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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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    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. 

  • Russia's Assault on Ukraine and the International Order

    Russia’s Ukraine gambit is the most flagrant manifestation of the Kremlin’s assault on the international order. Moscow’s actions degrade the security environment in Europe and are a direct attack on settled international norms, including the territorial integrity of states and the self-determination of peoples affirmed in the Helsinki Final Act and subsequent agreements of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). On February 2, 2022, the U.S. Helsinki Commission held a hearing on Russian aggression against Ukraine. The hearing included testimony from three expert witnesses on the motives and intentions of the Kremlin, how the West can continue to support Ukraine, and the ramifications of Putin’s belligerence for Europe and the international order. Helsinki Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) opened the hearing by highlighting the unity displayed between the United States and Europe in response to the threatened invasion. He commended the Biden administration on its efforts to enhance deterrence and reinforce NATO’s eastern flank, while ensuring a diplomatic path remains open to Russia should it wish to find areas of cooperation; he emphasized that the sovereignty of Ukraine and freedom of Europe would under no circumstance be bargained away. Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09) noted that Putin considers Ukraine’s evolution into a budding democracy “with its open market of ideas, vibrant media, and a strong civil society” as a threat to his regime and repeated the importance of a free and sovereign Ukraine for the security of Europe. Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) highlighted Russia’s participation in the Helsinki Final Act of 1975, saying, “Putin is now treading underfoot the principles at the heart of the Commission’s work, principles agreed to by Mr. Putin’s predecessors in Moscow.” He also underlined importance of ensuring passage of defense appropriations to our defense commitments abroad. Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) praised the strong bipartisan stance exemplified by the hearing regarding the need to deter Russia; Republicans and Democrats in the U.S. Congress, as well as Transatlantic allies, were “firmly united in support of the people of Ukraine” Dr. Fiona Hill, senior fellow in the Center on the United States and Europe in the Foreign Policy program at the Brookings Institution, testified on Putin’s motives and likely worldview, citing Russian interventions in Georgia, Armenia, and Belarus. “From Russia’s perspective, the United States played no significant role in addressing these upheavals,” she said. She noted that the 2024 presidential elections likely are influencing Putin’s need to act now. Dr. Hill closed by emphasizing the importance of definitively countering Putin’s narrative regarding Russia’s aggressive posture. “We need to reframe this crisis for what it is, as the administration has just done in the United Nations,” she said. “This is not a proxy conflict. This is not aggression by the United States or NATO. This is not a righteous effort to counter some great historic wrong, as President Putin says. This is an act of post-colonial revisionism on the part of Russia.” Lieutenant General (Ret.) Ben Hodges, Pershing Chair in Strategic Studies at the Center for European Policy Analysis, testified on the current needs of the Ukrainian army, as well as potential countermeasures Ukraine’s Western partners can take to address Russian aggression. He highlighted President Zelensky’s request for funds to support a significantly larger Ukrainian army, as well as continued diplomatic support from the West. General Hodges also underlined that a common approach among NATO Allies, including and especially Germany, would be necessary to prevent a new Russian offensive. “We need to take the initiative instead of always reacting to whatever the Kremlin does. But we have to do this in unity with our allies,” he said. Lieutenant General Hodges closed by urging NATO to remain clear-eyed about the nature of diplomacy with the Kremlin. “They are not boy scouts. They use chemical weapons, poison and murder against their own opposition, and they use cyber and disinformation to destroy lives and trust in our democratic system,” he noted. “We should talk, but we need to understand with whom we are talking.” Ambassador (Ret.) William Taylor, Vice President, Russia and Europe at the United States Institute of Peace, commended the resolve and unity shown by President Biden and President Zelensky, suggesting that this had been surprising to the Kremlin. He surmised that the effectiveness of the Western response had, to date, successfully deterred a full-scale invasion and there was reason to believe that Putin currently remains engaged on a diplomatic track. Ambassador Taylor underlined the stakes in the current confrontation and their relevance to U.S. interests, describing Ukraine as “the frontline of the battle between democracy and autocracy. We should support them. With that support, they will prevail. Putin will lose.” Members raised a broad range of concerns with witnesses, questioning them on issues ranging from the influence of public opinion and oligarchs on Putin’s thinking, to the most efficient timing of sanctions. Witnesses were united in their praise for the bipartisan consensus on countering Russian aggression demonstrated by Congress, and adamant in their call for continued resolve and determination in the support of Ukraine. Related Information Witness Biographies Putin Has the U.S. Right Where He Wants It - Dr. Fiona Hill  NATO Must Help Ukraine Prepare for War - Lieutenant General (Ret.) Ben Hodges  After U.S.-Russia Talks, Risk of War in Ukraine Still High - Ambassador (Ret.) William B. Taylor

  • On International Holocaust Remembrance Day, Cardin and Cohen Denounce Recent Antisemitic Activity Across the United States

    WASHINGTON—On the 77th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau in Nazi-occupied Poland, which is designated as International Holocaust Remembrance Day, U.S. Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) and Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09) issued the following statement on the recent spate of antisemitic activity across the United States: “We are extremely alarmed by recent events targeting the Jewish community. The distribution of flyers across multiple states touting antisemitic and racist conspiracy theories, invoking Nazi ideologies, and blaming the Jewish community for the COVID-19 pandemic has come hard on the heels of a vicious attack on the Congregation Beth Israel synagogue in Colleyville, Texas. These incidents must be stopped and called out as the dangerous fearmongering they are. Not only on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, but every day, leaders and every person in this country have an obligation to stand up against hate.   “Antisemitism is not just a problem in the United States. We see similar issues in Europe, where Jewish synagogues, schools, and cemeteries once again must tighten security protocols in fear of attack, and the Holocaust is being trivialized for political gain. It is time for the 57 participating States of the OSCE to come together and adopt an international strategy to hold countries accountable for implementing legislation to quash hate crimes and discrimination, protect Jewish communities, and address the dangerous ideologies that lead to violence and sow disunity in our country and abroad. “International Holocaust Remembrance Day serves as a grim reminder of our past failures to protect the Jewish community. Inaction or turning a blind eye to antisemitism and hate only encourages its proliferation. We must ensure that the words ‘never again’ have real meaning by stamping out antisemitism wherever it is found.” Chairman Cardin, who also serves as the OSCE PA Special Representative on Racism, Anti-Semitism, and Intolerance and is a member of the United States Holocaust Memorial Council, has called for an OSCE strategy to address antisemitism and other forms of intolerance.  In July, the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly adopted an urgent item he drafted titled “Addressing the Rise in Hate, Intolerance, Violence and Discrimination Across the OSCE Region” that he has called for the new Polish Chair-in-Office to work with OSCE countries to implement.  

  • Russia’s Assault on Ukraine and the International Order 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: RUSSIA’S ASSAULT ON UKRAINE AND THE INTERNATIONAL ORDER Assessing and Bolstering the Western Response Wednesday, February 2, 2022 2:30 p.m. Dirksen Senate Office Building Room 562 Watch live: www.youtube.com/HelsinkiCommission Russia’s Ukraine gambit is the most flagrant manifestation of the Kremlin’s assault on the international order. Moscow’s actions degrade the security environment in Europe and are a direct assault on settled international norms. These include the territorial integrity of states and the self-determination of peoples affirmed in the Helsinki Final Act and subsequent agreements of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). Witnesses will examine the latest developments in the Kremlin-driven crisis in and around Ukraine and the urgency for the United States to bolster Ukraine’s defenses and deter further Russian aggression. The following witnesses are scheduled to testify: Dr. Fiona Hill, Senior Fellow, Center on the United States and Europe, Brookings Institution Lieutenant General (Retired) Ben Hodges, Pershing Chair, Center for European Policy Analysis Ambassador (Retired) William B. Taylor, Vice President, U.S. Institute of Peace

  • Half Measures Are Worse Than Nothing in Ukraine

    Europe begins the new year on the brink of major war. Russia has amassed more than 100,000 troops and heavy equipment along Ukraine’s border and issued an ultimatum to the West demanding it trade Ukraine’s sovereignty in exchange for its peace. Such demands are a strategic nonstarter, but the seriousness of the Kremlin’s threats appear all too real. To stop this war before it begins, muddling through is not an option; this demands immediate and bold action. Russia claims its 100,000-plus troops at Ukraine’s doorstep is a response to NATO enlargement and its infrastructure in Ukraine and Eastern Europe. These arguments are unconvincing. The Kremlin has used NATO as a straw man for its grievances, yet Russian disquiet has little to do with NATO itself, which has no immediate plans to expand anywhere near Russia and would not threaten Russia if it did. Although the United States and its European partners have provided material and technical military assistance to Ukraine, it has not changed the region’s balance of power. Instead, Russia’s demands evince anxiety over global status and the possibility that its borderlands may be able to escape from its grip. In particular, Ukraine has the size and industrial capacity to make it a credible economic and military power regardless of whether it joins NATO. For Russia, a strong and hostile Ukraine is intolerable, even though Russian aggression husbanded Ukraine’s pro-West turn. By supporting Donbass separatism and annexing Crimea, the Kremlin stoked patriotism in Ukraine, lanced Ukraine’s most Russia-friendly population, and earned Kyiv’s hostility. Ukraine is not the only country for which this applies, but it may be the most significant given its size, geography, and symbolic position in official Russian neoimperial mythology. War should be avoided at all reasonable costs. Another invasion would risk tens of millions of lives and further undermine Europe’s increasingly fragile security. The United States and Europe should be willing to negotiate in good faith to avoid wider conflict—so long as Ukraine, Georgia, and Eastern Europe’s sovereignty are preserved. However, acceding to Russia’s maximalist demands would strip Ukraine of its already battered sovereignty and invite a new Iron Curtain over Europe—consigning many millions of people to generations of domination and conflict. History and international relations theory may offer some guidance in this crisis. In the runup to the Peloponnesian War between the sprawling Athenian league and Sparta’s opposing empire, Athens faced a dilemma between its ally Corcyra and Corinth, a powerful member of the Spartan alliance. As chronicled by classical historian Donald Kagan in his On the Origins of War: And the Preservation of Peace, Corcyra called on Athens for protection, but Athens was anxious to intervene lest it precipitate a ruinous great-power war with Sparta, which was increasingly fearful that Athens, the rising force in Greece, would eclipse Spartan power. Yet Athens worried that abandoning Corcyra would undermine its alliances and invite Spartan aggression. As a compromise, Athens deployed a mere 10 ships out of its vast 400-ship fleet to join the Corcyraeans in the hopes that it would be enough to deter Corinth’s advancing 150-ship armada. However, as Kagan notes, Athens’s symbolic deployment was not strong enough to deter Corinth—much less defeat it—but too aggressive to completely assuage Spartan fears about Athenian ambitions. In the ensuing Battle of Sybota, the Corinthian armada destroyed the combined Corcyraean-Athenian fleet, launching a spiral of events that led to the devastating Peloponnesian War. As the United States deliberates with its partners and allies to craft countermeasures against Kremlin aggression, the West should avoid its own 10-ship trap. In some ways, NATO’s 2008 Bucharest summit decision is an example, where the alliance promised eventual membership to Georgia and Ukraine without a concrete pathway. This compromise left Georgia and Ukraine vulnerable while stoking the Kremlin’s strategic anxieties. The recently departed Columbia University political scientist Robert Jervis considered such problems in his international relations theory classic Perception and Misperception in International Politics. Jervis weighed deterrence against a “spiral” model, which posited that counterescalating in response to perceived escalation could provoke the opposite of the intended response. An attempt at deterrence could instead be viewed as further provocation. While deterrence preaches strength and resolution, the spiral model generally counsels conciliation. However, Jervis theorized that while the deterrence and spiral models are often presented as opposing, generalizable theories, their usefulness varies with the circumstances. He surmised that deterrence is applicable between two powers with genuinely incompatible positions, and the spiral model best applies to disputes between status quo powers where their perceived incompatibility is mostly illusory. One exercise Jervis suggests is to interrogate evidence that the second power is not engaged in revisionist aggression. In this case, a charitable reading of Russian actions suggests that Russia’s grievances are oriented to the security situation on its borders—the “belt of Russia’s vital interests.” In this interpretation, Russia’s historical influence along its borders need not be a cause for alarm on its own, much less for war. Indeed, if arms limitations and codes of conduct represent an acceptable compromise to defuse the present crisis without sacrificing the freedom or sovereignty of the states on Russia’s border, this is worth pursuing. However, which vital interests necessitate Russian dominion over its periphery? Although Russia’s perceptions of insecurity may be real, it is demonstrably not materially insecure, with a large, full-spectrum, and sophisticated military that is arguably the most powerful in Europe. Russia’s neighbors are far weaker, Western states largely disarmed after the Soviet Union’s dissolution, and remnant Allied forces remained in Western Europe in compliance with the NATO-Russia Founding Act, even as Russia has significantly militarized. And Russia’s economic fortunes are far better served by peace and integration with the West, not conflict. However, the stability and integrity of European security architecture as enshrined in the Helsinki Final Act remain fundamental to U.S. national security. Any countenance of the Kremlin’s broader abrogation of that framework and the restoration of a new Yalta Conference would reverse decades of peace and prosperity—and likely drive continental militarization that would only compound Russian security anxieties and conflict. It appears the West and the Russian regime’s positions are indeed incompatible. In response, the United States and its allies must be wary of the 10-ship trap. Although caution is often a virtue in national security and foreign policymaking, a moderate response to the enormity and notoriety of Russia’s belligerence would likely neither protect Ukraine nor satisfy Russian imperial appetites. Broad economic sanctions on their own are likely to be sufficient to forestall an invasion; and token, light deployments behind NATO’s high walls while Ukraine burns will inflame Kremlin paranoia without arresting or appreciably punishing Russian militarism. Negotiations and diplomacy should be given the time to work, and any kind of durable solution is unlikely to completely satisfy either party. However, the United States and its allies should undergird these talks with serious and significant measures to prevent another, greater war in Ukraine before it begins. As in Corcyra, half measures are unlikely to ameliorate the crisis and may only exacerbate them. What, then, do full measures look like? The critical factors here are speed and plausibility: steps that not only can be taken quickly but that Russia will believe Washington will carry through. Although economic sanctions have been broadly regarded as useful tools in this regard, most measures being envisioned are likely already baked into Russian calculations or may not have an immediate effect. In addition, the United States—and Europe, if it is willing—should significantly curtail Russian energy imports and aim to wean Russian hydrocarbons from European markets entirely—perhaps even going so far as to employ Defense Production Act authorities to stockpile and potentially surge liquefied natural gas and other fuel alternatives to Central and Eastern Europe. Boosting other energy sources on a strategic scale could also accompany this approach. Moscow must be convinced that military aggression will only dramatically increase and complicate what it believes are its existing security vulnerabilities. Toward that end, the United States and Europe could begin studying withdrawal from the NATO-Russia Founding Act, and planning can begin in earnest for repositioning heavy forces in Europe in the event of a wider Russian war. NATO can signal that new European applications for NATO membership would be welcomed and expediently ratified (perhaps even pre-ratified in some form), particularly from Sweden and Finland, should Russia go through with its militaristic gambit. Washington could also consider scenarios to provide aspirants—Ukraine, Georgia, and potentially the Nordics—with bilateral treaty guarantees prior to NATO accession. In Corcyra, the compromise of 10 Athenian ships only served to anger Corinth and Sparta as well as fed beliefs that war was not only necessary but an urgent enterprise. Against the colossal coercive symbolism and military reality posed by the Russian buildup—and the even greater weight of the Kremlin’s demands—the United States and Europe should prepare responses to match the moment. Michael Hikari Cecire is a senior policy advisor at the U.S. Helsinki Commission. 

  • Defending Ukraine, Deterring Putin

    The Kremlin has dramatically increased its military activities and capabilities in and around Ukraine, leading to predictions that the regime may be preparing for an aggressive military operation in the coming months. Russian military movements have sufficiently concerned U.S. and allied observers that CIA Director William Burns was personally dispatched to Moscow to telegraph U.S. concerns. Secretary of State Antony Blinken also has added to a chorus of alarm, and Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba has described Russia’s movements as preparations for an invasion. On December 7, President Biden held a two-hour phone call with Russian President Vladimir Putin over the apparent buildup. The Helsinki Commission, including Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09) and Commissioner Rep. Marc Veasey (TX-33),  convened a virtual briefing to evaluate the Russian regime’s actions and capabilities near Ukraine and assess potential options for U.S. and Western countermeasures to deter aggression and preserve Ukrainian sovereignty.  Panelists included Dr. Andrew Bowen of the Congressional Research Service, Robert Lee of Kings College London, Dr. Mary Vorotnyuk of the Royal United Services Institute, and Katsiaryna Shmatsina of the European Values Center for Security Policy in Prague. The discussion was moderated by Helsinki Commission Senior Policy Advisor Michael Hikari Cecire. Cecire began the discussion by describing the apparent urgency of the situation on Ukraine’s border, noting that more than 100,000 Russian troops and heavy offensive equipment had amassed in a potential war footing, in addition to thousands more troops already in states of high readiness and propositioned in and around Ukrainian territory. Dr. Andrew Bowen described the strategic environment in which the buildup is occurring, and noted that Russian political leadership has asserted that it regarded the presence of NATO and Western military and political influence on its border as a red line. Although Ukraine has no immediate likelihood of joining NATO, the Russian regime may regard Ukraine’s growing independent capabilities and partnerships with the West as indicative of a graduate deterioration of its own relative security position. As such, its military buildup may be intended to either compel a diplomatic accommodation with the West to forestall Ukraine’s continued Western path, or, if necessary, launch military operations to do so through the use of force. Dr. Bowen noted that Congress has played a significant role in supporting activities to bolster Ukraine’s defenses, including through the provision of lethal aid, and has also supported efforts to reinforce NATO’s Eastern flank in response to Russia’s aggressive actions. Robert Lee focused on Russian military capabilities currently arrayed at Ukraine’s border. He noted that tens of thousands of troops had been mobilized from Russia’s other geographic combatant commands and deployed to Ukraine’s border, including significant heavy offensive weaponry and specialized assets. According to some assessments, total Russian deployments may represent as much as two-thirds of its total combat power to in and around the Ukraine theater, suggesting a nationwide military mobilization and all the preparations for a major invasion. While the preponderance of Russian offensive assets suggests that it may have the capabilities in place for any number of offensive scenarios, including a move on Kyiv, it is not necessarily a foregone conclusion that the Kremlin has any intent to seize and hold territory. The Kremlin’s intent may be just to destroy or significantly degrade Ukraine’s military and undermine its broader strategic situation to achieve its aims. However, Russia also has activated some 100,000 additional reserve forces, which may be employed for a number of scenarios. Responding to a question from Co-Chairman Cohen, Lee observed that it was hard to determine the likelihood of a renewed Russian invasion, but that the risk is certainly greater than it has been at any point since the conflict began in 2014, and that the capabilities are all in theater for war. Co-Chairman Cohen also asked if the buildup today was proportionally similar to past buildups in 2014-2015, which was the last time Russian forces semi-overtly invaded Ukraine in large numbers. Lee replied that the current buildup is much more significant, though it is also true that the Ukrainian military is more capable today than it was in the past. Co-Chairman Cohen then inquired about past Russian casualties, which Lee described as being in the “hundreds” at least, though exact figures were not made publicly available. Co-Chairman Cohen then reiterated the gravity of the situation, and the seriousness with which he and the U.S. government was taking the issue. Cecire then introduced Dr. Maryna Vorotnyuk, who also made the point that the Russian regime’s full intentions were obscure, and not entirely knowable. However, she noted that the array of capabilities that the Kremlin has assembled on Ukraine’s border is suggestive, as are the demands the Kremlin has made in combination with the military buildup. On the latter point, she noted that there was an internal logic to Moscow linking its threatening posture over Ukraine with its demands with the West, because Russia’s war on Ukraine could be regarded as a kind of proxy war against the West as a whole. In a more comprehensive way, Russian demands seek a revised security architecture that would effectively undermine the sovereignty of Ukraine as well as other non-NATO states like Georgia, giving Russia free rein over its periphery. While this may be a nonstarter for the West, Dr. Vorotnyuk noted that Russia likely would settle for an accommodation from the West that would reduce Western involvement in the region and leave Ukraine and other countries weak and vulnerable to Russian pressure. While some may find such a route appealing, she noted, such a response would not likely lead to a more constructive Russia, and could even invite more aggression as Moscow’s intent was never solely about or limited to Ukraine. As such, it is important for the West to remain resolute in defending and advocating for Ukraine’s sovereignty. Katsiaryna Shmatsina spoke about Belarus’ role in the broader calculus. She recalled how, after Belarusian protests were being crushed by the regime, EU diplomatic leaders asked how Belarus might be used as an appendage of Russian strategic power. She noted that this appears to be the case in the ongoing episode with Ukraine, with the hybrid migrant crisis at the Belarusian border, the mooted possibility that Russian forces might use Belarusian territory to attack Ukraine, and the solidarity Russia has showed with the regime in Minsk through the flights of nuclear-capable bombers—suggesting that Belarus is not merely a side act, but a key element of Russian strategy in the region. For his part, Belarusian President Lukashenko has been severely weakened by the protests and his subsequent reliance on Russian support, leaving him nowhere else to turn and cementing Belarus’s place in the Kremlin’s alliance system and regional strategy. Shmastsina counseled that the situation in Belarus should merit greater international attention, particularly from the West, because it is inseparable from the ongoing military buildup in and around Ukraine and another aspect of Russia’s broader campaign against the West. Rep. Veasey noted that in a past visit to Ukraine, the assessment was that Russia was not necessarily interested in taking and holding territory and asked whether this view was still accurate. Dr. Vorotnyuk replied that this was very likely the case, but ultimately that the likely Russian aim was to permanently weaken Ukraine and be able to “veto” its alignments with the West. Particular territorial objectives could also be under consideration, such as a land corridor from the Donbas to Crimea—both of which Russia already holds—or a particular city, such as Odesa, and its port access to the Black Sea. Rep. Veasey then asked why Ukraine, but not Georgia, was being targeted in this way. Lee responded that Georgia no longer threatens to retake the Russia-held separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia by force, and that Ukraine is a much larger country with a more capable military and economic capacity, which holds a unique place in Russia’s historical narrative. Rep. Veasey then raised the issue of corruption, which continues to be seen as a major issue in Ukraine as compared to, for example, Georgia, and asked whether this is a serious problem. Dr. Vorotnyuk noted that it was a major issue, but that it is not a justification for Russian aggression, and that Western assistance with Ukraine is very much helping to address issues like corruption and democratic governance. Related Information Panelist Biographies

  • Russian Military Buildup to be Scrutinized at Helsinki Commission Briefing

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following online briefing: DEFENDING UKRAINE, DETERRING PUTIN Thursday, December 16, 2021 10:00 a.m. Register: https://bit.ly/3DHAGWu The Kremlin has dramatically increased its military activities and capabilities in and around Ukraine, leading to predictions that the regime may be preparing for an aggressive military operation in the coming months. Russian military movements have sufficiently concerned U.S. and allied observers that CIA Director William Burns was personally dispatched to Moscow to telegraph U.S. concerns. Secretary of State Antony Blinken also has added to a chorus of alarm, and Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba has described Russia’s movements as preparations for an invasion. On December 7, President Biden held a two-hour phone call with Russian President Vladimir Putin over the apparent buildup. The Helsinki Commission will convene a briefing to evaluate the Russian regime’s actions and capabilities near Ukraine and assess potential options for U.S. and Western countermeasures to deter aggression and preserve Ukrainian sovereignty. The briefing will include U.S. and international experts on Russian military capabilities and Eurasian security. The following panelists are scheduled to participate: Dr. Andrew Bowen, Analyst in Russian and European Affairs, Congressional Research Service Dr. Maryna Vorotnyuk, Expert on Black Sea security; Associate Fellow, Royal United Services Institute Katsiaryna Shmatsina, Belarusian analyst on Eurasian politics and security; Visiting Fellow, European Values Center for Security Policy in Prague Robert Lee, Expert on Russian military capabilities; PhD candidate, Kings College London

  • 30 Years After Ovcara

    By Robert Hand, Senior Policy Advisor On November 20, 1991, after the fall of the city of Vukovar in Croatia, militant Serb forces removed 265 ill and injured Croats from a hospital. They were taken to the nearby Ovčara farm southeast of Vukovar, where they were abused before being shot and killed, with their bodies dumped in a mass grave. In addition to wounded members of the Croatian armed forces were civilians, including some women and children.   The Helsinki Commission strongly supported the international effort to prosecute those responsible for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide in the former Yugoslavia, including those most responsible for the crime at Ovčara, which took place early in a series of conflicts associated with Yugoslavia’s disintegration throughout the 1990s.  Many obstacles stood in the way, but after years of persistent effort justice prevailed. However, malicious acts supporting territorial aggression continue in the OSCE region and elsewhere. When remembering Ovčara, it is important to acknowledge the brave few in Serbia—civil society advocates, political activists, journalists, lawyers and judges, and everyday citizens—who consistently have refused to associate themselves with the terrible crimes committed in their name in the 1990s, and seek to this day not only justice but a needed acknowledgement of reality in the face of continued denial and revisionism. A wider acknowledgement led by those holding power today will mean a better future for Serbia and its neighbors tomorrow.

  • Helsinki Commission Regrets Closure of OSCE Observer Mission at Russian Checkpoints Gukovo and Donetsk

    WASHINGTON—In light of yesterday’s termination of the activities of the OSCE Observer Mission at the Russian Checkpoints Gukovo and Donetsk on the Russian-Ukrainian border, 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: “By forcing the closure of the OSCE Observer Mission on Ukraine’s border, despite clear and continued support from other OSCE States for the mission, the Kremlin is once again trying to blind the international community to the reality of its aggression against Ukraine.  The mission regularly observed and reported suspicious movements at the border. “Rather than blocking OSCE instruments, Russia needs to cease its war against Ukraine, including reversing its illegal occupation of Crimea.”    The OSCE Observer Mission at the Russian Checkpoints Gukovo and Donetsk was intended to build confidence through increased transparency by observing and reporting on the situation at the international border between Ukraine and Russia. Russia had previously imposed severe restrictions on the observer mission, including limiting movement and prohibiting the use of binoculars or cameras.  Despite these limitations, the mission reported on the movements of more than 24 million people since beginning operations in 2014. It observed more than 100 Russian convoys, along with individuals in military apparel and thousands of other vehicles, crossing the uncontrolled border.

  • 45th Anniversary of the U.S. Helsinki Commission

    I take this time as the Chair of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, better known as the Helsinki Commission, as we celebrate our 45th anniversary. The Helsinki Commission is the vehicle for U.S. participation in the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), representing 57 states that have come together under the OSCE, all the countries of Europe, all the countries of the former Soviet Union, including those located in Central Asia, the United States, and Canada. Mr. President, this is a unique body in that it represents both the executive and legislative branches of government. The executive branch has representatives on the Helsinki Commission, and both the House and Senate have Senators and Representatives that serve on the Helsinki Commission. I am very pleased to have as my co-leader Senator Wicker from Mississippi as the Republican leader in the Senate on the Helsinki Commission. The Helsinki Commission has been responsible for elevating our moral dimension to U.S. foreign policy. Its principles point out very clearly that you cannot have security without dealing with good governance and human rights; you cannot have economic progress unless you have governance that respects the rights of all its citizens. That is why I was so pleased when President Biden announced that his foreign policy would be value-based, that as we participate in our foreign policy challenges, it will always be wrapped in our values, and his recent trip to Europe underscored that important lesson. And then he issued, not two weeks ago, the statement that corruption is a core national security threat and that we have a responsibility to fight corruption in order to protect our national security. I am so pleased of the accomplishments of the Helsinki Commission, particularly from the human rights and human dimension. I go back to my early days in the House of Representatives, when the Soviet Union still existed and the challenges of Soviet Jews trying to emigrate from the Soviet Union. It was the Helsinki Commission that was one of the leading voices to help deal with Soviet Jews. I think about trafficking-in-persons, modern-day slavery, and the efforts that the United States did in leading that effort, including passing landmark legislation in trafficking in persons and establishing a rating system where every country in the world is rated on how well they are dealing with fighting trafficking. Now this has become the model, and so many countries have acted. It was the U.S. Helsinki Commission that led the effort for what Congress was able to pass and the international effort in order to fight trafficking-in-persons. I think about the perpetrators of war crimes and crimes against humanity and genocide, and recognize that it was the Helsinki Commission that pushed to hold those who were responsible for these atrocities accountable, particularly as it related to the Balkan conflict. Then I think about the landmark legislation that was passed in the Congress that deals with sanctions against human rights violators, first the Magnitsky sanctions and then the Global Magnitsky sanctions. It came out of hearings from the Helsinki Commission and legislation that we authored. It is not only the standard here in the United States. It has been adopted as the standard in Europe, in Canada, and in other countries, to make it clear that human rights violators will not be able to hide their illicit funds in our banking system or visit our country. Perhaps our strongest contribution is the oversight hearings that we hold. We also passed the Elie Wiesel Atrocities Prevention Act. But just last week we had a hearing in the Helsinki Commission on how we can prevent atrocities from occurring in the first place. So I am very proud of the accomplishments of the commission. Part of the responsibilities of every member state of the OSCE is that we have the right to challenge any State’s compliance with the Helsinki Final Act Accords. So it is our responsibility to challenge when Russia violates those provisions or when we see violations in Turkey—any member State, we can challenge. But we also have to do our own self-evaluation. As Chairman of the commission, I have been using that opportunity to question conduct in our own country when it does not match the responsibilities that we should have. We saw that in the past in regard to the torture issues in Guantanamo Bay. My participation in the Helsinki Commission goes back to my early days in the House of Representatives and some of my proudest moments of representing our country on the international stage. Let me just give you a few examples. In February 1991, I joined a fact-finding mission to Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia. That is when the Soviet tanks were in Vilnius. That is when the Soviet Union was demonstrating oppression against the people of the Baltic States. It was a very sad moment of oppression, and we went there to stand up for the people of the region, to let them know that the United States never recognized the Soviet’s occupation of the Baltic States, and that we stood with the people and their independence. It was very interesting. We went from there to Moscow, and Mikhail Gorbachev didn’t want to have anything to do with us. He wouldn’t have a meeting with us, and he wouldn’t acknowledge that we were there. But we had a meeting with Boris Yeltsin, who at that time was the chair of the parliament, and we got great visibility. And Yeltsin supported our efforts to condemn the Russian use of force. I have been to Germany several times. My first trip on behalf of the Helsinki Commission was when it was a divided country, and we went to East Berlin. We were the voices for those oppressed people whose voices could not otherwise be heard, and we gave them hope that one day they would see freedom. I then returned when we were literally taking down the Berlin Wall, and I joined in taking down part of the Berlin Wall. I have part of that as a prized possession in my home. I have returned to Germany as a united country and see what a democratic Germany means and the work of our commission to bring down the Iron Curtain. Germany is now a leading democratic state and a great ally of the United States. I have been to Kyiv, Ukraine, on several occasions. I was there during the Maidan protests, where the people demanded democracy. And then I had a chance to return and monitor the elections in Ukraine with Senator Portman—again, a country that has been able to rid itself of the oppression of the Soviet Union. I have been very active in the Helsinki Commission in regards to the Parliamentary Assembly. I chaired one of their three standing committees. I had a chance to become Vice-President at the Parliamentary Assembly. Today, I acknowledge Senator Wicker, who is Vice-President. It points out the bipartisan nature of the Helsinki Commission and our work on the international platform.

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