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Parliamentary Elections in Kyrgyzstan Set the Stage for a New Political System; Ethnic Tensions Remain a Key Obstacle to Stability
Monday, December 20, 2010

By Janice Helwig and Shelly Han

The OSCE concluded that although the October 10, 2010 elections in Kyrgyzstan were conducted peacefully – no small feat following the April 2010 revolution – and demonstrated a significant increase in pluralism as compared to previous elections, there remains an “urgent need for profound electoral legal reform.” Two Helsinki Commission staff members traveled to Kyrgyzstan to observe the election as part of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly delegation and were deployed in the Osh and Kara-suu region. Although the staff experience was not inconsistent with the overall OSCE conclusion, Osh and the surrounding region appear to have had more problems during the election than other areas of the country.

In June, the constitution had been changed through a referendum to give the parliament a stronger role than the President. The improvement in the conduct of the election may have been partly a result of that change in that, because of the new parliamentary system and the relatively large number of parties competing, no one party or group could manipulate the election nationwide (which appeared to have been the case in the 2009 presidential elections). In fact, the close result which divided parliamentary seats among several main parties was a good indicator of an open competition. Nevertheless, there were some problems at the local level, where there may have been attempts to influence the outcome. In the Osh and Kara-suu region, there appeared to be problems particularly with the voters list, the inking process, and the counting process.

For example, in almost all the polling visited by Commission staff, about a third of those who had voted had added themselves to the additional list with just their ID. Other international observers reported similar findings. This would indicate that either the main voters list was extremely inaccurate, or something more problematic may have been going on. In one polling station, a man tried to add himself to the additional list but was turned down while the staff was present; he clearly was not satisfied and went back in to try again as they left. Another international observer in the neighboring Uzgen area reported the same pattern, but, suspiciously, only in polling stations easily accessible from the main road. According to the election law, the registration of any voter on the additional list should have been counterchecked and signed by an adviser or observer in the polling station, but that did not happen during the day. At the closing in one polling station, the Chairwoman had a colleague counter sign all 225 additions to the list.

The inking procedure also appeared to be a problem. In theory, anyone adding themselves to the additional list should not have been able to vote anywhere else because of the use of invisible ink sprayed on each voter’s thumb. However, spraying and checking for ink in the polling stations appeared to be haphazardly conducted. Domestic observers had to stay in their chairs across the room and could not see whether the ink checker was effective. Moreover, when Commission staff asked people who had been inked earlier it the day to put their thumb under the light, little or no ink was visible. The ink seemed not to work all of the time, or perhaps to have washed off easily.

There also were significant problems in processing protocols during the counting process in the Kara-suu district. At the district counting station, the halls and stairways were lined with polling station chairpersons busily erasing and refilling in their protocols. Protocols and stamps were strewn around everywhere. It may have been that the chairpersons were simply trying to get their numbers to add up properly so they would be accepted by Shailoo, the computerized vote-counting system. On the other hand, the numbers also could have been in the process of being changed to influence the outcome. Regardless of intent, last minute changes to protocols made unilaterally by chairpersons should not have been allowed as no observers were present and there were no controls in place to prevent fraud.

Official turnout figures said that Osh had the highest voter turnout in the country, at about sixty-six percent. However, Commission staff did not see polling stations with a turnout higher than forty-five percent, nor did other international observers in the area. Interestingly, the turnout in ethnic Uzbek areas appeared to be about the same as in ethnic Kyrgyz areas. Many ethnic Uzbeks said they were “voting for peace,” although it was not clear whether that meant that moving forward with any new parliament would be positive, or if it meant that voting for a certain party would benefit ethnic Uzbeks. Some ethnic Uzbek community leaders had said prior to election day that most political parties had offered their communities money and/or infrastructure improvements in exchange for their votes.

Ethnic tensions remain a concern

Prior to election day, Commission staff were able to visit several of the Osh neighborhoods destroyed in the June violence, as well as one tent camp. The scale and scope of the destruction in ethnic Uzbek areas was enormous. And in mixed neighborhoods – for example near Shark – the house-by-house, business-by-business singling out of Uzbek-owned structures for destruction was clear. All of the victims staff spoke with appeared to be still afraid and did not see any future in Kyrgyzstan. All wanted to leave but did not have the means to do so. None wanted to go to Uzbekistan; rather they wanted to go to Russia or anywhere else where they might find economic opportunities. While rebuilding of homes was clearly progressing, the question of earning a living in the long term was an overwhelming concern.

The divide between ethnic Uzbeks and ethnic Kyrgyz is wide and seems to be growing. Many ethnic Kyrgyz seem to genuinely believe that ethnic Uzbeks were responsible for the violence, and even burned down their own houses in an effort to get international attention. Kyrgyz media and the government seem to be reinforcing this message. If the region is to move forward and avoid future violence, there needs to be some mechanism for accountability and reconciliation. However, so far only ethnic Uzbeks have been arrested and put on trial, and the trials appear to have been unfairly conducted. Ethnic Uzbek defendants have been routinely attacked by ethnic Kyrgyz mobs during the trials, as have media representatives trying to report on the proceedings. In general, journalists and human rights defenders fear retaliation if they report on abuses against ethnic Uzbeks; as a result, there have been few voices speaking out. Standing in the ruins of his home, a man shows Commission staff the photo of his sister, who was killed during the violence in June.

This ethnic divide is likely to fester unless something is done to build confidence between the main ethnic groups and provide economic opportunities for all. Moreover, disenfranchised youth could be vulnerable to recruitment by extremist organizations. The new government will face many challenges, not least addressing continuing ethnic tension in the south. 

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In 2013, the penalty for bride kidnapping was increased from three to seven years in prison, and in 2016 a new law was enacted against underage marriages and forced marriages that also hold accountable those who perform such marriages and relatives who participate in organizing them. The government is supporting awareness raising campaigns, and the NGO “Women Support Centre” has been working with the government to monitor the impact of the new legislation. These measures should be stepped up, along with community leaders speaking out, more legal accountability for perpetrators, and increased assistance and recourse for victims. 1 Current statistics are difficult due to the illegality of the practice and underreporting by victims. This estimate is based on figures from the United Nations and several non-governmental organizations working in Kyrgyzstan. 2 According to the Sezim Crisis Center in Kyrgyzstan.    

  • The 2017 Human Dimension Implementation Meeting: An Overview

    Each year,1 the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) organizes the Human Dimension Implementation Meeting (HDIM) in Warsaw, Poland. As Europe’s largest annual human rights conference, the HDIM brings together hundreds of government and nongovernmental representatives, international experts, and human rights activists for two weeks to review OSCE human rights commitments and progress.  The 2017 HDIM will be held from September 11 to September 22. Human Dimension Implementation Meeting 2017 The HDIM allows participating States to assess one another’s implementation of OSCE human dimension commitments, identify challenges, and make recommendations for improvement. The HDIM agenda covers all human dimension commitments, including freedoms of expression and the media, peaceful assembly and association, and religion or belief; democratic elections; the rule of law; tolerance and non-discrimination; combating trafficking in persons; women’s rights; and national minorities, including Roma.  Each year, three special topics are selected for a full-day review.  2017 special topics will be 1) ensuring “equal enjoyment of rates and participation in political and public life,” 2) “tolerance and nondiscrimination,” and 3) “economic, social and cultural rights as an answer to rising inequalities.”  This year’s meeting will take place at the Warsaw National Stadium (PGE Narodowy), the site of the NATO summit earlier this year. The meeting will be webcast live. Background on the Human Dimension Implementation Meeting When the Helsinki Final Act was signed in Finland in 1975, it enshrined among its ten Principles Guiding Relations between Participating States (the Decalogue) a commitment to "respect human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief, for all without distinction as to race, sex, language or religion" (Principle VII). In addition, the Final Act included a section on cooperation regarding humanitarian concerns, including transnational human contacts, information, culture and education. The phrase “human dimension” was coined to describe the OSCE norms and activities related to fundamental freedoms, democracy (such as free elections, the rule of law, and independence of the judiciary), humanitarian concerns (such as trafficking in human beings and refugees), and concerns relating to tolerance and nondiscrimination (e.g., countering anti-Semitism and racism). One of the innovations of the Helsinki Final Act was agreement to review the implementation of agreed commitments while considering the negotiation of new ones. Between 1975 and 1992, implementation review took place in the context of periodic “Follow-up Meetings” as well as smaller specialized meetings focused on specific subjects. The OSCE participating States established permanent institutions in the early 1990s. In 1992, they agreed to hold periodic Human Dimension Implementation Meetings” to foster compliance with agreed-upon principles on democracy and human rights. Additional changes to the modalities for the HDIM were agreed in 1998, 2001, and 2002, which included shortening the meeting from three weeks to two weeks, and adding three “Supplementary Human Dimension Meetings” annually on subjects selected by the Chairmanship-in-Office on particularly timely or time-sensitive issues. One of the most notable features of the HDIM is the strong participation of non-governmental organizations. The United States has been a strong advocate for the involvement of NGOs in the HDIM, recognizing the vital role that civil society plays in human rights and democracy-building initiatives. OSCE modalities allow NGO representatives to raise issues of concern directly with government representatives, both by speaking during the formal working sessions of the HDIM and by organizing side events that examine specific issues in greater detail. 1 In exceptional years when the OSCE participating States hold a summit of heads of state or government, the annual review of human dimension commitments is included as part of the Review Conference which precedes the summit, and also includes a review of the political-military and economic/environmental dimensions.

  • Engaging Belarus on Human Rights & Democracy

    The U.S. Helsinki Commission held a briefing titled, “Engaging Belarus on Human Rights and Democracy” on July 21, 2017, which built on renewed interest in Belarus after members of the Commission traveled to Minsk earlier in the month for the annual OSCE Parliamentary Assembly meeting. The panelists for the briefing included Stephen Nix, Regional Program Director for Eurasia at the International Republican Institute in Washington, DC; Katie Fox, Deputy Director of the Eurasia Department at the National Democratic Institute in Washington, DC; and Sanaka Samarasinha, the United Nations Chief in Belarus. Brief remarks were also delivered by Belarusian Charge d’Affaires Pavel Shidlovsky. Stephen Nix began the briefing by highlighting the importance of Belarus in U.S. foreign relations, including the relationship between Belarus and Russia, especially in light of the increased Western presence in the Baltics and the surrounding area. Mr. Nix “applaud[ed] Belarus’s expressed intent at engagement” and offered some examples demonstrating optimism for the democratic process in Belarus, such as the appointment of opposition party members to parliament with limited power. Katie Fox echoed this optimism when addressing “democratic openings,” such as the concessions the Belarusian government made in response to protests, increasingly democratic electoral processes, and “the growth and development of the democratic parties.” Sanaka Samarasinha discussed engagement in relations to the human rights issues Belarus presents today and the areas of particular concern to the UN. The UN in Belarus has focused primarily on “development activities,” but also issues such as human trafficking and the rising number of HIV/AIDs cases. Samarasinha also highlighted the need for a “safe space” for discussions of human rights issues and transparency to allow Belarusians and Belarusian civil society to be able to have a conversation. Charge d’Affaires Pavel Shidlovsky highlighted ways that Belarus is working with its NATO neighbors through defense cooperation, including relinquishing nuclear weapons and inviting representatives of NATO to observe the Belarusian-Russian strategic joint exercise scheduled for September 2017. Shidlovsky also stated, “Belarus has always regarded normalization of relations with the United States as a priority of its foreign policy. Yes, we have had our ups and downs, but never has the leadership of Belarus underestimated the importance of full-fledged engagement with the U.S.” In the final Q&A session the panelists were cautiously optimistic about the prospects for the improvement of human rights practices in Belarus and improvements in the electoral code that could someday lead to elections that could be certified as free and fair by the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR).  However, they also stressed that it is critical to continue to fight for changes that are sustainable, beginning with the removal of restrictions on peaceful assembly and freedom of speech.

  • Helsinki Commission Staff Meet with OSCE Election Experts

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

  • 2017 Trafficking in Persons Report – the OSCE Region

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

  • A Call to OSCE Commitments in Aftermath of Turkish Referendum

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

  • Turkey Post-Referendum: Institutions and Human Rights

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

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

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

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

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

  • First Person: Election Observation in Armenia

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

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