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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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  • 2020 Human Dimension Implementation Meeting Cancelled Due to Pandemic

    By Erika Schlager, Counsel for International Law “The work of the OSCE human dimension has also been impacted, no doubt by this unprecedented pandemic.  As you know, the OSCE annual Human Dimension Implementation Meeting – Europe’s largest annual human rights and democracy conference – will not take place this year.  This is a huge loss for our organization.  Together with Permanent Council, Human Dimension Implementation Meeting is a constituent part of the OSCE’s mechanism for the review and assessment of the implementation of our commitments.  With around 2,000 participants from across the whole OSCE region, it is also the primary forum for our citizens to take a direct part in the life of our organization.” - Prime Minister of Albania Edi Rama, 2020 OSCE Chair-in-Office, at a September 17, 2020, hearing before the Helsinki Commission On September 11, 2020, the OSCE Permanent Council decided, as an exceptional measure without precedent for the future, to cancel the 2020 OSCE Human Dimension Implementation Meeting (HDIM) planned for September 21 – October 2. The decision reflects the singular and unpredictable circumstances of 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. OSCE rules mandate that HDIMs, a comprehensive review of the participating States’ implementation of their human dimension commitments, are held every year in which there is not a summit. (In the event that a summit is convened, the summit is preceded by a review conference that evaluates implementation in all three OSCE dimensions, including military security, economic and environmental cooperation, and the human dimension.) HDIMs are unique among OSCE meetings because of the combination of their large size (typically drawing a thousand participants), duration (two full consecutive weeks), press access, and ability of non-governmental organizations both to participate in and speak at the meetings on an equal footing with governments and to organize side events. Governments regularly conduct bilateral meetings on human dimension issues on the margins. Additionally, the United States holds daily open-door meetings with civil society representatives.  When announcing the HDIM decision, the Albanian OSCE Chair-in-Office confirmed that it instead would convene a series of online events throughout the remainder of the year, with the support of the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), to maintain focus on topical issues related to human rights, democracy and the rule of law. In a statement following the announcement, the United States supported “creating and/or seizing other opportunities within the OSCE to spotlight human dimension issues, including by holding other meetings, to the maximum extent possible with provision for virtual civil society participation. However, we underscore that any such activities, with or without NGO participation, are not substitutes for the HDIM.”  Alluding to shortcomings in human rights compliance, democratic weaknesses, racial inequities, and social vulnerabilities that the pandemic has revealed and, in some cases, amplified, the United States further stated that “vigilance will be especially important given the challenging pandemic conditions.” Following the decision, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) said, “OSCE participating States should continue to engage in a robust implementation review of their human dimension commitments through the OSCE Permanent Council, December’s Ministerial Council, and other scheduled events and meetings facilitated by the Chair-in-Office and the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights. Implementation of shared commitments remains the ultimate purpose of this 57-nation organization.” The COVID-19 pandemic has affected the work of the OSCE mid-March. Meetings of the Permanent Council, the OSCE's main decision-making body, initially were canceled in line with Austrian Government requirements and later shifted to an online platform, before settling into its current, hybrid format combining online and limited in-person participation.  Other OSCE meetings and events also have been scaled back, postponed, canceled, or shifted to online platforms in response to host-government mandates related to public meetings, quarantines, and broader issues of border closings and travel restrictions.  The OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (PA) also has had to alter its planned activities. The April Bureau Meeting was held using an online platform. The Annual Session, scheduled for Vancouver in July, and the Autumn Meeting, scheduled for October in San Marino, were canceled. In lieu of these events, 40 parliamentarians participated in a virtual Standing Committee meeting in early July, followed by nine online, inter-parliamentary dialogues to consider the impact of COVID-19 on human rights; economic security; conflicts in the region; the environment; and other issues and yielded a publicly available report of recommendations on strengthening compliance on shared commitments. 

  • Albania's Chairmanship of the OSCE

    In 2020, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has faced the unprecedented challenge of a global pandemic while many participating States struggle—or fail—to live up to their commitments in the areas of human rights, democracy, and the rule of law.  In this context, the Helsinki Commission held its traditional hearing with the annually rotating OSCE chairmanship to discuss priorities and exchange views on current issues.  Helsinki Commissioner Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, II (MO-05) chaired the hearing.  Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) took the floor first to recognize that this year has been extraordinarily difficult as the OSCE under Albanian leadership works to resolve the appointment of senior leaders to OSCE positions, respond to brutal human rights violations in Belarus, address the gross violations of the Helsinki principles by the Russian Federation against Ukraine and other neighbors, and combat the threat posed by far-right extremists and hate groups. Sen. Cardin encouraged Prime Minister Rama to remind the diplomatic representatives of the OSCE participating States that they must all work to preserve and strengthen the values, institutions, and mechanisms that the OSCE offers. He assured Prime Minister Rama that the Helsinki Commission will work with the executive branch to ensure continued bipartisan U.S. support, engagement, and critical leadership of the OSCE. Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) commended Prime Minister Rama for his prompt response to the ongoing situation in Belarus and his rejection of attempts to weaken the OSCE response with false statements of moral equivalency among participating states.  He also emphasized the importance of working with the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, believing that engaging friends and even potential adversaries through parliamentary diplomacy helps to achieve the aims of the Helsinki Final Act.  Prime Minister Rama asserted that, despite the challenges 2020 has presented, the OSCE can be proud of how it has navigated the restrictions and the many complications from COVID-19.  It has kept discussion alive—both in the Permanent Council and through conferences and webinars—while field operations have continued to carry out their important mandates.  He acknowledged there are weaknesses within the OSCE due to participating States not being able to reach consensus for the reappointment of the four leading positions: the Secretary General, the Director of the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), the High Commissioner on National Minorities, and the Representative on Freedom of Media.  Nevertheless, he assured the Commissioners that “the chairmanship has stepped in to ensure the executive structures have sustained leadership and management.” “We must never compromise on our values of full respect for democracy and human rights.  Our shared commitments must be upheld by all participating states, at all times and in all situations.  And it is our responsibility to call the attention of our peers to violations and shortcomings anywhere in our region… "The Helsinki recipe for peace in Europe is simple, yet effective:  Respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, together with respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms.” – Prime Minister of Albania Edi Rama, OSCE Chair-in-Office, 2020 Prime Minister Rama also emphasized facilitating electoral and constitutional reform in Belarus, in addition to improving the human rights situation, must be immediate. He underscored three necessary steps that: an immediate end to violence and arbitrary arrests on the part of authorities; full respect for the right of peaceful assembly; and prompt, thorough, and independent investigation of the conduct of law enforcement authorities. Asked by Commissioner Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09) about concerns regarding the rule of law, safety and respect for the press, and the opportunity for people to vote and participate in the political process in the United States, Prime Minister Rama expressed confidence that “the United States is mature enough and is strong enough in its own institutions to deal with whatever political debate and whatever political consequence of a debate that might be polarizing.” He concluded by stressing the need for standing up against all forms of racism, discrimination, and intolerance, and to reaffirm the values of humanity as the dehumanizing rhetoric of the “other” is again being normalized in public discourse across the OSCE region. Related Information Witness Biography

  • Chairman Hastings on Cancellation of OSCE’s 2020 Human Dimension Implementation Meeting

    WASHINGTON—Following today’s announcement by the OSCE that its annual Human Dimension Implementation Meeting (HDIM) will exceptionally not take place in 2020, due to the “unique, unprecedented and unpredictable circumstances caused by the COVID-19 pandemic,” Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) issued the following statement: “Today’s unanimous decision by the OSCE participating States to cancel the 2020 HDIM was a difficult, but correct, call to make. “While it is impossible to safely hold a large in-person gathering, we should use this time wisely by redoubling our efforts to ensure that all OSCE participating States implement their OSCE commitments. The pandemic has revealed—and in some cases amplified—human rights shortcomings, democratic weaknesses, racial inequities, and social vulnerabilities across the region. Some governments are even exploiting the health crisis to further entrench authoritarian regimes. “OSCE participating States should continue to engage in a robust implementation review of their human dimension commitments through the OSCE Permanent Council, December’s Ministerial Council, and other scheduled events and meetings facilitated by the Chair-in-Office and the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights. Implementation of shared commitments remains the ultimate purpose of this 57-nation organization.” The OSCE’s Human Dimension Implementation Meeting (HDIM) 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 commitments. The meeting is held in Warsaw, Poland, where the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights is headquartered.

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

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

  • Helsinki Commission Demands Answers on Failure of USAGM to Renew J-1 Visas for Voice of America Journalists

    WASHINGTON—In a letter to U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM) CEO Michael Pack released today, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20), Ranking Member Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), and Helsinki Commissioners Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (NH), Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (MO-05), Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), and Rep. Marc Veasey (TX-33) demanded that the organization provide a detailed explanation for its failure to renew J-1 visas for many foreign Voice of America (VOA) journalists. The letter reads in part: “Many of these individuals and their families will be forced to return to countries, including China and Russia, where journalists are regularly targeted and silenced for their reporting. For journalists who have carried out the VOA mission of ‘producing accurate, balanced and comprehensive reporting, programming, online and social media content for a global audience, particularly to those who are denied access to open and free media,’ the personal risk may be even greater… “Congress still has not been informed about the specifics of USAGM’s new policy and for what reason the routine J-1 visa renewal process for these individuals has been stalled. We request a briefing on this policy within the next 30 days. Additionally, we ask that you put into place a policy outlining USAGM’s steps to protect the personal security of VOA journalists working under its auspices." The full text of the letter can be found below: Dear Mr. Pack, We write to express our deep concern regarding J-1 visa renewals for foreign Voice of America (VOA) journalists. Failure to renew their visas has resulted in urgent departures from the United States for these journalists back to their countries of origin. As a result, many of these individuals and their families will be forced to return to countries, including China and Russia, where journalists are regularly targeted and silenced for their reporting. For journalists who have carried out the VOA mission of “producing accurate, balanced and comprehensive reporting, programming, online and social media content for a global audience, particularly to those who are denied access to open and free media,” the personal risk may be even greater. It further is concerning that these VOA reporters were not informed directly of this change to USAGM policy or given any notice on the renewal status of their J-1 visas. These journalists have worked tirelessly to serve freedom-loving people worldwide—even in some cases risking the distrust of their own governments—and should be treated with basic decency and dignity by USAGM leadership. Instead, they face fear and uncertainty regarding their own livelihoods and the future of their families. The journalists in question do the important work of providing unbiased news and information to the most closed-off corners of the world. They play a pivotal role at Voice of America because of their critical language skills and connections within the countries they cover. We urge you to answer questions from the Congress on this matter immediately. The Congress still has not been informed about the specifics of USAGM’s new policy and for what reason the routine J-1 visa renewal process for these individuals has been stalled. We request a briefing on this policy within the next 30 days. Additionally, we ask that you put into place a policy outlining USAGM’s steps to protect the personal security of VOA journalists working under its auspices. Sincerely,  

  • Chairman Hastings Asks Treasury Secretary to Revoke Access to U.S. Financial System for Largest State-Owned Companies in Belarus

    WASHINGTON—In a letter to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin released today, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) asked the U.S. administration to revoke access to the U.S. financial system for the nine largest state-owned companies in Belarus. The letter, which follows the violent suppression of peaceful protests in Belarus after the country’s fraudulent presidential election on August 9, reads in part: “As President Alexander Lukashenko violently suppresses peaceful protests in the Belarus and flouts international election commitments, it is unacceptable for the United States to be doing business with this brutal regime… “Executive Order 13405—Blocking Property of Certain Persons Undermining Democratic Processes or Institutions in Belarus—was originally issued in June 16, 2006 in reaction to [Belarus’] March 2006 elections and subsequent repression of protests.  It targets the human rights abuses that have sadly become characteristic of the Lukashenko regime and which he is committing now more aggressively than ever as he attempts to squash fair political competition. There has never been a more appropriate time to fully implement this Executive Order and consider expanding its principle objectives with additional executive action.” During the March 2006 presidential election in Belarus, Chairman Hastings led the OSCE’s short-term international election observation mission of more than 500 observers; its report noted that the “arbitrary use of state power and widespread detentions showed a disregard for the basic rights of freedom of assembly, association and expression, and raise doubts regarding the authorities' willingness to tolerate political competition.” The full text of the letter can be found below: Dear Mr. Secretary, I request that you revoke General License No. 2G with respect to Executive Order 13405, which authorizes access to the U.S. financial system for the nine largest state-owned companies in Belarus.  As President Alexander Lukashenko violently suppresses peaceful protests in the Belarus and flouts international election commitments, it is unacceptable for the United States to be doing business with this brutal regime. For the March 2006 presidential election in Belarus, I served as Special Coordinator of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Chair-in-Office, where I led the international election observation mission of more than 500 observers and declared that those elections were not free and fair.  At that time, President Lukashenko failed to live up to international commitments by arbitrarily preventing 19 international observers from joining the mission, enforcing a pattern of intimidation against voters and opposition candidates, as well as manipulating state media.  I am sad to see that nothing has changed in more than a decade and the reach of President Lukashenko’s regime has consequently done even more irreparable damage to the Belarusian people. Ahead of Belarus’ presidential election on August 9, Lukashenko, who has been in power for 26 years, has once again authorized crackdowns on opposition protestors, journalists, and civil society activists.  Over 1,300 people were arbitrarily detained in the course of the campaign.  Still more are being detained in protests following the election.  The president disqualified or jailed his top three competitors, hoping to ensure victory.  Belarus also failed to extend a timely invitation to international observers, preventing impartial monitors from the OSCE from observing the election process, which increases the likelihood of large-scale fraud. Lukashenko underestimated, however, how much the public would rally around the wife of an intended presidential candidate who was unjustly imprisoned.  As an opposition candidate and everyday citizen concerned for the future of Belarus, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya has mobilized thousands across Belarus to demand change in their country, starting with free and fair elections.  Tikhanovskaya and her family are now safely in refuge under the protection of the Lithuanian government for fear of what might become of them now that the fraudulent election results have been announced. Executive Order 13405—Blocking Property of Certain Persons Undermining Democratic Processes or Institutions in Belarus—was originally issued in June 16, 2006 in reaction to the aforementioned March 2006 elections and subsequent repression of protests.  It targets the human rights abuses that have sadly become characteristic of the Lukashenko regime and which he is committing now more aggressively than ever as he attempts to squash fair political competition. There has never been a more appropriate time to fully implement this Executive Order and consider expanding its principle objectives with additional executive action. The people of Belarus have demonstrated through these protests their deep desire for democracy and their refusal to be silenced.  It is incumbent upon us to stand with them.  At the very least, this means that we should not be inadvertently providing support to the Lukashenko regime by allowing its state-owned companies access to our financial system. Sincerely, Alcee L. Hastings Chairman

  • The OSCE: A Bulwark Against Authoritarianism

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

  • Human Rights at Home: Media, Politics, and Safety of Journalists

    According to the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, there have been nearly 500 reported press freedom violations since the beginning of the Black Lives Matter protests in the United States on May 26. In many cases, reporters have been injured, harassed, or arrested even after explicitly identifying themselves as members of the press. In addition, leadership changes at the U.S. Agency for Global Media, which oversees networks like Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty that provide credible, unbiased information to audiences around the world, have generated concern about the ability of the agency to carry out its mission and host international journalists. On July 23, 2020, the Helsinki Commission held a hearing on “Human Rights at Home:  Media, Politics, and the Safety of Journalists,” to assess the state of media freedom and the safety of journalists in the United States today. The online hearing was held in compliance with H.Res.965, which provides for official remote proceedings during the COVID-19 pandemic. Witnesses included Christiane Amanpour, Chief International Anchor at CNN-PBS and UNESCO’s Goodwill Ambassador for Freedom of Expression and Journalist Safety; David Kaye, UN Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression and Clinical Professor of Law at University of California, Irvine; and Dr. Courtney Radsch, Advocacy Director for the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). Commissioner Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), who chaired the hearing, said in his opening statement, “Freedom of the press is not only enshrined in the U.S. Constitution, but a founding commitment to the international organizations that the United States has led to shape like the OSCE and the United Nations. The Helsinki Commission is mandated to monitor compliance with human rights and democracy commitments across 57-nation region of the OSCE, including the United States itself. As a country and a Congress, we should hold the United States to the highest standard for compliance with international press freedom commitments.” Helsinki Commissioners Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (RI) and Rep. Marc Veasey (TX-33) joined the proceedings, along with Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (TX-18), a member of the U.S. delegation to the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly. Christiane Amanpour spoke from her personal experience as a journalist, saying, “I have seen the difference between truth and lies and what it means. It means the difference between democracy and dictatorship.” Ms. Amanpour referenced arrests of journalists across the country during the protests, including the arrest of her CNN colleagues, Omar Jimenez and other crew members, in Minneapolis. Ms. Amanpour urged Helsinki Commissioners to “listen closely to civil society organizations that are monitoring and tracking violations in the United States and providing clear policy recommendations.” David Kaye testified that from his assessment, “law enforcement at the federal, state, and local levels have repeatedly interfered with the rights of the press.” He highlighted the obligation of police to avoid use of force, the responsibility of public officials to enforce protections of the press, the necessity of demilitarizing law enforcement. On the subject of the recent dismissals by CEO Michael Pack at the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM), Mr. Kaye said that it was difficult to see it as anything other than “an attempt to undermine the independence of these agencies and to bring them under political influence.” Mr. Kaye also discussed the threats to media worldwide during the COVID-19 pandemic, including intimidation of and attacks on journalists, restrictions of space for reporting, lack of access for foreign reporters, and arbitrary detentions. He concluded by recommending that the United States “return to the institutions of global human rights, such as the Human Rights Council, and as part of that reconsider its historic resistance to global monitoring of U.S. human rights behavior.” In her testimony, Courtney Radsch emphasized the sheer scale of violence against journalists since the beginning of the nationwide protests, which she described as “unparalleled.” Referring to a recent Committee to Protect Journalist’s report on the current Trump administration and press freedom, Dr. Radsch said that CPJ found that the administration has “regularly attacked the role of an independent press, stepped up prosecution of news sources, interfered in the business of media owners, and empowered foreign leaders to restrict their own media.” Dr. Radsch also commented on recent reports that the U.S. Agency for Global Media may restrict visas for foreign journalists working for USAGM in the United States. She warned that “if they lose their visas, repatriated journalists could face retribution for their critical reporting.” While commending the commission for holding a hearing on this subject, Dr. Radsch said that more needs to be done. CPJ’s recommendations include for officials at all levels of government to provide data about the recent incidents of anti-press violence, to investigate any reported attacks, and to hold perpetrators to account. Related Information Witness Biographies Hearing: Human Rights at Home: Implications for U.S. Leadership Hastings: To Promote Human Rights Abroad, We Must Fiercely Protect Them at Home OSCE Media Freedom Representative concerned about violence against journalists covering protests in USA, calls for protection of journalists Statement for the Record: Reporters without Borders  

  • RUSSIAN CYBER ATTACKS ON COVID RESEARCH CENTERS

    Madam Speaker, I rise today to strongly condemn the recently reported Russian cyber attacks on United States, United Kingdom and Canadian COVID-19 research centers. As the world continues to battle the COVID-19 pandemic, Vladimir Putin's regime has once again lived up to its reputation for lawlessness and cynicism by targeting vaccine research and development organizations with ``the intention of stealing information and intellectual property relating to the development and testing of COVID-19 vaccines,'' as assessed by U.S., British and Canadian intelligence agencies. Sadly, neither this appalling cyber attack, nor the pitiful Kremlin denials which followed, are too surprising to those of us who watch Russia closely. As a Member of the U.S. Delegation to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe--the OSCE PA--and Chairman of the Committee on Political Affairs and Security, I regularly participate in difficult discussions with Russian political leaders about Moscow's geopolitical misconduct. The Kremlin's campaign across the OSCE space and beyond is aimed at destabilizing and undermining the international order by any means necessary, to include the invasion and occupation of OSCE participating States, the assassination of political opponents abroad, disinformation and more. On July 7, 2020, I communicated directly to the OSCE PA which included the presence of the Russian head of delegation how seriously the United States is taking reports of Russian monetary bounties to Taliban-linked insurgents for the killing of American and NATO soldiers in Afghanistan. The fact of Kremlin support to the Taliban had already surfaced in a hearing of the United States Helsinki Commission which I chaired on June 12, 2019, in open testimony by former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Russia Michael Carpenter. Madam Speaker, I will continue to work with colleagues here at home and across the Atlantic to ensure the Kremlin's bald faced denials of its malign actions are countered, and that Vladimir Putin's regime faces the appropriate consequences for its actions. The OSCE Parliamentary Assembly has proven time and again its value as a forum to counter disinformation and foster cooperation to counter common threats. A result of these most recent reports, I intend to advocate for that body to prioritize results-oriented discussions on state-sponsored cyber attacks in our region in its upcoming work session. Madam Speaker, please join me in condemning the Kremlin's latest despicable actions.

  • Helsinki Commission Chairman Amends NDAA to Reflect Support for Open Skies Treaty

    On May 21, 2020 the Trump administration reportedly decided to withdraw the United States from the Open Skies Treaty to be effective at the end of this year. To express strong opposition, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) recently authored an amendment to H.R.6395, the William M. (Mac) Thornberry National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for Fiscal Year 2021, expressing the sense of Congress that the Trump Administration’s decision to withdraw from the Treaty on Open Skies did not comply with a legal requirement to notify Congress; did not assert that any other Treaty signatory had breached the Treaty; and was made over the objections of NATO allies and regional partners.  “I am proud to have worked with Rep. Jimmy Panetta to successfully amend the House FY21 NDAA to express Congressional support for Open Skies and reiterate our commitment to the confidence and security building measures that are so vital to our NATO allies and partners,” said Chairman Hastings. “As Chairman of the U.S. Helsinki Commission, I strongly disagree with the President’s decision to withdraw from the Open Skies Treaty, an important arms control agreement that significantly reduces the risk of armed conflict.” The measure expresses support for confidence and security building measures like the Open Skies Treaty, because they reduce the risk of conflict, increase trust among participating countries, and contribute to military transparency and remain vital to the strategic interests of our NATO allies and partners. The amendment also underlines the need to address Russian violations of treaty protocols through international engagement and robust diplomatic action. The full amendment is available below or as amendment numbered 167 printed in House Report 116-457. Chairman Hastings had previously condemned the Trump administration’s decision to withdraw from the Treaty on Open Skies, which is designed to increase transparency, build confidence, and encourage cooperation among the United States, Russia, and 32 other participating states (including much of Europe as well as partners like Ukraine and Georgia), by permitting unarmed observation aircraft to fly over their entire territory to observe military forces and activities. In November 2019, the Commission hosted a joint hearing with the House Committee on Foreign Affairs on the importance of the Open Skies Treaty, emphasizing its critical role in security and stability around the world, which still stands today. The United States has conducted nearly three times as many flights over Russia as Russia has over the United States under the treaty. The United States has also used the treaty to support partners by conducting flights over hot spots such as the Ukraine-Russian border.  Amendment At the end of subtitle D of title XII, add the following: SEC. 12__. SENSE OF CONGRESS ON THE OPEN SKIES TREATY. It is the sense of Congress that-- (1) the decision to withdraw from the Treaty on Open Skies, done at Helsinki March 24, 1992, and entered into force January 1, 2002-- (A) did not comply with the requirement in section 1234(a) of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2020 (133 Stat. 1648; 22 U.S.C. 2593a note) to notify Congress not fewer than 120 days prior to any such announcement; (B) was made without asserting material breach of the Treaty by any other Treaty signatory; and (C) was made over the objections of NATO allies and regional partners; (2) confidence and security building measures that are designed to reduce the risk of conflict, increase trust among participating countries, and contribute to military transparency remain vital to the strategic interests of our NATO allies and partners and should continue to play a central role as the United States engages in the region to promote transatlantic security; and (3) while the United States must always consider the national security benefits of remaining in any treaty, responding to Russian violations of treaty protocols should be prioritized through international engagement and robust diplomatic action.

  • Christiane Amanpour to Testify at Helsinki Commission Hearing on Press Freedom in the United States

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following online hearing: HUMAN RIGHTS AT HOME Media, Politics, and Safety of Journalists Thursday, July 23, 2020 11:00 a.m. Watch Live: www.youtube.com/HelsinkiCommission According to the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, there have been nearly 500 reported press freedom violations since the beginning of the Black Lives Matter protests in the United States on May 26. In many cases, reporters have been injured, harassed, or arrested even after explicitly identifying themselves as members of the press. In addition, leadership changes at the U.S. Agency for Global Media, which oversees networks like Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty that provide credible, unbiased information to audiences around the world, have generated concern about the ability of the agency to carry out its mission and host international journalists. Building on the recent Helsinki Commission hearing, “Human Rights at Home: Implications for U.S. Leadership,” this online hearing will specifically assess media freedom and the safety of journalists in the United States today. During the hearing, witnesses will discuss the recent troubling trend of violence against journalists, review implementation of international press freedom commitments undertaken by the United States, and assess the resulting implications for U.S. leadership in human rights. Witnesses scheduled to participate include: Christiane Amanpour, Chief International Anchor, CNN-PBS; Goodwill Ambassador for Freedom of Expression and Journalist Safety, UNESCO David Kaye, Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression, United Nations; Clinical Professor of Law, University of California – Irvine Dr. Courtney C. Radsch, Advocacy Director, Committee to Protect Journalists Witnesses may be added.

  • 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.

  • Wicker and Cardin Commend United Kingdom Magnitsky Sanctions on Russian and Saudi Officials

    WASHINGTON—Following the recent designations under the United Kingdom’s Magnitsky sanctions framework of Russian and Saudi officials responsible for the deaths of Sergei Magnitsky and Jamal Khashoggi, Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) and Ranking Member Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) released the following statement: “We are encouraged to see the United Kingdom applying its first-ever independent Magnitsky sanctions. These sanctions demonstrate that following Brexit, the UK remains committed to fighting human rights abuse and kleptocracy. “We hope the UK will continue to apply Magnitsky sanctions as needed and develop additional anti-corruption policies to stem the flow of illicit wealth into the country. We also encourage the European Union to move forward on plans to develop its own Magnitsky sanctions. Consequences for bad acts are most effective when imposed in concert.” The UK passed its Magnitsky sanctions law in 2018. That same year, Russia attempted to assassinate Sergei Skripal, a former Russian double agent who spied for the UK, in Salisbury, England. UK Magnitsky sanctions freeze the assets of designees and prevent them from entering the country, and are expected to be a powerful deterrent for kleptocrats, given the propensity of corrupt officials to steal and launder money into London as well as send their children to British boarding schools. In December 2019, EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell announced that the EU would start preparatory work for the equivalent of a Magnitsky sanctions mechanism. However, no further progress has been reported. In May 2020, Co-Chairman Wicker and Sen. Cardin urged U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to ask High Representative Borrell to expedite the adoption of EU sanctions on human rights abusers and include provisions for sanctioning corruption.

  • Human Rights at Home: Implications for U.S. Leadership

    Recent developments in the United States—including George Floyd’s tragic death at the hands of police and subsequent protests—have put U.S. human rights commitments to the test in the eyes of the world. On July 2, 2020, the Helsinki Commission held a hearing on “Human Rights at Home:  Implications for U.S. Leadership.” The online hearing was held in compliance with H.Res.965, which provides for official remote proceedings during the COVID-19 pandemic. Commissioner Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (MO-05), who chaired the hearing, observed, “The United States has long been a champion of human rights and democracy in our foreign policy.  Many of the OSCE’s groundbreaking commitments were actually spearheaded by the United States, including those relating to anti-Semitism, freedom of religion, free elections, and the rule of law, to name only a few…Today, we look inward as we examine the Black Lives Matter protests and related domestic compliance issues in the context of our OSCE human dimensions commitments and implications for U.S. foreign policy.” Witnesses included Nkechi Taifa, Founding Principal & CEO of The Taifa Group, LLC, Convener of the Justice Roundtable, and Senior Fellow, Center for Justice, Columbia University; the Honorable Malcolm Momodou Jallow, Member of Parliament (Sweden) and General Rapporteur on Combating Racism and Intolerance, Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE); and Ambassador (ret.) Ian Kelly, former U.S. Permanent Representative to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).  “It’s not a moment.  It’s a movement.” Witnesses emphasized that George Floyd’s death has created a movement, not just a moment, in efforts to address systemic racism, police violence, and secure justice. Nkechi Taifa called on the United States to implement fully international human rights commitments and obligations, without legal barriers. She observed that the world is at the midpoint of the United Nations International Decade for People of African Descent and concluded, “What we are witnessing today is the unprecedented possibility for change.” Malcolm Momodou Jallow observed that structural, institutional, and systemic racism— including racist violence—is not confined to the United States, but is also present in Europe.  The European project includes an antidiscrimination, antiracist dimension, with a fundamental commitment to reflect the lessons of the Holocaust and eradicate past European divisions through respect for the human rights of all. Failure to do so affects entire communities, thereby eroding social cohesion, trust in public authority, the rule of law and ultimately democracy.  Mr. Jallow also drew attention to the European Parliament’s resolution, adopted on Juneteenth (June 19), on the anti-racism protests following George Floyd’s death.  The resolution also recalled Europe’s colonial past and its role in the transatlantic slave trade; draws on the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights’ annual hate crimes report; and calls for closer cooperation between the European Commission and the OSCE.  “The OSCE should rise to that occasion.” Ambassador Ian Kelly stated that security among states depends on respect for human rights within states. Actions clearing peaceful protesters, at the expense of their basic rights, cost the United States moral authority to call other countries to account.  Ambassador Kelly credited the OSCE for its work to shine a light on the problems of intolerance but asserted more could and should be done in the OSCE context to expose abuses against people of color in the OSCE region.  By signing the Helsinki Final Act, the United States committed to respecting human rights and protect democracy, even under the most challenging circumstances. A willingness to respond to the human rights concerns that other countries raise with the United States in the Helsinki context has been instrumental in validating the promotion of human rights and democracy advocacy as a goal of U.S. foreign policy. The Helsinki Commission has addressed the implementation of OSCE commitments in the United States in various ways, including hearings, reports, and legislation. The video of the murder of George Floyd and the ensuing protests received wall-to-wall coverage throughout most of the OSCE participating States. Journalists from at least eight OSCE participating States—Canada, Finland, France, Germany, Russia, Sweden, Switzerland, and Turkey—suffered violence while trying to report on demonstrations. George Floyd’s death in police custody prompted demonstrations in nearly all western OSCE participating States, including more than 25 of the 30 NATO member states, supporting the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement and protesting systemic racism. In some Central European countries, the death of George Floyd has been compared to police brutality against Roma. In other countries, demonstrators have called for changes to their own national policing practices, the removal of symbols of their colonial past, and other policy changes. There have been no BLM sympathy demonstrations in Russia, where assembly (even protests by single picketers or dolls dressed as protesters) remains highly controlled. Heads of OSCE institutions, including the Director of the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights and the Representative on Freedom of the Media, have expressed concern about the actions of police, restrictions on freedom of assembly, and restrictions on press freedom. The OSCE Parliamentary Assembly President George Tsereteli, expressed similar concerns in a press statement on June 1. On June 8, 38 NGOs from the Civic Solidarity Platform, a decentralized advocacy network of independent civic groups from across the OSCE region, issued a rare joint statement of concern regarding “the United States government’s response to widespread peaceful protests against police violence.” Related Information Witness Biographies Human Rights at Home Safe, Inclusive, and Equitable Societies Briefing: 8:46 (George Floyd) Press Release: Hastings: To Promote Human Rights Abroad, We Must Fiercely Protect Them at Home Press Release: OSCE Media Freedom Representative concerned about violence against journalists covering protests in USA, calls for protection of journalists Press Release: Statement of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly President on the policing of protests in the United States Civic Solidarity Platform Statement: U.S. racism and police violence and the human dimension heritage of the OSCE Rep. Jim McGovern: To Regain Our Credibility on Human Rights, America Must Start At Home

  • Helsinki Commission Hearing to Examine Human Rights At Home

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following online hearing: HUMAN RIGHTS AT HOME Implications for U.S. Leadership Thursday, July 2, 2020 11:00 a.m. Watch Live: www.youtube.com/HelsinkiCommission By signing the Helsinki Final Act, the United States committed to respecting human rights and the rule of law, even under the most challenging circumstances. Recent developments in the United States—including George Floyd’s tragic death at the hands of police and subsequent protests—have put U.S. human rights commitments to the test in the eyes of the world. During this online hearing, witnesses will discuss these events, the U.S. response, and the resulting implications for U.S. leadership in foreign policy. Witnesses scheduled to participate include: Ambassador (ret.) Ian Kelly, former U.S. Permanent Representative to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Malcolm Momodou Jallow, Member of Parliament (Sweden) and General Rapporteur on Combating Racism and Intolerance, Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) Nkechi Taifa, Founding Principal & CEO, The Taifa Group, LLC; Convener, Justice Roundtable; and Senior Fellow, Center for Justice, Columbia University

  • Hastings: To Promote Human Rights Abroad, We Must Fiercely Protect Them at Home

    WASHINGTON—Ahead of a 57-nation OSCE meeting on freedom of expression, media, and information, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) released the following statement: “In the United States, we have witnessed a devastating series of attacks by authorities against journalists covering the nationwide protests calling for racial justice following the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. In many cases, reporters have been injured, harassed, or arrested even after explicitly identifying themselves as members of the press. “If the United States wants to remain a credible voice in the promotion of human rights abroad, we must fiercely protect them at home. This Supplementary Human Dimension Meeting on the critical topic of freedom of expression, media, and information represents an important opportunity to take an honest and critical look at America’s own record in recent weeks on protecting journalists and safeguarding press freedom.” According to the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, as of June 15, there have been more than 430 reported press freedom violations since the beginning of the national Black Lives Matter protests on May 26. This includes at least 59 arrests; 268 assaults (including the use of tear gas, pepper spray, and rubber bullets and projectiles); and 57 cases of equipment/newsroom damage. OSCE Supplementary Human Dimension Meetings (SHDM) are convened three times annually on topics chosen by the OSCE Chairperson-in-Office. The first SHDM organized by the Albanian chairmanship,  “Addressing All Forms of Intolerance and Discrimination,” took place May 25-26, 2020. The June meeting on freedom of expression, media and information includes participation by non-governmental civil society organizations, the U.S. Helsinki Commission, and representatives from OSCE participating States.

  • OSCE Supplementary Human Dimension Meeting Examines Intolerance and Discrimination during Pandemic

    On May 25-26, 2020, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) held the year’s first Supplementary Human Dimension Meeting (SHDIM).  The event, which attracted more than 950 participants from 57 countries, focused on addressing intolerance and discrimination and was the OSCE’s first public event hosted in an entirely virtual format. During the event, representatives of governments, civil society, and OSCE institutions discussed the importance of immediate, robust, and coordinated responses to acts of scapegoating, racism, xenophobia, and anti-Semitism, especially during times of crisis. Participants underscored the need to reject hate speech both online and off, and shared best practices to prevent its escalation into violence. Recommendations centered on the shared goals of building inclusive and resilient societies that guarantee human rights for all. In her closing remarks, Shannon Simrell, the U.S. Helsinki Commission Representative to the U.S. Mission to the OSCE in Vienna, highlighted recent commission engagement on combating intolerance and discrimination. Under the leadership of Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20), the Helsinki Commission's ongoing commitment to building safe, equitable, and inclusive societies has been embodied by “On the Road to Inclusion,” a new interethnic, multicultural, inter-religious, and intergenerational initiative designed to build broad-based coalitions and crafts durable solutions, based on respect and meaningful engagement of all members of society.  In addition, Helsinki Commission Ranking Member Senator Ben Cardin (MD), who also serves as the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly Special Representative for Anti-Semitism, Racism, and Intolerance, has directed funding to support OSCE’s comprehensive and multi-year Words into Action project, which develops inclusion handbooks for governments and communities.  The second Supplementary Human Dimension Meeting of 2020, scheduled for June 22-23, will focus on freedom of expression, press freedom, and access to information.  Closing Remarks by Shannon Simrell, U.S. Helsinki Commission Representative to the U.S. Mission to the OSCE On behalf of the U.S. Helsinki Commission, I wish to congratulate the Chair in Office for organizing this historic event, thank the speakers for sharing your expertise, and recognize my colleagues and civil society representatives for your thoughtful engagement on these issues. In the past two days, we have heard not only about the importance of immediate and definitive responses to acts of hate and intolerance, but also the importance of a comprehensive and long-term approach to dismantle the social, economic, legislative, and technological roots of discrimination.  Crises such as the COVID-19 pandemic lay bare the significant work that still needs to be done across the OSCE region to address prejudice, racism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, and all forms of discrimination.  Helsinki commitments must be equally realized by everyone among us. Without exception. To ODIHR colleagues, thank you for your comprehensive approach to addressing hate crimes and intolerance while recognizing also the specific and varied challenges faced by various vulnerable groups, including Roma/Sinti, people of African descent, disabled, youth, women, and migrants and refugees.  In support of ODIHR’s vital role, I note that U.S. Senator Ben Cardin, in addition to his role as OSCEPA Special Representative for Anti-Semitism, Racism, and Intolerance, is proud to have directed funding to support phase two of the Words into Action project.  In addition, the Commission's commitment to building safe, equitable, and inclusive societies is further underscored by an initiative under the leadership of U.S. Helsinki Chairman Alcee Hastings, called “On the Road to Inclusion.”  This interethnic, multicultural, inter-religious, and intergenerational initiative builds broad-based coalitions and crafts durable solutions, based on respect and meaningful engagement of all members of society. I look forward to future events where we can continue not only our exploration of the hurdles, but an update on ways we are working to guarantee human rights for all.

  • Disinformation, COVID-19, and the Electoral Process

    Listen to audio of the briefing on Facebook.  Free and fair elections are one of the most fundamental measures of a democratic society. During the 2016 presidential elections, many Americans became aware for the first time that disinformation can be easily coupled with technology by state and nonstate actors to disrupt and muddy the information space in the months, weeks, and days leading up to an election.  The use of disinformation to influence elections has since become a pervasive and persistent threat in all 57 OSCE participating States, one which many still struggle to adequately address. With presidential, parliamentary, or local elections scheduled in 15 OSCE participating States before the end of 2020, the stakes could not be higher. The COVID-19 pandemic has added another level of complexity, as Russia, China, and Iran are all attempting to use the crisis to drive a wedge between the United States and Europe. Governments in the region are struggling to respond, with some enacting measures that further restrict the free flow of information and threaten press freedom. This briefing featured three expert panelists who each examined the implications of this emerging threat to the electoral process and explored opportunities for nations, state and local governments, the private sector, and civil society to collaborate to identify and mitigate disinformation’s corrosive effects.  Some of the more urgent concerns they noted were the increased politicization of the information space and the rise of nonstate actors.  Heather Conley, Senior Vice President for Europe, Eurasia, and the Arctic at the Center for Strategic International Studies, noted, “Russia does not create the weaknesses; they simply exploit them.  And this is where I think it’s very important to understand that in the U.S. system they’re exploiting, obviously, our partisanship.  So we are offering them the weakness, and then they use it wherever they can.” Nina Jankowicz, Disinformation Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center Science and Technology Information Program and author of the upcoming book How to Lose the Information War, said the goal is often simply to bombard the information space with so much conflicting information, the voter loses interest: “They want people to consume less news and to feel like participation at all stages of the process is futile, whether that means communicating with our elected representatives, participated in civil society, or even the act of voting itself.” She added that partisanship cannot be permitted to frame the response to disinformation. “Disinformation is not a partisan issue,” she said.  “If we’re to make any progress in protecting our democracies, we need to not only clearly recognize the threat that disinformation poses but reject its tactics whole cloth.  Any government that uses disinformation cannot hope to fight it.” Chatham House’s Sophia Ignatidou called for a US-EU approach to combatting disinformation that was rooted in international human rights. She noted, “The reason for doing that is that international human rights law is suitable to deal with an issue that doesn’t respect any physical boundaries.  And it can provide a more holistic view of the issue of disinformation which we are lacking sometimes.” Ignatidou also challenged one of the primary arguments that some of the big tech companies use to push back against regulation – freedom of expression – as misleading, because “the problem with disinformation is dissemination patterns and scale, not content, per se.  And freedom of speech does not equate [with] freedom of reach.” Other questions centered on the importance of OSCE election monitoring missions paying more attention to how disinformation impacts the atmosphere surrounding an election in the months leading up to it.  The discussion ended on a positive note as all three panelists, when asked to cite examples of successful efforts to mitigate disinformation, spoke about the importance of using trusted, credible voices at the grass-roots level and of building resilience among voters in a nonpartisan fashion.  Related Information Panelist Biographies Podcast: Helsinki on the Hill | Defending against Disinformation A Global Pandemic: Disinformation Hearing: The Scourge of Russian Disinformation Briefing: Lies, Bots, and Social Media

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