moscow Helsinki Group was announced on May 12, 1976, a day that Helsinki Commission Chair Sen. Ben Cardin has called, “One of the major events in the struggle for human rights around the globe.” The 11 founding members, including legends of the human rights movement like Yuri Orlov and Lyudmila Alexeyeva, came together as what was formally named the Public Group to Assist in the Implementation of the Helsinki Final Act in the USSR. Their mission was to monitor the Soviet government’s implementation of the human rights provisions of the historic 1975 Helsinki Accords. In this episode, Dmitri Makarov, co-chair of the Moscow Helsinki Group, and historian Sarah B. Snyder discuss the history and impact of the Helsinki monitors, as well as the important work the Moscow Helsinki Group continues to do today. The Helsinki Commission is indebted to Cathy Cosman for her input and contributions to the development of this episode. "Helsinki on the Hill" is series of conversations hosted by the U.S. Helsinki Commission on human rights and comprehensive security in Europe and beyond. The Helsinki Commission, formally known as the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, promotes human rights, military security, and economic cooperation in 57 countries in Europe, Eurasia, and North America. Transcript | Episode 16 | Agents of the Future: The 45th Anniversary of the Moscow Helsinki Group
Podcast: Welcome to Observe
Election observation is a core element of the OSCE’s efforts to promote human rights, democracy, and the rule of law. Each OSCE participating State—including the United States—pledges to invite foreign observers to observe its elections. The United States plays an active role in OSCE election observation missions, both by providing observers for foreign elections as well as by inviting the OSCE to observe every general and midterm election since 2002. Ahead of the 2020 presidential election, veteran election observer Orest Deychakiwsky, former director of the OSCE’s Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights and current OSCE PA member Michael Link, and Deputy Secretary of the State of Connecticut Scott Bates share insights on the origins and value of OSCE election observation, along with the process of election observation from the OSCE and state perspective. "Helsinki on the Hill" is series of conversations hosted by the U.S. Helsinki Commission on human rights and comprehensive security in Europe and beyond. The Helsinki Commission, formally known as the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, promotes human rights, military security, and economic cooperation in 57 countries in Europe, Eurasia, and North America. Transcript | Episode 13 | Welcome to Observe: OSCE Election Observation and the United States
Podcast: Damocles' Sword
The upcoming Tokyo Olympics, slated to take place late July after a one-year postponement, will be the first international athletic event since the passage of the Rodchenkov Anti-Doping Act (RADA) in December 2020, which established criminal penalties on individuals involved in doping fraud conspiracies affecting major international competition. The law, named after Russian doping whistleblower Dr. Grigory Rodchenkov, empowers the U.S. Department of Justice for the first time to investigate and prosecute these rogue agents who engage in doping fraud, provide restitution to victims, and protect whistleblowers from retaliation. In his first public interview since RADA became law, Dr. Rodchenkov speaks about the impact of the legislation that bears his name, as well as the blatant corruption that exists in the world of international sport, the vital role of whistleblowers, and more. He is joined by Helsinki Commission policy advisor Paul Massaro, who sheds light on the game-changing new tools created by the legislation and its importance to the U.S. fight against corruption worldwide. "Helsinki on the Hill" is series of conversations hosted by the U.S. Helsinki Commission on human rights and comprehensive security in Europe and beyond. The Helsinki Commission, formally known as the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, promotes human rights, military security, and economic cooperation in 57 countries in Europe, Eurasia, and North America. Transcript | Episode 15 | Damocles’ Sword: The Impact of the Rodchenkov Anti-Doping Act
Podcast: Seeking Justice in Serbia
Twenty years after U.S. citizens Ylli, Agron, and Mehmet Bytyqi were brutally murdered in Serbia in the aftermath of the 1999 conflict in Kosovo, their brother Ilir documents his family’s fight for justice in the face of inaction by Serbian authorities. Ilir is joined by family lawyer Praveen Madhiraju and Helsinki Commission senior policy advisor Robert Hand. "Helsinki on the Hill" is series of conversations hosted by the U.S. Helsinki Commission on human rights and comprehensive security in Europe and beyond. The Helsinki Commission, formally known as the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, promotes human rights, military security, and economic cooperation in 57 countries in Europe, Eurasia, and North America. Transcript | Episode 2: Seeking Justice in Serbia | Helsinki on the Hill
Podcast: Contending with China
The Chinese Communist Party poses major challenges to the transatlantic community’s ideals of governance and human rights. In this episode, Didi Kirsten Tatlow, contributing author of the Atlantic Council report “The China Plan,” discusses the Chinese Communist Party’s oppression of its citizens, illustrates how that repression extends to the international system, and offers recommendations on how the transatlantic community, including OSCE participating States, can best unify to respond. "Helsinki on the Hill" is series of conversations hosted by the U.S. Helsinki Commission on human rights and comprehensive security in Europe and beyond. The Helsinki Commission, formally known as the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, promotes human rights, military security, and economic cooperation in 57 countries in Europe, Eurasia, and North America. Transcript | Episode 19 | Contending with China
Podcast: Massive, Systematic, Proven beyond Doubt
President Alexander Lukashenko has been in power in Belarus since 1994. In the run-up to elections in the summer of 2020, the Lukashenko regime sought to eliminate political competition to through disqualification, intimidation, and imprisonment. Election Day proper featured widespread allegations of fraud. Many countries, including the United States, rejected the election’s outcome as illegitimate and refused to recognize Lukashenko as the legitimate leader of Belarus. The months since the election have seen an unrelenting crackdown by Belarusian authorities on peaceful protests, civil society, and the media. As a participating State in the OSCE, Belarus is party to a number of commitments on human rights and fundamental freedoms, such as the right to free and fair elections and the right to peaceful assembly. In response to the apparent violation of these rights, 17 other OSCE states invoked one of the key human rights tools at their disposal: the Moscow Mechanism, a procedure that allows for the establishment of a short-term fact-finding mission tasked with producing a report on a specific human rights concern and recommendations on how to resolve it. In this episode, Professor Wolfgang Benedek, the rapporteur appointed to investigate the crisis in Belarus, discusses his findings that human rights abuses are "massive and systematic, and proven beyond doubt" and his recommendations to address the violations. "Helsinki on the Hill" is series of conversations hosted by the U.S. Helsinki Commission on human rights and comprehensive security in Europe and beyond. The Helsinki Commission, formally known as the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, promotes human rights, military security, and economic cooperation in 57 countries in Europe, Eurasia, and North America. Transcript | Episode 14 | Massive, Systematic, Proven beyond Doubt: Human Rights Violations in Belarus Exposed by the OSCE’s Moscow Mechanism
OSCE Election Observation
In 1990, OSCE participating States pledged to hold free and fair elections and to invite foreign observers to observe its elections. Elections observation has since been recognized as one of the most transparent and methodical ways to encourage States’ commitment to democratic standards and has become a core element of the OSCE’s efforts to promote human rights, democracy, and the rule of law. In 2020 alone, the OSCE has been invited to observe elections in nearly 20 OSCE participating States (Azerbaijan, Croatia, Georgia, Iceland, Ireland, Kyrgyzstan, Lithuania, Moldova, Monogolia, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Poland, Serbia, Slovakia, Tajikistan, Ukraine, and the United States).* History of OSCE Election Observation All OSCE participating States have committed to holding democratic elections that meet the same basic standards: universal access, equality, fairness, freedom, transparency, accountability, and privacy in voter submission. Because violations of these commitments can endanger stability in the OSCE region, as well as within an individual country, OSCE nations also agreed to open their elections to observers from other participating countries. To encourage compliance and confidence in the results of the observation missions, countries agreed to observe elections together under the OSCE umbrella. Since the 1990s, OSCE election observers have been present at more than 300 elections throughout the OSCE region. While some OSCE countries benefit from foreign observation more than others – especially those that formerly had one-party communist systems and little experience with democracy – the OSCE also observes elections in more established and stable democracies, such as the United States, Canada, Germany, and the United Kingdom. Even these countries can benefit from consideration of the objective conclusions of those with an outside, comparative perspective. Perhaps more important, observation across the OSCE region removes any sense of stigmatization associated with the repeated hosting of election observation missions as well as any argument against hosting by those political leaders in some countries who continue to resist holding even reasonably free and fair elections. As one of the original 35 members of the OSCE, the United States has participated actively in OSCE election observation missions, both by providing observers for foreign elections as well as by inviting the OSCE to observe every general and midterm election since 2002. Election Observation Methodology ODIHR's election monitoring methodology takes account of the situation before, during, and after an election. All aspects of the electoral process are considered, to include a review of the legal framework; the performance of elections officials; the conduct of campaigns; the media environment and equitable media access; the complaints and appeals process; voting, counting, and tabulation; and the announcement of results. Recently, ODIHR has further expanded its methodology to explore the participation of women and national minorities. Election Observers OSCE election observation missions often are undertaken jointly by the OSCE Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) and the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (PA). A typical election observation mission comprises around 12 core team members, as well as several dozen long-term observers and several hundred short-term observers. The missions, which combine strong technical expertise and sound political judgement, include ODIHR officials, professional analysts, parliamentarians, and others on loan from OSCE member countries. To ensure that no single country’s point of view is overrepresented, the OSCE limits the number of observers from any one country. No matter where they are from, observers commit to an election observation code of conduct, which limits their role to observing and reporting. Observers have no authority to instruct, assist, or interfere in the voting, counting, tabulation, or other aspects of the electoral process. Election Observation, Reporting, and Recommendations Ahead of the elections, observers receive briefings from the host government, political parties, civil society, and media representatives. Long-term observers also follow pre-election activities including candidate and voter registration, political campaigns, and media coverage. On Election Day, two-person teams of short-term observers fan out across the country to observe the conduct of the election, including opening of polling stations; checking whether ballot boxes are empty and properly sealed; the counting of ballots; the handling of spoiled or unused ballots; and the transmission of polling station results. Observers monitor how voters are processed, the accuracy of voter registries, and whether voters are able to vote in secret and in an environment that is free from intimidation. After the elections, long-term observers note how electoral complaints and appeals are handled. The OSCE election observation mission publishes preliminary findings immediately after the elections, with a final comprehensive report issued a few weeks later. The final report includes in-depth analysis of the election’s political context and legislative framework; election administration; voter and candidate registration; the election campaign; the media; participation of women and national minorities; and the voting, counting, and tabulation processes. Impact The OSCE methodology represents the global standard for quality election observation. By analyzing election-related laws and systems, as well as the effectiveness of their implementation, election observation missions help document whether elections in OSCE countries are free and fair for voters and candidates alike. Its expertise has been shared with other regional organizations, and the OSCE has contributed to observation efforts outside the OSCE region. The Helsinki Commission Contribution The U.S. Helsinki Commission was the first to propose concrete commitments regarding free and fair elections more than a year before they were adopted by the OSCE in June 1990. By that time, Commissioners and staff had already observed the conduct of the first multi-party elections in seven East and Central European countries transitioning from one-party communist states to functioning democracies. As the OSCE developed its institutional capacities in the mid-1990s, the Commission joined the efforts of an increasing number of observer teams from across the OSCE region, which evolved into the well-planned, professional election observation missions of today. Commissioners and staff have observed well over 100 elections since 1990. More broadly speaking, the United States support OSCE observation efforts, to include deployment of civilian, parliamentary, and diplomatic observers abroad, but also supporting OSCE’s observation of domestic elections, with a focus on countries where resistance to democratic change remains the strongest. Learn More Elections: OSCE Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights Election Observation: OSCE Parliamentary Assembly * Following Needs Assessment Missions designed to assess the situation and determine the scale of a potential observation activity in a particular country, election observation was deemed unnecessary in some cases.
Justice at Home
Promoting human rights, good governance, and anti-corruption abroad can only be possible if the United States lives up to its values at home. By signing the Helsinki Final Act, the United States committed to respecting human rights and fundamental freedoms, even under the most challenging circumstances. However, like other OSCE participating States, the United States sometimes struggles to foster racial and religious equity, counter hate and discrimination, defend fundamental freedoms, and hold those in positions of authority accountable for their actions. The Helsinki Commission works to ensure that U.S. practices align with the country’s international commitments and that the United States remains responsive to legitimate concerns raised in the OSCE context, including about the death penalty, use of force by law enforcement, racial and religious profiling, and other criminal justice practices; the conduct of elections; and the status and treatment of detainees at Guantanamo Bay and elsewhere.
Human rights within states are crucial to security among states. Prioritizing respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, defending the principles of liberty, and encouraging tolerance within societies must be at the forefront of America's foreign policy agenda. Peace, security, and prosperity cannot be sustained if national governments repress their citizens, stifle their media, or imprison members of the political opposition. Authoritarian regimes become increasingly unstable as citizens chafe under the bonds of persecution and violence, and pose a danger not only to their citizens, but also to neighboring nations. The Helsinki Commission strives to ensure that the protection of human rights and defense of democratic values are central to U.S. foreign policy; that they are applied consistently in U.S. relations with other countries; that violations of Helsinki provisions are given full consideration in U.S. policymaking; and that the United States holds those who repress their citizens accountable for their actions. This includes battling corruption; protecting the fundamental freedoms of all people, especially those who historically have been persecuted and marginalized; promoting the sustainable management of resources; and balancing national security interests with respect for human rights to achieve long-term positive outcomes rather than short-term gains.
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.