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OSCE Mission to Bosnia and Herzegovina Continues to Play a Constructive Role
Friday, December 07, 2007

By Janice Helwig, Staff Advisor

Helsinki Commission staff recently visited the OSCE Mission Bosnia and Herzegovina to see how its work has adjusted to the evolving situation in the country.

Mission Mandate: Activities and Priorities

The mandate of the Mission to Bosnia and Herzegovina was established by the December 1995 OSCE Ministerial Council in Budapest in response to taskings given to the OSCE by the Dayton Peace Agreement. It focused on elections, human rights monitoring, and facilitating the monitoring of arms control and confidence- and security-building arrangements. In 1996, the Permanent Council expanded the mandate to include democracy building. Although the mandate has not formally changed since 1996, the focus and work of the OSCE Mission has adapted with the changing situation in the country, and the Mission continues to play an active and effective role in the post-conflict rehabilitation of the country.

The Mission’s work on elections, security and confidence building measures, and sub-regional arms control is largely finished. The conduct of elections has been turned over to Bosnian authorities, and most of the work under Dayton Annex 1b, Articles II and IV, has been completed.

While some activities have decreased, work on human rights monitoring and education has increased. As refugees have returned and as war crimes trials have begun throughout the country, the Mission has established programs to monitor potential discrimination against returnees in economic and social rights, and is monitoring war crimes trials at all levels. The Mission’s work to promote desegregated education and to foster good governance at the local level is bearing fruit. Some schools have been unified; others now hold joint activities and classes. Many municipal governments are working on a five-module good governance training program.

One of the OSCE Mission’s advantages continues to be its presence throughout the country. The mission currently consists of the headquarters office in Sarajevo, three regional centers (RC), and 20 field offices (FO). The Mission’s field offices are one of its key advantages over others organizations. The relationships built with local authorities and communities are the basis for OSCE’s effectiveness and often used by other organizations and Embassies not resident throughout the country.

The Mission currently focuses its work through four Departments: Democratization, Education, Human Rights, and Security Cooperation. Each Department conducts several programs, which are standardized and implemented throughout the country by staff of the field offices.

Democratization Programs

The work of the Democratization Department focuses on developing efficient and transparent government institutions, building parliamentary capacity, and supporting civil society. A major component is UGOVOR, a country-wide local government project launched in March 2005. As other international organizations are becoming more involved with public administration reform, the Mission is shifting to building ties among municipal governments and developing civil society. In addition, the Mission works in small municipalities where other international organizations are not.

OGOVOR is a five-module training program to improve regulatory elements of municipal governance and promote greater transparency and accountability. The five modules are: access to information; ethics for elected officials; participatory strategic planning; harmonization of municipal statutes; and partnership between civil society and municipal governments.

Education Programs

In July 2002, at the request of the Office of the High Representative and with the concurrence of the Peace Implementation Council (PIC), the OSCE Mission assumed responsibility for coordination of the work of the international community on education. The first aim was to ensure that textbooks and classes were non-political, non-divisive, and free from derogatory propaganda concerning other ethnic and religious groups. New textbooks are being distributed this year, and most lessons are now free from intolerant bias. Nevertheless, most schools in Bosnia remain divided – they are either two schools under one roof, divided by ethnicity, or one-ethnicity schools. Parents, particularly returnees, generally support segregation, and authorities argue that classes must be separated into the three languages of the country, each of which also has its own curriculum for history and geography. Such segregation fosters children’s perception that they should not mix with individuals from the other groups and does little to promote reconciliation. Moreover, politicians – particularly at the local level – sometimes use education to build nationalist credentials in the hopes of gaining votes.

The Mission is working to desegregate schools as much as possible. Some schools have been integrated – such as the Mostar Gymnasium which began unified classes in the fall of 2006 – and others have begun holding joint classes on certain subjects such as computer technology.

One focus is building civil society input to school reform through the creation of and support for parent and student councils, as well as teachers’ forums. The Mission recently published a manual for student councils in secondary schools.

The OSCE also works with municipal, entity, and State authorities on education reform, including legislative and curriculum reform.

Human Rights Programs

Until recently, the Mission’s human rights work had focused on property rights and restitution, in line with the need at that time to follow cases as refugees and IDPs return to reclaim their property. As returnees have settled in, the Mission has turned to monitoring potential discrimination against returnees and other vulnerable groups by local authorities. The Mission has also been monitoring trials since the introduction of a new legal system three years ago; this work is increasing as the number of war crimes trials increases in Bosnian courts.

The Mission monitors how local authorities provide basic economic and social support – such as health care, housing, and pensions - to vulnerable groups, including returnees, Roma, and disabled persons, in order to address any patterns of discrimination that emerge.

Trial monitoring is aimed at ensuring fair trials, particularly war crimes trials, and at identifying shortcomings in the Bosnian judicial system and resolving them.

There is a special unit which monitors 11bis trials transferred by the ICTY to Bosnian courts.

The Mission also does significant work with Roma communities. For example, in one municipality alone, the OSCE has raised the number of Roma children in school from 8 to almost 90.

Security Cooperation Programs

Programs under the Security Cooperation Department originally focused on implementation of Dayton Peace Agreement Annex 1b, Articles II and IV. Work on Article II was completed in 2004 with the signing of the Agreement on the Termination of Article II on 28 September. Although some work continues under Article IV, military reform and troop reductions have resulted in significantly fewer inspections. UNDP has taken the lead in reducing small arms and light weapons (SALW. Currently, the work of the Department focuses on institution building and parliamentary capacity-building.

The Department recently completed a pilot training course for various levels of government officials on the government’s new security policy concept.

The Department also conducts training on the OSCE Code of Conduct on Political-Military Aspects of Security.

The parliamentary capacity building program began in 2002 and works with defense and intelligence committees. It organizes trainings, visits to other countries, and strengthening of oversight capabilities.

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  • What’s Washington’s role in Belarus?

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The State Department announced in September that the United States no longer recognizes Lukashenko’s government, and coordinated the sanctions with wider penalties from Europe. Both the Trump administration and European Union officials could be doing more to support the protestors, experts told National Journal. “I think both the U.S. and the EU need to go much further than they have so far, in terms of the number of people that they sanction,” said Michael Carpenter, director at the Penn Biden Center, who called for sanctions against “mid-level” Belarusian officials directly responsible for the human-rights abuses. Belarus-specific sanctions date to the Belarus Democracy Act of 2004, and a Bush-era executive order that sets out guidelines for penalizing officials responsible for undermining democracy. Lawmakers added further penalties in 2011. The Trump administration targeted eight people Friday, including the head of Belarus’s elections and the chief of Belarus’s security forces, and the European Union sanctioned 40 people. The United Kingdom and Canada also announced sanctions over the weekend, including against Lukashenko himself. The sanctions are only one part of Belarus policy, experts stressed, which is ultimately supposed to push Lukashenko to negotiate. Exiled opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya asked German Chancellor Angela Merkel to mediate the negotiations on Tuesday. Judy Dempsey, a nonresident senior fellow at Carnegie Europe, predicted that Merkel would take up the challenge—but would have to act quickly. Russian President Vladimir Putin might accuse the EU of meddling in Belarus’ government should the talks drag, Dempsey told National Journal. “If Merkel does take on this mediating role, it’s got to be incredibly sophisticated and it’s got to be very fast,” said Dempsey. The United States may not play a direct role in mediating the talks, but the Trump administration might put more pressure on Lukashenko by targeting mid-level officials inside his government. Former State Department sanctions coordinator Daniel Fried told National Journal that the State Department and OFAC could craft an executive order to authorize “status-based” penalties: those which authorize Treasury to target specific people based on their employment. Officials could then work with Belarusian civil society to identify targets, like “the plainclothes cops roughing up dissidents.” “Putting this into legislation is hard as hell, and then it’s not as flexible,” said Fried. “It’s far better to let OFAC do it, in coordination with the State Department.” Lawmakers have remained largely hands-off on Belarus, besides offering statements in support of those protesting against Lukashenko. In July, the Senate passed a resolution condemning the arrest of opposition candidates and political protesters. The chair and ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee separately called out Lukashenko’s handling of the election in early August, and later in the month issued a joint statement calling for sanctions against those responsible for human-rights abuses. The upper chamber might support Belarus policy by advancing Trump’s ambassadorial nominee to Belarus, several former officials and experts told National Journal. The United States and Belarus haven’t exchanged ambassadors since 2008. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee advanced career State Department official Julie Fisher favorably out of committee in late September. Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy voted against the nomination, and argued that sending the ambassador to Belarus during the crackdown would reward Lukashenko. Some experts disagreed, and said having an ambassador in Minsk could help the United States coordinate policy with civil-society groups and would send an important signal to domestic opposition. Sen. James Risch told Murphy that the State Department believed having an ambassador to Minsk was “the best way to help the Belarusian people.” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s office did not respond to emailed questions about Fisher’s nomination; Senate Foreign Relations Committee spokesperson Suzanne Wrasse told National Journal that McConnell has “a number of priorities,” and that ambassadorial nominations were “on the list.” While former officials agreed that ramping up support for civil society groups and sanctioning mid-level Belarusian officials could be effective at prodding Lukashenko to negotiate, they disagreed over whether also to target large state-owned firms that form the backbone of the Belarusian economy. Carpenter, Fried, and other former Obama administration officials suggested that penalizing the companies could end up hurting protestors, many of whom work on the factory floors. The Lukashenko government has close ties with heavy industry, however, and a few lawmakers told National Journal they support lifting waivers granting them access to the U.S. market. Rep. Alcee Hastings asked Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin in mid-August to cancel sanctions waivers for several Belarusian companies. Hastings led the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe election-monitoring mission for Belarus’s 2006 presidential election, and now heads the Helsinki Commission, a congressionally-created agency that coordinates OSCE policy on Capitol Hill. The Treasury Department has not responded to Hastings’ letter. “Providing support to the Lukashenko regime by allowing its state-owned companies access to our financial system is unacceptable, and the sanctions announced on individuals last week by the Treasury Department are a step in the right direction,” said Hastings in a statement to National Journal. “However, Lukashenko himself has long been a prime candidate for Global Magnitsky sanctions, and failing to include him among the sanctioned individuals is a severe oversight.” Last fall, the state-owned Belarusian oil company Belneftekhim retained lobbyist David Gencarelli to push for the continuation of a licensing exemption allowing the company to purchase “crude oil with delivery to the refineries in the Republic of Belarus.” The Treasury Department extended relief to Belneftekhim and other heavy-industry players, giving them continued access to the American market until April 2021. “What we’ve seen over the years with Lukashenko is he’s a very skillful player juggling between the U.S. and Europe, which is a natural market for Belarus, and Russia,” said Sofya Orlosky, senior program manager for Europe and Eurasia at Freedom House. The EU has similarly sought to keep Lukashenko from sliding into Putin’s orbit, periodically lifting and reimposing sanctions on his government for human-rights abuses. The bloc suspended financial penalties in 2016 after Lukashenko granted “amnesty” to a number of political prisoners, which Orlosky said normalized Lukashenko’s undemocratic behavior. “There’s been, as it were, a limit to the severity of sanctions in the past, because the argument was made at least implicitly that we don’t want to alienate Belarus too much or throw them into Russia’s arms,” said Nigel Gould-Davies, a former British ambassador to Belarus. The Trump administration has pursued normalization with Minsk for the past several years, prior to Lukashenko’s crackdown. The State Department’s top political official, David Hale, met with Lukashenko in Minsk in September 2019, and stated afterward that the U.S. was ready to exchange ambassadors “as the next step in normalizing our relationship.” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Minsk in February for the same purpose. The difference now, according to Gould-Davies: The legitimacy of Lukashenko’s regime “is basically broken.” Very few people support the government, aside from people working directly for the state, which undercuts calls for moderation in the West. “He enjoys no significant support outside of those who actually work for the state,” said Gould-Davies.

  • U.S., EU Sanction Belarus in Coordinated Western Action

    Lukashenko government lashes out, saying no ‘self-respecting’ state would agree to demands posed by the West. The U.S. and European Union imposed sanctions against Belarus officials on Friday, part of a coordinated effort by Western allies to censure the authoritarian regime over accusations of political repression and rigging elections. The EU reached an early morning deal to advance a sanctions package against more than three dozen Belarusian individuals deemed responsible for suppressing protests and for election fraud. Hours later, the U.S. Treasury Department blacklisted eight senior figures in longtime President Alexander Lukashenko’s government or associated with his rule. Among those blacklisted were Interior Minister Yuriy Khadzymuratavich Kareau and top election commission officials. The EU’s action against Belarus, together with a joint statement reprimanding Turkey for drilling in waters claimed by Cyprus and Greece, was meant as a broader message of mounting concern that Europe’s eastern periphery, a region that once held hopes for a spread of democracy, is increasingly turning back to its authoritarian past. Divisions within the EU stymied an attempt to sanction Turkey during a summit this week, but officials said the bloc could approve punitive actions in the future. The EU was able to move forward with its Belarus sanctions package, originally promised in August, after Greece and Cyprus secured the statement calling for Turkey to halt its drilling. While the U.S. sanctioned Mr. Lukashenko in 2006, the EU declined for now to include the Belarussian leader himself in their action. Officials said the president, who previously was the subject of EU sanctions that were lifted in 2016, still could be targeted again later. The EU sanctions came into effect Friday afternoon. Mr Lukashenko’s interior minister was also one of the highest-profile names on the EU sanctions list. The Belarus foreign ministry condemned the sanctions and said the government also enacted its own sanctions list, which won’t be made public. It said it may also reconsider its participation in joint programs with the EU and could cut diplomatic ties if further EU sanctions are levied. “The sanctions were introduced as a punitive measure…for the fact that Belarus did not comply with a set of ultimatum requirements that no self-respecting sovereign state would satisfy,” the foreign ministry said in a statement. The statement didn’t address the specific allegations of election-rigging and violent political repression. The U.S. and EU sanctions follow the imposition of sanctions on Mr. Lukashenko and seven senior figures in his government by the U.K. and Canada on Tuesday, a sign of widening discontent in the West over ongoing repression of peaceful protests against his purported victory in a disputed election. Western officials have accused Mr. Lukashenko and his allies of multiple human rights violations in detaining and allegedly torturing protesters following the Aug. 9 vote, which Mr. Lukashenko’s opponents and Western governments say was rigged in his favor to extend his more than a quarter-century in power. The EU has called for a rerun of the presidential elections with international supervision. It has warned it could add additional sanctions if Mr. Lukashenko refuses to enter dialogue with the opposition. The U.S. sanctions targeted officials the Treasury Department said run government offices responsible for the political repression, human rights abuses and election fixing. Besides the top two Interior Ministry officials, the Treasury also blacklisted the two leaders of Interior’s Internal Troops, Yuriy Henadzievich Nazaranka and Khazalbek Bakhtsibekavich Atabekau. “The Belarusian people’s democratic aspirations to choose their own leaders and peacefully exercise their rights have been met with violence and oppression from Belarusian officials,” said Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin. The Trump administration declined for now to revoke a special license giving the nine largest state-owned companies in Belarus access to the U.S. financial system, as urged by the U.S. Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, a government body that advises administrations on sanctions. While the EU’s Belarus sanctions had broad support, the bloc has been deeply split over how to respond to Turkey’s increasingly frequent flexing of military muscle in the region, including its unilateral moves to explore and drill for energy resources in the eastern Mediterranean. Turkey says it has the right to seek energy resources in the region. With respect to Turkey, the EU leaders settled on diplomacy for now, issuing the joint statement but threatening sanctions if Ankara didn’t show willingness to improve ties. Western diplomats said tensions between Ankara and Athens this summer rose to levels not seen since the 1970s, when Turkey and Greece came close to a direct military conflict over Cyprus. Greece and Turkey are North Atlantic Treaty Organization members. However, Turkey has for now suspended its energy activities in waters claimed by Greece but not by Cyprus. Separately, Turkey and Greece reached an agreement Thursday, mediated by NATO, to take measures to avoid an air or naval clash in the eastern Mediterranean, including a hotline between the two countries. European diplomats have also grown alarmed by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s decision to send troops into Libya and Syria, its unconditional support for Azerbaijan in renewed fighting with Armenia and its acquisition of advanced weaponry from Russia. On Thursday, French President Emmanuel Macron said France had clear evidence that jihadist fighters were leaving Syria to go to fight in Nagorno-Karabakh via Turkey. Mr. Macron had earlier criticized Ankara for what he called its bellicose comments against Armenia over its conflict with Azerbaijan. —Ann Simmons in Moscow contributed to this article.

  • Hastings, Wicker, and Hudson Call For De-Escalation of Nagorno-Karabakh Fighting

    WASHINGTON—After a major outbreak of violence between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces Sunday in Nagorno-Karabakh, Helsinki Commission leaders Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20), Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS), and Commissioner Rep. Richard Hudson (NC-08) deplored the loss of life on both sides and called for the immediate cessation of violence and resumption of negotiations. “I am deeply concerned about the resumption in fighting between the sides, and the needless suffering it is once again inflicting on civilians,” said Chairman Hastings. “The sides must immediately cease hostilities and return to the positions held prior to Sunday’s events, in order to de-escalate the situation.” “This renewed outbreak of hostilities is a serious threat to regional stability. I hope it will not spark a broader confrontation,” said Co-Chairman Wicker. “Outside parties should not exacerbate the situation by intervening in the violence.” “The sides must use the auspices of the OSCE Minsk Group to find a solution to this conflict,” said Rep. Hudson, who also chairs the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly Committee on Political Affairs and Security. “There is no alternative to a peaceful negotiated solution of the conflict. We in the United States intend to maintain our efforts to work with the sides to settle the conflict peacefully and sustainably.” Heavy fighting broke out Sunday between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces along the line of contact separating the sides in the conflict over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region. The exchange of air strikes, rocket attacks, and artillery fire killed dozens of soldiers and civilians and injured more than a hundred, marking the worst fighting since 2016. Armenian forces occupy most of Nagorno-Karabakh and all or part of seven surrounding Azerbaijani provinces, all within Azerbaijan’s internationally recognized boundaries. The sides fought a war in the early 1990s over the fate of the historically Armenian-majority enclave following the collapse of the Soviet Union, ending in a 1994 ceasefire that governs the conflict today. Since the late 1990s, the United States, France, and Russia have co-chaired the OSCE Minsk Group process, the international format dedicated to facilitating a negotiated resolution to the conflict.

  • ONGOING TRANSATLANTIC ENGAGEMENT THROUGH THE OSCE PARLIAMENTARY ASSEMBLY

    Mr. HUDSON. Madam Speaker, I rise today to highlight my recent efforts to engage with our allies across Europe to address the current political turmoil in Belarus and seek a way forward. On September 23, I joined a video call of the leadership of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE PA), where I serve as Chairman the Committee on Political Affairs and Security. Joining us for the discussion were the Head of the Belarusian delegation to the OSCE PA, Mr. Andrei Savinykh, and the leader of the Belarusian opposition and former presidential candidate, Ms. Svetlana Tikhanovskaya. Ms. Tikhanovskaya shared with us the long struggle of the people of Belarus for their rights under President Alexander Lukashenko's 26-year authoritarian rule. The fraudulent presidential election on August 9, in which Lukashenko claimed he ``won'' with over 80 percent of the vote, led thousands of Belarusians across the country to come out into the streets. They risk physical harm and imprisonment to demand free and fair elections and the release of political prisoners. Unfortunately, these individuals have been met with brute force from the authoritarian regime. They continue to injure and detain protestors, journalists, and even bystanders on a massive scale. Instances of torture in detention have been reported, and some have been killed. Lukashenko is clearly afraid for his political future. In another desperate move, he recently held an illegal, early "inauguration'' in an attempt to consolidate his illegitimate power. I strongly condemned Lukashenko's violent repression of Belarusians and express solidarity for their desire to choose their own leadership in a democratic and transparent manner and to exercise their fundamental freedoms without fear of violent repercussions or harassment. During our meeting, I noted two particular cases that we in the United States are watching closely. U.S. citizen Vitali Shkliarov, who was in Belarus visiting family, was unjustly detained in July and languishes in a Belarusian prison since the end of July. We are concerned for his welfare and I called for his release. I also mentioned that the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Minsk-Mogilev, Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz, has been denied re-entry to Belarus after a visit abroad, even though he is a citizen. He has openly criticized the government's use of violence against peaceful people, including the detention of priests and clergy, and we fear that this too is a political act on the part of Lukashenko and an infringement on religious freedom. The future of Belarus belongs to its people, and, as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has emphasized, this path should be ``free from external intervention.'' Indeed, my colleagues in the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly understand that it is not our place to choose the leadership of Belarus, but to use the unique role of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly as a representative body to foster authentic dialogue, prevent and resolve conflict, and hold each other accountable. As an OSCE participating State, Belarus has an obligation to abide by the provisions of the Helsinki Final Act, including those on human rights and fundamental freedoms. I am pleased that 17 participating States of the OSCE, including the United States, have invoked the Moscow Mechanism, which will establish a mission of independent experts to look into the particularly serious threats to the fulfillment of human rights commitments in Belarus. The report that the mission issues will hopefully offer us greater insight into the situation in Belarus and recommendations for future actions. It is a privilege, through the U.S. Helsinki Commission, to represent the United States Congress in the Parliamentary Assembly of the OSCE. The Parliamentary Assembly provides Members of Congress with a unique, bipartisan opportunity to work with our friends and allies to help resolve pressing global issues while promoting our shared values. Because the Parliamentary Assembly includes representatives of Belarus and our European allies, it is uniquely suited to address the human rights and security implications of the moment in Belarus. Madam Speaker, please join me today in calling for an end to violence and mass detentions in Belarus and recognizing the importance of continued Congressional engagement with the Parliamentary Assembly of the OSCE.

  • Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama to Appear at Helsinki Commission Hearing

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following online hearing: ALBANIA’S CHAIRMANSHIP OF THE OSCE Responding to the Multiple Challenges of 2020 Thursday, September 17, 2020 1:00 p.m. Watch Live: www.youtube.com/HelsinkiCommission In 2020, Albania holds the chairmanship of the world’s largest regional security organization—the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE)—with a multi-dimensional mandate and a 57-country membership stretching from North America, across Europe, and to Central Asia and Mongolia. This year, the OSCE has faced the unprecedented challenge of a global pandemic and the clear urgency of action against racism, while maintaining its necessary focus on other longtime concerns often impacted by these developments.  These concerns include Russia’s continued aggression in Ukraine and threats to other nearby or neighboring countries; protracted conflicts in Transnistria, Georgia, and Nagorno-Karabakh; and political leaders in Belarus as well as in Russia, Azerbaijan, Turkey, and other OSCE countries seeking to undermine democratic institutions and stifle dissent in every sector.  Many countries are struggling—or failing—to live up to their OSCE commitments in the areas of human rights, democracy, and the rule of law. Vulnerable communities, including migrants, are targets of discrimination and violence.  Uncertainties in the Western Balkans and Central Asia remain.  The recent decision of some countries to block reappointments of senior officers at key OSCE institutions undermines the organization at a time when effective contributions to security and cooperation across the region are so deeply needed. The Helsinki Commission regularly holds a hearing allowing the annually rotating OSCE chairmanship to present its priorities for the year and to exchange views on current issues. Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama, who holds his country’s foreign affairs portfolio, will appear at this hearing to discuss the performance of the OSCE thus far in 2020 and to share his views in advance of the OSCE Ministerial Council meeting scheduled for early December.

  • Chairman Hastings Asks Treasury Secretary to Revoke Access to U.S. Financial System for Largest State-Owned Companies in Belarus

    WASHINGTON—In a letter to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin released today, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) asked the U.S. administration to revoke access to the U.S. financial system for the nine largest state-owned companies in Belarus. The letter, which follows the violent suppression of peaceful protests in Belarus after the country’s fraudulent presidential election on August 9, reads in part: “As President Alexander Lukashenko violently suppresses peaceful protests in the Belarus and flouts international election commitments, it is unacceptable for the United States to be doing business with this brutal regime… “Executive Order 13405—Blocking Property of Certain Persons Undermining Democratic Processes or Institutions in Belarus—was originally issued in June 16, 2006 in reaction to [Belarus’] March 2006 elections and subsequent repression of protests.  It targets the human rights abuses that have sadly become characteristic of the Lukashenko regime and which he is committing now more aggressively than ever as he attempts to squash fair political competition. There has never been a more appropriate time to fully implement this Executive Order and consider expanding its principle objectives with additional executive action.” During the March 2006 presidential election in Belarus, Chairman Hastings led the OSCE’s short-term international election observation mission of more than 500 observers; its report noted that the “arbitrary use of state power and widespread detentions showed a disregard for the basic rights of freedom of assembly, association and expression, and raise doubts regarding the authorities' willingness to tolerate political competition.” The full text of the letter can be found below: Dear Mr. Secretary, I request that you revoke General License No. 2G with respect to Executive Order 13405, which authorizes access to the U.S. financial system for the nine largest state-owned companies in Belarus.  As President Alexander Lukashenko violently suppresses peaceful protests in the Belarus and flouts international election commitments, it is unacceptable for the United States to be doing business with this brutal regime. For the March 2006 presidential election in Belarus, I served as Special Coordinator of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Chair-in-Office, where I led the international election observation mission of more than 500 observers and declared that those elections were not free and fair.  At that time, President Lukashenko failed to live up to international commitments by arbitrarily preventing 19 international observers from joining the mission, enforcing a pattern of intimidation against voters and opposition candidates, as well as manipulating state media.  I am sad to see that nothing has changed in more than a decade and the reach of President Lukashenko’s regime has consequently done even more irreparable damage to the Belarusian people. Ahead of Belarus’ presidential election on August 9, Lukashenko, who has been in power for 26 years, has once again authorized crackdowns on opposition protestors, journalists, and civil society activists.  Over 1,300 people were arbitrarily detained in the course of the campaign.  Still more are being detained in protests following the election.  The president disqualified or jailed his top three competitors, hoping to ensure victory.  Belarus also failed to extend a timely invitation to international observers, preventing impartial monitors from the OSCE from observing the election process, which increases the likelihood of large-scale fraud. Lukashenko underestimated, however, how much the public would rally around the wife of an intended presidential candidate who was unjustly imprisoned.  As an opposition candidate and everyday citizen concerned for the future of Belarus, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya has mobilized thousands across Belarus to demand change in their country, starting with free and fair elections.  Tikhanovskaya and her family are now safely in refuge under the protection of the Lithuanian government for fear of what might become of them now that the fraudulent election results have been announced. Executive Order 13405—Blocking Property of Certain Persons Undermining Democratic Processes or Institutions in Belarus—was originally issued in June 16, 2006 in reaction to the aforementioned March 2006 elections and subsequent repression of protests.  It targets the human rights abuses that have sadly become characteristic of the Lukashenko regime and which he is committing now more aggressively than ever as he attempts to squash fair political competition. There has never been a more appropriate time to fully implement this Executive Order and consider expanding its principle objectives with additional executive action. The people of Belarus have demonstrated through these protests their deep desire for democracy and their refusal to be silenced.  It is incumbent upon us to stand with them.  At the very least, this means that we should not be inadvertently providing support to the Lukashenko regime by allowing its state-owned companies access to our financial system. Sincerely, Alcee L. Hastings Chairman

  • The OSCE: A Bulwark Against Authoritarianism

    As we mark the 45th anniversary of the 1975 signing of the Helsinki Final Act, the founding document of today’s Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the ideals of democracy that had been advanced by that pact—freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and civil liberties—are under threat. In 1975, Soviet totalitarianism was the great threat to human rights and fundamental freedoms; today, authoritarianism poses a growing threat to human dignity and rights in the region. Authoritarianism is a fact of life in much of Eurasia, a reflection of the actual worldwide tension between countries defending universal human rights obligations and countries attempting to undermine trust in democratic institutions and promote an authoritarian model. This is true not only in repressive nations like Russia; even among some U.S. partner countries, there are warning signs. Some nations have also taken it upon themselves to block vital leadership roles in international institutions during a global pandemic unlike anything we have seen in a century. The ultimate outcome of this conflict is up to us. Liberty and human rights will prevail, but only if freedom-loving people everywhere join together to defend and preserve human rights and fundamental freedoms for all. Many international institutions dedicated to freedom and human rights were founded with U.S. support in the wake of World War II, in which more than a million U.S. citizens were either killed or wounded and trillions of dollars spent on the effort to defeat fascism. Democratic ideals are ingrained in the founding charters that established those organizations. For nearly 75 years, such institutions have consistently served as a bulwark against totalitarianism, communism, terrorism, and other forms of tyranny; limited conflict among nations; helped raise millions out of poverty; and spread democratic values throughout the world. The OSCE grew out of the Helsinki Final Act, a 1975 political agreement among the United States, Canada, the Soviet Union, and other European nations. Signed by both democratic and communist regimes, the Final Act acknowledged openly that respect for human rights within states is crucial to security among states, and that human rights concerns could legitimately be raised among signatories. Today, the OSCE is the world’s largest regional security organization, encompassing 57 countries in Europe, as well as the United States and Canada.  It includes Russia, Ukraine, and many other successors of the former Soviet Union, reaching as far east as Central Asia and Mongolia, and north beyond the Arctic Circle. The phrase “Vancouver to Vladivostok” accurately describes the organization’s reach. With its “comprehensive concept of security,” the OSCE addresses military security, economic and environmental cooperation, and human rights and takes steps to prevent, manage, and resolve conflict within and among its members. The OSCE also supports the democratic development of nations that gained or regained independence in the post-Cold War period and are still finding their footing, often torn between corruption and the promise of a democratic future. Thirteen OSCE field missions operate in member countries seeking assistance in developing their democratic institutions. The OSCE recognizes and supports the important role played by civil society and the media in holding governments to account for blatant human rights violations and abuses of power. Unprecedented Gap in OSCE Leadership OSCE institutions—including its assembly of national legislators—foster an essential defense against the spread of authoritarianism. However, despite its comprehensive vision, we are now faced with an unprecedented gap in leadership at the OSCE due to the block on the extension of mandates for four senior leaders, including the Secretary General. Each week, the OSCE Permanent Council—comprising ambassadors to the OSCE from each participating State—meets in Vienna, Austria. In this forum, the United States seeks to shine a light on contraventions of States’ OSCE tenets and violations of international law. The OSCE independent institutions, like the field missions, carry those messages forward.  In addition to the organization’s other work defending human rights and fundamental freedoms, its Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) manages the OSCE’s election observation missions, internationally recognized as the “gold standard” for their methodology. Other independent offices lead the OSCE’s work on Freedom of the Media and rights of national minorities. Unfortunately, in July, these vital institutions were deprived of strong and consistent leadership by countries—including Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, and Turkey—that seem intent on attempting to weaken the OSCE’s ability to hold countries accountable for their actions and undermining the principles of the Helsinki Final Act. The executive and legislative branches of the U.S. government are partners in bringing American leadership to support the OSCE’s work. Several times each year,  members of Congress—including lawmakers serving on the U.S. Helsinki Commission, which monitors implementation of the Helsinki Accords  —gather at meetings of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, where they secure political commitments and build mutually beneficial relationships among legislators from the OSCE’s participating States to help push back against anti-democratic actions by national governments. Unfortunately, several OSCE participating States—countries that have repeatedly committed to upholding the principles and values enshrined in the Helsinki Final Act— are exhibiting a troubling slide toward authoritarianism. The United States and our democratic allies have criticized efforts to restrict and persecute journalists, human rights defenders, civil society, members of the political opposition, and members of ethnic and religious minorities. We also have jointly criticized efforts to stifle media freedom and limit political pluralism in Russia, Belarus, Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan, as well as raised concerns about media consolidation in Hungary, and limitations on freedom of speech and freedom of the press elsewhere. Russia’s Destabilizing Actions No OSCE participating State bears more responsibility for fomenting mistrust, insecurity, corruption, and human rights violations and abuses in this region than the Russian Federation. Russia’s destabilizing actions contravene all 10 Helsinki Final Act principles, ranging from respect for human rights to the prohibition of military incursions into neighboring countries. Russia continues its aggressive actions in Ukraine, including its purported annexation of Crimea. The proxy forces Russia arms, trains, leads, and fights alongside in eastern Ukraine make it dangerous for the unarmed OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine to fulfill its Permanent Council-approved mandate to monitor the conflict. Russia uses its resources—economic, political, informational, and military—to defeat freedom and democracy. Russia does not rely on military force alone to threaten democratic governance; it also uses hybrid tactics daily, ranging from cyber intrusions to influence campaigns — aimed at undermining democratic elections. We hope that someday, authoritarian countries like Russia will start behaving again according to the rules of international law. Unfortunately, these countries currently reject the values of democracy, liberty, and human rights. The authoritarian regimes view democracy as an existential threat—hence the actions some of them have taken to restrict the OSCE’s ability to do its work.  The struggle today is between those who believe authoritarianism is the right way forward and those of us who still believe that Thomas Jefferson was right in his declaration that the desire for freedom exists within the heart of every human being. In a hyper-connected modern world in which disinformation becomes an ever more powerful weapon and the divisions within free societies are exploited by malign actors, U.S. membership in organizations like the OSCE emphasizes clearly, openly, and emphatically that America will not cede the field to the authoritarian regimes. We will not allow them to be the ones to dictate what is truth and what is fiction. Human Rights and Ideals Just as Valid in 2020 Through the OSCE, the United States directly confronts the deceit of Russia and other authoritarian powers. By raising our voices, through our participation and leadership, we reassure our friends that the United States stands with them and supports our shared values against the growing tide of autocracy. By raising our voices, we remind allies and adversaries alike that the United States remains engaged and committed to what is fair, what is right, and what is true. Together, our U.S. Mission to the OSCE and the U.S. Helsinki Commission remind allies and adversaries alike that America will not ignore regimes that are actively hostile to our values and see our liberty as an existential threat. We will always prioritize respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, defend the principles of liberty, and encourage tolerance within societies, because such efforts are vital to the promotion of democracy and to U.S. national security. We reject the authoritarian notion that our fundamental freedoms are a weakness. They are our greatest strength. The United States and other like-minded countries use the power of the OSCE to show that human rights and ideals are just as valid in 2020 as they were in 1975, when the Helsinki Accords were signed. These rights not only ensure the physical, economic, and mental wellbeing of all our populations, they make the countries’ governments stronger by building legitimacy in the eyes of their citizens. America’s unwavering support of these values through multilateral organizations like the OSCE remains vital. As noted in the Trump administration’s U.S. National Security Strategy, “Authoritarian actors have long recognized the power of multilateral bodies and have used them to advance their interests and limit the freedom of their own citizens.  If the United States cedes leadership of these bodies to adversaries, opportunities to shape developments that are positive for the United States will be lost.” The OSCE deserves to be recognized by the people of both the United States and our allies and partners as a valuable tool in the fight against autocracy. We must not abandon it by leaving its most important institutions without leadership beyond its 45th anniversary. Instead, through our efforts, and those of our allies and partners in the OSCE, we must continue to defend liberty and human rights in our region and provide a beacon of hope for citizens everywhere who aspire to a free and democratic future.

  • Co-Chairman Wicker Condemns Fraudulent Election Results, Violence Against Protesters In Belarus

    WASHINGTON—Following the August 9 presidential election in Belarus and ongoing violence against protesters across the country, Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) issued the following statement: “From the earliest stages of campaigning, Alexander Lukashenko has ruthlessly suppressed his political opponents, independent media, and ordinary citizens advocating for change. This electoral 'victory' was accomplished through blatant manipulation and fraud, as well as threats and violence. The United States stands with the people of Belarus, who have a right to make free choices about their country’s future and to protest peacefully.” In June and July 2020, longtime president of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko eliminated his main political competition through disqualification or imprisonment. Numerous protestors, supporters of opposition candidates, and journalists were arrested in the lead-up to the election. Belarus’ Central Election Commission stated on August 9 that more than 80 percent of voters voted for Lukashenko, with opposition candidate Svetlana Tsikhanovskaya, who drew unprecedented crowds to her rallies, receiving about 10 percent of the vote. Experts consider these numbers to be highly inaccurate. Following the election, protests across Belarus have been marked by mobile internet shutdowns, police violence, and mass arrests. According to international observers, Belarus has not had free and fair national elections since Lukashenko was first elected president in 1994.

  • Helsinki Commission Chairman Amends NDAA to Reflect Support for Open Skies Treaty

    On May 21, 2020 the Trump administration reportedly decided to withdraw the United States from the Open Skies Treaty to be effective at the end of this year. To express strong opposition, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) recently authored an amendment to H.R.6395, the William M. (Mac) Thornberry National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for Fiscal Year 2021, expressing the sense of Congress that the Trump Administration’s decision to withdraw from the Treaty on Open Skies did not comply with a legal requirement to notify Congress; did not assert that any other Treaty signatory had breached the Treaty; and was made over the objections of NATO allies and regional partners.  “I am proud to have worked with Rep. Jimmy Panetta to successfully amend the House FY21 NDAA to express Congressional support for Open Skies and reiterate our commitment to the confidence and security building measures that are so vital to our NATO allies and partners,” said Chairman Hastings. “As Chairman of the U.S. Helsinki Commission, I strongly disagree with the President’s decision to withdraw from the Open Skies Treaty, an important arms control agreement that significantly reduces the risk of armed conflict.” The measure expresses support for confidence and security building measures like the Open Skies Treaty, because they reduce the risk of conflict, increase trust among participating countries, and contribute to military transparency and remain vital to the strategic interests of our NATO allies and partners. The amendment also underlines the need to address Russian violations of treaty protocols through international engagement and robust diplomatic action. The full amendment is available below or as amendment numbered 167 printed in House Report 116-457. Chairman Hastings had previously condemned the Trump administration’s decision to withdraw from the Treaty on Open Skies, which is designed to increase transparency, build confidence, and encourage cooperation among the United States, Russia, and 32 other participating states (including much of Europe as well as partners like Ukraine and Georgia), by permitting unarmed observation aircraft to fly over their entire territory to observe military forces and activities. In November 2019, the Commission hosted a joint hearing with the House Committee on Foreign Affairs on the importance of the Open Skies Treaty, emphasizing its critical role in security and stability around the world, which still stands today. The United States has conducted nearly three times as many flights over Russia as Russia has over the United States under the treaty. The United States has also used the treaty to support partners by conducting flights over hot spots such as the Ukraine-Russian border.  Amendment At the end of subtitle D of title XII, add the following: SEC. 12__. SENSE OF CONGRESS ON THE OPEN SKIES TREATY. It is the sense of Congress that-- (1) the decision to withdraw from the Treaty on Open Skies, done at Helsinki March 24, 1992, and entered into force January 1, 2002-- (A) did not comply with the requirement in section 1234(a) of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2020 (133 Stat. 1648; 22 U.S.C. 2593a note) to notify Congress not fewer than 120 days prior to any such announcement; (B) was made without asserting material breach of the Treaty by any other Treaty signatory; and (C) was made over the objections of NATO allies and regional partners; (2) confidence and security building measures that are designed to reduce the risk of conflict, increase trust among participating countries, and contribute to military transparency remain vital to the strategic interests of our NATO allies and partners and should continue to play a central role as the United States engages in the region to promote transatlantic security; and (3) while the United States must always consider the national security benefits of remaining in any treaty, responding to Russian violations of treaty protocols should be prioritized through international engagement and robust diplomatic action.

  • Hastings: Petty Parochialism Denies OSCE Vital Leadership During Global Crisis

    WASHINGTON—Following yesterday’s failure of OSCE representatives to renew the mandates of four leadership positions—the OSCE Secretary General, the High Commissioner on National Minorities, the Representative on Freedom of the Media, and the Director of the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights—Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) issued the following statement: “We are in trouble when petty parochialism denies us vital leadership in the midst of a global crisis. Now more than ever, reliable multilateral institutions are needed to forge solutions during and after the current pandemic.  “Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, Turkey, and other OSCE participating States who have blocked consensus on extending dedicated public servants should be ashamed of themselves. History will show the folly of abandoning essential leadership for cooperation.” Negotiations to renew each mandate collapsed in part in response to the written objections of Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, and Turkey, and the subsequent withholding of consensus by other participating States. Even efforts to devise interim extensions failed, leaving vital OSCE leadership positions vacant during an unprecedented global crisis. The failure highlights the unwillingness of some OSCE participating States to live up to their stated commitments to democratic institutions, the rule of law, media pluralism, and free and fair elections. Leaving key leadership roles unfilled drastically weakens the OSCE’s ability to hold countries accountable for their actions and undermines the principles of the Helsinki Final Act.  The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) is the world’s largest regional security organization. It spans 57 participating States reaching from Vancouver to Vladivostok. The OSCE sets standards in fields including military security, economic and environmental cooperation, and human rights and humanitarian concerns. In addition, the OSCE undertakes a variety of initiatives designed to prevent, manage, and resolve conflict within and among the participating States.

  • Hastings and Wicker Commemorate 25th Anniversary of Srebrenica Genocide

    WASHINGTON—Ahead of the 25th anniversary of the genocide at Srebrenica in Bosnia and Herzegovina on Saturday, July 11, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) and Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) issued the following joint statement: “Today we join those in Bosnia and Herzegovina and around the world to mourn those lost in the genocide at Srebrenica in July 1995. In the worst single atrocity in Europe since World War II and the greatest violation of the principles of the 1975 Helsinki Final Act, more than 8,000 men and boys were brutally killed for no reason other than their ethnic identity. We both remember being shocked by this atrocity and confronted with the urgent need to respond to the conflict.” Chairman Hastings added, “This is a time to both remember and reflect. Americans today grapple with a history of racism and ongoing discrimination in our own country, hoping to come together. The people of Bosnia and Herzegovina must also reckon honestly with the period of conflict from 1992 to 1995 and reject the ongoing nationalist extremism which works against full reconciliation. “Many of the perpetrators at Srebrenica have faced justice for the horrendous crimes they committed, but individual accountability is not enough. Those in whose names atrocities were carried out—in this case the country’s Serb population—must openly acknowledge what happened and clearly condemn those responsible,” he concluded.       Co-Chairman Wicker added, “The international community also needs to reflect on its failure to protect a declared safe area for displaced civilians. The conflict in Bosnia and Herzegovina reminded us of the importance of U.S. leadership in world affairs and the need for a decisive international response to aggression against innocent people. Following these horrific events, the United States has actively supported Bosnia and Herzegovina’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, as well as the nation’s recovery and reconciliation. I hope we will continue that effort until the country is stable and its European integration is secure.” In early July 1995, the conflict in Bosnia and Herzegovina—widely known for the shelling of Sarajevo and the orchestrated ethnic cleansing of towns and villages throughout much of the country, primarily by Bosnian Serb forces backed by the military and paramilitary forces from Serbia led by Slobodan Milosevic—had entered its third year.  The international community designated a few small towns, including Srebrenica, as safe areas where the presence of the United Nations Protection Force (UNPROFOR) would deter further violence against uprooted civilians. Despite the presence of an UNPROFOR contingent from the Netherlands, forces under the command of Bosnian Serb military leader Ratko Mladic overran Srebrenica and gunned down more than 8,000 predominantly Bosniak men and boys. The victims were then buried in mass graves.  The massacre at Srebrenica has since been labeled definitively as a genocide by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia and overwhelmingly acknowledged as such, including by the United States. The U.S. Helsinki Commission was deeply engaged in the effort to encourage a more decisive international response to the conflicts associated with the former Yugoslavia’s violent demise, including through hearings, visits by congressional delegations, legislation, and communication with senior U.S. officials. The commission continues to actively support justice, democratic development, and the rule of law in Bosnia and Herzegovina today.

  • Hastings and Wicker Denounce Fraudulent Vote in Russia

    WASHINGTON—Following this week’s manipulated vote to amend Russia’s constitution to further weaken the separation of powers, strengthen the presidency, and allow President Vladimir Putin to remain in office until 2036, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) and Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) issued the following joint statement: “As we have seen time and again in Putin’s Russia, the outcome of this vote was decided long before the ballots were tallied. “Thanks to a fraudulent plebiscite ‘legitimizing’ the rubber stamp of Russia’s parliament, the Russian people—along with those living under Russian occupation—will remain under the thumb of an increasingly powerful Putin who could rule until he is in his eighties. “State-sponsored fraud, coercion, and obfuscation make it impossible to know the true will of the Russian people, who deserve a responsive, democratic government in line with Russia’s OSCE commitments.” From June 25 to July 1, 2020, citizens of Russia and residents of illegally-occupied Crimea and Russia-backed separatist regions of the Donbas could vote either for or against a package of more than 200 amendments to Russia’s constitution. Because the vote was not technically classified as a referendum, regulations and procedures that would usually apply—including a required minimum voter turnout level—were disregarded. Russia’s Central Election Commission released preliminary results showing overwhelming support for the amendments hours before the last polls closed, which under normal circumstances would be illegal. The potential for voter fraud was increased by the Russian Government’s decision to spread the voting over the span of a week and introduce electronic voting in some areas, ostensibly to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Independent journalists have received credible reports of people being paid to create multiple false profiles to vote online, employees being coerced into voting by their superiors, and the use of online tools to track voter participation. Individuals documented ballot-stuffing and other irregularities at polling places.  The package of amendments was approved overwhelmingly and with little discussion by President Putin and both chambers of the Russian parliament on March 11, 2020, then rapidly cleared by the regional parliaments and the Constitutional Court. It required a nationwide vote to come into force. Vladimir Putin has ruled Russia either as president or prime minister for 20 years. He can now pursue two more six-year terms after his current term expires in 2024.

  • Hastings Urges Belarus to Allow Real Political Competition in Upcoming Elections

    WASHINGTON—In light of the recent crackdown on protesters and arrests of prominent presidential candidates leading up to the August 9 elections in Belarus, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) released the following statement: “Every OSCE participating State, including Belarus, commits to holding free and fair elections. Belarusian authorities have made this impossible by arresting and intimidating presidential candidates, journalists, and activists in the early stages of campaigning. There can be no free choice when the system is rigged in favor of the incumbent. I call on President Lukashenko to order the release of those who have been detained for political reasons and allow real political competition in Belarus.” Belarusian presidential candidate and popular YouTube personality Sergei Tikhanovsky was arrested in early June. His wife, who has decided to run in his place, has received numerous threats. Another presidential candidate and former head of Belgazprombank Viktor Babaryko was also detained, along with his son, after authorities raided the bank’s offices. Journalists, members of civil society, and others have been arrested during rallies and peaceful protests against Lukashenko’s regime. An estimated 140 people across Belarus were detained on June 19 alone, the last day for presidential candidates to collect signatures to get on the ballot. According to international observers, Belarus has not had free and fair national elections since Lukashenko’s election in 1994.

  • Hastings Urges Belarus to Allow Real Political Competition in Upcoming Elections

    WASHINGTON—In light of the recent crackdown on protesters and arrests of prominent presidential candidates leading up to the August 9 elections in Belarus, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) released the following statement: “Every OSCE participating State, including Belarus, commits to holding free and fair elections. Belarusian authorities have made this impossible by arresting and intimidating presidential candidates, journalists, and activists in the early stages of campaigning. There can be no free choice when the system is rigged in favor of the incumbent. I call on President Lukashenko to order the release of those who have been detained for political reasons and allow real political competition in Belarus.” Belarusian presidential candidate and popular YouTube personality Sergei Tikhanovsky was arrested in early June. His wife, who has decided to run in his place, has received numerous threats. Another presidential candidate and former head of Belgazprombank Viktor Babaryko was also detained, along with his son, after authorities raided the bank’s offices. Journalists, members of civil society, and others have been arrested during rallies and peaceful protests against Lukashenko’s regime. An estimated 140 people across Belarus were detained on June 19 alone, the last day for presidential candidates to collect signatures to get on the ballot. According to international observers, Belarus has not had free and fair national elections since Lukashenko’s election in 1994.

  • Disinformation, COVID-19, and the Electoral Process

    Listen to audio of the briefing on Facebook.  Free and fair elections are one of the most fundamental measures of a democratic society. During the 2016 presidential elections, many Americans became aware for the first time that disinformation can be easily coupled with technology by state and nonstate actors to disrupt and muddy the information space in the months, weeks, and days leading up to an election.  The use of disinformation to influence elections has since become a pervasive and persistent threat in all 57 OSCE participating States, one which many still struggle to adequately address. With presidential, parliamentary, or local elections scheduled in 15 OSCE participating States before the end of 2020, the stakes could not be higher. The COVID-19 pandemic has added another level of complexity, as Russia, China, and Iran are all attempting to use the crisis to drive a wedge between the United States and Europe. Governments in the region are struggling to respond, with some enacting measures that further restrict the free flow of information and threaten press freedom. This briefing featured three expert panelists who each examined the implications of this emerging threat to the electoral process and explored opportunities for nations, state and local governments, the private sector, and civil society to collaborate to identify and mitigate disinformation’s corrosive effects.  Some of the more urgent concerns they noted were the increased politicization of the information space and the rise of nonstate actors.  Heather Conley, Senior Vice President for Europe, Eurasia, and the Arctic at the Center for Strategic International Studies, noted, “Russia does not create the weaknesses; they simply exploit them.  And this is where I think it’s very important to understand that in the U.S. system they’re exploiting, obviously, our partisanship.  So we are offering them the weakness, and then they use it wherever they can.” Nina Jankowicz, Disinformation Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center Science and Technology Information Program and author of the upcoming book How to Lose the Information War, said the goal is often simply to bombard the information space with so much conflicting information, the voter loses interest: “They want people to consume less news and to feel like participation at all stages of the process is futile, whether that means communicating with our elected representatives, participated in civil society, or even the act of voting itself.” She added that partisanship cannot be permitted to frame the response to disinformation. “Disinformation is not a partisan issue,” she said.  “If we’re to make any progress in protecting our democracies, we need to not only clearly recognize the threat that disinformation poses but reject its tactics whole cloth.  Any government that uses disinformation cannot hope to fight it.” Chatham House’s Sophia Ignatidou called for a US-EU approach to combatting disinformation that was rooted in international human rights. She noted, “The reason for doing that is that international human rights law is suitable to deal with an issue that doesn’t respect any physical boundaries.  And it can provide a more holistic view of the issue of disinformation which we are lacking sometimes.” Ignatidou also challenged one of the primary arguments that some of the big tech companies use to push back against regulation – freedom of expression – as misleading, because “the problem with disinformation is dissemination patterns and scale, not content, per se.  And freedom of speech does not equate [with] freedom of reach.” Other questions centered on the importance of OSCE election monitoring missions paying more attention to how disinformation impacts the atmosphere surrounding an election in the months leading up to it.  The discussion ended on a positive note as all three panelists, when asked to cite examples of successful efforts to mitigate disinformation, spoke about the importance of using trusted, credible voices at the grass-roots level and of building resilience among voters in a nonpartisan fashion.  Related Information Panelist Biographies Podcast: Helsinki on the Hill | Defending against Disinformation A Global Pandemic: Disinformation Hearing: The Scourge of Russian Disinformation Briefing: Lies, Bots, and Social Media

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