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Ongoing Election Challenges in Bosnia and Herzegovina
Monday, September 10, 2018

On October 7, 2018, Bosnia and Herzegovina will hold general elections for government offices at the state level, as well as for offices in each of the “entities” into which the country is politically divided (Bosnian Federation and Republika Srpska), and finally within each of the 10 cantons that make up the Federation.  These elections mark a continuing transition to democratic norms, including respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms as well as adherence to the rule of law, detailed in OSCE commitments.

Unfortunately, the challenges faced by a country in its transition have been complicated in Bosnia by the lingering effects of the 1992-1995 conflict, where all sides—primarily but not exclusively Serb nationalist forces—targeted civilians in ethnic cleansing campaigns. These atrocities, which included the genocide at Srebrenica in July 1995, resulted in the displacement of about half the country’s population, the deaths of approximately 100,000 individuals, and the torture or mass rape of thousands more. More than 20 years later, it would be a mistake to underestimate the social scars associated with such a traumatic experience in a country of 3 to 4 million people.   

The most visible artifact of the conflict, however, is not those scars but the political system in which the upcoming elections will be held. Peace was restored by a combination of outside intervention and concessions at the negotiating table; the resulting constitutional arrangement contained in Annex IV of the Dayton Peace Agreement remains in place today.

This arrangement includes allowing only those declaring their affiliation with one of the three main ethnic groups or constituent peoples—Bosniaks, Serbs, and Croats—to stand for election to a seat on the state-level presidency or in the House of Peoples of the country’s parliament. Even then, citizens are only eligible if they also live in the right place; Bosniaks and Croats must also reside in the Bosnian Federation and Serbs must reside in Republika Srpska.

In 2009, the European Court of Human Rights ruled in favor of two Bosnian citizens, Dervo Sejdic and Jacob Finci, who were ineligible to run as presidential candidates because they do not affiliate with one of the three recognized groups; they are Romani and Jewish respectively. In 2016, Ilijaz Pilav won a similar case at the court when he was denied the chance to run because he is a Bosniak who lives in Republika Srpska. Two years earlier, Azra Zornic also won her ECHR case against Bosnia after she was declared ineligible for not declaring her ethnic affiliation. 

Despite these court victories in Strasbourg, discrimination in Bosnia and Herzegovina continues. Between Bosnian citizens who do not belong to any of the three constituent peoples, Bosniaks and Croats residing in in Republika Srpska, Serbs residing in the Bosnian Federation, and an unknown number of those like Zornic who do not wish to identify on the basis of ethnicity, more than 300,000 Bosnian citizens are denied the right to stand for election to the Bosnian Presidency or seek a seat in the state-level House of Peoples.

The October 2018 elections are further complicated by the 2017 decision of Bosnia’s constitutional court that the mechanism for establishing the Bosnian Federation’s own House of Peoples was unconstitutional and by the annulment of relevant portions of the electoral code. In this case, the claim was made that existing practices had disadvantaged ethnic Croat voters. In early 2018, political talks under international auspices failed to produce a solution, largely due to a desire by those seeking to maintain political power to further entrench ethnicity as a defining factor into the system. The result could be a political crisis after the elections if the Bosnian Federation parliament cannot convene, leading to a similar situation at the state level.

In July 2018, a congressional delegation organized by the U.S. Helsinki Commission visited Bosnia and Herzegovina. Nine Members of Congress met with Sejdic, Finci, and Pilav, as well as civil society representatives and others, to learn more about the ethnic barriers to effective exercise by citizens of their human rights and fundamental freedoms.


The nine-member congressional delegation and U.S. Ambassador Maureen Cormack with Dr. Ilijaz Pilav, Ambassador Jacob Finci, and Mr. Dervo Sejdic in Sarajevo. 

At the end of the visit, the head of the delegation and Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) concluded, “The discriminatory ethnic criteria that prevent some Roma, Jewish, Serbs in the Federation, Croats and Bosniaks in the Republika Srpska, and other citizens who do not self-identify with a group from seeking certain public offices is unacceptable and can easily be addressed… We hope for progress on electoral reform, in line with accepted norms for free and fair elections, so that election results can be implemented and a government formed. We are dismayed at the lack of political diversity within some of the main ethnic groups in this country, and take issue with those who argue they are entitled to a monopoly in representing those groups.” 

The congressional delegation expressed frustration over the lack of progress with the current state presidency. It also asked the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, meeting in Berlin later that month, to maintain a strong focus on Bosnia and Herzegovina and to send a robust election observation mission to the country in October.

Of course, Bosnia’s woes go beyond this issue. Republika Srpska officials continue to undermine the country’s state-level institutions to justify an agenda that is not only openly separatist but, as evidenced by the recent revocation of a 2004 report acknowledging he massacre at Srebrenica, also highly nationalistic. One political party seeks define ethnic privileges that would essentially allow it alone to represent Bosnia’s Croat population. Bosniak political leaders, while perhaps more flexible regarding non-ethnic political options, nevertheless seem content representing the country’s primary victims from the conflict period as they remain in power and engage, as do the others, in widespread corruption. Malign outside influences, including Russia, thrive on the Bosnia’s political impasse. 

Getting elections right—at this most fundamental level in addition to their overall conduct—is critical and perhaps the best place to start the larger reform effort Bosnia needs. Unless this happens, the country, which is estimated to have the world’s highest youth unemployment rate at well over 50 percent, will see its most talented citizens future vote with their feet, and exercise the right they retain as individuals, regardless of ethnicity, to leave the country behind for a future elsewhere.

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

  • Helsinki Commission Chairman Condemns Mob Attacks on Roma in Europe

    WASHINGTON—Following reports of a mob attack against the Roma community and a police station in Gabrovo, Bulgaria, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) today issued the following statement: “I am very disturbed by the increasing frequency of mob attacks on Roma in Europe—most recently in Bulgaria, but also in Italy, France, and the Czech Republic. Governments must do more to counter the corrosive effects of hate-mongering and protect their most vulnerable communities from bias-motivated crimes. “The violence in Bulgaria is particularly concerning. As they say in the horror movies, ‘the call is coming from inside your house.’ An attack on a government institution like a police station is an attack on democracy itself.” Reports indicate that earlier this week, an anti-Roma group attacked the police station in Gabrovo when officers refused to turn over three Roma to the mob following an altercation at a local shop. Some Romaní homes were subsequently destroyed. The attack comes on the heels of recent anti-Roma rhetoric at the highest levels of the Government of Bulgaria. In February, Bulgarian Defense Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Krasimir Karakachanov proposed offering free abortions to limit the Roma birthrate. In early April, a mob attacked 70 Roma, including children, in a suburb of Rome, Italy. Prosecutors have opened an investigation into the attack.  Similar attacks on Roma in the town of Dvorec in the Czech Republic forced a Romani family to leave the area. Three Romani children were subsequently attacked in the Czech village of Lipník nad Bečvou. In France in late March, false kidnapping accusations against Roma circulated on social media were associated with gang attacks on Roma in France. Local police issued statements to quell the disinformation. 

  • Hastings, Wicker, Watkins, and Cardin Introduce Resolutions Celebrating Romani American Heritage

    WASHINGTON—Ahead of International Roma Day on April 8, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20), Sen. Roger Wicker (MS), Rep. Steve Watkins (KS-02), and Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) introduced resolutions in the U.S. House of Representatives (H.Res.292) and the U.S. Senate (S.Res.141) celebrating Romani American heritage. They issued the following joint statement: “Roma enrich the fabric of our nation. They have been part of every wave of European migration to the United States since the colonial period, tying our country to Europe and building the transatlantic bond. Through this resolution, we celebrate our shared history and applaud the efforts to promote transnational cooperation among Roma at the historic First World Romani Congress on April 8, 1971.” In addition to recognizing and celebrating Romani American heritage and International Roma Day, the resolutions commemorate the 75th anniversary of the destruction of the so-called “Gypsy Family Camp” at Auschwitz when, on August 2-3, 1944, Nazis murdered between 4,200 and 4,300 Romani men, women, and children in gas chambers in a single night. They also commend the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum for its critically important role in promoting remembrance of the Holocaust and educating audiences about the genocide of Roma. April 8 is recognized as “International Roma Day” around the world. It celebrates Romani culture and raises awareness of the issues facing Romani people. 

  • Chairman Hastings Introduces Bill to Protect and Promote Rights of People of African Descent Worldwide

    WASHINGTON—Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) yesterday introduced H.R.1877, the African Descent Affairs Act of 2019. The bill would establish a U.S. strategy to protect and promote the human rights of people of African descent worldwide. “The vestiges of colonialism and slavery continue to negatively affect people of African descent around the world, resulting in continuing racial bias and discrimination,” said Chairman Hastings. “We must reverse these disturbing trends and facilitate the full and equal participation of people of African descent in our societies, promote knowledge of and respect for the diverse heritage, culture, and contributions of people of African descent, and strengthen and implement legal frameworks that combat racial discrimination.” The African Descent Affairs Act would establish an Office of Global African Descent Affairs at the U.S. State Department to develop global foreign policy and assistance strategies beyond the African continent. The bill also would create a fund to support antidiscrimination and empowerment efforts by civil society organizations; require annual State Department human rights reports to include a section on discrimination faced by people of African descent; and create similar initiatives at the United States Agency for International Development.  Previous State Department initiatives such as the Office of Global Women's Issues, the Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism, and special programs focusing on disability, LGBTQ+ and other communities helped aid other vulnerable populations around the world and inspired Chairman Hastings’ measure. “Across the globe we find racial disparities between those of African descent and other populations in education, employment, health, housing, justice, and other sectors. At the same time, hate crimes and racial profiling targeting black populations are increasing; this affects not only local populations, but also our diverse American military, diplomats, and students traveling abroad,” said Chairman Hastings. “A global strategy ensures we are monitoring whether countries around the world are providing equal protections and opportunity to all within their borders, and also strengthens black communities as they engage with their governments to address these issues.” In 2008, Chairman Hastings first drew attention to continuing issues of racism and discrimination in Europe and North America at a Helsinki Commission hearing on racism in the 21st century. Over the past decade, the Helsinki Commission has continued to highlight the challenges faced by diverse populations on both sides of the Atlantic, most recently through a September 2018 briefing on race, rights, and politics in the European Union.

  • Chairman Hastings Recognizes Black European Fight for Inclusion

    WASHINGTON—As the world commemorates the International Decade for People of African Descent, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) yesterday introduced H.Res.256, recognizing the achievements and contributions of people of African descent and black Europeans in the face of persistent racism and discrimination. H.Res.256 encourages the celebration of the collective history and achievements of those of African descent in Europe. It supports efforts by the European Parliament, the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, and the U.S. Congress to promote racial equality and combat racial discrimination. It also encourages European governments and members of civil society and the private sector to work with black European communities to implement national strategies to address inequality and racism, and urges the U.S. government to support such efforts. “While the presence of blacks in Europe can be traced to enslavement, colonization, military deployments, voluntary or forced migration, the movement of refugees and asylum seekers, or educational and other professional exchanges, the story of Europeans of African descent and black Europeans still remains largely untold, rendering many of their past and present contributions unseen or forgotten,” said Chairman Hastings. “This is unacceptable.”   The resolution endorses recommendations to overcome racial disparities in Europe made at the 2018 People of African Descent Week. Yesterday, the European Parliament passed a similar resolution recognizing that African descendants have long been a part of the fabric of Europe, and seeking to address findings on discrimination and harassment documented in the European Union’s Fundamental Rights Agency report, “Being Black in the EU.” The European Parliament resolution calls on EU Member State governments to acknowledge and address the impact of enslavement, forced labor, racial apartheid, massacre, and genocide in the context of European colonialism and the transatlantic slave trade, and for the EU to develop strategies to address structural racism and underrepresentation in EU institutions. In 2008, Chairman Hastings first drew attention to the racism and discrimination faced by black Europeans during a Helsinki Commission hearing. In 2009, Chairman Hastings co-hosted the Black European Summit in Brussels, bringing together black and minority political and intellectual leaders to discuss barriers to political participation and strategies for inclusion. Over the past decade, the Helsinki Commission has continued to highlight the challenges faced by black and minority populations in Europe, most recently through a September 2018 briefing on race, rights, and politics in the European Union.

  • Chairman Hastings Welcomes Release of Country Reports on Human Rights

    WASHINGTON—Following yesterday’s release by the State Department of the Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2018, Helsinki Commission Chair Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) issued the following statement: “I welcome the release of this year’s Country Reports on Human Rights Practices. These reports, mandated by law and prepared by the Department of State, exemplify Congress’ intent to keep human rights front and center in U.S. foreign policy. As members of Congress consider foreign assistance and military aid, as we build alliances and take the measure of our foes,  these reports help ensure that democracy and fundamental freedoms are given full consideration.” The annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices cover internationally recognized individual, civil, political, and worker rights, as set forth in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international agreements. The State Department must submit these reports to Congress on an annual basis, in accordance with the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 and the Trade Act of 1974, which require that U.S. foreign and trade policy take into account countries’ performance in the areas of human rights and workers’ rights.

  • Remembering Boris Nemtsov

    Madam President, on Sunday, February 24, thousands of people marched in Moscow and in cities across Russia to remember Boris Nemtsov, a Russian statesman and friend of freedom who was gunned down in sight of the Kremlin walls 4 years ago. These people were honoring a Russian patriot who stood for a better future--a man who, after leaving the pinnacle of government, chose a courageous path of service to his country and his fellow Russians. Boris Nemtsov was a man who walked the walk. When others were silent out of fear or complicity, he stood up for a future in which the Russian people need not risk jail or worse for simply wanting a say in how their country is run. Sadly, since Mr. Nemtsov's assassination, the risks of standing up for what is right have grown in Russia. With every passing month, ordinary citizens there become political prisoners for doing what we take for granted here in the United States--associating with a political cause or worshipping God according to the dictates of one's conscience. Last month alone, in a high-profile case, a mother was jailed for the crime of being a political activist in Russia. She was kept from caring for her critically ill daughter until just hours before her daughter died. Jehovah's Witnesses have been sentenced to years behind bars for practicing their faith. Also, a leader of a small anti-corruption organization was beaten to death with metal rods on the outskirts of Moscow. This was all just in February, and it is not even a comprehensive account of the Russian state's using its powers not against real enemies but against its own people--peaceful citizens doing what peaceful citizens do. As for the Nemtsov assassination, 4 years later, justice has yet to be served. It appears that President Putin and his cronies have little interest in uncovering and punishing the masterminds behind Russia's highest profile killing in recent memory. While a few perpetrators who had been linked to the Kremlin-appointed leader of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, were convicted and sent to prison, Mr. Nemtsov's family, friends, and legal team believe the organizers of his murder remain unidentified and at large. I understand that Russia's top investigative official has prevented his subordinates from indicting a close Kadyrov associate, Major Ruslan Geremeyev, as an organizer in the assassination, and the information linking Geremeyev to Mr. Nemtsov's murder was credible enough for a NATO ally to place Geremeyev on its sanctions list. Yet there has still been no indictment. Russian security services continue to forbid the release of footage from cameras at the site of the assassination. Russian legal authorities refuse to classify the assassination of a prominent opposition leader and former First Deputy Prime Minister as a political crime. Despite all of this, they have declared the case solved. Given this pattern of deliberate inaction on the part of Russian authorities, the need for some accountability outside of Russia has grown more urgent. Russia and the United States are participating States in the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, or the OSCE, and have agreed that matters of justice and human rights are of enough importance to be of legitimate interest to other member states. Respect for these principles inside a country is often a predictor of the country's external behavior. So countries such as ours have a reason to be involved. At the recent meeting of the OSCE's Parliamentary Assembly, we began a formal inquiry into Mr. Nemtsov's unsolved murder and have appointed a rapporteur to review and report on the circumstances of the Nemtsov assassination as well as on the progress of the Russian investigation. As the chair of the U.S. delegation to the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, I supported this process from its conception at an event I cohosted last July in Berlin. Yet, as the United States of America, there is more we can do. To that end, I am glad to cosponsor a resolution with my Senate colleagues that calls on our own government to report back to Congress on what we know of the circumstances around Boris Nemtsov's murder. This resolution also calls on the Treasury Department to use tools like the Magnitsky Act to sanction individuals who have been linked to this brutal murder, such as Ruslan Geremeyev. We hear constantly from Russian opposition figures and civic activists that personal sanctions, such as those imposed by the Magnitsky Act, have a deterrent effect. Vladimir Putin has made it abundantly clear that these sanctions, based on personal accountability, are more of a threat to his regime than blunter tools, such as sectoral sanctions, that often feed his propaganda and end up harming the same people we are trying to help in Russia—innocent citizens. To its credit, the Trump administration has done a better job than had the previous administration in its implementing of the new mandates and powers Congress authorized in both the Russia and Global Magnitsky Acts. We are in a much different place than we were when these tools were originally envisaged nearly 10 years ago. The administration is mandated to update the Magnitsky Act's list annually, with there being a deadline in December that sometimes slips into January. Now it is already March, and we have yet to see any new designations under the law that the late Mr. Nemtsov himself called the most pro-Russian law ever adopted in a foreign legislature. While the law has been lauded by Russian democrats, it is rightly despised by those like Vladimir Putin who abuse and steal from the American people. Recall that it was at the Helsinki summit late last summer between the leaders of Russia and the United States of America—perhaps the grandest stage in U.S.-Russian relations in a decade—where Mr. Putin himself requested that his investigators be able to depose U.S. officials most closely associated with passing and implementing the Magnitsky law, as if they were criminals. We need to show the Russian dictator that this sort of bullying will not stand and that we will continue to implement the Magnitsky Act thoroughly and fairly. A year ago, I participated—along with many of my colleagues in the House and Senate—in the unveiling of Boris Nemtsov Plaza in front of the Russian Embassy here in Washington, DC—the first official memorial to Boris Nemtsov anywhere in the world. One day, I hope there will be memorials to Boris Nemtsov all across Russia, but the best tribute to his memory will be a Russia he wanted to see, a just and prosperous Russia, at peace with its neighbors and a partner with the United States. I yield the floor.

  • Wicker, Cardin Condemn Detention of Russian Activist Nastya Shevchenko

    WASHINGTON—Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) and Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) today issued the following statements on the detention of Anastasia (Nastya) Shevchenko, a human rights activist with the Open Russia organization, who was placed under house arrest on January 23: “No one should face jail time for peaceful advocacy,” said Sen. Wicker. “The callous and cruel treatment of Nastya Shevchenko by Russian authorities is a disturbing tactic to silence a citizen-activist.” “The Russian authorities must release Nastya Shevchenko,” said Sen. Cardin. “It should not be a crime to advocate for the best interests of one’s country and fellow citizens.” Shevchenko is the first Russian to face criminal charges under Russia’s 2015 “undesirable organizations” law, which is intended to prevent NGOs based outside of Russia from operating within the country. A single mother, she was prevented from visiting her critically-ill special needs daughter until shortly before her daughter’s death at the end of January. Open Russia is a Russian-led, Russia-based organization that advocates for greater government transparency and accountability. Amnesty International has declared Shevchenko a prisoner of conscience.

  • Lies, Bots, and Social Media

    From the latest revelations about Facebook to ongoing concerns over the integrity of online information, the U.S. public has never been more vulnerable or exposed to computational propaganda: the threat posed by sophisticated botnets able to post, comment on, and influence social media and other web outlets to generate a desired outcome or simply sow distrust and disorder.  What can be done to confront and defeat these malevolent actors before they dominate civil discourse on the Internet? One possibility is the use of algorithmic signal reading which displays for users the geographic origin of a given post. Another answer may lie in improving how websites like Facebook curate their content, so the user can make more informed choices.  At this Helsinki Commission briefing, distinguished experts examined the implications of computational propaganda on national and international politics and explored options available to Congress and the private sector to confront and negate its pernicious influence.

  • Helsinki Commission Briefing to Examine Computational Propaganda

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following briefing:   LIES, BOTS, AND SOCIAL MEDIA What is Computational Propaganda and How Do We Defeat It? Thursday, November 29, 2018 10:30 a.m. Senate Dirksen Office Building Room 562 Live Webcast: www.facebook.com/HelsinkiCommission From the latest revelations about Facebook to ongoing concerns over the integrity of online information, the U.S. public has never been more vulnerable or exposed to computational propaganda: the threat posed by sophisticated botnets able to post, comment on, and influence social media and other web outlets to generate a desired outcome or simply sow distrust and disorder.  What can be done to confront and defeat these malevolent actors before they dominate civil discourse on the Internet? One possibility is the use of algorithmic signal reading which displays for users the geographic origin of a given post. Another answer may lie in improving how websites like Facebook curate their content, so the user can make more informed choices.  At this Helsinki Commission briefing, distinguished experts will examine the implications of computational propaganda on national and international politics and explore options available to Congress and the private sector to confront and negate its pernicious influence. Expert panelists scheduled to participate include: Matt Chessen, Acting Deputy Science and Technology Advisor to the Secretary of State, U.S. Department of State Karen Kornbluh, Senior Fellow and Director, Technology Policy Program, The German Marshall Fund of the United States Nina Jankowicz, Global Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars' Kennan Institute

  • Interview with Georgia Holmer, Senior Adviser for Anti-Terrorism Issues, Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe

    By Yena Seo, Communications Fellow Georgia Holmer, an expert on counterterrorism policy, recently visited the Helsinki Commission offices to discuss her portfolio at the Anti-Terrorism Issues Unit in the Transnational Threat Department at the OSCE Secretariat. At the OSCE, she oversees policy support and capacity building work on preventing and countering violent extremism and radicalization that lead to terrorism (VERLT). Ms. Holmer gave a short interview on her position at the OSCE and explained why she sees a human-rights based approach to counterterrorism to be critical. Holmer, who has worked on counterterrorism issues for over 20 years, observed that she “lived through an evolution in the U.S. government’s approach to terrorism that was quite extraordinary.” After spending 10 years as a terrorism analyst for the FBI, Holmer helped build analytic capacity at the Department of Homeland Security and taught classes on understanding radicalization. Later she directed the Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) program at the United States Institute of Peace, where she helped develop a strategic approach to violent extremism that harnessed peacebuilding tools. “We went from approaching terrorism as a security threat in which operations needed to be disrupted to realizing that there also had to be something done to prevent people from joining these groups and movements in the first place,” Holmer explained. “Not only did we begin to understand and address the root causes of terrorism but increasingly there was a realization that repressive measures in counterterrorism could actually exacerbate the problem. Upholding human rights as part of the effort to counter terrorism is necessary and can contribute to preventing violence in the long term.” Holmer acknowledged some of the pitfalls and counterproductive measures to be avoided in counterterrorism: a lack of due process and clear legislation, abusive treatment in detention facilities, and stigma and censorship against certain religious and ethnic groups can also fuel terrorist agendas and draw more people to violent extremism. These ideas led Holmer to pursue a degree mid-career in international human rights law at Oxford University. In 2017, Holmer was offered a position at the OSCE, and was drawn to its comprehensive approach to security. “I thought, here is a chance to work for an organization that had both a counterterrorism mandate and a human rights mandate. I think it’s a necessary marriage.” She sees the work she does in the prevention of VERLT to be directly relevant to human rights. “Programs to prevent radicalization that leads to terrorism not only ensure security, but they also help build more inclusive, resilient and engaged communities. This can also be understood inversely – upholding human rights is a pathway to preventing terrorism.” Holmer was further drawn to the OSCE because of its operational focus, pointing to the organization’s robust field operations presence. She stressed that the organization’s “on-the-ground presence” – particularly in the Western Balkans and Central Asia – allows it to develop close working relationships with governments and policymakers, giving it “a different level of reach.” For example, OSCE field missions in Dushanbe and Skopje have helped to convene stakeholders for important discussions, coordinate funders, and organize external partners for project implementation. Holmer considers the OSCE’s structure a strength when it comes to countering violent extremism. Holmer explained that because the OSCE is a political organization, its structure and activities invite states and other stakeholders to exchange ideas frankly. The OSCE’s annual counterterrorism conferences allow participating States to share opinions in a productive and meaningful manner. The OSCE frequently convenes policy makers and practitioners from its participating States to discuss measures to prevent radicalization leading to terrorism. Various seminars, workshops, and conferences have introduced concepts of prevention and helped advance the role of civil society in countering violent extremism. Holmer observed that while there is no “one-size-fits-all solution,” the organization regularly emphasizes the sharing and implementation of good practices. She also added that sharing good practices is only effective when efforts are made to tailor responses and approaches to a specific context. Measures to prevent need to incorporate an understanding of the nature of the threat in any given environment. She said the ways that individuals radicalize and the dynamics that influence people to become engaged in violent extremism differ. “What works in a rural village in Bosnia-Herzegovina versus what might work in Tajikistan might be completely different.” Holmer believes that through her role as Senior Adviser, she can continue working with member states to pursue “good practices” in the prevention of VERLT and support anti-terrorism within a human rights framework. “The aim of our work at the OSCE is to support participating states with the tools, the policy and legal frameworks they need to address these complicated challenges.” For more information, contact Alex Tiersky, Senior Policy Advisor for Global Security and Political-Military Affairs.

  • First Person: Faces of Ukraine

    By Rachel Bauman, Policy Advisor In the ongoing war in Donbas, now entering its fifth year, most of the people on the front lines—in some cases, literally—of Ukraine’s struggle for democracy and sovereignty go unnoticed. Minorities like Roma also often have special challenges that must be comprehensively addressed in Ukraine as well as Europe more broadly.  To meet some of these Ukrainians and hear their stories firsthand, I, along with my colleagues Mark Toner and Alex Tiersky and Dr. Cory Welt of the Congressional Research Service, traveled to Ukraine to gain a more nuanced understanding of war, politics, and everyday life in Ukraine. We were up before dawn for our first working day in Ukraine to make our way from the Kiev train station to Kramatorsk, a small industrial city in Donetsk Oblast that was briefly occupied by Russian-led forces in the early days of Russia’s war against Ukraine.  Kramatorsk and its surrounding regions are home to many internally displaced persons (IDPs) forced out of their homes by frequent shelling along the contact line separating Ukrainian government-controlled areas and Russian-occupied territories.  Our first meeting that day vividly illustrated the destruction this senseless war has unleashed on the lives of average Ukrainians.  Together with representatives of the International Organization for Migration (IOM), which receives generous support from the U.S. Government, and U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch, we heard stories of struggle, tragedy, and resilience from some recipients of this aid. One man told us that the cash-based assistance he received helped him make vital repairs to his car and house and buy clothing and food for his six children.  Two sisters expressed their gratitude for the small business grant they received, which allowed them to start anew when they realized they could not return to their home in Horlivka.  A tearful single mother recounted her struggle to subsist after her house was destroyed.  Another woman described the terrible nights spent in her basement seeking shelter from shelling.  All of them talked about the difficulties they faced—from long lines in harsh weather conditions to landmines and shelling—when trying to visit their families and homes on the other side of the contact line.  Despite these traumatic and life-altering circumstances, the support of the United States and international and local religious programs have enabled these IDPs to start a new life in another part of Ukraine. Our meeting with IDPs in Kramatorsk, Donetsk Oblast, along with U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch We learned more about the conditions of IDPs in Kramatorsk from city representatives.  The group expressed their concerns about the high rent and limited housing opportunities in Kramatorsk that make it hard for IDPs to live there permanently.  Of the 70,000 IDPs registered in Kramatorsk (a city of originally 120,000), only 50 percent live in the city. The other half are registered for benefits but continue to live in their homes along the line of contact or in the occupied zones. Those who live on the Russian-controlled side of the contact line must endure the arduous task of monthly travel to the other side to collect their benefits, including pensions. Crossing the line has become so dangerous and stressful that some of the IDPs we met earlier said that, although they had friends and family on the other side of the contact line, they have stopped trying to cross it. We were as impressed by the resiliency of these displaced people and the NGOs that have sprung up to help them with their legal and humanitarian needs as we were struck by the bleak outlook so many of them have for a peaceful, prosperous future. I also visited a small town about two hours from Kyiv with a sizeable Romani population to hear from the people themselves what it is like to live as a minority group in rural Ukraine.  The brisk weather and overcast sky mirrored the gloominess and poverty of the town compared to Kyiv.  Since we arrived early, a Romani woman invited us into the small house where she lived with her partner and nine children.  She explained that she was having difficulty securing government benefits for her children, who were already living in poverty.  She watched over the house and children, and her partner had a chronic disease which rendered him unable to work, so they survived thanks to the charity of several religious organizations and the government payments they received.  I heard similar stories about troubled relations with the regional and national governments from other members of the Roma community.  We met in the town library, a small, worn-down Soviet relic with no indoor plumbing that also serves as a local government office.  A portrait of Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and the Ukrainian trident adorned the wall behind the desk in the room.  A group of local Roma, some with small children, came in and sat down, speaking among themselves in Russian and Ukrainian.  A colleague from the U.S. Embassy and I introduced ourselves and began to ask questions about life for Roma in the town.  Everyone in the room insisted that they had no problems with their non-Romani neighbors, but noted that unemployment was a persistent problem; most adults in the group were illiterate or had only an elementary-level education.  Women generally tended to the children and the home, and the men foraged for mushrooms and berries or picked through trash for scrap metal and empty bottles.  They said that all their school-age children, in spite of their difficult circumstances, were enrolled in the local school.  Some mothers complained of discriminatory treatment toward Roma children in schools but emphasized that this meant slightly preferential treatment for non-Roma children rather than outright abuse.  They vehemently denied experiencing any incidents of nationalist violence in their isolated village, like those that have occurred in and around larger cities like Lviv and Kyiv. One of the Romani women that we met with invited us into her home, which she shares with her partner and nine children The group became visibly agitated when discussing their relationship with the government and their attempts to receive social services.  To receive these services, they need to file a declaration of income; since their incomes are typically irregular, government officials will write in a higher income than exists in reality, affecting their social payments.  Those who are illiterate are easily taken advantage of by regional officials (“they laugh at us,” one woman said), and often must sign documents they don’t understand.  Demands of some government officials for bribes also impede equitable access to social services for those who cannot afford to pay, one person mentioned.  There were mixed responses about healthcare access.  One man said that he had been denied hospitalization three times, but most others claimed they had no problems, and all the women who were mothers had given birth in the nearest hospital.  The village library where we met with members of the Romani community This group of Roma has a great advocate in the form of Valentyna Zolotarenko, who accompanied us on our visit.  She lives in Kyiv and serves as a liaison between Roma communities and the national government, representing their interests with care, understanding, and firmness.  Local government has also done a good job of ensuring that members of the Romani community have citizenship papers and proper documentation.  A local official who is particularly invested in the community told us upon departing of her personal concern for Roma in her town.  “I imagine how it would be if I were the one being treated this way,” she told us in Russian.  “I cannot simply do nothing—these people are people just like you and me.” Throughout our trip, we met numerous such people who are invested in the fight for Ukraine’s future, whether through civic activism, politics, or business.  We saw victims of a cruel and unnecessary conflict instigated and perpetuated by Russia, but we also saw courage, resilience, and a sense among civil society that there could be no turning back on human rights and other reforms.  It was an honor to witness the good work that Ukrainian NGOs, many supported with U.S. assistance, are doing to make a clear difference in the lives of others.

  • The Cold War Is Over, But The OSCE's Value Is Timeless

    History has shown that robust engagement in multilateral arenas represents long-term realism: to lead, we must be involved; to protect our national interests and the principles we hold dear, we must remain engaged; and to inspire those who suffer every day under authoritarian regimes, we must hold our own country to the highest standards on the world stage. Unfortunately, efforts to maintain America’s preeminence in the world have come under increasing pressure in recent years. These challenges are not isolated and are waged on many fronts – economically, militarily, and diplomatically. Some may use these challenges as an excuse to retreat, claiming that engagement in international organizations like the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) adds no value. We believe that quite the opposite is true. If we want to continue to lead, protect, and inspire, we need the OSCE’s opportunities for multilateral engagement more than ever. Amid the alphabet soup of institutional acronyms, many Americans probably have not heard of the OSCE, let alone know that it is the largest regional security organization in the world. Comprising 57 countries, it links Vancouver in the West to Vladivostok in the East, spanning North America, Europe, and Central Asia. We are members of the organization’s Parliamentary Assembly, where we have represented our country and our principles in a forum of international lawmakers for a combined 34 years. We have engaged the OSCE, as a whole, even longer. We know firsthand the value of U.S. leadership and sustained high-level engagement in the organization – and conversely, we know the enormous risks that would come with retreat. A Broader Definition of Security The essential, enduring value of the OSCE can be traced back to its founding and the ideological transformation that it quietly unleashed. In the 1950s, the Soviet Union first conceived the idea of the Helsinki Final Act. The founding charter of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, or CSCE, later institutionalized as today’s OSCE, would eventually be signed in 1975. Moscow saw the document as a way to validate post-World War II border changes and tighten its stranglehold on Eastern Europe. The Kremlin, no doubt, also hoped to create an alternative to NATO and weaken U.S. ties to Europe. As troops massed along the Iron Curtain after the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, Europe began to see some value in greater East-West engagement. The United States saw the Soviet proposal as a damage-mitigation exercise at best. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger famously decried the Helsinki Final Act, saying, “They can write it in Swahili for all I care… The Conference can never end up with a meaningful document.” Opposition to the Helsinki Final Act was not limited to Foggy Bottom. The Wall Street Journal published the editorial “Jerry, Don’t Go” just prior to President Ford’s departure to sign the document in Finland, reflecting widespread opposition from U.S. foreign policy hawks and Americans across the country who descended from the “captive nations” of Eastern Europe. What most observers at the time overlooked, however, was the Helsinki Final Act’s uniquely comprehensive definition of “security.” The Act contains 10 principles guiding inter-state relations, including respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms; respect for sovereign equality; recognition of the territorial integrity of states; and the commitment of states to fulfill in good faith their obligations under international law. The integration of human rights into a concept of security was revolutionary. The Act also provided that any country signatory could publicly challenge any other country that wasn’t living up to Helsinki principles, either internally or externally. This was remarkable for its time. These two innovations made the Act a rallying point for human rights advocates everywhere, especially dissident movements in the one-party communist states of the Soviet bloc. Groups like Charter 77 in Czechoslovakia, Solidarity in Poland, and other monitoring groups in the Soviet Union and Baltic States that were crucial to the eventual collapse of communism in Europe relied on Helsinki commitments in their advocacy. With U.S. leadership, meetings of the CSCE also became venues for frank exchanges, where countries committing human rights abuses were named and victims identified. The strongest weapons in the U.S. arsenal – democratic ideals, market principles, and the primacy of individual rights – rallied European friends and allies, attracted Soviet satellites, and left Moscow isolated, if not fully convinced. Today's Inflection Point We were both serving in the House of Representatives shortly after the Soviet Union collapsed in the early 1990s. We were aware that the transitions ahead would be difficult, particularly as horrific ethnic cleansing spread in the Balkans and a brutal war was waged in Chechnya. Although we were on opposite sides of the aisle, we were joined in our conviction that liberal democracy would ultimately prevail throughout Europe and into Central Asia. Unfortunately, our confidence was dramatically misplaced. Thirty years later, instead of the peace and prosperity we expected in the OSCE region, we are at an inflection point, faced with uncertainty and the increasing erosion of the security framework that followed the Cold War. In recent elections, we’ve watched nationalist parties gain a strong foothold in Europe. NATO ally Turkey – one of the world’s most oppressive regimes toward journalists – is succumbing to authoritarian rule, weakening checks on executive power and targeting more than 100,000 perceived opponents of the ruling party in sweeping purges. Vladimir Putin continues to violate the sovereignty and territorial integrity of not just Ukraine – where, in areas controlled by Russia, pro-Ukrainian sentiment is met with imprisonment, torture, or death – but also Georgia, where Russia has occupied 20 percent of the country’s territory for more than a decade. The Russian government supports separatists in the Transnistrian region of Moldova, interferes in elections in the United States and Europe, and undermines faith in democratic governments worldwide through cyberattacks and information warfare. An era of increasing nationalism, Kremlin revisionism, and rising authoritarianism may not, at first, seem to be the best moment to revitalize multilateral diplomacy. But it has been, and will continue to be, in our national interest to promote democracy, the rule of law, and human rights around the world – just as we did more than 40 years ago in the Finnish capital. Those Helsinki commitments, and their institutionalization over time, empower us to stand up for our values and for comprehensive security at a time in which we absolutely must. In April 2017, we – along with every other senator currently serving on the Helsinki Commission – introduced a resolution urging President Trump to recognize the importance of the Helsinki Final Act and the OSCE as well as their relevance to American national security. We hope the administration will endorse this effort. A Record of Results The value of the OSCE and the effectiveness of American involvement are evident in the organization’s more recent evolution and achievements. This is no Cold War relic. We have seen examples of multilateral success in many initiatives, beginning with its quick embrace of newly independent states, from the Balkans to Eastern Europe and Central Asia. As multiethnic states broke apart, the OSCE created a high commissioner on national minorities in 1992 to address ethnic tensions and proactively prevent conflict between or within states over national minority issues. Participating states developed mechanisms to respond to the most recalcitrant actors, such as the unprecedented suspension of Yugoslavia the same year for the “clear, gross, and uncorrected” violations of Helsinki principles by the regime of Slobodan Milosevic against Bosnia and Herzegovina. Under OSCE auspices, internal political confrontations in Serbia in 1996 and Albania in 1997 were resolved through high-level engagement before they became a broader threat to peace and prosperity in Europe. The United States led the way, generating the political will to act quickly and with resolve. Robust field missions also were created in the 1990s to respond to conflicts, first in the Balkans and then extending into Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, and Central Asia. In some places, such as Kosovo, the OSCE often was the only acceptable international monitor or facilitator on the ground, serving as the eyes and ears of the international community, bringing opposing sides together, and mitigating spillover effects in neighboring countries. Today, the OSCE’s civilian Special Monitoring Mission (SMM) to Ukraine is the only independent observer group in the war zone. Established in 2014 to monitor implementation of the Minsk Agreements, its approximately 700 monitors provide clear and unbiased reporting of ceasefire violations and human costs of the conflict. Approximately half of the U.S. contribution to the OSCE goes toward funding the SMM. The mission faces challenges, including attempts to sabotage its work and concerns about security. The latter was tragically demonstrated by the death of Joseph Stone, a U.S. paramedic killed last year when his vehicle struck a landmine in separatist-controlled territory. Without the SMM’s reporting, however, we would lack critical information to understand and address ongoing Russian aggression against Ukraine. Kremlin propaganda would have a clear field to disguise the true nature and scale of the conflict. The OSCE also sets the gold standard for election observation across the region. The organization’s trained observers partner with international lawmakers, including ourselves, to analyze election-related laws and systems and the effectiveness of their implementation. The evaluations that these missions produce are critical benchmarks for OSCE countries and support U.S. efforts to promote human rights, democracy, and the rule of law around the world. Pressure from the organization and its participating states has been a major factor in the release of political prisoners in countries like Azerbaijan. For example, the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, and the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly publicly condemned Baku for its targeting of investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova and the broader use of its judicial system to repress political opponents, journalists, and minorities. The Helsinki Commission also weighed in. In May 2016, Ismayilova was released from prison. Our actions in this and similar cases demonstrate global leadership. We welcome the recent nomination of a new U.S. permanent representative to the OSCE. This important post has remained vacant for far too long. We urge our Senate colleagues to swiftly consider the nominee, who will be responsible for leading America’s vigorous defense of democracy and human rights in the region. Let us also not overlook the fact that our work in the OSCE in relation to Russia is not simply to counter Moscow’s anti-democratic ambitions. Follow-up meetings to the original Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe became one of a shrinking number of places where East-West dialogue could take place during the Cold War. Likewise, after Russia was suspended from the G8 in March 2014, today’s OSCE provides one of the few remaining opportunities to engage with Russia and hold the Kremlin accountable to principles it has endorsed. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov attends OSCE ministerial meetings, where he easily – and with great success – engages with senior officials from around the region. That alone should encourage our secretary of state to be present. Secretary Tillerson attended the 2017 ministerial, and we urge Secretary Pompeo to do the same. Future Challenges Along with successes, we also have seen areas where multilateralism has fallen short. Areas like Nagorno-Karabakh, Transnistria, Chechnya, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia have consumed OSCE attention and resources, but unfortunately, the organization’s actions have not thawed these frozen conflicts. The OSCE may have kept things from getting worse than they might have been otherwise; this is something to praise, but cannot yet be counted as a win. These efforts have been hindered in part by the otherwise positive requirement that major decisions in the organization require consensus. This rule is vital to the OSCE’s success. The organization can convene all parties on an even footing and – because no country can claim that it didn’t voluntarily agree to its commitments – the rule gives unique force to the OSCE’s actions. However, decision-making by consensus also allows a single intransigent country to wield its veto as a weapon, even in cases of otherwise overwhelming agreement. In 2008, Russia successfully blocked the OSCE from establishing a field mission in Georgia as Russian-backed separatists occupied South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Since then, resistance to hosting or authorizing field missions, a core capability of the OSCE, has spread. Belarus kicked out its OSCE mission in 2011. Azerbaijan forced the mission in Baku to close in 2015, and two years later, it insisted on the shuttering of a mission in Armenia. Mongolia, the newest OSCE participating state, has repeatedly requested a mission to foster its continued democratic development and build closer ties with other participating states. Moscow consistently blocks that request. A related and ongoing problem is the lack of transparency of the OSCE’s decision-making. Opening its official deliberations to the public would help make those countries that thwart progress more broadly accountable for their recalcitrance. A more recent challenge comes from the government of Turkey. Ankara continues to use the 2016 coup attempt as pretext for not only violently repressing its citizens and detaining others, including Americans, but also for limiting the participation of non-governmental organizations in certain OSCE meetings. The OSCE is the only international organization that allows NGOs to participate equally with governments in meetings on human rights commitments, allowing these groups to raise their concerns directly. If Turkey has its way, human rights groups might be denied a seat at the table. It is easy to imagine which countries quietly hope this effort will succeed. The United States must continue to make it clear that it is not one of them. Indeed, the moral here is that the United States should not only support the strengths and potential of the OSCE, but we must also be present and potent when progress and principles are challenged within the organization. Our colleagues in both chambers of Congress have the passion and determination to do just that. In these days of partisan discord, we must remember – and treasure – the fact that Congress is broadly committed to the principles enshrined in the Helsinki Final Act: respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, democratic principles, and liberty. We see this in the establishment of the Helsinki Commission itself, a unique agency conceived by Congress to strengthen the legitimacy of human rights monitoring, defend those persecuted for acting on their rights and freedoms, and ensure that violations of Helsinki provisions are given full consideration in U.S. foreign policy. The OSCE’s broad membership and comprehensive definition of security make it an ideal platform to advocate for our interests in a vital region. Its institutions remain singularly placed to moderate regional conflicts, promote respect for human rights, and safeguard essential elements of democracy. We have not only the right, but also the duty, to hold countries responsible if they fail to adhere to the basic principles that we all agreed to in 1975. We also have the responsibility to hear and consider other participating states when they feel that the United States is not fully meeting our commitments. Leading by example means that we must be held accountable, too. At this critical juncture, when the rules-based order appears particularly fragile, any weakening or absence of the OSCE could irreversibly damage the chances for democracy and peace in the region. We must not allow that to happen – and the key is our own steadfastness, in words and deeds. Roger Wicker (@SenatorWicker) is chairman of the U.S. Helsinki Commission and a vice president of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly. A member of the Republican Party, he has represented Mississippi in the Senate since December 2007. He previously represented Mississippi for 13 years in the House of Representatives. Ben Cardin (@SenatorCardin) is ranking Senate member of the U.S. Helsinki Commission. He serves as special representative on anti-Semitism, racism, and intolerance for the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly. A member of the Democratic Party, he has represented Maryland in the Senate since January 2007 after 20 years in the House of Representatives.

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