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In Memoriam: Karen Lord (1967-2001)
Counsel for Religious Freedom at the Helsinki Commission (1995-2001)
Monday, January 29, 2018

By Nathaniel Hurd,
Senior Policy Advisor

“All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us,” Gandalf says to Frodo in The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien. Helsinki Commission colleague Karen Lord relished the writings of Tolkien and beautifully lived the time given to her before dying of cancer at the age of 33. She served as Counsel for Religious Freedom at the Helsinki Commission from 1995 to 2001, and defended people of all faith even from her hospital bed.

On the 17th anniversary of her death, the Commission wants to give her family, friends, current and former Commissioners, and former colleagues the opportunity to commemorate her life and work in their words now. If you knew Karen, and want to send us a reflection to add to this tribute, please email info@csce.gov.

Family Life

Karen was born November 10, 1967, in Columbus, Ohio, to Dr. Raymond and Arija Lord, and was the eldest of three sisters; Ellen joined the family in 1968 and Diane in 1970. Devout Christians, the Lords moved to Haiti as missionaries when Karen was four years old, where Dr. Lord practiced medicine. They returned to the United States when she was six and settled in Portage, Michigan.

Karen Lord and her sisters as childrenEllen notes, “We looked a lot alike. I learned to ‘answer’ to my sisters’ names since people often mistook us for one of the other two ‘Lord sisters.’ The three of us were always very close growing up. I remember getting along quite well with both of my sisters, and have always considered them among my very best friends.”

Diane adds, “I was always proud to be known as the ‘Lord sisters.’”

Ellen continues, “Karen was the quintessential ‘big sister’—she seemed to always be able to get her way and talk everyone into the big ideas for lots of fun.

“She was the trailblazer for child-rearing for my parents and I think she made it easy for them, and definitely made it easy for her two younger sisters. She somehow was also able to talk my parents into and out of lots of things that she wanted to do (or not do), a skill which she continued to use throughout her life.”

“Growing up, Karen was a leader,” Diane agrees. “I remember in middle school on the bus she stood up to a boy who was bullying her and others. Unfortunately for him, he tried to hit her and broke his arm on her head!”

Dr. Lord recalls, “Karen was a happy girl and enjoyed school. She was consistent in getting her homework finished, usually ahead of time. In high school Karen was elected to the Student Council for three years. Karen was also on the school volleyball team.”

“When she was elected to be on the Homecoming Court her senior year, she called herself the ‘Queen of the Geeks,’ as she did not run with the popular crowd,” says Diane.

Diane also recalls the strong convictions, sense of wonder, and commitment to reason that would animate Karen’s relationships with her family, friends, and defense of religious freedom.

“Throughout her life, she always surrounded herself with wonderful, interesting, and dynamic people—I thought the world of all of her friends. Early on, she had strong convictions and she always asked questions. She had questions about how the Bible was interpreted and things our church taught. She engaged our youth group, our parents, and Ellen and I in conversations that encouraged us to think more deeply about our faith. She did not settle for ‘status quo’ if things did not seem right to her,” she says.

“I looked up to her as my oldest sister and remember gaining confidence from her example to speak and have my own opinions. Having a conversation with Karen meant you had to know what you were talking about because she always asked questions and probed for your perspective on things from politics to religion to relationships. She pushed me in a good way and made me feel as though what I thought really mattered.”

University Years

Karen entered Wheaton College, a Christian liberal arts college in Illinois, in the fall of 1985 and graduated in 1989.

Karen Lord with her sistersEllen says, “I had the privilege of also attending there a year later. Karen made a point to make me feel welcome on campus. Her friends in high school and college were always my friends, too. In fact, we lived together in a house of eight women when I was a junior and she was a senior (ironically, we named it ‘The White House’) and had a wonderful time—we kept this particular group of friendships going even after college and have gotten together every few years to catch up and reminisce.”

“While in college, Karen thought deeply about what she was learning as a political science major. She wanted to do something with her life that made a difference. Karen made friends with many people, some of whom were very different from her. She always challenged her friends with good questions that would spark wonderful conversations. Karen made people think about why they thought what they thought, or why they did what they did. She was not afraid to talk to a friend when their life was inconsistent with their beliefs, and people appreciated that she cared enough to say something,” she adds.

One of these friends at Wheaton, Patrice (Trichian) Maljanian, became her best friend outside of her sisters and was later her housemate in Washington, D.C.

Patrice recollects, “My first memory of Karen was in either Old Testament or New Testament archaeology with Dr. [Alfred] Hoerth. She would share with the class the cookies her mother sent her and I thought that was so generous of her.

“When I served as the DJ for the [Wheaton College] radio station, WETN, she was the newscaster—basically she read the AP wire news during the news breaks. We would visit a little bit in between sessions, but we really connected over a meal early our senior year. As we were eating, we discovered all these, ‘me too’ things we shared in common. Our last and most significant desire was that we wanted to be in a Bible study and prayer group and so we decided to do this together. Once a week she came over to the house where I was living and we studied the names of God and prayed.”

When Karen applied to law schools, Patrice says, “Her biggest prayer request was for law school applications clarity about where God wanted her to attend. When Karen’s acceptance to American University came, she was surrounded by friends. We all jumped up and down in the Memorial Student Center and celebrated. Once the fray had subsided, she looked at me and asked, ‘Why don’t you come with me?’ Thus, our adventure began.”

Life in Washington

“Our first little apartment was in McLean Gardens on Wisconsin Avenue in Washington, D.C., just down the street a bit from American University,” Patrice says. “We lived there for about two years and then moved to Lyon Village in Arlington because I was starting my master’s program at Marymount University.”

Ellen says, “When Karen moved to D.C. for law school and then settled there, it was always a treat to visit her. We always went and did interesting things and met her interesting and influential friends.

“She loved hiking and the outdoors, and loved the fact the D.C. was near to the mountains and the ocean. She loved to travel and enjoyed trips with her friends to other countries to explore different cultures and experiences. She and I took a few trips together before I got married.”

Patrice notes, “We lived together for six years. Our apartment quickly became a central location for dinner parties because we liked to entertain so much. On Sunday evenings we attended a prayer and praise night at Rich Vartain’s house on Capitol Hill. This quiet, yet beautiful time of worship was one of the reasons that Karen learned how to play the guitar. She also picked it up during law school finals because it was a very constructive diversion from the stress of exams.”

Ellen says, “She loved life. She loved Jesus. She loved her work. She saw God’s hand in all things, including His creation, and in art, literature and science. Her bookshelves held law books right next to books by great Christian authors (C.S. Lewis, Andrew Murray), and books such as Winnie the Pooh by A.A. Milne.”

“Sunday afternoons we were either walking on the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal or biking near Middleburg with friends,” Patrice remembers. “Karen rode her bike to school often. I bought a bike also so that we could ride together on the weekends. We loved the Rock Creek Parkway in the autumn because the golden leaves would float across our path.

Sunday nights were pretty sacred for us. After praise and prayer in the winter, we would come back to our D.C. apartment, sit by the fire, read, listen to Enya, and munch on popcorn. The popcorn is a Lord family tradition and we have adopted it in our household as well.”

Karen graduated from American University Washington College of Law in 1992 and was admitted to the Maryland state bar. She soon became a staff lawyer for Advocates International, a Christian legal organization founded by Sam Ericsson, JD, in 1991. The stated mission is “encouraging and enabling Advocates to meet locally, organize nationally, cooperate regionally and link globally to promote justice, rule of law, religious freedom, reconciliation and integrity…AI’s global network informally links…lawyers, law professors, jurists, law students and other law professionals and their colleagues in…cities, towns and law schools.”

In a 2001 tribute, Ericsson, who died in 2011, noted, “At the time, Advocates was too small to support even one full-time lawyer, so to make ends meet, Karen and I practiced immigration law.”

The Helsinki Commission

Karen worked at Advocates International for two years before becoming the Counsel for Freedom of Religion at the Helsinki Commission in 1995, where she remained until her death. At the Helsinki Commission, Karen dedicated herself to defending the religious freedom of persecuted people of all faiths. She was resolute in helping participating States of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe keep their commitments to religious freedom and holding them accountable when they violated them.

As part of her studies at Wheaton, Dr. Lord notes, “During summers the political science department offered a study trip to several capitals of Europe, including Russia, where the group studied the different forms of government with interviews with officials in each site. This was a very impressive experience for Karen and a preparation experience the suited her for what she did at the Helsinki Commission.”

Diane recalls, “Karen felt passionate about her work at the Helsinki Commission and really felt a sense of urgency and a desire to be a voice for people whose voices were not heard. Just as she was standing up for kids being bullied in middle school, she was 100 percent invested in her work and felt called to stand up for those being persecuted. Karen often would ask us to pray for people in prison or for situations she was working on.”

Patrice says, “Karen would share prayer requests for these precious people when we met for Covenant Group, and I remember her extensive travels related to the Helsinki Commission. I distinctly remember her advocacy work in Germany for the Mormons. She spent time working with them and was just as vigorous in pursuing their religiously liberty as she would for Christians. Her work to defend freedom was very important to her. It is hard to explain, but sometimes she would actually feel the despair of those who were suffering—these were dark times for her that led her to wrestle with God in prayer.”

Ellen adds, “I remember Karen talking about her work when she was at the Helsinki Commission, and she would keep us informed about the latest things she was doing to advocate for people of faith all around the world.

“Karen was young and beautiful and blonde, and wickedly smart and articulate. “Somehow she was able to sit at the same table as stodgy older gentlemen in foreign countries, and get them to see her points and agree to champion religious liberty. It was similar to how she always seemed to talk us into her good ideas as children and young adults!”

Taken Young

Cancer was with Karen almost as long as she was with the Commission. “Her diagnosis of cancer was a complete shock at age 29,” says Ellen.

Yet despite her diagnosis and new reality, Patrice recalls, “Karen radiated joy in every area of her life—even in this professional side which, for her, was intertwined with her calling to serve Christ and His church. Even when she was sick and had to travel to places like Poland, she exuded a steadfastness and contentment in fulfilling her mission.”

“I picked her up from Dulles once with friends and, to be honest, I was worried about whether or not the trip was a good idea given her condition,” Patrice continues. “When we found her in baggage claim, she was glowing, tired but glowing, because she was doing what she loved. The Lord sustained her in amazing ways so that she could continue doing what He was calling her to do.

After every cycle of chemotherapy Karen would go on a victory tour. She loved celebrating life in any form, big or small. Sometimes it would be a piece of dark chocolate or a trip to Portugal. Sometimes she gave gifts because that was another tangible form of celebration to her. She was quite lavish that way because she lived a grateful life and felt that she had more than enough, so why not share the excess.”

Patrice adds, “Whether it was work or play, Karen pursued the ‘Good, the True and the Beautiful’ in everything. She was an avid reader and musician (beautiful voice, flute and guitar). Karen loved to hike and bike and camp. She and her family had a very deep and abiding love for each other—travelling, visiting in person or on the phone, vacationing together. I was privileged to be included on many of these wonderful experiences.”

Diane remembers, “Even after Karen was diagnosed and going through chemotherapy treatments, she would continue to travel and work with joy, knowing that this was her privilege and calling. I feel grateful that during the last years of her life we were able to travel together to the Netherlands as well as to Nova Scotia.

"One special memory I have is sitting together on a cliff overlooking the Gulf of St. Lawrence watching eagles fly on the wind currents and feeling like time had stopped.

"Unfortunately, the cancer did not stop spreading. The following summer Karen was with my husband and me at his family lake place in New Jersey, and Karen, despite her compromised lung capacity due to the cancer, swam across the lake with me. It was quite an achievement for someone in her condition, but she was determined. Now, every year to honor Karen, my girls and I swim across the lake in New Jersey to honor their Aunt Karen.”

“She struggled through the hard questions with God while ill, but kept her faith. Even when she was ill, she still cared about her work, sometimes sending email and advocating for people of faith who were suffering across the world from her hospital bed,” observes Ellen.

Dr. Lord, an oncologist from 1974 until his retirement in 2014, describes how the cancer progressed.

“It was stage III at her first surgery. She had chemotherapy following her first surgery. There were a few months that she was ‘cancer free.’ However, there were clues that some of the blood tests were becoming abnormal. The tumor could be felt and Karen had to face that she would never have children.”

“At the surgery, it became clear she had Stage IV colon cancer,” he explains. “She required radiation and then more chemotherapy.

“At that time there was an immunologic study at Georgetown University. Karen asked me to help her in her decision as her father and as a medical oncologist. I flew to Washington so that I could visit the Georgetown doctor with her. It was learned that the immunological treatment required her to remain in Washington, D.C. She was scheduled to be in a meeting in Europe. So it was a question of staying in Washington for treatment versus attending the meeting in Europe.

“The way Karen was feeling she figured the trip would be her last trip. The immunological study was in an early phase and immunotherapy was not very developed at that point. We had a long talk after the doctor’s visit. We prayed for wisdom (James 1:5). Karen decided not to take the immunotherapy but to make the trip to Europe and go to the meetings.

“She did go and shortly after getting back she was getting short of breath and required oxygen. Karen started hospice and narcotics for the pain. Family members stayed with her in her apartment where she died about six weeks later. She was alert but very weak to the end.”

Ellen recalls, “Karen lived through the treatments believing she might be healed but came to the conclusion that that would not happen. She wrote on January 15, 2001, ‘I am ready to go to heaven and end this struggle, and yet my heart longs to be here to be part of the battle.’”

Diane shares, “I was in the room with her when she died. The night before when I was tucking her in, she said, ‘Goodbye’ to me, and when she woke up the next morning she asked me, ‘We’re still here?’ She voraciously ate a mango and then closed her eyes. I called to my dad to come in the room and minutes later he said to me that ‘this was it.’ We held her hands and sang the hymn ‘How Great Thou Art.’”

Dr. Lord finishes the memory. “On the fourth verse of that hymn, ‘When Christ shall come…and take me home…,’ Karen stopped breathing forever.”

Heartfelt Tributes

On this 17th anniversary of her death, current and former Commissioners and colleagues pay tribute to her.

“In her six years as a staffer on the Commission, Karen was an exemplary and trusted advisor on religious freedom. I relied on her advice and expertise, and she was a tireless and unyielding advocate for anyone persecuted for their beliefs. She performed her duties with grace, serenity, and nobility.

Even while Karen physically weak and suffering from the ravages of cancer, she still fought for the fundamental rights of others, traveling to conferences on religious freedom and international law in Bulgaria and Azerbaijan. Not once did I hear her complain of her condition. We on the Commission still revere her heroic example of service for the vulnerable, and the suffering she bore with stoutheartedness and peace right up until the end. She is greatly missed.”

Representative Chris Smith (NJ-04), Co-Chairman, Helsinki Commission

“Helsinki Commission staff members are invaluable to our country’s defense of basic human rights and freedoms. Karen dedicated her life to people who were being persecuted for their faith. I am deeply grateful for her dedication and for embodying the best of America. My thoughts and prayers are with her family and friends on this anniversary of her passing.”   

Senator Ben Cardin (MD), Ranking Senator, Helsinki Commission

“Karen Lord, in her short life, had an outsized impact on religious freedom around the world. She was instrumental in making the freedom to worship—one of the Four Freedoms identified by President Franklin Roosevelt as fundamental to democracy—a core component of our foreign policy after the end of the Cold War. As a staffer for the Helsinki Commission, which I chaired, Karen worked tirelessly to ensure that the right of every individual and group to worship freely would be enshrined in American foreign policy doctrine and one of the pillars of global human rights. In this endeavor, she drew heavily on her own deep faith, which called her to a mission of protecting the faithful, no matter their creed. Her loss was a painful one for the Commission, for our country, and for the cause of freedom around the world.”

Representative Steny Hoyer (MD-05), Democratic Whip and Helsinki Commissioner (1985-2002), including as Chairman/Co-Chairman (1985-1994)

“Karen was a thoughtful Christian with a deep faith and a passion for human rights and religious liberty. She cared deeply for the oppressed, a quality I witnessed when I spoke with her in her capacity with the Helsinki Commission. Karen was at Wheaton College with my daughter Virginia and her husband Derrick and they remember her infectious joy which won her many friends.”

Former Representative Frank Wolf (VA-10), Distinguished Senior Fellow of the 21st  Century Wilberforce Initiative, Helsinki Commissioner (1989-2006) and author of the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998

“Karen exercised a high professional standard for accuracy in advocacy on behalf of faith communities and individuals who faced retribution for their religious practice. She took the time that is required to develop rapport with those who had experienced great loss and trauma. She went to great lengths (and traveled to remote places) to hear the stories directly from those who were under fire and, like a good journalist, would double-check the details. She faithfully ‘bore witness’ to their stories and investigated the legal and policy context – all for the sake of determining what and how to take the most effective action.

Her authentic and winsome spirit crossed many a cultural and language barrier in gathering the details and understanding the often tragic stories of people's lives. Karen’s critical thinking, combined with her legal prowess, led to sound policy recommendations, actionable responses by diplomats and Members of Congress, legislative provisions, and countless appeals made directly with Foreign Ministry officials, ambassadors, and government officials at the highest levels.

Karen was a patient teacher. When engaging the religious, she helped individuals understand their basic human rights under national laws and international agreements. She trained religious leaders how to record and report the abuses they endured and empowered them with practical tools they could employ to make their cases heard within their own countries and on the international stage.

When engaging Members of Congress and US Government officials, Karen respectfully educated her interlocutors about the rights of individual believers and religious communities. Her tenacity and engagement helped develop a cadre of advocates within our institutions, who in turn had an impact in their own spheres of influence. Throughout the hearings, the staff-level consultations and the extraordinary interactions with private sector advocacy groups that led to the crafting and eventual passage of the International Religious Freedom Act, Karen’s wise counsel and professional expertise had a profound influence on the final tone and provisions in the law.

Karen had an open door policy and invited engagement with the wide range of advocacy organizations and communities of all faiths. Her humility was welcoming even when the points of view being shared were in extreme conflict. She practiced and lived out in her daily life the ideals of ‘religious freedom for all’ and ‘respecting the inherent dignity of every human being.’ I can remember many a meeting with officials from countries with abusive track records when Karen's preparation for the Member or her colleagues meant a consistent and firm yet respectful message was delivered without ambiguity.”

Dorothy Taft, Executive Director of the Market Project and Chief of Staff/Deputy Chief of Staff of the Helsinki Commission (1995-2007)

“Karen Lord was a sweet, wonderful young person of deep faith, wholly committed to the idea and practice of human rights. Helping those suffering persecution for their religious beliefs was not just her profession, it was her mission. She combined the utmost seriousness of purpose with a lightness of manner, and an innate kindness.

Karen’s steadfast good cheer despite a grim diagnosis and poor prospects for recovery always amazed me. Only rarely did she even mention her illness; she carried on as if all was normal.

She used to wear red colored pants that I enjoyed teasing her about. And so convincing was she that when her health finally failed, it came as an awful surprise.

Her funeral service, with hundreds of mourners, demonstrated the love she earned among family, friends and colleagues. I remember her fondly, with sadness about her premature death. After so many years, it still seems hard to believe.”

Michael Ochs, Staff Advisor at the Helsinki Commission (1987-2012)

“Karen served as a stellar advocate on behalf of those persecuted and marginalized because of their religious beliefs. Informed by her own deeply held Christian faith, Karen was ever mindful of the inherent dignity of each person without distinction. She brought energy, passion and determination to her work at the Helsinki Commission to the end, striving for justice for those denied the fundamental right to profess and practice their religion.”

Ron McNamara, Coordinator of Student Leadership Development at the Franciscan University of Steubenville and Director of International Policy at the Helsinki Commission (1986-2011)

“Karen Lord is the reason I became involved in international religious freedom advocacy almost 20 years ago. As far as I’m aware, she was the first civil servant to work full time on international religious freedom issues for a U.S. government agency. She was a forerunner to all the various offices and positions that exist today, both within the US government and within the OSCE. While in law school, I was connected to her through mutual friends who knew I was attending the same D.C. law school she attended some years before. She encouraged me to apply for an internship at the Helsinki Commission to work with her, which was my first exposure to these issues. Almost 20 years later, I've committed my career to this work that she pioneered.”

Knox Thames, Special Advisor for Religious Minorities in the Near East and South/Central Asia (State Department) and intern and then Counsel at the Helsinki Commission (2001-2007)

“Karen was one of the most appealing coworkers in my long experience. It was neigh impossible not to be optimistic about the future when Karen would be part of it. Her memorial service — a standing-room event in a large church — was the most emotional outpouring of affection for a person I have ever participated in. Just typing these words, I weep in her memory.”

Wayne Merry, Senior Fellow for Europe and Eurasia at the American Foreign Policy Council, and Senior State Department Advisor to the Helsinki Commission (1997-1998)

“I first encountered Karen during 1996 in small, informal planning meetings with a few of us advocates who were trying to develop a better strategy to counter religious persecution abroad. Her commitment to the cause of protecting all people of faith made her a force of nature. Though she was one of the youngest in the room, she helped shape what would two years later become the International Religious Freedom Act.”

Nina Shea, Director of the Center for Religious Freedom (Hudson Institute), former Commissioner of the U.S. Commission for International Religious Freedom (1999-2012) and former Director of the Center for Religious Freedom at Freedom House (1996-2006)

“Karen had a clarity of vision that was unusual for her young age and was wise beyond her years. I remember watching her, thinking how true these two things were: That she was incredibly bold yet incredibly poised, and even while taking on large governments and power structures, she was unfazed.

In a town which rewards equivocation, she was straight, kind, but very straight talking. And she had a passion which made you want to lean in and do something even if you already had too many things to do already. She was wildly convincing.

I remember the time she came back from Tajikistan, giving me a rock from a decimated church. Because of that rock and Karen’s vivid stories of how that church had been bulldozed in front of the congregation, I was haunted for years afterward and still keep that rock on my shelf to this day.

She was a consummate advocate, perfectly fashioned to do that early hard work when hardly anyone cared. I loved her for it and so did many others, too. I’m grateful to have called her both my friend and my dear, dear comrade.”

Sharon Payt, Executive Director of the 21st Century Wilberforce Initiative and Legislative Assistant (1997-2002) for Senator Sam Brownback (KS), former Helsinki Commissioner (1999-2010; Chairman 2005-2006) and current U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom

“Karen had a great impact on me personally but also on lives and situations in the Central Asia region. She was well liked; her personal care and winning personality led to lasting relationships. She was well respected because of her professionalism and passion for people and human rights. It led to her becoming well connected to make a difference.”

Mats Tunehag, Editorial Board of Business as Mission and Chairman of the Central Asia Consultation in the 1990s

“Karen Lord was an exceptional voice for religious liberty and, for how she battled cancer and continued working to the end, I regard her as a saint. Some believe that the work I and other academics started doing with international institutions for religious liberty was some sort of conspiracy. The real story is different.

One very cold day I and Gordon Melton, then a Research Specialist in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of California-Santa Barbara, were walking in Washington DC and realized we were passing by the offices of the U.S. Helsinki Commission. We didn’t have an appointment but decided to enter and introduce ourselves (the fact that it was bloody cold outside was also a factor). We were received by young and shiny Karen Lord, who explained to us the many useful things academics can do to advocate for religious liberty at the OSCE, UN and other international institutions. Our cooperation was too short. 

I am very glad that in a government page there is such a fitting tribute to her.”

Massimo Introvigne, Former Personal Representative of the OSCE Chairperson-in-Office on Combating Racism, Xenophobia and Discrimination, also Focusing on Intolerance and Discrimination against Christians and Members of Other Religions (2011)

“Karen and worked together at Advocates International prior to her days at the CSCE and fondly remember her never say never attitude when it came to getting things done on behalf of those persecuted for their religious beliefs. She was a bright young lawyer and advocate and Advocates International is honored to consider her one of our own. She was taken too soon, but her impact is a lasting legacy. She is now with the great cloud of witnesses, cheering us on.”

Brent McBurney, President and CEO, Advocates International

“The first thing I think of when I think of Karen Lord is a song called ‘Testify to Love.’ ‘For as long as I shall live, I will testify to Love. I’ll be a witness in the silences when words are not enough. With every breath I take, I will give thanks to God above. For as long as I shall live, I will testify to Love.’ That was Karen.

I met her in the late 90s when a number of us from different organizations were working on religious freedom issues such as the International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church and the International Religious Freedom Act. Karen was an invaluable part of this , both because of her wisdom, but even more because of her indomitable spirit.

I thank God for Karen, her love for people and for freedom. I still mourn her death – getting weepy reading the Helsinki Commission’s beautiful tribute – but I know that she was welcomed by a great cloud of witnesses, martyrs and other faithful, and with them she now cheers us on.”

Faith McDonnell, Director, Religious Liberty Program and Church Alliance for a New Sudan, The Institute on Religion and Democracy

Her friend Patrice concludes, “Karen lived and loved large. She loved Jesus. She loved people. She loved worship and prayer. She loved C.S. Lewis and Narnia, Frederick Buechner and J.R.R. Tolkien. She loved dark chocolate and salads and good conversation. We would spend hours talking at night on our beds. Sometimes she would play her guitar and we would sing in harmony. We could finish each other’s sentences, sit together in silence, blast our music and dance—we were having the time of our lives.”

“Karen was God’s gift to me in so many ways. She taught me how to love God’s creation and camp, hike and breathe in His beauty. Instead of staying in the cabins during our Front Royal church retreats, we would stay in a tent in the meadow and brag to everyone about how well we slept! She loved to spend time alone with God.”

“One of my favorite memories of her is seeing her sit in the blue papasan chair in our ‘spare room’ in our Arlington apartment looking out at the hill of ivy. I still have that chair and that cushion. It is Auntie Karen’s chair, I tell my kids, so take care of it.

“I talk about Auntie Karen to my kids all the time because they need to know how she, as God’s instrument, shaped me. There is a void in this life because she is not here with us, but Heaven is richer for it.”

In her final reflection, Ellen says “Karen loved being an aunt to my children, although she passed away when my oldest was two and my middle child was nine months old. I miss her every day. I have multiple items around my house that she had brought home on her travels to other countries which I look at daily and think of the privilege I had being her sister.”

Diane closes, “Karen’s life, although short, was an inspiration to me – and continues to be – and I feel very grateful that she was my sister.”

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

  • Helsinki Commission Leaders Commemorate 30th Anniversary of the Fall of the Berlin Wall

    WASHINGTON—Ahead of the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9, Helsinki Commission leaders issued the following statements: “In 1989, history hit the fast-forward button; what had seemed impossible for four decades suddenly seemed inevitable,” said Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20).  “Hungary ripped down the Iron Curtain on its border with Austria. Poland elected a Catholic intellectual as its first non-communist prime minister since World War II. Germans took a sledgehammer to the ultimate symbol of Europe’s Cold War division, and Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution freed a nation. Thirty years later, I pay homage to those who struggled to bring democracy to their countries, and commend a new generation of leaders who are fighting to safeguard hard-won human rights and extend the benefits of democracy throughout the OSCE region.” “Thirty years ago, people across Central and Eastern Europe rose up and demanded freedom from Soviet oppression,” said Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS). “The progress made in the past three decades is remarkable. Many of the former members of the Warsaw Pact are now NATO allies, and communism in Europe has been replaced by greater human rights and economic opportunities. As we celebrate the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, we should also remember the horrors of authoritarianism that inspired calls for change. Today America and our friends around the world remain committed to meeting new threats to our shared democratic values.” “Tragically, there were many who did not live to see the triumph of 1989: freedom fighters killed in Hungary in 1956, young men and women who died defending democratic ideals during the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, the workers massacred at the Wujek coal mine after the introduction of martial law in Poland in 1981, and Chris Gueffroy, the last person murdered while trying to cross the Berlin Wall, shot in February 1989,” said Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02). “Their sacrifices should be remembered, their courage honored, and their commitment to democracy an inspiration today.” “I am extraordinarily proud of the role the Helsinki Commission played during the dark days of communism,” said Ranking Member Sen. Ben Cardin (MD). “The human rights and fundamental freedoms we sought to defend then are no less important today, and the stakes could not be higher. I am heartened by new efforts to strengthen democracy and will work with others in the Congress to expand the concrete tools to fight corruption and authoritarianism and protect the core values of the transatlantic alliance.” At the 1989 Paris Meeting of the Conference on the Human Dimension, a Helsinki Commission recommendation to the U.S. State Department calling for free and fair elections throughout the OSCE region became a formal U.S. proposal personally introduced by then-Chairman Rep. Steny H. Hoyer. The proposal, rejected in Paris by communist regimes clinging to power and viewed as too controversial by others in Europe, was adopted at the 1990 Copenhagen meeting a year later after some communist countries had begun their transitions to democracy. The Copenhagen language set the stage for the subsequent establishment of OSCE election norms and observation. A second Helsinki Commission recommendation to the State Department for the June 1989 Paris meeting was rejected by the department as too unrealistic: calling for the Berlin Wall to come down.

  • U.S. Helsinki Commission Hosts Staff Briefing on World’s Biggest Data Set of Hate Crime Statistics

    On Wednesday, October 23, 2019, the U.S. Helsinki Commission hosted a congressional staff briefing on addressing hate crimes in Europe and the United States. The event was moderated by Dr. Mischa Thompson, Director of Global Partnerships, Policy and Innovation at the U.S. Helsinki Commission. The Commission’s guest speaker, Cristina Finch, the Head of the Tolerance and Non-Discrimination Department at the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) provided an overview of hate crimes statistics in Europe and North America. She described the efforts that the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has made to address hate crimes and hate incidents in the region. Finch also discussed the commitments made by the 57 OSCE participating States to document, investigate, and prosecute hate crimes, as well as the tools and best practices available to assist countries in meeting their commitments. ODIHR’s Annual Report on Hate Crime combines official government reports submitted by 33 OSCE participating States with an additional 108 reports from 135 civil society organizations. In 2018, 5,258 hate crime incidents were reported to ODIHR. As Finch described it, this volume of information makes the report “the world’s biggest data set on hate crime.” The full 2018 Hate Incidents data set will be published on November 15, 2019. According to Finch, accurate recording of hate crimes by the police remains a serious issue. “In many countries police do not record hate crimes as a specific category in a systemic way,” she noted. “This means that information is missing, which impedes investigation, prosecution, prevention and policy making.” Other serious obstacles to publishing accurate data exist. For example, estimates indicate that 90 percent of hate crimes are not reported by victims to the police at all. Promoting safe, inclusive, and equitable societies is a priority of the Helsinki Commission for the 116th Congress. Commission efforts on inclusion have included briefings, hearings, legislation, and inter-parliamentary initiatives in the U.S. Congress and Europe.  Additionally, Helsinki Commission Ranking Member Sen. Ben Cardin serves as the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly’s Special Representative on Anti-Semitism, Racism, and Intolerance and has called for increased efforts to address hate crimes in the region.

  • 2019 ECONOMIC AND ENVIRONMENTAL DIMENSION IMPLEMENTATION MEETING

    By Camille Moore, Policy Advisor From October 14 – 15, 2019, approximately 150 senior officials, experts, academics, and non-governmental organization representatives gathered in Vienna, Austria for the 2019 Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Economic and Environmental Dimension and Implementation Meeting (EEDIM). Transboundary cooperation over natural resources is key to avoiding future geopolitical challenges; however, a changing global climate presents more existential obstacles. For example, the European Academies’ Science Advisory Council – a body of 27 national science academies from the EU, Norway, and Switzerland – found that the number of costly floods and other hydrological events have quadrupled since 1980 and have doubled since 2004. As the world’s largest regional security organization, the OSCE is uniquely equipped to address transboundary issues related to economics and the environment. For example, across the OSCE region there are over 150 river and lake basins shared by two or more participating States, making joint agreements and cooperation critical to conflict prevention and sustainable development. The 2019 EEDIM focused on the management, legal protection, and cooperation around energy and shared natural resources like water. Environmental crimes, good “green” governance, and the inclusion of women in water management were all highlighted at the meeting. Historically, the EEDIM sets the agenda for the decisions made at the annual December Ministerial Council. While the 2019 discussion was constructive and several noteworthy initiatives were shared, the overall dialogue focused on past accomplishments rather than plans to critically assess the present strength or future of shared cooperation over natural resources. Environmental Crimes Environmental crime is the third most lucrative transnational crime activity today—after narcotic drugs trafficking and counterfeiting—and generates an estimated $281 billion in illicit profits annually. The Group of Friends on the Environment is an informal coalition of participating States seeking to keep transboundary environmental crimes and environmental good governance high on the OSCE agenda. Participants include OSCE participating States Albania, Germany, Austria, Canada, the United States of America, France, Georgia, Italy, Kazakhstan, Latvia, Lithuania, Montenegro, the Czech Republic, the United Kingdom, Slovakia, and Switzerland. Defending the environment is no easy task and dangerous work. One non-governmental organization (NGO) present at the 2019 EEDIM noted the need for dedicated support to combat the perpetrators of environmental harm. Rather than inspiring further discussion about the real dangers faced by environmental defenders, however, the statement was met only with vague comments from a handful of participating States on the importance of funding environmental protection. Good “Green” Governance The Maastricht Strategy (2003) defines good governance as a contribution to prosperity, stability, and security at all levels. Within the environmental dimension, the OSCE promotes commitments to both good governance and environmental sustainability. Most, if not all, participants shared their 2030 plans to “green” their economies, which included measures like limiting industrial risk, aligning national and international economic agreements, and modernizing technological innovation for greater efficiency. Instead of sharing the obstacles they face in reaching the 2030 sustainable development goals or the funding and support they need to realistically meet their needs (for example, the OSCE offers its support of cross-border cooperation in the form of agreements like those between Albania and North Macedonia like the Ohrid Lake Joint Commission which establishes a framework for integrated border management to stabilize relations over Ohrid Lake), most nations focused solely on national policy strategies and improved legislative frameworks. Womenomics and Water Management Women are disproportionately burdened when water resources are mismanaged or scarce. “Women are much more active than men in activities related to water,” says Matluba Rajabalieva, Chairperson of the Garm Development Centre, a Tajikistan-based NGO working to promote women and girls’ empowerment in communities. Womenomics, the idea that women’s economic advancement improves the whole economy, has been well-documented in water management and has fueled several OSCE initiatives. The OSCE and its participating States have developed programming and initiatives that address water diplomacy with women-centric solutions. Through workshops, initiatives, and activities, the OSCE Gender Section and the Office of the Coordinator of OSCE Economic and Environmental Activities (OSCEEA) connects water users and decision makers and ensures gender parity between the two groups. At the EEDIM, the Permanent Delegation of Finland to the OSCE hosted an official side event titled “Water Diplomacy, Proactive Peace Mediation,” which focused on the OSCEEA’s extra-budgetary project, “Women, Water Management and Conflict Prevention.” The project aims to enhance the participation of women in conflict resolution and water management at all levels in Central Asia and Afghanistan. The Kazakh-German University also recently launched a water resource management program which focuses on women participation.

  • Hastings and Cardin Condemn Mob Attack on Budapest Community Center

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

  • Inclusive Leadership Summit

    “The real political division lies between people who believe we should be more inward looking versus those who want a more globalized world.  If we don’t include citizens, then we diminish our values. Inclusivity is not a constraint, but a true opportunity we need to seize and build on.” - Drancy Mayor Aude Lavail-Lagarde, France By Nida Ansari and Dr. Mischa Thompson From September 18 to September 20, 2019, more than forty European and U.S. leaders representing 12 countries across Europe and the United States participated in the second annual Inclusive Leadership Summit held in Paris, France. Focused on Achieving Political Inclusion, the summit featured findings from a recent report and knowledge-sharing among participants on advancing the practice of inclusive leadership through four essential areas: inclusive representation in legislatures; inclusive policymaking; civic participation; and election systems. Hosted by the German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF), the Summit included alumni of the GMF, U.S. Helsinki Commission, and State Department-supported Transatlantic Inclusion Leaders Network.   As leaders incorporating inclusive practices into their organizations, participants emphasized the importance of the widening circle of representation in political discourse and establishing leadership networks to specific strategies and techniques to strengthen political inclusion. They also stressed the need for increased engagement with marginalized communities to ensure the development of policies that are inclusive of all members of society. Participants also discussed strategies for engaging political parties, navigating difficult political environments, and effectively promoting diversity across sectors to advance political inclusion. Participants also explored opportunities and pitfalls of political engagement through technology and the role of the private sector in advancing inclusivity. Dr. Mischa Thompson of the Helsinki Commission, facilitated a panel on how diverse government leaders have successfully envisioned and met inclusivity goals. Promoting safe, inclusive, and equitable societies is a priority of the Helsinki Commission for the 116th Congress. Commission efforts on inclusion have included briefings, hearings, legislation, and inter-parliamentary initiatives in the U.S. Congress and Europe. In addition, the Helsinki Commission frequently partners with the U.S. State Department and other stakeholders in the United States and Europe to empower diverse voices at the decision-making table to be able to effectively devise public policies that meet the needs of all members of society, rather than just a few.

  • Chairman Hastings on Yom Kippur Shooting outside German Synagogue

    WASHINGTON—Following yesterday’s shooting outside of a synagogue in Halle, Germany, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) issued the following statement: “I am heartbroken to hear about the shooting near a synagogue in Germany where Jewish worshippers gathered to observe Yom Kippur. I stand in solidarity with the two innocent lives lost and the families and worshippers who were impacted by this senseless act of violence and hatred. As we commemorate the one-year anniversary of the Pittsburgh synagogue tragedy later this month, we must do more across borders to address these common challenges together.”

  • Chairman Hastings Leads Bipartisan Delegation to Tunisia, Israel, and Morocco

    WASHINGTON—From September 28 to October 6, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) led a bipartisan, bicameral U.S. delegation to Tunisia, Israel, and Morocco to assess the state of security, human rights, and democracy in the Middle East and North Africa. The delegation concluded with the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (PA) Autumn Meeting in Marrakech, Morocco, where the strong U.S. presence demonstrated the consistent and bipartisan commitment of the United States to security and cooperation in the OSCE and neighboring Mediterranean regions. “As a Member of Congress, I spent decades traveling to the Middle East and North Africa,” said Chairman Hastings, who formerly served President of the OSCE PA as well as the OSCE PA Special Representative to the Mediterranean Partners for Cooperation. “This trip was an occasion to revisit long-standing relationships and discuss some of the most consequential dynamics impacting the Mediterranean region today.” Chairman Hastings was joined on the delegation by Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS); Helsinki Commission Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02), Helsinki Commissioner Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, II (MO-05), and Rep. Andy Harris (MD-01). In Tunisia, the delegation met with Interim President Mohamed Ennaceur, who noted that that the gravest threat facing his nation is the economic and social despair afflicting many young people. Members also held roundtable discussions with civil society groups and local and international election observers, who provided an assessment of the September 15 presidential election and prospects for country’s upcoming legislative election and presidential run-off. In Israel, the delegation met with both Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mohamed Shtayyeh. Members also met with civil society to assess possible threats to the rule of law impacting both Israelis and Palestinians, and with Christian leaders to explore interreligious relations and the mediating role Christian churches play in the Holy Land. During the OSCE PA Autumn Meeting, Chairman Hastings and other members of the delegation discussed ways to maximize cooperation with OSCE Mediterranean Partners in areas ranging from migration and human trafficking, to tolerance and non-discrimination, to energy and water, all in the context of good governance and democratic institutions. “In the coming days, I urge you, my distinguished colleagues, to continue exploring ways to integrate civil society in our work and to deepen engagement with the OSCE Mediterranean Partners, particularly through support for, and observation of their electoral processes,” said Chairman Hastings during the meeting. Co-Chairman Wicker, who serves as a vice-president of the OSCE PA and as the 2019 Head of the U.S. Delegation to the OSCE PA, chaired a session focusing on regional and national perspectives of cooperation across North Africa and the African continent. In Morocco, members also met with the Algerian, Moroccan, and Ukrainian delegations to the OSCE PA; OSCE PA President George Tsereteli; and OSCE PA Secretary General Roberto Montella.

  • Remarks to the Mediterranean Forum

    Autumn Meeting of the OSCE PA *NOTE: As prepared for delivery* Before arriving in Morocco, I led a bicameral and bipartisan Congressional delegation to Tunisia and Israel. While in these countries, my colleagues and I held high-level exchanges with national leadership, civil society, religious leaders, and others to assess the current state of regional security, human rights and democracy. As a Member of Congress, I spent decades traveling to the Middle East and North Africa.  I was never more proud of that engagement, than when I served as President of the Parliamentary Assembly and its  Special Representative to the Mediterranean Partners for Cooperation. This trip was an occasion to revisit longstanding relationships and discuss some of the most consequential dynamics impacting the Mediterranean region today. Our delegation arrived in Tunisia and Israel at sensitive political moments. Tunisia held its second democratic presidential election ever on September 15 and will follow in the coming weeks with its third-ever free legislative election and a presidential run-off. In Israel, the country’s second national election this year on September 17 once again delivered an ambiguous result, touching off a flurry of government formation negotiations with no end in sight. In Tunis, my colleagues and I met with Interim President Mohamed Ennaceur. I commended him for leading his country through a historic peaceful transition of power following the death of President Beji Caid Essebsi earlier this year. When I asked about the most serious existential threat facing Tunisia, he had a bracing assessment: that the gravest threat is the economic and social despair afflicting so many youth. We should heed President Ennaceur’s words and commit ourselves during this meeting of the Parliamentary Assembly to discussing ways to restore hope and opportunity for the youth in our societies. Early next year, I intend to do my part to respond to the call of President Ennaceur and others by hosting young parliamentarians from throughout the OSCE region and the Partners for Cooperation in Washington for a seminar that empowers our future leaders. I look forward to sharing details with your delegations in the near term. While in Tunisia, our delegation also held roundtables with civil society groups and local and international election observers. I was encouraged by the bold commitment of these groups to preserving and advancing the gains Tunisia has made since 2011 in respect for the rule of law, democracy, and fundamental freedoms. I remain concerned, however, that the ongoing imprisonment of one of the leading presidential candidates could undermine confidence in the democratic process. In Israel, our delegation met both with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mohamed Shtayyeh. Both leaders were candid in their assessments of the impasse in the peace process. While no clear opportunities emerged, I was affirmed in my belief that parliamentary diplomacy bridges divides. Prime Minister Netanyahu shared his sobering assessment of the global threat posed by Iran and the existential danger it poses to the people of Israel. I hope we will discuss ways of addressing this matter during our debates in the coming days. During a roundtable with Israel-based civil society, we heard warnings about possible threats to the rule of law impacting both Israeli citizens and Palestinians. In a separate meeting with the leaders of major Christian denominations, including Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem Theophilos III, we explored interreligious relations and the mediating role Christian churches play in the Holy Land. In Luxembourg this summer, this assembly passed a resolution I authored on the importance of integrating and protecting civil society engagement in the work of the OSCE and this Assembly. Our meetings with such groups in Tunis and Jerusalem confirms the value of consulting local activists in our work as parliamentarians at home and abroad. In the coming days, I urge you, my distinguished colleagues, to continue exploring ways to integrate civil society in our work and to deepen engagement with the Mediterranean Partners, particularly through support for- and observation of their electoral processes.

  • Safe and Dignified Return

    In July, nearly 300 parliamentarians from the 57 OSCE participating States met for the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (PA) 2019 annual session in Luxembourg, where they addressed in a final declaration the wide range of issues of current concern to the organization. Of these issues, none received more attention than those relating to human rights and humanitarian questions; the relevant section of the declaration contained more than 180 paragraphs. Leading subjects of concern included the treatment of investigative journalists, manifestations of discrimination and intolerance in society, gender inequality, and efforts to stifle dissent. The text also focused heavily on migration, including the rights of refugees. During the consideration of a final text for adoption, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (TX-18), who has been active in representing the United States at OSCE PA meetings in recent years and serves on the OSCE PA’s Ad Hoc Committee on Migration, proposed an amendment underlining the importance of the right of safe return of refugees. Her amendment, co-sponsored by other members of Congress and by parliamentarians from Cyprus, Georgia, Ireland, Italy, and North Macedonia, made clear that returns should not only be safe, but also voluntary and dignified. The adopted text, included in the Luxembourg Declaration, reads as follows: “The OSCE Parliamentary Assembly underlines that the right of voluntary, safe and dignified return for refugees and internally displaced persons to their homes and properties must be guaranteed;” The concept of voluntary return is at the heart of binding international law on refugees. The 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees states, “No Contracting State shall expel or return (‘refouler’) a refugee in any manner whatsoever to the frontiers of territories where his life or freedom would be threatened on account of his race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.” The convention originally was restricted to people who became refugees because of “events occurring in Europe before 1 January 1951.” The 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, which removed the convention’s time and geographic restrictions, maintains the binding “non-refoulement” obligation. There are only a few exceptions on “grounds of national security or public order” and only after “due process of law.” According to the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, presented in 1998 by the United Nations Secretary General’s Representative on Internally Displaced Persons, “Competent authorities have the primary duty and responsibility to establish conditions, as well as provide the means, which allow internally displaced persons to return voluntarily, in safety and with dignity, to their homes or places of habitual residence, or to resettle voluntarily in another part of the country.” The principles are not legally binding on governments, but they are the point of reference for how a government should respond to internally displaced persons.

  • Co-Chairman Wicker Welcomes Confirmation of Assistant Secretary Destro

    WASHINGTON—Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) today welcomed the confirmation of Robert A. Destro to serve as the Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor. The Assistant Secretary traditionally also serves as the State Department’s representative on the Helsinki Commission. “I am pleased that Assistant Secretary Destro has been confirmed to this critical post, and I look forward to working closely with him to promote security and human rights around the globe,” said Co-Chairman Wicker. “I encourage the White House to act quickly and formally appoint him to the Helsinki Commission. America’s voice is strongest and most effective when our executive and legislative branches work together. The Helsinki Commission offers a unique opportunity to reap the benefits of such a partnership.” Mr. Destro is a human rights advocate and a civil rights attorney with expertise in religious freedom issues and election law. He is also professor of law and founding director of the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies at The Catholic University of America.

  • Helsinki Commission Leaders Appoint Shannon Simrell as Representative to U.S. Mission to the OSCE

    WASHINGTON—Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20), Chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (U.S. Helsinki Commission), today announced the appointment of Shannon Simrell as the Representative of the Helsinki Commission to the U.S. Mission to the OSCE (USOSCE). “On behalf of the Commission leadership, I am pleased to welcome Shannon Simrell as the Helsinki Commission’s representative to USOSCE for the 116th Congress,” said Chairman Hastings. “Her extensive experience with a wide variety of OSCE missions and institutions makes her an invaluable resource not only to the Helsinki Commission but also to Ambassador Gilmore and our other State Department colleagues.” For 25 years, Simrell has worked to advance U.S. comprehensive security objectives in the Balkans, Central and Eastern Europe, Caucasus, and Central Asia. Early in her career, Simrell organized short-term democratization and environmental study tours in the United States for emerging leaders in Central and Eastern Europe and Russia. Between 2006 and 2008, she served first as a democratization officer then as acting regional center director at the OSCE mission in Kosovo. Following her time in Kosovo, Simrell spent a decade recruiting, deploying, and supporting more than 2,300 American experts serving in nearly 100 OSCE permanent, special, and election observation missions on behalf of the U.S. Department of State.  During this time, she observed elections in Kosovo, Georgia, Ukraine, and Tajikistan, and conducted dozens of site visits to OSCE missions and institutions. Simrell replaces Janice Helwig, who returns to the Helsinki Commission in Washington to resume her previous position of senior policy advisor. Helwig’s portfolio will include Central Asia, trafficking in persons, and the OSCE’s human dimension.

  • A Global Pandemic: Disinformation

    By Annie Lentz,  Max Kampelman Fellow Popularly and ambiguously dubbed “fake news,” malign efforts to spread false facts often are wrongly lumped together with politicians’ diatribes against negative media coverage. Well-orchestrated disinformation campaigns do exist around the world, using algorithms, social platforms, and advertisements as a means of deceiving the public and undermining democracy. Due to its proliferation and widespread attention, the definition of so called “fake news” has been lost. Even the meaning of the terms it is defined by are ambiguous. In fact, misinformation and disinformation are not synonymous. Misinformation refers the inadvertent spread of false information, while disinformation refers to the purposeful circulation of deceptive news stories by both state and nonstate actors. Disinformation plagues the modern world in increasingly sophisticated and pervasive ways largely due to widespread use of social media. Whether it’s shared through Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, or WhatsApp, fake news is easy to share, difficult to identify, and almost impossible to stop. Easy to Share The trickle-down effect of counterfeit news campaigns is massive. A single fake story has the potential to reach millions, propagated by bots and trolls and manipulation of social media content algorithms. For example, a heavily edited interview from conservative CRTV portrayed a fictional conversation between one of their hosts and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez where the Congresswoman admitted to know nothing of the legislative process. Although CRTV eventually said it was satire, the video was viewed almost 1 million times within 24 hours prior to CRTV’s clarification. This was not an isolated incident. Thanks to the universality of social media, with Facebook and Twitter having a global presence economically and socially, cultures around the world are all susceptible to manipulation through such platforms. Following the 2019 European Union elections—second only to India as the largest democratic elections in the world—the European Commission documented “ongoing disinformation campaigns” by Russian sources. Officials went on to demand Facebook, Google, and Twitter “step up their efforts” in combatting fake news; they classified the fight as enduring, saying, “Malign actors constantly change their strategies. We must strive to be ahead of them.” The influence and impact of Russian disinformation efforts remains unknown and therefore future elections in both the EU and elsewhere remain at risk. Difficult to Identify Several aspects of the communication space make disinformation hard to identify. When reading content from a seemingly trustworthy source, even if there is no evidence of professionalism, most naturally consider the information to be trustworthy. However, that is not always the case and those creating and spreading propaganda are well-versed in mimicking reputable sources in structure and design. Moreover, the more specific the topic and narrow the scope, the easier it is for disinformation to spread as consumers lack the background and context to identify red flags, which are becoming ever harder to detect. According to Politifact, earlier this year a Facebook post about Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, claiming he was trying to take away health care from millions of Americans, went viral. This claim was a mischaracterization of his stance on federal funding for health care and falsified his personal history with the program. Regardless, the false narrative spread to thousands of people who lacked the in-depth background knowledge to recognize the inaccuracy. Disinformation is not limited to false news stories or phony websites; it also extends to doctored photos and videos, like the CRTV interview previously mentioned. The Washington Post’s guide to fact-checking video makes the point, “Seeing isn’t believing.” Even high-profile politicians can be fooled by such disinformation. One doctored video appearing to show Nancy Pelosi drunk that was retweeted by President Trump, who shared the false narrative with more than 62.8 million followers. Even content originating from seemingly trustworthy sources can be deceptive. For example, pro-Brexit campaigns from the UK Independence Party (UKIP) during the EU referendum vote in 2016 told a false story through misleading photos (actually from the border of Slovenia) of thousands of immigrants pouring into the UK. Though the poster and campaign were widely condemned, it is impossible to measure the number of voters that may have been influenced. However, the very existence of such misleading material threatened the democratic integrity of the referendum. The Russia Problem While there are many guilty parties—like those who spread doctored stories and videos leading up to India’s elections in April and May of 2019 and incited hatred between Buddhists and Muslims in Sri Lanka and Malaysia on Facebook—the biggest culprit behind the growth of widespread disinformation is the Russian Government. The Kremlin has used sophisticated disinformation campaigns to justify its actions in Crimea and eastern Ukraine, interfere in the 2019 European Union elections, and attempt to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential elections. However, Kremlin interference isn’t isolated to politics. RT America, cited as a principle meddler in the 2016 presidential elections, aired a campaign of stories about health risks associated with 5G signals, none of which were supported by scientific facts. Such efforts from “the Kremlin’s principal international propaganda outlet” match what experts cite as the Kremlin’s ultimate goal: to amplify voices of dissent, sow public discord, and exacerbate social divides. Impossible to Stop … or Not? There is no global police force to defend against disinformation. There are platform-specific efforts, such as Facebook’s regulations for political advertising; grassroots efforts, like Factitious, an online game designed to teach students to identify fake news stories; and coalitions like the one formed by Facebook, Google and Twitter after the March 15 massacre in Christchurch, New Zealand, when the tech giants signed an agreement with world leaders to fight hate speech online. However, with the amount of disinformation growing every day and no unified or cohesive approach from both the public and private sector to aggressively and actively combat online propaganda, these efforts are akin to putting a Band-Aid on a broken leg. Any attempts to regulate disinformation are constrained by the right to free speech. If the response is too broad–whether from a corporation like Facebook or a government entity–it quickly challenges the fundamental freedoms afforded to citizens. On the one hand, stopping false facts from spreading and inundating social media benefits democracy and freedom the world round. On the other hand, the people’s right to free speech must be respected. Any meaningful efforts to battle disinformation must carefully balance the protection of the community against the protection of the individual. In addition, those with the best ability to fight against disinformation—private companies like Facebook and Twitter—have no true legal obligation to do so and may have alternative interests in terms of profit. Until Congress shined a light on this problem, there were no serious efforts on the part of social media platforms to fight against foreign influence. As social platforms and their users maintain the right to freedom of expression, the ability of Congress to require them to undertake any specific efforts is lacking. However, that hasn’t stopped them from trying. There are other solutions. One is promoting better media literacy among citizens, so they can more easily identify false or misleading information. Another is “sourcing” news stories, so readers know the true origin of a story—a story about a local issue in Kansas may in fact emanate from Russia, for example. The content would still be available, but readers would have a better awareness of potential manipulation by outside actors. To combat the ripple effect of disinformation, media self-regulation to verify sources and stories before publishing them is another effective tool. The most important and most effective way to confront disinformation is by understanding it. Through events like the 2017 Helsinki Commission hearing on Russian Disinformation, and OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media Harlem Désir’s efforts to lead the OSCE in combatting disinformation, additional progress can be made. Disinformation is a disease to which no one is immune; the longer the virus goes untreated, the worse it becomes.

  • 2019 Human Dimension Implementation Meeting

    From September 16 to September 27, OSCE participating States will meet in Warsaw, Poland, for the 2019 Human Dimension Implementation Meeting (HDIM), organized by the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR).  As Europe’s largest annual human rights conference, the HDIM brings together hundreds of government and nongovernmental representatives, international experts, and human rights activists for two weeks to review OSCE human rights commitments and progress. During the 2019 meeting, three specifically selected topics will each be the focus of a full-day discussion: “safety of journalists,” “hate crimes,” and “Roma and Sinti.” These special topics are chosen to highlight key areas for improvement in the OSCE region and promote discussion of pressing issues. Human Dimension Implementation Meeting 2019 Since the HDIM was established in 1998, the OSCE participating States have a standing agreement to hold an annual two-week meeting to review the participating States’ compliance with the human dimension commitments they have previously adopted by consensus. The phrase “human dimension” was coined to describe the OSCE norms and activities related to fundamental freedoms, democracy (such as free elections, the rule of law, and independence of the judiciary), humanitarian concerns (such as refugee migration and human trafficking), and concerns relating to tolerance and nondiscrimination (such as countering anti-Semitism and racism). Each year, the HDIM allows participating States to assess one another’s implementation of OSCE human dimension commitments, identify challenges, and make recommendations for improvement. The HDIM agenda covers all human dimension commitments, including freedoms of expression and the media, peaceful assembly and association, and religion or belief; democratic elections; the rule of law; tolerance and non-discrimination; combating trafficking in persons; women’s rights; and national minorities, including Roma and Sinti. Unique about the HDIM is the inclusion and strong participation of non-governmental organizations. The United States has been a stout advocate for the involvement of NGOs in the HDIM, recognizing the vital role that civil society plays in human rights and democracy-building initiatives. OSCE structures allow NGO representatives to raise issues of concern directly with government representatives, both by speaking during the formal working sessions of the HDIM and by organizing side events that examine specific issues in greater detail. Members of the U.S. delegation to the 2019 HDIM include: Ambassador James S. Gilmore, U.S. Permanent Representative to the OSCE and Head of Delegation Christopher Robinson, Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs Roger D. Carstens, Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor Elan S. Carr, Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism Alex T. Johnson, Chief of Staff, U.S. Helsinki Commission

  • TOOLS OF TRANSNATIONAL REPRESSION

    To silence dissent from abroad, autocrats often turn to the International Criminal Police Organization, known as INTERPOL, to file bogus criminal claims seeking the arrest and extradition of their political targets. This abuse of INTERPOL Red Notices and Diffusions enables autocratic governments to harass and intimidate their opponents thousands of miles away, even within free and democratic societies. Titled “Tools of Transnational Repression: How Autocrats Punish Dissent Overseas,” this U.S. Helsinki Commission hearing examined INTERPOL abuse among other autocratic practices aimed at suppressing dissent across borders, including surveillance, abduction, and assassination. Commission Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker chaired the hearing and was joined by Commission Ranking Members Sen. Ben Cardin and Rep. Joe Wilson and Commissioners Sen. Cory Gardner, Sen Sheldon Whitehouse, and Rep. Marc Veasey. Co-Chairman Wicker opened the hearing by stating that “the Helsinki Commission is particularly concerned by the politically motivated abuse of Interpol by autocratic states wishing to harass and detain their opponents overseas, often in the hopes of trying them on bogus criminal charges.” While acknowledging INTERPOL as a legitimate and potent law enforcement tool, Sen. Wicker noted that its “broad membership leaves it open to manipulation by authoritarians.” In his opening remarks, Ranking Member Cardin proposed ways to respond to the phenomenon of transnational repression include putting a spotlight on it through the hearing, passing legislation, and enforcing the Magnitsky sanctions. Ranking Member Wilson noted that INTERPOL abuse “is not only imperiling champions of freedom around the world, but undermining the very integrity of INTERPOL and, more broadly, the international system we’ve worked so hard to build.” Witnesses included Alexander Cooley, Director for Columbia University’s Harriman Institute for the Study of Russia, Eurasia, and Eastern Europe and Claire Tow Professor of Political Science at Barnard College; Sandra A. Grossman, Partner at Grossman Young & Hammond, Immigration Law, LLC; Bruno Min, Senior Legal and Policy Advisor for Fair Trials; and Nate Schenkkan, Director for Special Research at Freedom House. They described the roots of transnational repression, salient examples of its use, how INTERPOL systems should be reformed to safeguard the rights of the innocent, and INTERPOL abuse affects the American immigration system. Mr. Cooley recognized that while transnational repression is not a new phenomenon, there is a current upsurge in its use that stems from a global backlash against democratization. He further cited the role of globalization in creating new diaspora communities around the world and the rise of new information technologies as other factors contributing to the increasing incidents of transnational repression. Mr. Schenkkan recommended that the United States and other democratic states work to “blunt the tools of transnational repression,” including through INTERPOL reform, and to “to raise the cost of engaging in transnational repression,” such as by sanctioning its perpetrators. Mr. Min explained Fair Trials’ recommendations for INTERPOL reform, including ways to improve the review process of red notices and diffusions, further integrate due process standards into INTERPOL’s appeal process for red notices and diffusions, and increase the transparency of INTERPOL’s internal decision-making. Ms. Grossman addressed instances in which United States’ Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) used Red Notices to detain or otherwise render immigration determinations against individuals in this country, even though the Department of Justice does not recognize Red Notices as a legitimate basis for arrest. She recommended that the U.S. government take steps to improve the understanding of immigration officials concerning the proper handling of Red Notices. Mr. Cooley, Mr. Schenkkan, and Ms. Grossman all endorsed the Transnational Repression Accountability and Prevention (TRAP) Act introduced by the Commission’s leadership to address the abuse of INTERPOL internationally and the misuse of its communications by U.S. authorities.

  • Simulating a Baltic Security Crisis

    By Brittany Amador, Intern On August 29, 2019, U.S. Helsinki Commission personnel, joined by Congressional staff from several relevant offices, participated in a simulated security crisis in the Baltic region centered on the U.S. and NATO response to a hypothetical act of Russian aggression. The event followed the Helsinki Commission’s historic field hearing on Baltic Sea regional security, where members of Congress convened senior Allied and partner leaders from Poland, Lithuania, Estonia, Sweden, and Finland, as well as the United States European Command (EUCOM) and the U.S. Mission to NATO, to better understand current and evolving security threats in the region.  Participants in the simulation. Ambassador (ret.) John Heffern, a former Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Europe and Eurasian Affairs and Deputy Chief of Mission to the U.S. Mission to NATO, led the simulation. Ambassador Heffern, who currently serves as a Distinguished Fellow of Diplomacy and Entrepreneurship at Georgetown University, was assisted in the facilitation of the game by Andrew Carroll, an officer with the United States Air Force who recently completed his Max Kampelman Policy Fellowship at the Helsinki Commission. 2d Lt Andrew Carroll describing the parameters of the simulation. During the three-hour event, attendees played the roles of various regional actors, and debated possible actions in response to realistic scenario inputs. Participants were provided immediate feedback on their strategic decisions, knowing in real time the impact of their simulated actions. The scenario underlined the challenges and opportunities inherent in any response to a security crisis in the Baltic Sea region. Ambassador (ret.) John Heffern explaining tactical movements.

  • Why the Helsinki Commission still matters

    Forty four years ago, President Gerald Ford joined 35 other heads of state, including longstanding American adversaries, to sign one of the most significant international agreements of the 20th Century—the Final Act of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, better known as the Helsinki Accords. The accord committed the United States, Europe, and the Soviet Union to respect human rights, to manage the spread of dangerous weapons, to foster economic opportunity, and to ending the territorial disputes in Europe that had already twice plunged the world into war. The U.S. Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, better known as the Helsinki Commission, was created to uphold these commitments. Since its inception, the Helsinki Commission has provided a crucial voice for defending freedom, opportunity, and human rights across the world. Composed of members of Congress from both parties and chosen from the House and Senate, the Helsinki Commission represents our democracy’s commitment to preserving and advancing the peace, freedom, and prosperity across the world that previous generations of Americans sacrificed so much to achieve. That is why I am honored to be among the latest members of Congress to be appointed to serve on the Helsinki Commission. The world has changed dramatically since the Helsinki Commission began, but the need to defend the principles of freedom, opportunity and human rights is greater than ever. Rising authoritarian powers are contesting the principles of democracy like never before--these powers are undermining a fair and free electoral process by interfering with elections across the democratic west and directly invading their neighbors. The most shocking part is that the United States’ own commitment to values is being challenged from within—from the very officeholder once considered the leader of the free world. The challenges that democracies face today signify the work that this Commission is doing is now more important than ever. Who better to respond to a president who rejects the pillars of traditional American foreign policy than a bipartisan commission composed of members of Congress? I am hopeful that my Republican colleagues on this Commission, who understand the importance of American leadership on the issues of human rights and democracy, will feel the same way. I am eager to get to work and face the challenges that this position presents. I look forward to having the opportunity to make a positive impact on the world, as well as ensuring that the priorities of the great state of Texas are represented on an international stage. It’s on those of us entrusted by the American people with representing them in Congress to make clear to the world that despite what they may hear from the White House, our country is still the same country that showed up, negotiated and implemented the Helsinki Accords—one that leads in defending freedom, opportunity and human rights across the world. Congressman Marc Veasey is a proud representative of Texas’ 33rd District in the U.S. House of Representatives.

  • First Person: The Role of the Peace Corps in Promoting Democracy

    By Gabriel Cortez, Charles B. Rangel Fellow & Returned Peace Corps Volunteer, Ukraine 2016-2019 Getting a high five has never felt as satisfying as it did in rural Ukraine. Even after three years serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer I cannot help but smile every time I remember one of my students extending their hand out for a “dye pyat.” I grew up in a large Mexican-American family in small-town California. Removed from the centers of international politics, the only diplomacy I knew was my brothers and sisters deciding who could use the family TV and when. Even as a kid I knew I wanted to be a part of something greater, to explore not only the United States but the other countries around the world, the ones they talked about in the news. The Peace Corps gave me and thousands of others that opportunity. For 58 years, the Peace Corps has sent Americans young and old to live and work in communities worldwide. Over 235,000 volunteers have served in 141 countries, ranging from Mongolia and Albania to Morocco and China. Volunteers commit to 27 months of service in the country they serve, working in several sectors including education, health, agriculture, community development, and youth development. As of July 2019, there are around 7,000 Peace Corps volunteers serving in 62 countries. Montenegro, an OSCE participating State, is the newest addition to the Peace Corps family, with volunteers slated to launch the program in 2020. The promotion of democracy is one of the central tenets of the Organization on Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the Helsinki Final Accords. To that end, the Helsinki Commission has monitored aspects of the transition to democracy throughout Europe, including challenges to the rule of law, free and fair elections, and the impact of corruption. Peace Corps volunteers work concurrently in this field to demonstrate the strength democracy brings and help promote civic engagement in their sites. Schoolchildren from my site participating in an English Language Summer Camp in Krasyliv, Ukraine. When President John F. Kennedy created the Peace Corps in 1961, the program was designed for large groups of Americans to live abroad and promote the American way of life, including the best aspects of democracy. That mission continues today in the OSCE region, with volunteers serving in Ukraine and eight other OSCE countries, including Armenia, Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, and Mongolia. My Peace Corps service began in September 2016 but was inspired years prior. In 2014, when the Maidan Revolution occurred, I watched it on TV with amazement, drawn by the images of Ukrainians from all walks of life marching on their capital to advocate for a better future. Already eager to work with the Peace Corps, I knew from that moment that Ukraine was the country I wanted to serve in as a volunteer. Peace Corps Ukraine, which began in 1992, is the largest Peace Corps program operating anywhere in the world. Nearly 300 volunteers have served in the education, youth development, and community development sectors, as well as the President’s Emergency Plan for Emergency AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) programs. When volunteers arrive, they dedicate the first three months to training, learning the Ukrainian and/or Russian languages, discovering local culture, and exploring Ukraine’s history. After training, volunteers move to their permanent sites where they live and work for two years, tasked with the three goals of the Peace Corps. The first goal of Peace Corps is “to help the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women.” For Ukraine, this translates to projects focusing on English education, combatting corruption, and working with youth to develop healthy lifestyles. Since gaining independence in 1991, Ukraine has made progress in reorienting itself to the West; a strong partnership with the U.S. has been crucial in this journey. Peace Corps volunteers contribute to this mission every day. Whether it is through teaching English at schools, organizing a summer camp on gender rights, or helping a local NGO secure a grant to fund health projects, Peace Corps volunteers have a tremendous impact on the communities they live in. Volunteers ultimately help promote entrepreneurship and civic engagement, critical facets of the Helsinki Accords. The second goal, and perhaps the most important in Peace Corps Ukraine, is “to help promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served.” As a former Soviet country, Ukrainians were disconnected from the world for over 70 years, learning about the United States through the limited movies, newspapers, and clothes smuggled past the Iron Curtain. Today, Peace Corps volunteers act as a bridge between both countries, promoting a positive image of the U.S. and bringing back a better understanding of Ukrainian culture. In communities like the one I served in, a small town with no other Americans, a volunteer’s presence is truly felt. I led discussions on race and gender, hosted events highlighting different American groups, introduced my students to American holidays, and much more. Acting as a cultural ambassador is an honor for any Peace Corps volunteer, and a role the program is founded upon. The third and final goal of the Peace Corps is “to help promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.” Volunteers return from service eager to share their experiences with their friends and families. This may include organizing a speech at a local school, attending a Ukrainian-American event, or even joining an organization that focuses on Ukrainian issues. This allows returned Peace Corps volunteers the chance to talk to Americans about their experience in the country: their successes, challenges, memories, and more. In turn, Americans learn about Ukraine and other countries they have never had experience with or knowledge of. Teacher training at the Window on America in Kharkiv, Ukraine The Peace Corps is a unique agency that continues to change lives all over the world and receive bipartisan support in Congress. On the 49th anniversary of the Peace Corps, Co-Chairman of the Helsinki Commission Senator Roger Wicker (MS) noted, “The Peace Corps invests time and talent in other countries, but it pays dividends back here in the United States as well.” Helsinki Commissioner Ranking Member Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) reaffirmed his support of the Peace Corps on its 55th anniversary, stating, “Peace Corps volunteers represent the best qualities of American foreign policy. They come from all walks of life and from across the country [and] are saving lives. I could not be more proud of these Americans.” The introduction of the bipartisan H.R.3456 - Peace Corps Reauthorization Act of 2019 demonstrates Congress’ commitment to the Peace Corps. Helsinki Commissioners Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), Sheila Jackson Lee (TX-18), and Gwen Moore (WI-4) are co-sponsors of the bill, which would increase support for current and returned Peace Corps volunteers. Peace Corps volunteers work every day to develop the foundational tenets outlined by the Helsinki Accords. From promoting tolerance and non-discrimination, to developing education programs, to confronting corruption, Peace Corps volunteers exhibit the strength of the partnerships between OSCE participating States and work to improve the lives of others. True progress is rooted in the sustainable and long-term projects of Peace Corps volunteers and their communities. In Ukraine, I saw firsthand the impact the Peace Corps can have in developing communities: a summer leadership camp for middle school students, a newly built community center with music and dance classes in a small village, and an accounting transparency workshop that reduced corruption in several city management offices. Substantive changes are happening every day in villages, towns, and cities across the country and throughout Peace Corps-partnered OSCE countries. Peace Corps volunteers exemplify the foundations of the Helsinki Accords, promote democracy abroad, and help bolster OSCE participating States and other nations like Ukraine build a bright, hopeful, and prosperous future, one high-five at a time.

  • FIRST PERSON: UKRAINIAN PARLIAMENTARY ELECTIONS

    By Alex Tiersky, Senior Policy Advisor, Global Security and Political-Military Affairs   “Why aren’t you doing your job?!” An unexpectedly tense early morning on July 21, 2019—Election Day in Ukraine: the polling station was more than 30 minutes late in opening. The shouted reprimand came from a voter, an older man who was one of several Kyiv residents who had been present and seeking to vote at this school in the center of the Ukrainian capital since well before 8:00 a.m., when the polls for the national parliamentary elections were supposed to open. His indignation was directed at the beleaguered leadership of the local polling station, who struggled to organize their work and follow the extensive procedures required to meet Ukrainian law and international best practices. *** As an official election observer representing the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, I was at the polling station to observe the extent to which those best practices were followed. With my capable interpreter Natalya beside me, and in partnership with my experienced observation team partner Latvian MP Aleksandrs Kiršteins, I had arrived days earlier on the invitation of the Ukrainian government for a series of preparatory briefings. On Election Day, we would follow a prescribed plan of observation as part of a larger team of more than 800 international observers spread across Ukraine (with the exception of illegally occupied Crimea, and the Donbas region under the occupation of Russian-controlled forces, where holding a free and fair election would be impossible). *** The disorganized polling station was the first stop of the day for our team. While this was my first time serving as an election observer, I didn’t need the extensive and detailed procedural checklist and questionnaire provided by the OSCE to know that something was seriously amiss. My Latvian colleague confirmed, based on his extensive observation experience, that the situation was extremely unusual. The key problem seemed to be that the leadership of the team responsible for proper running of the polling station (the chair and the secretary, among others), recently had been replaced and the newcomers had little experience with their assigned duties. It was clear that they had done precious little preparation to be able to effectively direct the work of their team on Election Day. We had been warned during the extensive pre-election briefings provided by the OSCE that many local election officials across Ukraine had been replaced. The experts were concerned that this loss of institutional memory had the potential to hamper the operations of local electoral bodies—a warning that, in our case, proved prescient. At 8:45 a.m., a full 45 minutes after its scheduled opening time and to the relief of several increasingly agitated voters and local observers, the polling station finally began to process votes. Judging that tensions at the school building had de-escalated and the situation had achieved some normalcy, we dutifully finalized our observation—promptly reporting our findings to the OSCE election experts compiling statistics from other teams deployed across the country—and moved on to observe voting procedures at several other polling stations. Before leaving, given the challenges at the polling station, we resolved to return in the evening to observe closing procedures and the counting of the vote. *** We spent much of the rest of the day visiting several polling stations in the west of Kyiv. Contrary to our first observation, all the other polling stations we visited were extremely well-organized, with experienced and well-functioning teams of officials ensuring an orderly and transparent voting process. The civic pride demonstrated by the election officials and voters in properly exercising their democratic choice was evident in each location we visited. We witnessed voters of all ages casting their ballots in serene conditions, which we learned from other observation teams was largely the norm across Ukraine that day. *** As the afternoon turned to evening, it was time to return to our initial polling station to assess closing procedures and the start of the counting of ballots. With the station closing as planned at 8 p.m. on the dot, we were quietly hopeful that the morning’s problems had been resolved. Our optimism quickly proved misguided. The election officials were even more poorly directed by their leadership than they had been in the early hours of the day. After two hours of inconclusive progress toward beginning a count of actual ballots, the procedures ground to a halt in a cloud of remonstrations among several hard-working poll workers and local observers on one hand, and the polling station’s leadership on the other. In what I understood to be an extremely unusual development, the majority of the poll workers essentially sidelined their grievously underperforming leadership on the spot in order to better organize themselves. At this point, we needed to return to our home base to report on our observation, leaving behind several other international and local observers to witness what surely would be a long and challenging night of tabulation of ballots. *** As we returned to the hotel, I reflected on the day’s remarkable events. It struck me how counterintuitive some might find it that we had been allowed to witness the poor performance by the leadership of this particular polling station. After all, who wants to air their dirty laundry in front of international observers taking careful note of every discrepancy? It was then, for the first time, that I truly understood the key purpose of our election observation mission. OSCE participating States like Ukraine make the choice to invite international observation missions to their elections precisely because only in providing full transparency can a fair judgment on the electoral process be made. In other words, our observation and reporting of the procedural imperfections we witnessed only underlined the relatively excellent performance witnessed by observation teams in the vast majority of other polling stations across Ukraine. Only through the full transparency provided by impartial external observers using a standardized methodology can the people of Ukraine be sure that their electoral process, to the maximum extent possible, allows for the full and fair expression of their democratic choice. I feel honored to have been able to play even a very small part in this extremely consequential democratic process, and to help an OSCE participating State hold itself accountable to its commitment to the rule of law. I am already looking forward to the next opportunity to serve as an election observer.

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