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Interview with Chris Engels, Director of Investigations and Operations, Commission for International Justice and Accountability
Tuesday, September 18, 2018

By Nathaniel Hurd,
Senior Policy Advisor

The Commission for International Justice and Accountability is a non-governmental organization that investigates atrocity crimes and terrorism committed during conflicts and prepares evidence for prosecutions in criminal trials. Chris Engels is a lawyer with more than 15 years of international experience. In 2016, he testified before the Helsinki Commission on bringing perpetrators of genocide and related crimes to justice. This interview covers the work of CIJA and Engels, U.S. national security interests, legacy, and current efforts on accountability for international crimes and terrorism, the support of Congress, and how being an American from Mississippi shaped Engels’ life and career.

What is the Commission for International Justice and Accountability?

CIJA’s core work is to collect evidence of international crimes such as genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and terrorism committed during conflicts. Our current investigations include Iraq, Syria, Burma, and the Central African Republic. We have seen in our careers that evidence against dictators, military leaders, terrorist groups and others who committed terrible crimes, often against their own citizens, is destroyed, stolen, or hidden away by those responsible for these crimes. Because it is close to impossible for government law enforcement or international organizations to work in these places, given the security issues related to operating in an active conflict zone, we have taken on this task. We are able to collect, preserve and analyze all types of evidence, including paper documents, hard drives, laptops, and smart phones as well as open source and social media materials. We also speak to witnesses, whether they be victims, bystanders or those who had some role in the organizations that we are looking into. An important part of this work is to bring together evidence that demonstrates the responsibility of leaders who hide behind layers of command, who don’t get their hands dirty but are most responsible for the terrible crimes they plan and order others to commit.

We also work with governments that are trying to deal with insurgent groups in their own countries. It’s completely reasonable that governments have little experience dealing with collection and analysis of evidence of these types of crimes, until they are attacked by an armed group. We’ve been dealing with these crimes for a long time and can advise and assist them as they fight to stop an insurgency and build cases against those who are responsible for the crimes. We help ensure that the right people are prosecuted for the full range of their crimes.

The job is challenging, but we have a great group of people working with us who are highly motivated to make sure these criminals don’t get away with their crimes. Our team is made up of investigators, analysts, lawyers, and security professionals from a number of countries, with experience in all of the recent conflicts around the globe. We are also a local organization in a way, because we have team members from the countries we work in who are incredibly committed to bringing to justice those who are tearing their countries apart. Together, we are a unique and dedicated group. That’s the key to our success.

Religious and ethnic minorities, like Christians and Yazidis, were targeted by ISIS for genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes. What work has CIJA done on atrocity crimes against these groups?

CIJA is designed to tackle these challenging issues. We have done a great deal of work to identify those ISIS members responsible for crimes against minorities such as Yazidis and Christians, and we hope to do more. I believe that our work not only promotes justice for minority victims, but also helps to cut through political rhetoric and get to the facts. On the one hand, criminal investigations will lead to the individuals responsible being brought to justice. This is key for any community.

We need to make sure that those who target minority groups are not allowed to go free, particularly in the same areas, living amongst the same groups that they killed, tortured and abused. At the same time, some people see these terrible crimes committed against minorities as a political issue, and then might refuse to label crimes a genocide or crimes against humanity for political reasons. Providing high quality evidence of the crimes committed, can minimize the politics involved and redirect people to the important issues, the safety of minority communities, justice for past crimes, and the right to return to and remain in their homes and their communities as quickly as possible.

What is human rights documentation? How is it different from the work of CIJA?

CIJA is the first, and still only, nonprofit set up to collect and analyze evidence of international crimes during conflict for prosecution. Other groups conduct what you’ve called human rights documentation. This is different in form and substance. Human rights documenters focus on collecting information and statistics on crimes committed. They then publish reports in order to raise awareness of crimes and lobby for other governments to get involved. This is noble work, unfortunately today, we see in Syria a situation where it is possibly the most heavily documented conflict in history from a human rights advocacy perspective, but this great work has not slowed the abuses committed in the country.

Another difference is that CIJA investigates up to a criminal law standard, documenting the chains of custody of materials for example so that the evidence can be used successfully at trial. This level of evidence collecting is not needed for human rights documentation. Also, we are committed to working with law enforcement. Human rights documenters do not always want to work with law enforcement, because they want to remain independent in their reporting or because they do not have consent of their sources to share information with law enforcement. This all makes sense for their work. We simply have a different focus

Who funds CIJA?

We have had a number of donors over the years. Our current donors include the United Kingdom, Canada, the European Union, Germany, Demark, the Netherlands, and Norway.

Describe your work as Director for Investigations and Operations.

There is plenty of variety in my work, and I enjoy that. I am constantly on the road meeting with our field team members, working with local law enforcement, talking to witnesses, and training others to do this type of work. Of course, I spend some days in the office behind a computer hammering out management reports, doing research, writing up notes of interviews, and managing the operational side of the organization. That includes sitting with our team leaders to work out investigative plans, addressing security issues across the different conflict zones and countries where we have people, and developing strategies for our future work. I work with a great team full of dedicated people who all work hard. It is not always the case that you get to work with a competent team that enjoys their work. I am extremely fortunate to have such a professional and passionate team at CIJA.

Describe CIJA’s collaboration with the Department of Homeland Security, FBI, and other U.S. government entities.

By design, CIJA has a strong relationship with U.S. law enforcement. CIJA’s primary goal is to assist in the prosecution of those responsible for the terrible crimes committed during conflicts. We have the advantage of being able to operate safely in conflict zones with unique skills to preserve the materials we collect in a way that they can be used at trial. This is the key to our success. We are not interested in writing reports, human rights advocacy or political discussions. Those things are, of course, important. But CIJA focuses simply and solely on collecting evidence to ensure dictators, terrorists, and their cronies who kill, torture, and rape civilians do not escape justice. Once we have done our job, the information needs to get to law enforcement so that justice can be done.

To do that, we work with any legitimate governmental agency that is investigating these types of crimes including the FBI and DHS. We are happy to work with them and believe it is our responsibility to do so. We received over 500 requests last year to assist in law enforcement investigations and the number is increasing this year. In the United States, this work has a national security element as well. If we can stop these criminals from getting into the United States, then we are all better off. By collecting evidence now, we can identify those who are responsible for these crimes and this information can assist in making sure they do not get visas and are not allowed to enter the United States. You can see how this information provides important data necessary to secure our U.S. borders against international criminals.

Have members of Congress supported the work of CIJA?

Oh yes. The best example of this is probably from congressional hearings on the issue. I have had the opportunity to appear before the Helsinki Commission and the Lantos Commission to discuss international criminal justice. Helsinki Commission Chairman Senator Wicker and Co-Chairman Congressman Smith, are both great supporters of this type of work and they fully support our justice efforts. More generally, you can see the will of Congress to support this type of work in the many resolutions, laws passed, and bills still making their way through Congress–like H.R. 390 (Iraq and Syria Genocide Emergency Relief and Accountability Act). It is clear to me that Congress supports justice for victims of these crimes and sees the value in making sure dictators and terrorists are brought to justice, giving notice to those who may consider similar paths in the future.

How is this work relevant to the national security of the United States?

It is directly relevant in many ways. For example, we have spent the last four years investigating individuals associated with Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. We have collected a great deal of evidence on fighters who had no plans to leave Syria when they arrived. Those who were completely happy to participate in the terrible crimes committed against civilians while Islamic State was winning the fight. Today, with the near totally defeat of Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, we see that many of these fighters are now trying to get back into Europe and eventually will attempt to make their way to America. The evidence we have will help ensure these individuals are not allowed to travel freely, and if they do try to do so, they will be arrested and prosecuted.

I’d say a second benefit is that our evidence shows clearly that these so-called holy warriors were in reality drug traffickers, human traffickers, rapists, slavers, thugs and criminals that simply used their power to exploit and abuse anyone they chose for any reason. I think this helps open the eyes of some vulnerable young people who might join these types of groups. Islamic State has made good use of propaganda, but the reality is very different. Demonstrating this with strong evidence is a necessary part of any effort to stop the ideology from spreading into the country. We are happy to be working on that.

It’s also important to say that governments that do not respect the rights of their own people certainly do not respect the rights of other people. It is not a coincidence that many governments which permit or even actively engage in the murder, torture, and rape of their citizens also protect, harbor, and even support people engaged in international terrorism. Regimes willing to engage in atrocities often become exporters of that terror to the United States and our allies at home and abroad. When the international community holds officials accountable for their crimes through fair trials, not only is justice served but it can also deter those who threaten peace and security from acting in the future.

What is the American legacy, past and present, on this work?

America’s leadership has promoted international justice from its earliest days. We were the engine behind the Nuremburg Tribunal and the other post-WWII prosecutions. We were a driving force for the Yugoslav and Rwanda tribunals. America has been an advocate of justice across the world and ready to stand up against dictators who were killing their people. This process is never simple; it’s often messy. But we as a people have pushed forward this sense of responsibility to protect others who cannot protect themselves. I believe that is a noble American trait that should preserved.

What is it like being an American doing this work? What do you tell people abroad about your home country and home state? Do you miss home when you are abroad?

Absolutely, I miss home when I am abroad. I think there are a lot of people working internationally who used this type of work to get out of the place they came from for whatever reason. That is not me. I love Mississippi; my family is there and so are the catfish and the crawfish. I believe in the work I do and that work takes me all over the world, but Jackson is my home. To put it more succinctly, the first house I bought was in Jackson, and I assume the last house I live in will be in Jackson as well.

That is not to say I do not enjoy my time abroad. Even after 15 years or so of working overseas, I still feel lucky to be out in the world meeting interesting people from different backgrounds, hearing their stories and sharing some of my own Mississippi stories as well. Mississippi is complex, with all its relaxed, humid goodness mixed up with its troubled history. We all know, if you don’t keep an eye on that history, it will try to catch back up with the present, and I think most Mississippians are mindful of that.

I used to be frustrated by all the preconceived notions people had about the South, but I got over that long ago. Sometimes, though, I have to remind people that I didn’t just pop out of the screen from a Hollywood movie or some anachronistic South, lacking culture and grammar, divided into two simplistic race-based groups that perpetually make bad decisions that keep them both poor and ignorant. To tell the truth, I still find it amusing and a little ironic that people who have never visited the South are okay with telling me about how bad things are in the South, but do not see any problem with stereotyping a whole region based on their limited information.

I also think that Americans are often criticized for stereotyping or profiling other countries and regions based on limited information. But that mistake is universal. Every place, every people, every country is complex. Just living in a foreign country will teach you that and the learning will be quick. That’s what makes things interesting. The complexities and differences provide us with opportunities to think differently, act differently, and appreciate new perspectives. We in Mississippi can learn from the complex challenges people in other nations have faced. But we have much to share with them as well.

More importantly, I run into tons of people who know something about Mississippi, whether it’s because of their love for blues or food, they have family or friends in Mississippi, or they’ve visited and want to talk about their next visit to the South. It’s great to talk to those people whether in Europe, the Middle East, Asia or on a plane in between. I also find plenty of people who are mystified by the South and want to know more. As you’ve probably guessed, I have plenty to say on that topic.

There is more to be done to bring communities together in the South, but this experience can be a positive. We have come a long way as a group of people, while still facing relative poverty and still building trust across communities. There is a message in this work for those that are experiencing a civil war or reeling from its immediate aftermath. It’s a long road and not everyone is on board, but our example can give hope to those who currently have little reason to believe their tomorrow will be any better than their today.

Describe growing up, going to college, and living in Mississippi.

I grew up during a sweet spot in time for a Southerner, I believe. Being born in the mid-70’s, I spent my youth without the Internet. This not only freed up a great deal of time to run around in the woods, paddle down rivers, and occasionally act like I was fishing, but it also meant I was sort of sequestered, unknowingly, from the rest of the world. I also saw a changing South, and a changing Mississippi. By the time I could remember things going on around me, the great unrest of the civil rights era had shifted to a time of Southern-paced reconciliation and while no one would say it was perfect, we were moving forward as Mississippians throughout my youth. I think that reconciliation, like justice, is not something to be completed; it is an ongoing process and must be consciously acted upon by each generation. Looking back, I think we were doing that in my youth.

I also picked up a great deal about fairness and respect for individuals from living in Mississippi. We are a people who believe in the power of the individual to change his or her place in life and that those who abuse their power should not be allowed to take advantage of folks. There is a balance in Mississippi between not getting involved in another person’s business and standing up when someone is being mistreated. I think that, as simplistic as it might sound, is the root of my drive to do this work.

Mississippi is my home. My family and friends are in Mississippi. My house is in Mississippi. I vote in Mississippi, and I am a member of the Mississippi Bar Association. I spend a lot of time in foreign countries because my work requires it. When people ask me where I am from, I am proud to tell them I’m from Mississippi. I love to tell the story of Mississippi, and when I’m home, I love to live that story.

What about your experience as an American, specifically one from Mississippi, has fueled your commitment to justice, accountability, counter-terrorism and preventing violence extremism? What have you learned as an American, from Mississippi, that formed how you see others?

I think my experiences growing up have given me some small level of insight into the desire of those I work with to reconcile and rebuild a peaceful and successful society that is better for their children. It’s not just about bringing those to justice who are responsible for these atrocities, it is also about bringing society back together, reconciling after these conflicts, and justice is an important part of that. In Bosnia for years after the war, women walked down the street and saw their rapists, men saw their torturers and young children saw those who executed their fathers and mothers. Communities cannot mend without justice. Martin Luther King Jr. said it well, “True peace is not merely the absence of tension: it is the presence of justice.” I like to think my work helps to ensure that justice is present for dictators and war criminals wherever they might be.

Yes, some would consider investigating atrocities in Syria and Iraq a dangerous job, and sometimes it might even seem futile given the fact the conflict has lasted so long, but I believe the time will come when the world will try those responsible, and when that time comes CIJA’s work will ensure that the proper evidence is ready and available. In the meantime, we are constantly working with law enforcement agencies around the world to arrest and prosecute those who leave Syria and Iraq and are found in countries willing to bring them to justice.

What are the most satisfying aspects of your job?

I hate that there is a need for my job, but I love doing it. One of the most satisfying parts of my job is to see criminals who thought they were going to get away with torturing and killing their own people, their neighbors, and former classmates, arrested and prosecuted for their terrible acts. But it’s not just about bringing those powerful criminals to justice, it is also about bringing society back together and reconciling after these conflicts. Ensuring those who were most responsible are taken out of the mix and are serving out criminal sentences for their crimes is key to making sure the rest of the society can move forward. I don’t believe we can solve all the problems in the world, but I want to do a good job at this small piece of it. If I can do that, then I feel like all the time and energy is worth it.

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    WASHINGTON—To commemorate the 45th anniversary of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the U.S. Helsinki Commission, on June 3, Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) and commission leaders Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) and Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) issued the following statements: “The Helsinki Commission has played a vital role in elevating the moral dimension of U.S. foreign policy and prioritizing the protection of fundamental freedoms in our dealings with other nations,” said Chairman Cardin. “From fighting for fair treatment of Jews in the Soviet Union, to developing landmark legislation to address human trafficking, to demanding sanctions on human rights violators and kleptocrats, and so much more, the commission consistently has broken new ground.” “For 45 years, the commission has flourished as a bipartisan and bicameral platform for collaboration within the federal government. Its purpose is not to support a specific party or administration, but instead to advance transatlantic cooperation, promote regional security and stability, and hold OSCE participating States accountable to their promises,” said Sen. Wicker. “Our commissioners’ united front against threats to democracy and human rights worldwide has become a pillar of U.S. international engagement.” “I am grateful to have experienced the crucial role played by U.S. engagement in the Helsinki Process, both as an election observer in Bulgaria in 1990, and later as a lawmaker and commissioner,” said Rep. Wilson. “The Helsinki Commission is unique in its ability to adapt to evolving global challenges. The defense of human rights and democracy looks different now than it did during the Cold War, but we continue to unite over the same resilient principles and commitment to fundamental freedoms.” On June 3, 1976, U.S. President Gerald Ford signed the Helsinki Commission into existence through Public Law 94-304 to encourage compliance with the Helsinki Final Act of 1975—the founding document that lays out the ten principles guiding the inter-state relations among today’s OSCE participating States. The agreement created new opportunities to engage with European partners on human rights, cooperative security, economic opportunities, and territorial disputes, and the commission played an integral role in ensuring that human rights became a key component of U.S. foreign policy. Forty-five years after its founding, the Helsinki Commission continues to engage with participating States to confront severe and persistent violations of human rights and democratic norms. Since its establishment, the Helsinki Commission has convened more than 500 public hearings and briefings. It regularly works with U.S. officials in the executive branch and Congress to draw attention to human rights and security challenges in participating States, including racism, anti-Semitism, and intolerance; corruption; human trafficking; and Russia’s persistent violations of the Helsinki Final Act in its relations with Ukraine and other OSCE countries.

  • Preventing Mass Atrocities

    The mass atrocities and genocides committed in twentieth-century Europe spurred a worldwide consensus that there is a responsibility among states to both prevent and punish such heinous acts. The U.S. Helsinki Commission convened its first hearing of the 117th Congress on May 13, 2021 to examine the interests of the United States in taking an active role in preventing mass killings, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide; review warning signs that indicate risks for atrocities; and discuss the challenges of building and sustaining alliances among states in support of atrocities prevention. Presiding over the hearing, Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) emphasized the international consensus behind the legal obligation to prevent and punish mass atrocity crimes—large-scale and deliberate acts on civilians that constitute acts of genocide, crimes against humanity, ethnic cleansing, and war crimes—and the responsibility of the United States to recognize and act on early warning signs. Witnesses included Timothy Snyder, the Richard C. Levin Professor of History at Yale University and a permanent fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna, and Naomi Kikoler, the director of the Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. Snyder offered four recommendations to shape prevention-based policies against mass atrocities. First, foreign correspondents should be present abroad to provide reliable information, as widespread disinformation campaigns often take place before mass atrocities. Second, policymakers should aim to stem panic and assure that citizens can attain necessary resources—at the beginning of a mass atrocity, there is often a sense of scarcity and urgency. Third, prevention policies should focus on strengthening governments and civil society, as mass atrocities often occur in weak states. Fourth, the United States must embody human rights; in recent history, the weaponization of history has increased the risk of mass atrocities. Once states resort to military force to stop mass atrocities, Snyder noted, it is already too late. Therefore, prevention is key. Kikoler testified that mass atrocities are preventable, and effective action based on early warning signs can track, disrupt, and prevent such crimes. Kikoler pointed to troubling signs in the OSCE region, including hate speech targeting ethnic and religious minorities, existing armed conflict, and the rise of authoritarian governance. She also differentiated between upstream risks and imminent warning signs. Kikoler also explained that atrocity prevention is in the best interest of the United States, as mass atrocities can have a devastating destabilizing effect on entire regions. She noted that although the U.S. leads the world in developing tools for atrocity prevention, these tools can still be improved. Discussing the importance of holding those responsible for atrocities accountable, Snyder explained that accountability should extend beyond prosecution to include reputational and financial costs. Kikoler stressed the need to identify gaps in the atrocity prevention architecture, including those in domestic legislation criminalizing the commission of crimes against humanity. Chairman Cardin asked the witnesses for suggestions on improving implementation of the Elie Wiesel Genocide and Atrocities Prevention Act and for suggestions for legislative change. Kikoler recommended that when the next report is released, Congress should convene a hearing and ask the Department of State to review prevention strategies established to address the risks articulated for given states in the report. In addition, she proposed an annual briefing by the intelligence community to Congress on countries that may be at risk of genocide, and expanded atrocity prevention training for Foreign Service Offices in countries deemed at-risk. With support from Kikoler, Snyder suggested an award from American journalists who report on genocide and genocide prevention, or a fellowship providing funding to young Americans interested in reporting on countries at risk. Both witnesses drew attention to the courageous examples of Gareth Jones and Jan Karski, who reported on the Soviet-made famine in Ukraine and the Holocaust, respectively. To conclude the hearing, Chairman Cardin discussed the importance of learning from accurate history, understanding the role of non-governmental organizations in providing information on local communities, and correctly identifying the victim. He also reiterated the responsibility of policymakers to make atrocity prevention a priority in U.S. foreign policy. Related Information Witness Biographies Press Release: Senate Passes Cardin, Young Bipartisan Bill to Bolster U.S. Leadership in Genocide and Atrocity Prevention

  • Helsinki Commission Hearing to Examine Prevention of Mass Atrocities

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following online hearing: PREVENTING MASS ATROCITIES Thursday, May 13, 2021 9:30 a.m. Watch Live: www.youtube.com/HelsinkiCommission The mass atrocities and genocides committed in twentieth-century Europe spurred a worldwide consensus that there is a responsibility among states to both prevent and punish such heinous acts. At this online hearing, witnesses will discuss why it is in the best interests of the United States to take an active role in preventing mass killings, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide; warning signs that indicate risks for atrocities; and the challenges of building and sustaining alliances among states in support of atrocities prevention. The following witnesses are scheduled to testify: Professor Timothy Snyder, Richard C. Levin Professor of History, Yale University Naomi Kikoler, Director, Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

  • Cardin, Hudson Pledge Support to Ukraine in Bilateral Call Between OSCE PA Delegations

    WASHINGTON—In response to increased Russian aggression against Ukraine, Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) and Commissioner Rep. Richard Hudson (NC-08) initiated an exceptional bilateral meeting with members of the Ukrainian Delegation to the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA) on April 30.  Chairman Cardin, who serves as Head of the U.S. Delegation to the Assembly, and Rep. Hudson, who is a member of the delegation and chairs the OSCE PA’s General Committee on Political Affairs and Security, sought the meeting to express the support of the United States for Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty and to solicit the Ukrainian lawmakers’ perspectives on the ongoing crisis. Ukrainian participants included parliamentarians Mykyta Poturaiev (Head of Delegation) and Artur Gerasymov (Deputy Head of Delegation).  The exchange, which focused on the recent massing of Russian forces on Ukraine’s eastern border and in occupied Crimea, and the closure by Russia of parts of the Black Sea and the Azov Sea, also covered topics including: The militarization of occupied Crimea and widespread violations of fundamental freedoms there, with particular persecution directed toward Crimean Tatars The Crimean Platform, a Ukrainian diplomatic initiative to mobilize world leaders to raise the cost of Russia’s occupation of the peninsula, with the ultimate goal of de-occupation The effects of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline on Russian influence in Europe  The importance of continued reform processes in Ukraine, including in ensuring the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary and of Ukraine’s anti-corruption bodies Chairman Cardin and Rep. Hudson reiterated Congress’ strong and bipartisan support for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine. Chairman Cardin underscored that the United States stood with Ukraine in the face of Russian aggression, which “violated every principle of the Helsinki Final Act,” he stated. He added that the Ukraine Security Partnership Act unanimously approved by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on April 21 codified the U.S. security commitment to Ukraine and support for the Crimean Platform initiative, among other measures designed to strengthen the bilateral relationship. The United States remained “strongly and firmly united in our support for Ukraine,” Rep. Hudson said, pledging continued resolve in ensuring this message was clear to Russian authorities. Hudson, recalling a statement issued in his capacity as OSCE PA committee chair on April 7, also expressed readiness to engage fully in the parliamentary dimension of the Crimean Platform. In addition, the U.S. and Ukrainian delegates discussed plans for the 2021 Annual Session to be held remotely in late June and early July. 

  • Helsinki Commission Leaders Commemorate International Roma Day with Senate and House Resolutions

    WASHINGTON—Ahead of International Roma Day on April 8, Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), commission leaders the late Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) and Sen. Roger Wicker (MS), and House Foreign Affairs Committee Chair Rep. Gregory Meeks (NY-04) introduced resolutions in the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives celebrating Romani American heritage. Chairman Cardin, Sen. Wicker, and Rep. Meeks issued the following joint statement: “Romani people have been part of every wave of European migration to the United States from the colonial period to today.  They enrich the fabric of our nation and strengthen the transatlantic bond.  “Through this resolution, we celebrate Romani culture and pay tribute to our shared history. We applaud the efforts to promote transnational cooperation among Roma launched at the historic First World Romani Congress on April 8, 1971.” In addition to recognizing and celebrating Romani American heritage, these resolutions support International Roma Day, recognized around the world on April 8, and the robust engagement of U.S. diplomats in International Roma Day activities throughout Europe.  The resolutions also commemorate the destruction of the Romani camp at Auschwitz when, on August 2-3, 1944, Nazis murdered between 4,200 and 4,300 Romani men, women, and children in gas chambers in a single night, and commend the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum for its critically important role in promoting remembrance of the Holocaust and educating audiences about the genocide of Roma. Chairman Cardin serves on the United States Holocaust Memorial Council, the governing board of trustees for the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Former Helsinki Commission Chairman Hastings, who died on April 6, was a longtime champion of Roma rights. In addition to regularly meeting with Roma from across Europe, he supported efforts in Romania to address the legacy of Roma enslavement; criticized the mass expulsions of Roma from France, fingerprinting of Roma in Italy, and destruction of the historic Romani neighborhood Sulukule in Istanbul; and condemned proposals to restrict births of Roma in Bulgaria and racist violence against Roma wherever it occurred. Rep. Hastings supported the work of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in its scholarship and education about the genocide of Roma and the museum’s acquisition of the unique Lety concentration camp archives.  The Organization on Security and Cooperation in Europe works with national and local governments, civil society and international organizations to promote equal opportunities for and the protection of the human rights of Roma. 

  • Hastings Marks International Holocaust Remembrance Day

    WASHINGTON—Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) today released the following statement marking International Holocaust Remembrance Day: “International Holocaust Remembrance Day marks the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, a place more emblematic of the tragedy of the Holocaust than any other.  Today, we remember the six million Jews who perished in the Holocaust and the millions of other innocent people murdered by the Nazi regime—Poles, Soviets, Roma, Serbs, Afro-Germans, Jehovah's Witnesses, gay men and women, and people with disabilities. We honor those who survived.  “Throughout my time in Congress, I have supported both Holocaust education and the academic freedom necessary to achieve it. I have worked to protect critical archives like those in Bad Arolsen and Lety and preserve sensitive sites of remembrance. I have condemned Holocaust trivialization and revisionism. I have supported efforts in the United States and around the globe to counter anti-Semitism, racism, and xenophobia. “However, this year’s remembrance is like no other. Today, we recall the liberation of Auschwitz in the aftermath of the deadly insurrection at the United States Capitol. The appalling symbols of hate, violence, and sedition carried by the mob included a ‘Camp Auschwitz’ shirt.  This shocking imagery glorifying the Holocaust brings to mind the words of my late colleague, Congressman Tom Lantos—the only Holocaust survivor to have served in the United States Congress. As he once said, ‘The veneer of civilization is paper thin. We are its guardians and we can never rest.’ We should have no illusions about the importance, urgency, and magnitude of our task.”

  • OSCE Ministerial Council Appoints Top Leaders, Adopts Several Key Decisions Amidst Constraints of COVID-19 and Conflict in Europe

    By Shannon Simrell, Representative of the Helsinki Commission to the U.S. Mission to the OSCE Foreign ministers of the 57 OSCE participating States convened on December 3 - 4, 2020, for the 27th OSCE Ministerial Council. For the first time, this annual gathering was convened in an entirely virtual format due to the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite a turbulent year, which included managing not only the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic but also the global anti-racism protests initiated following the killing of George Floyd; ongoing protracted conflicts in Moldova, Georgia, and Ukraine; fraudulent elections and systemic human rights violations in Belarus; and a renewal of active conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia, consensus was achieved on many, but not all, draft decisions. The United States delegation to the Ministerial Council was led by Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun. The delegation and included Deputy Assistant Secretaries of State George P. Kent, Michael Murphy, and Bruce Turner; Acting Assistant Secretary of State Philip Reeker; U.S. Ambassador to the OSCE James Gilmore; U.S Helsinki Commission Chief of Staff Alex Johnson; and Helsinki Commission staff Robert Hand, Janice Helwig, Rebecca Neff, Erika Schlager, Shannon Simrell, Dr. Mischa Thompson, and Alex Tiersky. A Call to “Turn a Corner” from Crisis to Cooperation Leveraging the meeting’s virtual format, national statements were livestreamed, offering transparency of the proceedings. Albanian Prime Minister and OSCE Chairperson-in-Office Edi Rama opened the meeting by recalling the solidarity of the signatories of the Helsinki Final Act and Charter of Paris and requesting that ministers “turn a corner” and demonstrate the political will required to address the multiple and complex challenges faced by the organization and across the region. In his remarks, Deputy Secretary Biegun reaffirmed U.S. priorities for engagement at the OSCE, underscoring the commitment to European peace and security and highlighting key challenges facing the OSCE region including Russia’s continued aggression in eastern Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia, and the destabilizing effect of its flagrant violations of the OSCE’s foundational principles.  He called upon Belarus to hold accountable those responsible for its human rights violations and electoral crisis, urged Armenia and Azerbaijan to engage with the Minsk Group Co-Chairs to attain a lasting end to the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, and warned States against using COVID-19 as a pretext to restrict civil society, independent media, or public access to information. Finally, he expressed concern about the increasing number of political prisoners and the rise in cases of anti-Semitism, anti-Roma racism, and other forms of hatred and hate crimes in the OSCE region since the onset of the pandemic.  Consensus Achieved on Organizational Leadership, Preventing Torture, Countering Corruption, and More Despite the challenges inherent in virtual negotiations, consensus was achieved on 11 texts spanning all three OSCE dimensions of comprehensive security and supporting the organization’s internal governance. Ministers agreed on the appointment of the OSCE’s top four leaders: Helga Schmid (Germany) as Secretary General, Maria Teresa Ribiero (Portugal) as Representative on Freedom of the Media, Matteo Mecacci (Italy) as Director of the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), and Kairat Abdrakhmanov (Kazakhstan) as High Commissioner on National Minorities.  The decisions broke a months-long impasse after Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, Turkey, and others blocked the reappointment of the previous executives, leaving the organization leaderless since July. Participating States also reached consensus on several decisions that added to OSCE’s body of commitments. One such decision concerned the prevention and eradication of torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, building on existing OSCE commitments. A version of the text was originally proposed in 2014 by Switzerland during their 2014 Chairpersonship of the OSCE. The initiative reflected the country’s historic leadership in the area of international humanitarian law and profound concerns regarding torture in the context of counterterrorism efforts.  The proposal was reintroduced over successive Ministerial Councils before its adoption in 2020.  The widespread use of torture and other horrific abuse by Belarusian authorities, documented by the November 2020 report under the OSCE Moscow Mechanism, added urgency to this decision this year.  As adopted, the decision includes explicit references to enforced disappearances and to incommunicado detention. Participating States also adopted decisions on preventing and combating corruption; strengthening co-operation to counter transnational organized crime; deepening cooperation with OSCE’s Asian Partners;  supporting the Transdniestrian settlement process (also known in the OSCE as the “5+2” format, which brings together representatives of Moldova, Transdniestria, the OSCE, the Russian Federation, Ukraine, the European Union, and the United States); and selecting North Macedonia to chair the organization in 2023. Unfinished Business Unfortunately, participating States did not reach consensus on several other important drafts, including one co-sponsored by the United States and Belarus based on lessons learned during the COVID-19 pandemic that would have set out new commitments for participating States to effectively combat human trafficking during times of emergency. Other proposals, including texts to modernize the Vienna Document (a wide-ranging confidence- and security-building measure that includes provisions requiring notification of significant military activities, as well as an exchange of information about armed forces, military organization, and major weapon and equipment systems), enhance public-private partnerships to counter terrorism, and counter trafficking in natural resources were scuttled by Russian, Azerbaijani, and Armenian intransigence.  Some drafts which did not reach consensus among all 57 states were turned into statements issued and signed by those countries that had supported their adoption. The United States signed onto nine such statements to support the concept of women, peace and security outlined in UN Security Council Resolution 1325; modernization of the politico-military framework of the Vienna Document; and a number of statements related to the OSCE’s role in addressing regional challenges like ending the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, improving human rights compliance by Belarus, countering Russian aggression in Ukraine and the Republic of Georgia, and addressing challenges relating to the COVID-19 pandemic.   The Albanian Chairperson, together with the OSCE’s 2019 Slovak Chairperson, and the OSCE’s three incoming Chairpersons (the “Quint”) issued two joint statements, one expressing concern about the ongoing conflict in Ukraine and another reaffirming the principles enshrined the Helsinki Final Act and the Charter of Paris for a New Europe. Side events highlight continuing challenges The Ministerial Council’s four side events highlighted priority areas for participating States and for the Parliamentary Assembly. Due to the virtual format, events on the Belarus Moscow Mechanism report, human rights violations in Crimea, combatting human trafficking during the COVID-19 crisis, and the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly’s call for renewed political will to address contemporary challenges, attracted hundreds of participants. Deputy Assistant Secretary Kent closed the Moscow Mechanism side event by promising to maintain a focus on the situation in Belarus, to support efforts to hold authorities accountable for torture and other human rights violations, and to ensure the voice of the Belarusian people is heard in determining their country’s future. At a side event organized by the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly titled “A Call to Action: Reaffirming a Common Purpose,” Helsinki Commission Ranking Member Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) affirmed the strong bipartisan support in the United States for the OSCE, and recognized it as vital forum to promote security, defend human rights and encourage democratic development in all OSCE countries. He argued that greater political accountability rather than organizational reform would make the OSCE more relevant and effective in the years ahead. “It remains the responsibility of the participating States to hold each other to account. In the face of repression at home or aggression abroad, the OSCE will succeed as a multilateral forum as long as those who are true believers stand united in defending the ten Helsinki principles and forthrightly raise violations in this forum.” ​ Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), Ranking Member, U.S. Helsinki Commission, OSCE MC 2020 Side Event on “A Call to Action” Due to challenges related to convening during the COVID-19 pandemic, the NGO network Civic Solidarity Platform did not organize its annual Civil Society Conference, which had been held in conjunction with each OSCE Ministerial Council since its first convening during the 2010 OSCE Summit in Astana. Instead, the network organized a series of webinars in December to maintain focus on key issues of concern. 2021: OSCE’s Swedish Chairpersonship “Back to Basics” Looking ahead to its 2021 Chairpersonship, Swedish Foreign Minister Ann Linde said that Sweden will work to get “back to basics:” defending the European security order, contributing to resolving conflicts, and upholding the OSCE’s comprehensive concept of security with a special focus on human rights, democracy, and gender equality.

  • Retrospective on the 116th Congress

    By Emma Derr, Max Kampelman Fellow “For more than four decades, the Helsinki Commission has championed human rights and democracy across North America, Europe, and Central Asia. While we have worked to keep these concerns on the U.S. agenda, much remains to be accomplished.” ​ Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20), Chairman, U.S. Helsinki Commission In the OSCE region, 2019 and 2020 were marked by unprecedented challenges stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic, calls for racial justice, systematic human rights issues, and ongoing regional conflicts amidst U.S. presidential, Congressional, and regional and local elections. Through these crises, U.S. Helsinki Commission leadership worked tirelessly to ensure that human rights and comprehensive security continued to be promoted through the United States’ foreign and domestic policy agendas. 2020 also marked the 30th anniversary of the Charter of Paris, which set unprecedented commitments to human rights, providing an opportunity for OSCE participating States to reflect and bolster human rights commitments during such a crucial time. Through hearings and briefings, legislative activities, public statements and reports, and engagement with other foreign policy actors, the Helsinki Commission has focused on human rights and security challenges both in the United States and abroad to advance the commission’s priorities in the 116th Congress: principled foreign policy; human rights at home; parliamentary diplomacy; and safe, inclusive, and equitable societies. Additional policy focuses include regional security, election observation, OSCE engagement, and anti-corruption work. View a comprehensive list of activities in the Helsinki Commission's report on the 116th Congress.  Principled Foreign Policy From respect for sovereignty and the territorial integrity of states to human rights and fundamental freedoms, commitments undertaken by OSCE participating States underpin peace and stability in the OSCE region and form the basis of comprehensive security for all people. The Helsinki Commission strives to ensure that the protection of human rights and democratic development are central to a principled U.S. foreign policy. During the 116th Congress, Belarus, Russia, Turkey, Hungary, Ukraine/Crimea, and the Balkans attracted particular attention, given the ongoing human rights and regional conflict issues in those countries. Belarus Following over two decades of authoritarian rule supported by the Kremlin, a political crisis erupted in Belarus in the summer of 2020. After August 9 elections, the Alexander Lukashenko regime claimed victory, and the country saw an unrelenting crackdown by Belarusian authorities on peaceful protests, civil society, and the media. According to international observers, Belarus has not had free and fair national elections since Lukashenko was first elected president in 1994. Unprecedented crowds continue to protest the election. Ahead of the election, Lukashenko eliminated his main political competition through disqualification or imprisonment. Numerous protestors, supporters of opposition candidates, and journalists were arrested as last-minute candidate Svetlana Tsikhanovskaya drew unprecedented crowds to her rallies. Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) called on President Lukashenko “to order the release of those who have been detained for political reasons and allow real political competition in Belarus.” After the elections and in reaction to the human rights abuses perpetrated by the Lukashenko regime, Chairman Hastings wrote to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin requesting that the U.S. administration revoke access to the U.S. financial system for the nine largest state-owned companies in Belarus. “The United States stands with the people of Belarus, who have a right to make free choices about their country’s future and to protest peacefully.” ​ Sen. Roger Wicker (MS), Co-Chairman, U.S. Helsinki Commission After the invocation by 17 OSCE participating States of the Moscow Mechanism to report on human rights concerns in Belarus and subsequent investigation, Professor Wolfgang Benedek—the selected rapporteur—joined the Helsinki Commission for a podcast to discuss his findings, including evidence of fraudulent elections, systematic human rights violations, and a general situation of impunity for perpetrators. Regional Security and Stability In May 2020, following reports that the Trump administration planned to withdraw from the Treaty on Open Skies, Chairman Hastings urged Congress to support the United States’ allies and partners in Europe, as “withdrawing from the Open Skies Treaty can only benefit Putin’s continuing campaign of aggression against Russia’s neighbors.” Chairman Hastings also authored an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for the 2021 Fiscal Year to reflect support for the Open Skies Treaty and stated his regret in November when the U.S. withdrew from the treaty. The Helsinki Commission held a joint hearing in November 2019 with the House Foreign Affairs Committee concerning the importance of the Open Skies Treaty for security and stability in Europe and released a podcast on the treaty’s benefits, the complexity of execution, and current challenges in implementation. In July 2019, for the first time in its 43-year history the Helsinki Commission convened outside of the United States for a field hearing to underscore America’s commitment to Baltic Sea regional security and emphasize its unwavering support for U.S. friends and allies. The commission also held a briefing to discuss the potential use of energy, specifically oil and gas projects, to achieve foreign policy goals, as well as the extent to which energy independence can reduce the ability of hostile actors to destabilize the European region by threatening to cut off access to energy supplies. Turkey, Hungary, Ukraine/Crimea, and the Balkans In April 2019, Co-Chairman Wicker and Ranking Member Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) introduced the Defending United States Citizens and Diplomatic Staff from Political Prosecutions Act to address arbitrary arrests which contribute to Turkey’s deteriorating respect for human rights under President Erdogan. In April 2019, the Helsinki Commission hosted a briefing on recent developments in Hungary concerning a steady erosion of freedom, the rule of law, and quality of governance. Later that year, the commission reported on an amendment to the Hungarian religion law, which continues to discriminate against people on the basis of their faith. In late 2019, Co-Chairman Wicker successfully pressed Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban to stop the blockage of the European Union version of the Magnitsky Act. The U.S. Magnitsky Act allows the use of sanctions as a tool to target alleged human rights abusers and corruption, and its European counterpart would do the same. In May 2020, Co-Chairman Wicker and Ranking Member Cardin urged U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to work with the European Union’s High Representative to advance EU Magnitsky Sanctions.  Following a mob attack in October 2019 on a Jewish community center providing office space to civil society groups in Budapest, Chairman Hastings and Ranking Member Cardin called the Hungarian government to take action during this “alarming escalation of violence toward minorities and civil society groups.” In 2020, the commission released a report detailing the escalating rhetorical attacks and legislative restrictions against civil society as Orban continues to consolidate power in Hungary. In December 2019, Helsinki Commission Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) and Commissioner Rep.  Emanuel Cleaver II (MO-05) introduced the bipartisan Ukraine Religious Freedom Support Act in the House of Representatives, and Co-Chairman Wicker introduced the act, cosponsored by Helsinki Commissioner Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (NH), to the Senate. The act, which would combat Russia’s religious freedom violations in the Crimea and Donbas regions of Ukraine, unanimously passed in the House of Representatives in November 2020 and awaits Senate action. In July 2019, the Helsinki Commission hosted a briefing about reunifying societies divided by war, genocide, and other tragedies in areas such as the Balkans, as well as promoting reconciliation and healing for Holocaust survivors and other victims of Nazi persecution who continue to seek justice worldwide. Twenty years after two U.S. citizens were brutally murdered in Serbia in the aftermath of the 1999 conflict in Kosovo, their brother Ilir joins the Helsinki Commission to share his family’s fight for justice in the face of inaction by Serbian authorities. Election Observation In 1990, all OSCE participating States pledged to hold free and fair elections and to invite international 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). These election observation missions have been recognized as one of the most transparent and methodical ways to encourage States’ commitment to democratic standards and have become a core element of the OSCE’s efforts to provide feedback on the election processes to the benefit of candidates and voters alike. Commissioners and staff have observed well over 100 elections since 1990, and in 2020 alone, the OSCE has been invited to observe elections in nearly 20 OSCE participating States, including the United States. In 2019, the commission held a briefing focused on the benefits and challenges of international election observation, best practices, and emerging issues such as voting technology and security. In addition, the use of disinformation to influence elections has become a pervasive and persistent threat in all 57 OSCE participating States. Ahead of the 2020 general elections, the commission held a briefing on the intersections and influences of disinformation and COVID-19 on the electoral process. Election observation is an important way to help monitor these effects on the workings of democracy. A limited election observation mission was deployed by the OSCE to observe the 2020 general election in the United States. Despite the challenges posed by the pandemic, the OSCE team was confident it produced a thorough, impartial, fact-based assessment that concluded the elections were free and fair, as well as “competitive and well managed despite legal uncertainties and logistical challenges” posed by the pandemic and the polarized political climate. OSCE Institutions and Policy During the past two years, the Helsinki Commission hosted hearings featuring both the Albanian and Slovakian OSCE Chairs in Office, as well as the OSCE Representative for Freedom of the Media Harlem Desir, to discuss OSCE institutional priorities such as human rights violations, conflict resolution, and the safety of journalists. In January 2020, the Helsinki Commission welcomed OSCE Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights Director Ambassador Ingibjörg Sólrún Gísladóttir, in her first appearance before Congress, to address challenges in the OSCE region related to human rights and democracy.  In December 2020, the Helsinki Commission held a hearing, “U.S. Priorities for Engagement at the OSCE,” where Ambassador Philip T. Reeker U.S. State Department Senior Bureau Official, who has been serving in the role of Acting Assistant Secretary for Europe and Eurasia since March 2018, emphasized that the United States is focused on upholding Helsinki Final Act commitments and pushing all participating States to live up to their own commitments to these principles. Human Rights at Home Like all other OSCE participating States, the United States must also examine how well—or how poorly—it is living up to its own OSCE commitments. In the 116th Congress, the Helsinki Commission took a hard look at human rights at home. “If the United States wants to remain a credible voice in the promotion of human rights abroad, we must fiercely protect them at home.” Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20), Chairman, U.S. Helsinki Commission In summer 2020 the Helsinki Commission launched a series of hearings focused on restorative justice related to public monuments and memorials, the safety of journalists, and implications of domestic human rights issues for U.S. leadership. The commission also convened political and civil rights leaders to discuss the impact of George Floyd’s tragic death on the need to shape policies that confront and prevent racism and racist acts. The Helsinki Commission dealt at further length with the safety of journalists and freedom of the media in the United States. In the aftermath of attacks on journalists covering protests calling for racial justice, Chairman Rep. Hastings expressed the need to take an “honest and critical look at America’s own record in recent weeks on protecting journalists and safeguarding press freedom.” The U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM) supports networks that reach more than 350 million people across the world, many of whom otherwise would not have access to independent, unbiased news. When USAGM failed to renew J-1 visas for foreign Voice of America (VOA) journalists, Chairman Rep. Hastings, Ranking Member Sen. Ben Cardin, and Helsinki Commissioners Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), and Rep. Marc Veasey (TX-33) demanded that U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM) CEO Michael Pack provide a detailed explanation and called for new policies to protect the personal security of VOA journalists working under the USAGM. Safe, Inclusive, and Equitable Societies Civil rights are human rights, and advancing societies that are safe, inclusive, and equitable is central to the work of the Helsinki Commission. Anti-racism initiatives have always been a priority for the commission, but they found particular focus in 2020 in conjunction with the exposure of systemic racism in police brutality and the disproportionate impacts of COVID-19 on minority populations.  Commissioners looked inward to the United States’ own domestic policies, as well as outward to other OSCE countries, to develop ideas and policies that promote principles of social inclusion, empowering diverse populations and enhancing the ability for everyone to fully participate in society. Over the past decade, Chairman Hastings has drawn attention to the racism and discrimination faced by black Europeans, recognizing their fight for inclusion. In March 2019, he introduced legislation establishing a strategy to protect the collective history and achievements of people of African descent and to promote the human rights of people of African descent worldwide, and a year later, he introduced a bill to implement a government-wide diversity and inclusion plan. “Across the globe we find racial disparities between those of African descent and other populations in education, employment, health, housing, justice, and other sectors. At the same time, hate crimes and racial profiling targeting black populations are increasing,” said Chairman Hastings. “A global strategy ensures we are monitoring whether countries around the world are providing equal protections and opportunity to all within their borders.” Chairman Hastings also collaborated with other Helsinki Commissioners to address racism globally. In July 2020, Chairman Hastings, along with Helsinki Commissioners Rep. Gwen Moore (WI-04), Rep. Cleaver, Rep. Veasey, and 35 other Members of the United States Congress, including the Congressional Black Caucus Chair, called for a sweeping plan of action following the European Parliament’s Juneteenth Day resolution supporting protests against racism and police brutality. Chairman Hastings and Rep. Gregory W. Meeks (NY-05) also issued a statement regarding foreign affairs funding for diverse, global anti-racism programs, commemorating John Lewis’ yearly leadership in securing these appropriations requests. In September, Chairman Hastings and other Helsinki Commissioners joined members of the European Parliament’s Civil Liberties Committee and Subcommittee on Human Rights to discuss combating racism and systemic discrimination on both sides of the Atlantic. In October, Ranking Member Cardin joined the office of the OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities for an online event that evaluated the applicability of the 2006 Recommendations on Policing in Multi-Ethnic Societies, highlighted relevant legislation, and discussed structural changes to address discriminatory police violence. Ahead of International Roma Day in 2020, the Helsinki Commission hosted a discussion about racism against Roma, the largest ethnic minority in Europe who have historically faced enslavement and continue to battle discrimination. The conversation focused on the state of Roma rights in Europe, as well as resolutions introduced by Helsinki Commission leaders to celebrate Romani American heritage. Reports from nearly every corner of the OSCE region suggest that minority groups have been impacted especially hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, and an extended episode of "Helsinki on the Hill" takes an in-depth look at the pandemic’s impact on vulnerable populations, such as the Roma, and the role of governments in addressing that impact. In December 2019, the Helsinki Commission convened a hearing to focus on public diplomacy initiatives that cultivate leaders who espouse democratic principles, including inclusive and representative governance. The commission also released a podcast discussing how to achieve equitable and inclusive democracies  through political inclusion and economic empowerment. Guests discussed their experiences on the front lines of the fight for greater diversity and inclusion in Europe, and in the transatlantic policymaking space more broadly.  Members of the Helsinki Commission have long supported diversity and inclusion efforts in international affairs including through the annual Transatlantic Inclusion Leaders Network (TILN) workshop, a hearing about the state of diversity and inclusion in Europe, and a new transatlantic democracy program for youth “On the Road to Inclusion.” In March 2020, Chairman Hastings introduced the Leadership Institute for Transatlantic Engagement (LITE) Act, calling for the creation of a transatlantic institute focused on strengthening democratic principles and values in the West, as well as pioneering inclusive and intergenerational solutions to current challenges that would empowering individuals across generations and from diverse backgrounds with the knowledge, tools, opportunity, and access to fully participate in their democracies. The commission also supports diversity in the diplomatic corps. Chairman Hastings, Co-Chairman Wicker, and Ranking Member Cardin joined bipartisan Congressional efforts to support annual funding for State Department and USAID diversity fellowship programs, as well as study abroad opportunities. Parliamentary Diplomacy Parliamentary diplomacy advances comprehensive security and democratic institutions in the OSCE region and acts as a tool to promote safe, inclusive and equitable societies. Commissioners have championed the development of parliamentary assemblies for regional organizations throughout the world and participate regularly in the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA), which offers opportunities for engagement among parliamentarians from OSCE participating States. The Helsinki Commission organizes bicameral U.S. delegations to OSCE PA meetings throughout the year. With 17 of 323 seats, the United States has the largest representation in the assembly. In the 116th Congress, commissioners explored ways to defend human rights, hold the Kremlin accountable, and maximize cooperation with OSCE Mediterranean partners at OSCE PA meetings. Commissioners visited Hungary, Tunisia, Israel, and Morocco in bipartisan delegations aiming to strengthen shared principles, and Commissioners reported on these visits at OSCE PA meetings as well. Co-Chairman Wicker led the largest bipartisan, bicameral U.S. delegation in history to the 28th Annual Session of the OSCE PA in July 2019 in Luxembourg. At this annual session, Helsinki Commission Ranking Member Cardin, who also serves as OSCE PA Special Representative on Anti-Semitism, Racism, and Intolerance, hosted a U.S. side event in his capacity as Special Representative on the topic of adopting an action plan to counter hate and foster inclusion. Following a two-day seminar organized by Helsinki Commission and the OSCE PA in February 2020, Future Leadership for Political Inclusion in the OSCE Region: A Seminar for Young Parliamentarians, nearly 20 young legislators from OSCE participating States issued a joint declaration emphasizing the important role young people must play in addressing human rights and security challenges across the world. The commission hosted OSCE PA officials for a briefing in December of 2019 to share a parliamentary perspective on the priorities and objectives of the Albanian chairmanship of the OSCE amid regional conflicts and resistance to democratic reforms in some countries in the OSCE region. The commission also regularly hosts hearings, convenes panels, and participates in events related to parliamentary diplomacy, highlighting the important role the OSCE PA and other parliamentary assemblies play in holding governments accountable to standards of cooperation and human rights. Corruption During the 116th Congress, the Helsinki Commission promoted efforts to combat corruption in the OSCE region, recognizing it as a threat to democracy, security, and human rights. The commission’s work focuses on authoritarian kleptocracy, a form of autocratic government that relies on financial globalization and secrecy to steal and maintain power. Members of the Helsinki Commission introduced the Rodchenkov Act, the Kleptocrat Exposure Act, the Combating the Illicit Trade in Tobacco Products Act (CITTPA), the Countering Russian and Other Overseas Kleptocracy (CROOK) Act, the Foreign Extortion Prevention Act, and the Transnational Repression Accountability and Prevention (TRAP) Act. The Rodchenkov Act passed through both chambers of Congress and was signed into law by President Trump on December 4, 2020. The act establishes criminal penalties for doping schemes, provides restitution for victims, protects whistleblowers from retaliation, and shares information with the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency. Passage of the bipartisan legislation was spearheaded by Co-Chairman Wicker and Commissioner Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (RI) in the Senate and former Commissioners Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (TX-18) and Rep. Michael Burgess (TX-26) in the House of Representatives. “This legislation is a great bipartisan accomplishment for the rights of athletes, the protection of whistleblowers, and our common goal of keeping criminals out of international sports,” said Co-Chairman Wicker.  The commission also organized briefings to draw attention to issues like money laundering and official corruption, as well as to share best practices on innovative corruption policies.

  • COVID-19 IMPACTS OSCE’S 2020 HUMAN DIMENSION WORK

    By Erika Schlager, Counsel for International Law; Janice Helwig, Senior Policy Advisor;  and Shannon Simrell, Representative of the Helsinki Commission to the U.S. Mission to the OSCE The regular and planned schedule of OSCE meetings for 2020 was significantly altered by the COVID-19 pandemic. It now falls to the 2021 Chair-in-Office, Swedish Foreign Minister Ann Linde, to steward the Organization—and its human dimension activities—through the next phase of the pandemic. Changes to the OSCE’s regular order began on March 14, when Austrian authorities ordered a lockdown in response to the emerging pandemic.  OSCE meetings in Vienna, where the OSCE is headquartered, were canceled for the second half of that month.  Pressing business was conducted remotely, which allowed the Permanent Council to renew the mandate for the Special Monitoring Mission (SMM) in Ukraine and adopt the SMM budget on March 19.  After a regularly scheduled recess from April 6 to April 17, some OSCE meetings resumed as the organization shifted to primarily online meetings.  Some used a “hybrid” or “blended” format, permitting in-person engagement in Vienna (to the extent that in-person gatherings were allowed by changing local health measures), reinforced by additional participation through videoconferencing.  Two-day Supplementary Human Dimension Meetings, the Alliance Against Trafficking meeting, and the Annual Security Review Conference were held in a hybrid format.  Some other meetings, such as the annual Human Dimension Seminar in Warsaw, were not held at all.  Separately, the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly canceled its annual session, which had been scheduled in Vancouver in July. 2020 Human Dimension Implementation Meeting As the participating States and the OSCE institutions strove to adjust to circumstances created by the COVID-19 pandemic, convening the annual Human Dimension Implementation Meeting (HDIM) presented particular challenges due to its length and complexity. Reflecting the extraordinary times, the 2020 Human Dimension Implementation Meeting was canceled by decision of the participating States. Spanning two weeks, the HDIM is significantly longer than other OSCE meetings. It typically draws more than a thousand representatives of government and civil society from across the OSCE’s expansive time zones. According to its mandate, the HDIM holds six hours of formal sessions each day covering the full range of human dimension concerns including freedoms of assembly, association, expression, and religion or belief; countering anti-Semitism, racism, and xenophobia; and democratic institutions such as free and fair elections, the rule of law, and independence of the judiciary.  Dozens of side events are also organized by nongovernmental organizations, OSCE institutions, other international organizations, and participating States, which meet for up to an additional six hours a day. Side events allow participants to focus on specific issues of concern in greater depth. The most significant aspect of HDIM is that civil society representatives may speak during formal sessions on equal footing with government representatives.  Governments and civil society alike use HDIM as a forum to cultivate contacts among and between civil society and governments.  As a practical matter, the critical human rights violations that would be the focus of any implementation review were unabated by the pandemic.  On the contrary, some governments used the pandemic to distract from their long-standing human rights shortcomings. In addition, the pandemic created additional areas of concern, such as government surveillance ostensibly related to health monitoring, punitive measures against real or alleged critics of a government’s pandemic responses, and the scope and duration of emergency measures adopted in response to the pandemic. When considering how to hold the HDIM in the context of COVID-19, organizers and participants alike debated how, or indeed whether, HDIM’s unique aspects could be shoe-horned into an on-line format. The United States argued that the HDIM could and should be convened in an adjusted, blended format.  “It is precisely because of the impact of the pandemic on human rights and democracy that the HDIM must be held. [. . .] 2020 is EXACTLY the year we need HDIM most.” Harry Hummel, advisor to the Netherlands Helsinki Committee with extensive experience attending HDIMs, noted that some of these challenges had already been met for the first two Supplementary Human Dimension Meetings and that hybrid meetings would have some advantages.  However, he concluded that all online or hybrid HDIM variants would have significant disadvantages for civil society, particularly since one of the most important components of the HDIM—informal, person-to-person contacts—could not be replicated virtually A majority of OSCE participating States agreed. After extensive consultations among participating States, the Chair-in-Office, and the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) —the OSCE institution mandated to organize the HDIM—the Permanent Council decided on September 11 that the HDIM (originally scheduled for September 21–October 2) would, exceptionally, not take place in 2020 due to the unprecedented, extraordinary, and unpredictable circumstances caused by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.  The Permanent Council also stated that this decision did not establish any precedent for the organization of future HDIMs. Following the announcement, Chairman Alcee Hastings stated, “We should use this time wisely by redoubling our efforts to ensure that all OSCE participating States implement their OSCE commitments. The pandemic has revealed—and in some cases amplified—human rights shortcomings, democratic weaknesses, racial inequities, and social vulnerabilities across the region.”  At a hearing before the Helsinki Commission on September 17, OSCE Chair-in-Office Edi Rama reaffirmed the importance of HDIM. He stated, “This is a huge loss for our organization. Together with [the] Permanent Council, [the] Human Dimension Implementation Meeting is a constituent part of the OSCE’s mechanism for the review and assessment of the implementation of our commitments.” Working to Keeping Human Dimension Issues Top of Mind To provide an additional platform in 2020 for human dimension issues, the OSCE held a series of webinars between September 28 and November 6, 2020, organized by ODIHR in cooperation with the Office of the Representative on Freedom of the Media (RFoM) and the Office of the High Commissioner on National Minorities (HCNM), and with the support of the 2020 Albanian OSCE Chairmanship.  The sessions focused on racism, xenophobia, and intolerance and discrimination; combating racism and discrimination against Roma; the rule of law; access to information and freedom of the media; democratic lawmaking; multilingual education; and human rights defenders. Some of the webinars touched on subjects such as the prevention of torture (part of the discussion on human rights defenders) and access to information that also were the subject of subsequent negotiations for Ministerial Council decisions.  Although the webinars raised important human rights issues, they could not substitute for the HDIM, particularly as their format and short duration did not permit significant dialogue with civil society. Looking Ahead to 2021 In a December 3 address to the annual OSCE Ministerial Council, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun called for sustained vigilance. “We must press governments to uphold their human dimension commitments, give audience to the voices of civil society, and hold a Human Dimension Implementation Meeting in 2021 where governments are called to account for their actions,” he said. As 2021 Chair-in-Office, Sweden will have the task of consulting with the participating States on the entire calendar of OSCE meetings and events, continuing to adjust plans as needed in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. There has been strong support among participating States for moving the HDIM, which is typically been held in the early fall, to earlier in the year to prevent any conflict with the annual United Nations General Assembly meeting.  Given the inability to hold a regular HDIM in 2020, if public health conditions permit, it would be ideal to move the HDIM forward in 2021.

  • The OSCE Celebrates 30 Years of the Charter of Paris

    By Emma Derr, Max Kampelman Fellow November 21, 2020, marks the 30th anniversary of the Charter of Paris for a New Europe,  a groundbreaking document of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE). The charter was signed by 34 heads of state and government during a CSCE Summit in the French capital from November 19 to 21, 1990. The political agreement charted a path forward following Cold War confrontation and division caused by Soviet domination in the east. It ushered in a new era as states made an unprecedented commitment to domestic individual freedoms, democratic governance, human rights, and transnational cooperation. By institutionalizing the CSCE as a platform to realize peace and security, this process transformed the multilateral Conference into the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which today is the world’s largest regional security organization, comprising 57 participating States. The charter states, “Europe is liberating itself from the legacy of the past. The courage of men and women, the strength of the will of the peoples and the power of the ideas of the Helsinki Final Act have opened a new era of democracy, peace and unity in Europe.” Known by many as the “Helsinki Process,” both the CSCE and its OSCE successor have been based on ten principles guiding relations between participating States, enshrined in the Helsinki Final Act. The charter marks a triumph of the comprehensive definition of security these principles represent and a moment of unity, which participating States hoped to maintain through enhanced cooperation. During the OSCE’s three-session Security Days event in October “Revitalizing Trust and Co-operation in Europe: Lessons of the Paris Charter,” former U.S. Secretary of State James A. Baker III, who played a leading role in the charter’s formation, recalled signing the agreement as an “optimistic, almost festive event.” “It encapsulated so much that was positive about the process that had begun with the Helsinki Final Act in 1975,” he said. “It envisioned a new and inclusive continent based largely on western values, particularly the value of democracy.” The Enduring Value of the OSCE Since 1990, the OSCE has acted as a forum for political dialogue and a platform for joint action across North America, Europe, and Asia through its institutions, structures, and field operations. As its occupation of Crimea and military intervention in Eastern Ukraine have led to Russia’s isolation and sanctions by the United States and others in recent years, the OSCE is one of the few remaining multilateral forums for American diplomats to directly engage with their Russian counterparts. As an organization promoting the principles of democracy and as a forum for conflict resolution, the OSCE is a valuable tool to hold authoritarian regimes accountable throughout the region, which stretches from Vancouver to Vladivostok. Chairman of the U.S. Helsinki Commission Rep. Alcee L. Hastings and U.S. Ambassador to the OSCE James S. Gilmore III see the OSCE as a forum where the United States remains engaged and committed to the ideals cemented in the Charter of Paris. “Through the OSCE, the United States directly confronts the deceit of Russia and other authoritarian powers. By raising our voices, through our participation and leadership, we reassure our friends that the United States stands with them and supports our shared values against the growing tide of autocracy,” Rep. Hastings and Amb. Gilmore stated in an August 2020 op-ed. The organization continues to play a critical role in regional conflicts in and amongst participating States. The OSCE’s Special Monitoring Mission (SMM) to Ukraine is the only independent observer group with a permanent presence in the war zone. “The OSCE’s broad membership and comprehensive definition of security make it an ideal platform to advocate for our interests in a vital region,” stated Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker and Ranking Member Sen. Ben Cardin in a 2018 article describing the OSCE’s timeless value. “Its institutions remain singularly placed to moderate regional conflicts, promote respect for human rights, and safeguard essential elements of democracy.” The OSCE operates field missions in 13 participating States with the goal of supporting the development of host countries’ democratic institutions, legal frameworks, and ability to meet various human rights, media freedom, and policing commitments. OSCE field mission staff are praised by Carnegie Europe Senior Fellow Thomas de Waal as “some of the unsung heroes of Europe’s darkest corners.” The Charter of Paris articulated a new era of economic commitments, and the OSCE provides frequent opportunities for representatives of OSCE governments to discuss best practices concerning free market economies, economic cooperation and environmental issues. The OSCE also organizes international election observation missions to transitional and well-established democracies alike, observing and reporting on adherence to democratic election commitments. New Challenges Much has changed since the end of the Cold War, and the anniversary of the charter provides an opportunity to renew commitments to cooperation and examine how the OSCE will meet current and emerging challenges. During October’s Security Days event, former OSCE Secretary General and former High Commissioner on National Minorities Ambassador Lamberto Zannier called for reinvigorated political support and investment by participating States to enable the OSCE to continue its vital work. He cited the post-Soviet transition in Ukraine and Serbian elections in Kosovo as examples of these efforts. During his remarks at the event, Baker concluded that in this spirit, the OSCE can find new methods of cooperation to meet 21 century challenges. “Our message should not be much different than it was three decades ago,” he said. “States should fulfill the promises they made in the Paris charter 30 years ago.” The 30th anniversary inspired other webinar discussions, such as IFSH Hamburg’s Event, “30 Years Charter of Paris: Lessons for Pragmatic Cooperation in the OSCE Area,” which discussed the strengths and weaknesses of the Charter of Paris, as well as potential reforms to the OSCE. The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) also engaged in the anniversary and hosted the event “(Dis)functional International Security Institutions? The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Today.” The OSCE’s Parliamentary Assembly and the French Delegation to the Assembly held an online, public discussion “The 30th Anniversary of the Charter of Paris: A Parliamentary Perspective,” on November 20, which discussed how to the OSCE can continue to provide value within today’s complex international framework. Finally, on November 20, the Woodrow Wilson Center in cooperation with the U.S. Helsinki Commission also hosted an event, “Marking the 30th Anniversary of the Charter of Paris for a New Europe - Europe Whole and Free: The Future of the OSCE.” The discussion included the U.S. Helsinki Commission’s Ranking Member Sen. Ben Cardin and Commissioner Rep. Robert Aderholt, as well as other leading voices on European security and cooperation.   Photos Courtesy of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of France​

  • Coronavirus in the OSCE Region

    By Emma Derr, Max Kampelman Fellow A novel coronavirus was first identified in Wuhan, China in December 2019. Termed COVID-19, the disease spread rapidly around the globe. As of October 2020, 1.18 million people have died from COVID-19, and over 227,000 of these deaths have occurred in the United States. COVID-19 is one of the most devastating public health crises since the Spanish Flu of 1918. From hospital beds to protective gear, governments across the world face significant challenges in combating its morbidity and death rates. In addition to the domestic coronavirus policies implemented at the national level, multilateral organizations such as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) have taken their own steps to curb the vast negative impacts of the novel coronavirus. Examples of Coronavirus Policy Responses across the OSCE Region Countries in the OSCE region have developed a wide variety of policies to combat the significant public health, political, and economic challenges caused by the coronavirus. As the number of cases has surged or declined in various countries, coronavirus restrictions are changing on a weekly basis. In most countries, policies exist at a national level, and many countries have also imposed regional restrictions. In the United States, state and local authorities impose their own restrictions. The varying responses of the United States, Sweden, France, and Turkmenistan illustrate the many coronavirus policy differences that exist in the OSCE region. The scientific publication “Our World in Data,” in collaboration with the University of Oxford, created a “Government Response Stringency Index” using nine response indicators, including school closures and travel bans. With 100 as the strictest ranking, the index currently ranks the United State at 62.5, France at 46.76, and Sweden at 37.04. Turkmenistan is not on the index. Government Response Stringency Index as of October 28, 2020. Graphic courtesy of Our World in Data.  United States In the United States, federal action largely has been confined to restrictions on international travel and immigration, with state governors enacting their own policies concerning closures and restrictions. State policies differ in scope and timeline but most center around issues such as face mask requirements, the number of people who can gather, health guidelines for business operations, social distancing measures, state travel restrictions and quarantine orders, restaurant and bar capacities, prohibitions on non-essential medical procedures, and in-person or online school decisions. Local officials, such as state health officers and mayors, have also imposed restrictions at the county or city level, sometimes in conflict with more or less stringent state-level guidance. State restrictions change rapidly, but the New York Times has created a map with up-to-date state data and policy actions. France The French government first locked down the country on March 17, requiring citizens to provide travel permits when leaving their homes. In May, France began to gradually reopen schools and public transport at the same time as other European countries, such as Belgium and Spain, eased restrictions. Masks are mandated on public transit and recommended when social distancing guidelines cannot be followed. According to France’s government website, as of October, local curfews were imposed in the Paris region, as well as eight other cities. These changes arrive amid a European “second wave,” which includes a spike in coronavirus cases in France. On October 29, another lockdown was announced and is expected to extend until December 1. All nonessential travel outside the home is strictly prohibited as it was with the first lockdown, but this time around, schools will remain open. Sweden In the spring of 2020, Sweden kept its borders open, and became one of the few OSCE participating States that did not go into lockdown. Instead, gatherings of over 50 people, sporting events, and visits to nursing homes were prohibited; bars, restaurants and schools remained open. The general advice issued by the Public Health Agency of Sweden reminds citizens to stay at home when experiencing symptoms, wash their hands regularly, and socially distance from one another. The agency does not recommend face masks in public spaces. Due to its high per capita death rate, Swedish health officials recently released national restrictions on nightclubs, as well as other regional measures. On October 26, new local guidelines were introduced in Uppsala and Malmo, where cases have been increasing. Residents were told to avoid public transport and to only socialize with people within their households. Turkmenistan Turkmenistan is the only OSCE participating State to deny that it has been affected by COVID-19. There is significant doubt both in the international community and among Turkmen NGOs that this is the case. There have been numerous deaths of high-level government officials and people in prisons reportedly due to “pneumonia.” Humanitarian concerns have been raised as patients with COVID-19 symptoms have been overwhelming hospitals. Although the World Health Organization visited the country and did not directly contradict the official narrative, following the visit, Turkmen authorities imposed “preventive” restrictions similar to those in other countries. The country has restricted travel and border crossings; closed restaurants, shopping malls, theaters, and parks; and mandated the use of masks and social distancing in public. OSCE Action The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) is the world’s largest regional security organization with 57 participating States. Leaders of OSCE institutions and offices have stated their continuing commitments to OSCE principles and stress the importance of unity and solidarity as its nations fight to control the pandemic.  “Now is the time for unity. The COVID-19 virus does not distinguish between peoples or countries; its threat is universal. This underscores that security is common, comprehensive and indivisible,” said the Chair of the OSCE Permanent Council Igli Hasani and his colleagues in a letter earlier this year. The OSCE seeks to provide leadership through guidelines and policy recommendations that address the challenges presented by the novel coronavirus. The organization has also been active in examining the economic, environmental, and security implications of the coronavirus across the OSCE region. “In today’s highly interconnected world, it is necessary to have strong solidarity and a cooperative approach at all levels: community, state, regional, and global,” stated Vuk Zugic, OSCE Coordinator of Economic and Environmental Activities. Minority Groups and Vulnerable Populations On the Helsinki on the Hill podcast “Communities at Risk,” Ambassador Lamberto Zannier, the former OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities and a current OSCE PA High-Level Expert, spoke about providing protection for the most vulnerable during this health crisis. “We felt that the issue of protecting the diversity of the society and ensuring that all social groups are included in the policies, and there is an equal treatment for all, was not at the forefront of the concerns of many governments,” he said. “We started to see problems of discrimination. We started to see problems with hate speech. We started seeing problems with access of some of the population to basic services.” In March, as OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities, Zannier released recommendations for short-term responses to COVID-19 to support social cohesion in OSCE states, and in April, the HCNM released a full set of policy recommendations that call on countries to take into account diversity when implementing state emergency measures, such as providing public services and media communications in minority languages. Voting and Elections The OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) is mandated to address issues related to democracy, human rights, and rule of law, including freedom of the press, freedom of movement, and democratic elections.  ODIHR released a report in October outlining best alternative voting practices in the context of COVID-19, focusing on secrecy, equality, and universality. Human Trafficking ODIHR also conducted an empirical survey of survivors of human trafficking and issued a report in June that examined the impact of COVID-19 on human trafficking trends and recommended how OSCE states could respond. According to OSCE PA Special Representative on Trafficking in Persons and former Helsinki Commission Chair Rep. Chris Smith, “The COVID-19 pandemic has increased the vulnerability of children to becoming victims of trafficking and sexual exploitation. Today, with most schools closed, children are spending more of their time online where they are vulnerable to being groomed by sexual predators and lured into trafficking situations. One way we can fight this and protect our children now is by education to keep them safe online and by developing age-appropriate training tools for children, parents and educators.” Parliamentary Diplomacy The OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA) has hosted several webinars focused on the effects of the coronavirus on human rights and democracy. The webinar titled “COVID’s impact on conflicts in the OSCE region” addressed obstacles to conflict resolution, humanitarian aid efforts, and implementation of the fundamental principles agreed to under the Helsinki Final Act. Helsinki Commissioner and Chair of the OSCE PA General Committee on Political Affairs and Security Rep. Richard Hudson attended the discussion and stated his concern over “the COVID-19 pandemic and its potential to further inflame existing conflicts in the OSCE area or potentially generate new ones.” He said it was important for the Parliamentary Assembly to stay informed on the OSCE’s role in the conflict cycle, specifically in Ukraine and Georgia. Other speakers emphasized his message and noted that people in conflict zones are on one of the most dangerous frontlines of the pandemic. In May, the OSCE PA hosted a webinar titled “Respecting Human Rights and Maintaining Democratic Control During States of Emergency.” In his comments, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) emphasized the importance of protecting fundamental freedoms. “I am sorry, but not surprised that some governments have taken the need for emergency measures as an opportunity for repressive measures,” he stated. “Hungary is the only OSCE participating State that does not have a sunset clause for the expiration of its emergency measures or requiring parliamentary approval for an extension.  Parliamentary oversight is absolutely essential, especially when governments seek to exercise extraordinary powers.” During the webinar, Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), Helsinki Commission Ranking Member and the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly Special Representative on Anti-Semitism, Racism, and Intolerance, also addressed concerning aspects of COVID-19 emergency responses. “Emergency provisions which restrict freedom of speech or freedom of the media are especially concerning and may actually undermine our efforts to address this health emergency. We need to ensure that journalists, medical professionals, scientists and others can provide the public with information we need to battle COVID,” he said. OSCE Field Missions OSCE field missions have been actively adapting to support host countries’ needs during this pandemic. Since April, several missions have helped to provide medical supplies and equipment to their host countries. The OSCE Presence in Albania, a field operation that cooperates with Albania’s Border and Migration Police, donated medical supplies to Albania’s Border Police in May. The team also visited border crossing points to assess existing protocols. The OSCE Programme Office in Dushanbe provided protective gear and sanitizing supplies to its partners in Tajikistan, and the OSCE mission to Montenegro delivered food and hygiene products to support the country’s Red Cross.  Handover of personal protective equipment to Regional Health Administration of Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region on July 25, 2020. (Photo courtesy of OSCE/Umed Qurbonov) The OSCE has also facilitated online medical trainings for border officials in Turkmenistan and donated IT equipment to the Canton 10 Ministry of Education to support Bosnia and Herzegovina. The Special Monitoring Mission in Ukraine has been impacted by the pandemic by restrictions on mission member movement, but the mission nevertheless continues to be a key international actor in the country, informing on developments in the conflict areas of Donetsk and Luhansk.

  • OSCE representatives, community leaders share urgent proposals to combat discriminatory police violence

    On October 6, 2020, the OSCE Office of the High Commissioner on National Minorities, in cooperation with the Helsinki Commission, convened “Policing in Diverse Societies: Principles and Good Practices.” The webinar, which provided an opportunity to exchange knowledge, challenges and best practices, attracted over 100 attendees including practitioners, parliamentarians, and other representatives of the OSCE participating States.   Christophe Kamp, officer-in-charge of the OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities, opened the online event, one of several taking place ahead of next year’s 15th anniversary of the 2006 Recommendations on Policing in Multi-Ethnic Societies. Participants assessed the continued relevance and operational applicability of these guiding principles, as well as how best to further their scope. Senator Ben Cardin, Helsinki Commission Ranking Member and OSCE PA Special Representative on Anti-Semitism, Racism, and Intolerance, highlighted relevant legislation that has been introduced in the U.S. and focused on law enforcement reform as a way forward following protests over discriminatory, aggressive policing.   “From Russia to Canada, our country is not alone in confronting issues of discriminatory policing and racial justice in the region,” he noted. “Working together with the High Commissioner’s office and other OSCE institutions, we can strengthen efforts to ensure that racial justice and the protection of human rights for all as enshrined in the Helsinki Final Act.”   Ambassador Lamberto Zannier, a high-level expert for the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly and former OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities, underscored the role of police violence in interethnic conflict and instability in societies.  He discussed protests that erupted across the OSCE region following the tragic death of George Floyd and how aspects of the OSCE, such as its Police Matters and Tolerance and Non-discrimination units, could be instrumental in reducing conflict in the region.  Other speakers included Hilary O. Shelton of the NAACP, who emphasized the urgent need to implement cultural sensitivity and awareness training for police forces. He said this training could decrease discrimination, combat stereotypes, and foster relationships between law enforcement and communities.   Anina Ciuciu, community organizer of Collective #EcolePourTous, highlighted the need for structural changes in France to address police violence and brutality and noted continuing incidents between police and Romani communities. She shared that on average, minorities are “20 times more likely to be checked by police, and three times more likely to be brutalized by police.” Nick Glynn, senior program officer with Open Society Foundation and a former UK police officer, called for increased diversity in law enforcement, an expansion of community policing and demilitarization of police to address the multifaceted problem. Ronald Davis of the Black National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives cited the need for systematic changes in law enforcement, including changes in police culture.   Alex Johnson, U.S. Helsinki Commission Chief of Staff, moderated the discussion and detailed the history of law enforcement in the U.S. “The policing system from a perspective of personnel and practice should reflect the diversity of their societies, be it linguistic, ethnic, racial, religious, or any other identity,” he concluded.   

  • Hastings, Wicker, and Hudson Call For De-Escalation of Nagorno-Karabakh Fighting

    WASHINGTON—After a major outbreak of violence between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces Sunday in Nagorno-Karabakh, Helsinki Commission leaders Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20), Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS), and Commissioner Rep. Richard Hudson (NC-08) deplored the loss of life on both sides and called for the immediate cessation of violence and resumption of negotiations. “I am deeply concerned about the resumption in fighting between the sides, and the needless suffering it is once again inflicting on civilians,” said Chairman Hastings. “The sides must immediately cease hostilities and return to the positions held prior to Sunday’s events, in order to de-escalate the situation.” “This renewed outbreak of hostilities is a serious threat to regional stability. I hope it will not spark a broader confrontation,” said Co-Chairman Wicker. “Outside parties should not exacerbate the situation by intervening in the violence.” “The sides must use the auspices of the OSCE Minsk Group to find a solution to this conflict,” said Rep. Hudson, who also chairs the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly Committee on Political Affairs and Security. “There is no alternative to a peaceful negotiated solution of the conflict. We in the United States intend to maintain our efforts to work with the sides to settle the conflict peacefully and sustainably.” Heavy fighting broke out Sunday between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces along the line of contact separating the sides in the conflict over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region. The exchange of air strikes, rocket attacks, and artillery fire killed dozens of soldiers and civilians and injured more than a hundred, marking the worst fighting since 2016. Armenian forces occupy most of Nagorno-Karabakh and all or part of seven surrounding Azerbaijani provinces, all within Azerbaijan’s internationally recognized boundaries. The sides fought a war in the early 1990s over the fate of the historically Armenian-majority enclave following the collapse of the Soviet Union, ending in a 1994 ceasefire that governs the conflict today. Since the late 1990s, the United States, France, and Russia have co-chaired the OSCE Minsk Group process, the international format dedicated to facilitating a negotiated resolution to the conflict.

  • The OSCE: A Bulwark Against Authoritarianism

    As we mark the 45th anniversary of the 1975 signing of the Helsinki Final Act, the founding document of today’s Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the ideals of democracy that had been advanced by that pact—freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and civil liberties—are under threat. In 1975, Soviet totalitarianism was the great threat to human rights and fundamental freedoms; today, authoritarianism poses a growing threat to human dignity and rights in the region. Authoritarianism is a fact of life in much of Eurasia, a reflection of the actual worldwide tension between countries defending universal human rights obligations and countries attempting to undermine trust in democratic institutions and promote an authoritarian model. This is true not only in repressive nations like Russia; even among some U.S. partner countries, there are warning signs. Some nations have also taken it upon themselves to block vital leadership roles in international institutions during a global pandemic unlike anything we have seen in a century. The ultimate outcome of this conflict is up to us. Liberty and human rights will prevail, but only if freedom-loving people everywhere join together to defend and preserve human rights and fundamental freedoms for all. Many international institutions dedicated to freedom and human rights were founded with U.S. support in the wake of World War II, in which more than a million U.S. citizens were either killed or wounded and trillions of dollars spent on the effort to defeat fascism. Democratic ideals are ingrained in the founding charters that established those organizations. For nearly 75 years, such institutions have consistently served as a bulwark against totalitarianism, communism, terrorism, and other forms of tyranny; limited conflict among nations; helped raise millions out of poverty; and spread democratic values throughout the world. The OSCE grew out of the Helsinki Final Act, a 1975 political agreement among the United States, Canada, the Soviet Union, and other European nations. Signed by both democratic and communist regimes, the Final Act acknowledged openly that respect for human rights within states is crucial to security among states, and that human rights concerns could legitimately be raised among signatories. Today, the OSCE is the world’s largest regional security organization, encompassing 57 countries in Europe, as well as the United States and Canada.  It includes Russia, Ukraine, and many other successors of the former Soviet Union, reaching as far east as Central Asia and Mongolia, and north beyond the Arctic Circle. The phrase “Vancouver to Vladivostok” accurately describes the organization’s reach. With its “comprehensive concept of security,” the OSCE addresses military security, economic and environmental cooperation, and human rights and takes steps to prevent, manage, and resolve conflict within and among its members. The OSCE also supports the democratic development of nations that gained or regained independence in the post-Cold War period and are still finding their footing, often torn between corruption and the promise of a democratic future. Thirteen OSCE field missions operate in member countries seeking assistance in developing their democratic institutions. The OSCE recognizes and supports the important role played by civil society and the media in holding governments to account for blatant human rights violations and abuses of power. Unprecedented Gap in OSCE Leadership OSCE institutions—including its assembly of national legislators—foster an essential defense against the spread of authoritarianism. However, despite its comprehensive vision, we are now faced with an unprecedented gap in leadership at the OSCE due to the block on the extension of mandates for four senior leaders, including the Secretary General. Each week, the OSCE Permanent Council—comprising ambassadors to the OSCE from each participating State—meets in Vienna, Austria. In this forum, the United States seeks to shine a light on contraventions of States’ OSCE tenets and violations of international law. The OSCE independent institutions, like the field missions, carry those messages forward.  In addition to the organization’s other work defending human rights and fundamental freedoms, its Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) manages the OSCE’s election observation missions, internationally recognized as the “gold standard” for their methodology. Other independent offices lead the OSCE’s work on Freedom of the Media and rights of national minorities. Unfortunately, in July, these vital institutions were deprived of strong and consistent leadership by countries—including Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, and Turkey—that seem intent on attempting to weaken the OSCE’s ability to hold countries accountable for their actions and undermining the principles of the Helsinki Final Act. The executive and legislative branches of the U.S. government are partners in bringing American leadership to support the OSCE’s work. Several times each year,  members of Congress—including lawmakers serving on the U.S. Helsinki Commission, which monitors implementation of the Helsinki Accords  —gather at meetings of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, where they secure political commitments and build mutually beneficial relationships among legislators from the OSCE’s participating States to help push back against anti-democratic actions by national governments. Unfortunately, several OSCE participating States—countries that have repeatedly committed to upholding the principles and values enshrined in the Helsinki Final Act— are exhibiting a troubling slide toward authoritarianism. The United States and our democratic allies have criticized efforts to restrict and persecute journalists, human rights defenders, civil society, members of the political opposition, and members of ethnic and religious minorities. We also have jointly criticized efforts to stifle media freedom and limit political pluralism in Russia, Belarus, Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan, as well as raised concerns about media consolidation in Hungary, and limitations on freedom of speech and freedom of the press elsewhere. Russia’s Destabilizing Actions No OSCE participating State bears more responsibility for fomenting mistrust, insecurity, corruption, and human rights violations and abuses in this region than the Russian Federation. Russia’s destabilizing actions contravene all 10 Helsinki Final Act principles, ranging from respect for human rights to the prohibition of military incursions into neighboring countries. Russia continues its aggressive actions in Ukraine, including its purported annexation of Crimea. The proxy forces Russia arms, trains, leads, and fights alongside in eastern Ukraine make it dangerous for the unarmed OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine to fulfill its Permanent Council-approved mandate to monitor the conflict. Russia uses its resources—economic, political, informational, and military—to defeat freedom and democracy. Russia does not rely on military force alone to threaten democratic governance; it also uses hybrid tactics daily, ranging from cyber intrusions to influence campaigns — aimed at undermining democratic elections. We hope that someday, authoritarian countries like Russia will start behaving again according to the rules of international law. Unfortunately, these countries currently reject the values of democracy, liberty, and human rights. The authoritarian regimes view democracy as an existential threat—hence the actions some of them have taken to restrict the OSCE’s ability to do its work.  The struggle today is between those who believe authoritarianism is the right way forward and those of us who still believe that Thomas Jefferson was right in his declaration that the desire for freedom exists within the heart of every human being. In a hyper-connected modern world in which disinformation becomes an ever more powerful weapon and the divisions within free societies are exploited by malign actors, U.S. membership in organizations like the OSCE emphasizes clearly, openly, and emphatically that America will not cede the field to the authoritarian regimes. We will not allow them to be the ones to dictate what is truth and what is fiction. Human Rights and Ideals Just as Valid in 2020 Through the OSCE, the United States directly confronts the deceit of Russia and other authoritarian powers. By raising our voices, through our participation and leadership, we reassure our friends that the United States stands with them and supports our shared values against the growing tide of autocracy. By raising our voices, we remind allies and adversaries alike that the United States remains engaged and committed to what is fair, what is right, and what is true. Together, our U.S. Mission to the OSCE and the U.S. Helsinki Commission remind allies and adversaries alike that America will not ignore regimes that are actively hostile to our values and see our liberty as an existential threat. We will always prioritize respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, defend the principles of liberty, and encourage tolerance within societies, because such efforts are vital to the promotion of democracy and to U.S. national security. We reject the authoritarian notion that our fundamental freedoms are a weakness. They are our greatest strength. The United States and other like-minded countries use the power of the OSCE to show that human rights and ideals are just as valid in 2020 as they were in 1975, when the Helsinki Accords were signed. These rights not only ensure the physical, economic, and mental wellbeing of all our populations, they make the countries’ governments stronger by building legitimacy in the eyes of their citizens. America’s unwavering support of these values through multilateral organizations like the OSCE remains vital. As noted in the Trump administration’s U.S. National Security Strategy, “Authoritarian actors have long recognized the power of multilateral bodies and have used them to advance their interests and limit the freedom of their own citizens.  If the United States cedes leadership of these bodies to adversaries, opportunities to shape developments that are positive for the United States will be lost.” The OSCE deserves to be recognized by the people of both the United States and our allies and partners as a valuable tool in the fight against autocracy. We must not abandon it by leaving its most important institutions without leadership beyond its 45th anniversary. Instead, through our efforts, and those of our allies and partners in the OSCE, we must continue to defend liberty and human rights in our region and provide a beacon of hope for citizens everywhere who aspire to a free and democratic future.

  • Chairman Hastings Marks Roma Genocide Remembrance Day

    WASHINGTON—Ahead of Roma Genocide Remembrance Day on August 2, Helsinki Commission Chairman Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) issued the following statement: “As we mourn the mass murder of up to 5,000 Romani people in the so-called ‘Gypsy Family Camp’ at Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1944, I urge all OSCE participating States to remember the genocide of Roma and to acknowledge the impact this genocide continues to have on Romani communities.   “Earlier this year, Roma were among the victims of the deadly terrorist attack in Hanau, Germany, where nine people were murdered.  That heinous tragedy underscores the urgency with which we must counter racism, anti-Semitism, anti-Muslim bigotry, and xenophobia today.  The fight against the grave threat of violent extremism and racism is far from being won. “I commend the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum for its support of scholarship on the genocide of Roma, its role as a repository of critical archives, and as a guardian for the remembrance of the Holocaust and the all the victims of the Nazi regime.” The Helsinki Commission has supported the inclusion of Romani voices in research and remembrance, such as the appointment of Dr. Ethel Brooks to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum Council; acknowledgment and remembrance of the genocide of Roma, such the Berlin Memorial; archival access for survivors, their families, and scholars, including the Bad Arolsen archives; and proper preservation of and memorialization of sensitive sites of remembrance, such as the Lety Concentration Camp site. In 2019, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20), Sen. Roger Wicker (MS), Rep. Steve Watkins (KS-02), and Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) introduced resolutions in the U.S. House of Representatives (H.Res.292) and the U.S. Senate (S.Res.141) celebrating Romani American heritage. In addition to recognizing and celebrating Romani American heritage and International Roma Day, the resolutions commemorated the 75th anniversary of the destruction of the so-called “Gypsy Family Camp” at Auschwitz.  

  • Chairman Hastings Applauds Release of JUST Act Report on Assets Wrongfully Seized During Holocaust Era

    WASHINGTON—Following today’s release of the JUST Act report by the U.S. Department of State, pursuant to legislation passed by Congress in 2017 and signed into law in 2018, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) issued the following statement: “I applaud the State Department officials in embassies around the globe who have contributed to the reporting on this complicated and deeply compelling issue and the ongoing work of the Office of Holocaust Issues. “The matters covered in this report—restitution of communal and religious properties, compensation for stolen private property, rightful ownership of looted artwork, and access to archives—are among the most challenging we have faced. “This report not only seeks ways to address ‘one of the largest organized thefts in history,’ but also reminds us that these thefts were essential elements of the crime of genocide, depriving the victims of the very means of survival. Most importantly, the report demonstrates that, with requisite political will, progress can be made even after the passage of a great deal of time.” In 2017, Congress passed the Justice for Uncompensated Survivors Today (JUST) Act, which required the State Department to provide a one-time report to Congress to assess the national laws and policies of countries relating to the identification of, return of, or restitution for assets wrongfully seized during the Holocaust era. In July 2019, the Helsinki Commission hosted a briefing on truth, reconciliation and healing, where expert panelists reviewed lessons learned and discussed ways to heal and reunify societies divided by war, genocide, hierarchal systems of human value, and other tragedies stemming from extreme nationalism, racism, anti-Semitism, and other forms of ethnic and religious discrimination.

  • Helsinki Commission Chairman Amends NDAA to Reflect Support for Open Skies Treaty

    On May 21, 2020 the Trump administration reportedly decided to withdraw the United States from the Open Skies Treaty to be effective at the end of this year. To express strong opposition, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) recently authored an amendment to H.R.6395, the William M. (Mac) Thornberry National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for Fiscal Year 2021, expressing the sense of Congress that the Trump Administration’s decision to withdraw from the Treaty on Open Skies did not comply with a legal requirement to notify Congress; did not assert that any other Treaty signatory had breached the Treaty; and was made over the objections of NATO allies and regional partners.  “I am proud to have worked with Rep. Jimmy Panetta to successfully amend the House FY21 NDAA to express Congressional support for Open Skies and reiterate our commitment to the confidence and security building measures that are so vital to our NATO allies and partners,” said Chairman Hastings. “As Chairman of the U.S. Helsinki Commission, I strongly disagree with the President’s decision to withdraw from the Open Skies Treaty, an important arms control agreement that significantly reduces the risk of armed conflict.” The measure expresses support for confidence and security building measures like the Open Skies Treaty, because they reduce the risk of conflict, increase trust among participating countries, and contribute to military transparency and remain vital to the strategic interests of our NATO allies and partners. The amendment also underlines the need to address Russian violations of treaty protocols through international engagement and robust diplomatic action. The full amendment is available below or as amendment numbered 167 printed in House Report 116-457. Chairman Hastings had previously condemned the Trump administration’s decision to withdraw from the Treaty on Open Skies, which is designed to increase transparency, build confidence, and encourage cooperation among the United States, Russia, and 32 other participating states (including much of Europe as well as partners like Ukraine and Georgia), by permitting unarmed observation aircraft to fly over their entire territory to observe military forces and activities. In November 2019, the Commission hosted a joint hearing with the House Committee on Foreign Affairs on the importance of the Open Skies Treaty, emphasizing its critical role in security and stability around the world, which still stands today. The United States has conducted nearly three times as many flights over Russia as Russia has over the United States under the treaty. The United States has also used the treaty to support partners by conducting flights over hot spots such as the Ukraine-Russian border.  Amendment At the end of subtitle D of title XII, add the following: SEC. 12__. SENSE OF CONGRESS ON THE OPEN SKIES TREATY. It is the sense of Congress that-- (1) the decision to withdraw from the Treaty on Open Skies, done at Helsinki March 24, 1992, and entered into force January 1, 2002-- (A) did not comply with the requirement in section 1234(a) of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2020 (133 Stat. 1648; 22 U.S.C. 2593a note) to notify Congress not fewer than 120 days prior to any such announcement; (B) was made without asserting material breach of the Treaty by any other Treaty signatory; and (C) was made over the objections of NATO allies and regional partners; (2) confidence and security building measures that are designed to reduce the risk of conflict, increase trust among participating countries, and contribute to military transparency remain vital to the strategic interests of our NATO allies and partners and should continue to play a central role as the United States engages in the region to promote transatlantic security; and (3) while the United States must always consider the national security benefits of remaining in any treaty, responding to Russian violations of treaty protocols should be prioritized through international engagement and robust diplomatic action.

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