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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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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.

  • Human Rights and Democracy in a Time of Pandemic

    The outbreak of the novel coronavirus pandemic has prompted governments around the world to take extraordinary measures in the interest of public health and safety. As of early April, nearly two-thirds of the 57 participating States of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe had declared “states of emergency” or invoked similar legal measures in response to the crisis. Often such measures have enabled governments to enact large-scale social distancing policies and suspend economic activity to save lives and preserve the capacity of national public health infrastructure to respond to the spread of infections. At the same time, human rights organizations and civil society activists have expressed concern regarding the breadth of some emergency measures and recalled the long history of government abuse of emergency powers to trample civil liberties. Exactly three decades ago, OSCE participating States unanimously endorsed a set of basic principles governing the imposition of states of emergency, including the protection of fundamental freedoms in such times of crisis. In 1990 in Copenhagen, OSCE countries affirmed that states of emergency must be enacted by public law and that any curtailment of human rights and civil liberties must be “limited to the extent strictly required by the exigencies of the situation.” According to the Copenhagen Document, emergency measures furthermore should never discriminate based on certain group characteristics or be used to justify torture. Building on these commitments a year later in Moscow, participating States underscored that states of emergency should not “subvert the democratic constitutional order, nor aim at the destruction of internationally recognized human rights and fundamental freedoms.” The Moscow Document stresses the role of legislatures in imposing and lifting such declarations, the preservation of the rule of law, and the value of guaranteeing “freedom of expression and freedom of information…with a view to enabling public discussion on the observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms as well as on the lifting of the state of public emergency.” In some corners of the OSCE region, however, national authorities are violating these and other OSCE commitments in the name of combatting coronavirus. While many extraordinary responses are justified in the face of this crisis, government overreach threatens the well-being of democracy and the resilience of society at a critical time. Download the full report to learn more.

  • Respecting Human Rights and Maintaining Democratic Control during States of Emergency

    Statement at the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly Webinar: Respecting Human Rights and Maintaining Democratic Control during States of Emergency President Tsereteli, Secretary General Montella, it is good hear from you.  I am pleased to see that this Assembly has found ways to communicate, cooperate and collaborate — in spite of the distances that keep us apart, and as an expression of our shared commitments to our roles as legislators. At last year’s annual session, I was the lead sponsor of a supplementary item on “the role of civil society — individuals and non-governmental organizations — in realizing the aims and aspirations of the OSCE.”  The resolution we adopted in Luxembourg acknowledges the critical role civil society plays in enhancing security and cooperation across all OSCE dimensions. I appreciate President Tsereteli appointing our colleague, the Honorable Pia Kauma, as the Assembly’s Special Representative to be an advocate for civil society engagement and she has done a great job so far. I am sorry, but not surprised that some governments have taken the need for emergency measures as an opportunity for repressive measures. Hungary is the only OSCE participating State that does not have a sunset clause for the expiration of its emergency measures, or requiring parliamentary approval for an extension.  Parliamentary oversight is absolutely essential, especially when governments seek to exercise extraordinary powers. I believe we must also pay particular attention to those measures that relate to freedoms of assembly, association, and expression.  I am also troubled by the heavy-handed disciplinary and punitive approach utilized in some areas, which exacerbates existing discriminatory and unconstitutional policing.  I want to thank you, Director Gisladottir, for your attention to this and speaking out against the hate crimes and scapegoating of minorities, refugees and migrants. In the next legislation that will come before the U.S. Congress, I will support provisions to address hate crimes and other forms of discrimination in our societies recently highlighted by the pandemic. The February 25 profiling murder of Ahmaud Aubrey by his neighbors in the state of Georgia demonstrates the urgency of our fight for equity and justice for all beyond our current crisis. But I would like to pause here for a moment, to reflect on violations of fundamental freedoms that some governments had already imposed even before now.  If a law or practice violated OSCE human rights and democracy norms before the pandemic, circumstances now will surely not cure that violation. Threats against journalists, restrictions on academic freedom, imprisoning people for their political views, and impeding or even criminalizing NGOs’ access to and communication within and outside their own countries — all of that is still inconsistent with OSCE commitments, and the pandemic does not change that.  Principle VII of the Helsinki Final Act still holds: individuals still have the right to know and act upon their rights. I therefore add my voice to the international calls from OSCE institutional bodies and others around the world for the release of all prisoners of conscience given this pandemic. Prison populations are particularly susceptible to community spread. To address dangerous overcrowding, governments should work first and foremost to release those imprisoned for exercising their internationally recognized rights or those wrongly imprisoned contrary to international commitments.  I regret Turkey's decision in particular to approve a plan to release 90,000 prisoners that excluded relief for any of the thousands of political prisoners, including opposition politicians, civil society activists, employees of U.S. diplomatic missions, and many more. Which brings me back to the important work of Special Representative Kauma.  Civil society is not a luxury, it is essential.  If anything, it becomes even more important during an emergency when governments may legitimately exercise powers, but those powers may not be unlimited, unchecked, or unending.  A vibrant civil society plays a critical role in holding governments to account, particularly at times of great social stress.  Those human rights groups, the parent-teacher organizations, book clubs, or food banks— all enrich our societies. Colleagues, this pandemic has upended elections across the OSCE region.  According to the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly’s factsheet, forty OSCE participating States — including my own — have elections scheduled for this year. As we all rise to meet the challenge of conducting elections safely, we must maintain transparency regarding the entire electoral process, especially any changes to the timing of elections, methods of voting, or measures that impact campaigning.  The United States is already debating these issues in preparation for November. Even in a pandemic, international and domestic election observation remains vital.  We must find a solution to ensure that they are engaged and included even now. 

  • Chairman Hastings Marks International Roma Day, Notes Consequences of Systemic Racism Exposed by Pandemic

    WASHINGTON—To mark the occasion of International Roma Day on April 8, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) issued the following statement: “This year, we sadly must put aside many of the annual celebrations of Romani art, culture, music, and heritage that usually mark International Roma Day, and instead address the urgent concerns exposed by a global pandemic. “This health crisis has spotlighted many of the consequences of systemic racism long faced by Romani communities. Unequal access to care—or in some cases even basic sanitation and clean running water—puts not only Roma but also other socially excluded groups in great danger of infection. Now more than ever, governments must ensure that all members of society have permanent access to healthcare, functioning sanitation facilities, and clean water. “In addition, around the world—even in our own country—there are those who seek to use this crisis to fan the flames of bigotry. We must not tolerate or excuse such discrimination on the basis of fear. Stoking racism and xenophobia will not make us healthier or stronger. It will only divide and weaken us at a time when unity is most needed. “To successfully counter COVID-19, OSCE participating States must work with local community representatives to build trust, enhance the transparency of national initiatives, and bolster participation in critical public health efforts. Roma and other marginalized groups must not be forgotten. To quote from the OSCE Action Plan, ‘for Roma, with Roma.’” In the April 2020 episode of the Helsinki Commission’s “Helsinki on the Hill” podcast, Romani scholar and activist Dr. Margareta Matache discussed the state of Roma rights in Europe, as well as resolutions introduced by Helsinki Commission leaders to celebrate Romani American heritage.   In April 2019,  Chairman Hastings, Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS), Rep. Steve Watkins (KS-02), and Ranking Helsinki Commissioner 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 2003, OSCE participating States adopted an “Action Plan on Improving the Situation of Roma and Sinti within the OSCE Area.” These guidelines—recommendations for participating States and OSCE institutions—are intended to combat racism and discrimination; ensure equal access and opportunities in education, employment, housing, and health services; enhance Romani participation in public and political life; and address issues relating to Roma in conflict and post-conflict situations.

  • Helsinki Commission Chairman Condemns Russian-backed Syrian Government Offensive in Idlib

    WASHINGTON—In response to mounting casualties from clashes between Turkish and Russian-backed Syrian forces in northwestern Syria and the Turkish government’s decision to open its borders to refugee flows toward mainland Europe, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) issued the following statement: “A vicious Russian and Syrian government offensive in Idlib province is responsible for the unacceptable military escalation, civilian suffering, and displacement crisis we have witnessed in recent days and weeks,” said Chairman Hastings. “Presidents Putin and Assad must stop this assault immediately and comply with international humanitarian law requiring them to protect civilians and civilian infrastructure. I further urge the Trump administration to deploy appropriate resources to address these pressing security and humanitarian challenges, which will undoubtedly impact the OSCE region. We must sustainably meet the needs of the most vulnerable and the countless refugees resulting from Russian and Syrian aggression.” On February 27, Russian-backed Syrian forces killed at least 33 Turkish soldiers in the northwestern Idlib province of Syria. Following this incident, the Turkish government announced the opening of Turkey’s borders for refugees and migrants to go westward to European Union member countries, despite the March 2016 EU-Turkey agreement “to end the irregular migration from Turkey to the EU.” That agreement is founded on the multi-billion euro EU Facility for Refugees in Turkey established in 2015. According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees in a March 2 statement, the daily rate of refugees and asylum-seekers arriving in Greece from Turkey has increased in March.     Since early December, fighting in northwestern Syria has displaced more than 948,000 people, including 569,000 children and 195,000 women, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Turkey hosts more than 3.5 million Syrian refugees. Along with the United States, Tukey is a NATO ally. The United States, Russian Federation and Turkey, are  participating States of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

  • Restrictions on Civil Society in Hungary

    Since returning to power in 2010, Viktor Orban has systematically dismantled a system of checks and balances, facilitating the consolidation of control by the Fidesz government, which is now in its fourth (third consecutive) term. This has included introducing significant changes to the legal framework for parliamentary elections; stripping hundreds of faiths of their state recognition in 2011 and then channeling money to religious groups that do not challenge government positions (increasing dependence of those groups on the state); overseeing the consolidation of most Hungarian media, first into the hands of government-tied oligarchy and then into a single foundation exempt from anti-trust regulation; and eroding judicial independence by, for example, expanding and packing the constitutional court. In light of restrictions imposed on political opposition, faith organizations, the media and the judiciary, the role of Hungarian civil society in holding the government to account (by, for example, suing the government for non-compliance with the Hungarian constitution or Hungary’s international legal commitments) has taken on heightened importance. At the same time, civil society organizations have become the targets of escalating rhetorical attacks and legislative restrictions, including laws that significantly lower the bar for what it takes to jail people who seek to exercise their freedoms of speech, assembly, and association. Download the full report to learn more. Contributors: Erika Schlager, Counsel for International Law and Daniela Ondraskova, Max Kampelman Fellow

  • Human Rights and Democracy

    For nearly three decades, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) has been at the forefront of efforts to promote human rights and democracy throughout the 57-nation OSCE region. Although best known for international election observation, ODIHR has also been instrumental in countering various forms of intolerance, helping governments combat human trafficking, protecting human rights defenders, and implementing OSCE commitments to fundamental freedoms. The U.S. Helsinki Commission convened the hearing to demonstrate bipartisan support for ODIHR, to reinforce the U.S.’s support related OSCE initiatives, and to hear about the ongoing work of ODIHR.  Commission Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) chaired the hearing and was joined by Commissioners Rep. Robert Aderholt (AL-04), Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), Rep. Gwen Moore (WI-04), and Rep. Marc Veasey (TX-33). Rep. Wilson’s opening remarks highlighted the historic achievements of ODIHR, which include assisting countries to “transition from communism to democracy,” supporting “civil society participation in OSCE events,” and facilitating “strong cooperation with the Parliamentary Assembly.”  In her first appearance before Congress, ODIHR Director Ambassador Ingibjörg Sólrún Gísladóttir addressed multiple challenges that have impeded the effectiveness of ODIHR activities. She then outlined ODIHR’s role in offering proactive solutions.  In particular, Ambassador Gísladóttir stressed the importance of dialogue and asserted that democracy is about “respect and trust, an acceptance of differing opinions, an exchange of views, and the willingness to share power and seek compromise.” She concluded on an optimistic note, emphasizing unity within the OSCE and its “commitment to democracy and to the wellbeing of its people.” Although conscious of ODIHR’s efforts, commissioners voiced concerns that some OSCE participating States are not complying with their commitments to uphold basic human rights standards. Commissioners specifically acknowledged restrictions on religious freedom in Russia, poor conditions for activists and journalists, and rising anti-Semitism and discrimination against the Roma people across the region. This hearing continued the Helsinki Commission practice of regularly engaging with senior OSCE officials.The Commission typically holds hearing with the foreign minister of the country holding the rotating chairmanship of the OSCE. The Commission has also held hearings with previous ODIHR directors as well as the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media.

  • Director of OSCE Office For Democratic Institutions and Human Rights to Testify at Helsinki Commission Hearing

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following hearing: HUMAN RIGHTS AND DEMOCRACY Obstacles and Opportunities in the OSCE Region Wednesday, January 29, 2020 10:00 a.m. Longworth House Office Building Room 1334 Live Webcast: www.youtube.com/HelsinkiCommission For nearly three decades, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) has been at the forefront of efforts to promote human rights and democracy throughout the 57-nation OSCE region. In her first appearance before Congress, ODIHR Director Ambassador Ingibjörg Sólrún Gísladóttir will discuss the organization’s flagship work in international election observation; countering anti-Semitism and other forms of intolerance; and helping governments to combat human trafficking, protect human rights defenders, and better implement their commitments to fundamental freedoms including assembly and religion. The OSCE, the world’s largest regional security body, is based on a comprehensive concept of security that recognizes that respect for human rights and functioning democratic institutions underpin regional peace and security. ODIHR provides support, assistance, and expertise to participating States and civil society to promote democracy, rule of law, human rights, and tolerance and non-discrimination. ODIHR observes elections at the invitation of participating States, reviews legislation, and advises governments on how to develop and sustain democratic institutions. The office also works closely with the OSCE’s field operations and organizes Europe’s largest annual human rights meeting, bringing together annually hundreds of government officials, international experts, civil society representatives and human rights activists.  

  • Public Diplomacy, Democracy, and Global Leadership

    For more than a century, the United States has advanced shared human rights, economic, and security policy goals in the transatlantic relationship by cultivating people-to-people ties through public diplomacy initiatives.  As democracies around the world face new challenges emanating from demographic shifts, technological advancements, and evolving security threats, the need for public diplomacy initiatives that cultivate leaders who espouse democratic principles, including inclusive and representative governance, grows more relevant. The U.S. Helsinki Commission convened a hearing to focus on U.S.-led public diplomacy international exchange initiatives that strengthen democratic institutions by targeting young and diverse leaders, encouraging civic engagement, and fostering social inclusion and cohesion in the OSCE region. Presiding over the hearing, Chairman Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) stated, “This year, under my leadership, the Helsinki Commission has held events on the importance of international election observation, good governance, and focused on democratic backsliding in particular countries as part of our continued commitment to the underlying principles of the Helsinki Final Act.  Common to all of these issues is the role good leaders can play in ensuring free and fair elections; laws that are equitable, transparent, and enforced; and laying the groundwork to ensure protections and rights for all in their constituencies […] for the long-term stability of our nation and the transatlantic partnership.”  In his opening remarks, Chairman Hastings also noted that he planned to introduce legislation to support of leadership exchanges and knowledge-building between diverse transatlantic policymakers, and to encourage representative democracies. He also announced a February program for young OSCE parliamentarians to strengthen their political inclusion and advance peace and security efforts. Chairman Hastings was joined by Commissioners Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, II (MO-05) and Rep. Marc Veasey (TX-33). Rep. Veasey raised the importance of metrics in assessing the impact of leadership programs and soft diplomacy, while Rep. Cleaver stated, “For the first time since the end of World War II, the extreme right is actually winning seats in the German Parliament,” highlighting increased security risks related to public diplomacy programs operating in countries that have seen an increase in hate crimes and racial prejudice. Witnesses included Cordell Carter, II, Executive Director of the Socrates Program at the Aspen Institute; Stacie Walters Fujii, Chair of the American Council of Young Political Leaders; and Lora Berg, Counselor for Inclusive Leadership at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. Carter reviewed the Aspen Institute’s public policy programming on transatlantic relations and discussed the importance of promoting democratic values, including efforts to strengthen the capacity of congressional staff and encourage dialogues around the United States on being an “inclusive republic.”  He concluded by asking Congress to create more opportunities for public discourse on issues that threaten the stability of democracies around the world. Fujii discussed the importance of international exchanges in supporting democracies and the work of American Council of Young Political Leaders (ACYPL). ACYPL was founded in 1966 to strengthen transatlantic relationships by promoting mutual understanding among young political leaders in Western Europe and the former Soviet Union.  Critical aspects of the program include offering international leaders the opportunity to come to the U.S. to observe campaigning, polling stations, election returns, and the response of the American people to elections, complemented by follow-on educational conversations about democratic processes in their countries.  Berg highlighted the importance of public diplomacy initiatives in advancing inclusive leadership and observed that nations gain in richness and capacity when diversity is reflected in leadership. She also noted that inclusive leadership not only plays an important role in promoting social harmony, but it also helps to ensure economic growth, stating that “the places with the highest social cohesion are the most reliable for investment.” Berg explained that the GMF’s Transatlantic Inclusion Leaders Network (TILN) grew out of work she engaged in while working for the Department of State. TILN is an innovative network of young, diverse leaders across the United States and Europe supported by the Helsinki Commission and State Department.    Berg argued for the expansion of U.S. Government-supported public diplomacy inclusive leadership initiatives targeting youth and diverse populations in western democracies, including through public-private partnerships, the creation of a public diplomacy officer position in Europe to foster Europe-wide next generation transatlantic leadership, and increased political participation measures domestically and abroad for diverse populations.   

  • Helsinki Commission to Review Role of Professional Exchanges in Strengthening Democratic Institutions

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following hearing: PUBLIC DIPLOMACY, DEMOCRACY, AND GLOBAL LEADERSHIP An Approach for the 21st Century Thursday, December 5, 2019 10:00 a.m. Longworth House Office Building Room 1334 Live Webcast: www.youtube.com/HelsinkiCommission For more than a century, the United States has advanced human rights, economic, and security policy goals in Europe by cultivating people-to-people ties across the Atlantic. More than 500 heads of state, 100 Members of Congress, and thousands of professionals have participated in U.S. Government-sponsored exchanges, including the State Department’s International Visitor Leadership Program, while public and private organizations have hosted similar programs to bring leaders together.    Witnesses at the hearing will explore the origins and role of professional exchanges and other public diplomacy programs that strengthen relationships with U.S. allies in the face of shared challenges including eroding trust in democratic institutions, demographic shifts, technological advancements, and evolving security threats. In particular, the hearing will focus on international exchange initiatives that strengthen democratic institutions by targeting young and diverse leaders, encouraging civic engagement, and fostering social inclusion and cohesion in the OSCE region.  The following witnesses are scheduled to participate: Lora Berg, Senior Fellow, Leadership Programs, German Marshall Fund of the United States Cordell Carter, II, Executive Director, Socrates Program, The Aspen Institute   Stacie Walters Fujii, Chair, American Council of Young Political Leaders (ACYPL)   Photo credit: German Marshall Fund of the United States

  • At What Cost?

    Sparked by the recent Turkish military offensive in northeastern Syria, increased tensions between the United States and Turkey have reignited the debate about the future of U.S.-Turkish bilateral relations. The Helsinki Commission convened this hearing to discuss how the United States should respond to the Turkish Government’s continuing abuse of human rights and fundamental freedoms. Expert witnesses at the hearing reviewed prominent cases of politically-motivated prosecution, failures of due process, and prospects for judicial reform as they relate to Turkey’s commitments as a member of both the OSCE and NATO. The panel also evaluated President Erdogan’s plan to return millions of Syrian refugees to their war-torn country or push them to Europe, and the human consequences of his military incursion into Syria. Presiding over the hearing, Commission Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson affirmed that as co-chair for the Caucus on U.S.-Turkey Relations & Turkish Americans he supports the people of Turkey and the U.S.-Turkish alliance. He cautioned, however, that President Erdogan’s actions threaten to undermine that alliance and damage the security of the region. Rep. Marc Veasey noted that Turkey is being “torn between two worlds”: one of democracy and one of autocracy. Sen. John Boozman and Rep. Steve Cohen were also present at the hearing. The Commission heard testimony from Gonul Tol, Director of the Center for Turkish Studies at the Middle East Institute; Merve Tahiroglu, the Turkey Program Coordinator at the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED); Henri Barkey, the Bernard L. and Bertha F. Cohen Professor at Lehigh University; Eric Schwartz, the President of Refugees International; and Talip Kucukcan, professor of sociology at Marmara University. Dr. Tol testified that “most freedoms under Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan have been dramatically curtailed” but counseled that Turkey “is not a fullblown dictatorship.” The Turkish government has targeted activists, journalists, and opposition politicians with “trumped-up terrorism charges and “largely criminalized Kurdish political expression.” She highlighted the opposition’s recent victories in mayoral elections as “a testament to the peoples of Turkey, the great majority of whom refuse to give up on the idea of democratic rule.” Dr. Tol further urged the United States to view “the Kurdish question…[as] a matter of democratization and human rights” for the Turkish state. Ms. Tahiroglu explained the deterioration of the rule of law under Erdogan’s government. According to her testimony, Erdogan’s administration has politicized the judiciary and rendered it “a main weapon against government critics and opponents” through repressive laws and false terrorism charges. She noted key judicial cases against civil society activists, journalists, opposition politicians, professors, U.S. citizens, and employees of U.S. consulates in the country. Ms. Tahiroglu testified that the breakdown of the rule of law in Turkey matters for U.S. interests because it has swept up U.S. citizens, “fuels anti-Americanism,” and “embolden[s] Turkey’s aggressive policies abroad by suppressing dissenting voices.” Dr. Barkey focused his testimony on the Turkish government’s suppression of the struggle for recognition of Kurdish social and political identity. Barkey explained the significance of the People’s Democratic Party (HDP)—Turkey’s second largest opposition party—in providing an opportunity for Turkey’s Kurdish population to participate in Turkish politics. “From that perspective, they have been very, very successful,” Barkey assessed. “It may have been far too successful for its own good.” Dr. Barkey detailed President Erdogan’s “relentless campaign to dismantle and delegitimize the HDP.” Mr. Schwartz spoke about the humanitarian implications of Turkey’s incursion into northeastern Syria. The reports of human rights abuses and civilian deaths are cause for deep concern, he said. He criticized the decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria instead of implementing a strategic departure. Schwartz concluded with a recommendation for the United States to support locally based NGOs that provide humanitarian assistance to populations by the Turkish operation. Dr. Kucukcan reminded the audience that Turkey’s incursion occurred with President Donald Trump’s consent. The incursion, he noted, serves to protect Turkey’s national security and preserve the territorial integrity of Syria.  Dr. Kucukcan disputed that Turkey plans “ethnic cleansing” or “demographic engineering in places where [military] operations took place.”

  • Hastings and Cardin Condemn Mob Attack on Budapest Community Center

    WASHINGTON—Following Wednesday’s mob attack on Aurora, a small Jewish community center that provides office space to civil society groups in Budapest, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) and Ranking Member Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) issued the following statements: “Wednesday’s mob attack on Aurora is an alarming escalation of violence toward minorities and civil society groups in Hungary. This second attack by paramilitary-style extremists in less than a month sends a frightening message: Authorities cannot, or will not, protect you,” said Chairman Hastings. “A decade ago, far-right extremists in Hungary orchestrated dozens of violent attacks, murdering six Hungarians including five-year-old Robert Csorba. The Government of Hungary must not allow such a tragedy to occur again.” “The Hungarian Government may boast of a ‘zero-tolerance for anti-Semitism’ policy abroad, but in reality, in Budapest they traffic in anti-Semitic tropes, honor fascist-era leaders and ideologues, and stoke hatred of migrants and Muslims,” said Sen. Cardin, who also serves as the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly Special Representative on Anti-Semitism, Racism, and Intolerance. “Actions speak louder than words. I hope that available photographs of the mob will aid law enforcement in the investigation and prosecution of the perpetrators, and I commend the district’s newly elected mayor for visiting Aurora and seeking to ensure its safety.” Marom, a Hungarian Jewish association, established and runs Aurora Community Center, an umbrella organization that provides office space to small civil society groups including the Roma Press Center, migrant aid, and Pride Parade organizers. In Wednesday’s attack, the mob burned a rainbow flag and branded a para-military logo onto the premises. On September 26, the center also was attacked and vandalized by extremists. Under the Orbán government, the conditions for independent nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in Hungary have deteriorated. Over the past two years, Hungarian authorities have accused Marom of administrative violations ranging from mismatched dates on official documents to, most recently, lacking an appropriate agreement with the center’s landlord. In 2018, Hungary passed a law establishing a 25 percent tax on organizations which engage in “propaganda activity that portrays immigration in a positive light.” It is a tax on government-disfavored speech. Hungary also adopted amendments to its "law on aiding illegal migration" that make handing out know-your-rights leaflets punishable by up to one year in prison. In 2017, Hungary adopted a Russian-style "foreign agent" law which, according to the U.S. Department of State, “unfairly burdens a targeted group of Hungarian civil society organizations, many of which focus on fighting corruption and protecting human rights and civil liberties.” The bill was proposed by the far-right wing party Jobbik. In 2014, armed police carried out raids on 13 civil society organizations, seizing computers and documents for alleged financial misconduct. No charges were ever brought against the NGOs. Between 2008 and 2010, at least six people were murdered, many others were injured, and whole communities were terrorized in a series of attacks by right-wing extremists.  Maria Balog was shot in her own home in a middle-of-the-night raid that also wounded her 13-year-old daughter. Jeno Koka was shot as he got in his car to go to work. Five-year-old Robert Csorba and his father were killed by sniper fire while attempting to escape an arson attack on their home.

  • Helsinki Commission Hearing to Review Human Rights Developments in Turkey

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following hearing: AT WHAT COST? The Human Toll of Turkey’s Policy at Home and Abroad Thursday, October 31, 2019 10:00 a.m. – 12:00 p.m. Rayburn House Office Building Room 2200 Live Webcast: www.youtube.com/HelsinkiCommission Sparked by the recent Turkish military offensive in northeastern Syria, increased tensions between the United States and Turkey have reignited the debate about the future of U.S.-Turkish bilateral relations. At the hearing, expert witnesses will discuss how the United States should respond to the Turkish Government’s continuing abuse of human rights and fundamental freedoms. Participants will review prominent cases of politically-motivated prosecution, failures of due process, and prospects for judicial reform as they relate to Turkey’s commitments as a member of both the OSCE and NATO. The panel also will evaluate President Erdogan’s plan to return millions of Syrian refugees to their war-torn country or push them to Europe, and the human consequences of his military incursion into Syria. The following witnesses are scheduled to participate: Henri Barkey, Bernard L. and Bertha F. Cohen Professor, Lehigh University Talip Kucukcan, Professor of Sociology, Marmara University Eric Schwartz, President, Refugees International Merve Tahiroglu, Turkey Program Coordinator, Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED) Gonul Tol, Director, Center for Turkish Studies, Middle East Institute (MEI) Additional witnesses may be added.

  • Co-Chairman Wicker Statement on Developments in Northern Syria

    WASHINGTON—Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) today issued the following statement on reports that Turkey has launched an attack on Kurdish troops in northern Syria: “Kurdish troops bravely fought alongside Americans and our other allies to defeat the ISIS caliphate. The small deployment of special operators we had in northern Syria supported the fight against extremism and protected our partners. We should continue to stand by our Kurdish friends and oppose Turkey’s invasion. Those who support the United States deserve nothing less. Otherwise, we undermine our country’s interests in the region and our credibility around the world.”

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