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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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    By Erika Schlager, Counsel for International Law On July 11, Helsinki Commission staff met with Dame Audrey Glover, head of the OSCE election observation mission during the 2016 U.S. elections. Other members of the OSCE team included Mr. Jan Haukass (Vienna Representative of the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, or ODIHR), Dr. Richard Lappin (ODIHR-Warsaw), and Mr. Radivoje Grujic (ODIHR-Warsaw).  The meeting was part of OSCE’s standard consultations following the deployment of an election observation mission.  The election team also held meetings in Washington with Members of Congress and the Department of State. OSCE election observation is based on the 1990 Copenhagen Document in which the participating States agreed that “the will of the people, freely and fairly expressed through periodic and genuine elections, is the basis of the authority and legitimacy of all government.” The commitment fosters universal suffrage, equality, fairness, freedom, transparency, accountability, and secrecy of the ballot. The original proposal for a commitment to hold free and fair elections came from the Helsinki Commission in 1989 but, at that time, was unacceptable to communist countries. In 1990, as communist regimes began to fall, agreement on the new commitment was adopted and signaled the rejection of the one-party systems that had previously dominated Eastern Europe. However, implementation of this commitment continues to be restricted in some countries where civil society is limited or faces repression. OSCE election observation in the region represents the “gold standard” in international election observation. In some instances, when even the fundamental conditions for free and fair elections are lacking, the OSCE may decline to observe elections rather than give them a degree of legitimacy that is unwarranted. In 2015, restrictions imposed by the government of Azerbaijan compelled the OSCE to cancel a planned election observation mission. Some countries, such as Russia, have sought to undermine OSCE election observation by promoting observation through the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), a post-Soviet grouping that includes Azerbaijan, Armenia, Belarus, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Ukraine.  CIS election observers consistently praise elections that are considered to be significantly flawed by independent observers, particularly the OSCE.  Helsinki Commissioners and staff have participated in well over 100 election observation missions since 1990 – the vast majority of them as members of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly contingent that is part of the larger OSCE-led international observation missions. The Commission continues to support OSCE observation efforts, focusing on countries where resistance to democratic change remains the strongest.  The Commission has also actively supported the right of domestic election observers to monitor the elections in their own countries. Learn more about OSCE election observation.

  • Social Media Day 2017

    First celebrated in 2010, Social Media Day recognizes the enormous impact social media has had on global communication. Many OSCE institutions, field missions, and related entities maintain a robust presence on social media, allowing them to share news, facilitate dialogue, and promote democracy, the rule of law, and human rights throughout the 57 participating States of the OSCE. Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (U.S. Helsinki Commission)  Twitter Facebook YouTube Flickr LinkedIn U.S. Mission to the OSCE Twitter Facebook YouTube OSCE Parliamentary Assembly Twitter Facebook YouTube Flickr Instagram OSCE Secretariat  Twitter Facebook YouTube Instagram LinkedIn SoundCloud OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities  Twitter OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights Twitter Facebook LinkedIn OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media Twitter Facebook YouTube Flickr OSCE Presence in Albania  Twitter Facebook OSCE Mission to Bosnia and Herzegovina Twitter Facebook YouTube Google+ SoundCloud OSCE Mission in Kosovo Twitter Facebook YouTube OSCE Mission to Serbia Twitter Facebook OSCE Mission to Skopje Twitter Facebook OSCE Mission to Moldova Facebook OSCE Project Co-ordinator in Ukraine Facebook OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine Twitter Facebook OSCE Office in Tajikistan Facebook

  • Transatlantic Inclusion Leaders Network 2017 Workshop Report

    The Transatlantic Inclusion Leaders Network (TILN) advances leaders who are global in outlook, representative, culturally competent, and inclusive. TILN is the premier venue for young, diverse U.S. and European elected and civil society leaders to meet, enhance their inclusive leadership portfolio, and engage senior policymakers. Now entering its sixth year housed within the German Marshall Fund in cooperation with the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (U.S. Helsinki Commission), TILN has been honored to be supported through partnerships with the U.S. Department of State, Balkan Trust for Democracy, Open Society Foundations, Meridiam, IMPACT, ONCE Foundation, Operation Black Vote, Unitas Communications, New American Leaders Project and the World Jewish Congress. At the center of the initiative is an annual leadership workshop for young diverse leaders from Europe and the United States. TILN workshops have created an empowered and highly upwardly mobile network that bridges the Atlantic and strengthens transatlantic relations for the future. TILN alumni utilize their experiences to reach new heights from mounting campaigns for the European and national Parliaments to becoming Members of the U.S. Congress, Ministers, and regionally and locally elected officials. Alumni include U.S. Congressman Ruben Gallego, Swedish Parliamentarian Said Abdu, UN Expert on Minority Issues Rita Iszak, and other Parliamentarians, Ministers, Mayors, City Councilpersons, regional and local leaders. Download the full report to learn more about the 2017 Annual Workshop.

  • Helsinki-Related Legislation in the 115th Congress

    Between January 1 and May 15, 2017, U.S. Helsinki Commissioners introduced more than a dozen bills and resolutions on issues relating to the Commission’s mandate to monitor and encourage compliance with the Helsinki Final Act and other commitments undertaken by the 57 participating countries of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). Senator Roger Wicker (MS), the Commission’s Chairman, and Senator Ben Cardin (MD), Ranking Senate Commissioner, have been particularly active.  Representative Chris Smith (NJ), the Commission’s Co-Chairman, and Representative Alcee Hastings (FL), Ranking House Commissioner, have also introduced several pieces of legislation. Other Commissioners, both House and Senate, have contributed to the effort.   The bills and resolutions cover a wide range of issues, from ensuring the Helsinki Principles are defended and promoted in U.S. foreign policy to encouraging improved U.S. implementation of Helsinki commitments at home. Several have been introduced in response to Russia’s threat to its neighbors and European security, while others address broader concerns about developments in Europe and the OSCE Partner countries of the Mediterranean region.    Download the full report to learn more.  Contributors: Robert Hand, Senior Policy Advisor, Anne Balance, Intern, and Jackson Lines, Intern

  • Helsinki Commissioners Urge President to Prioritize Democracy, Human Rights in Foreign Policy

    On May 3, Helsinki Chairman Senator Roger Wicker (MS), Ranking Commissioner Senator Ben Cardin (MD), and Helsinki Commissioners Senator Cory Gardner (CO), Senator Marco Rubio (FL), and Senator Thom Tillis (NC) signed a letter encouraging President Trump to prioritize democracy and respect for human rights in the Administration’s foreign policy agenda. The letter reads in part: “America has long been a leader in supporting individual rights. It was more than 240 years ago that the Founding Fathers declared  that all are created equal and endowed with inalienable rights, including life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. These principles have successfully formed the backbone of the American experiment in self- government. The rights the Founders recognized are not by any means solely ‘American,’ but rather are universal. Being fortunate to enjoy these freedoms ourselves, we have the moral imperative to promote democracy and human rights across the globe.” The bipartisan letter was also signed by Senator Todd Young (IN), Senator Edward Markey (MA), Senator Bob Menendez (NJ), Senator Susan Collins (ME), Senator Dick Durbin (IL), Senator Patrick Leahy (VT), Senator Christopher Coons (DE), Senator Lisa Murkowski (AK), Senator Cory Booker (NJ), and Senator Jeff Merkley (OR). The full text of the letter can be found below. Dear Mr. President: As you carry out the responsibilities of the Office of the President, we in the Congress stand ready to work with you to ensure that America remains a leader in advocating for democracy and human rights. We urge your administration to make these issues a priority. As you know, America has long been a leader in supporting individual rights.  It was more than 240 years ago that the Founding Fathers declared  that all are created equal and endowed with inalienable rights, including life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  These principles have successfully formed the backbone of the American experiment in self- government. The rights the Founders recognized are not by any means solely “American,” but rather are universal. Being fortunate to enjoy these freedoms ourselves, we have the moral imperative to promote democracy and human rights across the globe.  At a Senate Foreign Relations Committee subcommittee hearing earlier this year titled “Democracy and Human Rights: The Case for U.S. Leadership” human rights activists shared their stories of living under oppressive regimes. They made clear that they believe that the United States has a critical role to play in safeguarding the fundamental rights of all people. A world that is more democratic, respects human rights, and abides by the rule of law strengthens the security, stability, and prosperity of America. History has demonstrated time-and-again that free societies are more likely to be at peace with one another. Constitutional democracies are also less likely to fail and become breeding grounds for instability, terrorism, and migration.  Democratic nations that respect good governance and the rights of their own citizens are also more likely to be economically successful, and to be stable and reliable trade and investment partners for the United States.  Our economic partnerships with Japan, Germany, Taiwan, the Republic of Korea, and numerous other nations’ today stand as testament to the wisdom of far-sighted U.S. policy that seeks to develop good governance and strong democratic institutions as necessary enablers for strong economic partnerships as well. As we have seen over the past decade, there is a creeping authoritarian resurgence across the globe, against which we are the bulwark for individual rights and freedoms.  America, since its founding, has led this fight, not just for the rights of Americans found in the Constitution, but for the rights of all.  By elevating democracy and human rights to a prominent place on your foreign policy agenda you can make a measurable difference and make America safer, more prosperous, and more secure.  There is longstanding and deep bipartisan Congressional commitment to advancing freedom around the world, just as Republican and Democratic administrations for decades have supported democracy and human rights, and we look forward to working with you on this important cause.  We ask that, as you continue to formulate your foreign and defense policies, you put the promotion of democracy and human rights front-and-center as a primary pillar of America’s approach abroad.  As we move forward with the process of holding confirmation hearings for your nominees to key foreign policy positions we will be assessing their commitment to uphold these important American values as they carry out our nation’s foreign policy.

  • The OSCE as a Model: Asian Insights

    From April 14 to 22, 2017, Helsinki Commission Chief of Staff Ambassador David Killion and Policy Advisor Paul Massaro traveled to Tokyo, Japan and Seoul, South Korea for consultations with these OSCE Asian Partners for Co-operation. Major topics of discussion included the call for a Helsinki Final Act-inspired arrangement for northeast Asia and the heightened tensions on the Korean Peninsula. The future of the OSCE Asian Partners dialogue and further cooperation with the OSCE and other European institutions were also discussed. The OSCE Asian Partners for Cooperation is a grouping of countries in Asia with which the OSCE engages in a perm-anent, active dialogue, recognizing the linkages between European and Asian security. Currently, the OSCE Asian Partners include Japan, which joined in 1992; the Republic of Korea; which joined in 1994; Thailand, which joined in 2000; Afghanistan, which joined in 2003; and Australia, which joined in 2009. Mongolia was previously an Asian partner, having joined the grouping in 2004, but became a full OSCE participating State in 2012. The trip offered Helsinki Commission staff the opportunity to get a firsthand account of the situation in northeast Asia at a critical time, and ahead of the annual OSCE Asian Partners Conference taking place in Berlin later this year. Download the full report to learn more. Contributors: Ambassador David Killion, Chief of Staff, and Paul Massaro, Policy Advisor

  • A Call to OSCE Commitments in Aftermath of Turkish Referendum

    Mr. President, I rise today to express my concerns about the outcome of the April 16 constitutional referendum in Turkey, when more than 50 million Turkish citizens voted on constitutional amendments to convert Turkey’s parliamentary government into a presidential system.   Turkey is a longstanding friend of the United States and a NATO ally.  Our bilateral partnership dates back to the Cold War when Turkey served as an important bulwark against the creeping influence of the Soviet Union.  Time has not diminished Turkey’s geostrategic importance. Today, Ankara finds itself at the intersection of several critical challenges: the instability in Syria and Iraq, the threat of ISIS and other extremist groups, and the refugee crisis spawned by this regional upheaval.     The United States relies on Turkey and other regional partners to help coordinate and strengthen our collective response.  I was deeply troubled when renegade military units attempted to overthrow Turkey’s democratically elected government last July.  Turkey’s strength is rooted in the democratic legitimacy of its government – a pillar of stability targeted by the reckless and criminal coup attempt.         As Chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, or U.S. Helsinki Commission, I take very seriously the political commitments made by the 57 participating States of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).  These commitments – held by both the United States and Turkey – represent the foundation of security and cooperation in the OSCE region.  They include an indispensable focus on human rights, rule of law, and democratic institutions.    In the OSCE’s founding document, the Helsinki Final Act, participating States affirm “the universal significance of human rights and fundamental freedoms” and consider respect for these to be an “essential factor” for international peace and security. This vision is consistent with long-established U.S. foreign policy promoting human rights and democracy as cornerstones of a safer, more stable international order.      With these principles in mind, the United States must pay urgent attention to the current situation in Turkey and the danger it poses to Turkish and regional stability.  Eroding respect for fundamental freedoms, rule of law, and democratic institutions in Turkey has proceeded at an alarming pace.  The government’s planned “executive presidency” will further decrease government accountability. Since the attempted coup more than nine months ago, Turkey has operated under a state of emergency that gives the government sweeping authority to curtail rights and silence opponents.  Certain extraordinary measures may have been justified in the immediate aftermath to restore order, investigate events, and bring perpetrators to justice, but the government’s actions have stretched far beyond these legitimate aims.  The ongoing purge has touched every institution of government, sector of society, corner of the country, and shade of opposition – military or civilian, Turk or Kurd, religious or secular, nationalist or leftist, political or non-political.   An atmosphere of fear and uncertainty has settled over Turkish society as more than 100,000 people have been detained or arrested.  Tens of thousands have been fired from their jobs, had their professional licenses revoked, and had their names released on public lists without any recognizable due process.  The government removed and replaced thousands of judges and prosecutors within hours of the coup’s defeat, compromising the independence of the judiciary at a moment when an impartial justice system had become more important than ever. The government has also closed more than 150 media outlets.  Upwards of 80 journalists are behind bars.  The offices of the country’s oldest newspaper were raided, and the paper’s editor-in-chief and other staff were arrested.  The media environment was already under extraordinary pressure before the coup. Last spring, the government seized control of the country’s highest-circulation paper.  Self-censorship is now widely practiced to avoid provoking the government’s ire.   Additionally, state of emergency decrees have given regional governors the ability to curtail freedom of assembly rights, harming the ability of civil society organizations to organize rallies concerning the referendum.  Since July, the government has detained more than a dozen opposition parliamentarians. Many more continue to face criminal charges for political statements they made before the coup attempt.    It is difficult to overstate the chilling effect these measures have had on political debate in Turkey. And yet, these are the circumstances under which Turks voted on April 16.  These major constitutional changes passed with a slim majority of 51 percent.  The OSCE’s international observation mission stated in its preliminary conclusions that the vote “took place on an unlevel playing field” and that “fundamental freedoms essential to a genuinely democratic process were curtailed.”  Under the revised constitution, the once largely ceremonial position of president will convert into an “executive presidency” and the position of prime minister will be abolished.  The president will be elected along with the national assembly every five years and has the ability to dissolve the assembly and call new elections at will.  The president will also appoint a larger proportion — nearly half — of the country’s supreme judicial council.  In a report on these new constitutional provisions, the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe concluded that the amendments are a “step backwards” and pose “dangers of degeneration … towards an authoritarian and personal regime.”    Turkey is undergoing a disturbing transformation, and I am concerned these changes could undermine the strength of our partnership.  President Erdogan’s government has dramatically repressed dissent, purged opponents from every sector of government and society, and is now poised to consolidate power further under his self-described “executive presidency.” In the short term, the Turkish government should act swiftly and transparently to investigate credible claims of voting irregularities in the referendum as well as the legality of a surprise electoral board decision to admit an unknown number of ballots that should be deemed invalid under existing rules.  Public trust in the outcome of such a consequential vote is of utmost importance.  Sadly, until now, the government has responded to these challenges with dismissiveness and suppression.  In the past week, dozens of activists have been detained for participating in protests against the election results. Furthermore, the government should lift the state of emergency, stop all forms of repression against the free press, release all imprisoned journalists and political activists, and urgently restore public confidence in the judiciary.  Only then can it credibly and independently adjudicate the tens of thousands of cases caught up in the government’s months-long dragnet operations. A country where disagreements are suppressed rather than debated is less secure. A country where institutions are subordinated to personalities is less stable.  A country where criticism is conflated with sedition is less democratic.  Unless President Erdogan moves urgently to reverse these trends, I fear our partnership will inevitably become more transactional and less strategic.  It will become more difficult to justify long-term investment in our relationship with Turkey if the future of the country becomes synonymous with the fortunes of one party or one individual. The United States and Turkey need a solid foundation for enduring cooperation to tackle regional instability, terrorism, migration, and other challenges. The future of this partnership is difficult to imagine in the midst of a prolonged state of emergency, wide-scale purges, and weakened democratic institutions.

  • Turkey Post-Referendum: Institutions and Human Rights

    Human rights abuses by the Turkish government have proliferated under the state-sanctioned emergency measures imposed in the aftermath of the July 2016 failed coup attempt.  Turkish authorities have fired as many as 130,000 public workers, including teachers, academics, police officers, and soldiers, and thousands have been arrested. Hundreds of journalists have had their credentials revoked and dozens of media outlets have been shut down. Human rights groups have documented widespread reports of intimidation, ill-treatment and torture of those in police custody. On April 16, 2017, Turkey held a referendum on a package of amendments that transforms the country’s institutions in major ways. The position of prime minister was eliminated and the executive powers of the president were expanded, enabling him to appoint ministers without parliamentary approval, exert more influence over the judiciary, and call early elections. Coming on top of the post-coup crackdown, how will Turkey’s changing institutions affect human rights in the country? Panelists at the briefing discussed how U.S. policymakers can most effectively encourage the protection of human rights to promote the interests of the Turkish people given the strategic importance of the U.S.-Turkey bilateral relationship.

  • Political Prisoners in Russia

    Principle VII of the 1975 Helsinki Final Act recognizes the right of individuals to know and act upon their human rights and fundamental freedoms, including freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief, without distinction as to race, sex, language or religion. The following individuals who were profiled in the Helsinki Commission's April 2017 hearing, "Democracy & Human Rights Abuses in Russia: No End in Sight," illustrate the many cases of political prisoners in Russia today. Dmitry Buchenkov – Buchenkov was charged under Article 212 of the Russian criminal code (“participation in mass riots”) and Article 318 (“use of force against a representative of the authority”) for his participation in the 2012 Bolotnaya Square protests against fraud in the 2011 presidential elections. He was arrested in December 2015 and is currently under house arrest.  He is recognized by Memorial as a political prisoner not only because the alleged offense did not take place, but also due to the lack of a fair trial and the disproportionate use of pretrial detention in light of the charge against him. His case illustrates the prosecution of individuals for engaging in nonviolent public protest against the government in general and the Bolotnaya Square cases in particular. Oleg Navalny – Navalny was charged under Article 159 (“swindling on a large scale”), article 159.4 (“swindling on a particularly large scale in the entrepreneurial sphere”), and article 174.1.a (laundering of funds on a large scale acquired by a person through a crime committed by him”).  He was sentenced to 3 ½ years in a closed proceeding, Memorial considers him a political prisoner because the alleged offense did not take place and he was not given a fair trial. In reality, Oleg Navalny was targeted because he is the brother of prominent political activist Alexei Navalny.  It appears the authorities are unwilling to make a martyr out of Alexei Navalny but seek to exert pressure on him by persecuting his brother. Oleg Navalny’s case illustrates the willingness of the government to target family members as a means of exerting pressure on political activists, which is specifically prohibited under the OSCE 1989 Vienna Concluding Document. Darya Polyudova – Polyudova was charged under article 280 of the Russian criminal code (“public appeals for extremist activity” and “public appeals for actions aimed at a violation of the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation”) in connection with her participation in preparation for a march that did not take place.  In reality, she was indicted for criticizing Moscow online for its support of Russia-backed separatists in Ukraine's east.  She is recognized as a political prisoner because the offense did not take place, her right to a fair trial was violated, and the government disproportionately used pretrial detention given the nature of the charges.  She was sentenced to two years in prison, becoming the first person in Russia convicted under a 2014 law criminalizing calls for separatism on the Internet. Her case illustrates the government’s prosecution of Russian nationals who criticize Russia’s actions and policies in Ukraine. Sergei Udaltsov – Udaltsov was charged under Article 30 of the Russian criminal code (“preparation of actions aimed at organizing mass riots”) and Article 212 (“organization of mass riots”) after participating in the Bolotnaya Square protests. He has been arrested multiple times before for protesting against the government. Memorial recognizes him as a political prisoner on the grounds that he was charged with an offense that did not take place; his right to a fair trial was violated; and the government disproportionately used pretrial detention. He was sentenced to four years and six months in prison. Ivan Nepomniashchikh – Nepomniashchikh was charged with Article 212 of the Russian criminal code (“participation in mass riots”) and Article 318 (“use of force against a representative of the authority”). He is recognized as a political prisoner on the grounds that he is being prosecuted for exercising his right to freedom of assembly; he is being charged with an offense that did not take place; he was not allowed a fair trial;  and the government disproportionately used pretrial detention. He is another example of those being prosecuted for participating in the Bolotnaya Square protests against the 2011 fraud in the presidential election. Alexei Pichugin – Pichugin was charged under Article 162 of the Russian criminal code (“robbery”) and Article 105 (“murder”). At a closed trial, Pichugin, the former head of internal economic security for the Yukos Company then headed by Mikhail Khodorkovsky, was sentenced to life imprisonment in a special-regime penal colony. He has been in prison since 2003 and is recognized as a political prisoner on the grounds that his prosecution was conducted without a fair trial.  The European Court on Human Rights also has held that Pichugin was denied a fair trial.   Oleg Sentsov – Senstov is a Ukrainian filmmaker imprisoned in Russia since 2015, and was the focus of a separate Helsinki Commission briefing. Sentsov was arrested in the Russian-occupied Crimean territory of Ukraine and charged under Article 205.4 of the Russian criminal code (“organization of a terrorist group”), Article 205 (“terrorist act committed by an organized group”), Article 30 in connection with Article 205 (“preparation of a terrorist act”), Article 30 in connection with Article 222 (“attempted illegal acquisition of firearms and explosive devices”), and Article 222 (“illegal acquisition and storage of far arms and explosive devices”).  He was accused of planning an attack on a monument to Lenin, a charge he denies. He was sentenced in a Russian military court to 20 years in a strict regime penal colony for terrorism. Other Illustrative Cases Alexander Kolchenko – Kolchenko, a Crimean activist, was charged under article 205 of Russia’s criminal code (art. 205.4 part 2: "Participation in a terrorist organization," and art. 205, paragraph "a," part 2: "A terrorist act conducted by a terrorist group"). He refuted the accusations of terrorism. Mr. Kolchenko was detained in May 2014, in Simferopol, Crimea, shortly after Russia took control over the peninsula. On August 25, 2016, the North Caucasus District Military Court of Russia sentenced Mr. Kolchenko to 10 years of imprisonment in a strict-regime colony. He is serving his sentence in the Chelyabinsk Oblast, in the city of Kopeysk, a facility notorious for its poor treatment of convicts. Mr. Kolchenko is recognized as a political prisoner by Russia’s Memorial watchdog group. Mykola Semena (under a travel ban) – Semena, a Crimean journalist, has been charged under Article 280.1 of Russia’s criminal code, which penalizes "public calls for actions violating the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation." The law was added to the Russian criminal code in December 2013, and came into force in May 2014 - several weeks after Crimea was annexed by Russia. Semena was one of the only independent journalists to remain on the peninsula following Russia’s March 2014 annexation of Crimea. He contributed reporting to RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service and its Crimea Desk. On April 19, 2016, after Russian police searched Semena’s home and confiscated computers and storage media, the de facto Crimean prosecutor-general ordered Semena to remain on the peninsula while he was investigated for alleged “calls to undermine Russia’s territorial integrity via the mass media.” Semena has been forced to stay in Crimea ever since, despite his requests to travel to Kyiv for urgently needed medical care. Roman Sushchenko (in pre-trial detention) – Sushchenko, a Ukrainian journalist, is charged under article 276 of Russia’s criminal code (espionage). He has worked as a Paris-based correspondent for Ukraine’s state news agency, Ukrinform, since 2010. He was detained at a Moscow airport on September 30, 2016, upon his arrival from Paris on private business. He was accused of collecting classified information on the activities of Russia’s armed forces and the National Guard. Mr. Sushchenko denies any involvement in espionage. His employer, Ukrinform, also considers the accusations false and called his detention a “planned provocation.” Mr. Sushchenko’s attorney is Mark Feygin, who previously represented Pussy Riot and Nadezhda Savchenko. Memorial, a Russian organization established to report on the crimes of Stalinism, documents cases of political prisoners as well as cases of those persecuted for their faith.This information was compiled by Helsinki Commission staff from Memorial, the U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices, and news sources. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom also tracks cases of individuals imprisoned in connection with their faith.

  • How the State of Russian Media Becomes the State of International Media

    It was a bad week for reports on freedom of the media in Russia. On Wednesday, Reporters Without Borders released its 2017 world press freedom index. Russia came in at 148, after such bastions of independent media as South Sudan and Thailand. On Thursday, a Ukrainian human rights delegation briefed the Helsinki Commission on the case of Oleg Sentsov — a Ukrainian filmmaker imprisoned in a Siberian penal colony for his opposition to the annexation of Crimea — and abuses of Ukrainian journalists and creative professionals more broadly. On Friday, Freedom House unveiled its Freedom of the Press 2017 report. That report gives Russia partial credit for the world’s 13-year low in press freedom. “Vladimir Putin’s regime in Russia has been a trailblazer in globalizing state propaganda. It continues to leverage pro-Kremlin reporting around the world,” the report states. The three taken in tandem tell a story — one in which violence against journalists in Russia and the region is connected to violence against journalism around the world. Consider the case of Oleg Sentsov. In 2015, Sentsov was sentenced to 20 years in prison for planning terrorist attacks in Crimea. In his trial, he said he had been tortured. The international human rights community believes this to have been payback for the filmmaker’s outspoken stance against the annexation of Crimea (it is also worth noting that Russia treated Sentsov, a Ukrainian, as though he were a Russian citizen; after the annexation of Crimea, Russia considered all who did not explicitly apply for Ukrainian citizenship to be Russian, to which Sentsov objected in court by saying, “I am not a serf to be transferred with the land”). Russian-backed media reported it as a terrorism case. And so the case contains both the physical threat that looms over journalists and creative types who fail to parrot the party line and also the threat that Russian state-backed media can pose to understanding in the wider world. “Many people perceive [Russian state-backed media] not as propaganda, but as an alternative point of view,” Natalya Kaplan, Sentsov’s cousin, told Foreign Policy in an interview before heading to the Helsinki Commission briefing. “They tend to trust what Russian propaganda says.” In the case of Sentsov, that means some outside of Russia (to say nothing of those in it) thought he was neither filmmaker nor terrorist, but some combination of the two. Americans can no longer tell the difference between actual fake news and fake fake news, Ukrainian PEN member Halya Coynash told FP. “The thing is that you really think the media and information you get from Russian media, it is media. Which is wrong. We have state media, and state media are part of [the] strategy of [the state],” said Mustafa Nayyem, journalist turned Ukrainian member of parliament. Alternative facts are not facts, and false equivalences are not equivalent. But consumers of Russian state-backed media around the globe can be duped into treating them as such, Nayyem said. He argued Russia presents reality and a bold-faced lie as though they are but two different perspectives, the truth of which lies somewhere in the middle, for viewers to decide for themselves. “We know that [Sentsov] never was involved in some attacks, or in some revolution, in terroristic things. He’s a filmmaker, and his movies are recognized internationally. The lie is that this guy was a terrorist, and no one even tried to understand the basis of this [accusation] … There is guy: a filmmaker, and a terrorist. What is true? They think that maybe he’s some filmmaker-terrorist. It’s insane.” Nayyem ardently believes those who want to protect freedom of media and speech need to build up conventions regulating what are accepted as media outlets and news. But there’s a thin line between banning propaganda and furthering censorship and repression. Russia’s independent Dozhd (TV Rain), for example, was recently banned in Ukraine for reporting that Crimea is part of Russia. “Recent democratic gains have bolstered media freedom overall,” the Freedom House report states, “but restrictions on Russian outlets and attempts to foster ‘patriotic’ reporting raise questions about the government’s commitment to media autonomy.” And besides, even Ukrainians, more prepared for Russian media influence than their western counterparts, are not entirely immune. “The Russian media are much better funded” than their Ukrainian counterparts, Kaplan said, and it takes time and resources to counter reports put out by the Russian state-backed media machine. “Even my Ukrainian friends who live in Kiev, after watching two hours of Russian TV, start to question themselves. ‘Am I a fascist?’” Kaplan does not, at present, see much reason for optimism. While it was a bad week for reports on the state of Russian media, it was inevitably a much worse week for those trying to correct or improve it. “Journalism in Russia is dead. It happened quite a while ago,” Kaplan said. “There are small islands of freedom of speech in Russia,” she said, but they aren’t on TV, and they aren’t available to those who don’t know how to access certain sites. Besides, she said, the sophisticated propaganda machine will figure out how to move onto the internet, too. “Russian journalists face the biggest challenge. Their job is simply to survive.” Hanging in the air is the idea that, at present, surviving is actually journalism’s job, too.

  • Oleg Sentsov and Russia's Human Rights Violations against Ukrainian Citizens

    On April 27, the U.S. Helsinki Commission held a briefing focusing on human rights violations against Ukrainian citizens. In particular, this hearing was used as a platform to raise awareness for Oleg Sentsov, a political prisoner being held in Siberia. Sentsov was honored by PEN America this year with their 2017 Freedom to Write award for his work exposing Russian human rights violations. Panelist included Natalya Kaplan, cousin of Oleg Sentsov and campaigner for his freedom, and journalist in Kiev; Mustafa Nayyem, Member of Ukrainian Parliament and former journalist and early organizer of the 2013 Euromaidan protests; and Halya Coynash, spokesperson for Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group. The panelists provided much context and background detailing Sentsov and others’ cases. Natalya Kaplan spoke to the audience about the terrible conditions her cousin faces in Siberia, including torture, while Mustafa Nayyem spoke about the need to pressure Russia publically to end these human rights abuses. Halya Coynash reminded the audience of the severity of this case by highlighting that Sentsov was the first Ukrainian to be so brazenly imprisoned after the Russian occupation of Crimea; in her eyes, this was the first time the full force of Russian government had been used to fabricate charges and host a show trial against a Ukrainian. The panelists agreed that the media freedom situation in Russian-occupied territory is dire and only growing worse. Of greatest concern was the length to which Russia is willing to go in their efforts to arrest and prosecute journalists. Russia also sets a dangerous precedent with its recent attempts to foist Russian citizenship onto Ukrainians in Crimea, in efforts to undermine international court rulings and give legitimacy to its actions. When it comes to monitoring the human rights situation in Ukraine, the panelists expressed concerns with the lack of access to political prisoners and the inability to target individual Russians involved in creating the sham trials. The panelists believed that the ability to target individuals involved in these trials would be extremely helpful in de-escalating the situation, and they made many references to the Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act. Overwhelmingly, the response to these issues was a desire to work with Congress to strengthen and update the Magnistky Act, as well as broaden civil society and NGO engagment. Mustafa Nayyem expressed hope that NGOs, such as PEN America, would play a more pivotal role in helping prevent future repression. News articles following the briefing expressed hope that there would be work within Congress to better address issues involving Ukrainian political prisoners.

  • Helsinki Commission Calls for Proclamation Recognizing Importance of Helsinki Final Act

    WASHINGTON—Helsinki Commission Chairman Senator Roger Wicker (MS) today introduced a bipartisan Senate resolution urging President Trump to recognize the importance of the Helsinki Final Act –  the founding document of today’s Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) – and its relevance to American national security.  The resolution was cosponsored by all other Senators currently serving on the Helsinki Commission: Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), Sen. John Boozman (AR), Sen. Cory Gardner (CO), Sen. Marco Rubio (FL), Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (NH), Sen. Thom Tillis (NC), Sen. Tom Udall (NM), and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (RI). “Peace and prosperity in the OSCE region rest on a respect for human rights and the preservation of fundamental freedoms, democratic principles, and economic liberty. Unfortunately, the commitment to these ideals by some OSCE participating States is eroding,” Chairman Wicker said. “The shrinking space for civil society in many nations has become reminiscent of the Communist era – a time when many Helsinki Monitoring Groups were violently persecuted for their courageous support of basic human rights,” he continued. “With its actions in Ukraine and Georgia, the Russian Federation in particular has demonstrated how closely such internal repression can be tied to external aggression.  We were reminded of these abuses in this morning’s Helsinki Commission hearing. I urge the President to make it clear that Helsinki principles are vital not only to American national interests but also to the security of the OSCE region as a whole.” “What was remarkable about the Helsinki Final Act was the commitment that these standards we agreed to would not only be of internal interest to the member country, but that any country signatory to the Helsinki Final Act could challenge the actions of any other country,” said Ranking Commissioner Cardin, who is also Ranking Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “We have not only the right but the responsibility to call out countries that fail to adhere to the basic principles that were agreed to in 1975.” Defining security in a uniquely comprehensive manner, the Helsinki Final Act contains 10 principles guiding inter-state relations, among them respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the freedom of thought, conscience, religion, or belief (Principle VII). Other principles include respect for sovereign equality (Principle I), the territorial integrity of states (Principle IV), and states’ fulfilment in good faith of their obligations under international law (Principle X). S.Con.Res.13 encourages President Trump to reaffirm America’s commitment to the principles and implementation of the Helsinki Final Act. The resolution also calls on the President to urge other participating States to respect their OSCE commitments and to condemn the Russian Federation's clear, gross, and uncorrected violations of all 10 core OSCE principles enshrined in the Helsinki Final Act.

  • Democracy & Human Rights Abuses in Russia: No End in Sight

    The U.S Helsinki Commission held a hearing on Wednesday on “Democracy and Human Rights Abuses in Russia: No End in Sight.”  It was the first hearing in the 115th Congress focused on internal human rights repression in Russia. Vladimir Kara-Murza, vice-chairman of pro-reform movement Open Russia; Rachel Denber, Deputy Director of the Europe and Central Asia Division at Human Rights Watch; and Dr. Daniel Calingaert, Executive Vice President of Freedom House, testified about the crisis of Russian democracy and the country’s worsening human rights record under President Vladimir Putin. In his opening statement, Mr. Kara-Murza underscored the necessity for the OSCE participating States to give an honest assessment about what is happening in Russia, where the number of political prisoners now exceeds a hundred people (a number that has doubled in less than a year). Mr. Kara-Murza, a vocal critic of the Kremlin who has survived two poisoning attempts, estimated that more than 30 activists have been murdered by the Putin regime since Vladimir Putin assumed power in 2000. He also called for an end to impunity for human rights violations in Russia. “The U.S. does have a mechanism for such accountability in the Magnitsky Act that provides for targeted sanctions on human rights abusers. This law should continue to be implemented to its full extent,” Mr. Kara-Murza said. His concerns were echoed by Human Rights Watch’s Rachel Denber, who noted that today, “Russia is more repressive that it has ever been in the post-Soviet era.” At Chairman Wicker’s request, Ms. Denber provided detailed information about each of the Russian political prisoners who were featured on posters in the room, and also spoke at length about the repression of gay men in Chechnya. Dr. Daniel Calingaert of Freedom House highlighted the fact that Mr. Putin was the primary author of the modern authoritarian’s playbook, which has subsequently been replicated by many autocratic rulers in the region.  “His methods for suppressing civil society and political opposition have inspired other dictators, and his media manipulation has impacted most of Eurasia directly and extended to Europe and the United States,” Dr. Calingaert said. However, despite the grim situation, Mr. Kara-Murza voiced some optimism about the future. “Increasingly, the young generation in Russia – the very generation that grew up under Vladimir Putin – is demanding respect and accountability from those in power,” he said. Mr. Kara-Murza pointed to a wave of anti-corruption demonstrations that took place in dozens of cities across Russia in late March, with tens of thousands of people, mostly young protesters, taking out to the streets to demand the resignation of Prime Minister Dimitriy Medvedev. “This movement will continue. And these growing demands for accountability are the best guarantee that Russia will one day become a country where citizens can exercise the rights and freedoms to which they are entitled,” he added.  

  • Helsinki Commission To Hold Briefing on Russia’s Human Rights Violations against Ukrainian Citizens

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the U.S. Helsinki Commission, today announced the following briefing: OLEG SENTSOV AND RUSSIA’S HUMAN RIGHTS VIOLATIONS AGAINST UKRAINIAN CITIZENS Thursday, April 27, 2017 3:00 PM Senate Visitors Center (SVC) Room 210 In May 2014, Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov – an outspoken opponent of Russia’s takeover of his native Crimea – disappeared from his hometown of Simferopol only to resurface in Russian custody in Moscow. Convicted on charges of terrorism that the human rights community has condemned as fabricated, Sentsov is now serving a 20-year sentence in a Siberian penal colony. His case not only stands as a marker for Russia’s reach in silencing dissent abroad, but also illuminates broader issues of Russia’s illegal occupation of Crimea and Eastern Ukraine, and human rights violations against Ukrainian citizens. The Helsinki Commission briefing will present three perspectives on this disturbing situation and its broader context: from Sentsov’s cousin and chief champion; from a human rights defender investigating cases in the region; and from a member of the Ukrainian parliament. The following panelists are scheduled to participate: Natalya Kaplan, cousin of Oleg Sentsov and journalist in Kiev Mustafa Nayyem, Member of Ukrainian Parliament; former journalist and early organizer of the 2013 Euromaidan protests Halya Coynash, Spokesperson, Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group

  • Human Rights Abuses in Russia Focus of Upcoming Helsinki Commission Hearing

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the U.S. Helsinki Commission, today announced a hearing to examine the grim state of human rights and democracy in the Russian Federation. DEMOCRACY & HUMAN RIGHTS ABUSES IN RUSSIA: NO END IN SIGHT Wednesday, April 26, 2017 9:30 AM Dirksen Senate Office Building Room 124 Live Webcast: http://www.senate.gov/isvp/?type=live&comm=csce&filename=csce042617 Russia’s overt external aggression against countries such as Ukraine, its support for the Assad regime in Syria, and its efforts to disrupt western democracies are made possible by the internal repression of its own people.  For example, Russia has not had a free and fair election since March 2000. Opposition activists are routinely assaulted or even murdered, giving rise to a new term: “Sudden Kremlin Death Syndrome.” Political prisoner numbers now match those of the late Soviet era, and on March 26, tens of thousands of people in cities across 11 time zones protested widespread government corruption, with more than 1,000 arrested. More nationwide protests are expected on June 12, the national holiday of the Russian Federation. The following witnesses are scheduled to testify: Vladimir Kara-Murza, Vice Chairman, Open Russia Rachel Denber, Deputy Director of the Europe and Central Asia Division, Human Rights Watch Daniel Calingaert, Executive Vice President, Freedom House

  • Helsinki Commission Staff Attend OSCE Permanent Council

    By A. Paul Massaro III, policy advisor, Janice Helwig, Representative of the Helsinki Commission to USOSCE, Orest Deychakiwsky, policy advisor, Alex Tiersky, policy advisor, and Jackson Lines, intern On March 30, 2017, Ambassador David Killion, Chief of Staff of the Helsinki Commission, and Helsinki Commission Policy Advisors Paul Massaro and Everett Price attended the Permanent Council (PC) of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in Vienna. Helsinki Commission staff members occasionally have the opportunity to attend OSCE events, including PC meetings, which help inform the work of Congress with regard to the OSCE region. What is the Permanent Council? In contrast to OSCE Summit or Ministerial Meetings, which are held annually and provide political direction and standard setting for the OSCE, the Permanent Council is the regular body for political consultations and decisions concerning the day-to-day operational work of the OSCE, and also provides a forum to address current issues. PC Meetings are held once a week at the Ambassadorial level in Vienna, Austria, and usually consist of a report by the head of an OSCE field mission or an invited speaker, and discussion of current issues. Any decisions are taken by consensus.   The PC is generally closed to the public and press, although press may be allowed in for statements by high-level visitors, and academic and other visiting groups are occasionally allowed to observe the proceedings. The Helsinki Commission, joined by the State Department, has long recommended opening the Permanent Council and webcasting it as a way to improve transparency. The United States Mission to the OSCE (USOSCE) regularly posts statements it makes in the PC on its website and shares them on social media. March 30 Meeting The March 30 meeting included a report by Ambassador Michael Scanlan, Head of the OSCE Mission to Moldova, which focused largely on discussions of the future status of Transnistria within Moldova; a discussion of Russian intervention in Eastern Ukraine; and remarks on media freedom in Belarus and religious freedom in Russia. Ambassador Scanlan noted that, due to a lack of elections this year, 2017 is an important opportunity to address the Transnistrian autonomy issue in a meaningful way. Many participants expressed hope that a mid-May conference meant to open dialogue on the issue would make tangible steps towards Transnistrian autonomy. If a framework can be agreed upon, the PC volunteered the OSCE to mediate talks finalizing the deal. The United States, through its Chargé d’Affaires, Kate Byrnes, intervened on each issue. On Moldova, the United States reaffirmed its commitment to working with the 5+2 partners to find a comprehensive conflict settlement that respects the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Moldova and affords a special status for the Transnistrian region. On Ukraine, the United States summarized the appalling continuation of Russia’s ongoing aggression and detailed violations of the ceasefire. The U.S., Ms. Byrnes stated, “affirms its staunch support for Ukraine’s sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity within its internationally-recognized borders.” While no participant was willing to take responsibility for the escalation of tensions in Ukraine, all delegations remained concerned with the situation and agreed that both sides in the conflict need to abide by the Minsk Agreements if progress towards peace is to continue. The United States also condemned crackdowns on protestors in Russia and Belarus. The United States, EU, and the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights Director (ODIHR) Michael Link joined together to issue statements reminding Belarus of the need to uphold its obligations to human rights and fundamental freedoms as part of the OSCE. The U.S. and EU delegations also condemned the arrests of protestors in Russia. Both called for the release of those arrested, with a particular focus on Alexei Navalny. Finally, the United States expressed concern about a Russian court case against the Jehovah’s Witnesses that could lead to the disenfranchisement of the group in Russia, violating OSCE commitments to uphold freedom of religion.

  • First Person: Election Observation in Armenia

    By Everett Price, Policy Advisor As the Helsinki Commission’s policy advisor for Armenia, I participated in the election observation mission (EOM) to Armenia organized by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA) from March 31 to April 3, 2017. On April 2, the Republic of Armenia held its first parliamentary election since approving constitutional amendments in a popular referendum in 2015 that transition the country from a semi-presidential to a parliamentary system. The election was also significant as the first nation-wide vote held under sweeping 2016 revisions to the country’s electoral code that implemented a new process for allocating legislative seats, improved transparency, mandated advanced voter authentication measures, and increased female and minority representation quotas. I was one of a 63-member delegation of parliamentarians and staff deployed by the OSCE PA to serve as short-term observers to the Armenian election. This parliamentary delegation complemented the work of a team of 14 experts, 28 long-term observers, and over 300 short-term observers sent throughout the capital and across the country by the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR). Representatives from the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) and the European Parliament (EP) also participated. The OSCE PA and ODIHR regularly lead EOMs in the OSCE region at the invitation of the host country. (Learn more about OSCE election observation.) In the days before the vote, our OSCE PA observation team received extensive briefings on the election process and current political dynamics from ODIHR experts and from Armenian government officials, political parties, civil society, and media representatives. These briefings focused on allegations of electoral violations, the complexity of the electoral code, the role of international and local observers, and the tenor of the campaign. We heard a “unified message of concern” from civil society representatives.  Citizen activists, journalists, and opposition members told us that the ruling party would abuse its access to administrative resources to get out the vote and that it, and other parties, would engage in voter intimidation and vote buying.  They warned that while new electoral procedures might mitigate concerns about the casting and counting ballots, the ruling party and powerful oligarchs would wield improper influence outside the voting booth, diminishing the fairness of the vote. One political commentator assessed that the difficult economic situation experienced by many voters during this election season would make them especially susceptible to selling their vote. Briefers also discussed the complexity of Armenia’s new electoral code and the extent to which it would address past electoral violations. Significantly, this was Armenia’s first time employing electronic voter identification, multiple ballots, and a partial open list voting system that allows voters to express their preference for specific candidates. The code incorporated many recommendations from Armenian civil society, ODIHR, and other international experts and was generally assessed as a positive step forward. Concerns remained, however, about the complexity of voting procedures, voter registration policy, relatively weak campaign finance transparency provisions, and restrictions on citizen observer participation, among other issues.       Civil society activists specifically raised concerns about the overall number of citizen observers and the rules governing their access to polling stations. Armenia registered over 28,000 citizen observers in a country of less than 3 million people, prompting concerns about overcrowding at polling stations and questions about the origins of the organizations and individuals behind these observation missions. One civil society representative said that only 600 of the citizen observers were from known NGOs and that many of the rest are likely from NGOs established by political parties. Some worried that the large number of citizen observers was meant to suppress the participation of legitimate groups since the electoral code stipulates that a maximum of 15 citizen observers are allowed in a polling station at one time. Ruling party officials, meanwhile, noted that hundreds of citizen observers were foreigners registered under local NGOs. They intimated that these observers could be a vehicle for unwelcome foreign influence. One media representative characterized the content of the campaign as “the most primitive” in recent memory, while another political commentator lamented the “poverty of ideas” and “competition of personalities” on display. Several members of the media and some political party officials regretted that lack of any televised debate among candidates—only three of the nine parties and political coalitions on the ballot were willing to hold such a debate. What’s more, several journalists noted that many parties actively avoided the press and restricted most of their candidates from interacting with the media.    Before dawn on election day, two other observers and I deployed to our first assigned polling station to watch the opening procedures. At a school in downtown Yerevan, I watched as the precinct chairwoman capably organized the precinct committee that worked together to prepare the space and voting materials for the arrival of the day’s first voters. The importance of orderliness at this particular polling station became evident within the hour when presidential security arrived to prepare for Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan to cast his vote there. Despite this exceptional circumstance, in other ways the experience at this polling station typified the voting I observed elsewhere throughout the day. I saw non-credentialed citizens hovering watchfully—and in violation of the electoral code—outside the polling station and engaging voters—likely local party officials keeping tabs on voter participation. Inside the polling place there was some overcrowding, a malfunctioning electronic voter authentication device, and modest voter confusion about the voting procedure, which involved selecting among nine separate ballots and optionally marking a candidate preference on the reverse side. I visited a total of seven polling places that day, stretching from downtown Yerevan to the shores of Lake Sevan and the surrounding hinterland 60km northeast of the capital. In larger precincts I witnessed large contingents of party proxies and citizen observers monitoring the vote. In several instances, citizen observers credentialed under the name of a local NGO turned out to be from foreign countries and were unable to explain to me the mission of their organization, highlighting the opaque origins of some citizen observation efforts. In most precincts I saw a mix of credentialed and non-credentialed individuals from political parties and local NGOs mingling inside and outside the polling station, engaging voters, and generally making their presence felt. Our day ended in Yerevan where we observed the closure procedure at a polling place where about 700 votes had been cast. The precinct chairwoman carefully walked the precinct committee through the process step by step, openly acknowledging to us the difficulty of carrying out the complex procedure for the first time. The tallying took place transparently in front of us and in full view of several local observers and party proxies that stayed late into the night to oversee the count. We had the opportunity, along with our fellow observers, to ask questions of the precinct chairwoman about how she and her team were adjudicating individual ballots and counting votes. Although my observations here are anecdotal, they are consistent with the preliminary findings and conclusions of the international election observation mission that the elections “were well administered and fundamental freedoms were generally respected” although the vote was “tainted by credible information about vote-buying and pressure on civil servants and employees of private companies.” The end result was a vote that suffered from “an overall lack of public confidence and trust.” (Read the full Statement of Preliminary Findings and Conclusions.)        While Armenia’s democracy took some important strides in the procedural conduct of this election, much work remains to be done. With the vote tallying complete, Armenia now embarks on a critical period of transition to a parliamentary system that will be fully realized at the end of the President’s final term in April 2018. All political actors, but particularly the new governing coalition, must shoulder their responsibilities to ensure that this new system of governance earns the trust of the public it serves. To build this trust, Armenia would benefit from a process of political evolution that accompanies its institutional transition and procedural reforms. Specifically, Armenia’s political parties and new parliament would do well to ensure a competition of ideas replaces the all too common clashes of personalities and patronage networks on display during this election.

  • Wicker: Celebrate First Amendment Religious Freedoms

    The First Amendment to our Constitution is a powerful expression of our right to the “free exercise” of religion. Americans can practice their faith without fear of persecution – a freedom that is not found in all parts of the world. For Christians in the United States, the prevalence of religious persecution worldwide is especially heartbreaking as we approach Easter Sunday. We are reminded of the suicide bomber who targeted Christians on Easter Sunday last year in Pakistan, killing more than 70 and injuring hundreds. Sadly, this violence is not isolated. Pakistan ranks fourth on this year’s World Watch List created by the nonprofit group Open Doors USA. The list names 50 countries that have extreme, very high and high persecution of Christians. North Korea ranked first. I currently serve as chairman of the U.S. Helsinki Commission, an agency comprised of members of Congress and federal officials to promote security and human rights in 57 countries in North America, Europe and Eurasia. The persecution of Christians and religious minorities remains a significant concern for the commission. In Syria, the Islamic State has waged a genocide against Christians, forcing thousands from their homes and destroying religious sites. In Russia, the government’s recent attempt to ban Jehovah’s Witnesses from practicing their faith is yet another affront to religious freedom in a country known for trampling human rights. Russia’s actions refute the international agreement that the U.S. Helsinki Commission seeks to uphold. I have consistently supported legislative measures to protect Americans’ constitutional freedoms, including the exercise of religion. Political agendas should not encroach these rights. During the Obama administration, for example, I championed legislation that would allow military chaplains to refrain from performing marriage ceremonies if it would violate their conscience to do so. The religious expression of our military men and women is deserving of respect. The same respect should be afforded to all Americans by our government agencies. I am encouraged by recent reports that President Trump is considering an executive order that would require federal agencies to protect the freedom of religion in their actions and policies. Earlier this month, I sent a letter with 17 other senators to President Trump expressing our support for this executive action and the need for federal agencies to follow the rule of law. The letter reminds the President of attempts by the Obama administration to infringe on the rights of faith-based charities like the Little Sisters of the Poor. Obamacare forced the group either to pay a fine or offer services that they opposed for deeply held religious reasons. A Supreme Court ruling reaffirmed the religious liberty of the Little Sisters, just as it did for the owners of Hobby Lobby, who also raised religious objections to the health-care law. Our founding documents built a foundation for religious liberty that is admired around the world. It is up to us to ensure that this foundation does not crumble. Roger Wicker is a U.S. Senator from Mississippi. Contact him at 330 W. Jefferson St., Tupelo, MS 38803 or call (662) 844-5010.

  • Russian Supreme Court Considers Outlawing Jehovah's Witness Worship

    The Russian Supreme Court could declare the Jehovah's Witnesses an extremist organization in a Wednesday hearing, a move that would lead to the seizure of the church's headquarters near St. Petersburg and the outlawing of the group’s organized worship. In advance of the hearing, international concern has grown. “If the Supreme Court rules in favour of the authorities, it will be the first such ruling by a court declaring a registered centralized religious organization to be ‘extremist,’” the UN human rights’ high commissioner's office said in a statement on Tuesday. The ruling would also cap off years of increased restrictions by the Russian Federation against minority religions. Last summer, Russia introduced an anti-terrorism law that also restricted evangelism, and a regional court ordered the deportation of six missionaries with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In 2015, a court banned the Church of Scientology’s Moscow branch. Under a Russian law passed in 1997, there is freedom of religion, but four faiths are designated to be traditional—Orthodox Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism—and other religious organizations must register with the government. Some groups, like Jehovah’s Witnesses, who are registered, still face bureaucratic and legal hurdles. Jehovah's Witness leaders estimate that there are 175,000 Russian-based adherents to the faith, which was founded in the United States the 1870s. Unlike Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox Christians, Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that Jesus is the son of God but do not believe in the Trinity. “They would basically be prosecuting Jehovah’s Witnesses as criminals,” David Semonian, international spokesperson for the Jehovah’s Witnesses, says of the pending court declaration. “Anyone who would actually would have our publications could be criminalized. It is of great concern.” Jehovah’s Witnesses have filed a counter claim asking the court to rule the Justice Ministry’s actions as political repression. A ruling in favor of the ministry would make it a crime for Jehovah’s Witnesses to worship in the Russian Federation and dissolve the faith’s legal means to own or rent Kingdom Halls, their places of worship. In 2015, the Russian Federation banned the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ website JW.org, and customs officials stopped shipments of Jehovah’s Witnesses’ Bibles, citing the possibility they were extremist literature. Last year, Russia threatened to close the group’s national headquarters. Roman Lunkin, a human rights fellow at the Wilson Center and an expert on church-state relations in Russia, says that Russian authorities have been targeting minority religions as “extremists” in an effort to demonstrate support for the Russian Orthodox Church and to marginalize organizations with suspected pro-western sympathies. "The treatment of the Jehovah’s Witnesses reflects the Russian government’s tendency to view all independent religious activity as a threat to its control and the country’s political stability," the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom said in a statement on Tuesday. “Jehovah’s Witnesses are no threat to either the Russian Orthodox Church or to the Russian Government,” Semonian says. “The constitution guarantees freedom of worship, and that is all we are asking, to have the same rights as other religious groups have so we can go about our ministry in a peaceful way.” Jehovah’s Witnesses are pacifists, and their religious beliefs require them to abstain from political activity. They declare allegiance only to God, not to a state or political entity. They do not vote, lobby, protest, or join military. This lack of participation can be seen as a threat if a state demands nationalist and patriotic activity. “The persecution of the Jehovah’s Witnesses is very much tied to the resurgence of a new view of nationalism, where everything within the state is fine, but anything outside of the state has to be crushed,” Kristina Arriaga de Bucholz, a U.S. commissioner for International Religious Freedom appointed by House Speaker Paul Ryan, says. “A pacifist group that tells its members that their allegiance is to something outside of the government is immediately a group that will be perceived as dangerous to the regime.” Other minority Christian groups in Russia, like evangelicals, have not yet faced the same level of scrutiny. Lunkin says it is impossible to accuse evangelicals of extremist activity because their literature and Bible translation matches that of the Russian Orthodox Church. Jehovah’s Witnesses have their own translation of the Bible, and they also have their own magazine and educational materials. Evangelicals also have closer relationships with government officials, he says. “It’s [about] a protection of traditional religions, and the Orthodox identity of Russian people,” Lunkin says. “But in fact it is about protecting personal power, because the main fear is changing of regimes in Russia.” Jehovah’s Witness church leadership has reached out to the U.S. State department’s Office of International Religious Freedom, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, and the U.S. Helsinki Commission for aid. “We will do everything within our legal means to have the judgment reversed,” Semonian says. “Jehovah’s Witnesses are known worldwide for our peaceful activities, and under no circumstances would we ever resort to violence or any other activity that could be misunderstood or considered extremist.” Jehovah’s Witness leaders have also asked their eight million members worldwide to write letters to Russia officials, including President Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, to ask them to intervene. Instructions tell writers to “be candid but respectful,” and to mention how the faith has benefited their families. “Keep in mind that ‘a mild answer turns away rage,’ and ‘a gentle tongue can break a bone,’” the instructions say, quoting the Biblical book of Proverbs. The decision will come as the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom is finalizing its annual report identifying countries of concern, its first such report for the Trump administration. The Commission is a bipartisan government advisory group that makes policy recommendations to the President, Congress, and the Secretary of State. Since 2009, the group has designated Russia as a “Tier 2” nation, on the watch list one step below countries of particular concern. “The fate of the Jehovah’s Witnesses is the fate of any religious group that does not pledge its allegiance to the Russian government,” Arriaga says. “April 5 will definitely mark a new chapter of religious persecution in post-Soviet Russia.”

  • Helsinki Commission Condemns Pending Legal Action against Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia

    WASHINGTON—Following the Russian government’s request for its Supreme Court to effectively ban Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia from worshipping, claiming that they are members of an “extremist organization,” Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS), Co-Chairman Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04), and Commissioner Rep. Richard Hudson (NC-08), issued the following statements: “It is wrong to apply flawed counterterrorism laws to those who seek to practice their faith,” said Chairman Wicker. “The Russian government is exploiting genuine threats of violent extremism to undermine what little religious freedom remains in that country. This distracts from real efforts to fight terrorism. I urge the Russian government to drop the case immediately.” “At stake in the upcoming court case is the legality and perhaps the survival of the Jehovah’s Witnesses—and in fact basic religious freedom—throughout the Russian Federation,” said Co-Chairman Smith. “If the Supreme Court of Russia declares this faith group an extremist organization, it is an ominous sign for all believers and it marks a dark, sad day for all Russians.” “As a staunch supporter of religious liberty, I am appalled by the Russian government treating an entire religious group as a threat to national security,” said Commissioner Hudson. “Religious affiliation should never be a justification for persecution.”  On March 15, the Russian Ministry of Justice filed a formal court claim to label the Administrative Center of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia an extremist group and liquidate their national headquarters and 395 local chapters, known as “local religious organizations.” Should the Russian Supreme Court decide against the Administrative Center, 175,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia could face criminal prosecution for practicing their faith.  According to the Helsinki Final Act signed by all 57 participating states of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe –  including Russia – “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.”

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