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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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    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following briefing: MUSLIMS AND MINORITIES IN THE MILITARY Changing Demographics in the OSCE Region and Implications for Europe’s Security Sector Wednesday, July 26, 2017 11:00AM to 12:00PM Dirksen Senate Office Building Room 562 Live Webcast: www.facebook.com/HelsinkiCommission Demographers predict that aging, shifting birth rates, and immigration will change the face of European and North American populations over the next few decades. For example, researchers predict that persons of Muslim origin will make up a quarter of the French and third of the German populations by 2050. At the briefing, European security practitioners will discuss how demographic change is impacting the security workforce, and the subsequent implications for the OSCE region.  Panelists will also highlight the ways in which recruitment, personnel, and other security workforce policies and practices are changing in light of Europe’s increasing ethnic and religious diversity. Speakers include: Dominik Wullers (Germany), Economist, Spokesman of the Federal Office for Federal Ministry of Defense Equipment, and Vice President of Deutscher.Soldat Samira Rafaela (Netherlands), Organizational Strategy Advisor, Dutch National Police  Rozemina Abbasi (United Kingdom), Assistant Head, Armed Forces Targets, Ministry of Defense Dr. Elyamine Settoul (France), Professor, Institute for Strategic Research at the Military College, French Ministry of Defense

  • Addressing Anti-Semitism through Intersectional Advocacy

    By Dr. Mischa Thompson, Policy Advisor “[There were so many victims of the Holocaust] but we engage in competitive victimhood, where we take the oppressor’s view of a victim’s worth.” – Words into Action participant Misko Stanisic, Terraforming From June 21 to June 23, 2017, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (OSCE/ODIHR) hosted the second in a series of workshops focused on addressing anti-Semitism.  The workshop, titled “Gender and Intersectional Activism: Coalition-Building for a More Tolerant Society,” provided a forum for 50 civil society leaders to discuss their efforts to address prejudice and discrimination across the 57 European and North American countries of the OSCE.  The forum was part of the OSCE/ODIHR’s “Turning Words into Action to Address Anti-Semitism” (WiA) project, which increases the capacity of countries and civil society to prevent and respond to anti-Semitism through security, education, and coalition-building measures.  According to Cristina Finch, Head of the ODIHR Tolerance and Discrimination Department, the forum will also assist with “creation of a coalition-building manual that ODIHR will publish to assist civil society in these efforts.”  Noting the problem of “underreporting,” the forum educated participants about OSCE/ODIHR efforts to collect hate crimes statistics, and highlighted methods by which civil society could work with local law enforcement and the OSCE/ODIHR to report hate crimes.  At the forum, OSCE/ODIHR shared recent findings that indicate that while Jewish men are more likely to be victims of anti-Semitic speech or physical violence, Jewish women fear anti-Semitic attacks more.  This suggests gender may play an important role in addressing anti-Semitism, prompting the need for more gender-rich and intersectional prevention efforts. For instance, Misko Stanisic of Terraforming, an organization focused on Holocaust and human rights education, noted that thousands of women participated in crimes of the Holocaust, but that gender stereotypes resulted in women often not being viewed as perpetrators, resulting in “female perpetrators [being] seldom investigated for their crimes and rarely prosecuted during the post-war trials.” He also described how socially constructed perceptions of gender, race, and other identities not only impacted who is – and who is not – included in text books and other educational tools on the Holocaust, but also how this has impacted efforts to address anti-Semitism.  “[There were so many victims of the Holocaust] but we engage in competitive victimhood, where we take the oppressor’s view of a victim’s worth,” he said. Other participants highlighted the forum’s relevance to American scholar Kimberle Crenshaw’s intersectionality theory, which details how hierarchal systems of gender and race resulted in African-American women often being excluded from the mainstream feminist movement in the United States.  In particular, participants discussed how efforts to address anti-Semitism and other forms of prejudice and discrimination have been stymied by approaches that have reinforced gender and other hierarchical power structures preventing men and women within communities from effectively working together.  Invoking American luminary James Baldwin, Finnish journalist Maryan Abdulkarim stated, “No one is free until we are all free.” She stressed the need for more inclusive efforts that move away from a focus on differences that separate the “majority” and “minorities,” and to restore humanity by challenging harmful societal constructs and working across communities, including with the “majority” to address problems. While the forum explored the importance of inclusive approaches to addressing anti-Semitism and other forms of intolerance, some participants warned that intersectionality could become an ineffective trend if care is not taken in its implementation.  Specifically, the differences between academic discussions and practice were raised.  In particular, participants cited the need for clear laws, processes, and procedures that protect all, as well as equal access to justice.   For example, laws and policies should be understandable to police, judges, and ordinary citizens, and straightforward to implement.  Researchers, funders, and advocates should be particularly mindful as to whether their efforts advance equality, or simply check a box. The art and commentary of speaker Dan Perjovschi underscored and offered insight into the societal challenges forum participants faced in efforts to address anti-Semitism, gender and other inequities in countering prejudice and discrimination at large, and the need for their continued efforts. More Information Roundtable on Fighting Anti-Semitism Looks at Turning Words into Action OSCE/ODIHR Turning Words into Action Project

  • One Year After Coup Attempt, Helsinki Commission Calls on Turkish Government to Respect OSCE Commitments, End Crackdown

    WASHINGTON—Ahead of the one-year anniversary of the attempted coup in Turkey, Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) and Co-Chairman Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04) issued the following statements: “Last July, thousands of Turks took to the streets to stand against a military coup attempt. Turkish democracy still hangs in the balance one year later,” said Chairman Wicker. “I urge the Turkish government to restore stability and trust in its institutions by ending the state of emergency, releasing all prisoners of conscience, and guaranteeing full due process to all those who face credible charges.” “The Turkish government’s campaign against parliamentarians, academics, journalists, and thousands of others is marked by grave human rights violations,” said Co-Chairman Smith. “The Turkish courts’ support for this campaign is a sad sign of the challenges ahead – we recently saw this in a court’s confirmation of the expropriation of a Syriac Orthodox monastery. I call on the Turkish government and courts not to continue down the path to dictatorship.” Ahead of the May 2017 meeting between President Donald Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Helsinki Commission leaders urged President Trump to seek guarantees that several U.S. citizens currently jailed in Turkey will have their cases promptly and fairly adjudicated and receive full consular assistance. They called for the prompt release of imprisoned American pastor Andrew Brunson; for consular access and fair trials for American dual citizens like Serkan Golge; and for timely and transparent due process for long-standing U.S. consulate employee Hamza Uluçay. Chairman Wicker also submitted a statement to the Congressional Record expressing his concern about the outcome of the April 16 constitutional referendum in Turkey, which approved Turkey’s conversion from a parliamentary government into an “executive presidency,” further weakening crucial checks and balances.

  • 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.

  • #MovetheCouch: Transatlantic Leaders Convene in Brussels

    By Dr. Mischa Thompson, Policy Advisor “If we cannot be entrusted as leaders to do the small things, why should the public trust us to do the big ones, including governing international relations?” –Svante Myrick Mayor of Ithaca, New York TILN 2016 From March 20-26, 2017, the U.S. Helsinki Commission, in partnership with the German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF), the U.S. State Department, and other stakeholders, hosted the sixth annual Transatlantic Inclusion Leaders Network (TILN) workshop in Brussels, Belgium.     Twenty-five young leaders representing more than fourteen European countries and the United States came together to learn from one another, expand their leadership skills, and offer a more inclusive vision for the world. As participants in the Brussels Forum Young Professionals Summit, TILN participants engaged with senior U.S. and European public and private sector leaders on the most pressing issues impacting the transatlantic relationship today, ranging from U.S. elections and the international workforce to Russia and counterterrorism. Several TILN participants also visited a high school in Brussels, exploring opportunities for international exchange and collaboration between administrators, educators, and students related to the educational needs of increasingly diverse student bodies and the future workforce on both sides of the Atlantic. Ithaca Mayor Svante Myrick closed Brussels Forum with powerful cautionary comments to all leaders. “While here in Brussels thinking about global problems, I received an email from a constituent who has been annoyed by an abandoned couch for days. It might seem like a small issue, but I'm going to make sure I move that couch,” he stated.  “I had to move it because, if we cannot be entrusted as leaders to do the small things, why should the public trust us to do the big ones, including governing international relations?” Sharing the vision for a more inclusive world, in the week following the workshop, TILN alumni from previous years led GMF-funded alumni leadership action projects in the Netherlands, Finland, Italy, and during the European Union’s Roma Week.  For more information on this year's Brussels workshop, please see the Transatlantic Inclusion Leaders Network 2017 Workshop Report. The Transatlantic Inclusion Leaders Network (TILN) “inspires, informs, and connects diverse young leaders to excel in elected office and other leadership roles, advance inclusive policies, and engage with senior transatlantic policymakers.” Participants are from diverse U.S. and European communities, including the Balkans, with a proven commitment to advancing diversity and inclusion best practices in their policymaking and society.  For more information on TILN, please see the Transatlantic Inclusion Leaders Network 2017 Workshop Report.   TILN 2016 Participants Umut Aydin | France | Analyst, Meridiam Delio Diaz Garcia | Spain | Secretary General, Juventudes de Unidad Progresista Nebojša Dobrijević | Croatia | Independent Advisor, Joint Council of Municipalities Judith Garcia | United States | City Councillor, Chelsea, Massachusetts Diana Horvat | Serbia | Editor, Radio Televison of Vojvodina Maryam Jamshid | Belgium | Social Council Elected Member, City of Hasselt, Flanders Paulette Jordan | United States | State Representative, Idaho Natascha Kabir | Germany | Green Party Faction Leader, City Parliament of Offenbach Aroosa Khan | Netherlands | Board Member, PvdA Party, Amsterdam-East Edin Koljenović | Montenegro | Program Coordinator, Civic Alliance Oleksii Krasnoshchokov | Ukraine | Board President, Pidmoga.info Hayatte Maazouza | France | Municipal Council Member, Trappes Sammy Mahdi | Belgium | President, Work Group on Diversity, Youth, CD&V Party Martin Mata | Czech Republic | City Council Member, Usti nad Labem Svante L. Myrick | United States | Mayor, City of Ithaca, New York Frances O'Donovan | Denmark | City Council Member, Fredericia Anna Poisner | Ukraine | Counsel, Dragon Capital Aida Salketić | Bosnia and Herzegovina | Cultural Heritage Professional Athena Salman | United States | State Representative, Arizona Brandon Scott | United States | City Council Member, Baltimore, Maryland Karen Taylor | Germany | Advisor to of Member of Parliament Dr. Karamba Diaby David Walsh | United Kingdom | International Relations Officer, Board of Deputies of British Jews John Vargas | United States | Secretary, NALEO Alex Yip | United Kingdom | City Councillor for Sutton New Hall, Birmingham City

  • 2017 Trafficking in Persons Report – the OSCE Region

    By Allison Hollabaugh, Counsel Human trafficking remains a pressing human rights violation around the world with the International Labor Organization estimating that nearly 21 million people are enslaved at any given time, most of them women and children. As part of U.S. efforts to combat human trafficking, the U.S. Department of State today released the 2017 Trafficking in Persons Report (TIP Report), reflecting the efforts of 187 countries and territories to prosecute traffickers, prevent trafficking, and to identify and assist victims, as described by the Palermo Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, especially Women and Children. Trafficking Victim Identification and Care: Regional Perspectives According to the new TIP Report, in the 2016 reporting year, countries in the OSCE region identified 304 more trafficking victims than in the previous year, for a total of 11,416 victims.  This increase is particularly notable when compared to the East Asia and Pacific, Near East, South and Central Asia, and Western Hemisphere regions, where victim identification declined, but still maintained a generally upward trend over 2014.  Trafficking victim identification and care is critical for proper management of refugee and migrant flows.  In order to help law enforcement and border guards identify trafficking victims among the nearly 400,000 migrants and refugees entering the region last year, the OSCE Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Human Beings launched a new project to conduct multiple trainings, including simulation exercises, through 2018.  The first training in November 2016 included participants from 30 OSCE participating States. Victim identification and care are also critical for successful prosecutions.  Nearly every region of the world saw a drop in prosecutions of human traffickers, but an increase in convictions in the 2016 reporting year.  This trend may reflect a growing knowledge among prosecutors of how to successfully investigate and prosecute a trafficking case.  It also may reflect an overall increase in trafficking victims who have been identified, permitted to remain in-country, and cared for such that the victims—now survivors—are ready, willing, and able to testify against their traffickers.  Despite the dramatic decline in prosecutions (46 percent) in the OSCE region, convictions held steady at nearly the same numbers as the previous year. Individual Country Narratives Along with regional statistics, the TIP Report also provides individual country narratives, recommendations for the most urgent changes needed to eliminate human trafficking, and an assessment of whether the country is making significant efforts to meet the minimum standards for the elimination of human trafficking. Tier 1 countries meet the minimum standards for the elimination of human trafficking. Tier 2 countries do not yet meet the standards, but are making significant efforts to do so.  Tier 2 Watch List countries do not meet the minimum standards and are making significant efforts to do so, but have a very large or increasing number of trafficking victims, have failed to demonstrate increasing efforts over the previous year, or lack a solid plan to take additional steps in the coming year. Tier 3 countries do not meet the minimum standards and are not making significant efforts to do so. Twenty-five OSCE participating States qualified for Tier 1 in the TIP Report.  Nineteen participating States qualified for Tier 2, including Ukraine, which was upgraded this year after four years on the Tier 2 Watch List.  Five participating States were designated for the Tier 2 Watch List, including Hungary, Moldova, Montenegro, Serbia, and Bulgaria.* Four participating States were on Tier 3, including Belarus, Russia, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.  States on Tier 3 may be subject to sanctions. Legislation authored by Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Chris Smith—who also serves as the Special Representative for Human Trafficking Issues to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe Parliamentary Assembly – requires the TIP Report to be produced every year.  In recent years the report has also included an assessment of the United States.   Since the inception of the report, more than 100 countries have written or amended their trafficking laws, with some nations openly crediting the report for inspiring progress in their countries’ fight against human trafficking. * OSCE participating States Andorra, Monaco, Lichtenstein, and San Marino are not included in the TIP Report.

  • Commissioner and Special Representative Ben Cardin Counters Anti-Semitism and Promotes Diversity

    When the U.S. funding bill commonly known as the Omnibus passed in May 2017, it included a number of provisions outlining U.S. foreign policy and national security measures.  It also included provisions supporting diversity and human rights in foreign affairs in the face of increased violence and discrimination across the 57 North American and European countries that make up the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. “Continuing anti-migrant and refugee sentiments, anti-Muslim backlash following terrorist attacks, and a surge in anti-Semitic and racist incidents in this country and abroad are just some of the reasons I was compelled to act,” said Helsinki Commission Ranking Senator Ben Cardin (MD), who is also the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly’s first Special Representative on Anti-Semitism, Racism, and Intolerance. “These legislative provisions are just a few recent efforts I have advanced to ensure diverse populations in our country and throughout the OSCE region are afforded the same rights, protections, and opportunities as others that are enshrined in the Helsinki Final Act and numerous OSCE tolerance and non-discrimination commitments,” said Senator Cardin, whose U.S. spending bill provisions include: Increased funding to counter global anti-Semitism. U.S. support for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to advance new initiatives to counter anti-Semitism, racism, and intolerance. Expansion of the Department of State workforce diversity programs. Prior to the passage of the Omnibus, on April 25 Senator Cardin introduced the National Security Diversity and Inclusion Workforce Act (NSDIWA) of 2017, building on legislation he passed in December 2016 to diversify the State Department and USAID labor force.  “I have championed these equality and anti-discrimination provisions because America’s diversity is one of our greatest assets as a nation, and our government should reflect that reality,” said Senator Cardin. “When America leads with our values on display, whether we are promoting human rights abroad or helping resolve conflicts to help societies heal and move forward, including our own, it should be done with personnel who reflect the entire tapestry of the United States,” Senator Cardin continued. “Inequities and discrimination are not just a U.S. problem.  The hope is that this legislation can also serve as a model for other countries grappling with similar issues from hate crimes to inequality.” Senator Cardin was appointed the OSCE PA's Special Representative on Anti-Semitism, Racism and Intolerance in March 2015. More on his mandate and efforts can be found at http://www.oscepa.org/about-osce-pa/special-representatives/anti-semitism.

  • Chairman Wicker Meets with Valentin Inzko, High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina

    On May 16, Austrian diplomat Valentin Inzko, the international community’s High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina since 2009, met with Senator Roger F. Wicker, Chairman of the U.S. Helsinki Commission.  Dr. Inzko was visiting Washington for consultations with the U.S. Administration and Members of Congress, prior to reporting to the United Nations Security Council on his work later in the week. The High Representative updated the Senator on the ongoing challenges in implementation of the 1995 Dayton Agreement, which ended a horrific conflict that began in Bosnia in April 1992.   He indicated that nationalist sentiment continues to divide the country.   As a result, efforts to achieve the country’s disintegration take place simultaneous to efforts to achieve the country’s integration into Europe.  Inzko urged that the United States continue to actively engage in Bosnia and Herzegovina, noting U.S. credibility among local stakeholders and the European Union’s challenges in achieving any real progress on its own.  Senator Wicker recalled the major U.S. commitment to Bosnia in the immediate post-Dayton period and asked what policy options are available today.   Among the items discussed were the need to maintain active U.S. diplomatic representation in Bosnia, as well as the potential impact of sanctions or other actions against obstructionist political leaders.  In January, the United States applied sanctions on Milorad Dodik, President of the Republika Srpska entity in Bosnia and Herzegovina, for obstructing Dayton implementation, thereby threatening the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the country. At a Commission hearing the next day on Russia's military threat to Europe, similar concerns were raised as expert witnesses indicated the Western Balkans were in “Russian crosshairs” to influence and destabilize. Russian influence is most visible in Serbia but also in Macedonia and Bosnia. It is particularly strong in the Republika Srpska entity, encouraging Dodik to pursue a secessionist agenda. Russian involvement in the attempted coup in Montenegro last October was also noted, just as the country was in the process of acceding to NATO. Through successive leaderships, the U.S. Helsinki Commission has been at the forefront of congressional efforts to support Bosnia and Herzegovina, not only in line with the terms of the 1995 Dayton Agreement but in compliance with the principles and provisions of the 1975 Helsinki Final Act and subsequent commitments of the OSCE.

  • 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.

  • 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

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