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The Mediterranean Dimension Today: Seeds of Hope
Tuesday, January 18, 2005

By Chadwick R. Gore, CSCE Staff Advisor

Recent events across the Mediterranean region, previously unheralded and unappreciated by both governments and their citizens, are heartening signs of the growing interest in democracy and concomitant human rights at the highest levels of these societies.  Various meetings and seminars held in Egypt, Morocco, Jordan and elsewhere indicate the fading away of the previously long-held belief that democratic values and international human rights standards are “Western” values.  Participants have shown a growing acceptance that these values are universal, and that inculcating them into the non-democracies of the region ultimately will result in security and prosperity within and among these states. Similar democratic evolutionary steps occurred in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union starting with glasnost and “new thinking.”

With time there has been the growing sense of the possible acceptance by some Middle Eastern governments and non-governmental organizations, especially academics, of a regional security system not unlike the Helsinki model. Commentary across the Middle East, Europe and the United States now suggests that the time is ripe for such a clear-cut progressive step for the good of the region and adjoining areas.  However, for any such process to be successful, it must be accepted by the regional actors as genuine and indigenous. Western involvement should collegial and not dogmatic.

The Mediterranean Dimension

The importance of Mediterranean concerns has been widely recognized from the outset of the Helsinki process. Issues relating to the Mediterranean were included in the negotiations that produced the 1975 Helsinki Final Act, resulting in a section of the Act on “Questions relating to Security and Cooperation in the Mediterranean.”  The so-called “non participating Mediterranean countries,” Algeria, Egypt, Israel, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Syria and Tunisia, participated on the margins in the 1973-1975 Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe discussions regarding security in recognition of the relationship between security across Europe, the Soviet Union and in the Mediterranean region--including its southern shore.

The Mediterranean dimension of the OSCE was reformulated in the mid 90s as “Mediterranean Partners for Cooperation” to include Algeria, Egypt, Israel, Morocco and Tunisia. It should be noted that such “partner” status does not require commitment to Helsinki principles by these countries. In 1998, Jordan was accepted as a Mediterranean Partner, and Afghanistan, which many consider to lie within the broader Middle East region and which borders the Central Asian states of the OSCE, was accepted as a Partner in 2003.

In an effort to broaden and intensify this Mediterranean relationship, the OSCE, including the Parliamentary Assembly, has convened numerous seminars, conferences and forums emphasizing the issues of the Mediterranean and allowing full participation of representatives from Partner countries from the region. Additionally, a contact group exists within the OSCE to provide an ongoing opportunity for participating States and the six Mediterranean Partners to maintain dialogue on pertinent Mediterranean issues. Periodic meetings of the group are typically held at the ambassadorial level.

While this formal relationship between the OSCE and the Mediterranean Partners has been evolving, the looming question remains about the applicability of the Helsinki process to the Mediterranean region and beyond.  In other words, would such a multidimensional process work specifically within the region to reduce tensions and advance human rights and democracy? If so, how best should such a process evolve, especially considering the cultural determinants of the region?  Which countries should be involved in such a process?

Regional Efforts toward Acceptance of Democracy

Public expressions of the progress toward acceptance of these universal values within the non-European portion of the Mediterranean region have been best expressed throughout 2004 at the: OSCE Mediterranean Seminar held November 18-19, Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt; Priorities and Mechanisms of Reform in the Arab World Conference, Cairo, Egypt, July 5-7; First Civil Forum in Beirut, Lebanon, March 19-22; and, the Arab Reform Issues Conference, March 14, Alexandria, Egypt.

During the OSCE Mediterranean Seminar in Sharm El Sheikh, several participating States, including the United States, supported the proposal from the Algerian delegation that the OSCE provide election observers for the January 9, 2005, Palestinian elections. Subsequently, on November 27, the Palestinian Central Elections Commission formally invited the OSCE to observe the elections, citing, in part, the OSCE’s “wealth of experience in electoral observation.” While a full-fledged observation mission was not sent due to the crush of end-of-year activity, especially the Ukrainian elections, the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) was represented by a smaller election delegation. The Council of Europe and the European Union, as well as other international NGOs, also sent teams of observers. The Palestinian Authority (PA) has also requested OSCE Partner status. There is no consensus on this issue, with some participating States questioning whether the PA constitutes a state.

What is most notable about both of these requests is that they are from one of the West’s shrillest critics, the Palestinian Authority. To request a seat with other states endeavoring to adhere to OSCE commitments, and to submit an election to the critique of the OSCE, may indicate the acceptance by the PA of universal standards and the realization that these are not “Western” values being imposed on the organization’s participants.

The “Priorities and Mechanisms of Reform in the Arab World Conference,” sponsored by the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS), Egyptian Organization for Human Rights and Al Siyassa Al Dawlia Journal was arguably one of the most notable pro-democracy and reform meetings in the Arab sector of the Mediterranean region. The conference, convened in Cairo July 5-7, 2004, was attended by 100 participants from 15 Arab states who discussed international reform initiatives in the Arab world arising from the recent G-8, EU-US and NATO summits. They also evaluated the Alexandria Document produced at the March “Arab Reform Issues” meeting, and the “Second Independence” initiative produced earlier in Beirut. They also discussed and critiqued the pretexts under which Arab governments refuse reform, setting forth schemes for follow up and government accountability.  The Conference in addition discussed visions and priorities for political reform in eight Arab countries:  Egypt, Syria, Tunisia, Jordan, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Algeria and gave particular attention to the Moroccan experience.

As important as these discussions were, the recognition by conference participants that while democratic and intellectual forces in the Arab world have constantly pushed for reform since 1967, the collective responsibility for the failure of such reform rests with the Arab governments was most important. This was made shockingly evident at the Arab League Summit in May.  There the majority of Arab governments outright rejected calls for reform while issuing a statement that linked reform with resolution of the Palestinian problem. Thus the attendees of the Cairo “Priorities” conference concluded that human rights would continue to be suppressed regardless of statements such as thiers, and that such statements by the Arab League and other joint-government declarations were only issued to placate the West.

Earlier, in response to the Broader Middle East and North Africa (BMENA) initiative of the United States, the First Civil Forum was organized by the CIHRS in Beirut, Lebanon, March 19-22, 2004, in cooperation with the Association for Defending Rights and Freedoms (ADL), Palestinian Human Rights Organization (Rights) and in coordination with the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Network (EMHRN) and International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH). Eighty-seven participants representing 52 NGOs from 13 Arab states issued “Second Independence: Towards an Initiative for Political Reform in the Arab World, The recommendations of the First Civil Forum Parallel to the Arab Summit.” This initiative contains sections with recommendations addressing: fundamental principles for reform; fundamental demands for reform; nationalities and minorities; renewing religious discourse; women’s rights; rights of migrant laborers and refugees; reform priorities in states in transition (which addresses Sudan and Iraq); the Palestinian issue; which charter for human rights and peoples in the Arab world is best to be considered (such as, among others, the Regional Security Charter for the Middle East developed by the Regional Security Charter Working Group); civil society and reforming the regional regime; and, new responsibilities for the human rights movement. This is a comprehensive anti-statist approach to reform across the Arab world, recognizing for the first time in a major document that the primary responsibility for such problems as economic stagnation, poverty and illiteracy, coupled with systemic human rights abuses, lie with each and every government in the region--NOT an outside boogeyman, i.e. the West.

Just a week earlier, the “Arab Reform Issues” conference was held in Alexandria, Egypt, March 12-14. Their final product is called the “Alexandria Document” which calls upon Arab governments’ reform in four areas: political reform including power sharing, respect for human rights, free media, independent political parties, and constitutional separation of powers; economic reform including privatization programs in banking and property rights, empowerment of women, and small business development; social reform that reevaluates values that have a negative effect on Arab life; and, cultural reform that uproots fanaticism from some religious curricula, mosque sermons and official and non-official media.

In the past, any one of these meetings would have been noteworthy.  But here three were convened in a nine-month period--Cairo, Beirut and Alexandria--each of which puts forth significant plans for reform in the future of the Arab world. These plans share common objectives, are built upon each other in some ways, and are basically arising from outside of governments.  These efforts are somewhat similar to the Helsinki Monitoring Groups of the 70s and 80s which called upon governments to adhere to their international obligations and monitored their compliance.

Helsinki Commission Initiatives

In November 1995, the Commission publicly explored questions concerning the region through a two-day seminar:  “The OSCE at Twenty: Its Relevance to Other Regions.” Periodic contacts with representatives of Mediterranean Partners at various OSCE meetings, such as Human Dimension Implementation Meetings, Ministerial Meetings and various seminars, indicated that any progress in the region along the Helsinki model, or any other “western” security framework, was inexorably tied to resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Additionally, however, Arab representatives, most notably from Egypt and Morocco, expressed irritation at what they described as “conflicting signals” from the West, especially the United States. They viewed the simultaneous approaches across the region from different Western organs, i.e. NATO, the EU (through the Barcelona Process and the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership) and the OSCE as working at cross purposes by approaching the regional security issue with differing proposals and expectations.  The view from Cairo and other capitals was that since these approaches were neither coordinated nor consistent, none of them should be taken seriously--a view that unfortunately came to be shared across much of the region.

Most recently, the Helsinki Commission held a hearing June 15, 2004, addressing possible roles of the OSCE in the Middle East, and, more importantly, examining the applicability of the Helsinki model writ large in the region. Witnesses included Ambassador Max Kampelman, former Ambassador to the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe; Natan Sharansky, Israeli Minister of Diaspora Affairs; Dr. Peter Jones, Research Associate at the Munk Center for International Studies, University of Toronto, and project leader of the Middle East Security and Arms Control Project at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute; and, Ambassador Craig Dunkerley (ret.), Distinguished Visiting Professor; and Professor Michael Yaffe, both of the Near East-South Asia Center for Strategic Studies, National Defense University.

The objectives of the hearing were to examine the wide range of ideas concerning the OSCE and the broader Middle East region and to seek ideas for processes whereby the states of the Middle East could create an indigenous Helsinki process, to include the human dimension.  This would be especially problematic as none of the regimes in the region currently have committed to the legal reforms necessary for such human rights commitments.  The hearing also considered what role the West should play, especially the United States.

Commission Chairman Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-NJ) set the tone of the hearing by defining the Middle East as the region from Morocco in the west to Iran in the east, and from Sudan in the south to Turkey in the north, “trapped today in the polar opposite of the OSCE process.  Instead of democratic principles pushing democratic progress, state repression breeds resentment and poverty.”  He pointed out that leaders from Israel, Egypt and other countries in the region had testified before the Commission as early as 1995 on the need for a regional security system like the OSCE, and yet no progress toward such a system was in evidence.

Former Commissioner and current Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-MD) reminded all that the Commission first examined the possibility of a Helsinki-type process for the Middle East in an October 14th, 1993, hearing. Since, commissioners have continued to raise this possibility with Middle East leaders, believing such a process was relevant then, and is perhaps even more so now. Mr. Hoyer proposed that the very substantial gulf that existed between the Soviet Union and the West when the Helsinki process began and the existing gulf between many of the countries in the Middle East are analogous.

Hoyer explained that as the West and East were, in 1975, bitterly divided, they came together and agreed on certain principles.  Some, perhaps, agreed on them rhetorically, while some agreed philosophically.  In any event, the agreement had great power and that could apply in the Middle East. Notwithstanding the deep differences that existed then, the process established a regional forum for discussion of certain principles which may not be universally followed, but are now universally accepted. “Clearly, the governments and the peoples of the Middle East must embrace for themselves such a process in order to achieve lasting peace, stability and prosperity,” he said.

Ranking House Commissioner Benjamin Cardin (D-MD) noted the uniqueness of the OSCE working through voluntary compliance to commitments by the participating States, not treaty obligations. He also said in some respects the OSCE is stronger than other multilateral organizations due to the use of consensus which requires active diplomacy for results. Originally Cardin strongly supported the effort to expand the OSCE process in the Middle East, specifically a CSCME (Commission for Security and Cooperation in the Middle East). Over the years when he has raised this with leaders in the region, they have supported such a process for the Middle East, without any reservation at all. They have seen this as the right way to try to resolve regional conflicts by creating a forum in which to discuss differences in an open manner where every state is given equal respect in dealing with the issues.

However, Mr. Cardin’s position has changed, accepting Ambassador Kampelman’s proposal to expand the existing organization to include the Middle East diaspora: since there exists the OSCE, and it could take decades, perhaps, for the different states in the region to develop their own commitments, why not just expand the OSCE with stronger participation from the countries in the Middle East? He noted that the OSCE is looking at ways too expand its Mediterranean partners within the OSCE, using the partnership structure as a framework to deal with regional issues.

Ambassador Kampelman proposed the extension of the existing 55-nation OSCE to include the current Mediterranean Partners, noting that the Helsinki Final Act included several references to Mediterranean states, dealing specifically with the “geographical, historical, cultural, economic, and political relationship between Europe and the Mediterranean.”  He stressed the value of providing Middle Eastern countries with a standard for human rights and democracy through becoming OSCE participating States and voluntarily accepting the considerable body of related Helsinki commitments.

Minister Sharansky also supported extending the OSCE to the Middle East, arguing an analogous comparison between the lack of human rights in the region today and the repression of the Soviet regime during the Cold War.  Sharansky argued that just as the Helsinki process in the Cold War used the spotlight of world opinion to expose Soviet human rights violations and their treatment of political dissidents, a similar approach to human rights abuses in the Middle East which would be focused on specific dissidents and prisoners, as well as the linkage of military and economic aid to human rights issues, would work through the OSCE.

Dr. Peter Jones contended that while the OSCE represents an appropriate model for a Middle Eastern regional security organization, he disagreed with Kampelman and Sharansky.  He argued that the OSCE should not be extended or replicated in the Middle East because the people and governments of the region need to have a significant stake in the establishment of a regional organization, and that stake would not exist in an organization brought in from abroad.  Jones emphasized the need to discuss the meaning of “democracy” and “secularism” given the regional cultural, historical, and political context, suggesting that if such discussions were ongoing, they could eventually result in some form of regional charter laying out the basic “norms of conduct” for governments and civil society in the region.

Ambassador Dunkerley and Dr. Yaffe testified in the same vein as Dr. Jones, each emphasizing different points.  Dunkerley stressed that since organizations imposed from outside the region, or perceived to come from outside the region, would fail, reform must be perceived to be genuinely owned by the people of the Middle East.  Reform in the region, he said, is a long-term prospect and that it would involve both regional and bi-lateral relations.  He also emphasized, as Dr. Jones had, that developments in Iraq and the Palestinian issue would play an important role in the establishment of a regional security organization.

Yaffe shared some of the insights he had gained from his previous work on regional security in the Middle East.  Yaffe argued against a broad regional organization because not all of the countries in the region are focused on the same issues.  In particular, he said, a pan-regional approach would mean that the Israeli-Palestinian issue would dominate the new organization’s agenda, perhaps at the expense of progress on less polemical issues.

Besides a sub-regional approach, Dr. Yaffe also urged that bilateral programs tailored to support civil society and democracy in individual countries served as perhaps the best means to advance reform.  Finally, he suggested, as Jones and Dunkerley had, that “Middle East ownership” of the security and development process was extremely important.  The success of that process also depended, he added, on a comprehensive approach to other regional problems, such as the Israeli-Palestinian issue.

In conclusion, Chairman Smith voiced concern about possible isolation of Israel within a strictly Middle Eastern organization.  Dr. Jones responded that Israel might be rhetorically isolated in a regional security system, but in terms of actual security concerns, would not.  Dunkerley added that if the Middle East were simply added to the OSCE in order to prevent Israel’s isolation, the Israeli-Palestinian question would bog down progress on other issues central to the work of the current OSCE, especially given the consensus rule.  Yaffe seconded those thoughts and emphasized that progress throughout the region depends on the ebb and flow of the peace process.

An October 23, 2003, Commission briefing “Democracy and Human Rights in the Mediterranean Partner States of the OSCE: Algeria, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Morocco and Tunisia” with presentations by experts from the Committee to Protect Journalists, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch set the tone for future Commission efforts in the region. Expert panelists participating in the briefing were: Frank Smyth, Washington Representative for the Committee to Protect Journalists; Karen Hanrahan, Director of Advocacy for Middle East and North Africa, Amnesty International USA; and, Joe Stork, Washington Director for the Middle East and North Africa division of Human Rights Watch.

Unfortunately the general outcome of the briefing was rather negative. Torture and ill treatment of detainees were described as serious problems within the Mediterranean Partners, as well as arbitrary detentions, lack of due process, and limits on religious practice. Such restrictions have been exacerbated in the name of anti-terror initiatives since the attacks of September 11. It was reported that unrest in the Mediterranean region, as well as repression, had given rise to an increase in human rights violations, with torture in varying degrees remaining a problem in all six countries. Journalists attempting to work in the region faced difficulties as well with several in jail.

The briefing pointed out the stark reality that Mediterranean Partners are not  participating States of the OSCE and have not accepted the OSCE commitments. This picture had several present wondering if there could ever be a Helsinki process with governments so far from accepting basic human rights criteria.

The Broader Middle East and North Africa (BMENA) initiative

Coincidentally, two weeks after the Commission briefing on the Mediterranean Partner States, President Bush delivered what many consider a clarion call for reform in the Middle East in his November 6, 2003 speech on the 20th anniversary of the National Endowment for Democracy. Rejecting the common western cultural condescension of many who believe that democracy and representative government cannot succeed in Islamic Arab States, the President pointed out that champions of democracy in the region understand that while democracy is not perfect nor a path to utopia, it is the only path to national success and dignity.  After delineating the details of successful democracies, President Bush announced the United States had adopted a new policy, a forward strategy of freedom in the Middle East. This Greater Middle East Initiative, which has become the Broader Middle East and North Africa Initiative (BMENA) was at first viewed skeptically by the region and much of Europe. The initial practical application of the BMENA was to be the Forum for the Future which first met in December, 2004.

European and OSCE Initiatives

The European Union’s European Neighborhood Policy (ENP), announced on November 10, 2004, invites adjacent states of the EU to share peace, stability and prosperity, with the aim of creating a secure ring of friendly States around the borders of the newly enlarged EU.  Specifically, for the Mediterranean neighbors the ENP is to build on the 10-year experience of the Barcelona process, thereby continuing to emphasize economic integration and deepening political cooperation.

Europeans have also accepted the June, 2004, G-8 summit declaration titled “Partnership for Progress and a Common Future with the Region of the Broader Middle East and North Africa” regarding the BMENA with commitments to pursue political, economic and social reform in the BMENA. The EU will support it on a dual track with the ENP.  The G-8 Forum for the Future, held in Rabat, Morocco, December 10-11, at the ministerial level, is the first step in the development of the BMENA.

Previously, in October 2003, the Regional Security Charter Working Group met in Copenhagen to discuss a Draft Regional Security Charter for the Middle East. This experts group has convened periodically for several years under the direction of Dr. Peter Jones.  The Middle East is defined for purposes of this Charter as the States of the Arab League; the Islamic Republic of Iran; the State of Israel; and Turkey.  The Charter is an evolving document which is being developed on a Track 2, i.e. non-governmental, level for eventual consideration by the states involved.

The OSCE Parliamentary Assembly on October 1, 2004, and the OSCE on November 18-19 held Mediterranean Seminars in Rhodes, Greece and Sharm El Shiekh, Egypt, respectively.

The October 1 Parliamentary Forum, led by OSCE PA President and U.S. Helsinki Commissioner Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-FL),  focused primarily on combating terrorism in the Mediterranean, although economic security, trade and co-operation in the region were discussed by some speakers. Speakers included: Special Representative for the Mediterranean and recent-past OSCE PA President Bruce George, M.P.; OSCE Secretary General Jan Kubis, and Chairman of the OSCE Mediterranean Contact Group Janez Lenarcic.  Particularly poignant remarks were delivered by Dr. Thanos P. Dokos, Director of Studies at the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy, Athens, and Mr. Sotiris Roussos, Lecturer, Institute of International Relations, Panteion University of Athens.  Both discussed the role of Islam in the region, Dokos from the historic perspective, Roussos the economic. In both cases cause for concern about radical Islam was shown to be well founded, yet Islamic States were shown, in the long term, to be necessary and acceptable.  And yes, each believed, democracy was the road these states need to follow in the future.  While some important points were presented, the seminar would have benefited by the broader participation of representatives of Mediterranean Partners.

The well-attended Sharm El Shiekh seminar produced some very positive results for the future. There was a welcome addition of members of the civil society, including a senior Egyptian general and a female parliamentarian.

As previously mentioned, Algeria suggested that the OSCE observe the January 9 Palestinian elections, a move that immediately gained widespread support. Not only would this help to insure a free election but could show the region how an organization like the OSCE might be a positive security structure.  Along the same vein, Ambassador Craig Dunkerley proposed linking OSCE conflict prevention and human dimension resources with regional institutions that are beginning to explore the development of civil society--such as the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS), Egyptian Organization for Human Rights, Association for Defending Rights and Freedoms (ADL), Palestinian Human Rights Organization (Rights)--reinforcing local efforts rather than superimposing European institutions.

Most of the discussions concerned threats to security, confidence and security-building measures (CSBM) and migration.

A key address from Mohamed Kadry Said of the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, Cairo, laid out the current situation and where the region needs to head for security.  After describing the deterioration of mutual security in the region as the fault of both the northern and southern shores of the Mediterranean, he called for the Mediterranean Partners to redefine cooperation, threats and the Mediterranean, rejecting unilateral action in the meantime.  His emphasis on cooperation in the region, and the need for expanding the region’s security space to include Afghanistan and possibly beyond laid a basis to consider security architecture for the area.  He also described an evolving Arab-Islamic-Western-Global anti-terrorism perspective, which could be part of the basis for such architecture.

Conclusion

For more than a decade, the lack of and need for a regional security structure in the Middle East has been examined and discussed, primarily outside the region yet focused inward to the Arab states. Momentum toward such a framework seems to be gaining strength, both in the West through NATO, the G-8, EU, and OSCE and through the actions of certain governments willing to fund and act upon such initiatives.  Notably, regional civil society actors are engaged in Track 2, and regional governments are slowly being included in such discussions.

Regarding BMENA and ENP, however, there may be room for concern.  This duality of mutual effort between the United States and the European Union potentially presents a cross-Atlantic confrontation, and not unlike the confusion of multiple regional approaches from the West in the past as cited by the representatives of Mediterranean Partners.  Since the goals of the BMENA are to bring about regional political and economic reformation versus the intent of the ENP, which is to build accommodation with existing regimes for economic and political stability, the two approaches are in conflict.  The Europeans and the Americans need to agree to some common standards regarding regional stability while encouraging political change.  At the same time, the governments of the region will need to strive to be flexible and perceptive enough for both initiatives.  The alternatives to such cooperation are either for little or no progress to be made, or for the competition in the region between the United States and the EU to become the Great Game of the 21st century.

It is clear that there is much ongoing effort on which to build.  However, two points must be made concerning the situation today.  First, the West must be aware of the potential conflict between BMENA and ENP.  Second, regional governments must become the primary actors in their own interest.

When discussions concerning the broader Middle East region take place in forums such as the OSCE, every effort must be made to significantly expand the number and role of speakers and attendees from the region. The day of talking at, instead of listening to, is passé.

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Richard Hudson, who chairs the General Committee on Political Affairs and Security, noted, “Perhaps most alarming is the return of an international terrorist threat from Afghanistan. He also highlighted the production and trade of narcotics and illegal drugs backed by the Taliban as a serious challenge with global implications, thanks to major trafficking routes. “The security situation in Afghanistan is intrinsically linked with that of the OSCE region as a whole—but it will first and most immediately affect Afghanistan’s neighbors in Central Asia,” he said. “We must all be especially concerned about threats to the three OSCE participating States that have borders with Afghanistan: Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. This is perhaps the area in which our organization can have the greatest and most immediate impact." The other two general committee chairs shared their concerns as well. Pere Joan Pons of Spain, who chairs the General Committee on Economia Affairs, Science, Technology, and Environment, highlighted Afghanistan’s current economic and environmental challenges, especially given the country’s vulnerability in the face of climate change. Sereine Mauborgne of France, who chairs the General Committee on Democracy, Human Rights, and Humanitarian Questions, discussed the serious human rights violations faced by women, girls, and other vulnerable populations. In addition, many Afghans face urgent or extreme food and security issues; the Taliban lacks the capability to provide either for the Afghan people. Director of the OSCE Conflict Prevention Center Tuula Yrjölä discussed Afghanistan’s relationship to the OSCE as a Partner for Cooperation and the potential role of the OSCE role in addressing the situation. She concluded that Afghanistan’s partnership status in the OSCE was based on shared values; its future may be in question under a Taliban government. 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.

  • Helsinki Commission Welcomes Confirmation of Michael Carpenter as U.S. Ambassador to the OSCE

    WASHINGTON—Following the November 3 confirmation of Michael Carpenter as Permanent Representative of the U.S. Mission to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), Ranking Member Sen. Roger Wicker (MS), and Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) issued the following joint statement: “We are delighted that the Senate has confirmed Michael Carpenter as our next ambassador to the OSCE. He is an expert on European security, has the ear of the president, and his confirmation clearly demonstrates the strong commitment of both Congress and the administration to upholding Helsinki commitments and the OSCE’s concept of comprehensive security. “We look forward to working closely with Ambassador Carpenter to confront the threats to U.S. interests across the region and to realize the potential of our investment in a Europe whole, free, and at peace. Countering Vladimir Putin’s dangerous behavior on the ground and within the OSCE itself is paramount. Russia’s war against Ukraine, its illegal troop presence in neighboring countries, and its efforts to undermine the OSCE’s human dimension require a robust response from the United States and our allies.   “We further pledge our support to Ambassador Carpenter as he works to enhance the capacity of the OSCE to counter corruption, mediate conflicts, promote tolerance and non-discrimination, and address the alarming increase in political prisoners across the region.” Ambassador Carpenter will lead the U.S. Mission to the OSCE, comprising a multi-agency team of more than 30 staff members, including a representative from the U.S. Helsinki Commission.

  • Upholding OSCE Commitments in Hungary and Poland

    Political leaders in Hungary and Poland—U.S. allies and members of the European Union—have for the past decade pursued policies that undermine democracy and the rule of law. In Hungary, the Fidesz government has weakened the country’s democratic institutions, especially the free media and independent judiciary. Instead of strengthening the transatlantic bond, Viktor Orbán has sought closer ties with Russia and China. In Poland, the ruling coalition has taken steps to compromise judicial independence and limit free expression. Witnesses examined the erosion of democratic norms in Hungary and Poland and discussed the implications for U.S. foreign policy. Related Information Witness Biographies

  • Fighting Impunity for Crimes Against Journalists

    By Arwen Struthers, Max Kampelman Fellow​ In 2013, the United Nations General Assembly declared November 2 International Day to End Impunity for Crimes Against Journalists to commemorate the lives of Claude Verlon and Ghislaine Dupont, two journalists who were kidnapped and killed in a targeted attack on that day. Since their deaths, their killers have walked free with complete impunity; there is no justice in sight. Unfortunately, cases where authorities respond to crimes against journalists with impunity for the perpetrators rather than justice for the victims are not outliers. The Committee to Protect Journalists reports that “in over eight out of 10 cases where a journalist has been targeted for murder, their killers go free.” Impunity often extends beyond cases where journalists are murdered to failure to conduct a proper investigation into other crimes against journalists, such as threats and non-fatal attacks. Complete impunity is not uncommon and presents one of the greatest challenges for media freedom advocates and democratic states around the world today. Freedom of expression and free press are core democratic principles that protect individual liberties, promote discussion in public squares, and contribute to the spread of information. The harmful, cyclical nature of impunity endangers states and individuals as it impedes upon media freedom, violates human rights, and threatens democratic values. Natalya Estemirova Natalya Estemirova was a Russian investigative journalist and a leading defender of human rights in Chechnya for nearly two decades. Despite threats from local authorities, she dedicated her life to calling out injustice. She regularly reported on abuses and violations committed by authorities at the national and local level, and her work was published by sources like Novaya Gazeta and Kavkazsky Uzel. In 2006, she met with the Helsinki Commission to share her findings on human rights violations. On July 15, 2009, Natalya Estemirova was abducted and murdered. Over 12 years later, little has been done to bring her killers to justice. On August 31, 2021, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the Russian government failed to properly investigate her murder. There has been no conviction and those involved in the murder of Natalya Estemirova continue to walk free. The Dangers of Impunity Across the globe, impunity jeopardizes journalists and the media environments in which they operate. It is both a symptom of broader systemic problems in states, as well as an environmental contributing factor which encourages further crimes against journalists. In an October 2021 Helsinki Commission hearing on media freedom in the OSCE region, OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media Teresa Ribeiro explained that examining individual cases of crimes against journalists and addressing each as it arises is not enough. To best tackle the problems created by violations of media freedom and attacks on journalists, human rights advocates must examine the broader picture. When discussing cases of crimes against journalists, Ribeiro said, “All combined, they all create a landscape, an atmosphere, that silence[s] all the critical voices.”  Crimes against journalists are often efforts to censor journalists who are bringing attention to injustice and corruption. By examining the broader picture rather each individual crime against the press, deeply rooted issues – such as government corruption and authoritarianism - will be exposed. To protect journalists in the future, these issues must be addressed first. At the same hearing, Robert Mahoney, the Deputy Executive Director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, explained that the failure to administer justice not only creates a landscape where there are fewer voices expressing themselves, but also encourages more crimes against journalists in the future. “Impunity will only send a message that journalists’ lives are cheap and that those – whether it’s criminal gangs or whether it’s governments – that want to silence them can, for a few thousand dollars, hire an assassin and get rid of the problem,” he said. Impunity demonstrates to other journalists they may be freely targeted by those they criticize without any protection from the law. It creates a painful choice: are they bullied into silence or do they risk their lives? Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow One of the most important tools that can be used to help end impunity is multilateral, multi-level pressure. When international organizations and their members, such as the OSCE and its participating States, put pressure on those countries where authorities fail to adequately respond to crimes against journalists, they begin to break the dangerous cycle. Failing to call out impunity as injustice further feeds the emboldening cycle of impunity, but consistent pressure from outside forces can help that cycle crack. Domestic pressure also can have an impact. In February 2018, investigative journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancée Martina Kušnírová were killed in a targeted attack in Slovakia. In response, the people of Slovakia took to the streets in protest of his death, resulting in the resignation of several top government officials. A Slovakian Supreme Court decision in June 2021 overturned the acquittal of two suspects, ruling that the lower court did not properly examine the evidence. The government’s response to the protests and pressure from the international community—its willingness to continue to prosecute those involved in the murders—demonstrates that external pressure works in putting a stop to impunity. In this case, there is hope that justice is on the horizon. When local communities, countries, and multilateral organizations all maintain pressure upon individual countries for their human rights and media freedom failures, governments who enable or are responsible for crimes against journalists begin to feel the heat. 2021 Nobel Peace Prize winner Dmitry Muratov, the editor-in-chief of Novaya Gazeta, dedicated his award to his slain colleagues, including Natalya Estemirova. In a 2009 Helsinki Commission briefing, Muratov said, “In any encounter with representatives of the Russian political establishment and government, please, bring up this meeting. Please ask these uncomfortable questions.” Joining forces with other defenders of media freedom and human rights and calling attention in public spaces to the failings of countries is one way to effectively combat impunity and protect journalists. On International Day to End Impunity for Crimes Against Journalists, supporters of media freedom should affirm their commitment to protecting the media and fighting against impunity crimes against journalists. To ensure that the work done by journalists around the world – the work done by Natalya Estemirova and others like her – will not be silenced, governments must lend their support and protection.

  • Helsinki Commission Digital Digest October 2021

  • 30th Anniversary of OSCE's Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights

    Mr. CARDIN. Mr. President, I rise to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the creation of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s—OSCE—Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights—ODIHR—one of the world’s most preeminent and comprehensive human rights protection bodies. In 1990–1991, during the signing of the Charter of Paris for a New Europe that created ODIHR, a spirit of ‘‘profound change and historic expectations’’ prevailed among the United States, nations of Europe, and the Soviet Union. Revolutionary for their time, heads of state and governments resolved to ‘‘build, consolidate and strengthen democracy as the only system of government of our nations.’’ Further, by affirming that government’s first responsibility is to ensure the ‘‘protection and promotion of human rights,’’ they explicitly linked the full attainment of those rights with ‘‘the foundation of freedom, justice and peace’’ and set the standard for relations and security within and among nations. Now, 30 years later, I am deeply concerned that the fundamental freedoms that ODIHR was founded to safeguard are in peril. Authoritarianism is on the rise in Europe. Credible reports allege there are more than 750 political prisoners in Belarus, many detained for participating peacefully in protest of the fraudulent elections of August 2020 and the brutal government crackdown that followed. In Hungary, Viktor Orban’s administration continues its unprecedented consolidation of Hungary’s media, even as opposition figures organize to resist him. In many countries across the OSCE area, we have witnessed an alarming rise in anti-Semitism, racism, religious and other intolerance, and violence against women. These scourges have worsened the conditions imposed by the COVID–19 pandemic that disproportionately affect the most vulnerable in our communities. With these and other challenges in mind, ODIHR’s valuable work to assist nations to live up to their commitments is more relevant and more needed than ever. ODIHR is empowered by states to ensure respect for human rights, fundamental freedoms and the rule of law, and to promote and strengthen democratic institutions and tolerance. ODIHR actively partners with OSCE’s 57 participating states, civil society, and international organizations to support human rights defenders, enhance the independence of judiciaries, and promote human-rights-based policing. It offers legislative reviews and develops tools to support local government officials, including the Words into Action project, which enhances social inclusion within local communities and for which I proudly help secure funding. The most visible demonstration of ODIHR’s collaboration with the United States is perhaps in the field of election observation, where its methodology is rightly seen as the gold standard in international election observation. Since its founding, ODIHR, the Department of State, and the U.S. Congress, through the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, have deployed thousands of American citizens and legislators to observe the conduct of elections across the OSCE area, including in the United States. Since OSCE states pledged in 1990 to hold free and fair elections, elections observation has been recognized as one of the most transparent and methodical ways to encourage states’ commitment to democratic standards and is a hallmark of ODIHR’s work. For nearly 30 years, ODIHR has organized Europe’s largest human rights review conference, the Human Dimension Implementation Meeting—HDIM—gathering thousands of representatives of governments, parliaments, and civil society for 2 weeks around the same table to review progress on human rights commitments. Unfortunately, the HDIM did not take place this September. Russia blocked consensus to hold the meeting, thereby denying the OSCE region’s nearly 1 billion citizens of a meaningful and sustained opportunity to hold their governments to account. In September, Russia also prevented ODIHR from deploying a full and independent election observation mission to observe its Duma elections. Likewise, Russia was responsible for the closure of OSCE’s border observation mission, which provided valuable insight into the personnel and materiel flowing across Russia’s border into the temporarily occupied areas of eastern Ukraine. ODIHR’s work is more important and relevant than at any time since its founding at the end of the Cold War. I would like to take a moment to extend my heartfelt appreciation to ODIHR’s 180 staff from 35 countries, upon whose dedication and professionalism we rely as we strive to realize an equitable and just future for all. ODIHR is not only the human rights arm of the world’s largest regional security organization; it is also the independent body endowed to assist us as we pursue this important goal. The phrase ‘‘Vancouver to Vladivostok’’ is routinely invoked to describe the organization’s broad geographical reach. However, it is perhaps ODIHR—and OSCE’s—revolutionary and comprehensive concept of ‘‘security,’’ which includes military security, economic and environmental cooperation, and human rights, that is its defining characteristic and most important contribution to world peace and the reason why we should all be celebrating ODIHR’s 30th anniversary this year and take steps to ensure its success for years to come.

  • Helsinki Commission to Hold Hearing on Upholding OSCE Commitments in Hungary and Poland

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following hearing: UPHOLDING OSCE COMMITMENTS IN HUNGARY AND POLAND Wednesday, November 3, 2021 2:30 p.m. Dirksen Senate Office Building Room 419 Watch live: www.youtube.com/HelsinkiCommission Political leaders in Hungary and Poland—U.S. allies and members of the European Union—have for the past decade pursued policies that undermine democracy and the rule of law. In Hungary, the Fidesz government has weakened the country’s democratic institutions, especially the free media and independent judiciary. Instead of strengthening the transatlantic bond, Viktor Orbán has sought closer ties with Russia and China. In Poland, the ruling coalition has taken steps to compromise judicial independence and limit free expression. Witnesses will examine the erosion of democratic norms in Hungary and Poland and discuss the implications for U.S. foreign policy. The following witnesses are scheduled to testify: Heather A. Conley, Senior Vice President for Europe, Eurasia, and the Arctic, Center for Strategic and International Studies Zselyke Csaky, Research Director, Europe & Eurasia, Freedom House Dalibor Rohac, Senior Fellow, American Enterprise Institute  

  • In Pursuit of Truth

    A free press is the lifeblood of democracy; without independent media, democracy is doomed, economies suffer, and peace is imperiled. In many of the 57 participating States of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), autocrats exploit financial and legal means, alongside physical violence, to intimidate and silence independent media. Journalists and their associates are attacked both online and offline; jailed on phony charges; and even killed for the secrets they expose. Leaders undermine public trust in the press to hide their misdeeds. Disinformation—particularly lies related to the COVID-19 pandemic—continues to pollute the information landscape. In her first appearance before Congress, OSCE Representative for Freedom of the Media Teresa Ribeiro assessed the state of media freedom across the OSCE region. Other expert witnesses discussed recent attacks on journalists and media outlets, the motivations that lead authorities to try and silence the press, global disinformation networks, and more. Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) opened the hearing by stating that media freedom is the bedrock of the democratic process, making it possible for citizens to make informed decisions on their political reality. He also addressed COVID-19 and disinformation, citing the need to safeguard fundamental freedom of expression while performing the vital task of reporting the truth. Chairman Cardin cited a Freedom House report showing a decline in democracy in some countries, often overlapping with a decline in media freedom, and expressed a concern over the silencing of media in Azerbaijan, Belarus, Hungary, Turkey, and Russia to name a few. As a co-sponsor of the Global Press Freedom Act, Senator Cardin expressed his wish for the U.S. to become more involved in press freedom across the globe. The OSCE Representative on the Freedom of the Media (RFOM), Teresa Ribeiro, thanked the Helsinki Commission for the strong support for the RFOM as an institution and media freedom and expression. Ribeiro seconded Chairman Cardin’s statement that free and independent media is a core pillar of democracy, adding that media is more than just a provider of daily news. Ribeiro addressed the steady decline of media freedom all over the OSCE region and decline in trust in the media. “We live in a time where accusing media outlets and individual journalists of false news has become the norm,” she said. Key issues, according to Ribeiro, include rising violence against journalists, abuse of the legal system to silence their work, restrictions imposed by authoritarian governments on the media, declining trust in the media, as well as the power of social media companies and their ability to shape the media landscape. Ribeiro argued that governments have a positive obligation to protect both the freedom of expression and a free press that delivers truthful information to citizens. In her opinion, the best way to fight disinformation is not through restrictive laws, but rather by promoting independent journalists. Robert Mahoney, the deputy executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), reported on his organizations efforts to track media freedom across the OSCE region. He stated that journalists and media have come under attack in almost all OSCE countries. Some of these attacks are by private citizens, but most attacks on press freedom are carried out by governments such as those in Hungry, Poland, Tajikistan, Serbia, Turkmenistan, Belarus, or Russia. Specifically, Mahoney mentioned the number of journalists behind bars in Turkey and the use of foreign agent laws in Russia to sideline media. He also expressed concern over the targeted murders of journalists in the OSCE in countries including Ukraine, Slovakia, and Malta. Mahoney recommended fully implementing the 2018 OSCE ministerial council agreement on the freedom of the media, supporting the RFOM mandate and urging the mandate holder to challenge those countries with the worst press freedom records, implement the policies outlined in the 2020 resource guide by the RFOM on the safety of female journalists online, and considering the use of targeted sanctions to gold governments within the OSCE region accountable for their violations of press freedoms. Jamie Fly, President of Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty, gave an update on his organizations efforts to provide news and media to 27 countries across Eurasia. Much of his testimony was focused on Russia and Belarus, where the gravest violations of press freedom occur. In Russia, foreign agent laws are increasingly being used to violate the freedom of the press and fines connected to these laws (such as $4.4 million owed by RFE/RL to Russia) are used to pressure news outlets financially. Fly believes the Kremlin is seeking absolute control over the information space in advance of the end of President Vladimir Putin’s current term in 2024. In Belarus, RFE/RL officers were raided, and equipment was confiscated. Meanwhile, many journalists threatened by the new government in Afghanistan are still hoping to evacuate and require outside support. Fly called for more advocacy for journalists in critical regions, funding for unbiased media to counter the large sums of money authoritarian governments spend on their biased media outlets, as well as pressure on those governments which jail journalists. Peter Pomerantsev, Director of the Arena Program and Senior Visiting Fellow at Johns Hopkins University, testified that the principles we use to defend journalists are being weaponized to attack journalists in other countries. He argued that the crushing of media voices happens not only through censorship, but also through the flood of disinformation. These mass inauthentic campaigns take away the fundamental right to receive information and know its origins, Pomerantsev said, and argued that the best way to counter such disinformation is through better transparency on the origins of content encountered online. Helsinki Commissioner Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (NH) asked the witnesses about steps the United States could take to counter disinformation and misinformation, especially strategies that have been found to be successful in Europe. Ribeiro answered that media literacy and better training for journalists to become fact checkers are key. Additionally, building back trust between the media and the public is vital, and the local level is the best way to do so. Mahoney agreed, stating that local news is generally trusted more than the news at a national level, but the decline in local news outlets in the U.S. has pushed people towards getting news from social media. Acknowledging various levels of media freedom across the OSCE, Chairman Cardin asked what best practices are to protect the freedom of the media. Ribeiro replied that different tools need to be used in different countries. Some countries have strong rule of law, yet still have issues with media freedom. In her capacity as RFOM, her tools include voice, advocacy, and assisting participating states to improve media freedom. Chairman Cardin also asked what should be done to protect journalists against indiscriminate arrests, detentions, and physical violence. Mahoney answered that the number one focus must be on bringing those who murder journalists to justice. Too often the murderers go free, sending the signal to others that journalists can be silenced this way. Next, to pressure governments that imprison journalists, including calling them out at conferences on the international stage. Lastly, the OSCE and EU must lift their standards and prevent capture of the media by the state. Chairman Cardin thanked Mahoney for his comments and added that the Helsinki Commission and the U.S. Congress is happy to help, but needs specifics like names and stories, not numbers, to advocate for journalists across the world. Asked about where the United States needs to concentrate its priorities regarding RFE/RL in the OSCE region, Jamie Fly noted the importance of social media in reaching audiences, and therefore the power social media companies have over RFE/RL. Social media algorithms dictate which content users see, and often authoritarian regimes intervene and pressure social media companies to remove content critical of them because of supposed terms-of-service violations, as was the case with Navalny’s election app in Russia. Fly affirmed the need for pressure and targeted sanctions on regimes violating press freedom, as well as support for journalist who cannot work safely in their home countries. Pomerantsev expanded on the issues of social media algorithms, explaining that understanding why an algorithm promotes some content over another is key to slowing disinformation. He emphasized that transparency, not regulation of content, is the best way to do so. Helsinki Commission Ranking Member Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) addressed the rising violence against journalists worldwide, including 29 killings in 2021, and increased imprisonment of journalists. Calling out Turkey, a NATO ally, for severe transgressions, Sen. Wicker asked if there is hope for improvement. Mahoney responded by saying the decline of press freedoms in Turkey has been happening for 20 years, but the coup attempt in 2016 worsened it. In his opinion, the OSCE and EU have been unsuccessful in attempting to bring change to media conditions in Turkey and must be more forceful in their critique of Erdogan and his regime. Chair Cardin closed the hearing by stating, “This commission stands ready to work with you to protect individual journalists as well as to put a spotlight on counties which are violating the freedom of the media.” Related Information Witness Biographies  

  • Helsinki Commission Mourns Death of Colin Powell

    WASHINGTON—Following the death of former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), Ranking Member Sen. Roger Wicker (MS), and Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) issued the following joint statement: “We mourn the loss of a thoughtful leader, respected diplomat, and dedicated public servant. Former Secretary of State Colin Powell actively supported the work of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and its comprehensive definition of security, which includes respect for human rights. In 1990, as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, his leadership of the U.S. delegation to a seminar in Vienna on military doctrine demonstrated that when Moscow was serious about overcoming differences through the Helsinki Process, the United States was ready to collaborate, as is true today. “Secretary Powell’s subsequent work in the OSCE on fighting anti-Semitism and championing election observation proved that he was not only a warrior and a diplomat, but also a steadfast advocate for human rights and a defender of the most vulnerable.” Secretary Powell was one of the most active U.S. Secretaries of State in OSCE history, personally attending Ministerial Council meetings in 2001, 2003, and 2004. In 2001, he said: “We see our membership in the OSCE as complementing and reinforcing our strong bilateral ties with European and Eurasian countries, our membership in NATO, and our relationship with the European Union. This organization embraces a wide-range of ethnicities, traditions and histories. More importantly, it reflects our common embrace of democratic and market principals and our common commitment to peace and stability. In short, the OSCE encompasses the hopes that all of us share for a Europe that is fully whole and free.”

  • Media Freedom Across the OSCE Region to Be Assessed at Helsinki Commission Hearing

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following hearing: IN PURSUIT OF TRUTH Media Freedom in the OSCE Region Wednesday, October 20, 2021 2:30pm Dirksen Senate Office Building Room 419 Watch live: www.youtube.com/HelsinkiCommission A free press is the lifeblood of democracy; without independent media, democracy is doomed, economies suffer, and peace is imperiled. In many of the 57 participating States of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), autocrats exploit financial and legal means, alongside physical violence, to intimidate and silence independent media. Journalists and their associates are attacked both online and offline; jailed on phony charges; and even killed for the secrets they expose. Leaders undermine public trust in the press to hide their misdeeds. Disinformation—particularly lies related to the COVID-19 pandemic—continues to pollute the information landscape. In her first appearance before Congress, OSCE Representative for Freedom of the Media Teresa Ribeiro will assess the state of media freedom across the OSCE region. Other expert witnesses will discuss recent attacks on journalists and media outlets, the motivations that lead authorities to try and silence the press, global disinformation networks, and more. The following witnesses are scheduled to testify: Teresa Ribeiro, Representative on Freedom of the Media, OSCE Jamie Fly, President & CEO, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) Robert Mahoney, Deputy Executive Director, Committee to Protect Journalists Peter Pomerantsev, Director of Arena Program and Senior Fellow, Johns Hopkins University; Author and Journalist

  • Cardin and Cohen Laud 2021 Nobel Peace Prize Award to Investigative Reporters

    WASHINGTON—Following the award of the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize to journalists Maria Ressa of the Philippines and Dmitry Muratov of Russia “for their efforts to safeguard freedom of expression, which is a precondition for democracy and lasting peace,” Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) and Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09) issued the following joint statement: “We congratulate the winners of the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize, Maria Ressa and Dmitry Muratov, and applaud the Nobel Committee for recognizing the courage of these journalists and their contributions to democracy and peace. Maria, Dmitry, and their colleagues are beacons of truth—without a free press, democracy is doomed, economies suffer, and peace is imperiled. “That this award comes just after the 15-year anniversary of the murder of Novaya Gazeta journalist Anna Politkovskaya and three years after the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi solemnly reminds us of the dangers journalists face, particularly in authoritarian states.” Later this month, the Helsinki Commission will hold a hearing to call attention to the growing attacks on free media and underscore the importance of investigative journalism. Muratov is the longtime editor-in-chief of Novaya Gazeta, an independent Russian newspaper widely respected for its hard-hitting investigative journalism. Novaya Gazeta journalists routinely have been targeted by the authorities for their work and even murdered with impunity. Muratov dedicated his Nobel Prize award to his slain Novaya Gazeta colleagues Igor Domnikov, Yuri Shchekochikhin, Anna Politkovskaya, Stanislav Markelov, Anastasiya Baburova, and Natalya Estemirova.  In a November 2009 Helsinki Commission briefing on violence against journalists and impunity in Russia, Muratov, who provided testimony, said, “I would like to ask you a huge favor. In every meeting, in any encounter with representatives of the Russian political establishment and government, please, bring up this meeting. Please ask these uncomfortable questions. Please try not to be too polite.” Ressa is a Filipino-American journalist and co-founder and CEO of Rappler, a Philippine news website. Ressa was included in Time Magazine's 2018 Person of the Year as one of a collection of journalists from around the world, collectively branded “Guardians of Truth.” In 2019, she was awarded the Sergei Magnitsky Award for Outstanding Investigative Journalist, presented by international human rights lawyer Amal Clooney. In 2020, she was convicted of trumped-up “cyberlibel” charges by the Philippine government.

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

    WASHINGTON—In light of yesterday’s termination of the activities of the OSCE Observer Mission at the Russian Checkpoints Gukovo and Donetsk on the Russian-Ukrainian border, Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), Ranking Member Sen. Roger Wicker (MS), and Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) issued the following joint statement: “By forcing the closure of the OSCE Observer Mission on Ukraine’s border, despite clear and continued support from other OSCE States for the mission, the Kremlin is once again trying to blind the international community to the reality of its aggression against Ukraine.  The mission regularly observed and reported suspicious movements at the border. “Rather than blocking OSCE instruments, Russia needs to cease its war against Ukraine, including reversing its illegal occupation of Crimea.”    The OSCE Observer Mission at the Russian Checkpoints Gukovo and Donetsk was intended to build confidence through increased transparency by observing and reporting on the situation at the international border between Ukraine and Russia. Russia had previously imposed severe restrictions on the observer mission, including limiting movement and prohibiting the use of binoculars or cameras.  Despite these limitations, the mission reported on the movements of more than 24 million people since beginning operations in 2014. It observed more than 100 Russian convoys, along with individuals in military apparel and thousands of other vehicles, crossing the uncontrolled border.

  • Helsinki Commission Leadership Condemns Russian Obstruction of OSCE Human Rights Work

    WASHINGTON—In response to Russian intransigence blocking the annual OSCE Human Dimension Implementation Meeting (HDIM), Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), Ranking Member Sen. Roger Wicker (MS), and Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) issued the following joint statement: “We are extremely disappointed that the HDIM failed to start this week as planned, due solely to Russian intransigence blocking the meeting. The Kremlin has reached a new low in its efforts to undermine the OSCE’s work to promote human rights and democracy. “Russia clearly fears criticism of its worsening human rights record and fraudulent elections from the OSCE, other OSCE participating States, and civil society. The HDIM, through its thorough review of states’ human rights records and its inclusion of civil society, is a crown jewel of the OSCE’s human rights work. “We urge Russia to change its position and we expect the HDIM to be held in accordance with the agreement adopted in Helsinki in 1992 by the heads of state of all OSCE participating States—including Russia—that established the HDIM. For our part, we will continue to speak out when we see human rights violations, including in the Russian Federation.” The OSCE Human Dimension Implementation Meeting is the region’s largest annual human rights conference, and typically brings togethers hundreds of government and nongovernmental representatives, international experts, and human rights activists for two weeks to engage in a comprehensive review of the participating States’ compliance with their human rights and democracy-related commitments. The meeting is held in Warsaw, Poland, where the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights is headquartered.

  • Seeking Justice and Freedom in Belarus

    In 2020, mass protests against the fraudulent election of Alexander Lukashenko shook Belarus. Since then, Lukashenko and his illegitimate regime have clung to power by committing ever more serious acts of repression against advocates of democracy and free expression. Hundreds of political prisoners languish in pre-trial detention or have been sentenced to years in prison during closed trials. The regime has effectively criminalized independent journalism and peaceful assembly; no independent justice system exists to hold those in power accountable. On September 21, 2021, the U.S. Helsinki Commission held a hearing on the events in Belarus leading up to and following the 2020 presidential elections. The hearing included expert witness testimony by four witnesses on the state of the media, the plight of political prisoners, the international legal ramifications of Lukashenko’s violence, and U.S. policy responses and options. Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) opened the hearing by remarking that the election in 2020 was not free or fair, contrary to official reports from Belarus, and commended the extreme courage of peaceful protestors to show up en masse despite a history of mass arrests and torture and the “brazen hijacking of a civilian aircraft and kidnapping of a critic of Mr. Lukashenko.” In opening remarks, Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09) announced that, alongside Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02), he soon would sponsor a resolution denouncing the acts of the Belarusian regime and supporting freedom and human rights in Belarus. Serge Kharytonau delivered a testimony on behalf of the International Strategic Action Network for Security (iSANS) based on monitoring and documentation of activity in Belarus. He noted that since 2020, the informational sovereignty of Belarus has been given up to Russia in exchange for Putin’s support of Lukashenko. The state propaganda machines in Belarus and Russia are now synchronized to promote the Kremlin’s goals. Kharytonau noted that the state media also is being used to conduct psychological operations, depicting videos of political hostages and victims of torture. Technology platforms such as YouTube are being used to promote misinformation, hate speech, and the threat of violence towards civilians. Tatsiana Khomich, the Coordination Council’s Representative for political prisoners, testified about the situation of political prisoners in Belarus. Only 673 political prisoners are officially recognized by the government in Belarus, but more than 4,600 cases have been opened relating to 2020 election. Several activists have been sentenced to more than 10 years in prison, where they lack medical care, suffer from chronic diseases, are subject to torture, and often attempt suicide. She noted that most of these prisoners are just regular people, such as taxi drivers, and some are as young as 15 years old. “The situation in Belarus will most likely result in the complete annihilation of the civil rights of Belarusians and the chance of political transformation in Belarus will disappear,” she said. Khomich argued that time plays into Lukashenko’s hands as his government adapts to sanctions and the negotiating position of the West declines. Furthermore, as time passes the focus on Belarus is likely to decrease; action is needed now. David Kramer, a senior fellow at Florida International University and former Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, testified on the violation of human rights and “weaponization” of migrants by Belarus, noting that the spillover effects in neighboring NATO countries poses a threat to the United States. Kramer also classified Belarus as a test case for the West and its struggle between democracy and authoritarianism. He offered several recommendations to deal with the situation in Belarus: targeting the individuals surrounding Lukashenko who are keeping him afloat financially with sanctions; requiring U.S. allies in the Middle East to make a choice between supporting the United States or supporting Lukashenko; cutting off  IMF funding to Belarus; and continuing not to recognize Lukashenko as the leader of Belarus. Kramer emphasized that an effort should be made to press for the release of all political prisoners and have accountability for the gross violation of human rights by the Lukashenko regime. The West needs to prepare for when Lukashenko is gone, he argued, but in the meantime Belarusian civil society must be supported. Siarhej Zikratski, a representative on legal affairs in the office of Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, personally attested to the political persecution of prisoners. Prisoners are cramped in tiny cells, tortured, beaten, and subjected to sexual violence. Despite appeals, no criminal cases exist regarding these acts. He also highlighted the disbarment of 13 lawyers who defended journalists and politicians who stood up to the regime. Zikratski recommended that the international community refuse to recognize Lukashenko as Belarus’ leader; use international human rights laws and international human rights protection mechanisms such as Article 30 of the Convention Against Torture and Article 41 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to address human rights violations; and record evidence of human rights violations, document crimes, and investigate criminal proceedings under the principle of universal jurisdictions. During the question-and-answer session with witnesses, members asked questions ranging from the use and abuse of U.S. technology platforms by repressive regimes, to the proposed union between Belarus and Russia and the recent joint Zapad military exercise, to specific cases of human rights abuses in Belarus. Witnesses also discussed the effectiveness of the OSCE’s 2020 Moscow Mechanism investigation and the continuing importance of U.S-funded news outlets such as Voice of America, Radio Liberty, and Radio Free Europe. Related Information Witness Biographies Special Statement from Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya Press Release: Chairman Cardin Joins Bipartisan Resolution Highlighting First Anniversary of Fraudulent Election In Belarus Press Release: Cardin and Cohen Condemn Persecution of Independent Journalists in Belarus Press Release: Helsinki Commission Condemns Lukashenko Regime for Forced Landing of Commercial Jetliner Leading to Arrest of Raman Pratasevich

  • Repression in Belarus Focus of Upcoming Helsinki Commission Hearing

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following hearing: SEEKING JUSTICE AND FREEDOM IN BELARUS Tuesday, September 21, 2021 2:30 p.m. Dirksen Senate Office Building Room 419 Watch live: www.youtube.com/HelsinkiCommission More than a year has passed since mass protests against the fraudulent election of Alexander Lukashenko shook Belarus. In the meantime, Lukashenko and his illegitimate regime cling to power by committing ever more serious acts of repression against advocates of democracy and free expression. Hundreds of political prisoners languish in pre-trial detention or have been sentenced to years in prison during closed trials. The regime has effectively criminalized independent journalism and peaceful assembly; no independent justice system exists to hold those in power accountable. As Lukashenko lashes out at the West—even engineering the forced landing of an EU flight to abduct a journalist and sending overwhelming numbers of migrants into the EU via Belarus—the exiled leader of democratic Belarus, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, has been engaging the world on her country’s behalf, calling for new elections, the release of political prisoners, and accountability for the repressive regime. Expert witnesses will provide updates on the current situation in Belarus, including the state of media, the plight of political prisoners, the international legal ramifications of Lukashenko’s violence, and U.S. policy responses and options. The following witnesses are scheduled to testify: Serge Kharytonau, Media Expert, International Strategic Action Network for Security (iSANS) Tatsiana Khomich, Coordination Council Representative for political prisoners, Viktar Babaryka Team Coordinator, and sister of political prisoner Maria Kalesnikava David J. Kramer, Senior Fellow, Florida International University Siarhej Zikratski, Representative on Legal Affairs, Office of Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya

  • Chairman Cardin Joins Bipartisan Resolution Highlighting First Anniversary Of Fraudulent Election in Belarus

    WASHINGTON—Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) today joined a bipartisan group of lawmakers to introduce a resolution on the one-year anniversary of the fraudulent presidential election in Belarus through which Alexander Lukashenko seized power for a sixth term.  The resolution, led by Helsinki Commissioner Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (NH) and Helsinki Commission Ranking Member Sen. Roger Wicker (MS), calls for free and fair elections, reaffirms bipartisan support in the Senate for the pro-democracy movement, free media, and the Belarusian people, and condemns Lukashenko’s recent acts of transnational repression. “A year after the people of Belarus were deprived of their democratic aspirations and desire for change, the United States is taking significant action to target those officials and companies propping up and supporting the Lukashenko regime,” said Chairman Cardin. “Over 600 political prisoners are unjustly detained.  Independent media outlets have been raided and shuttered, and Belarusian authorities are attempting to silence NGOs and vital members of civil society, and even Belarusians abroad face intimidation and the threat of kidnapping.  I support the Biden administration’s sanctions today, and I am proud to join my colleagues in the introduction of this significant, bipartisan resolution.” “This resolution reflects the important bipartisan work underway in Congress in support of the pro-democracy movement in Belarus and in fierce repudiation of Lukashenko’s continued aggression. Our message is clear: we are watching and there will be consequences for actions that violate the rights of Belarusians, wherever they occur,” said Sen. Shaheen. “Our bipartisan message from the Senate comes on the one-year anniversary of Belarus’ stolen election and as the Biden administration has rightly announced additional sanctions, in coordination with our UK and EU allies, for human rights abuses and increasing acts of transnational repression. The U.S. will not be silent as Lukashenko’s tyrannical regime escalates crackdowns against the Belarusian people and obstructs the pro-democracy movement and freedoms that the Belarusian citizenry are fighting so hard to secure.” “As the first official act of the Free Belarus Caucus, this resolution is a strong first step to show the world the U.S. Senate stands with the Belarusian people in their fight for freedom and new elections that are free and fair,” Sen. Wicker said. “I urge my colleagues to support this resolution as we work to promote democracy and oppose the ongoing abuses of the Lukashenko regime.” Helsinki Commissioners Sen. Thom Tillis (NC) and Sen. Marco Rubio also joined the resolution, alongside Sen. Ron Johnson (WI), Sen. Dick Durbin (IL), Sen. Rob Portman (OH), Sen. Chris Murphy (CT), Sen. Tim Kaine (VA), Sen. Chris Van Hollen (MD), Sen. Ed Markey (MA), and Sen. Bill Hagerty (TN). On Friday, Sen. Shaheen and Sen. Wicker announced the formation of the Free Belarus Caucus in the Senate, which includes a bipartisan group of seven other senators with the purpose of advocating for democracy and free and fair elections in Belarus.

  • Helsinki Commission Summer 2021 Digital Digest

  • 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.

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