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OSCE Election Commitments Reaffirmed
Enhancements May Follow
Friday, July 23, 2004

By Chadwick R. Gore
CSCE Staff Advisor

Representatives of the OSCE participating States and a variety of non-governmental organizations met in Vienna, Austria, July 15 and 16 for a Supplementary Human Dimension Meeting on Election Standards and Commitments.  The first of a multi-part process, the meeting was organized by the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights in keeping with the December 2003 Maastricht Ministerial Council Decision on elections.

That decision tasked the ODIHR “to consider ways to improve the effectiveness of its assistance to participating States in following up recommendations made in ODIHR election-observation reports and inform the Permanent Council on progress made in fulfilling th[e] task.”

The decision also tasked “the Permanent Council, drawing on expertise from the ODIHR, to consider the need for additional commitments on elections, supplementing existing ones, and report to the next Ministerial Council.” The next Ministerial Council is scheduled for Sofia, Bulgaria, December 6 and 7, 2004.

However, several days prior to the Vienna meeting, the Permanent Representative of the Russian Federation to the OSCE Permanent Council, Ambassador Alexey N. Borodavkin, delivered an intervention to the Permanent Council presenting a Declaration by some member States of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) “regarding the state of affairs within the OSCE.”  The intervention presented a wide range of sharp criticisms of the OSCE, not the least of which was a supposed inability to “adapt itself to the demands of a changing world and ensure an effective solution of the problems of security and co-operation in the Euro-Atlantic area.” The Declaration went on to accuse the organization of interfering in internal affairs and failing to respect the sovereignty of States.

The OSCE was also accused of applying double standards and failing to take into account the realities and specific features of individual countries. Then Borodavkin laid what many believed to be the groundwork for the approach of countries associated with the Declaration to the SHDM:

These attitudes manifest themselves particularly in the work of the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), which mainly deals with monitoring and assessment of election results in participating States. This work of the ODIHR is frequently politicized and does not take into account the specific features of individual countries. For that reason, we believe it necessary to draw up standard objective criteria for assessments by the ODIHR and OSCE missions of election processes throughout the OSCE area.

Thus, as the attendees approached Vienna, many were expecting a classic stand-off between a group of former Soviet states, led by the Russian Federation, and at least the United States, if not many members of the European Union, over the role of election observation and the various commitments, especially provisions of the Copenhagen Document.

Hints of Russian dissatisfaction with the OSCE’s democracy promotion activity can be traced back to a terse statement issued by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation on August 1, 2000, the 25th anniversary of the Helsinki Final Act.  “Attempts to turn it [OSCE] exclusively into an instrument of ‘democratizing’ individual states will only land the OSCE in an impasse. They are fraught with the danger of a retreat from the Helsinki principles and, in the end, the degradation of the Organization. 

Opening remarks at the Vienna meeting were delivered by Ambassador Ivo Petrov, Chairman of the Permanent Council, and Ambassador Christian Strohal, Director of ODIHR. Strohal mentioned that there might be a need for new commitments to address future challenges regarding referenda, new technology and election standards from outside the OSCE. He thought there might be a need for additional commitments to further universal suffrage, increase transparency, enhance accountability of election and political authorities, and to maintain public confidence in the electoral process.

Alexander Veshnyakov, Chairman of the Central Election Commission of the Russian Federation, gave the initial keynote speech. Those waiting to see if the Russian Federation would continue the line of attack started at the July 8 meeting of the PC were not disappointed. Mr. Veshnyakov quickly pointed out that electoral standards and commitments need to be added to converge “our ideas for the democratic process and help remove possibilities of double standards. The democratic process can be used for anti-democratic means.” He then proceeded to point out that the Copenhagen Document must be fleshed out and rights need to be promoted, agreements since Copenhagen have been diverse and detailed, and despite shortcomings, the OSCE must be given its due for applying these standards.

Veshnykov cited the new “vector” in elections toward European-wide documents on standards in draft form in some twenty Central Election Commissions and that the adoption of the Code of Good Practice in Electoral Matters of the European Commission for Democracy through Law, also known as the Venice Commission, could be the source for a “Copenhagen II.”

Interestingly he lamented the lack of a “binding character” to the existing commitments and felt that making them binding with sanctions for the failure could be useful to help develop common goals.

The main complaint expressed was that each state should know precisely what has been agreed in such commitments: the current commitments are too vague, just a set of guidelines as opposed to standards, and thus have led to the development of double standards in both practice and election observation criteria.

Jean-Pierre Kingsley, the Chief Electoral Officer of Canada, was the second keynote speaker. He addressed several issues of common concern, such as the role of the media, control of money, and public versus private concerns. He contrasted the fundamental tension as between egalitarians and libertarians.

Three sessions were structured to address the key areas of ODIHR’s concerns to fulfill their Maastricht tasking: The OSCE/ODIHR 2003 Progress Report “Existing Commitments for Democratic Elections in OSCE Participating States”; implementation of existing OSCE commitments for democratic elections and follow up on OSCE/ODIHR recommendations; and, identification of possible areas for supplementing the existing OSCE commitments and potential need for additional commitments.

Moderators of the sessions were Steven Wagenseil, First Deputy Director of the ODIHR and Patrick Merloe, Senior Associate and Director of Election Programs, National Democratic Institute for International Affairs. Introducers, who presented the core content of each session in their remarks, were: Mr. Merloe; Professor Christoph Grabenwarter, Substitute Member of the Council on Democratic Elections, Council of Europe; Pentii Väänänen, Deputy Secretary General, OSCE Parliamentary Assembly; Mr. Kingsley; Jessie Pilgrim, Legal Expert; and, Jeno Szep, Advisor, Association of Central and Eastern European Election Officials.

The general thrust of each session was remarkably similar. It quickly became clear that there was a near consensus that while clarification of the details of a few of the existing commitments might be desirable, if not outright necessary, reopening the Copenhagen election commitments to debate was not necessary or desirable. Many delegations restated in various ways that those commitments, and those from all the other OSCE documents that have addressed elections, have created a body of obligations and guidance so fundamental and expansive that there is little new that can or ought to be added. Most interesting was the statement of the European Union that expressed the general opinion:  “If we really need to consider if new commitments are necessary, if so, where?” The European Commission addressed the issue, “We don’t need a Copenhagen II, but maybe a Copenhagen Plus.”

However, a few speakers did mention specific areas of concern, and former Soviet states that are signatories to the aforementioned Declaration made comments of note.

Mr. Merloe saw the possibility to enrich, reinforce and amplify the existing commitments might be forthcoming, possibly at Sofia. He reminded the meeting that those areas critical to all elections are: establishing public confidence in the electorate; establishing universal equal suffrage; transparency at all stages; and, accountability of all authorities.

The opening statement from the U.S. Delegation reiterated these points, emphasizing that elections cannot be assessed solely by examining the technical aspects of voting, and transparency and accountability are absolutely essential components of democratic elections. Regarding the ODIHR election monitoring teams, the United States took the opportunity to underscore that:

[T]he U.S. does not see ODIHR’s election monitoring efforts as “politicized,” but rather as objective and based upon standards set out in the OSCE commitments stipulated in the 1990 Copenhagen Document and the 1991 Moscow Document and reaffirmed in the Charter for European Security adopted at the Istanbul Summit.  Furthermore, the U.S. emphasized that ODIHR monitoring teams should not be seen as “interference in [a country’s] internal affairs,” but rather as an international resource, like the Election Assistance Commission that works domestically in the United States, which is available to countries that seek to improve public confidence in elections and uphold their OSCE commitments.

NGOs from the Russian Federation, Belarus, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Ukraine (note: all States that signed the CIS Declaration) uniformly complained that their governments fail to fulfill the existing OSCE commitments.  So why, they asked, would the OSCE need new commitments when governments fail to meet the existing ones?

By contrast, the government representatives of Belarus, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan and Armenia (all signatories of the CIS Declaration) complained that the Copenhagen commitments were more like guidelines than standards.  Some said that the commitments should be obligatory instead of voluntary.

Mr. Väänänen pointed out that often when returning to a country a few years after observing elections and providing recommendations for electoral improvements the same problems remain. The attitude of the state leadership and the nature of the problems found are the crux of the problem (numerous comments regarding the need for political will in follow up to observation missions’ recommendations were made throughout the meeting).

Mr. Pilgrim discussed six issues of concern that need to be addressed. Public confidence is critical to the legitimacy of all elections. Electronic voting, which is becoming the norm, must produce a verifiable paper trail. Referenda or recounts must not be used to end or change a term of office as this practice is in direct conflict with the Copenhagen commitments. Observation is necessary to guarantee other criteria. Transparency includes public knowledge about the role of money, i.e. public disclosure of all funding and expenditures is necessary for public confidence. The protection of electoral rights – registration, party regulation, media access, etc. – while assumed, must be actively pursued.

An extensive discussion regarding electronic voting was held. The distinction between voting on an electronic device, such as a touch-screen device, versus E-voting over the Internet was made by Dr. Szep. The need for the electronic device to produce an auditable paper trail seemed universally accepted as a basic standard for use of such systems. However, the German Delegation described the degree of public skepticism and lack of confidence in electronic devices, and “that is why we’re going to stay on paper.” The primary problem with E-voting seems to be the lack of public trust, but there is hope that in time, with the improvement of technology and security software, this will change.

During the closing session, DeForest B. Soaries, Jr., Chairman of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, expressed the general consensus of the meeting in the U.S. Delegation’s closing statement.  Reiterating that the United States remains as committed as ever to the OSCE commitments laid out in the 1990 Copenhagen Document and in subsequent OSCE documents, he made clear the openness of the United States to ideas on how the OSCE election commitments, and especially their implementation, can be improved. However, he said, there is no need to re-open the Copenhagen commitments as they provide the guidelines and benchmarks necessary to achieve democratic, free, and fair elections.

Mr. Soaries pointed out that the OSCE does not yet have specific commitments related to the participation of internally displaced persons in electoral processes or concerning accountable, balanced, and impartial election administration, and a more systematic mechanism that might be considered for follow up to election observation missions’ recommendations.

Interestingly, the comments from the representatives of countries associated with the Declaration were quite benign and agreeable at the end of the session, emphasizing the forward-looking nature of the meeting.

Ambassador Strohal described the further steps in the process, noting that the ODIHR would be forthcoming with recommendations to the Permanent Council on any changes to the election standards and commitments in preparation for the Ministerial Meeting in Sofia in December. 

The United States Helsinki Commission, an independent federal agency, by law monitors and encourages progress in implementing provisions of the Helsinki Accords. The Commission, created in 1976, is composed of nine Senators, nine Representatives and one official each from the Departments of State, Defense and Commerce.

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Helsinki Commissioners Participate in the General Debate Following the introductory remarks, six members of the Helsinki Commission—including all four senior commission leaders—took the floor to voice their concerns and engage with other parliamentarians. Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin, who also serves as the Head of the U.S. Delegation and the OSCE PA Special Representative on Anti-Semitism, Racism, and Intolerance, expressed disappointment at how quickly the democratic government and institutions in Afghanistan deteriorated, despite years of investment and support. “One of the prime reasons was corruption,” explained Chairman Cardin. The rights of women and girls and ensuring humanitarian assistance reaches populations in need were two areas that he insisted be of focus as international efforts move forward. Media freedom was of particular concern for Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen. “Lower-level Taliban forces threaten and harass journalists,” he stated. “RFE/RL has reported that over the past weeks, its remaining journalists have been questioned by armed Taliban and door-to-door searched have been conducted looking for journalists affiliated with the United States.” Media freedom is among the fundamental freedoms the OSCE seeks to protect, and Co-Chairman Cohen insisted the Taliban must be held responsible for violating these rights. Helsinki Commission Ranking Member Sen. Roger Wicker, who also serves as an OSCE PA Vice President, shared legislation he is sponsoring in Congress that seeks to strengthen the American response to Afghanistan and reiterated the dangers that religious and ethnic minorities in Afghanistan currently face. Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson highlighted the dangers of terrorism and the oppressive rule of the Taliban. “It cannot be business as usual with the Taliban,” he stated.  “Together, we must use our leverage to prevent Afghanistan from again becoming a terrorist haven devoid of human rights.” Chairman Cardin, Sen. Wicker, and Rep. Wilson all expressed concern over Afghanistan’s status as an OSCE Partner for Cooperation. “Before we recognize any representative of Afghanistan in our assembly, we should make sure that they will adhere to the principles of the Helsinki Final Act,” Chairman Cardin stated. Rep. Wilson argued that Afghanistan’s partner status should be reconsidered, and Sen. Wicker also emphasized the importance of the values shared by OSCE participating States and Partners for Cooperation. “I would hope that it is our position going forward that the Taliban-led government in Afghanistan not be recognized as an OSCE Partner for Cooperation,” Sen. Wicker said. Helsinki Commissioner Rep. Gwen Moore focused on the dangers for women and girls and the human rights violations they face. Despite advances made in women’s rights in Afghanistan during the past two decades, the return of Taliban rule has brought a resurgence of violence and restrictions, endangering the lives of women throughout the country. Many have fled Afghanistan, fearing for their safety, while others have remained to fight for their country. While Rep. Moore strongly advocated for supporting resettlement efforts, she also emphasized that resettlement was a last resort. “We must continue to press for the protection of these women in their own country,” she said. Ms. Moore also proposed that the OSCE PA create and maintain a project to monitor and support Afghanistan’s female parliamentarians. Helsinki Commissioner Rep. Ruben Gallego stressed the importance of aiding Afghans still in Afghanistan. “We must find ways to support Afghans in-country who are bravely calling for progress, and we must stand up for the human rights of those who suffer at the hands of the Taliban,” he said. Rep. Gallego further argued that the international community must do more than simply aid in the evacuation of those fleeing the Taliban’s rule. “We must also ensure that those who have been evacuated have long-term support in the resettlement process. The United States must do its part in accepting the bulk of Afghan refugees, and I have personally pushed in Congress to provide Afghans with the long-term resources they need to settle into a new life,” he stated, and asked all the participating parliamentarians to urge their countries to do the same. OSCE Efforts Moving Forward Throughout the debate, which highlighted various vulnerable populations and severe security threats that must be addressed in the future, one recurring theme was the need for international cooperation. While President Cederfelt began the meeting by observing that it will be impossible to know the future, Rep. Gallego expressed one certainty. “The end of America’s military commitment in Afghanistan does not mean we will turn a blind eye to Afghanistan’s people or the security of the region,” he said.

  • Helsinki Commission Welcomes Confirmation of Michael Carpenter as U.S. Ambassador to the OSCE

    WASHINGTON—Following the November 3 confirmation of Michael Carpenter as Permanent Representative of the U.S. Mission to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), Ranking Member Sen. Roger Wicker (MS), and Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) issued the following joint statement: “We are delighted that the Senate has confirmed Michael Carpenter as our next ambassador to the OSCE. He is an expert on European security, has the ear of the president, and his confirmation clearly demonstrates the strong commitment of both Congress and the administration to upholding Helsinki commitments and the OSCE’s concept of comprehensive security. “We look forward to working closely with Ambassador Carpenter to confront the threats to U.S. interests across the region and to realize the potential of our investment in a Europe whole, free, and at peace. Countering Vladimir Putin’s dangerous behavior on the ground and within the OSCE itself is paramount. Russia’s war against Ukraine, its illegal troop presence in neighboring countries, and its efforts to undermine the OSCE’s human dimension require a robust response from the United States and our allies.   “We further pledge our support to Ambassador Carpenter as he works to enhance the capacity of the OSCE to counter corruption, mediate conflicts, promote tolerance and non-discrimination, and address the alarming increase in political prisoners across the region.” Ambassador Carpenter will lead the U.S. Mission to the OSCE, comprising a multi-agency team of more than 30 staff members, including a representative from the U.S. Helsinki Commission.

  • Helsinki Commission Digital Digest October 2021

  • 30th Anniversary of OSCE's Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights

    Mr. CARDIN. Mr. President, I rise to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the creation of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s—OSCE—Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights—ODIHR—one of the world’s most preeminent and comprehensive human rights protection bodies. In 1990–1991, during the signing of the Charter of Paris for a New Europe that created ODIHR, a spirit of ‘‘profound change and historic expectations’’ prevailed among the United States, nations of Europe, and the Soviet Union. Revolutionary for their time, heads of state and governments resolved to ‘‘build, consolidate and strengthen democracy as the only system of government of our nations.’’ Further, by affirming that government’s first responsibility is to ensure the ‘‘protection and promotion of human rights,’’ they explicitly linked the full attainment of those rights with ‘‘the foundation of freedom, justice and peace’’ and set the standard for relations and security within and among nations. Now, 30 years later, I am deeply concerned that the fundamental freedoms that ODIHR was founded to safeguard are in peril. Authoritarianism is on the rise in Europe. Credible reports allege there are more than 750 political prisoners in Belarus, many detained for participating peacefully in protest of the fraudulent elections of August 2020 and the brutal government crackdown that followed. In Hungary, Viktor Orban’s administration continues its unprecedented consolidation of Hungary’s media, even as opposition figures organize to resist him. In many countries across the OSCE area, we have witnessed an alarming rise in anti-Semitism, racism, religious and other intolerance, and violence against women. These scourges have worsened the conditions imposed by the COVID–19 pandemic that disproportionately affect the most vulnerable in our communities. With these and other challenges in mind, ODIHR’s valuable work to assist nations to live up to their commitments is more relevant and more needed than ever. ODIHR is empowered by states to ensure respect for human rights, fundamental freedoms and the rule of law, and to promote and strengthen democratic institutions and tolerance. ODIHR actively partners with OSCE’s 57 participating states, civil society, and international organizations to support human rights defenders, enhance the independence of judiciaries, and promote human-rights-based policing. It offers legislative reviews and develops tools to support local government officials, including the Words into Action project, which enhances social inclusion within local communities and for which I proudly help secure funding. The most visible demonstration of ODIHR’s collaboration with the United States is perhaps in the field of election observation, where its methodology is rightly seen as the gold standard in international election observation. Since its founding, ODIHR, the Department of State, and the U.S. Congress, through the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, have deployed thousands of American citizens and legislators to observe the conduct of elections across the OSCE area, including in the United States. Since OSCE states pledged in 1990 to hold free and fair elections, elections observation has been recognized as one of the most transparent and methodical ways to encourage states’ commitment to democratic standards and is a hallmark of ODIHR’s work. For nearly 30 years, ODIHR has organized Europe’s largest human rights review conference, the Human Dimension Implementation Meeting—HDIM—gathering thousands of representatives of governments, parliaments, and civil society for 2 weeks around the same table to review progress on human rights commitments. Unfortunately, the HDIM did not take place this September. Russia blocked consensus to hold the meeting, thereby denying the OSCE region’s nearly 1 billion citizens of a meaningful and sustained opportunity to hold their governments to account. In September, Russia also prevented ODIHR from deploying a full and independent election observation mission to observe its Duma elections. Likewise, Russia was responsible for the closure of OSCE’s border observation mission, which provided valuable insight into the personnel and materiel flowing across Russia’s border into the temporarily occupied areas of eastern Ukraine. ODIHR’s work is more important and relevant than at any time since its founding at the end of the Cold War. I would like to take a moment to extend my heartfelt appreciation to ODIHR’s 180 staff from 35 countries, upon whose dedication and professionalism we rely as we strive to realize an equitable and just future for all. ODIHR is not only the human rights arm of the world’s largest regional security organization; it is also the independent body endowed to assist us as we pursue this important goal. The phrase ‘‘Vancouver to Vladivostok’’ is routinely invoked to describe the organization’s broad geographical reach. However, it is perhaps ODIHR—and OSCE’s—revolutionary and comprehensive concept of ‘‘security,’’ which includes military security, economic and environmental cooperation, and human rights, that is its defining characteristic and most important contribution to world peace and the reason why we should all be celebrating ODIHR’s 30th anniversary this year and take steps to ensure its success for years to come.

  • In Pursuit of Truth

    A free press is the lifeblood of democracy; without independent media, democracy is doomed, economies suffer, and peace is imperiled. In many of the 57 participating States of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), autocrats exploit financial and legal means, alongside physical violence, to intimidate and silence independent media. Journalists and their associates are attacked both online and offline; jailed on phony charges; and even killed for the secrets they expose. Leaders undermine public trust in the press to hide their misdeeds. Disinformation—particularly lies related to the COVID-19 pandemic—continues to pollute the information landscape. In her first appearance before Congress, OSCE Representative for Freedom of the Media Teresa Ribeiro assessed the state of media freedom across the OSCE region. Other expert witnesses discussed recent attacks on journalists and media outlets, the motivations that lead authorities to try and silence the press, global disinformation networks, and more. Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) opened the hearing by stating that media freedom is the bedrock of the democratic process, making it possible for citizens to make informed decisions on their political reality. He also addressed COVID-19 and disinformation, citing the need to safeguard fundamental freedom of expression while performing the vital task of reporting the truth. Chairman Cardin cited a Freedom House report showing a decline in democracy in some countries, often overlapping with a decline in media freedom, and expressed a concern over the silencing of media in Azerbaijan, Belarus, Hungary, Turkey, and Russia to name a few. As a co-sponsor of the Global Press Freedom Act, Senator Cardin expressed his wish for the U.S. to become more involved in press freedom across the globe. The OSCE Representative on the Freedom of the Media (RFOM), Teresa Ribeiro, thanked the Helsinki Commission for the strong support for the RFOM as an institution and media freedom and expression. Ribeiro seconded Chairman Cardin’s statement that free and independent media is a core pillar of democracy, adding that media is more than just a provider of daily news. Ribeiro addressed the steady decline of media freedom all over the OSCE region and decline in trust in the media. “We live in a time where accusing media outlets and individual journalists of false news has become the norm,” she said. Key issues, according to Ribeiro, include rising violence against journalists, abuse of the legal system to silence their work, restrictions imposed by authoritarian governments on the media, declining trust in the media, as well as the power of social media companies and their ability to shape the media landscape. Ribeiro argued that governments have a positive obligation to protect both the freedom of expression and a free press that delivers truthful information to citizens. In her opinion, the best way to fight disinformation is not through restrictive laws, but rather by promoting independent journalists. Robert Mahoney, the deputy executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), reported on his organizations efforts to track media freedom across the OSCE region. He stated that journalists and media have come under attack in almost all OSCE countries. Some of these attacks are by private citizens, but most attacks on press freedom are carried out by governments such as those in Hungry, Poland, Tajikistan, Serbia, Turkmenistan, Belarus, or Russia. Specifically, Mahoney mentioned the number of journalists behind bars in Turkey and the use of foreign agent laws in Russia to sideline media. He also expressed concern over the targeted murders of journalists in the OSCE in countries including Ukraine, Slovakia, and Malta. Mahoney recommended fully implementing the 2018 OSCE ministerial council agreement on the freedom of the media, supporting the RFOM mandate and urging the mandate holder to challenge those countries with the worst press freedom records, implement the policies outlined in the 2020 resource guide by the RFOM on the safety of female journalists online, and considering the use of targeted sanctions to gold governments within the OSCE region accountable for their violations of press freedoms. Jamie Fly, President of Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty, gave an update on his organizations efforts to provide news and media to 27 countries across Eurasia. Much of his testimony was focused on Russia and Belarus, where the gravest violations of press freedom occur. In Russia, foreign agent laws are increasingly being used to violate the freedom of the press and fines connected to these laws (such as $4.4 million owed by RFE/RL to Russia) are used to pressure news outlets financially. Fly believes the Kremlin is seeking absolute control over the information space in advance of the end of President Vladimir Putin’s current term in 2024. In Belarus, RFE/RL officers were raided, and equipment was confiscated. Meanwhile, many journalists threatened by the new government in Afghanistan are still hoping to evacuate and require outside support. Fly called for more advocacy for journalists in critical regions, funding for unbiased media to counter the large sums of money authoritarian governments spend on their biased media outlets, as well as pressure on those governments which jail journalists. Peter Pomerantsev, Director of the Arena Program and Senior Visiting Fellow at Johns Hopkins University, testified that the principles we use to defend journalists are being weaponized to attack journalists in other countries. He argued that the crushing of media voices happens not only through censorship, but also through the flood of disinformation. These mass inauthentic campaigns take away the fundamental right to receive information and know its origins, Pomerantsev said, and argued that the best way to counter such disinformation is through better transparency on the origins of content encountered online. Helsinki Commissioner Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (NH) asked the witnesses about steps the United States could take to counter disinformation and misinformation, especially strategies that have been found to be successful in Europe. Ribeiro answered that media literacy and better training for journalists to become fact checkers are key. Additionally, building back trust between the media and the public is vital, and the local level is the best way to do so. Mahoney agreed, stating that local news is generally trusted more than the news at a national level, but the decline in local news outlets in the U.S. has pushed people towards getting news from social media. Acknowledging various levels of media freedom across the OSCE, Chairman Cardin asked what best practices are to protect the freedom of the media. Ribeiro replied that different tools need to be used in different countries. Some countries have strong rule of law, yet still have issues with media freedom. In her capacity as RFOM, her tools include voice, advocacy, and assisting participating states to improve media freedom. Chairman Cardin also asked what should be done to protect journalists against indiscriminate arrests, detentions, and physical violence. Mahoney answered that the number one focus must be on bringing those who murder journalists to justice. Too often the murderers go free, sending the signal to others that journalists can be silenced this way. Next, to pressure governments that imprison journalists, including calling them out at conferences on the international stage. Lastly, the OSCE and EU must lift their standards and prevent capture of the media by the state. Chairman Cardin thanked Mahoney for his comments and added that the Helsinki Commission and the U.S. Congress is happy to help, but needs specifics like names and stories, not numbers, to advocate for journalists across the world. Asked about where the United States needs to concentrate its priorities regarding RFE/RL in the OSCE region, Jamie Fly noted the importance of social media in reaching audiences, and therefore the power social media companies have over RFE/RL. Social media algorithms dictate which content users see, and often authoritarian regimes intervene and pressure social media companies to remove content critical of them because of supposed terms-of-service violations, as was the case with Navalny’s election app in Russia. Fly affirmed the need for pressure and targeted sanctions on regimes violating press freedom, as well as support for journalist who cannot work safely in their home countries. Pomerantsev expanded on the issues of social media algorithms, explaining that understanding why an algorithm promotes some content over another is key to slowing disinformation. He emphasized that transparency, not regulation of content, is the best way to do so. Helsinki Commission Ranking Member Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) addressed the rising violence against journalists worldwide, including 29 killings in 2021, and increased imprisonment of journalists. Calling out Turkey, a NATO ally, for severe transgressions, Sen. Wicker asked if there is hope for improvement. Mahoney responded by saying the decline of press freedoms in Turkey has been happening for 20 years, but the coup attempt in 2016 worsened it. In his opinion, the OSCE and EU have been unsuccessful in attempting to bring change to media conditions in Turkey and must be more forceful in their critique of Erdogan and his regime. Chair Cardin closed the hearing by stating, “This commission stands ready to work with you to protect individual journalists as well as to put a spotlight on counties which are violating the freedom of the media.” Related Information Witness Biographies  

  • Helsinki Commission Mourns Death of Colin Powell

    WASHINGTON—Following the death of former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), Ranking Member Sen. Roger Wicker (MS), and Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) issued the following joint statement: “We mourn the loss of a thoughtful leader, respected diplomat, and dedicated public servant. Former Secretary of State Colin Powell actively supported the work of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and its comprehensive definition of security, which includes respect for human rights. In 1990, as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, his leadership of the U.S. delegation to a seminar in Vienna on military doctrine demonstrated that when Moscow was serious about overcoming differences through the Helsinki Process, the United States was ready to collaborate, as is true today. “Secretary Powell’s subsequent work in the OSCE on fighting anti-Semitism and championing election observation proved that he was not only a warrior and a diplomat, but also a steadfast advocate for human rights and a defender of the most vulnerable.” Secretary Powell was one of the most active U.S. Secretaries of State in OSCE history, personally attending Ministerial Council meetings in 2001, 2003, and 2004. In 2001, he said: “We see our membership in the OSCE as complementing and reinforcing our strong bilateral ties with European and Eurasian countries, our membership in NATO, and our relationship with the European Union. This organization embraces a wide-range of ethnicities, traditions and histories. More importantly, it reflects our common embrace of democratic and market principals and our common commitment to peace and stability. In short, the OSCE encompasses the hopes that all of us share for a Europe that is fully whole and free.”

  • Media Freedom Across the OSCE Region to Be Assessed at Helsinki Commission Hearing

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following hearing: IN PURSUIT OF TRUTH Media Freedom in the OSCE Region Wednesday, October 20, 2021 2:30pm Dirksen Senate Office Building Room 419 Watch live: www.youtube.com/HelsinkiCommission A free press is the lifeblood of democracy; without independent media, democracy is doomed, economies suffer, and peace is imperiled. In many of the 57 participating States of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), autocrats exploit financial and legal means, alongside physical violence, to intimidate and silence independent media. Journalists and their associates are attacked both online and offline; jailed on phony charges; and even killed for the secrets they expose. Leaders undermine public trust in the press to hide their misdeeds. Disinformation—particularly lies related to the COVID-19 pandemic—continues to pollute the information landscape. In her first appearance before Congress, OSCE Representative for Freedom of the Media Teresa Ribeiro will assess the state of media freedom across the OSCE region. Other expert witnesses will discuss recent attacks on journalists and media outlets, the motivations that lead authorities to try and silence the press, global disinformation networks, and more. The following witnesses are scheduled to testify: Teresa Ribeiro, Representative on Freedom of the Media, OSCE Jamie Fly, President & CEO, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) Robert Mahoney, Deputy Executive Director, Committee to Protect Journalists Peter Pomerantsev, Director of Arena Program and Senior Fellow, Johns Hopkins University; Author and Journalist

  • Helsinki Commission Leadership Condemns Russian Obstruction of OSCE Human Rights Work

    WASHINGTON—In response to Russian intransigence blocking the annual OSCE Human Dimension Implementation Meeting (HDIM), Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), Ranking Member Sen. Roger Wicker (MS), and Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) issued the following joint statement: “We are extremely disappointed that the HDIM failed to start this week as planned, due solely to Russian intransigence blocking the meeting. The Kremlin has reached a new low in its efforts to undermine the OSCE’s work to promote human rights and democracy. “Russia clearly fears criticism of its worsening human rights record and fraudulent elections from the OSCE, other OSCE participating States, and civil society. The HDIM, through its thorough review of states’ human rights records and its inclusion of civil society, is a crown jewel of the OSCE’s human rights work. “We urge Russia to change its position and we expect the HDIM to be held in accordance with the agreement adopted in Helsinki in 1992 by the heads of state of all OSCE participating States—including Russia—that established the HDIM. For our part, we will continue to speak out when we see human rights violations, including in the Russian Federation.” The OSCE Human Dimension Implementation Meeting is the region’s largest annual human rights conference, and typically brings togethers hundreds of government and nongovernmental representatives, international experts, and human rights activists for two weeks to engage in a comprehensive review of the participating States’ compliance with their human rights and democracy-related commitments. The meeting is held in Warsaw, Poland, where the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights is headquartered.

  • Helsinki Commission Digital Digest September 2021

  • The Russian election was supposed to shore up Putin’s legitimacy. It achieved the opposite.

    Electoral precinct 40, located in a charming historic area a few minutes’ walking distance from the Kremlin, is among the few in Moscow that can be trusted to count votes honestly. Ever since I first voted here at the age of 18, the official tallies have always reflected the actual votes cast. In Moscow’s 2013 mayoral election, the candidate who won the precinct was anticorruption campaigner and opposition activist Alexei Navalny. Local Muscovite pride may be one factor in this honesty; the presence of independent electoral commission members in the precinct may be another. So when I came to vote here on Sunday, and then stayed overnight to observe the count, I was certain that I would get a glimpse of the real sentiments of Russian voters. To be clear: It wasn’t an honest election. Opponents of the Kremlin, including all Navalny supporters, had been preemptively disqualified from the ballot through various bans imposed by the regime. But I did expect to see an honest count of the votes that were cast. I was proven right. The official vote tally from Precinct #40 showed the three top spots on the party list ballot divided among the Communists, Vladimir Putin’s United Russia and the liberal Yabloko party, the only genuine opposition group allowed to take part in this election. (Their shares were 27, 20 and 19 percent, respectively.) The Communist vote, usually low in Moscow, was boosted this time by support from the Navalny team, which urged voters to pick any candidates on the ballot who don’t represent United Russia — a tactic, known as “Smart Voting,” that aims to demonstrate how minimal support for the ruling party really is. On the single-member ballot (where voters choose among individual candidates rather than parties), Yabloko’s Sergei Mitrokhin won handily with 35 percent; the pro-regime candidate eked out just 14 percent. The overall official results announced next morning — both for Moscow and for Russia as a whole — might as well have come from a different country. The authorities solemnly announced that United Russia had retained its two-thirds supermajority in parliament — even though most polls (including those from government pollsters) showed support for the party in the high 20s. The rest of the seats will be filled by officially approved “opposition” parties that always end up supporting Putin’s most important initiatives. Predictably, not a single genuine opposition candidate — among the few allowed on the ballot in the first place — was actually allowed to win. This time around — in addition to traditional rigging methods such as organized voting by state employees and military conscripts, “carousel” multiple voting, and plain ballot-stuffing — the regime deployed a rather specific brand of electronic voting. When used in genuine democracies, electronic voting usually produces an outcome almost immediately. But in this election, tabulating the results took hours longer than counting traditional paper ballots — and the final result flipped at least eight Moscow districts from the opposition to United Russia. “The story with electronic voting fraud … reminds me of the switched urine samples at the 2014 Sochi Olympics,” noted political analyst Maria Snegovaya. “It was done clumsily and crudely — and by the same people, the FSB [Federal Security Service]. It seems this is the only way they can work.” In contrast to 2011, when a patently fraudulent parliamentary election brought tens of thousands of people into the streets, this time no major protests followed. Indeed, none were expected. Navalny’s arrest, and an unprecedented crackdown on opposition supporters earlier this year — with 11,000 detentions and more than 100 criminal cases against participants of pro-democracy rallies — has left Russian civil society subdued and demoralized. But this silence is deceptive. The respite for the regime will almost certainly prove to be only temporary. Recent protests and public opinion trends point to an unmistakable rise in general fatigue with one-man rule that is now stretching into its third decade. Major political change in Russia is notoriously difficult to predict — suffice it to mention the (unpredicted) political upheavals of 1905, 1917 or 1991 — but it seems likely that brewing anti-regime sentiment will burst out into the open in the spring of 2024 if Putin attempts to remain in power, in violation of the constitutional term limit he unlawfully overturned last year. It is an incontrovertible logic of history that in countries where governments cannot be changed at the ballot box, they are often changed on the streets. Russia has seen this herself, as have other countries in our post-Soviet neighborhood. It is no news to anyone that there are no real elections in Putin’s Russia. Yet international reaction to last weekend’s sham vote has been strong on both sides of the Atlantic. Lawmakers in the U.S. Congress and in the European Parliament have stated that it “severely weakens the legitimacy” of Putin’s rule. Whatever remains of that legitimacy will be finally shed in the event of Putin’s illegal prolongation of his mandate beyond 2024. European Union lawmakers have already hinted at a formal nonrecognition of any such action in the new strategy toward Russia adopted earlier this month. The year 2024 will be an important test — both for Russian society’s tolerance to autocratic rule, and for the West’s adherence to the rule of law not just in words but in practice. It’s now time to start preparing for that moment.

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