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Iraqi Refugees: A Humanitarian Surge Is Needed for an ‘Invisible’ Humanitarian Crisis
Monday, September 08, 2008

By Lale Mamaux, Communications Director

and Marlene Kaufmann, General Counsel

In August, staff of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (U.S. Helsinki Commission) traveled to Damascus, Syria and Beirut, Lebanon and met with government officials, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and religious groups regarding the Iraqi refugee crisis. While it is estimated that approximately 1 to 1.5 million Iraqis have fled to Syria and 50,000 have fled to Lebanon, they are not living in camps, but instead are a mobile population scattered throughout Damascus and Beirut as well as in other urban areas. That fact has made this humanitarian crisis virtually ‘invisible’ to the international community, but not for those Iraqi refugees who remain stranded, jobless, and deprived of essential services with conditions worsening by the day. This deepening crisis threatens to further destabilize the entire region.

As the years in exile drag on, Iraqi refugees are becoming more and more desperate and depressed. Those who fled with some resources have by now seen those assets depleted and are reliant on services provided by international organizations and NGOs working in the region. Syria and Jordan host the largest population of Iraqis and do not permit them to work, although many find jobs in the “informal” sector making them targets for exploitation and abuse. As a result, fewer children are enrolling in school as their parents send them out, instead, to find whatever work they can on the street. More women are prostituting themselves, desperate to provide for their children, and domestic violence and alcoholism among this population are on the rise.

Syria

The bombing of the Golden Mosque of Samara in 2006 led to a mass influx of Iraqi refugees fleeing to Syria, where according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), approximately 30,000-60,000 Iraqis were crossing the border each month. In October 2007, the government closed its borders to virtually all Iraqis and imposed stringent visa restrictions – requiring Iraqis to apply for visas at the Syrian Embassy in Baghdad. Since February 2008, Syrian immigration sources indicate that the flow of Iraqis has stabilized once again.

According to UNHCR, it has registered over 216,000 Iraqis as refugees. Since January 2007, UNHCR has identified over 7,800 at-risk refugee children or adolescents from Iraq, 95 unaccompanied or separated children, and over 5,900 women at risk. Additionally, in 2008 it identified at least 300 survivors of Sexual Gender Based Violence (SGBV).

Many Iraqis arriving in Syria are moving into areas such as Masaken Barzeh, Saida Zainab, Jaramana, and Qudssya as well as to other urban localities outside of Damascus (in Aleppo, Homs, Hama, Deir Ezzor, Lattakia, Tartous and Hassaka). Iraqis have placed enormous strains on Syria’s economy and infrastructure and caused an increase in the cost of living (i.e. rent, food, fuel, medical assistance). As Iraqis financial resources continue to diminish and desperation sets in, they face homelessness, child labor, early marriage, and survival sex. With many Iraqis too afraid to return to Iraq due primarily to the personal violence they have experienced, there is more pressure among aid organizations to cope with increasing needs.

Education:

The Syrian government under the direction of the Ministry of Education allows children from Arab countries living in Syria to attend school. Schools run by the government are free of charge. Currently, according to the government, there are approximately 55,000 Iraqi children enrolled in Syrian schools, 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. The Ministry of Education estimates that there are now 60 students per class and they are working as quickly as possible to build larger schools in order to eliminate the need for children to attend classes in shifts.

Basic education in Syria comprises grades 1-9 and school is mandatory until the age of 15. However, if a child has been absent from school for two years they are not permitted to enroll. Unfortunately, this is the case for many Iraqi children in Syria who have not attended school since they fled their homes. Other factors contributing to parents’ hesitancy to enroll their children in Syrian schools include fear of being located by authorities and deported, harassment of Iraqi children by other students, and the fact that many Iraqi families in Syria are quite mobile, moving frequently among neighborhoods.

With so many Iraqi youth not in school, many NGOs have expressed grave concern about the future generation of Iraqis who will lack an education and who are hanging around on the streets with nothing to do. Clearly, these young people could be susceptible to influence by groups or individuals who may not have their best interests in mind.

Responding to the influx of Iraqi children in school, UNHCR is working in coordination with the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) to encourage enrollment in school. In addition to providing school supplies and uniforms for Iraqi children, UNHCR and UNICEF are working with the Ministry of Education to train teachers and counselors to work with these traumatized children.

For example, there are reports of some Iraqi students coming to school with knives and other weapons in their backpacks, and of their sometimes "acting out" in a violent manner -- symptoms of the trauma they experienced in Iraq and during their flight to safety. Unfortunately, these behaviors generate resentment and sometimes violent responses by other students. Currently, the Ministry of Education is only able to provide one counselor for every 250 students.

Commission staff also attended a graduation ceremony at the Greek Orthodox Ministry in Damascus for 100 Iraqi children, grades 2-7 (ages 6-12). This was a graduation from a summer program where children participated in activities such as arts and crafts in an effort to express themselves and relieve some stress from the trauma they had faced in Iraq and the uncertainty of their situation in Syria. The graduation ceremony consisted of presentations from teachers and counselors as well as singing and skits performed by the students.

Health Care:

Commission staff met with the Syrian Assistant Minister of Health, who described the burdens on the health care system as a result of the influx of Iraqi refugees since 2003. The health care system is comprised of 1600 clinics and 70 hospitals, 5 of which offer services free of charge to Iraqi refugees. The Minister estimated that support for the health needs of the refugee community costs the Syrian government an estimated $150 million per year.

The government is particularly concerned about communicable diseases and therefore has a mandatory vaccination program for all children. Despite substantial contributions from the European Union, UNHCR and UNICEF during the past two years to establish additional clinics and fund vaccinations, the minister estimated that only 5% of the health needs of Iraqi refugees are being met. Particularly critical are the strains put on services for kidney disease, including dialysis, and heart disease. The minister explained that these services were already quite limited for Syrian citizens. Since 2003, according to the minister, anyone needing heart surgery essentially has to “take a number and wait.”

The minister indicated that with the help of the World Health Organization (WHO) the government is also trying to address the increasing psycho-social needs of Iraqi refugees. Two hospitals, one in Damascus and one in Aleppo, are offering these services.

Trafficking in Persons/Shelter:

The Syrian government is undertaking initiatives to counter human trafficking and is in the process of establishing a shelter for victims of trafficking. Beginning in 2005, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) began holding educational workshops and invited Syrian officials to attend. A governmental committee was formed in 2006 to address trafficking issues, however progress was slow. In 2007, private sector experts advised the committee on counter trafficking measures and, as a result of this public-private partnership, anti-trafficking legislation was drafted. The legislation was endorsed by the committee in late 2007 and was sent to Parliament in June of this year.

In coordination with other partners, IOM began raising money for a trafficking shelter. The Netherlands contributed $30,000 Euros, and UNICEF gave $30,000 (USD). The Syrian government has allocated a space for the shelter, however it is in need of major renovations, which are currently under way. The shelter is expected to open in the next 3-4 months and will serve all populations, not just Iraqis.

Iraqis, especially women who arrive in Syria as the head of household with no financial resources, are facing extreme circumstances. Since the Syrian government does not allow Iraqis to work, increasing numbers of refugees have resorted to child labor, survival sex, and offering their daughters for short-term or weekend marriages, commonly referred to as “pleasure marriages” to make ends meet.

More women and children are facing Sexual Gender Based Violence (SGVB) by their husbands’ or the male head of household. UNHCR, in coordination with partners UNICEF, IOM, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), and United Nations Development Program (UNDP), are working together to assist Iraqi women who have been physically or sexually abused and are in detention. UNHCR is also supporting several safe houses located in Damascus that help abused Iraqi women and children.

The Good Shepherd Sisters:

Commission staff also met with Sister Marie-Claude Naddaf of the Good Shepherd Sisters in Damascus in order to learn first-hand of the critical work that she and her community have undertaken in support of Iraqi refugees. Sister Marie-Claude described the suffering of the Iraqi people that she sees every day, those who have fled under threat of violence and arrive in Syria in an already traumatized state. Because of the circumstances and the uncertainty of their situation in Syria most Iraqi refugees, including children, suffer from severe stress and depression.

Focusing on the needs of children, the Good Shepherd Sisters, in concert with UNHCR and other organizations have provided summer camps outside of Damascus for refugee children to play and relax in a peaceful venue and escape the stresses of their daily lives. The sisters also provide extensive educational and recreational programs for adults and children throughout the year in a community center in Damascus, and have taken the lead in establishing a shelter for women and children and a hotline for abused women. Commission staff also visited the shelter and met with several of the women and children who reside there.

Distribution of Food:

Food distribution is conducted by the World Food Program (WFP) and UNHCR. Refugees in Syria receive their food and financial distribution every two months from either the Douma or Saida Zeinab distribution centers. The distribution schedule is communicated to refugees through short cell-phone messages, information posted on boards in the Douma Distribution center, or by postings on the food distribution website: http://unhcr.un.org.sy/food.htm

WFP provides the following basic commodities in their food baskets: 12.5 kilos of rice, l litre of oil, and 2.5 kilos of lentils. UNHCR provides the following complementary items that coincide with the basic commodities provided by WFP: 1 kilo of sugar, 200 grams of tea, 1 kilo of pasta, ½ kilo of tomato paste, 1 kilo of bulgur wheat, and one box each of soap and washing detergents.

In addition to food distribution UNHCR also provides a seasonal distribution of mattresses and blankets. Those Iraqis living outside of Damascus who have registered with UNHCR are able to call a hotline to find out dates and locations of food distribution.

Stories of Iraqis in Syria:

Commission staff met with Iraqi refugees serving as outreach coordinators for UNHCR to gain a better understanding of their hands-on work in the community. The coordinators have a direct line of communication into the Iraqi community in Syria, including with those who have not registered with UNHCR, and they serve as a trusted go between for UNHCR and the community. During the meeting the coordinators spoke of the dire circumstances facing Iraqi refugees in Syria and also shared their personal stories. One coordinator explained that her husband was killed in Iraq and that one of her sons was picked up by U.S. military personnel and another son was kidnapped by a militia group – both were tortured. Fearing for her life, she fled to Syria. Another coordinator told staff that three of her cousins were killed by U.S military personnel because they were accused, wrongly according to the woman, of being terrorists.

In addition, staff participated in a resettlement interview with an Iraqi family at UNHCRs Registration and Distribution Center in Douma. The family had owned a jewelry store in Baghdad and fled Iraq after one son was kidnapped and beaten by his captors. After this incident, the family first fled to another neighborhood in Baghdad where they thought they would be safe. However, shortly after the move their home was raided by militia who gave them three days to leave or be killed. The family then fled to Syria. The father made his way to Sweden, while the mother was left to care for her four children in Syria. During the interview it was revealed that the family has now been in Syria for two years, their savings are almost completely diminished and the mother is working as a seamstress to try to make ends meet. The youngest child suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder after a gun was pointed at him during the raid on their home in Baghdad. Only one of the four children has attended school in the past two years and only for several months because she was severely bullied and harassed by the other children.

LEBANON

Lebanon, a small country of 4 million people, has opened its doors to 50,000 Iraqi refugees, many of whom came after the 2006 bombings in Samara. Roughly 51 percent of Iraqis in Lebanon are Shi’a Muslims, 19 percent are Chaldean Catholics, and 12 percent Sunni Muslims. UNHCR has registered over 10,400 Iraqis since June 2008. In 2007, UNHCR resettled 450 Iraqis to the United States, Sweden, Canada, Australia and other countries. They expect to resettle 1500 refugees in 2008.

Iraqi refugees in Lebanon face many challenges, however it is a better economic environment than in other host countries. Unlike Jordan and Syria, Iraqis in Lebanon can work if they obtain a work permit.

The educational needs among Iraqi children in Lebanon are quite dire as 42 percent have not completed elementary school, 40 percent of Iraqi children between the ages of 6 and 17 are not enrolled in school due to the high cost of tuition and the need to help provide for their families. It is estimated that, in 2007, only 1,200 Iraqi children were enrolled in school.

Health care needs among Iraqis remain constant and medical care cannot be easily accessed in Lebanon due to its exorbitant cost. NGOs and other charitable organizations are able to provide coverage for only 24 percent of serious medical cases.

As Commission staff found during a visit to Jordan and Turkey last March, many Iraqis in Lebanon are experiencing psycho-social issues due to the stress of their displacement and the unstable environment they encounter in their host countries. This stress has contributed to a rise in domestic violence and drug and alcohol abuse among the refugee population.

Migrant domestic workers in Lebanon are a vulnerable group as well with an estimated 200,000 in the country, approximately 100,000 who arrived illegally. These domestic workers are primarily women from Southeast Asia and Africa – Sri Lanka, The Philippines, Ethiopia, and Madagascar – and are brought to Lebanon by employment agencies working in those countries. These agencies frequently promise “fee paid” employment in a secretarial capacity or in sales. The agencies typically charge the employer $1,500 to bring the domestic worker to Lebanon. Upon arrival, many employers take the women’s passports; force them to work long hours, frequently without pay; and often abuse them. Unhappy about how their people are being treated, the Philippine and Ethiopian Embassies have placed restrictions on employment in Lebanon for their citizens.

Caritas Lebanon Migrant Center:

Established in 1994, the Caritas Lebanon Migrant Center (CLMC) has as its mission “to strengthen and protect the human rights of migrants, refugees and asylum-seekers in Lebanon.” To date, the Center has assisted more than 100,000 individuals through services such as social and legal counselling and assistance; humanitarian, medical and emergency assistance; orientation seminars for migrants; temporary shelter and safe houses; summer camps and other recreational activities; vocational training and reintegration programs, as well as advocacy efforts with the public and relevant government agencies.

In the early 1990s, CLMC worked exclusively with migrant populations, primarily Sudanese. Iraqis began to arrive in 1997, primarily from the Shiite and Christian communities, seeking work and resettlement in Europe or Australia. In 2003, the number of Iraqis entering Lebanon increased substantially and many sought assistance from CLMC. With funding from the U.S. government, CLMC began a program to provide medical support to the refugees, many of whom were suffering with cancer and chronic diseases and had no access to public medical facilities in Lebanon. CLMC negotiated with public hospitals and clinics to establish a treatment program for the refugees. They were also able to arrange reduced-cost treatment with some private hospitals, particularly for those afflicted with cancer and heart disease.

CLMC also provides a wide array of educational programs for children and adults. Most Iraqi children are unable to attend school in Lebanon due to the language barrier. Many also frequently “act out” aggressively due to the psychological trauma caused by their circumstances. CLMC provides informal classes and vocational training for children, as well as summer camps where counsellors work with the kids in a relaxed atmosphere to address their unique psychological needs.

CLMC undertakes assistance programs for women as well. To date, they have held 160 seminars to train outreach workers for the migrant worker and refugee communities and as a result now have 800 women working in locations nation-wide. The Center has established a shelter for abused women and one for victims of trafficking (described below).

In coordination with UNHCR, CLMC provides legal assistance to the refugee and migrant worker community. They currently retain two full-time and ten part-time attorneys and have successfully prosecuted a substantial number of abuse cases on behalf of those who have sought shelter with CLMC. In addition, as described below, Caritas, working with UNHCR and other NGOs, successfully negotiated an amnesty for detained Iraqi refugees, giving them the opportunity to seek employment and regularize there status.

Detention Facility Visit:

Commission staff visited a detention facility operated by the General Directorate of General Security (General Security) – the governmental authority in Lebanon responsible for the legal status of foreigners in the country. The facility holds those Iraqi refugees and migrant workers who entered the country illegally and are without documentation. It is located under a freeway in downtown Beirut and was constructed from a parking garage. The conditions in the facility are deplorable, yet are much improved from several months earlier, due in large part to the work of NGOs, such as the Caritas Lebanon Migrant Center (CLMC), in coordination with General Security.

The air-intake vents, only recently installed through the efforts of Caritas, circulate air into the underground facility. Unfortunately, due to the center’s location under the freeway, the air is filled with exhaust from automobiles traveling above. Inside, fans are placed throughout to further circulate the air into the cells where detainees are held. There is no sunlight, lighting is very dim and temperatures are extremely hot in the summer and cold during the winter. The facility contains 13 cells with roughly 40 individuals housed in each cell. Detainees sit on the floor of the cell on mattresses which also serve as their beds. They are allowed to leave their cells, but not the detention facility, on very rare occasions – such as laundry detail or to receive medical treatment – and never leave the facility until their release. There is a bathroom and a separate shower in each cell which are enclosed; however there is virtually no privacy.

Women are housed together according to their nationality and men are housed alphabetically. The average length of stay can range from one month to over a year, depending on the length of time it takes to arrange deportation or voluntary departure.

CLMC has played an instrumental role in helping to improve the dire conditions of the facility. Prior to their intervention, detainees had no bathrooms, showers or mattresses to sleep on. Furthermore, they were unable to have their clothes washed and were living in utter filth. Working closely with General Security, CLMC now has several full-time staff working 24-hours a day in the facility with detainees. Additionally, CLMC was able to put bathrooms and showers in each cell, provide mattresses for each detainee, purchase a washer and dryer to clean the detainees’ clothes and bedding , and provide 3 hot meals per week.

Human Rights Watch released a report in November 2007 entitled, ‘Rot Here or Die There: Bleak Choices for Iraqi Refugees in Lebanon,’ showing the conditions that Iraqi refugees face in Lebanon if they are without documentation. In response to the report and pressure from other NGOs, General Security agreed in 2008 to release all Iraqis detained for illegal entry and allowed them to go through the existing regularization process once released. UNHCR, in coordination with its implementing partner Caritas Lebanon, supported this directive by assisting refugees with the initial regularization fee of $600, as well as providing legal advice and counseling. After being released, Iraqis have 3 months to regularize their status which requires them to find an employer who will sponsor them for a work permit. The government has recently extended this period to 6 months with the overall number of arrests declining. This decision benefits not only Iraqi refugees, but all foreigners including refugees and asylum seekers of other nationalities who have entered Lebanon illegally.

Visits with Iraqi families:

Commission staff had the opportunity to visit Iraqi families in their homes in eastern Beirut. The families shared their tragic stories with staff and the circumstances in which they are living in Lebanon. While all expressed relief to be safe from the violence in Iraq, they are faced with a great deal of uncertainty about the future and a severe lack of resources. Their compelling stories follow:

CASE A: Hana has 4 children. She is the head of her family since her husband was kidnapped in Iraq. The family came to Lebanon legally in December 2007. Hana’s eldest son was in his first year of medical school in Iraq when he received many threats. One day, while walking home from work, her son and his friends were attacked and her son was shot in the arm, his friend was shot in the face. Hana's son was able to make it to the family home; however, they had no medicine with which to treat his wounds. Hana's husband went to the pharmacy for medicine and was kidnapped, never to be heard from again. The family searched relentlessly for him in hospitals and police stations to no avail. With no news, a family member urged them to leave the country immediately for fear of another attempt on the life of the son. Hana's son is currently incapacitated because of his injured arm, however he was able to receive reconstructive surgery in February. Only one family member is currently able to work and the income is insufficient to meet their needs.

However, during the visit Hana informed Commission staff that the family had just been notified by UNHCR that their case was approved for resettlement to the United States.

CASE B: Rita, mother of 2 boys, is the head of the family since her husband was kidnapped in 2006 while she was pregnant. She came to Lebanon legally with her unmarried brother in June 2008. Her husband was a driver for the U.S. military. He received threatening letters, but never took them seriously. Rita’s mother had fled to Lebanon before her daughter after her own husband was murdered. Rita’s brother was traumatized by his father’s death and suffers from psychiatric complications. The family has no financial resources. Just two days prior to the meeting with Commission staff Rita had found a job in a textile factory working from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m.

CASE C: Rana is a widow and the mother of 3 children. She came to Lebanon legally in May 2008. Her husband was a driver for the Christian Archbishopric in Iraq and was murdered in February 2008. Rana is severely traumatized. She is unable to care for herself and her children or to provide for them financially. Rana’s mother, who lives with her, suffers from cancer; she will be leaving soon for the United States. Rana hopes that she and her children can also be resettled to the U.S. with her mother.

Caritas Shelter for Victims of Trafficking:

In 2003, Caritas began implementing a program funded by the U.S. Department of State (G/TIP) for victims of trafficking. The program involves extensive cooperation with the General Security agency in Lebanon. According to Caritas, women migrant workers who are victims of trafficking have access to a safe house where they are able to escape their situation and consider future options, receive medical care, basic needs assistance, trauma counseling, legal aid, and counseling for future options in a supportive environment, and possible return to their country of origin or to a safe work situation in Lebanon. A 2005 survey conducted by Caritas/IPSOS found that 55 percent of migrant domestic workers in Lebanon face physical abuse, 39 percent are verbally abused and 17 percent are sexually abused.

During the visit, staff met with a woman who had been brought to Lebanon to work for a wealthy family and faced unimaginable torture and abuse. As she recounted her story, she trembled with fear of the horror that she lived for five months before escaping. Upon arriving in Lebanon, her passport was taken, she was forced to work long hours without pay and was typically fed very little food. She was locked inside the house when the family for whom she was working was not at home. In addition to facing the aforementioned abuse, family members would take turns holding her down on the floor and burning her bare skin (body and face) with a hot iron. After enduring this severe trauma and torture for months, she escaped one day when the family was not home by jumping from a second story window. She has been living in the Caritas shelter since her escape.

The International Catholic Migration Commission (ICMC):

ICMC is the U.S. State Department's representative for processing refugees in Lebanon and works closely with the U.S. Embassy in Beirut and representatives of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), in the conduct of screening interviews for those Iraqi refugees and others who seek resettlement to the United States. Just prior to the Commission staff visit, a DHS “circuit ride” of interview staff had been in residence at the Embassy compound conducting security interviews under very difficult circumstances – for both DHS and embassy staff. Security concerns require that all interviews must take place on the Embassy compound. Due to substantial space limitations and to ensure privacy for those being interviewed, Embassy and DHS personnel are required to operate in shifts, some lasting late into the night, in order to accommodate all applicants who travell to the Embassy each day. Under these trying circumstances, DHS personnel were nevertheless able to interview 920 applicants in a four week period. ICMC staff expressed gratitude not only for the DHS staff's fortitude under this grueling schedule, but also for their professionalism and compassion in dealing with those being interviewed.

In order to alleviate these conditions, State and DHS should explore the possibility of permanently assigning one or two DHS interviewers to Embassy Beirut and providing additional housing and work space to accommodate their activities.

Cultural Orientation:

ICMC and the United States Refugee Program (USRP) conduct an intensive two day cultural orientation for Iraqi refugees who will be resettled to the United States. The cultural orientation is designed to provide Iraqis with a better understanding of what to expect once they arrive in the U.S. The following topics are covered in the ICMC-USRP cultural orientation training program:

  • Cultural differences.
  • The departure process and airport regulations.
  • The nature of the IOM travel loan and the obligation to pay it back after arrival to the U.S.
  • The responsibilities of the Resettlement Agency and the refugee during the first ninety days after the refugee’s arrival in the United States.
  • Information on a refugee’s legal status until the acquisition of citizenship, including rights and restrictions of each status.
  • Information on housing and transportation in the United States.
  • The importance of learning and obeying the laws of the United States at federal and state level and the consequences of violating U.S. law.
  • Information on the child and adult education system in the United States and the importance of learning English.
  • The importance of finding and holding a job and understanding work values in the United States.
  • Information on the health care system in the United States.
  • Information on money management.

Commission staff participated in an afternoon session during the first day of orientation for a group of Iraqis who had been approved for resettlement to the U.S. During the session participants raised the following questions: I have an international driver’s license; will that work in the United States? If both parents must work, who will watch the kids? Can I work right away when I get to the United States? Staff asked the group how they felt about relocating to the United States, (e.g. nervous, happy or fearful). Those who replied generally expressed apprehension.

One gentleman said he won’t know until he’s “on the plane.”

CONGRESS

In July, Helsinki Commission Chairman, Congressman Alcee L. Hastings introduced the Iraqi Refugee and Internally Displaced Persons Humanitarian Assistance, Resettlement, and Security Act (H.R. 6496), comprehensive legislation that addresses this worsening situation. H.R. 6496 has been endorsed by more than 25 NGOs and religious organizations and does the following:

  • Authorizes $700 million for each fiscal year beginning in 2009 through 2011 for the relief of Iraqi refugees and Internally Displaced Persons;
  • Increases direct accountable bilateral assistance, as appropriate under U.S. law, and funding for international organizations and non-governmental organizations working in the region;
  • Authorizes $500 million to increase humanitarian aid and infrastructure support for Jordan; and
  • Urges increased cooperation between the United States Government and the international community to address this crisis.

CONCLUSION

Iraqi refugees in Syria, Lebanon and elsewhere in the region continue to suffer daily and are faced with unimaginable circumstances. While the American public does not see pictures of ‘refugee camps’ set up in host countries, there are millions of Iraqis struggling to survive each and every day. On the ground, desperation has set in and only worsened this humanitarian crisis.

The politics of the war must be put aside by Congress and a ‘humanitarian surge’ must be implemented. This means the provision of substantially increased bi-lateral aid, as appropriate under U.S. law, to countries hosting Iraqi refugees and increased funding to international organizations and NGOs working in the region. A U.S. contribution of at least fifty percent of the amount requested for all UN appeals for funding to assist Iraqi refugees, and IDPs, would show U.S. leadership in addressing this crisis, and hopefully encourage increased contributions by other countries as well. The process for resettling Iraqi refugees to the United States must also be expedited. This is particularly critical for those Iraqis whose lives have been threatened because of their work for the United States.

The United States should also show leadership in encouraging the international community to focus on this humanitarian crisis, recognize it for the potential security threat it poses, and take steps to alleviate the suffering Iraqi refugees.

If a picture is really worth a thousand words, then all one must do is look into the face of an Iraqi refugee who has had a family member murdered, kidnapped, or tortured, and their own life threatened, to know that the United States must respond – security in the region and the future of the Middle East depend upon it.

Leadership: 
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Helsinki Commissioners Participate in the General Debate Following the introductory remarks, six members of the Helsinki Commission—including all four senior commission leaders—took the floor to voice their concerns and engage with other parliamentarians. Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin, who also serves as the Head of the U.S. Delegation and the OSCE PA Special Representative on Anti-Semitism, Racism, and Intolerance, expressed disappointment at how quickly the democratic government and institutions in Afghanistan deteriorated, despite years of investment and support. “One of the prime reasons was corruption,” explained Chairman Cardin. The rights of women and girls and ensuring humanitarian assistance reaches populations in need were two areas that he insisted be of focus as international efforts move forward. Media freedom was of particular concern for Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen. “Lower-level Taliban forces threaten and harass journalists,” he stated. “RFE/RL has reported that over the past weeks, its remaining journalists have been questioned by armed Taliban and door-to-door searched have been conducted looking for journalists affiliated with the United States.” Media freedom is among the fundamental freedoms the OSCE seeks to protect, and Co-Chairman Cohen insisted the Taliban must be held responsible for violating these rights. Helsinki Commission Ranking Member Sen. Roger Wicker, who also serves as an OSCE PA Vice President, shared legislation he is sponsoring in Congress that seeks to strengthen the American response to Afghanistan and reiterated the dangers that religious and ethnic minorities in Afghanistan currently face. Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson highlighted the dangers of terrorism and the oppressive rule of the Taliban. “It cannot be business as usual with the Taliban,” he stated.  “Together, we must use our leverage to prevent Afghanistan from again becoming a terrorist haven devoid of human rights.” Chairman Cardin, Sen. Wicker, and Rep. Wilson all expressed concern over Afghanistan’s status as an OSCE Partner for Cooperation. “Before we recognize any representative of Afghanistan in our assembly, we should make sure that they will adhere to the principles of the Helsinki Final Act,” Chairman Cardin stated. Rep. Wilson argued that Afghanistan’s partner status should be reconsidered, and Sen. Wicker also emphasized the importance of the values shared by OSCE participating States and Partners for Cooperation. “I would hope that it is our position going forward that the Taliban-led government in Afghanistan not be recognized as an OSCE Partner for Cooperation,” Sen. Wicker said. Helsinki Commissioner Rep. Gwen Moore focused on the dangers for women and girls and the human rights violations they face. Despite advances made in women’s rights in Afghanistan during the past two decades, the return of Taliban rule has brought a resurgence of violence and restrictions, endangering the lives of women throughout the country. Many have fled Afghanistan, fearing for their safety, while others have remained to fight for their country. While Rep. Moore strongly advocated for supporting resettlement efforts, she also emphasized that resettlement was a last resort. “We must continue to press for the protection of these women in their own country,” she said. Ms. Moore also proposed that the OSCE PA create and maintain a project to monitor and support Afghanistan’s female parliamentarians. Helsinki Commissioner Rep. Ruben Gallego stressed the importance of aiding Afghans still in Afghanistan. “We must find ways to support Afghans in-country who are bravely calling for progress, and we must stand up for the human rights of those who suffer at the hands of the Taliban,” he said. Rep. Gallego further argued that the international community must do more than simply aid in the evacuation of those fleeing the Taliban’s rule. “We must also ensure that those who have been evacuated have long-term support in the resettlement process. The United States must do its part in accepting the bulk of Afghan refugees, and I have personally pushed in Congress to provide Afghans with the long-term resources they need to settle into a new life,” he stated, and asked all the participating parliamentarians to urge their countries to do the same. OSCE Efforts Moving Forward Throughout the debate, which highlighted various vulnerable populations and severe security threats that must be addressed in the future, one recurring theme was the need for international cooperation. While President Cederfelt began the meeting by observing that it will be impossible to know the future, Rep. Gallego expressed one certainty. “The end of America’s military commitment in Afghanistan does not mean we will turn a blind eye to Afghanistan’s people or the security of the region,” he said.

  • OSCE SHDM on Digital Technology and Human Rights

    OSCE Conference on Risks and Opportunities Posed by Digital Technologies On July 12 and 13, 2021, the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) held the third Supplementary Human Dimension Meeting (SHDM) of the year, titled "Digital Technologies and Human Rights - Opportunities and Challenges." The virtual conference included representatives from 45 OSCE participating States; a dozen OSCE missions and institutions, including the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly; more than 140 academic, national, and non-governmental human rights institutions; and international organizations like the Council of Europe, European Union, and the United Nations. Digital technologies affect human rights, gender equality, and the rule of law, and in her opening remarks, Swedish Foreign Ministry Director-General for Political Affairs Elinor Hammarskjöld stressed the nexus between digital technologies and Swedish OSCE Chairpersonship-in-Office (CiO) priorities. The COVID-19 pandemic underscored how the digital divide disproportionately affects women and girls, she explained, and stressed the threat that widespread use of digital technologies can pose to fundamental freedoms if used indiscriminately by authorities. Panelists highlighted opportunities for digital technologies to benefit societies and human rights defenders, as well as dangers they can pose to human rights. Maia Rusakova, associate professor of sociology at St. Petersburg State University, warned that data collection technologies have facilitated online recruitment by human traffickers. However, facial recognition, artificial intelligence, and tracking blockchain financial transactions and social media activity could play a role in combatting the digital threats of human trafficking.  Susie Alegre, an associate at the human rights NGO Doughty Street Chambers, highlighted how cutting-edge data collection can raise awareness of threats to human rights, support investigations, facilitate positive social change, and support human rights defenders. Examples include Data 4 Black Lives, eyeWitness to Atrocities, Forensic Architecture, and Bellingcat. Elif Kuskonmaz, a lecturer at the University of Portsmouth, cautioned that misuse of facial recognition technology could pose threats to peaceful assembly and freedom of speech, and that it could be exploited to wrongfully detain citizens. To prevent such abuse, she recommended that participating States adopt adequate legal frameworks concerning the collection, use, storage, and sharing of personal data. She urged all participating States to review the Council of Europe's Convention 108+, which addresses personal data collection in a national security context. Other panelists explored the capacity of artificial intelligence systems to reinforce existing structural inequalities through algorithms and the subsequent human rights implications. Civil Society Concerns about Government Use—or Abuse—of Digital Technology Civil society participants shared human rights concerns related to governmental use of digital technologies. Many urged the OSCE to call out repressive behavior and help participating States establish adequate legal protections against misuse. Several urged the United States and the European Union to target sanctions against the worst offenders. Many participants also took the opportunity to raise human rights concerns directly with government officials, and alleged misuse of data collected by government agencies to persecute human rights defenders, social activists, and their families.  For example, civil society activists from Kazakhstan accused the government of conducting digital surveillance and censorship on NGOs and activists, and they complained that mandatory “security certificates” allow the government to monitor and block use of non-government-controlled social media sites such as Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram. Other NGOs raised concerns about Spain's treatment of protesters in Catalonia, Greece's treatment of Turks in Western Thrace, and Russia’s occupation of Ukraine, including Crimea. A German NGO called for the abolition of facial recognition technology due to its use by law enforcement to profile specific ethnic groups and minorities, including Roma and Sinti.  Civil society participants also expressed concerns over participating States’ use of digital technology to target dissent by deploying spyware against individuals, spreading misleading government-sponsored content, and silencing protest groups and democratic movements. Several NGOs argued that their governments exploited conditions imposed by the pandemic to use surveillance camera footage, geolocation data, and contact tracing as part of a domestic surveillance campaign to discourage public political dissent. Participants highlighted how technology has been used to spread racist messaging, including the racist abuse of English football players following the recent Union of European Football Associations Euro 2020 matches. Many voiced their dismay that social media companies do not hold accountable individuals who spread racist content. Participants recommended that social media companies implement more robust algorithms to detect racist remarks.  Participating States Respond Several participating States addressed the use of technology. The European Union recognized the importance of addressing human rights abuses that arise from the misuse of digital technologies. Turkey responded by touting its 2016 law on data protection and emphasizing its multiculturalism. The Holy See responded that it is necessary to improve education in proper use and effects of technology. The Holy See also called for international regulations to guarantee the protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the right to private personal electronic communication.

  • The First Clean Olympics?

    In December 2020, the Rodchenkov Anti-Doping Act became law. This groundbreaking extraterritorial criminal authority redefined doping as fraud and enables U.S. law enforcement to pursue corrupt administrators, officials, doctors, coaches, and other structural perpetrators of doping anywhere in the world. The 2021 Olympics in Tokyo, which start July 23, will be the first major test of this new law as U.S. law enforcement is expected to take action against violators. At this hearing, witnesses discussed the importance of the Rodchenkov Act for victims of doping fraud and what athletes should expect going forward. Witnesses also discussed concrete aspects of the law’s enforcement—who will be responsible, how investigations would be initiated, and how perpetrators might be arrested and brought to trial for their crimes. Finally, witnesses provided their perspectives on how the new law fits into the broader anti-doping movement and efforts to reform the World Anti-Doping Agency. Related Information Witness Biographies  In the News: Washington Post: Behind New Law, the FBI is Getting into Anti-Doping, but Not Everyone Wants the Help Podcast: Damocles' Sword: The Impact of the Rodchenkov Anti-Doping Act Press Release: Rodchenkov Act Passes Senate, Goes to President for Signature 

  • Helsinki Commission Hearing to Examine Enforcement of Criminal Anti-Doping Law at Tokyo Olympics

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following hearing: THE FIRST CLEAN OLYMPICS? Rodchenkov Act Enforcement at Tokyo 2021 Wednesday, July 21, 2021 2:30 p.m. Russell Senate Office Building Room 428A Watch live: www.youtube.com/HelsinkiCommission In December 2020, the Rodchenkov Anti-Doping Act became law. This groundbreaking extraterritorial criminal authority redefined doping as fraud and enables U.S. law enforcement to pursue corrupt administrators, officials, doctors, coaches, and other structural perpetrators of doping anywhere in the world. The 2021 Olympics in Tokyo, which start July 23, will be the first major test of this new law as U.S. law enforcement is expected to take action against violators. At this hearing, witnesses will discuss the importance of the Rodchenkov Act for victims of doping fraud and what athletes should expect going forward. Witnesses also will discuss concrete aspects of the law’s enforcement—who will be responsible, how investigations would be initiated, and how perpetrators might be arrested and brought to trial for their crimes. Finally, witnesses will provide their perspectives on how the new law fits into the broader anti-doping movement and efforts to reform the World Anti-Doping Agency. The following witnesses are scheduled to testify: Edwin Moses, Emeritus Chair, U.S. Anti-Doping Agency; Three-Time Olympian, Olympic Gold Medalist Richard Baum, U.S. Coordinator, Doping in Sport, White House Office of National Drug Control Policy Jim Walden, Partner, Walden, Macht, & Haran; Attorney for Dr. Grigory Rodchenkov; former Assistant U.S. Attorney, Eastern District of New York Debra LaPrevotte, Senior Investigator, the Sentry; former Supervisory Special Agent, Federal Bureau of Investigation Noah Hoffman, Two-Time Olympian; Competitor at Sochi 2014

  • Cardin Human Rights and Anti-Corruption Legislation Approved by Senate Foreign Relations Committee

    WASHINGTON – U.S. Senator Ben Cardin (D-Md.) lauded approval today by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee of two bills he authored to strengthen U.S. human rights and anti-corruption efforts. Both pieces of legislation, the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Reauthorization Act (S. 93), cosponsored by Senator Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), and the Combating Global Corruption Act (S. 14), cosponsored by Senator Todd Young (R-Ind.), bolster the tools available to hold corrupt officials accountable for their actions and abuses. “The Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act has changed the way America protects human rights and responds to blatant corruption,” said Senator Cardin. “I thank Senator Wicker and fellow committee members for working with me to strengthen the law as a message to abusers and kleptocrats who think they can act with impunity. We will seek justice for victims especially when home countries fail to act.” Senator Cardin serves as Chairman of the U.S. Helsinki Commission. Senator Wicker serves as co-Chair. The Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Reauthorization Act (S. 93) would harmonize the original Act (Title XII, Subtitle F of P.L. 114-328; 22 U.S.C. §2656 note) with Executive Order 13818 by: Removing the sunset provisions of the 2016 Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act to make the sanctions program permanent Removing the victim status requirement to ensure no victim is excluded; Simplifying the standard for corruption offenses; Supplementing the activity-based targeting standard with a status-based standard; and Allowing for the sanctioning of immediate family members. S. 93 calls for a report on the steps taken through diplomacy and assistance to foreign or security sectors to address persistent underlying causes of serious human rights abuses, violations of internationally recognized human rights, and corruption in each country in which foreign persons have been subject to sanctions. The Combating Global Corruption Act (S. 14) would require the State Department to identify corruption in countries and rank them in a public, tiered system with respect to levels of corruption in their governments, similar to the Department’s annual Trafficking in Persons Report. The bill would also establish minimum standards for combating corruption; evaluate foreign persons engaged in grand corruption in the lowest-tiered countries for consideration under the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act; and designate an anti-corruption point of contact at U.S. diplomatic posts in the lowest-tiered countries. “Earlier this month, when President Biden officially designated the fight against corruption as a ‘core U.S. national security interest,’ he took an important step toward enhancing American anti-corruption abilities. The Combating Global Corruption Act is a bipartisan effort to raise the profile of such efforts through a proven system of public accountability,” said Senator Cardin. “Around the world, corruption endangers national and international security by fostering the conditions for violent extremism, hampering the ability of the United States to combat terrorism, entrenching high poverty, and by weakening institutions associated with governance and accountability. Corruption is a fundamental obstacle to peace, prosperity, and human rights. I thank Senator Young and my colleagues for moving forward this important legislation to combat such illicit activity.”

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

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

  • Helsinki Commission Leadership Joins Inter-Parliamentary Discussion on Human Rights

    On May 25, 2021, the U.S. Helsinki Commission joined the House Foreign Affairs Committee and European Parliament Subcommittee on Human Rights at the launch event for the EU - US Strategic Inter-Parliamentary Consultation on Human Rights. The inter-parliamentary discussion focused on global human rights sanctions regimes, values-based foreign policy, and opportunities for transatlantic cooperation. Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) emphasized the impact of the Global Magnitsky Act in facilitating accountability by sanctioning the world’s worst human rights abusers, preventing them from entering the United States, and freezing their U.S. assets. Sen. Cardin congratulated the European Union for passing a global human rights sanctions regime and suggested two modifications: first, that sanctions target corruption, which tends to fuel human rights abuses; and second, that the European Union pursues individuals that materially assist human rights abusers, including lawyers, accountants, money launderers, and reputation launderers. Sen. Cardin also identified the need to consider diplomatic measures outside of sanctions, such as a mechanism to evaluate countries’ progress in combatting corruption, similar to the U.S. Trafficking in Persons regime. U.S. Helsinki Commissioner Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09)—who also serves as chairman of the U.S. House Judiciary Committee Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties—advised that U.S.-EU cooperation will further strengthen the Magnitsky Act and the effectiveness of human rights sanction regimes. Cohen also emphasized the bipartisan support for human rights in the United States. Members of the European Parliament expressed optimism that increasing U.S.-EU coordination on human rights protections will strengthen overall impact. Rep. Bill Keating (MA-09) recognized that the democratic values shared between the United States and European Union can help fight rising authoritarianism and democratic backsliding. Greens Member of the European Parliament Committee on Foreign Affairs and of the EP Subcommittee on Human Rights Jordi Solé (Spain) emphasized the importance of consistency in the U.S. and EU approach to promoting human rights in order to ensure the sanctions mechanism is credible and useful. He also raised the importance of examining the role of the private sector in supporting human rights. U.S. Helsinki Commissioner Rep. Gwen Moore (WI-04) affirmed the importance of supporting emerging democracies and addressing corruption in private industry. Moore acknowledged the one-year anniversary of George Floyd’s murder and noted that the United States should not raise human rights concerns abroad in foreign policy without examining its own adherence to those principles. Rep. Gerry Connolly (VA-11), President of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, suggested that NATO should actively prioritize democracy promotion, democratic values, and human rights. To close the discussion, Chair of the European Parliament Subcommittee on Human Rights Maria Arena (Belgium) and Rep. Moore highlighted possible initiatives for future U.S.-EU cooperation: coordinated response to human rights abuses in Belarus; cooperation with private industry to protect human rights; cooperation with Afghan NGOs and women’s associations as the U.S. military withdraws from the country; determination of parliamentary diplomacy’s role in addressing human rights abuses; and implementation of measures within the participating States to mitigate democratic backsliding in the West, which would include addressing systemic racism.

  • Helsinki Commission Commemorates 45 Years of Advancing Comprehensive Security in the OSCE Region

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

  • Ten-Member Congressional Delegation Demonstrates Ongoing U.S. Engagement With the OSCE

    By Bob Hand, Senior Policy Advisor Approximately 270 parliamentarians from across the OSCE region gathered virtually from February 24 – 26 for the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly’s Winter Meeting, the first statutory meeting of the Assembly held since the COVID-19 pandemic limited inter-parliamentary diplomacy to online gatherings.  The ongoing impact of COVID-19 on security, the economy, the environment and the human rights and democratic development of the 57 OSCE States remained the focus of the annual gathering.  Supported by the U.S. Helsinki Commission, the U.S. Delegation remained actively engaged, fielding a bicameral, bipartisan delegation of 10 Members of Congress who participated remotely in the debates.  Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) served as Head of the U.S. Delegation.   The OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (PA) is an independent institution of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) created in 1991 for parliamentarians to complement the inter-governmental work of the 57 participating States. Unlike other OSCE bodies, countries are represented based on population rather than each having a single seat at the table (the United States has the largest representation with 17 seats), and decision-making is based on a majority vote rather than consensus. The Annual Session each summer is the principal gathering, with a Winter Meeting in February and an Autumn Meeting in October to initiate and conclude the year’s work. Despite a busy congressional schedule, the members of the U.S. Delegation successfully raised critical country, issue, and institutional concerns, including the attempted poisoning and incarceration of Alexei Navalny, Russian aggression in Ukraine, the brutal crackdown in Belarus and corruption and authoritarian tendencies elsewhere in the OSCE region. Active U.S. engagement demonstrates the depth of U.S. commitment to European security, and reflects the importance of the OSCE PA as a vehicle for advancing U.S. interests and building support on issues like human trafficking, attacks on the media, manifestations of anti-Semitism, racism and intolerance, as well as country-specific concerns.  Such a large delegation of Members of Congress reflected the diversity of opinion in the United States, setting an example of openness and honesty for others to follow, deflecting accusations of double standards on U.S. performance, and strengthening the message on human rights concerns in other countries where the Members of Congress can and do express a united view. Improvising Engagement Amid Pandemic Since 2002, Winter Meetings have been held in Vienna, Austria to facilitate direct interaction among parliamentarians, OSCE officials, and diplomatic representatives of the OSCE participating States.  The Winter Meeting also allows the Assembly’s general committees to discuss work for the coming year.  The outbreak of the COVID pandemic in early 2020 forced the cancellation of the Annual Session scheduled for July in Vancouver and the Autumn Meeting scheduled for October in San Marino.  Without rules dealing with such situations, the OSCE PA Secretariat maintained inter-parliamentary engagement by organizing a dozen or more inter-parliamentary web dialogues from April into November to substitute for the traditional gatherings. While no replacement for traditional meetings, these unofficial events provided needed continuity and contact among delegates.  First the first time in the history of the OSCE PA, no annual declaration was adopted, but the then-Assembly President George Tsereteli provided summaries of the web debates on relevant issues, a record of dialogue even in the midst of pandemic. The OSCE PA resumed election observation where possible and responded to political impasse within the OSCE itself by issuing a “Call for Action” urging a reaffirmation of the organization’s once common purpose.    For 2021, the OSCE PA has been seeking to resume its regular meeting schedule, although conditions still required the Winter Meeting to be held remotely.  Five sessions were scheduled during hours that best accommodated participants across some 16 time zones, from Vancouver to Ulaanbaatar.     At the meeting of the Heads of Delegation, known as the Standing Committee, it was announced that the 2021 Annual Session would be unable to be held in person as planned in Bucharest, Romania, in early July.  As a result, the Standing Committee amended the Assembly’s rules of procedure to allow statutory meetings to go forward online, including permitting elections for OSCE PA officers and other decisions to be handled remotely. Maintaining Focus on Substantive Issues and Concerns Beyond scheduling and procedures, the Standing Committee also looked at substance. Following reports from current OSCE PA President Peter Lord Bowness (United Kingdom), Secretary General Roberto Montella (Italy), and OSCE PA Special Representatives appointed to address particular concerns, there were heated exchanges between Azerbaijan and Armenia regarding Nagorno-Karabakh, as well as on Russian aggression against Ukraine and the brutal crackdown on protesting opposition in Belarus—issues that would be raised repeatedly throughout the meeting.  Sen. Cardin, attending not only as Head of Delegation but also as Special Representative on Anti-Semitism, Racism and Intolerance, delivered a report on his activities, as did Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04), who serves as the Special Representative on Human Trafficking Issues.   “The coronavirus pandemic has created an unprecedented health crisis in the OSCE region, exacerbated by pre-existing inequities and disproportionately impacting people of color. Heightened anti-Asian discrimination, anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, and violent attacks targeting diverse populations have followed… My report details a response to these developments, as well as the global racial justice movement spurred by the tragic death of George Floyd.” ​ Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), Head of U.S. Delegation, U.S. Helsinki Commission Rep. Smith noted, “Traffickers did not shut down during the pandemic—they simply adapted their methods. Meanwhile, vulnerable people were made even more vulnerable by both the virus and its deleterious impact on the global economy… As we worked to address these challenges, it was crucial to have information and recommendations based on real, concrete data.” The Joint Session of the General Committees effectively served as the opening plenary. President Bowness opened the session with a defense of principled-based dialogue, and guest speakers included Ann Linde, Sweden’s foreign minister and this year’s OSCE Chair-in-Office, as well as Helga Schmid (Germany), the OSCE’s new Secretary General.  The chairperson outlined plans for 2021, asserting that the she will “prioritize the comprehensive concept of security across all three dimensions,” namely the Security, Economic and Human Dimension, which she argued “contributes to making the OSCE truly unique.”  The Secretary General expressed her hopes to provide needed support for the organization and its mission, and she credited the OSCE PA for bringing emerging security issues into the OSCE debate.      Sen. Cardin thanked the Assembly and its parliamentarians for their expressions of concern and support for the United States in light of efforts to delegitimize the November 2020 presidential elections and the related violent mob attack on the U.S. Capitol in January 2021.  He also expressed support for the comments of Lord Bowness and the priorities announced by the Swedish Chair-in-Office, including to have the Human Dimension Implementation Meeting in 2021. “We must challenge those who are seeking to weaken the OSCE or aren’t living up to their commitments. That’s our priority as parliamentarians … and we must as parliamentarians support the mission of the OSCE and help strengthen it through our actions and our capitals,” he said.  Finally, speaking on behalf of Rep. Alcee Hastings (FL-20), who was unable to attend, Sen. Cardin asked the Swedish chair about how the OSCE can engage Armenia and Azerbaijan in order to address outstanding issues and encourage a return to the Minsk Group settlement process to achieve a sustainable resolution of the conflict. Taking a Closer Look at the Security, Economic and Human Dimensions of OSCE Following the Joint Session, each of the three General Committees heard from OSCE officials in their respective fields, or dimensions, of OSCE work.  Presenters included the ambassadors serving as chairs of the counterpart committees of the OSCE’s Permanent Council and the head of the OSCE’s Special Monitoring Mission in Ukraine. The three committees also heard from their respective rapporteurs on plans for drafting substantive reports that will be the basis of further activity at the Annual Session. Rep. Richard Hudson (NC-08), who chairs the General (First) Committee on Political Affairs and Security, noted the myriad of security and political issues confronting the OSCE during the past year, including the war in Ukraine, conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, and political turmoil in countries of concern like Russia, Belarus, and most recently Georgia.  “Our engagement with critical issues in the OSCE space has been consistent and impactful,” he concluded. Speaking during the session, Acting U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Phil Reeker called the erosion of the European security environment the “biggest challenge we face today in the organization” and highlighted U.S. plans for the Forum for Security Cooperation (FSC) during its four-month chairmanship.  The Acting Permanent Representative of the United States to the OSCE and FSC chair, senior diplomat Courtney Austrian, was present for the discussion. Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) took the floor during subsequent debate to condemn Russian violations of Helsinki Principles in its aggression in Ukraine.  He said that “Moscow must withdraw proxies in eastern Ukraine” and “respect Ukraine’s territorial integrity,” asserting that relevant sanctions will remain in place until that happens.  Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09) also responded to an intervention on youth and drugs by a delegate from Belarus, arguing that citizens need to be given greater freedom if young people are to feel a commitment to the country. Three other Members of Congress participated in the session of the General (Second) Committee on Economic Affairs, Science, Technology and the Environment, which covered issues ranging from corruption to climate change.  Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (PA-01) focused on addressing corruption. “It should come as no surprise to anyone … that legislatures have one of the most important roles to play in combating corruption—that of establishing a transparent and accountable legal and financial framework that empowers law enforcement officials and is maximally resistant to fraud,” he said.  Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (RI) said that the United States “is back” in efforts to combat climate change and noted recent U.S. legislation designed to address shell companies that support a global dark economy by sheltering “assets of thieves.”  Rep. Gwen Moore (WI-04) spoke about the devastating impact of the pandemic on women in the healthcare industry as well as on small business, and she expressed concern about risks to supply chains and business ties to both China and Russia.   Three Members of Congress also participated in of the General (Third) Committee on Democracy, Human Rights and Humanitarian Questions.   Rep. Cohen asserted that human rights has reclaimed its place in U.S. foreign policy, and emphasized human rights in concerns in Russia, Belarus, and Hungary. He expressed particular concern about the poisoning and recent arrest of Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny and called for Belarus to release political prisoners and to hold elections with OSCE observers. Rep. Marc Veasey (TX-33) took the floor in a later debate, responding to a report on the OSCE’s observation of the U.S. general elections in November 2020.  He stressed the need for U.S. states that currently prohibit or restrict international observation to consider a more open approach and   concluded that “our election officials and state legislators should read this report,” along with “any American who cares about his or her country.  It is a broad snapshot of our entire electoral complex system that we have here.”  Rep. Robert Aderholt (AL-04) raised concerns about discriminatory restrictions on religious assembly during the pandemic, as well as on the diminishing free media environment in many participating States. “Press freedom in the OSCE region has continued to decline as some governments are using economic, legal, and extra-legal tools to silence independent media and also to bolster loyal outlets and dozens of journalists are imprisoned in the OSCE region,” he said. “We’ve seen that in Russia, we’ve seen that in Belarus, we’ve seen that in Turkey, detaining scores of journalists in recent national protests.” There was one side event held in conjunction with the Winter Meeting, organized by the Norwegian Helsinki Committee in cooperation with the Lithuanian Mission to OSCE. Seven panelists in two sessions highlighted how international instruments—such as the Moscow Mechanism, Magnitsky-like legislation, the International Criminal Court, the European Court of Human Rights, and the promotion of a universal criminal jurisdiction—could increase accountability of state actors, support Belarus’ democracy movement, and deny financial safe havens to Russian kleptocrats.  Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya and Boris Nemtsov Foundation for Freedom chairman Vladimir Kara-Murza were among the event panelists. Assessing the Effort The virtual three-day, five-session Winter Meeting could not replace an in-person gathering in Vienna, a point frequently made by the parliamentarians themselves.  However, it did allow for a resumption of constructive debate in the general committees and interaction among parliamentarians and other OSCE institutions, paving the way for a return to more traditional work as the year progresses. The need to cancel the Annual Session planned for July in Bucharest was a major disappointment, but the adoption of rules governing such emergency situations now permit some continuity of effort.

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

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

  • 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

  • Coronavirus in the OSCE Region

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

  • Hastings and Wicker Mark World Day Against Trafficking in Persons

    WASHINGTON—To mark World Day against Trafficking in Persons on July 30, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) and Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) issued the following joint statement: “Human trafficking is the modern equivalent of slavery, an abhorrent crime that affects up to 25 million people worldwide. Traffickers lure victims—mostly women and children—by force, fraud, or coercion into situations of sex or labor exploitation. “The United States has been a leader internationally in the fight against human trafficking, including through the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Recently, OSCE participating State Uzbekistan has made great progress in tackling child and forced labor in the cotton harvest. However, we remain concerned that according to the State Department’s 2020 Trafficking in Persons Report, three other OSCE participating States—Belarus, Russia, and Turkmenistan—continue to be among the worst when it comes to human trafficking. “Potential victims have been made even more vulnerable by the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has reduced the resources and assistance available to survivors and weakened the ability of law enforcement and the judiciary to investigate and prosecute traffickers. “Quarantine measures have prompted traffickers to maximize the use of online platforms to recruit and exploit their victims. We need to step up our efforts to ensure that our investigations keep pace with the traffickers’ evolving techniques and continue to support civil society organizations that provide vital assistance to survivors.” The United States is one of the top destinations in the world for trafficked victims; U.S. citizens are also trafficked domestically. In response, Congress has passed several laws mandating stronger protection for victims, harsher prosecution for criminals, as well as measures to assist survivors and prevent human trafficking. Several federal agencies are active in combating trafficking and partner with non-profit organizations that play an important role in raising awareness within communities, rescuing victims, providing direct assistance, and conducting research on all aspects of human trafficking.

  • 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.

  • 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).

  • Congressional Delegation Led by Chairman Hastings Champions U.S. Leadership in Transatlantic Security, Human Rights

    WASHINGTON—Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) last week led a bicameral, bipartisan congressional delegation to the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly’s (OSCE PA) 19th Winter Meeting in Vienna, Austria. At the meeting, Chairman Hastings and other members of the delegation engaged with OSCE officials, delegations from other OSCE participating States, and diplomats to advance U.S. interests while assuring friends, allies, and potential adversaries of the U.S. commitment to security and cooperation in Europe.   The 11-member delegation was among the largest U.S. delegations ever to attend the annual gathering, which attracted more than 300 parliamentarians from 53 OSCE participating States. Chairman Hastings, a former president of the OSCE PA, was joined in Austria by Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS), Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02), and Helsinki Commissioners Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (MO-05), Rep. Gwen Moore (WI-04), Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), Rep. Robert Aderholt (AL-04), and Rep. Richard Hudson (NC-08). Rep. Gregory Meeks (NY-05), Rep. Lloyd Doggett (TX-35), and Rep. Andy Harris (MD-01) also joined the delegation, which benefited from the active support of Ambassador James Gilmore, the U.S. Representative to the OSCE.  In the Standing Committee, which oversees the OSCE PA’s work, Chairman Hastings highlighted recommendations resulting from a seminar for young parliamentarians on “Future Leadership for Political Inclusion in the OSCE Region,” hosted in Washington in early February by the Helsinki Commission and the OSCE PA. “We brought together some 35 young parliamentarians from 19 OSCE participating States and three partner States to learn from each other and incubate the solutions of the future,” Chairman Hastings said. “As I called on all of you at our last meeting in Marrakech, we must counter the economic and social despair afflicting our youth and we all have a role.”  At the same committee, Co-Chairman Wicker, who serves as a vice president of the assembly, shared his recent experience at the Munich Security Conference.  The committee also reviewed a written report submitted by former Helsinki Commissioner Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04), OSCE PA Special Representative on Human Trafficking Issues. In the committee focused on security issues, Rep. Hudson condemned Russia’s violations of Helsinki principles related to its aggression against Ukraine, while in the committee focusing on economic issues Rep. Harris cautioned Europe regarding the growing Chinese presence in the region.   During a special debate on confronting anti-Semitism and other forms of intolerance in the OSCE region, Helsinki Commission Ranking Member Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), who serves as the OSCE PA Special Representative on Anti-Semitism, Racism and Intolerance, delivered introductory remarks by video. “It is our responsibility to safeguard our democracies by speaking out and using our tools and voices as legislators against those who would divide our societies,” Sen. Cardin said. Later in the debate, Rep. Cohen urged participating States “to teach Holocaust history, which a fourth of the people in Europe or more don't understand or remember, and teach it so that the most horrific crime against humanity will be remembered so that it will not be repeated.” Rep. Cleaver linked anti-Semitism to broader trends of intolerance in society, and called OSCE participating States to action, stating, “There are many scary things in our world, but there is nothing quite able to generate fright like prejudice inspired by ignorance and nationalism manufactured by fear.” Rep. Hudson chaired a meeting of the OSCE PA Ad Hoc Committee on Countering Terrorism, and Rep. Moore participated in a similar meeting of the Ad Hoc Committee on Migration. On the margins of the Winter Meeting’s official sessions, members of Congress met with the Ukrainian delegation to the OSCE PA to discuss U.S. support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty in the face of unrelenting Russian aggression. Delegation members also met with OSCE Secretary General Thomas Greminger, Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights Director Ingibjörg Sólrún Gísladóttir, Special Representative and Coordinator for Combatting Trafficking in Human Beings Valiant Richey, and High Commissioner for National Minorities Lamberto Zannier.

  • 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.   

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