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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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  • HELSINKI COMMISSION DIGITAL DIGEST JUNE 2022

  • Declare Putin’s War Genocide

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  • Helsinki Commission Digital Digest May 2022

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  • Co-Chairman Cohen Condemns Lavrov’s Antisemitic Comments

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  • Helsinki Commission Regrets Closure of OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine

    WASHINGTON—On April 28, the OSCE announced that Russia had definitively forced the closure of the Special Monitoring Mission (SMM) to Ukraine, following its veto of the mission’s mandated activities as of April 1. In light of this announcement, Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), Ranking Member Sen. Roger Wicker (MS), and Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) issued the following joint statement: “Moscow’s choice to force the closure of the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine is only its latest offense against the rules-based international order. The brave monitors and staff who served the mission, in place since 2014, did exactly what they were supposed to do. Despite continual harassment and under constant threat, they reported objectively on ceasefire violations, informing the international community about the brutal reality of Russia’s war against Ukraine. The monitors’ clear and continuous reporting allowed the world to draw its own conclusions about the roots of Russia’s aggression. Moscow’s move to force the mission to close only underlines its desire to hide this ugly fact. “As we commend the service of these brave monitors and condemn Russia’s obstruction, we renew our call on Moscow to immediately release all Ukrainian SMM staff members who have been detained in occupied parts of Ukraine. “We also mourn the recent loss of Maryna Fenina, a Ukrainian national serving with the SMM who was killed by Russia’s shelling in Kharkiv on March 1, and we will never forget American paramedic Joseph Stone, who was killed while serving in support of the mission when his vehicle struck a landmine in Russian-controlled territory in eastern Ukraine on April 23, 2017.” The SMM was established in 2014 as an unarmed, civilian mission and served as the international community’s eyes and ears on the security and humanitarian situation in the conflict zone. It operated under a mandate adopted by consensus among the 57 OSCE participating States, including the United States, Russia, and Ukraine.

  • Helsinki Commission Digital Digest April 2022

  • Russian War Crimes in Ukraine to Be Discussed at Helsinki Commission Hearing

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following hearing: RUSSIAN WAR CRIMES IN UKRAINE Wednesday, May 4, 2022 NEW TIME: 2:00 p.m. Dirksen Senate Office Building Room 562 Watch live: www.youtube.com/HelsinkiCommission Well-documented Russian bombings and missile strikes in Ukraine have decimated hospitals, schools, and apartment buildings, including a theater in Mariupol where hundreds of children were sheltering and the Kramatorsk rail station where thousands were waiting to escape the Russian onslaught. The withdrawal of Russian troops from towns like Bucha, Chernihiv, and Sumy has revealed horrific scenes of civilian carnage, mass graves, and reports of rape and torture. Several world leaders have accused Russia of committing genocide against the people of Ukraine. In March, 45 Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) states began proceedings to “establish the facts and circumstances of possible cases of war crimes and crimes against humanity…and to collect, consolidate, and analyze this information with a view to presenting it to relevant accountability mechanisms.”  The resulting report, issued on April 14, found “clear patterns of international humanitarian law violations by the Russian forces” and recommended further investigations to “establish individual criminal responsibility for war crimes.” The Government of Ukraine, Ukrainian NGOs, and the International Criminal Court are collecting evidence for use in future legal proceedings. Witnesses at the hearing will discuss the findings of the OSCE report, examine evidence being collected to document Russian war crimes in Ukraine, and analyze paths to bring perpetrators to justice.   The following witnesses are scheduled to testify: Panel 1: OSCE Experts Wolfgang Benedek, Professor of International Law (ret.), University of Graz Veronika Bílková, Associate Professor, Faculty of Law, Charles University in Prague Marco Sassoli, Professor of International Law, University of Geneva Panel 2 Beth Van Schaack, U.S. Ambassador at Large for Global Criminal Justice Timothy Snyder, Professor of History at Yale University; Permanent Fellow, the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna Iryna Venediktova, Prosecutor General, Ukraine

  • Helsinki Commission Leaders Condemn Detention of OSCE Officials by Russian-Led Forces in Ukraine

    WASHINGTON—Following the detention of four Ukrainian nationals serving as members of the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission in Russian-controlled areas of eastern Ukraine who reportedly were accused of illegal activities including treason and espionage, Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), and Ranking Members Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) and Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) issued the following joint statement: “The targeting and detention of OSCE officials by Russian-controlled forces is utterly unacceptable. Those detained must be released immediately. We will hold Russian officials responsible for any mistreatment they suffer.” On April 24, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) confirmed that four Ukrainian staff members of the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine (SMM) had been detained and held “for engaging in administrative activities that fall within their official functions as OSCE staff.”   The SMM had served a critical function as the eyes and ears of the international community in the conflict zone since 2014, until a Russian veto forced its mandated activities to cease on April 1. Since then, Ukrainian mission members had been carrying out minimum necessary administrative tasks focused on efforts to ensure the safety and security of its mission members, assets, and premises throughout Ukraine, including in Russian-controlled areas.

  • Helsinki Commission Urges OSCE PA to Adopt Ukrainian Declaration Recognizing Russia’s Actions as Genocide

    WASHINGTON—Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), who serves as Head of the U.S. Delegation to the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (PA), along with other Helsinki Commissioners who hold leadership roles in the commission and the OSCE PA, today released a letter urging the assembly to adopt a declaration by the parliament of Ukraine that recognizes Russia’s actions in Ukraine as genocide. Co-Chairman Cohen was joined in the letter to OSCE PA President Margareta Cederfelt by Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), who serves as the OSCE PA Special Representative on Anti-Semitism, Racism and Intolerance; Senate Ranking Member Sen. Roger Wicker (MS), who serves as an OSCE PA vice-president; Commissioner Rep. Richard Hudson (NC-08), who chairs the OSCE PA Committee on Political Affairs and Security; and House Ranking Member Joe Wilson (SC-02). The letter read in part: “It is clear to us that Russian dictator Vladimir Putin and his military regime are engaging in acts of genocide against Ukraine and its people and we urge the OSCE PA to also endorse the Rada’s declaration and issue a similar statement. “We do not come to this conclusion lightly, and we recognize the importance of precision in employing such terminology. However, given the overwhelming evidence—from Putin and his regime’s many comments denying the existence of Ukrainian nationhood and the deliberate targeting of civilians, to the wholesale destruction of Mariupol, the mass graves that now pockmark Ukrainian lands, and reports of forced deportation of Ukrainian people including children to Russia where they are being indoctrinated in “reeducation camps” in attempts to destroy Ukrainian identity—we cannot be silent. The OSCE PA must raise its voice and speak with unity and unmitigated clarity about the unspeakable horrors that are unfolding in Ukraine and be truthful about what is happening there… “Given Russia’s disregard for the 10 Helsinki principles guiding relations between participating States, its manipulation of OSCE rules for its own destructive ends, and its encouragement of neighboring Belarus to be complicit in its war crimes and genocidal actions, the Parliamentary Assembly should make clear where we as a credible body stand. Russia’s horrific war of choice in Ukraine and this unfolding genocide must be described just as it is.” The full letter is available online.

  • Debunking “Denazification”

    By Worth Talley, Max Kampelman Fellow​ On February 24, 2022, Russian dictator Vladimir Putin announced a “special military operation” to “demilitarize and denazify” Ukraine—in reality, a Russian invasion designed to subjugate the democratic, peaceful people of Ukraine. When the news broke, Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen immediately decried the statement. “Like Mr. Zelensky, I am Jewish; Nazis kill Jews,” he said. Putin’s claim of “denazification,” not only patently false, borders on incoherent to a Western audience, which immediately links Nazism with antisemitism and the Holocaust and thus understands the “denazification” of a country led by a Jewish president to be impossible.   The real nature of Putin’s claim is clear: it is a fallacious attempt to drum up domestic support for his war of aggression in Ukraine designed to resonate with a Russian audience. Putin draws on the Soviet myth of the Great Patriotic War in an attempt to validate his invasion and to obscure the true nature of his war—an attack on Ukrainian identity—under the guise of a mission against Nazism. Within this historical footing, Russians can accept the “denazification” of Ukraine precisely because the myth, like other holdovers from Soviet policy, deemphasizes antisemitism’s connection to Nazism and reimagines Nazism primarily as an attack on Soviet and Russian identities, not Jewish ethnicity. The Great Patriotic War World War II occupies a central place in Russian historical memory. The Russian conception of the Great Patriotic War has existed in multiple formulations since the defeat of Nazi Germany, but it consistently centers the role of the Soviet people in defeating Nazism, placing equal emphasis on Soviet victory and on the suffering and sacrifices of the Soviet people. In fact, the Great Patriotic War begins in 1941—rather than 1939—with Nazi Germany’s invasion of the USSR under Operation Barbarossa. The fact that the Great Patriotic War is the term commonly used for World War II by Russians obscures the nature of Russian involvement in the war prior to 1941. This state-sponsored narrative eschews a nuanced understanding of Soviet participation in the Second World War, particularly of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and of the Soviet atrocities committed in Poland and the Baltics during that period of non-aggression between the 1939 pact and the 1941 Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union. The Law Against the Rehabilitation of Nazism, signed into law by Putin in 2014, effectively criminalizes speech regarding these Soviet actions. As the Great Patriotic War emphasizes Soviet anguish, it glosses over the suffering of Jews and other minorities and even the Holocaust itself. Soviet policy historically downplayed the centrality of the Holocaust by centering a collective, Soviet suffering over a particular, Jewish one. Furthermore, denouncing the antisemitic core of Nazism would have directly contradicted the Soviet Union’s own state-sponsored antisemitism. The Holocaust, particularly the millions of deaths that occurred in Soviet territory, was written off in Soviet historical narratives as a crime against the (ethnically ambiguous) Soviet citizenry. For example, the Soviet memorial at Babyn Yar—a site in Kyiv, formerly in the Soviet Union, where 33,000 Jews were murdered by Nazi troops and Ukrainian collaborators over the course of two days—featured an inscription to the “peaceful Soviet citizens” that died there, insinuating that the site formed part of a collective, Soviet suffering rather than acknowledging it as a site of antisemitic genocide. The myth of the Great Patriotic War thus classifies the actions of Ukrainians who collaborated with the Nazis—such as Stepan Bandera and the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists—primarily as a crime against the Soviet people, with the antisemitic actions and beliefs of these Ukrainians nationalists occupying a secondary—or altogether irrelevant—level of importance. Nonetheless, the collaboration of some Ukrainian nationalists with Nazis during World War II has allowed the Kremlin, through a peculiar melding of myth and reality, to conflate Nazism with the very development of Ukrainian national identity (though, of course, Ukrainian national identity is not synonymous with Nazism, nor did it only begin to develop during the Second World War). Language Laws and Russian Rhetoric As Ukraine has distanced itself from Russian political influence, establishing a distinct national identity has become of a question of greater importance—particularly considering the stifled development of such an identity under the Soviet Union. Putin’s current, baseless, claims of genocide against Russian speakers in Donetsk and Luhansk occur against the backdrop of Ukrainian language laws, which make Ukrainian the country’s sole official language and set forth requirements for the use of Ukrainian in education and media. The most recent of these laws, passed in 2019, was met with harsh criticism from Maria Zakharova, a spokeswoman of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, who termed it “a law of forced Ukrainization,” and with skepticism from Volodymyr Zelensky, then the president-elect of Ukraine and himself a native Russian speaker. In an earlier reaction to such legislation, Zakharova claimed that “Ukraine uses language genocide on a state level,” echoing the rhetoric of genocide now used by the Kremlin to justify its invasion. Zakharova’s statements recall Soviet policy against Ukrainian national identity. Her use of the term “Ukrainization” echoes the use of the same term under Stalin in a 1932 decree to combat the growth of Ukrainian language and culture (i.e. “Ukrainization”). This decree was issued during the beginning of Holodomor—the genocide against Ukrainians, which began as an unintentional famine yet was retooled by Stalin to deliberately kill millions of Ukrainians. In this sense, contemporary Kremlin claims of “Ukrainization” and “language genocide” toward Russian speakers in Ukraine recall Stalin’s policies of both cultural and literal genocide directed at Ukrainians and Ukrainian national identity. Now, through the distorted lens of the Great Patriotic War and other Soviet policy, the Kremlin misrepresents the development of Ukrainian national identity as a crime against Russian speakers. Analysis of this historical manipulation, however, lays bare the reality of the war as an act of flagrant aggression committed against Ukrainians intended to destroy their culture and identity.

  • Diverse Voices Reporting From Ukraine

    Journalists in Ukraine risk their lives daily to report the reality of war. Credible, on-the-ground reporting has documented war crimes committed by Russian forces and the continued bombardment of Ukrainian cities, targeting civilians and critical infrastructure and displacing millions. So far, at least seven journalists have been killed, and others injured, while covering Russia's genocidal war against the people of Ukraine. During a briefing, held April 20, 2022, attendees heard from three journalists currently reporting from Ukraine: Oz Katerji, a freelance conflict journalist; Asami Terajima, a journalist with the Kyiv Independent; and Olga Tokariuk, an independent journalist based in Ukraine and a non-resident fellow with CEPA. All of the panelists are journalists currently in Ukraine, whose diverse backgrounds bring important perspectives on the war. The discussion centered on their personal experiences, the contributions their diverse backgrounds bring to their coverage, and the experiences of individual Ukrainians they have encountered during the war. The briefing was moderated by Helsinki Commission Senior Policy Advisor Bakhti Nishanov. Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09) opened the hearing by expressing his gratitude and appreciation to the panelists and stressed the importance of listening to voices on the ground in Ukraine. In opening remarks, Nishanov highlighted the rampant deceit surrounding narratives on the war in Ukraine and emphasized the purpose of the briefing: to spotlight diverse voices reporting in Ukraine, to listen to their stories, and to respond with action. Oz Katerji gave an account of the horrifying tactics utilized by the Russian military in Syria, which are now being repeated in Ukraine. He stated that Putin has been given impunity for decades in response to Russian aggression in Syria, Georgia, Chechnya, and now in Ukraine. “Syria was the opening shot and Ukraine is the continuation of Putin’s war of expansion into Europe,” he said, “Putin won’t stop unless he is stopped.” Asami Terajima shared a moving account of the Ukrainian people’s spirit and resilience, and denounced claims of Nazism in Ukraine as absurd. She described Ukrainians as brave, freedom-loving people and said that even in such difficulty, they are already rebuilding their lives as best they can. Olga Tokariuk reiterated the danger faced by all those in Ukraine, whether in the eastern or western regions. Russia has attacked Lviv and injured dozens in the region, in addition to the massive human rights violations it already has committed in every region of Ukraine. Tokariuk warned that unless Russia is stopped, it will continue to perpetrate genocide on a massive scale in Ukraine. She said, “Russia will not stop in Donbas…No one in Ukraine is safe or can be safe unless Russia is defeated and Ukraine wins this war.” Attendees raised a number of questions to the panelists, ranging from the logistics of transporting military equipment to the value of counteracting propaganda within Russia. Related Information Panelist Biographies Oz Katerji: "In the Liberated Kyiv Suburbs, Two Tales of War Emerge" Olga Tokariuk: "Syrian Doctors Are Teaching Ukrainians How to Prepare for Chemical Attacks"

  • Journalists paint troubling picture of Russian war in Ukraine: 'It's light versus darkness'

    An independent U.S. commission heard vivid descriptions on Wednesday about what it's like to be on the ground in Ukraine for journalists who are responsible for keeping the world updated on Russia's bloody war. In testimony before the independent Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, multiple Ukraine-based journalists communicated how Moscow is indiscriminately attacking troops and civilians there and destroying cities. Ukraine is one of the most dangerous assignments in the world for reporters and several have already been killed there since Russia invaded the former Soviet republic on Feb. 24. The CSCE, also known as the Helsinki Commission, heard about the journalists' personal experiences and stories they have encountered in the battle-scarred country for the past eight weeks. Independent Ukrainian journalist Olga Tokariuk said she fled to western Ukraine just days after the fighting began and that she fears what Russia's war could mean for the future of the country, which declared its independence after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. "If Russia is not stopped -- if Russia is allowed to take more Ukrainian territory, this will happen everywhere," she told the commission. "Russia will perpetuate genocide on a massive scale. "No one in Ukraine can be safe unless Russia is defeated." Tokariuk added that most of the journalists she knows in Ukraine may have underestimated the danger initially. "Ukrainians had freedom of speech, freedom of press," she said. "We had the feeling that we were part of the free world." Tokariuk described grisly human rights violations in parts of Ukraine, particularly in the east -- including kidnappings, disappearances and forced deportations to Russia. The CSCE -- an independent government agency formed in 1975 to monitor security conditions in Europe -- says that at least seven journalists have been killed so far in Ukraine since the war began. The commission is comprised of several lawmakers from the House and Senate and normally includes three executive members from the departments of Defense, Commerce and State. Those seats are presently vacant. Asami Terajima, a Kyiv Independent journalist, told the lawmakers that she moved to Ukraine when she was 10. "Every single day as the war continues, more Ukrainian civilians are dying and more cities are being destroyed," she said, emphasizing that Russia is not targeting only Ukrainian troops. Freelance conflict reporter Oz Katerji told the commission that although Ukrainian fighters have been successful repelling Russian advances, they need weapons and equipment that will "strike fear in the hearts" of Russian troops. "This is democracy versus totalitarianism," he said. "It's light versus darkness." Evgeny Sakun, a Ukrainian cameraman working for Kyiv Live TV, was the first journalist to be killed after the invasion when Russian missiles struck the television tower in Kyiv on March 1. Award-winning video journalist and documentary filmmaker Brent Renaud was killed in Irpin on March 13 and an attack on a Fox News camera crew near Kyiv killed Irish reporter Pierre Zakrzewski, a cameraman and Ukrainian reporter-producer Oleksandra Kuvshynova a day later. Late last month, journalist Oksana Baulina was killed in Kyiv by a "kamikaze drone" while working for Latvia-based Russian online investigative media outlet The Insider. Jeanne Cavelier, head of Reporters Without Borders' Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk, said a few weeks ago that a quarter of all journalists who have died worldwide in 2022 were killed in Ukraine within the first month of fighting. "As their reporting is essential in order to understand the war in Ukraine and attacking journalists is a war crime under international law, we call on the Russian and Ukrainian authorities to guarantee their safety on the ground," Cavelier said in a statement. Ukraine is ranked 97th out of 180 countries in Reporters Without Borders' 2021 World Press Freedom Index. Russia is ranked 150th. "Journalists in Ukraine risk their lives daily to report the reality of war," the CSCE said in a statement before Wednesday's hearing. "Credible, on-the-ground reporting has documented war crimes committed by Russian forces and the continued bombardment of Ukrainian cities, targeting civilians and critical infrastructure and displacing millions."

  • Journalists Reporting from Ukraine to Speak at Helsinki Commission Briefing

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following online staff briefing: DIVERSE VOICES REPORTING FROM UKRAINE Wednesday, April 20, 2022 10:00 a.m. Register: https://bit.ly/3E89IZX Journalists in Ukraine risk their lives daily to report the reality of war. Credible, on-the-ground reporting has documented war crimes committed by Russian forces and the continued bombardment of Ukrainian cities, targeting civilians and critical infrastructure and displacing millions. So far, at least seven journalists have been killed, and others injured, while covering Russia's genocidal war against the people of Ukraine. This briefing will convene journalists currently in Ukraine, whose diverse backgrounds bring important perspectives on the war. The discussion will center on their personal experiences and those of individual Ukrainians they have encountered during the war. The following panelists are scheduled to participate: Oz Katerji, Freelance conflict journalist Asami Terajima, Journalist, Kyiv Independent Olga Tokariuk, Independent journalist based in Ukraine; Non-Resident Fellow, CEPA  

  • Helsinki Commission Digital Digest March 2022

  • International Court orders Russia to suspend invasion of Ukraine

    Helsinki Commission Chairman Senator Ben Cardin joined ABC News to discuss a resolution submitted by himself and others, which was recently adopted by the Senate and called on the Putin regime to be held accountable for war crimes committed during Russia's invasion of Ukraine."I hope that one day in the near future we'll see [Mr. Putin] at the Hague, tried as a war criminal," he said. On March 23, the U.S. Department of State published a statement confirming that Russian forces have committed war crimes in Ukraine.

  • Helsinki Commission Mourns Death of Ukrainian OSCE Mission Member During Russian Attack on Kharkiv

    WASHINGTON—Following the death of a Ukrainian member of the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission (SMM) in Ukraine during a Russian attack, Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), and Ranking Members Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) and Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) issued the following joint statement: “We are saddened and angered by the tragic death of Maryna Fenina, a Ukrainian member of the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission (SMM) in Ukraine, during shelling in Kharkiv on March 1. We offer our deepest condolences to her family and friends. “Russian dictator Vladimir Putin’s ruthless attack against the people of Ukraine is targeting men, women, and children; destroying homes, businesses, and cultural treasures; and forcing millions to flee for their lives. Putin’s unprovoked war is shredding the European security architecture that brought peace after the Second World War. Individuals like Maryna Fenina remind us of the terrible human toll of war. “Russia must cease its brutal and criminal invasion and withdraw its forces from the sovereign territory of Ukraine.” Maryna Fenina was the second OSCE SMM member to die as a result of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine. Joseph Stone, a U.S. paramedic serving with the SMM, was killed In April 2017 when his vehicle struck a landmine in Russian-controlled territory in eastern Ukraine. The SMM was established in 2014 to monitor implementation of the Minsk agreements, which were designed to bring peace to eastern Ukraine. It is an unarmed, civilian mission that has served as the international community’s eyes and ears on the security and humanitarian situation in the conflict zone. On February 25, the SMM decided to withdraw its international mission members from Ukraine. Ukrainian national mission members remain in the country. 

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