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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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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.

  • INVASION AND REVISION

    By Annie Lentz, Max Kampelman Fellow The Soviet-Afghan War, which lasted for more than nine years, began with the December 1979 invasion following a Soviet-orchestrated coup and the subsequent appointment of Soviet loyalist Babrak Karmal as president of a communist Afghan government. The coup was a direct violation of international law and global norms as Afghanistan was—and remains—a sovereign and independent nation. In June 1981, two Mujahideen insurgent coalitions—one moderate, one fundamentalist—formed to combat Soviet influence over the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan. These new groups contributed to an increase in organized, effective guerilla attacks against Soviet forces, leading to the eventual Soviet withdrawal from the country following their failure to quell the Mujahideen insurgency.  Four years earlier, the Soviet Union signed a collection of international agreements—including the Helsinki Final Act—committing to respect the rights of sovereign nations. By signing the Helsinki Final Act, the Soviet Union and 34 other countries pledged to refrain from exercising the threat or use of force, to observe the rights of peoples to self-determination, and to accept international principles of conduct, all commitments that the Soviet Union violated by invading Afghanistan. On July 22, 1981, during the early stages of the Soviet-Afghan war and shortly after the mobilization of the new Mujahideen coalitions, the U.S. Helsinki Commission held a hearing, “Soviet Violation of Helsinki Final Act: Invasion of Afghanistan,” to examine how the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan was not only a violation of international law but also of the terms of the Helsinki Final Act. Then-Chairman Rep. Dante Fascell chaired the hearing, saying, “The Soviet invasion has clearly undermined the spirit and intentions of the principles embodied in the Final Act. Most importantly the invasion of this formerly independent state has severely damaged the international climate and has done great harm to East-West relations.” Rep. Don Bonker, then-Chairman of the House Subcommittee on Human Rights and International Organizations, noted, “There is hardly a single international agreement, treaty, rule of law, custom or civilized behavior that the Soviets have not violated during their bloody occupation and suppression of the Afghan population.” He went on to urge the Reagan administration to use U.S. allies to convince the Soviets that an independent Afghanistan was in the best interest of all parties. Prior to the Helsinki Commission hearing, the international community’s response to the Soviet Union had been growing more severe. On top of escalating sanctions and embargoes which exasperated tensions from the Cold War, in 1980, the U.S. led a boycott of the Summer Olympics hosted in Moscow. In 1984, the Soviet Union did the same to the Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. The retaliatory actions continued through the end of the war, deepening the strain between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. Despite the signing of the Geneva Accords (1988), an international agreement aimed to resolve the situation in Afghanistan, the Mujahideen refused to accept the terms and continued fighting until Soviet forces (or the Soviet military) withdrew in 1989. The conflict resulted in upwards of two million civilian casualties and forced 5.5 million Afghans to flee as refugees. The failure of Soviet forces to win the war or quell the Mujahideen insurgency is thought to have contributed to the collapse of the Soviet Union. The failure to win the Cold War proxy battle having an extensive impact on Soviet politics and the perceived legitimacy of the Soviet government. The Soviet-Afghan War left the Afghan government in ruins. It would take years for significant progress to be made, and even then, the deteriorated state of the government and the economy left the country susceptible to extremist groups. In 1999 the United Nations Security Council adopted Resolution 1267 to combat terrorist entities in the country, including the Taliban, which can trace its origins to the aftermath of the Soviet-Afghan War. Unfortunately, the UN’s efforts proved insufficient, allowing for the rise of Al-Qaeda and other extremist groups. For the past few decades, the Helsinki Commission has worked closely to promote human rights and security in Afghanistan, holding hearings to support the country’s progress and recovery. The Commission has also worked to ensure the U.S. upholds its own international commitments. The Russian Government remembers the conflict differently. The Kremlin is using the 30th anniversary of Soviet troop withdraw for political gains, passing legislation this year to subsequently justify the conflict. Such legislation continues Vladimir Putin’s trend of historical revisionism and deepens the divide between the Kremlin’s political narrative and history.

  • HELSINKI COMMISSIONERS VISIT HUNGARY

    Pictured: Mate Szabo, Hungarian Civil Liberties Union (left) meets with Representative Tom Cole (right). From July 1 to July 3, three members of the U.S. Helsinki Commission visited Hungary as part of a bipartisan delegation led by House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer. The delegation included Senator Benjamin L. Cardin, Ranking Senate Commissioner and OSCE Parliamentary Assembly Special Representative on Anti-Semitism, Racism and Intolerance, as well as Commissioners Steve Cohen and Gwen Moore. It was the largest congressional delegation to visit Hungary in at least three years.  From left: Rep. Garret Graves, Rep. Val Demings, Helsinki Commissioner Rep. Steve Cohen, Helsinki Commission Ranking Member Sen. Ben Cardin, Amb. David Cornstein, House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, Minister of the Prime Minister’s Office Gergely Guylas, Rep. Tom Cole,  Helsinki Commissioner Rep. Gwen Moore, Rep. Gregory Meeks The delegation met with civil society representatives; independent investigative journalists; analysts with expertise on corruption, Russian malign influence, and security; experts on the judiciary; and democratic opposition representatives. In addition, the delegation met with the rector of Central European University and the head of Hungary’s Jewish communities. The delegation requested meetings with the Prime Minister, Minister of Foreign Affairs and Speaker of the Hungarian parliament. During the visit, the Members of Congress had an exchange of views with Gergely Gulyás, the Prime Minister’s Chief of Staff, and Zsolt Nemeth, the chair of the Hungarian National Assembly foreign affairs committee.  U.S. Ambassador to Hungary David Cornstein welcomed the delegation and accompanied the Members to their meetings, also hearing the diverse concerns raised. The purpose of the visit was to strengthen support for the shared principles of democracy and collective security to which the United States and Hungary have jointly committed and with a view to safeguarding fundamental freedoms, democracy, and the rule of law. In meetings with government officials, the members welcomed the Hungarian parliament’s approval of the Defense Cooperation Agreement on July 2. Following the conclusion of their visit to Hungary, the delegation traveled to Luxembourg to participate in the annual session of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly. Members of the delegation also spoke about their visit to Hungary at the Parliamentary Assembly meeting. Members of the Congressional delegation at the statue in Budapest of President Ronald Reagan. The statue was erected in 2011 to honor the American president’s efforts to end communism. It is on Liberty Square, facing the U.S. Embassy, with the Hungarian parliament visible in the background. Majority Leader Hoyer served as chair and co-chair of the Helsinki Commission (positions that rotate between the House of Representatives and Senate) from 1985 to 1994. During that critical period of transition before and during the fall of communism, he made Central Europe a focus of the Commission’s efforts to support human rights and democracy. He led delegations to Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, the German Democratic Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Romania, working closely with Secretaries of State George Schultz, James Baker, and Warren Christopher to advance democracy in the region. He also chaired roughly a dozen hearings focused specifically on human rights in Central Europe, including minority rights and religious liberties. As chairman of the Helsinki Commission, Majority Leader Hoyer participated in the 1989 Paris Meeting of the Conference on the Human Dimension and personally introduced a Helsinki Commission initiative that became a formal U.S. proposal: a call for free and fair elections throughout the OSCE region. That U.S. proposal became a key element of the 1990 Copenhagen meeting a year later and set the stage for the subsequent framework for OSCE election observation. Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (right) meets with independent journalists Szabolcs Panyi (left) and Anita Komuves (center). Photo: Attila Németh/U.S. Embassy or fotó: Németh Attila/Amerikai Nagykövetség. Majority Leader Hoyer also represented the United States at the 1991 Moscow Conference on the Human Dimension, a meeting notable for taking place shortly after the August coup attempt in Russia. The Moscow Concluding Document included an unprecedented provision explicitly recognizing that human rights and democracy are not strictly the internal affairs of participating States: “The participating States emphasize that issues relating to human rights, fundamental freedoms, democracy and the rule of law are of international concern, as respect for these rights and freedoms constitutes one of the foundations of the international order. They categorically and irrevocably declare that the commitments undertaken in the field of the human dimension of the CSCE are matters of direct and legitimate concern to all participating States and do not belong exclusively to the internal affairs of the State concerned. They express their determination to fulfil all of their human dimension commitments and to resolve by peaceful means any related issue, individually and collectively, on the basis of mutual respect and co-operation. In this context they recognize that the active involvement of persons, groups, organizations and institutions is essential to ensure continuing progress in this direction.”     Hoyer Leads Congressional Delegation to Hungary For Immediate Release:  July 3, 2019 Contact Info:  Annaliese Davis (202) 226-1290 WASHINGTON, DC – House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (MD) led a bipartisan Congressional Delegation to Budapest, Hungary, where they met with government officials, opposition leaders, independent media, and civil society activists.   “The United States continues to support efforts to strengthen democracy in Hungary, and we had many honest discussions during our time in Budapest,” said Leader Hoyer. “We were disappointed that we were unable to meet with Prime Minister Orban. The threat of oligarchs and party loyalists gaining control of independent institutions, the judiciary, and the media is alarming. The erosion of democratic checks and balances ought to concern everyone. We appreciated the opportunity to meet with civil society activists and share our support for the work they are doing to renew democracy in their country.  We will continue to promote strong democratic institutions in Hungary that hold its leaders accountable to protect the rights and freedoms of its people.”   “Our meetings with diverse political leaders, independent journalists, representatives of religious communities and civil society were informative and illuminating.  We remain convinced that a strong, democratic Hungary would be the most effective partner for the United States and our NATO allies,” said Senator Cardin, the lead Senate Democrat on the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE). “We regret that we were unable to speak directly with Prime Minister Orban regarding the steps his government has taken which have undermined core elements of democracy, opened the door to Russian malign influence, and enabled corrosive corruption. Our alliance is not only about shared interests but shared values, and hope alone will not make this reality.  The United States remains open, as an active partner, to find ways to strengthen democracy and the rule of law, protect civil society, and counter extremism that fuels anti-Semitism and undermines regional stability.”    “Hungary is a firm friend and a loyal ally, but all of us are concerned about the erosion of democratic institutions and the rise of Russian influence," said Congressman Cole. "We intend to work with our Hungarian friends across the political spectrum to ensure that their elections are free and fair, their judiciary independent, and their press vibrant and robust." The delegation prioritized meeting with human rights and anti-corruption leaders. The delegation also met with the leadership of the Central European University and expressed their support for it to remain open.  Among the government officials with whom the Members held meetings were the head of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Hungarian Parliament and the Prime Minister’s Chief of Staff.    The other Members of the Congressional Delegation are: Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD), the lead Senate Democrat on the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE), and Reps. Tom Cole (OK-04), Gregory Meeks (NY-05), Gwen Moore (WI-04), Steve Cohen (TN-09), Garret Graves (LA-06), and Val Demings (FL-10).   

  • Minority Faiths Under the Hungarian Religion Law

    By Erika Schlager, Counsel for International Law This is a July 16, 2019, update to the article “Minority Faiths Under The Hungarian Religion Law," originally posted on July 8, 2017 (reprinted below). In 2011, Hungary adopted a new church law that entered into effect in 2012. The law stripped hundreds of faiths of their legal status overnight, deprived them of state resources to which they had previously been entitled, and resulted in other limitations. In December 2018, Hungary amended its religion law (effective as of April 15, 2019). The purpose of the amendment was to implement judgments of Hungary’s Constitutional Court as well as the European Court on Human Rights which held that Hungary’s religion law discriminated against faiths and churches. However, the amended law includes elements that, in practice, will continue discriminatory elements of the 2011 law for several more years and, in some respects, exacerbate the situation for minority faiths. The existing (2011) legal framework already distinguished among churches for the purposes of allocating government resources and benefits. The 2018 amendment added additional tiers to the categories, resulting in a more complex system. The four new tiers or categories are: religious association (with the right to be called a “church”), listed church, registered church and recognized church. Only the most “privileged” tier (recognized church) has the rights previously enjoyed by religious organizations recognized as churches before the passage of the 2011 law. Faiths which enjoyed legal recognition before the 2011 law but were stripped of that recognition under the 2018 law continue to be forced to accept the status of religious association and excluded from all the “privileges” granted to the higher categories. In other words, the 2018 amendment simply carries over the framework of the 2011 law. Additionally, the Hungarian Parliament – a body of elected officials – still decides which religious organizations are in the privileged tier (recognized church), making this an inherently political distinction. The amendment does make two improvements. First, it allows all religious organizations that secure state recognition to determine their own internal organizational structure. (Under the law passed in 2011, this was not the case.) Second, it permits people to donate 1% of their income tax to any religious organization that secures one of the four approved statuses. However, the amendment does not automatically enable organizations previously excluded from this support to receive it. On net, the December 2018 amendment fails to implement fully the court’s rulings or end the discrimination of the 2011 law, leaving some religious groups in limbo. The amendment did not provide a remedy for churches that were stripped of their status under the 2011 law, and faiths categorized in what is now the lowest tier (“religious association”) cannot be upgraded to the status of listed or registered churches without renouncing all future state, European Union, and foreign support or collecting the 1% income tax donation but remaining excluded from the benefits of "recognized" status during a prolonged transitional period. Minority Faiths Under The Hungarian Religion Law June 8, 2017 On April 25, 2017, the European Court on Human Rights announced a judgment in the case of the Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship v. Hungary.  This decision followed a 2014 finding by the Court that Hungary's 2011 law on religion violated the rights to freedom of association and freedom of religion.  In light of the failure of Hungary to end continuing violations, the April judgment awarded the Evangelical Fellowship €3 million in damages.  Religious Discrimination after the 2011 Law The case has its origins in changes made to Hungary’s religion law, which establishes a framework for the registration, or official recognition, of churches.  The law was rushed through parliament in June 2011 in a midnight parliamentary session as part of a massive three-year wave of 700 new laws, a new constitution, and five amendments to the Constitution passed between 2010 and 2013.  The “church law,” as it is known, came into force in 2012 and stripped legal recognition from over 300 previously recognized faiths; only 14 faiths retained their status under the new law.  The law gives the exclusive authority to the elected politicians in the Hungarian parliament to determine what constitutes a church, based on a parliamentary review of a religious community’s faith and rites; bylaws and internal rules; and elected or appointed administrative and representative bodies. The parliament then makes its decision according to a two-thirds vote.  Churches recognized by the parliament are granted a range of financial benefits and other privileges, including the ability to minister to co-religionists in public institutions such as schools, prisons and the military; unregistered faiths are denied these benefits.   Religions that lose their state recognition may have their assets confiscated by the state.  Hungarian Ombudsman Mate Szabo criticized the law when it was adopted and the Constitutional Court has twice struck down parts of the new religion law.  Parliament changed the law to allow unrecognized groups to identify as “churches” (translation:  “you can call yourself whatever you want”), but refused to alter the discriminatory framework that excludes unregistered faiths from the benefit of official status (translation:  “you’ll still have second-class status”).  In other words, there was no meaningful legislative change to address the law’s shortcomings.   The Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship, joined by several smaller groups, including Mennonites, two small reformed Jewish congregations, and a Buddhist congregation, brought the case that was decided by the European Court in 2014.  The European Court held that the “church law” is “inconsistent with the State’s duty of neutrality in religious matters that religious groups had to apply to Parliament to obtain re-registration as churches and that they were treated differently from incorporated churches with regard to material benefits without any objective grounds.”  Damages were awarded to the other religious communities in 2016, but the Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship continued to seek damages in light of continuing violations. In its April 2017 decision, the court awarded €3 million to the Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship.  The damages for discriminatory treatment included the loss of personal income tax donations and the corresponding supplementary State subsidy; the loss of State subsidies intended to support the applicant’s social and educational institutions; the loss of subsidies for religious teaching; and the loss of salary supplements paid to the staff employed by church institutions providing public-interest services. Unfortunately, the Court does not have the authority to compel Hungary to change its religion law and it is up to the Hungarian parliament to take the measures to comply with the ruling.  (The Court may award damages again – and again – in the case of continuing violations.) De-registered churches may be able to get a judgment for damages in Strasbourg, but only Budapest can provide a legal remedy.  The government may be trying to squeeze the Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship out of existence by depriving them of the benefits extended to other faiths and forcing them to devote resources to constantly litigate and re-litigate the same violations.  Smaller churches de-registered after 2011 have already largely been shuttered.  About the Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship The Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship broke from the Hungarian Methodist Church in the mid-1970s over the issue of collaboration with the communist regime. As a faith that would not bend to the communist regime, the Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship was subsequently forced underground and persecuted for engaging in charitable work with the poor at a time when the communist regime was loath to admit that poverty was a serious problem.  After the fall of the communist regime, in 1991 the Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship was officially recognized until stripped of this status under the 2011 law.  The Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship is known for its charitable and humanitarian work, particularly with Romani communities, and runs schools, homeless shelters, and soup kitchens. However, becausethe Hungarian tax authority has refused to issue a tax number to deregistered churches such as the Evangelical Fellowship, it is impossible for them to be designated them as recipients of a 1 percent charitable donation on tax forms.   Related Issues In 2017, the Hungarian Government has also proposed a Russian-style “foreign agents” law, which is currently scheduled for a vote by parliament, possibly on June 13. In recognition of criticism that, among the draft law’s many problems, it would stigmatize groups that receive foreign funding – including support from co-religionists in other countries – the current draft was altered to include a carve-out exception for religious organizations and sports.  If adopted, the law may spur the adoption of copycat laws in the region that might not have the same carve-outs for religious groups.  During a press conference in April, Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s chief of staff Janos Lazar suggested that Hungarian groups that receive foreign funding should be designated with a star.  He later apologized.

  • Responding to Hate

    In the past year alone, places of worship in Christchurch, Colombo, Pittsburgh, and Poway were targets of hate-based violence, resulting in the tragic loss of more than 300 lives.  Effectively countering hate crimes requires a comprehensive effort bringing together government institutions, criminal justice systems, civil society actors, and international organizations.  Religious actors and interfaith institutions play an important role in promoting safe and inclusive societies and reducing violence, hostility, and discrimination. The U.S. Helsinki Commission convened a hearing on Tuesday, July 16, 2019 that examined the role of religious actors in responding to hate domestically in the United States and throughout the OSCE region. The hearing, titled “Responding to Hate: The Role of Religious Actors,” focused on how faith-based institutions can promote safe and inclusive societies and reduce violence, hostility, and discrimination. Helsinki Commissioner Rep. Gwen Moore (WI-04) chaired the hearing and was joined by other commissioners including OSCE PA Special Representative on Anti-Semitism, Racism, and Intolerance and Helsinki Commission Ranking Member Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), Rep. Richard Hudson (NC-08), Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (TX-18), Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (PA-01), and Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09). Rep. Moore opened the hearing by stating, “All of us have something to gain from those who look different, pray differently, and may come from a different place. And we must not wait until tragedy strikes, again and again and again, to learn the value of mutual respect. We must seize every opportunity to denounce hate-motivated violence, and in doing so we protect the value of freedom of expression, the hallmark of democracy.” She also paid homage to six Sikh worshippers killed near her district in Oak Creek, Wisconsin seven years ago. In his opening remarks, Sen. Cardin recounted his side event at the 28th Annual Session of the OSCE PA earlier in July, titled, “Countering Hate: Lessons from the Past, Leadership for the Future,” where he called on parliamentarians to act now to prevent a repeat of the past where bigotry and violence resulted in the deaths of millions under Nazi rule. Witnesses at the hearing described how religious actors and interfaith institutions can work together to further human rights and protections for all, domestically and throughout the OSCE region. Witnesses also shared strategies to prevent and respond to hate, ignorance, and violence targeting our societies, including places of worship. Father James Martin shared a video testimony about his response to the Pulse nightclub shooting, which at the time was the largest mass shooting in U.S. history, taking 49 lives. He noted that the LGBT community received an outpouring of love and support the in the aftermath of the tragedy, with the notable exception of the Catholic church. Father Martin said, “Why am I bringing this up? Because when it comes to the role that religious actors and organizations can play in combatting hate crimes, the most effective thing they can do is to get their own houses of worship in order. Racism, sexism, and homophobia still exist in many Christian denominations – my own included.” He ended his testimony by underlining that “the most important thing that religious actors and organizations can do to combat hate crimes is not only to fight the hatred on the outside, but on the inside as well.” Imam Gamal Fouda also testified by video and remarked on New Zealand’s response to the tragic shooting that targeted and killed Muslims at the Al Noor Mosque and Linwood Islamic Centre in Christchurch, where he is the imam. “New Zealand set a good example to the whole world for how to look after your people, how to actually support all your people. And we all stand together against hate, hate speech, and hate crimes,” he said. He said the power of New Zealand was demonstrated in the wake of the Christchurch shooting and called for more education on the strength of diverse and inclusive societies. “We have to stand together looking at the diversity in our communities as something that is strengthening our community,” he said. “It is the secret of the power of our community to see different colors and different languages.” Rabbi Jeffrey Myers, victim, witness, and survivor of the 2018 attack on the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, PA—the worst attack on a synagogue in the history of the United States—stated, “The metaphor of America as a melting pot, is a beautiful image, but sadly, it is not true, [because …we] do not know our neighbors. We live in silos, with no bridges connecting them. Many choose to live in their own private silos, not wanting ‘others’ to enter their silo.” He believes that the key to addressing hate—what he referred to as the “H-word”— is to learn to build bridges. “Some people just don’t know how to build a bridge. This is where religious leaders like me make a difference…I’m a bridge builder. When the Muslim community extended an olive branch to me, I responded by offering an olive tree,” he said. Reverend Aaron Jenkins testified on the power of developing partnerships and relationships across different sectors of society to adequately tackle the issue of hate and hate crimes wherever they occur. He remarked, “Any plan to address hate must engage faith actors within and across their faith traditions in respectful and meaningful ways. We cannot wait until the next hate crime happens.” He stated that partnerships, resources, and relationships were needed to address the problem. Radia Bakkouch spoke about the situation in France and Coexister’s “belief in the concept of ‘faith for good’ and the practice of interfaith cooperation in empowering young people to address violence and exclusion.” She stressed the importance of defending pluralistic societies and highlighted the importance of building coalitions to address the rise in hate-based violence taking place in France and elsewhere in Europe. Usra Ghazi detailed federal hate crimes statistics, highlighting that hate crimes historically and consistently are underreported. This, she said, is partly due to a lack of a standardized reporting processes and “strained relationships between bigotry-impacted communities and law enforcement entities.” Ghazi shared that many members of the Muslim, Arab, and Sikh communities affected by anti-Muslim discrimination, hate, and violence in the United States have opted to keep low profiles rather than report these events. She stressed, “Due to the rise of hate crimes and hate speech against Muslim and Sikh Americans, these communities by necessity have had to organize outreach efforts to humanize themselves while raising cultural and religious literacy among their neighbors and governments.” Ghazi also shared positive examples of how discriminated communities are building their civic health, getting more involved in elections, and running for office at record rates. “We now have Muslim and Sikh mayors of American cities, as well as officials from these faiths in a range of governmental positions. These efforts help to ensure that our cities, counties and states are truly representative of the rich diversity of American communities.” Alina Bricman’s video testimony concluded the hearing. She presented an overview of the first-ever report of Young Jewish Europeans: perceptions and experiences of antisemitism, released July 4, 2019. Findings included that “44 percent of young Jewish Europeans have faced anti-Semitic harassment, that’s almost 1 in 2 Jews; […] and 25 percent identified as too scared to display Jewish-affiliated ornaments or accessories.” To address the problem, Bricman recommended investing in education (such as anti-racist and anti-bias training) that emphasizes the importance and strength of diversity and diverse communities, supporting civil society, and depoliticizing anti-Semitism and racism by having leaders engage responsibly in the public arena where it is not viewed as a left or right issue.

  • Helsinki Commission Hearing to Examine Role of Religious Actors in Responding to Hate

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following hearing: RESPONDING TO HATE The Role of Religious Actors Tuesday, July 16, 2019 11:00 a.m. – 1:00 p.m. Rayburn House Office Building Room 2200 Live Webcast: www.youtube.com/HelsinkiCommission In the past year alone, places of worship in Christchurch, Colombo, Pittsburgh, and Poway were targets of hate-based violence, resulting in the tragic loss of more than 300 lives.  Effectively countering hate crimes requires a comprehensive effort bringing together government institutions, criminal justice systems, civil society actors, and international organizations.  Religious actors and interfaith institutions play an important role in promoting safe and inclusive societies and reducing violence, hostility, and discrimination. Witnesses will describe how religious actors and interfaith institutions can work together to further human rights and protections for all in the OSCE region, and share strategies to prevent and respond to hate crimes and violence targeting our societies in public places, including places of worship and social institutions. The following witnesses are scheduled to participate: Rabbi Hazzan Jeffrey Myers, Rabbi and Cantor, Tree of Life Synagogue, Pittsburgh, PA Father James Martin, Editor at Large, America Media, New York, NY Imam Gamal Fouda, Imam, Al Noor Mosque, Christchurch, New Zealand Radia Bakkouch, President, Coexister, Paris, France Alina Bricman, Elected President, European Union of Jewish Students, Brussels, Belgium Usra Ghazi, Director of Policy and Programs, America Indivisible; Mayor’s Interfaith Council, Washington, DC Reverend Aaron Jenkins, Vice President of Policy and Advocacy, The Expectations Project (TEP), Washington, DC Additional witnesses may be added.

  • BALTIC SEA REGIONAL SECURITY

    For the first time in its 43-year history, the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the U.S. Helsinki Commission, convened outside of the United States for a field hearing to underscore America’s commitment to security in the Baltic Sea region and its unwavering support for U.S. friends and allies. At this historic hearing, held less than 80 miles from Russia’s border, senior U.S. civilian and military leaders outlined America’s collaborative approach to enhancing security in the region. High-level officials from Lithuania, Poland, Finland, Sweden, and Estonia provided regional perspectives on the evolving security environment in and around the Baltic Sea. Against the backdrop of the location of the first battle of World War II, panelists discussed regional maritime threats—including Kremlin aggression—and possible responses; the current effectiveness of NATO’s deterrent posture in the Baltics; the transatlantic security architecture; and hybrid and emerging threats.

  • The Helsinki Process: A Four Decade Overview

    In August 1975, the heads of state or government of 35 countries – the Soviet Union and all of Europe except Albania, plus the United States and Canada – held a historic summit in Helsinki, Finland, where they signed the Final Act of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe. This document is known as the Helsinki Final Act or the Helsinki Accords. The Conference, known as the CSCE, continued with follow-up meetings and is today institutionalized as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, or OSCE, based in Vienna, Austria. Learn more about the signature of the Helsinki Final Act; the role that the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe played during the Cold War; how the Helsinki Process successfully adapted to the post-Cold War environment of the 1990s; and how today's OSCE can and does contribute to regional security, now and in the future.

  • Co-Chairman Wicker on Release of 2018 Report on International Religious Freedom

    WASHINGTON—Following the release of the 2018 Report on International Religious Freedom by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback, a former chairman of the Helsinki Commission, Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) issued the following statement: “This report shows that some of the worst government violators of religious freedom in the world continue to be in Eurasia, including Russia, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan. I am concerned that these OSCE participating States have not made any progress in implementing their commitments to ensure freedom of religion. “One exception where the situation has improved is Uzbekistan. I hope the final version of the country’s new religion law will demonstrate the commitment of President Mirziyoyev and his government to advancing religious freedom reforms. I would not want a situation in which the new law retains the most problematic elements of current law. That would put Uzbekistan at risk of remaining on the Special Watch List or even once again being designated as a Country of Particular Concern. “The Government of Uzbekistan must also keep its promise to formally work with international experts, including the OSCE Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, to ensure its religion law complies with Uzbekistan’s international commitments.” In October 2018, Co-Chairman Wicker urged the Government of Uzbekistan to formally request that the OSCE Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights conduct a legal review of Uzbekistan’s draft religion law. He repeated the call during a December 2018 Helsinki Commission hearing with Ambassador Brownback. Following last year’s International Religious Freedom Report, Secretary of State Pompeo designated OSCE participating States Tajikistan and Turkmenistan as Countries of Particular Concern. Turkmenistan has been designated as a CPC since 2014 and Tajikistan since 2016. Pompeo further designated Uzbekistan and Russia for the Special Watch List, for continuing religious freedom violations. For Uzbekistan, the designation upgrades the country’s ranking in recognition of progress made under the regime of President Mirzoyoyev. Uzbekistan was a CPC from 2006 to 2017. Russia was designated for the Special Watch List for the first time. As OSCE participating States, these countries repeatedly have committed themselves to respecting religious freedom. The annual State Department International Religious Freedom Report details religious freedom in every country. The report includes government policies violating religious belief and practices of individuals and religious groups, and U.S. policies to promote religious freedom around the world. Following the release of the annual report, the Secretary of State has 90 days to submit updated designations for the Countries of Particular Concern and the Special Watch List.

  • Chairman Hastings on Release of 2018 Report on International Religious Freedom

    WASHINGTON—Following the release of the 2018 Report on International Religious Freedom by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback, a former chairman of the Helsinki Commission, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) issued the following statement: “The Helsinki Commission welcomes the release of the annual International Religious Freedom Report. Robust reporting on the full range of human rights—including respect for religious liberties—is critical to the preservation of democratic institutions. “The report details a number of continuing concerns in countries including Hungary and Turkey. In Hungary, government officials have engaged in anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic rhetoric and publicly venerated World War II-era anti-Semites and Hitler allies. Amendments to Hungary's controversial 2011 religion law came into effect in April, but it is not yet clear if the new and more complicated law will end discrimination against the Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship and other faiths. In Turkey, long-standing concerns persist about respect for the rights of Alevis and non-Muslim minorities to freely manage their religious activities and internal affairs. “These violations of religious freedom are extremely troubling, especially since Hungary and Turkey—like all participating States of the OSCE—have committed to protecting freedom of religion or belief and preventing intolerance and discrimination based on religious grounds.” The annual State Department International Religious Freedom Report details religious freedom in every country. The report includes government policies violating religious belief and practices of individuals and religious groups, and U.S. policies to promote religious freedom around the world.

  • Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe and Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Commitments Regarding Freedom of Religion or Belief

    The 57 participating States of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe have repeatedly committed to recognizing and respecting freedom of religion or belief. The 35 participating States of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe–the forerunner of the OSCE–signed the Helsinki Final Act of 1975, which included: “The participating States will recognize and respect the freedom of the individual to profess and practice, alone or in community with others, religion or belief acting in accordance with the dictates of his own conscience.” The OSCE’s Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights has staff dedicated to freedom of religion or belief, led by a senior advisor. ODIHR legal reviews to help participating States comply with their OSCE commitments have included existing law and draft legislation on freedom of religion or belief. ODIHR only conducts such reviews after receiving a formal invitation from a participating State. A panel of OSCE/ODIHR experts on freedom of religion or belief assists OSCE/ODIHR, and the ODIHR director appoints the panel’s 14 members every three years. This compilation, developed by Helsinki Commission staff, covers CSCE/OSCE commitments on freedom of religion or belief in 16 documents from the Final Act to the OSCE Ministerial Council in 2015. It includes the document title, excerpted text, and links to the original document. Participating States have also made commitments relating to discrimination or hate crimes base on religion or belief.” Some examples are in “OSCE Human Dimension Commitments: Thematic Compilation.” This Helsinki Commission compilation only includes commitments on freedom of religion or belief. The Commission will update the compilation when new commitments on freedom of religion or belief are made.

  • Helsinki Commission Debuts Monthly Podcast Series, “Helsinki on the Hill”

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the launch of “Helsinki on the Hill,” a new podcast series that tells the human stories behind the commission’s work to promote human rights, military security, and economic cooperation in North America, Europe, and Central Asia. “Too often, the tragedies and triumphs of individuals get lost in the day-to-day business of policymaking,” said Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20). “Through ‘Helsinki on the Hill,’ we aim to share the stories that inspire us every day as we fight for truly comprehensive security for the citizens of all OSCE participating States.” Upcoming “Helsinki on the Hill” episodes include: Episode 1: In the Beginning. In the inaugural episode of "Helsinki on the Hill," the Helsinki Commission's first staff director, Spencer Oliver, shares how the Helsinki Commission evolved from its beginnings in the 1970s to become an organization that reflects the overarching commitment of the United States to security and cooperation in Europe, and that has played a vital role in introducing and promoting the concept of human rights as an element in U.S. foreign policy decision-making. Episode 2: Seeking Justice in Serbia. Twenty years after U.S. citizens Ylli, Agron, and Mehmet Bytyqi were brutally murdered in Serbia in the aftermath of the 1999 conflict in Kosovo, their brother Ilir documents his family’s fight for justice in the face of inaction by Serbian authorities. Episode 3: Civilians in the Crossfire. Alexander Hug, former principal deputy chief monitor of the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission in Ukraine, describes the toll taken on civilians in Eastern Ukraine’s war zone, the dangers faced by the unarmed civilian mission, and the urgent need to generate the political will to end the unnecessary conflict. To listen to the podcast, visit www.csce.gov/helsinki-hill. “Helsinki on the Hill” is also available on Spotify, iTunes, Google Play, and Stitcher.

  • U.S. Helsinki Commission Participates in D-Day Commemorations

    By Alex Tiersky, Senior Policy Advisor and Kyle Parker, Senior Senate Staff Representative On June 6, 1944, universally known as “D-Day,” history was forever altered by the largest multi-national amphibious landing and operational military airdrop in history. On that day, approximately 160,000 Allied troops, supported by more than 5,000 ships and 13,000 aircraft, braved the withering fire of Nazi Germany's fortifications on the beaches of Normandy to gain a foothold in continental Europe, commencing in earnest the liberation of Europe and the end of Adolf Hitler’s Nazi regime.  The program for the June 6 Ceremony for the 75th Anniversary of D-Day, Normandy American Cemetery, Omaha Beach, Colleville-sur-Mer, France.​ Members and staff of the U.S. Helsinki Commission traveled to Normandy to commemorate the 75th anniversary of that momentous day and to honor the bravery and sacrifice of more than 9,000 Allied Soldiers who were killed or wounded in the assault.  The presence of members of Helsinki Commission leadership, including Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker and Ranking Member Sen. Ben Cardin, attested to the continued strength of the transatlantic bond cemented by this seminal event.Their presence underlined once again the continued U.S. commitment to European security, and to promoting freedom, justice, and peace in the OSCE region and beyond. Army flight formation as part of the D-Day commemoration. The 2019 anniversary took on special resonance, as it is likely to be the last major opportunity for D-Day veterans—now in their mid-90s and older—to participate. Commission representatives began the morning of June 6, 2019 with a ceremony at the Normandy American Cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer. The hallowed ground, which sits on a cliff overlooking Omaha Beach, contains the graves of more than 9,380 of American soldiers, most of whom lost their lives in the D-Day landings and ensuing operations. Left, General Dunford, Chairman of Joint Chiefs speaks to Representative Michael Waltz (FL-06). At the ceremony, Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman U.S. Senator Roger F. Wicker recalled being moved by President Trump’s remarks. As Senator Wicker recently relayed at a hearing in Gdansk, "Under no circumstance can we be divided from our friends and allies, here or anywhere else.  I was reminded of this key principle when I participated in the commemoration of the 75th anniversary of D-Day in Normandy.  I am certain all of my colleagues are unanimous in their agreement with the sentiment President Trump expressed on that occasion: “To all of our friends and partners: Our cherished alliance was forged in the heat of battle, tested in the trials of war, and proven in the blessings of peace.  Our bond is unbreakable.”  A particularly poignant moment of the ceremony saw French President Macron turning to face several dozen veterans of that fateful day 75 years ago to tell them in their native tongue, "We know what we owe to you, veterans: our freedom. And on behalf of my nation I just want to say thank you." Canadian Prime Minister Trudeau speaks at the Juno Beach ceremony. Later on June 6, Commission representatives took part in a second ceremony, this one at Juno Beach (Courseulles-sur-Mer), where some 21,000 men (14,000 Canadian and 7,000 British) had landed 75 years before. The ceremony, presided over by French Prime Minister Édouard Philippe (in the presence of Speaker of the United States House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, among other dignitaries), featured solemn remarks from senior officials. However, perhaps most moving were a series of personal reflections from school-age children on the meaning of war, peace, and memory. Their innocent sincerity offered possibly the greatest tribute to what the heroes of D-Day fought and died for. 

  • Russia's Counterproductive Counterterrorism

    Russia’s counterterrorism approach, which is problematic in both conception and execution, makes Moscow an ill-suited partner with the United States in this field, experts told the U.S. Helsinki Commission at a hearing on June 12, 2019.  The hearing closely examined the development, history, and repercussions of the Kremlin’s approach to counterterrorism under Vladimir Putin, including Moscow’s attempts to present itself as a regional and global leader on this issue.  Witnesses included Dr. Michael Carpenter, Senior Director of the Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement at the University of Pennsylvania and former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense; Rachel Denber, Deputy Director, Europe and Center Asia Division, Human Rights Watch; and Dr. Mariya Y. Omelicheva, Professor of Strategy at the United States National War College of the National Defense University.  In his opening statement, Rep. Richard Hudson (NC-08), who chaired the hearing, noted concerns expressed by many, including the U.S. Director of National Intelligence, about Russia’s attempts to assume the mantle of leadership in the counterterrorism sphere, through efforts that include placing Russian nationals in senior counterterrorism positions in international organizations.  Rep. Hudson further expressed concern regarding overly broad use of “terrorism” and “extremism” labels by the Kremlin and authoritarian regimes across Central Asia, in contravention of their commitments to human rights Rep. Hudson was joined by other Helsinki Commissioners. Sen. Cory Gardner (CO) underscored the inherently destabilizing nature of Russia’s counterterrorism policies and practices and recalled legislation he has introduced that would require the Department of State to formally determine whether Russia should be designated a state sponsor of terrorism.  Rep. Robert Aderholt (AL-04) raised questions regarding Russia’s role in the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight 17 over eastern Ukraine and whether such an action amounts to state-sponsored terrorism, as well as the impact of Russia’s counterterrorism policies on its Muslim population.  Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (PA-01) drew upon his experience in the Federal Bureau of Investigation to highlight the challenges of sharing investigative techniques and best practices for fighting terrorism with Russia, as opposed to other countries in the region.  Dr. Omelicheva discussed how the Kremlin has increasingly prioritized fighting terrorism, both as a policy and as a political theme. She described how punitive measures, rather than a focus on socioeconomic improvement to address root causes of radicalization, have long been a preferred method of Russia’s military and security services for addressing terrorism.  She also noted that some Central Asian states have copied the Kremlin’s heavy-handed methods.    Ms. Denber noted the broad criminal code Russian authorities inappropriately apply—under the guise of fighting terrorism—to persecute people “inconvenient” to the Kremlin.  She discussed in detail other domestic applications of Russia’s counterterrorism criminal laws, including monitoring and storing of Russian citizens’ internet metadata, as well as labeling groups like Jehovah’s Witnesses as extremist organizations.  Russia’s counterterrorism policies may well have alienated segments of Russia’s Muslim population and led individuals to join extremist organizations such as the Islamic State and Hizb ut-Tahrir, Ms. Denber stated.       Dr. Carpenter asserted that active U.S.-Russia counterterrorism cooperation runs counter to U.S. interests and values—highlighting Russia’s penchant for claiming to be fighting extremism while actually punishing dissidents, notably individuals in Crimea critical of the ongoing occupation of the peninsula.  “A single mother was recently imprisoned on extremism charges because she had posted comments critical of Russia’s annexation of Crimea on her social media feed,” he said.    Dr. Carpenter’s experience in government led him to conclude, “Russia approaches counterterrorism from the position of counterintelligence;” when Russia cooperates, it is with the aim of eliciting information rather than pursuing common solutions. Using Syria as an example, he emphasized how Russian leadership does not think in win-win terms when it comes to counterterrorism, even when the U.S. does.  “Moscow will be happy, of course, to host dozens of international conferences, and will periodically suggest that a solution is within reach.  But at the end of the day, its interests are best served when Iran, Hezbollah and Assad are in power to make mischief in the region, because that’s when Russia’s influence with the Europeans, with Israel, and the Gulf States is at its peak,” he said.  Dr. Omelicheva added to these comments with an overview of lessons the Russian government has learned in past failed counterterrorism operations, including the Dubrovka Theater hostage crisis of 2002 and Beslan school siege of 2004.     “The key lesson that the government learned was that they have to have sufficient force to secure the perimeter of the counterterrorism operation, that they need to be able to constrain the freedom of movement, the freedom of mass media, and other types of freedom.” 

  • STANDARD FOR JUSTICE: JUNE 10, 2010

    By Annie Lentz, Kampelman Fellow On June 10, 2010, seven senior Bosnian Serb officials were convicted of war crimes by the United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY). This was the largest trial to date held before the ICTY, which uncovered an organized and strategic attack against civilians and UN-protected safe areas in 1995 during the conflict in the Balkans. Bosnian Serb political and military leaders Radovan Karadžić and Ratko Mladic were later convicted of orchestrating the criminal plan. The trial began on August 21, 2006 and continued for 425 days until concluding on September 15, 2009. The inquiry featured testimony from 315 witnesses, with 5,383 exhibits of evidence totaling 87,392 pages. U.S. Helsinki Commission leaders expressed their support for the convictions handed down by the Tribunal, serving justice to those involved in the genocide of about 8,000 ethnic Bosniak men and boys residing in Srebrenica, an enclave  in Bosnia and Herzegovina which fell despite U.N. protection. Then-Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin said, “The ethnic cleansing that occurred in Bosnia was orchestrated by individuals who are now finally facing justice for their crimes. Others awaiting trial or who believe they may have escaped prosecution should take this as a sign that they too will answer for their crimes against humanity.” “The wheels of justice may not always turn as fast as victims’ families would like, but the convictions of Vujadin Popovic and Ljubisa Beara show the strength of the International War Crimes Tribunal to hold people to account,” said then-Co-Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings. Following calls from Helsinki Commission leadership and other human rights advocates, the ICTY was established in reaction to the atrocities committed during the decade of conflicts in the former Yugoslavia. It was the first international attempt to hold political leaders accountable for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide since the Nuremburg and Tokyo trials following World War II, and it established that the massacre committed in Srebrenica in July 1995 constituted genocide. Other crimes committed in Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Kosovo included mass ethnic cleansing campaigns in which millions were displaced, thousands of women and girls were raped, and many others were detained and tortured.  The death toll in Bosnia and Herzegovina alone is believed to have exceeded 100,000 individuals.  The ICTY concluded its work in 2017, having indicted 161 individuals in connection to crimes during the conflicts in the Balkans while setting global precedents regarding cases of genocide, crimes against humanity, violations of the laws or customs of war, and grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions. Ninety offenders were sentenced to serve prison time in 14 European states. The Tribunal also set the standard for how such atrocities should be handled to achieve international justice. In December 2017, the Helsinki Commission organized a public briefing to assess the accomplishments of the tribunal and ongoing efforts to pursue justice for atrocities in the Western Balkans.    

  • Helsinki Commission Hearing to Examine Russia’s Approach to Counterterrorism

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following hearing: RUSSIA’S COUNTERPRODUCTIVE COUNTERTERRORISM Wednesday, June 12, 2019 10:30 a.m. Rayburn House Office Building Room 2255 Live Webcast: www.youtube.com/HelsinkiCommission The Kremlin actively seeks to present Russia as a global leader in the practice of counterterrorism and countering extremism. However, Moscow’s policies and practices in this area may be problematic at best and counterproductive at worst. Witnesses will offer expert views on how the Kremlin’s counterterrorism approach has evolved over time; its effectiveness; the extent to which it complies with Russia’s commitments to uphold human rights and fundamental freedoms; regional implications; and whether Kremlin actions dovetail—or not—with U.S. interests.  The following witnesses are scheduled to participate: Dr. Michael Carpenter, Senior Director, Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement; former U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Russia; former National Security Council Director for Russia Rachel Denber, Deputy Director, Europe and Central Asia Division, Human Rights Watch Dr. Mariya Y. Omelicheva, Professor of Strategy at the United States National War College, National Defense University; author, “Russia’s Regional and Global Counterterrorism Strategies” and “Russia’s Counterterrorism Policy: Variations on an Imperial Theme”

  • Chairman Hastings Commemorates Eid al-Fitr

    WASHINGTON—In commemoration of Eid al-Fitr, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) today issued the following statement: “Today, I join Muslim communities across the OSCE region and around the world to celebrate Eid al-Fitr, which marks the end of the holy month of Ramadan. As Muslims have spent the last month observing Ramadan, they have devoted time in peaceful reflection and prayer, built stronger ties with other communities—religious and non-religious—to ponder our common values, and served those who are suffering from starvation, sickness, and conflict. “Sadly, during these cherished celebrations, we also must mourn recent horrific attacks around the world on places of worship, which targeted believers of nearly every religion. In the aftermath of such tragedies, faith communities joined hands to fend off those who try to exploit differences in the service of evil. In Pittsburgh, the Jewish community sought donations for the Christchurch mosque victims in New Zealand. An American Muslim crowdfunding campaign raised money for the Tree of Life synagogue victims in Pittsburgh. Local churches and synagogues in Connecticut stepped forward to help rebuild the New Haven mosque that arsonists destroyed. These examples are precisely what the spirit of Eid inspires: to spread harmony and build coalitions that promote change.  “On behalf of the U.S. Helsinki Commission, I wish those celebrating a blessed and festive celebration. Eid Mubarak.”

  • Chairman Hastings on Upcoming Meeting Between President Trump and Prime Minister Orban

    WASHINGTON—Ahead of Monday’s meeting between U.S. President Donald Trump and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) issued the following statement: “Thirty years after Central European nations threw off the mantle of communism and oppression, I recall the unwavering support of the United States for the democratic aspirations of their citizens, and the warm welcome Hungary received when it joined the ranks of self-governing, free nations. I echo Secretary’s Pompeo’s message, delivered in Central Europe in February: Upholding democracy in each and every country is vital to human freedom. “President Trump must urge Prime Minister Orban to end Hungary’s anti-Ukraine policy at NATO, resolve concerns about the relocation of the Russian International Investment Bank to Budapest, ensure that Hungary’s ‘golden visas’ are not used to evade U.S. sanctions, and address document security problems to ensure the integrity of the visa waiver program. In addition, the president must prioritize meaningful democratic change in Hungary and encourage the Hungarian Government to repeal the 2017 and 2018 laws curtailing freedom of speech, assembly, and association.” U.S. authorities have identified at least 85 criminals who fraudulently obtained Hungarian passports to enter or attempt to enter the United States. At an April 2019 Helsinki Commission briefing, Dalibor Rohac of the American Enterprise Institute noted that the chairman of the International Investment Bank has long-standing ties to Russian intelligence agencies, raising concerns that the relocation of the bank from Moscow to Budapest could provide a platform for intelligence-gathering operations against U.S. allies. In April, U.S. Special Representative to Ukraine Kurt Volker visited Budapest and urged Hungary to end its anti-Ukraine policy in NATO. In February, during a visit to Slovakia, Hungary, and Poland, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said, “Every nation that raises its voice for liberty and democracy matters, whether that’s a country that’s as big as the United States and with as large an economy as we have in America, or a smaller country. They’re each valuable. Each time one falls, each time a country – no matter how small – each time it moves away from democracy and moves towards a different system of governance, the capacity for the world to continue to deliver freedom for human beings is diminished. And so I would urge every country, no matter its size . . . to stay focused, maintain its commitment.”

  • First Person: A Divided Island’s Long Road to Peace

    By Mark Toner, Senior State Department Advisor There are two images seared into my brain from my visit to Cyprus during a recent congressional delegation led by Sen. Roger Wicker (MS). The first was a darkened, underground garage filled with the rusting hulks of mid-1970s Toyotas.  They were once the sparkling-new inventory of a car dealership situated in the heart of Nicosia, Europe’s last divided capital. Following the 1974 incursion by Turkish forces in the wake of a failed coup attempt, the dealership became part of a buffer zone that runs like a scar across the length of Cyprus, separating the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) and the Republic of Cyprus (RoC). The dealership’s owner fled when the fighting erupted and never returned. The cars sit frozen in time, waiting for customers who will never come. Abandoned vehicle in Nicosia, Cyprus. The second was both jarring and moving: at the Committee on Missing Persons, we entered a clean, cavernous room full of long tables on which an array of partially-reconstructed skeletons were arranged—the remains of some of the more than 2,000 people who disappeared during the outbreak of violence between Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots in 1963-64, as well as during the later 1974 conflict. Located in a compound in the United Nations Protected Area near the old Nicosia airport, the Committee is an organization established by both the Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot communities that recovers, identifies, and ultimately returns these remains to their still-grieving families and loved ones, using state-of-the-art DNA technology and an exhaustive scientific process. These were just two of the places we visited during our two-day stay on the island as part of a bipartisan, bicameral delegation on its way to the Winter Meeting of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly in Vienna, Austria. As part of our jam-packed schedule, the delegation met with the President of the Republic of Cyprus and Turkish-Cypriot leadership, and toured the UN buffer zone with the hardworking and good-natured UN peacekeepers who police the 112-mile ceasefire line. Cyprus is among the world’s oldest and most intractable frozen conflicts, and the social, political, and economic tensions the conflict created still feel fresh today. Since the island was effectively split in two in 1974, there have been repeated UN-led attempts to broker a settlement and reunify the island, but all have ended in failure. It is also a tale of two realities. While Greek Cypriots enjoy the benefits of EU and Eurozone membership and seek to exploit the potential of untapped hydrocarbon reserves located in an Exclusive Economic Zone that surrounds the island, those who live in the self-proclaimed Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus remain politically and economically isolated from the rest of Europe and rely heavily on their big brother to the north, Turkey, for security and economic assistance. Our visit to Cyprus was a stark reminder of the difficulty of moving past an unresolved conflict, in a place where grievances are often passed from generation to generation, and the ghosts of the past remain as tangible as the neglected shell of a crumbling 15th-century church in the UN buffer zone or the rusting hulks of airplanes still sitting on the runway of the abandoned Nicosia International Airport. Our brief visit to the Committee on Mission Persons, however, was a poignant reminder of the vital importance of civil society in restoring a sense of normalcy once the fighting ends.  It is a calming place, where dedicated people from both sides of the conflict work together to bring a sense of closure to those who lost loved ones in the fighting; it speaks to the fierce resiliency of the people of Cyprus and the enduring hope that old wrongs can yet be overcome.       

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