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Iraqi Refugee Crisis: The Calm before the Storm?
Monday, April 28, 2008

By Marlene Kaufmann, General Counsel

and Lale M. Mamaux, Communications Director

Jordan

In March, staff of the United States Helsinki Commission travelled to Amman, Jordan, an OSCE partner State, and met with government officials and leading NGOs regarding the Iraqi refugee crisis. Helsinki Commission Chairman, Congressman Alcee L. Hastings, has introduced comprehensive legislation to address this crisis, and the Commission held a hearing on April 10, regarding the impact of Iraqi refugees on OSCE States and Partners, including Jordan, Egypt and Turkey.

It was revealed during the visit in Jordan that the situation on the ground is becoming increasingly desperate. Government officials emphasized the economic and infrastructure strains caused by the refugees – soaring rents, inflation, and strains on educational and medical resources, as well as water. The NGO community sees an increase in desperation among the refugee population that they are attempting to serve. This increased desperation, combined with increasing resentment among host country populations, is becoming a recipe for disaster.

As a result of the widespread sectarian violence that erupted in Iraq in 2006, masses of Iraqis began fleeing to neighboring countries in the region for shelter. It is estimated that more than one million Iraqi refugees have fled to Jordan, Syria and other neighboring states, and approximately 2.2 million Iraqis have been displaced within Iraq itself.

Jordan, a small Arab nation with a population of six million, has accepted almost half a million Iraqi refugees. This amounts to an 8 percent increase in the population of Jordan in essentially a year and a half. This would be the equivalent of the United States enduring a stream of 24 million people across its borders in the same time frame. Poverty, unemployment, and inflation are on the rise in the country making it extremely difficult for the Jordanian government and society to cope with the influx of refugees. In 2007, Jordan effectively sealed its borders by imposing strict visa requirements on Iraqis seeking entry, documents that most fleeing Iraqis do not have or would be required to make a dangerous trip to Baghdad to try to obtain.

Jordan is not a party to the 1951 United Nations Convention on Refugees and does not have a domestic refugee law. The government does not, therefore, recognize Iraqis as residents of its country, but rather classifies them as “guests” or “visitors.”

The Jordanian government does not allow Iraqis to work, however some do find jobs in the “underground” economy, which at best pay barely enough to survive and for which the threat of exploitation is significant. In many situations, men, fearing arrest and deportation, remain in hiding and rely on whatever income their wives and children can generate. Iraqis are permitted to seek medical assistance at government clinics, where they are offered the same health care benefits as uninsured Jordanians.

In addition, as a result of pressure from the international community, Jordan opened its schools to Iraqi children. It is estimated that approximately 25,000 Iraqi students have enrolled for the 2007-2008 school year, a significantly smaller number than was expected. While the admission of Iraqi students is relatively low, it has nevertheless put a substantial strain on an already overburdened school system.

As a result, the day-to-day needs of Iraqis continue to increase as their resources are diminishing. Multiple families are sharing a single dwelling and those seeking medical attention frequently suffer from severe depression and stress related illnesses. Many of the NGOs offering services in Jordan are attempting to address this burgeoning medical crisis but lack the resources to provide comprehensive counseling – leaving increasingly large numbers of the vulnerable Iraqi refugee population simmering in a cauldron of stress and depression. This situation does not bode well for long-term societal stability.

Attempts to provide assistance to Iraqi refugees in Jordan are complicated by both the location and the mixed demographics of the population. Unlike the situation of the Palestinian refugees encamped in tent cities in the “no-man’s-land” on the Syrian border with Iraq, there are no Iraqi refugee camps in Jordan -- where the numbers and needs of the refugees could be easily identified, and to which humanitarian and other assistance could be quickly and efficiently delivered. Rather, Iraqi refugees in Jordan are dispersed throughout Amman and the surrounding areas. A number of refugees -- some of whom came to Jordan to escape the regime of Saddam Hussein, returned to Iraq after his fall, and now have taken up residence again in Jordan -- are quite wealthy, and are obviously able to fend for themselves. The bulk of Iraqi refugees in Jordan, however, arrived with few resources or have now, as is the case with those who were “middle class” when they fled, completely depleted whatever income they may have had from savings, or selling their homes and possessions.

The Jordanian government made it quite clear that they want Iraqi refugees to be treated humanely, yet they do not want Iraqis to permanently settle in Jordan. This fact was reinforced at an international conference hosted by Jordan on March 18, during which Foreign Minister Salah Al-Bashir remarked, “But the main challenge now is to find the right environment for a political settlement in Iraq that would restore security and stability, helping Iraqi refugees return home, because there is no other alternative.”

While the Jordanian government sees no alternative for Iraqis other than return, the reality is quite different. Many NGOs in Jordan are looking at this from a long-term perspective with some estimates of Iraqis staying for at least ten years, or perhaps permanently. Many Iraqis who fled have had a close family member or friend killed, threatened, kidnapped, or tortured, making return extremely difficult if not impossible.

As resources are depleted and Iraqis become more and more desperate to survive, the economy will not be the main source of worry for host countries. Increasingly desperate refugees interacting on a daily basis with increasingly resentful host country populations could sow the seeds of instability on the streets of Amman and Damascus – the current situation may just be the calm before the storm.

In Congress, Commission Chairman Hastings, who is also Special Representative on Mediterranean Affairs for the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, has introduced comprehensive legislation to address this humanitarian and potential security crisis. In January, Chairman Hastings and Congressman John Dingell wrote to President Bush requesting an additional $1.5 billion in funding in the FY 2009 budget, and also called on Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to layout a long-term plan to address the plight of Iraqi refugees and internally displaced populations (IDPs). In April, Chairman Hastings joined with Congressman Bill Delahunt and nine of his Congressional colleagues in sending a bipartisan letter to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki urging the government of Iraq to use $1 billion (4 percent) of the expected $25 billion budget surplus to assist Iraqi refugees and IDPs.

Additionally, Commission Co-Chairman Senator Benjamin L. Cardin was successful in offering an amendment to the Labor, Health and Human Services, Education Appropriations bill last year. Co-Chairman Cardin’s amendment provides six months of eligibility for resettlement assistance to Iraq Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) holders when they arrive here in the United States, ensuring that Iraqis are able to make the transition to a productive life in the United States by providing preliminary housing, school enrollment and job assistance.

On April 10, the Helsinki Commission held a hearing on the Iraqi refugee crisis which focused on the impact of the massive displacement of Iraqi citizens on Jordan, Syria, Egypt and Turkey as well as other countries in the region; the security implications of this humanitarian crisis; and efforts by the United States and others to address the plight of Iraqi refugees, including humanitarian relief, resettlement of Iraqi refugees, host country commitments, and European cooperation as well as the development of a long-term plan to address this crisis.

Testifying before the Commission were Ambassador James Foley, Senior Coordinator for Iraqi Refugees, U.S. Department of State; Ms. Lori Scialabba, Senior Advisor to the Secretary of Homeland Security for Iraqi Refugees, Department of Homeland Security; Mr. Michel Gabaudan, Washington Director, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR); Mr. Anders Lago, Mayor of Sodertalje, Sweden; and Mr. Noel Saleh, Member, Board of Directors, Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services (ACCESS).

During the hearing Ambassador Foley stated that the resettlement of Iraqi refugees to the United States “is turning around.” He added, “You are going to see in the coming months, especially in the late spring and summer, tremendous numbers of Iraqi refugees arriving in the United States.”

Mayor Lago of Sodertalje, Sweden whose town has a population of 83,000 and has taken in more than 5,000 Iraqi refugees noted “The millions of refugees in the world must be a concern for us all, not just for those areas bordering on the breeding grounds of war, or for a small number of countries and cities such as Sodertalje.” He further noted, “Despite the fact that we need immigrants, Sodertalje has become a town that must now say - STOP, STOP, STOP! Do not misunderstand me. We will always help others when we can. We must act when the lives of our brothers and sisters are in danger. It is imperative that we have a humane refugee policy worldwide. Our common agreement, that all people are equal, no matter what color religion or gender must become a reality.”

The hearing came on the heels of General David Petraeus’ and Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker’s testimony before Congress about the Iraq war.

Turkey

Helsinki Commission staff also travelled to Ankara and Istanbul, Turkey and held meetings with leading NGOs as well as staff of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. While the main focus of the trip was the Iraqi refugee crisis, staff also discussed U.S.-Turkey bilateral relations, human trafficking, migration, security threats posed to Turkey by the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) – a known terrorist organization, as well as Turkey’s cooperation in Iraq.

It is estimated that Turkey is currently hosting 6,000-10,000 Iraqi refugees. Unlike Jordan and Syria, Turkey is a party to the 1951 UN refugee convention. Turkey, however, imposes a “geographical limitation” on its commitments under that agreement and only recognizes refugees arriving from Europe.

Iraqis entering Turkey from non-European countries are treated as asylum-seekers. UNHCR-Turkey has assumed responsibility for processing these individuals and it then submits its recommendations to the Turkish government. The Turkish government, however, ultimately determines the status of asylum-seekers making the registration process time-consuming and confusing. Those who have registered with UNHCR for asylum can wait up to nine months to be fully processed and are not entitled to any assistance during that period. In the interim, the refugees are reliant upon the charity of the communities in which they have settled or must fend for themselves on the streets.

Iraqi refugees entering Turkey are not permitted to reside in Ankara or Istanbul – where they may have relatives or access to an established Iraqi community – but are directed to a number of “satellite cities” in different locations throughout Turkey. In most instances, there is no Iraqi community or support system in these remote locations, making resettlement, access to services, and integration into the local community extremely difficult for the refugees.

The Turkish government has accepted in principle the establishment of seven ‘Reception Centers,’ to provide services to refugees from Iraq – planned in or near the satellite cities to which they are currently directed. These centers would be co-financed with the European Commission (EC). The EC would pay 75 percent of the project and the Turkish government would pay the remaining 25 percent. However, the day-to-day oversight and financial obligations would fall to the Turkish government. While the EC indicated that these centers would be used to house Iraqi refugees with a capacity of 750 per center, Turkish officials gave the impression that these centers would be for migrant workers and victims of human trafficking. In addition to the seven Reception Centers, the EC will finance two Removal Centers for those Iraqis eligible to be processed for resettlement.

The Helsinki Commission will monitor the development of these centers, their location, populations to be accepted, operation and services offered in view of concerns that they may become isolated “camps” where Iraqi refugees and other vulnerable populations are warehoused until they receive final status determinations or resettlement.

Sulukule

Helsinki Commission staff visited Sulukule in Istanbul, which has been home to a Roma community since 1054 and is one of the oldest Romani settlements in Europe. Sulukule is on the brink of total demolition, due in part to an urban transformation project developed by the Fatih and Greater Istanbul municipalities as part of Istanbul’s participation in the 2010 European Capital of Culture event. The outcome of this urban renewal plan will destroy an historical neighborhood and force 3,500 residents of Sulukule 25 miles (40 kilometers) outside of the city to the district of Tasoluk or, worse, onto the streets of Istanbul.

The Roma community in Sulukule is living on the fringes of society and continues to be treated unfairly. Instead of implementing an urban renewal project that would preserve this centuries-old neighborhood and allow the Roma there to remain together as a community, they will be dispersed and forced to migrate elsewhere.

The Romani residents of Sulukule have essentially been unable to work since 1992 when the municipality closed down the music and entertainment venues that had been the lifeblood of the community and a major tourist attraction. With this source of income gone, the Roma of Sulukule have found it increasingly difficult to earn a living.

The residents of Sulukule have been offered the opportunity to purchase the new homes that will be built as part of the project. However, the homes are quite expensive and, given the Romani community’s lack of employment and income, this is an empty gesture. The offer of housing in Tasoluk is also well beyond the means of the current residents of Sulukule, making it all the more likely that the majority of them will be forced to live on the streets.

On April 4, members of the Helsinki Commission sent a letter to Turkish Prime Minister Tayip Erdogan, expressing concern about the Sulukule transformation project. The Commissioners urged the Prime Minister to find a solution that would ensure that the residents of Sulukule are treated with dignity and respect, that their culture and contribution to the history of Istanbul are preserved, and that they are given the opportunity to work, provide shelter and education for their families and contribute fully to Turkish society. The letter was authored by Co-Chairmen of the Helsinki Commission Congressman Alcee L. Hastings and Senator Benjamin L. Cardin, along with Commissioners Congressmen Joseph R. Pitts and G.K. Butterfield.

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

  • Retrospective on the 116th Congress

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

  • 2020 OSCE Mediterranean Conference

    By Zantana Ephrem, Max Kampelman Fellow and Michelle Ikelau Ngirbabulka, Max Kampelman Fellow In 2020, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has faced the unprecedented crisis of COVID-19, as well as numerous other challenges. On November 3, the Mediterranean Partners for Cooperation Group gathered to virtually share best practices and discuss areas for long-term cooperation on topics including women’s economic empowerment and the environment. Political representatives of the 57 OSCE participating States, the six OSCE Mediterranean Partners for Cooperation (Algeria, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Morocco and Tunisia), and various international organizations participated in the event. Sweden, as Chair of the 2020 OSCE Mediterranean Partners for Co-operation Group, organized the event, which focused on promoting security in the OSCE Mediterranean region through sustainable development and economic growth. Foreign Minister of Sweden Ann Linde offered opening remarks, along with Agron Tare, Deputy Minister for Europe and Foreign Affairs of Albania, and Ambassador Tuula Yrjölä, Officer-in-Charge / OSCE Secretary General. Two thematic sessions focused on advancing women’s economic empowerment and contribution to development, as well as on the need to strengthen international environmental cooperation. Women’s Economic Empowerment Advancing women’s economic empowerment continues to be a priority for OSCE Member States despite these challenging times, as demonstrated in the first session moderated by Ambassador and Permanent Representative of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan to the OSCE H.E. Leena Al-Hadid.  She opened the session by highlighting existing gaps in women’s political and economic participation, even though many countries have adopted several policies to improve women’s economic empowerment and their economic advancement. Hadid also discussed how COVID-19 has highlighted and exacerbated persistent inequities in unpaid household work, domestic violence, and permanent exits from the labor force. The panel opened for input from participants where Spanish Ambassador-at-Large for Gender Equality in Foreign Policy Clara Cabrera, among others, discussed best practices as well as posed questions to panelists. Panelists shared their countries’ relevant experiences with narrowing existing gaps in gender equity in areas such as income, labor force participation, access to financial resources, and the digital divide. “COVID-19 has exacerbated inequalities but also has centered our action precisely in economic empowerment. We’ve seen this in the global action for economic empowerment. Mediterranean partners are key in this, including women in all decision-making responsibilities. Response policies will not be sustainable, fair, or impactful if they do not include women and girls’ empowerment.” – Clara Cabrera, Spanish Ambassador-at-Large for Gender Equality in Foreign Policy Ms. Natalia Strigunova, deputy director of the Department of Multilateral Economic Cooperation and Special Projects of the Russian Federation Ministry for Economic Development, and Mr. Roger Albinyana, director of Mediterranean regional policies and human development at the European Institute of the Mediterranean, shared opportunities to advance women’s economic empowerment through legislative action that supports mothers, narrows gaps in educational attainment, and increases financial support for women participating in the labor force. Stroganov highlighted the importance of eliminating the digital divide between men and women that persists in both rural and urban areas throughout Russia by promoting vocational and educational training opportunities and partnerships with the private sector and online education platforms like Open Academy. Mr. Albinyana shared similar best practices around the use of policy to eliminate inequities in educational attainment, women’s employment, and access to finances and capital. Policies instituting paid maternity leave and banning discrimination on the basis of sex or marital status for capital are essential to empowering women. Dr. Lenita Freidenvall of Sweden stated that her country’s efforts have focused on improving gender equality through policies that drive decision-making and resource allocation,  ultimately aiming to build a society in which women and men can live their lives to their utmost potential regardless of sexual orientation, gender, age, or sex. Specifically, these policies include improving access to affordable childcare, equal distribution of parental leave, and improved access to financial capital. Mrs. Hana Rado, chief operating officer of McCann Tel Aviv, co-founder and chairperson of AloTok, and president of Supersonas Israel, noted the disproportionate burden of unemployment women in Israel face during COVID-19. She shared five solutions for economic advancement, including investments and policies that provide financial literacy, management, and leadership development. These initiatives also aim to support the mother, equal pay, and women in business, as well as protect the safety and security of women both in the public and private sphere. Promoting Environmental Cooperation “Our post-COVID-19 recovery strategies should be used as an opportunity to take on important reforms towards fulfilling the sustainable development goals, as well as the goals of the Paris agreement. We need to ensure that the recovery is based on the green transition. Lack of action towards climate neutrality will bring about consequences and costs that by far exceed the transition costs.” – Ann Linde, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Sweden The session focusing on promoting environmental cooperation was opened by H.E. Ambassador Yasser Sorour, deputy assistant foreign minister of Egypt, who highlighted how water scarcity, drought, and rising sea levels are the most pressing environmental concerns in the region. A panel of experts, moderated by H.E. Ambassador Vuk Žugić, the coordinator of OSCE economic and environmental activities, discussed the increasing frequency and intensity of natural disasters and extreme weather events, and how poor governance and mismanagement and degradation of natural resources pose threats to the environment and security of  the OSCE region and the Mediterranean. Dr. Malin Mobjörk, senior researcher and director of the Climate Change and Risk Programme at the Stockholm International Peace and Research Institute, touched on how environmental issues jeopardize tourism, a significant aspect of many Mediterranean countries’ economies. She elaborated on how the accelerated rate of environmental change also affects economies and puts livelihoods at risk. Mr. Grammenos Mastrojeni, deputy secretary general for energy and climate action at the Union for the Mediterranean, asserted that strengthening cooperation and partnerships to address environmental challenges magnified by climate change can facilitate sustainable development in all its aspects, advance green growth, and foster common security. He also emphasized the need to mitigate nonrenewable resources and implement renewable energy initiatives. The conference concluded by discussing how the OSCE’s 2021 priorities will focus on women's economic empowerment, comprehensive access to security, equal access to justice, security amongst OSCE states, and COVID relief and mitigation. Official delegations present at 2020 OSCE Mediterranean Conference included:   Jordan Morocco Israel Cyprus Finland Greece Slovenia Turkey Malta Spain Egypt Hungary Italy Poland Portugal Croatia

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

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

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

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

  • Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama to Appear at Helsinki Commission Hearing

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following online hearing: ALBANIA’S CHAIRMANSHIP OF THE OSCE Responding to the Multiple Challenges of 2020 Thursday, September 17, 2020 1:00 p.m. Watch Live: www.youtube.com/HelsinkiCommission In 2020, Albania holds the chairmanship of the world’s largest regional security organization—the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE)—with a multi-dimensional mandate and a 57-country membership stretching from North America, across Europe, and to Central Asia and Mongolia. This year, the OSCE has faced the unprecedented challenge of a global pandemic and the clear urgency of action against racism, while maintaining its necessary focus on other longtime concerns often impacted by these developments.  These concerns include Russia’s continued aggression in Ukraine and threats to other nearby or neighboring countries; protracted conflicts in Transnistria, Georgia, and Nagorno-Karabakh; and political leaders in Belarus as well as in Russia, Azerbaijan, Turkey, and other OSCE countries seeking to undermine democratic institutions and stifle dissent in every sector.  Many countries are struggling—or failing—to live up to their OSCE commitments in the areas of human rights, democracy, and the rule of law. Vulnerable communities, including migrants, are targets of discrimination and violence.  Uncertainties in the Western Balkans and Central Asia remain.  The recent decision of some countries to block reappointments of senior officers at key OSCE institutions undermines the organization at a time when effective contributions to security and cooperation across the region are so deeply needed. The Helsinki Commission regularly holds a hearing allowing the annually rotating OSCE chairmanship to present its priorities for the year and to exchange views on current issues. Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama, who holds his country’s foreign affairs portfolio, will appear at this hearing to discuss the performance of the OSCE thus far in 2020 and to share his views in advance of the OSCE Ministerial Council meeting scheduled for early December.

  • The OSCE: A Bulwark Against Authoritarianism

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

  • The Shared Experiences of African-American and Roma Communities

    By Erick Boone, Max Kampelman Fellow While the OSCE participating States have committed to promoting tolerance and protecting the rights of diverse communities, the most ardent advocacy often is done by individuals who are members of those groups. Their activism often leads to changes that benefit not only the disenfranchised but also society at large. The United States has a rich history of demonstrating for civil rights and social recognition. The 20th century alone saw the birth of a multitude of social movements, including the civil rights movement organized by the African-American community to end racial discrimination and secure equal rights under the law. African-Americans have faced centuries of injustice in the forms of slavery, segregation, brutality, and discrimination. The racial hierarchy in the U.S. was bolstered by legislation that either ignored discrimination or condoned it. Still, African-Americans resisted subjugation, leading boycotts, protests, and sit-ins. They formed alliances that brought attention to issues and created civil society organizations that pushed for change. Community leaders also campaigned for elected office to change the system from within. Their efforts led to reforms in law that protected the rights of African-Americans throughout the United States. Thanks to the contributions of activists, extraordinary social progress was made. The fight for social equality continues to this day. In the United States, a new generation of activists contribute to the struggle. Yet, the fight against injustice is transnational—on the other side of the Atlantic, another group whose historical experiences share striking similarities with those of the African-American community is also engaged in a struggle for civil rights. The Roma Community Roma, the largest ethnic minority group in Europe, migrated from Northern India nearly 1000 years ago. Romani communities’ migration would eventually bring them to Europe, arriving first in Southeastern Europe and then Western Europe. Given the vast geographic spread of the Roma, the various European societies in which they settled differed greatly. The ways in which those societies responded to Romani settlement also differed. The one constant, however, was the mistreatment of Romani communities. For example, in what is present-day Romania, the local rulers as well as members of the monastery and aristocracy forced the Roma into slavery during the 14th century. Romani people worked as servants for the church and the state, with little more than the right to life. Romani men and women were made to work as domestic servants, blacksmiths, ironmongers, and a host of other professions. Roma slaves were seen as property that could be punished or sold as their masters saw fit. After nearly 400 years, Romania finally outlawed slavery in 1855. In other parts of Europe, Roma faced discrimination driven by beliefs of their racial inferiority. When the Nazi party took power in Germany, they turned their sights on addressing the so-called “Gypsy problem.” This began with discriminatory laws that targeted the Roma and ended with the systematic slaughter of Romani men, women, and children throughout Europe. An estimated 200,000 to 500,000 Roma were murdered during the Holocaust, representing 25 percent of the continent’s Roma population. Today, Roma still face stark inequalities. The European Commission launched infringement proceedings against the Czech Republic in 2014, Slovakia in 2015, and Hungary in 2016 for discriminating against Roma in their educational systems. In all three countries, Roma are channeled into almost completely separate schools and classrooms—with disturbing parallels to the segregation African-Americans faced for decades. A Cause for Collaboration Comparisons between the struggles of African-Americans and the Roma are not new. Romanian activists first drew parallels in the 19th century when Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a book depicting the harsh realities of slavery in the United States, was translated into Romanian. Its criticism of slavery helped energize the campaign to abolish slavery in Romania. This shared historical experience, along with several others, is the basis on which many African-American and Roma activists form modern partnerships. These partnerships have expanded thanks to the efforts of both individuals and organizations. For example, in 1995 in the town of Szentendre, Hungary, former U.S. civil rights activist Michael Simmons organized what would come to be known as the Szentendre Exchange. African-American Veterans of the U.S. civil rights movement met with Romani activists to discuss their efforts to further civil rights in their respective communities. Each group was invited to share stories of victories, challenges, and the methods that were the most successful.  In 2018, Harvard’s Center for Health and Human Rights hosted a similar event for its annual celebration of International Roma Day. The event featured a panel discussion titled, “Alone Together: Strength and Solidarity between the Roma and African-American Communities.” Margareta Matache, leading Roma rights activist, and Cornel West, renowned political philosopher, served as speakers on the panel. The two noted that with increased solidarity and cooperation, African-American and Roma advocates can learn from one another and achieve greater change. Ivan Ivanov, the executive director of the European Roma Information Office, also cites the U.S. civil rights movement as an inspiration for his work. Ivanov, who studied international human rights law at Columbia University, heads an organization that focuses on anti-discrimination policies in the fields of education, employment, healthcare and housing. The OSCE has facilitated dialogue through its Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR). Larry Olomoefe, former ODIHR Adviser on Combating Racism and Xenophobia, has worked with Roma to advance their rights and lead workshops on civil disobedience and political activism. Olomoefe notes that a component of these seminars entails teaching the history of protests like those led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and determining how it relates to the issues the Roma face today. Helsinki Commission efforts build on this history of exchange and collaboration. Helsinki Commission staff invited Soraya Post and Romeo Franz, two Roma Members of the European Parliament (MEPs), to participate in congressional events on Roma and meet with U.S. government officials and civil society. This included meeting with members of the U.S. Congressional Black Caucus and a visit to Howard University in Washington, D.C. The two learned of the role that Howard University and other Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) have had in supporting African-Americans’ struggle for civil rights.   Progress The campaign for greater civil protections for Roma has seen moderate success due in large part to the work of the European Roma Rights Centre (ERRC), a strategic law organization comprised of human rights lawyers and activists inspired by the NAACP’s legal victories during the U.S. civil rights movement. The ERRC enjoyed a major victory in 2007 when the European Court of Human Rights ruled against the Czech Republic for its practice of placing Romani children in separate classrooms under the guise of special education. Dubbed “Europe’s Brown v. Board of Education” after the seminal court ruling that outlawed de jure segregation in the United States, the “Ostrava Case” outlawed this form of school segregation and paved the way for future desegregation cases. The ERRC has achieved similar success in cases involving illegal deportations of Roma, disparities in access to clean water, and police brutality. The Helsinki Commission has supported Roma and minority rights since its inception. It has advocated for the recognition of the enslavement and genocide of Roma. Helsinki Commissioners have also spoken out against the systemic inequities that many Romani communities still face. Helsinki Commission Chair Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20), the commission’s first African-American chair, has frequently highlighted the importance of International Roma Day and, along with other Helsinki Commission leaders, in 2019 introduced a resolution celebrating the contributions of Romani Americans. Challenges Despite these victories, Roma continue to face discrimination and prejudice. A 2015 study found that an average of one out of five Europeans would feel “completely uncomfortable” working with a Roma colleague. In some countries that number rose to 50 percent. Still, promoting tolerance can only be achieved through a concerted effort. Although government support is necessary to create substantive change, it is not enough. The most successful campaigns for social change occur when governmental institutions form meaningful partnerships with civil society organizations.  The grassroots organizations that found success during civil rights movements were bolstered by progressive legislation and generous funding from the private and public sector. Similar partnerships can be formed to support the work of not only the organizations that focus on Roma issues but also those who seek to collaborate. The history of African-American and Roma collaboration suggests that there are possibly shared solutions to be gained out of a shared experience.

  • Chairman Hastings Marks Roma Genocide Remembrance Day

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

  • Hastings: Petty Parochialism Denies OSCE Vital Leadership During Global Crisis

    WASHINGTON—Following yesterday’s failure of OSCE representatives to renew the mandates of four leadership positions—the OSCE Secretary General, the High Commissioner on National Minorities, the Representative on Freedom of the Media, and the Director of the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights—Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) issued the following statement: “We are in trouble when petty parochialism denies us vital leadership in the midst of a global crisis. Now more than ever, reliable multilateral institutions are needed to forge solutions during and after the current pandemic.  “Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, Turkey, and other OSCE participating States who have blocked consensus on extending dedicated public servants should be ashamed of themselves. History will show the folly of abandoning essential leadership for cooperation.” Negotiations to renew each mandate collapsed in part in response to the written objections of Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, and Turkey, and the subsequent withholding of consensus by other participating States. Even efforts to devise interim extensions failed, leaving vital OSCE leadership positions vacant during an unprecedented global crisis. The failure highlights the unwillingness of some OSCE participating States to live up to their stated commitments to democratic institutions, the rule of law, media pluralism, and free and fair elections. Leaving key leadership roles unfilled drastically weakens the OSCE’s ability to hold countries accountable for their actions and undermines the principles of the Helsinki Final Act.  The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) is the world’s largest regional security organization. It spans 57 participating States reaching from Vancouver to Vladivostok. The OSCE sets standards in fields including military security, economic and environmental cooperation, and human rights and humanitarian concerns. In addition, the OSCE undertakes a variety of initiatives designed to prevent, manage, and resolve conflict within and among the participating States.

  • Hastings: Plagues Do Not Stop Persecution

    WASHINGTON—Ahead of World Refugee Day on June 20, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) issued the following statement: “The COVID-19 pandemic has exponentially multiplied the overwhelming challenges already faced by refugees and asylum seekers worldwide. To stop the spread of the disease, many countries have closed their borders or strictly limited entry. Unfortunately, this gives refugees nowhere to turn; plagues do not stop persecution. “I encourage governments in the OSCE region to be mindful of safeguarding the public health of their citizens and residents, while still living up to their commitments to offer refuge to the most vulnerable. No country should exploit the pandemic to permanently restrict entry from refugees and asylum seekers. “In addition, authorities must ensure that refugees and asylum seekers can access the services they need to stay healthy. The close quarters in many camps and detention centers make social distancing impossible and, along with a lack of quality medical care and in some cases even basic sanitation, can contribute to coronavirus outbreaks among already vulnerable populations.” In a June 2019 podcast, the Helsinki Commission examined the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on vulnerable communities throughout the OSCE, including refugees and minorities. More than 79.5 million people worldwide were forcibly displaced as of the end of 2019, including 26 million refugees, 45.7 internally displaced persons, and 4.2 million asylum seekers, according to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. Almost 7 million of these refugees and more than 2.1 million asylum seekers were located in OSCE participating States. On March 17, UNHCR and the International Organization for Migration announced they were suspending resettlement departures following pandemic-related entry restrictions by resettlement countries. They announced a resumption on June 18. One hundred and sixty-one countries still have partial or full entry closures, including 97 countries with no exemptions for refugees or asylum seekers. The U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration suspended U.S. Refugee Admissions Program admissions for two weeks on March 19 and subsequently indefinitely. The few admissions since have been emergency exceptions. In addition, rules effective March 20 restricted land ports of entry from Canada and Mexico to “essential travel.” Neither rule included travel by asylum seekers, refugees, or unaccompanied minors as “essential.” All U.S. restrictions currently remain in effect.

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