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The Cold War Is Over, But The OSCE's Value Is Timeless
The Wilson Quarterly
Roger Wicker & Ben Cardin
Wednesday, November 14, 2018

History has shown that robust engagement in multilateral arenas represents long-term realism: to lead, we must be involved; to protect our national interests and the principles we hold dear, we must remain engaged; and to inspire those who suffer every day under authoritarian regimes, we must hold our own country to the highest standards on the world stage.

Unfortunately, efforts to maintain America’s preeminence in the world have come under increasing pressure in recent years. These challenges are not isolated and are waged on many fronts – economically, militarily, and diplomatically. Some may use these challenges as an excuse to retreat, claiming that engagement in international organizations like the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) adds no value. We believe that quite the opposite is true. If we want to continue to lead, protect, and inspire, we need the OSCE’s opportunities for multilateral engagement more than ever.

Amid the alphabet soup of institutional acronyms, many Americans probably have not heard of the OSCE, let alone know that it is the largest regional security organization in the world. Comprising 57 countries, it links Vancouver in the West to Vladivostok in the East, spanning North America, Europe, and Central Asia. We are members of the organization’s Parliamentary Assembly, where we have represented our country and our principles in a forum of international lawmakers for a combined 34 years. We have engaged the OSCE, as a whole, even longer. We know firsthand the value of U.S. leadership and sustained high-level engagement in the organization – and conversely, we know the enormous risks that would come with retreat.

A Broader Definition of Security

The essential, enduring value of the OSCE can be traced back to its founding and the ideological transformation that it quietly unleashed. In the 1950s, the Soviet Union first conceived the idea of the Helsinki Final Act. The founding charter of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, or CSCE, later institutionalized as today’s OSCE, would eventually be signed in 1975. Moscow saw the document as a way to validate post-World War II border changes and tighten its stranglehold on Eastern Europe. The Kremlin, no doubt, also hoped to create an alternative to NATO and weaken U.S. ties to Europe.

As troops massed along the Iron Curtain after the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, Europe began to see some value in greater East-West engagement. The United States saw the Soviet proposal as a damage-mitigation exercise at best. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger famously decried the Helsinki Final Act, saying, “They can write it in Swahili for all I care… The Conference can never end up with a meaningful document.”

Opposition to the Helsinki Final Act was not limited to Foggy Bottom. The Wall Street Journal published the editorial “Jerry, Don’t Go” just prior to President Ford’s departure to sign the document in Finland, reflecting widespread opposition from U.S. foreign policy hawks and Americans across the country who descended from the “captive nations” of Eastern Europe.

What most observers at the time overlooked, however, was the Helsinki Final Act’s uniquely comprehensive definition of “security.” The Act contains 10 principles guiding inter-state relations, including respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms; respect for sovereign equality; recognition of the territorial integrity of states; and the commitment of states to fulfill in good faith their obligations under international law. The integration of human rights into a concept of security was revolutionary.

The Act also provided that any country signatory could publicly challenge any other country that wasn’t living up to Helsinki principles, either internally or externally. This was remarkable for its time.

These two innovations made the Act a rallying point for human rights advocates everywhere, especially dissident movements in the one-party communist states of the Soviet bloc. Groups like Charter 77 in Czechoslovakia, Solidarity in Poland, and other monitoring groups in the Soviet Union and Baltic States that were crucial to the eventual collapse of communism in Europe relied on Helsinki commitments in their advocacy.

With U.S. leadership, meetings of the CSCE also became venues for frank exchanges, where countries committing human rights abuses were named and victims identified. The strongest weapons in the U.S. arsenal – democratic ideals, market principles, and the primacy of individual rights – rallied European friends and allies, attracted Soviet satellites, and left Moscow isolated, if not fully convinced.

Today's Inflection Point

We were both serving in the House of Representatives shortly after the Soviet Union collapsed in the early 1990s. We were aware that the transitions ahead would be difficult, particularly as horrific ethnic cleansing spread in the Balkans and a brutal war was waged in Chechnya. Although we were on opposite sides of the aisle, we were joined in our conviction that liberal democracy would ultimately prevail throughout Europe and into Central Asia.

Unfortunately, our confidence was dramatically misplaced. Thirty years later, instead of the peace and prosperity we expected in the OSCE region, we are at an inflection point, faced with uncertainty and the increasing erosion of the security framework that followed the Cold War. In recent elections, we’ve watched nationalist parties gain a strong foothold in Europe. NATO ally Turkey – one of the world’s most oppressive regimes toward journalists – is succumbing to authoritarian rule, weakening checks on executive power and targeting more than 100,000 perceived opponents of the ruling party in sweeping purges.

Vladimir Putin continues to violate the sovereignty and territorial integrity of not just Ukraine – where, in areas controlled by Russia, pro-Ukrainian sentiment is met with imprisonment, torture, or death – but also Georgia, where Russia has occupied 20 percent of the country’s territory for more than a decade. The Russian government supports separatists in the Transnistrian region of Moldova, interferes in elections in the United States and Europe, and undermines faith in democratic governments worldwide through cyberattacks and information warfare.

An era of increasing nationalism, Kremlin revisionism, and rising authoritarianism may not, at first, seem to be the best moment to revitalize multilateral diplomacy. But it has been, and will continue to be, in our national interest to promote democracy, the rule of law, and human rights around the world – just as we did more than 40 years ago in the Finnish capital. Those Helsinki commitments, and their institutionalization over time, empower us to stand up for our values and for comprehensive security at a time in which we absolutely must.

In April 2017, we – along with every other senator currently serving on the Helsinki Commission – introduced a resolution urging President Trump to recognize the importance of the Helsinki Final Act and the OSCE as well as their relevance to American national security. We hope the administration will endorse this effort.

A Record of Results

The value of the OSCE and the effectiveness of American involvement are evident in the organization’s more recent evolution and achievements. This is no Cold War relic. We have seen examples of multilateral success in many initiatives, beginning with its quick embrace of newly independent states, from the Balkans to Eastern Europe and Central Asia.

As multiethnic states broke apart, the OSCE created a high commissioner on national minorities in 1992 to address ethnic tensions and proactively prevent conflict between or within states over national minority issues. Participating states developed mechanisms to respond to the most recalcitrant actors, such as the unprecedented suspension of Yugoslavia the same year for the “clear, gross, and uncorrected” violations of Helsinki principles by the regime of Slobodan Milosevic against Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Under OSCE auspices, internal political confrontations in Serbia in 1996 and Albania in 1997 were resolved through high-level engagement before they became a broader threat to peace and prosperity in Europe. The United States led the way, generating the political will to act quickly and with resolve.

Robust field missions also were created in the 1990s to respond to conflicts, first in the Balkans and then extending into Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, and Central Asia. In some places, such as Kosovo, the OSCE often was the only acceptable international monitor or facilitator on the ground, serving as the eyes and ears of the international community, bringing opposing sides together, and mitigating spillover effects in neighboring countries.

Today, the OSCE’s civilian Special Monitoring Mission (SMM) to Ukraine is the only independent observer group in the war zone. Established in 2014 to monitor implementation of the Minsk Agreements, its approximately 700 monitors provide clear and unbiased reporting of ceasefire violations and human costs of the conflict. Approximately half of the U.S. contribution to the OSCE goes toward funding the SMM.

The mission faces challenges, including attempts to sabotage its work and concerns about security. The latter was tragically demonstrated by the death of Joseph Stone, a U.S. paramedic killed last year when his vehicle struck a landmine in separatist-controlled territory. Without the SMM’s reporting, however, we would lack critical information to understand and address ongoing Russian aggression against Ukraine. Kremlin propaganda would have a clear field to disguise the true nature and scale of the conflict.

The OSCE also sets the gold standard for election observation across the region. The organization’s trained observers partner with international lawmakers, including ourselves, to analyze election-related laws and systems and the effectiveness of their implementation. The evaluations that these missions produce are critical benchmarks for OSCE countries and support U.S. efforts to promote human rights, democracy, and the rule of law around the world.

Pressure from the organization and its participating states has been a major factor in the release of political prisoners in countries like Azerbaijan. For example, the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, and the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly publicly condemned Baku for its targeting of investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova and the broader use of its judicial system to repress political opponents, journalists, and minorities. The Helsinki Commission also weighed in. In May 2016, Ismayilova was released from prison.

Our actions in this and similar cases demonstrate global leadership. We welcome the recent nomination of a new U.S. permanent representative to the OSCE. This important post has remained vacant for far too long. We urge our Senate colleagues to swiftly consider the nominee, who will be responsible for leading America’s vigorous defense of democracy and human rights in the region.

Let us also not overlook the fact that our work in the OSCE in relation to Russia is not simply to counter Moscow’s anti-democratic ambitions. Follow-up meetings to the original Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe became one of a shrinking number of places where East-West dialogue could take place during the Cold War. Likewise, after Russia was suspended from the G8 in March 2014, today’s OSCE provides one of the few remaining opportunities to engage with Russia and hold the Kremlin accountable to principles it has endorsed.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov attends OSCE ministerial meetings, where he easily – and with great success – engages with senior officials from around the region. That alone should encourage our secretary of state to be present. Secretary Tillerson attended the 2017 ministerial, and we urge Secretary Pompeo to do the same.

Future Challenges

Along with successes, we also have seen areas where multilateralism has fallen short. Areas like Nagorno-Karabakh, Transnistria, Chechnya, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia have consumed OSCE attention and resources, but unfortunately, the organization’s actions have not thawed these frozen conflicts. The OSCE may have kept things from getting worse than they might have been otherwise; this is something to praise, but cannot yet be counted as a win.

These efforts have been hindered in part by the otherwise positive requirement that major decisions in the organization require consensus. This rule is vital to the OSCE’s success. The organization can convene all parties on an even footing and – because no country can claim that it didn’t voluntarily agree to its commitments – the rule gives unique force to the OSCE’s actions. However, decision-making by consensus also allows a single intransigent country to wield its veto as a weapon, even in cases of otherwise overwhelming agreement.

In 2008, Russia successfully blocked the OSCE from establishing a field mission in Georgia as Russian-backed separatists occupied South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Since then, resistance to hosting or authorizing field missions, a core capability of the OSCE, has spread. Belarus kicked out its OSCE mission in 2011. Azerbaijan forced the mission in Baku to close in 2015, and two years later, it insisted on the shuttering of a mission in Armenia. Mongolia, the newest OSCE participating state, has repeatedly requested a mission to foster its continued democratic development and build closer ties with other participating states. Moscow consistently blocks that request.

A related and ongoing problem is the lack of transparency of the OSCE’s decision-making. Opening its official deliberations to the public would help make those countries that thwart progress more broadly accountable for their recalcitrance.

A more recent challenge comes from the government of Turkey. Ankara continues to use the 2016 coup attempt as pretext for not only violently repressing its citizens and detaining others, including Americans, but also for limiting the participation of non-governmental organizations in certain OSCE meetings. The OSCE is the only international organization that allows NGOs to participate equally with governments in meetings on human rights commitments, allowing these groups to raise their concerns directly. If Turkey has its way, human rights groups might be denied a seat at the table. It is easy to imagine which countries quietly hope this effort will succeed. The United States must continue to make it clear that it is not one of them.

Indeed, the moral here is that the United States should not only support the strengths and potential of the OSCE, but we must also be present and potent when progress and principles are challenged within the organization.

Our colleagues in both chambers of Congress have the passion and determination to do just that. In these days of partisan discord, we must remember – and treasure – the fact that Congress is broadly committed to the principles enshrined in the Helsinki Final Act: respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, democratic principles, and liberty. We see this in the establishment of the Helsinki Commission itself, a unique agency conceived by Congress to strengthen the legitimacy of human rights monitoring, defend those persecuted for acting on their rights and freedoms, and ensure that violations of Helsinki provisions are given full consideration in U.S. foreign policy.

The OSCE’s broad membership and comprehensive definition of security make it an ideal platform to advocate for our interests in a vital region. Its institutions remain singularly placed to moderate regional conflicts, promote respect for human rights, and safeguard essential elements of democracy. We have not only the right, but also the duty, to hold countries responsible if they fail to adhere to the basic principles that we all agreed to in 1975.

We also have the responsibility to hear and consider other participating states when they feel that the United States is not fully meeting our commitments. Leading by example means that we must be held accountable, too.

At this critical juncture, when the rules-based order appears particularly fragile, any weakening or absence of the OSCE could irreversibly damage the chances for democracy and peace in the region. We must not allow that to happen – and the key is our own steadfastness, in words and deeds.

Roger Wicker (@SenatorWicker) is chairman of the U.S. Helsinki Commission and a vice president of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly. A member of the Republican Party, he has represented Mississippi in the Senate since December 2007. He previously represented Mississippi for 13 years in the House of Representatives.

Ben Cardin (@SenatorCardin) is ranking Senate member of the U.S. Helsinki Commission. He serves as special representative on anti-Semitism, racism, and intolerance for the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly. A member of the Democratic Party, he has represented Maryland in the Senate since January 2007 after 20 years in the House of Representatives.

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    George Floyd’s tragic death at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer—recorded for a wrenching eight minutes and 46 seconds—shocked the world. During this online briefing, political and civil rights leaders from the United States and Europe discussed the impact made by resulting protests and the need to change policing tactics, alongside an honest review of how racism stemming from the transatlantic slave trade and colonialism persists today. Related Information Panelist Biographies Podcast | Communities at Risk: The Impact of COVID-19 on the OSCE’s Most Vulnerable Populations Press Release | Chairman Hastings Introduces LITE Act to Strengthen Ties with U.S. Allies, Support Visionary Leadership on Both Sides of the Atlantic Press Release | Chairman Hastings Introduces Bill to Promote Diversity and Inclusion in the Federal Workforce Press Release | Chairman Hastings Recognizes Black European Fight for Inclusion Safe, Inclusive, and Equitable Societies Helsinki Commission Initiatives on Racial Justice, Minority Rights, and Tolerance and Non-Discrimination ENAR demands to address racist police violence and structural racism

  • Political and Civil Rights Leaders to Discuss Impact of George Floyd’s Death at Helsinki Commission Briefing

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following staff-led online briefing: 8:46 (GEORGE FLOYD) A Time for Transformation at Home and Abroad Friday, June 12, 2020 10:00 a.m. Register to attend. George Floyd’s tragic death at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer—recorded for a wrenching eight minutes and 46 seconds—shocked the world.  During this online briefing, political and civil rights leaders from the United States and Europe will discuss the impact made by resulting protests and the need to change policing tactics, alongside an honest review of how racism stemming from the transatlantic slave trade and colonialism persists today. Panelists scheduled to participate include: Abena Oppong-Asare, Member of Parliament, United Kingdom Adam Hollier, Michigan State Senator Mitchell Esajas, Chair, New Urban Collective (Netherlands) Karen Taylor, Chair, European Network Against Racism (ENAR) Panelists may be added.

  • Helsinki Commissioners Urge Hungarian Officials Not to Stoke Historic Grievances

    WASHINGTON—Following the erection of a new memorial in Hungary marking the 100th anniversary of the Treaty of Trianon, which features the names of thousands of historic municipalities formerly part of pre-World War I Hungary, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) and Commissioner Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09) issued the following joint statement: “Some Central Europeans see the border changes made by the Treaty of Trianon as a liberation.  Many Hungarians consider it an historic national trauma.  Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s government is no stranger to the politics of memory, and the unveiling of this monument offers yet another opportunity for him to cynically exploit the past for current political gains. “For a decade, Prime Minister Orban has trafficked in ‘greater Hungary’ maps, flags, and posters. Orban officials have claimed that the Treaty of Trianon was worse than the Holocaust or four decades of communism, trivializing both.  He has overseen efforts to rehabilitate fascist-era figures and defended Hungary’s wartime regent, Miklos Horthy, as ‘an excellent statesman.’  In 2014, he erected another memorial that shockingly portrays Hungary as a victim, rather than ally, of Nazi Germany and airbrushes out Hungary’s role in the genocide of the country’s Jews and Roma.  We urge the Government of Hungary to stop stoking historic grievances with neighbors and stop treating the past as a political prop.” Hungary’s new "Memorial to National Unity" lists approximately 12,000 historic names of towns now in Austria, Croatia, Poland, Romania, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, and Ukraine that prior to 1920 were part of the pre-World War I Kingdom of Hungary. At the time, ethnic Hungarians were the dominant minority and subjected other ethnic groups, including Serbs, Croats, Ukrainians, Germans, Romanians, and Slovaks, to discrimination and Magyarizaton, fueling demands among these groups for independence.  The 1920 Treaty of Trianon, signed on June 4, 1920, formalized redrawn borders and the creation of new states. As a result, an estimated one-third of the ethnic Hungarian population in Europe, living in multi-ethnic regions, became minorities in territories joined to other states or in newly formed states. Hungary’s current borders were confirmed by the 1947 Treaty of Paris. According to a Pew Research Center study published earlier this year, two-thirds of Hungarians believe that parts of neighboring countries really belong to Hungary—the highest figure among NATO countries included in the survey.

  • OSCE Supplementary Human Dimension Meeting Examines Intolerance and Discrimination during Pandemic

    On May 25-26, 2020, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) held the year’s first Supplementary Human Dimension Meeting (SHDIM).  The event, which attracted more than 950 participants from 57 countries, focused on addressing intolerance and discrimination and was the OSCE’s first public event hosted in an entirely virtual format. During the event, representatives of governments, civil society, and OSCE institutions discussed the importance of immediate, robust, and coordinated responses to acts of scapegoating, racism, xenophobia, and anti-Semitism, especially during times of crisis. Participants underscored the need to reject hate speech both online and off, and shared best practices to prevent its escalation into violence. Recommendations centered on the shared goals of building inclusive and resilient societies that guarantee human rights for all. In her closing remarks, Shannon Simrell, the U.S. Helsinki Commission Representative to the U.S. Mission to the OSCE in Vienna, highlighted recent commission engagement on combating intolerance and discrimination. Under the leadership of Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20), the Helsinki Commission's ongoing commitment to building safe, equitable, and inclusive societies has been embodied by “On the Road to Inclusion,” a new interethnic, multicultural, inter-religious, and intergenerational initiative designed to build broad-based coalitions and crafts durable solutions, based on respect and meaningful engagement of all members of society.  In addition, Helsinki Commission Ranking Member Senator Ben Cardin (MD), who also serves as the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly Special Representative for Anti-Semitism, Racism, and Intolerance, has directed funding to support OSCE’s comprehensive and multi-year Words into Action project, which develops inclusion handbooks for governments and communities.  The second Supplementary Human Dimension Meeting of 2020, scheduled for June 22-23, will focus on freedom of expression, press freedom, and access to information.  Closing Remarks by Shannon Simrell, U.S. Helsinki Commission Representative to the U.S. Mission to the OSCE On behalf of the U.S. Helsinki Commission, I wish to congratulate the Chair in Office for organizing this historic event, thank the speakers for sharing your expertise, and recognize my colleagues and civil society representatives for your thoughtful engagement on these issues. In the past two days, we have heard not only about the importance of immediate and definitive responses to acts of hate and intolerance, but also the importance of a comprehensive and long-term approach to dismantle the social, economic, legislative, and technological roots of discrimination.  Crises such as the COVID-19 pandemic lay bare the significant work that still needs to be done across the OSCE region to address prejudice, racism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, and all forms of discrimination.  Helsinki commitments must be equally realized by everyone among us. Without exception. To ODIHR colleagues, thank you for your comprehensive approach to addressing hate crimes and intolerance while recognizing also the specific and varied challenges faced by various vulnerable groups, including Roma/Sinti, people of African descent, disabled, youth, women, and migrants and refugees.  In support of ODIHR’s vital role, I note that U.S. Senator Ben Cardin, in addition to his role as OSCEPA Special Representative for Anti-Semitism, Racism, and Intolerance, is proud to have directed funding to support phase two of the Words into Action project.  In addition, the Commission's commitment to building safe, equitable, and inclusive societies is further underscored by an initiative under the leadership of U.S. Helsinki Chairman Alcee Hastings, called “On the Road to Inclusion.”  This interethnic, multicultural, inter-religious, and intergenerational initiative builds broad-based coalitions and crafts durable solutions, based on respect and meaningful engagement of all members of society. I look forward to future events where we can continue not only our exploration of the hurdles, but an update on ways we are working to guarantee human rights for all.

  • Helsinki Commission Chairman Condemns Reported U.S. Withdrawal from Open Skies Treaty, Calls For New START Extension

    WASHINGTON—Following reports that the Trump administration has notified other governments of its intent to withdraw from the Treaty on Open Skies, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) issued the following statement: “The Open Skies Treaty has underpinned transatlantic security for decades, and has always enjoyed bipartisan support precisely because of its contributions to our security and that of our allies and partners,” said Chairman Hastings. “The Trump administration’s ideological opposition to arms control agreements has undercut transparency and predictability in Europe at a time when U.S. leadership is needed most.  “The timing of this ill-advised decision so close to our elections is distasteful. The United States withdrawing from the Open Skies Treaty can only benefit Putin’s continuing campaign of aggression against Russia’s neighbors. I urge the administration to reconsider and instead work with Congress to double down on supporting our allies and partners in Europe, and particularly working to secure the prompt extension of the New START Treaty.” The Open Skies Treaty 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. 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 hotspots such as the Ukraine-Russian border. The New START Treaty between the United States and Russia limits each side’s intercontinental ballistic missile launchers, nuclear-capable heavy bombers, and deployed nuclear warheads, and includes a substantial verification regime to ensure the sides comply with the Treaty’s terms. New START is due to expire in February 2021, unless both parties agree to extend it for no more than five years. 

  • Hastings and Wicker Call for Release of Kyrgyz Activist Azimjan Askarov

    WASHINGTON—In response to the May 13 decision of the Supreme Court of Kyrgyzstan to uphold the life sentence of Kyrgyz human rights defender Azimjan Askarov, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) and Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) issued the following statement: “We are extremely disappointed by the decision of Kyrgyzstan’s Supreme Court to reject the appeal of human rights activist Azimjan Askarov. This continues the travesty of justice that has left Mr. Askarov languishing in prison for more than a decade and demonstrates the serious shortcomings of Kyrgyzstan’s court system. We call on President Jeenbekov to release Mr. Askarov immediately, even on humanitarian grounds because of his poor health.” Azimjan Askarov was charged with incitement in relation to the murder of a policeman in 2010 during the ethnic violence in southern Kyrgyzstan that left hundreds of mainly ethnic Uzbeks dead. Although they were the vast majority of victims, ethnic Uzbeks, including Mr. Askarov, also were the majority of those accused of fomenting the violence. Prior to 2010, Mr. Askarov had worked to uncover police corruption and abuse in the community, and his arrest may have been retaliation. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) monitored his trials in 2010 and 2011 and documented “serious violations of fair trial standards…the failure of the authorities to adequately address the intimidation of defense witnesses and lawyers, to consider exculpatory evidence, and to effectively follow-up on visible signs of torture.” In 2016, the United Nations Human Rights Committee found that Kyrgyzstan had violated its international commitments and that Mr. Askarov had “been arbitrarily detained, held in inhumane conditions, tortured and mistreated, and prevented from adequately preparing his trial defense.” Mr. Askarov’s family have reported that his health continues to decline; they also are concerned about the possibility of his contracting COVID-19 in prison.

  • Co-Chairman Wicker Commends Decision by Belarus to Refuse Extradition of Jehovah’s Witness to Russia

    WASHINGTON—Following the April decision by the Prosecutor General of Belarus to reject the Government of Russia’s request to extradite a Russian national to face criminal charges for being a Jehovah’s Witness, Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) issued the following statement: “I commend the government of President Alexander Lukashenko for releasing Nikolai Makhalichev and rejecting the Kremlin’s request to extradite him. If forced to return to Russia, Mr. Makhalichev would face detention, a criminal trial, certain conviction, and imprisonment—merely for practicing his sincerely-held religious beliefs. “In keeping with Belarus’ OSCE commitments and other international obligations, Belarusian authorities should continue to resist the extradition of Mr. Makhalichev to Russia, allow him to move freely, and respect his human rights and fundamental freedoms, regardless of whether the Government of Belarus grants him refugee status or another country gives him legal protection.” Background Amendments in 2006 to Russia’s Federal Law on Countering Extremist Activity criminalized a wide range of religious activities as “extremist,” without precisely defining extremism or requiring that such activities have a violent element. The Russian Government invoked the law as it began relentlessly targeting Jehovah’s Witnesses, a peaceful faith community, with investigations, raids, arrests, detention, trials, the closure of local congregations, website and literature bans, and more. In July 2017, the Supreme Court of Russia upheld an earlier ruling in favor of the Ministry of Justice that Jehovah’s Witnesses are an “extremist” group, criminalizing and effectively banning their activities, and ordering their property to be seized and liquidated. Since then, Russian authorities have conducted criminal investigations into at least 333 Jehovah’s Witnesses, including Makhalichev; courts have convicted at least 32 of them. The authorities have engaged in raids, detentions, house arrests, travel restrictions, property confiscations, and even torture. In February 2020, Belarusian police detained Makhalichev, citing the criminal charges against him in Russia. He then applied for refugee status in Belarus. The Russian Prosecutor General’s Office formally requested extradition in March. The Belarusian Ministry of Interior is currently adjudicating Makhalichev's refugee application. In September 2019, the Helsinki Commission held a hearing highlighting how the Kremlin and other autocratic governments engage in transnational repression against people they perceive as hostile to them: using tools such as INTERPOL to request arrest and extradition, and sometimes even surveilling, abducting, and assassinating targeted persons on foreign soil. Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L Hastings (FL-20), Co-Chairman Wicker, Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02), and Ranking Member Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) introduced the Transnational Repression Accountability and Prevention (TRAP) Act to combat such threats. Like all participating States of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Russia and Belarus have repeatedly committed themselves to recognizing, respecting, and protecting freedom of religion or belief. In December 2019, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo redesignated Russia for the Special Watch List of countries that have committed severe violations of religious freedom, per the Frank R. Wolf International Religious Freedom Act. Since 2017, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom has recommended designating Russia as a Country of Particular Concern under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998. Belarusian law authorizes the government to grant refugee status to a foreigner if he or she has a “well-founded fears of being persecuted in the country of his/her citizenship for the reason… of…religion,” and prohibits the government from expelling the applicant to that country, even if the government denies, revokes, or otherwise removes their refugee status. The law also requires the government to give foreigners requesting refugee status or related legal protection access to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees.

  • Human Rights and Democracy in a Time of Pandemic

    The outbreak of the novel coronavirus pandemic has prompted governments around the world to take extraordinary measures in the interest of public health and safety. As of early April, nearly two-thirds of the 57 participating States of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe had declared “states of emergency” or invoked similar legal measures in response to the crisis. Often such measures have enabled governments to enact large-scale social distancing policies and suspend economic activity to save lives and preserve the capacity of national public health infrastructure to respond to the spread of infections. At the same time, human rights organizations and civil society activists have expressed concern regarding the breadth of some emergency measures and recalled the long history of government abuse of emergency powers to trample civil liberties. Exactly three decades ago, OSCE participating States unanimously endorsed a set of basic principles governing the imposition of states of emergency, including the protection of fundamental freedoms in such times of crisis. In 1990 in Copenhagen, OSCE countries affirmed that states of emergency must be enacted by public law and that any curtailment of human rights and civil liberties must be “limited to the extent strictly required by the exigencies of the situation.” According to the Copenhagen Document, emergency measures furthermore should never discriminate based on certain group characteristics or be used to justify torture. Building on these commitments a year later in Moscow, participating States underscored that states of emergency should not “subvert the democratic constitutional order, nor aim at the destruction of internationally recognized human rights and fundamental freedoms.” The Moscow Document stresses the role of legislatures in imposing and lifting such declarations, the preservation of the rule of law, and the value of guaranteeing “freedom of expression and freedom of information…with a view to enabling public discussion on the observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms as well as on the lifting of the state of public emergency.” In some corners of the OSCE region, however, national authorities are violating these and other OSCE commitments in the name of combatting coronavirus. While many extraordinary responses are justified in the face of this crisis, government overreach threatens the well-being of democracy and the resilience of society at a critical time. Download the full report to learn more.

  • Hastings and Wicker Troubled By Mounting Harassment of Opposition Members, Activists, and Journalists by Government of Azerbaijan

    WASHINGTON—In response to the Government of Azerbaijan’s mounting harassment of Azerbaijani opposition members, activists, and journalists, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) and Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) issued the following statement: “During this pandemic, public health precautions do not excuse politically-motivated repression. We are deeply troubled by reports that the Government of Azerbaijan is further squeezing its people’s access to free expression, media, and information through arrests, fines, harassment, and possibly torture. Authorities should cease exploiting this global crisis to limit the speech of members of the Popular Front Party of Azerbaijan and other activists and reporters.” In recent weeks, Azerbaijani authorities have detained, questioned, jailed, fined, and, in one case possibly tortured opposition members and journalists affiliated with the country’s main opposition party, the Popular Front Party of Azerbaijan (PFPA), and opposition-aligned media outlet Azadliq. Since the global spread of the novel coronavirus, the Azerbaijani Government has intermittently cut off internet and phone access to PFPA Chair Ali Karimli, preventing him from communicating with the outside world, including conducting interviews with media. Last week, a coalition of opposition parties accused the government of torturing PFPA activist Niyameddin Ahmedov while in custody. Other PFPA affiliated activists and writers, including Aqil Humbatov, Faiq Amirli, and Saadat Jahangir, have been detained for allegedly violating quarantine rules after speaking or reporting critically about the government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.

  • Respecting Human Rights and Maintaining Democratic Control during States of Emergency

    Statement at the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly Webinar: Respecting Human Rights and Maintaining Democratic Control during States of Emergency President Tsereteli, Secretary General Montella, it is good hear from you.  I am pleased to see that this Assembly has found ways to communicate, cooperate and collaborate — in spite of the distances that keep us apart, and as an expression of our shared commitments to our roles as legislators. At last year’s annual session, I was the lead sponsor of a supplementary item on “the role of civil society — individuals and non-governmental organizations — in realizing the aims and aspirations of the OSCE.”  The resolution we adopted in Luxembourg acknowledges the critical role civil society plays in enhancing security and cooperation across all OSCE dimensions. I appreciate President Tsereteli appointing our colleague, the Honorable Pia Kauma, as the Assembly’s Special Representative to be an advocate for civil society engagement and she has done a great job so far. I am sorry, but not surprised that some governments have taken the need for emergency measures as an opportunity for repressive measures. Hungary is the only OSCE participating State that does not have a sunset clause for the expiration of its emergency measures, or requiring parliamentary approval for an extension.  Parliamentary oversight is absolutely essential, especially when governments seek to exercise extraordinary powers. I believe we must also pay particular attention to those measures that relate to freedoms of assembly, association, and expression.  I am also troubled by the heavy-handed disciplinary and punitive approach utilized in some areas, which exacerbates existing discriminatory and unconstitutional policing.  I want to thank you, Director Gisladottir, for your attention to this and speaking out against the hate crimes and scapegoating of minorities, refugees and migrants. In the next legislation that will come before the U.S. Congress, I will support provisions to address hate crimes and other forms of discrimination in our societies recently highlighted by the pandemic. The February 25 profiling murder of Ahmaud Aubrey by his neighbors in the state of Georgia demonstrates the urgency of our fight for equity and justice for all beyond our current crisis. But I would like to pause here for a moment, to reflect on violations of fundamental freedoms that some governments had already imposed even before now.  If a law or practice violated OSCE human rights and democracy norms before the pandemic, circumstances now will surely not cure that violation. Threats against journalists, restrictions on academic freedom, imprisoning people for their political views, and impeding or even criminalizing NGOs’ access to and communication within and outside their own countries — all of that is still inconsistent with OSCE commitments, and the pandemic does not change that.  Principle VII of the Helsinki Final Act still holds: individuals still have the right to know and act upon their rights. I therefore add my voice to the international calls from OSCE institutional bodies and others around the world for the release of all prisoners of conscience given this pandemic. Prison populations are particularly susceptible to community spread. To address dangerous overcrowding, governments should work first and foremost to release those imprisoned for exercising their internationally recognized rights or those wrongly imprisoned contrary to international commitments.  I regret Turkey's decision in particular to approve a plan to release 90,000 prisoners that excluded relief for any of the thousands of political prisoners, including opposition politicians, civil society activists, employees of U.S. diplomatic missions, and many more. Which brings me back to the important work of Special Representative Kauma.  Civil society is not a luxury, it is essential.  If anything, it becomes even more important during an emergency when governments may legitimately exercise powers, but those powers may not be unlimited, unchecked, or unending.  A vibrant civil society plays a critical role in holding governments to account, particularly at times of great social stress.  Those human rights groups, the parent-teacher organizations, book clubs, or food banks— all enrich our societies. Colleagues, this pandemic has upended elections across the OSCE region.  According to the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly’s factsheet, forty OSCE participating States — including my own — have elections scheduled for this year. As we all rise to meet the challenge of conducting elections safely, we must maintain transparency regarding the entire electoral process, especially any changes to the timing of elections, methods of voting, or measures that impact campaigning.  The United States is already debating these issues in preparation for November. Even in a pandemic, international and domestic election observation remains vital.  We must find a solution to ensure that they are engaged and included even now. 

  • Chairman Hastings and Co-Chairman Wicker Commemorate World Press Freedom Day

    WASHINGTON—Ahead of World Press Freedom Day on May 3, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) and Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) issued the following statements: "Given these uncertain and unprecedented times, it is more important than ever that journalists and media professionals are able to work freely and without retribution," said Chairman Hastings. "Unfortunately, journalists remain in jail throughout the OSCE region, while states like Russia, Azerbaijan, and Hungary criminalize providing essential information and transparency about the COVID-19 pandemic. Independent media continues to be assaulted under the pretense of punishing allegedly 'false,' 'misleading,' or unofficial information. This is unacceptable." Read Chairman Hastings' full Congressional Record statement. “Journalists across the globe risk their safety, and some even their lives, to report the truth," said Co-Chairman Wicker. "On World Press Freedom Day, we honor a freedom that is a cornerstone of democracy and should always be protected in any healthy society. During this pandemic, good journalism and unflinching investigative reporting are essential as we work to mitigate the effects of the coronavirus and get our economies started again. Now more than ever, I urge all OSCE states to uphold this fundamental freedom." According to the latest reports from the Committee to Protect Journalists, 250 journalists are imprisoned worldwide for their work, 64 journalists are missing, and 1,369 journalists have been killed since 1992. Additionally, Reporters Without Borders' 2020 World Press Freedom Index found that global press freedom has deteriorated by 12 percent since 2013. Ahead of World Press Freedom Day, OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media Harlem Désir, along with the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Opinion and Expression and the Organization of American States Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression, issued a joint declaration on freedom of expression and elections in the digital age, particularly noting challenges to press freedom during the COVID-19 pandemic. On April 17, Chairman Hastings and Co-Chairman Wicker released a statement expressing concern with the latest attacks on press freedom in Russia amid the coronavirus pandemic, including death threats to Russian journalist Yelena Milashina by Chechnya’s leader Ramzan Kadyrov. Earlier in April, Chairman Hastings also denounced the unchecked power granted to Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban following his request to rule by decree in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

  • Statement at the Meeting of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly Bureau

    Mr. President, Secretary General Montella, thank you for giving me the opportunity to participate in this Bureau meeting. I commend you for your efforts to ensure that the work of the Assembly continues and that this body responds to the urgent challenges all of our countries face. I particularly welcome the information you have put online about the participating States’ responses to the covid-19 pandemic and the role of legislative bodies in formulating those responses. Parliamentary oversight is essential, not expendable, in an emergency. Since my last report in Luxembourg, I have focused on the profound threat of rising and increasingly deadly intolerance. Anti-Semitic, racist and xenophobic attacks in my own country, at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh and the targeted killings of Latin Americans in El Paso, Texas, underscore the urgency of this threat.  Obviously, the pandemic creates new and additional challenges.  But it is precisely at this moment that we cannot afford to lower our guard against discrimination and bigotry, when pandemic fears may fan the flames of intolerance. Minority and immigrant communities are already more vulnerable to the impact of the pandemic because of past inequalities. Those disparities may be compounded without appropriately targeted healthcare and economic responses. Covid-caused disruptions in education may also have long-term disproportionate consequences for those already impacted by discriminatory schooling. As parliamentarians, we have a responsibility to ensure that the measures we introduce and which our governments implement are consistent with OSCE standards on human rights and democracy, including the 1991 Moscow Document’s commitments regarding states of emergency. It is also vital that our parliamentary oversight extends to the use of military authorities and policing, which may have the potential to exacerbate relations with minority communities and erode public confidence in government at a time when that trust is critical for the effective implementation of responses to this virus. Disciplinary and punitive policies by national or local authorities run the risk of backfiring. As this body’s special representative on anti-Semitism and racism, I am alarmed by attacks on people who are being scapegoated for this virus. Parliamentarians should lead by example in countering disinformation, conspiracy theories, and other propaganda that stokes anti-Asian bigotry, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, and other forms of racism. In the face of an extraordinary threat, people may feel that ordinary constraints on governments do not apply. But too often, temporary changes introduced for emergencies have a way of becoming permanent. I welcome the statements by my Third Committee colleagues that have called for the participating States’ responses to meet the basic tests of necessity, transparency, and proportionality. It is also crucial that they include sunset provisions and subject to periodic review. When democratic norms erode, protections against hate crimes do too. Mr. President, I will be reporting more fully on my activities later this year at a more opportune time, when we will all be able to assess the very fluid, unfolding challenges.  Covid-19 will undoubtedly lead to profound changes in all our countries for a long time to come. I thank you and my colleagues here today for the work you are doing to ensure that we meet a global crisis with global cooperation faithful to the commitments we have undertaken in the OSCE.  

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