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

  • ONGOING TRANSATLANTIC ENGAGEMENT THROUGH THE OSCE PARLIAMENTARY ASSEMBLY

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

  • Editorial Independence Critical for U.S. International Broadcasting

    By Jordan Warlick, Policy Advisor Access to accurate, unbiased information is imperative for a functioning democracy. Citizens need access to credible news in order to make informed decisions about the future of their nation. According to the most recent U.S. National Security Strategy, “an informed and engaged citizenry is the fundamental requirement for a free and resilient nation. For generations, [U.S.] society has protected free press, free speech, and free thought.” As part of its commitment to press freedom worldwide, the United States supports the development of local independent media in countries where government-controlled media dominates the information landscape. It also brings independent media to these information-starved spots through specific services—like Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, and others—under the aegis of the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM). The mission of USAGM, which oversees the Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia, Middle East Broadcasting Networks, and the Office of Cuba Broadcasting, is vital to the U.S. national interest: “to inform, engage and connect people around the world in support of freedom and democracy.” USAGM networks reach more than 350 million people across the globe, many of whom otherwise would not have access to independent, unbiased news. Because providing access to credible media is a more effective tool of diplomacy than attempting to push U.S. propaganda overseas, USAGM and the media organizations it oversees are deliberately, legally structured against acting like a propaganda mouthpiece for the U.S. government.  The credibility and reliability of Voice of America and other USAGM networks hinge on a statutory firewall that protects them from political interference and has been in place since President Gerald Ford signed Voice of America’s charter in 1976. More than 40 years of bipartisan support for USAGM has been critical to its success. In 1994 President Bill Clinton signed the International Broadcasting Act, which established the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG)—now USAGM—to oversee Voice of America and  its sister networks. The legislation specifically mandated that broadcasting overseen by the BBG must “be conducted in accordance with the highest professional standards of broadcast journalism.” It also required that the Director of BBG to “respect the professional independence and integrity” of the U.S. international broadcasting services it oversees. When the BBG became the U.S. Agency for Global Media in 2017, USAGM retained the same statutory commitments to protecting the independence of its networks, including that the Chief Executive Officer of USAGM must “respect the independence and integrity” of the broadcasting services. Voice of America’s mission today—“producing accurate, balanced and comprehensive reporting, programming, online and social media content for a global audience, particularly to those who are denied access to open and free media”—would not be possible without this political firewall. Like any other privately owned media outlet, these networks must remain free to produce independent reporting, including that which is critical of U.S. government policies. Unlike many other state-controlled international media outlets, including Russia’s RT and Sputnik or China’s CCTV, USAGM networks have a storied history of bringing credible, reliable news to audiences behind the Iron Curtain, the Great Firewall of China, and beyond. It would be particularly damaging if the United States was perceived to be attempting to tear down the legal firewall protecting Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, and the other international broadcasters from political interference.

  • 2020 Human Dimension Implementation Meeting Cancelled Due to Pandemic

    By Erika Schlager, Counsel for International Law “The work of the OSCE human dimension has also been impacted, no doubt by this unprecedented pandemic.  As you know, the OSCE annual Human Dimension Implementation Meeting – Europe’s largest annual human rights and democracy conference – will not take place this year.  This is a huge loss for our organization.  Together with Permanent Council, Human Dimension Implementation Meeting is a constituent part of the OSCE’s mechanism for the review and assessment of the implementation of our commitments.  With around 2,000 participants from across the whole OSCE region, it is also the primary forum for our citizens to take a direct part in the life of our organization.” - Prime Minister of Albania Edi Rama, 2020 OSCE Chair-in-Office, at a September 17, 2020, hearing before the Helsinki Commission On September 11, 2020, the OSCE Permanent Council decided, as an exceptional measure without precedent for the future, to cancel the 2020 OSCE Human Dimension Implementation Meeting (HDIM) planned for September 21 – October 2. The decision reflects the singular and unpredictable circumstances of 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. OSCE rules mandate that HDIMs, a comprehensive review of the participating States’ implementation of their human dimension commitments, are held every year in which there is not a summit. (In the event that a summit is convened, the summit is preceded by a review conference that evaluates implementation in all three OSCE dimensions, including military security, economic and environmental cooperation, and the human dimension.) HDIMs are unique among OSCE meetings because of the combination of their large size (typically drawing a thousand participants), duration (two full consecutive weeks), press access, and ability of non-governmental organizations both to participate in and speak at the meetings on an equal footing with governments and to organize side events. Governments regularly conduct bilateral meetings on human dimension issues on the margins. Additionally, the United States holds daily open-door meetings with civil society representatives.  When announcing the HDIM decision, the Albanian OSCE Chair-in-Office confirmed that it instead would convene a series of online events throughout the remainder of the year, with the support of the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), to maintain focus on topical issues related to human rights, democracy and the rule of law. In a statement following the announcement, the United States supported “creating and/or seizing other opportunities within the OSCE to spotlight human dimension issues, including by holding other meetings, to the maximum extent possible with provision for virtual civil society participation. However, we underscore that any such activities, with or without NGO participation, are not substitutes for the HDIM.”  Alluding to shortcomings in human rights compliance, democratic weaknesses, racial inequities, and social vulnerabilities that the pandemic has revealed and, in some cases, amplified, the United States further stated that “vigilance will be especially important given the challenging pandemic conditions.” Following the decision, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) said, “OSCE participating States should continue to engage in a robust implementation review of their human dimension commitments through the OSCE Permanent Council, December’s Ministerial Council, and other scheduled events and meetings facilitated by the Chair-in-Office and the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights. Implementation of shared commitments remains the ultimate purpose of this 57-nation organization.” The COVID-19 pandemic has affected the work of the OSCE mid-March. Meetings of the Permanent Council, the OSCE's main decision-making body, initially were canceled in line with Austrian Government requirements and later shifted to an online platform, before settling into its current, hybrid format combining online and limited in-person participation.  Other OSCE meetings and events also have been scaled back, postponed, canceled, or shifted to online platforms in response to host-government mandates related to public meetings, quarantines, and broader issues of border closings and travel restrictions.  The OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (PA) also has had to alter its planned activities. The April Bureau Meeting was held using an online platform. The Annual Session, scheduled for Vancouver in July, and the Autumn Meeting, scheduled for October in San Marino, were canceled. In lieu of these events, 40 parliamentarians participated in a virtual Standing Committee meeting in early July, followed by nine online, inter-parliamentary dialogues to consider the impact of COVID-19 on human rights; economic security; conflicts in the region; the environment; and other issues and yielded a publicly available report of recommendations on strengthening compliance on shared commitments. 

  • Albania's Chairmanship of the OSCE

    In 2020, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has faced the unprecedented challenge of a global pandemic while many participating States struggle—or fail—to live up to their commitments in the areas of human rights, democracy, and the rule of law.  In this context, the Helsinki Commission held its traditional hearing with the annually rotating OSCE chairmanship to discuss priorities and exchange views on current issues.  Helsinki Commissioner Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, II (MO-05) chaired the hearing.  Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) took the floor first to recognize that this year has been extraordinarily difficult as the OSCE under Albanian leadership works to resolve the appointment of senior leaders to OSCE positions, respond to brutal human rights violations in Belarus, address the gross violations of the Helsinki principles by the Russian Federation against Ukraine and other neighbors, and combat the threat posed by far-right extremists and hate groups. Sen. Cardin encouraged Prime Minister Rama to remind the diplomatic representatives of the OSCE participating States that they must all work to preserve and strengthen the values, institutions, and mechanisms that the OSCE offers. He assured Prime Minister Rama that the Helsinki Commission will work with the executive branch to ensure continued bipartisan U.S. support, engagement, and critical leadership of the OSCE. Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) commended Prime Minister Rama for his prompt response to the ongoing situation in Belarus and his rejection of attempts to weaken the OSCE response with false statements of moral equivalency among participating states.  He also emphasized the importance of working with the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, believing that engaging friends and even potential adversaries through parliamentary diplomacy helps to achieve the aims of the Helsinki Final Act.  Prime Minister Rama asserted that, despite the challenges 2020 has presented, the OSCE can be proud of how it has navigated the restrictions and the many complications from COVID-19.  It has kept discussion alive—both in the Permanent Council and through conferences and webinars—while field operations have continued to carry out their important mandates.  He acknowledged there are weaknesses within the OSCE due to participating States not being able to reach consensus for the reappointment of the four leading positions: the Secretary General, the Director of the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), the High Commissioner on National Minorities, and the Representative on Freedom of Media.  Nevertheless, he assured the Commissioners that “the chairmanship has stepped in to ensure the executive structures have sustained leadership and management.” “We must never compromise on our values of full respect for democracy and human rights.  Our shared commitments must be upheld by all participating states, at all times and in all situations.  And it is our responsibility to call the attention of our peers to violations and shortcomings anywhere in our region… "The Helsinki recipe for peace in Europe is simple, yet effective:  Respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, together with respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms.” – Prime Minister of Albania Edi Rama, OSCE Chair-in-Office, 2020 Prime Minister Rama also emphasized facilitating electoral and constitutional reform in Belarus, in addition to improving the human rights situation, must be immediate. He underscored three necessary steps that: an immediate end to violence and arbitrary arrests on the part of authorities; full respect for the right of peaceful assembly; and prompt, thorough, and independent investigation of the conduct of law enforcement authorities. Asked by Commissioner Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09) about concerns regarding the rule of law, safety and respect for the press, and the opportunity for people to vote and participate in the political process in the United States, Prime Minister Rama expressed confidence that “the United States is mature enough and is strong enough in its own institutions to deal with whatever political debate and whatever political consequence of a debate that might be polarizing.” He concluded by stressing the need for standing up against all forms of racism, discrimination, and intolerance, and to reaffirm the values of humanity as the dehumanizing rhetoric of the “other” is again being normalized in public discourse across the OSCE region. Related Information Witness Biography

  • Chairman Hastings on Cancellation of OSCE’s 2020 Human Dimension Implementation Meeting

    WASHINGTON—Following today’s announcement by the OSCE that its annual Human Dimension Implementation Meeting (HDIM) will exceptionally not take place in 2020, due to the “unique, unprecedented and unpredictable circumstances caused by the COVID-19 pandemic,” Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) issued the following statement: “Today’s unanimous decision by the OSCE participating States to cancel the 2020 HDIM was a difficult, but correct, call to make. “While it is impossible to safely hold a large in-person gathering, we should use this time wisely by redoubling our efforts to ensure that all OSCE participating States implement their OSCE commitments. The pandemic has revealed—and in some cases amplified—human rights shortcomings, democratic weaknesses, racial inequities, and social vulnerabilities across the region. Some governments are even exploiting the health crisis to further entrench authoritarian regimes. “OSCE participating States should continue to engage in a robust implementation review of their human dimension commitments through the OSCE Permanent Council, December’s Ministerial Council, and other scheduled events and meetings facilitated by the Chair-in-Office and the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights. Implementation of shared commitments remains the ultimate purpose of this 57-nation organization.” The OSCE’s Human Dimension Implementation Meeting (HDIM) is the region’s largest annual human rights conference, and typically brings togethers hundreds of government and nongovernmental representatives, international experts, and human rights activists for two weeks to engage in a comprehensive review of the participating States’ compliance with their human rights and democracy commitments. The meeting is held in Warsaw, Poland, where the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights is headquartered.

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

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

  • Helsinki Commission Demands Answers on Failure of USAGM to Renew J-1 Visas for Voice of America Journalists

    WASHINGTON—In a letter to U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM) CEO Michael Pack released today, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20), Ranking Member Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), and Helsinki Commissioners Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (NH), Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (MO-05), Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), and Rep. Marc Veasey (TX-33) demanded that the organization provide a detailed explanation for its failure to renew J-1 visas for many foreign Voice of America (VOA) journalists. The letter reads in part: “Many of these individuals and their families will be forced to return to countries, including China and Russia, where journalists are regularly targeted and silenced for their reporting. For journalists who have carried out the VOA mission of ‘producing accurate, balanced and comprehensive reporting, programming, online and social media content for a global audience, particularly to those who are denied access to open and free media,’ the personal risk may be even greater… “Congress still has not been informed about the specifics of USAGM’s new policy and for what reason the routine J-1 visa renewal process for these individuals has been stalled. We request a briefing on this policy within the next 30 days. Additionally, we ask that you put into place a policy outlining USAGM’s steps to protect the personal security of VOA journalists working under its auspices." The full text of the letter can be found below: Dear Mr. Pack, We write to express our deep concern regarding J-1 visa renewals for foreign Voice of America (VOA) journalists. Failure to renew their visas has resulted in urgent departures from the United States for these journalists back to their countries of origin. As a result, many of these individuals and their families will be forced to return to countries, including China and Russia, where journalists are regularly targeted and silenced for their reporting. For journalists who have carried out the VOA mission of “producing accurate, balanced and comprehensive reporting, programming, online and social media content for a global audience, particularly to those who are denied access to open and free media,” the personal risk may be even greater. It further is concerning that these VOA reporters were not informed directly of this change to USAGM policy or given any notice on the renewal status of their J-1 visas. These journalists have worked tirelessly to serve freedom-loving people worldwide—even in some cases risking the distrust of their own governments—and should be treated with basic decency and dignity by USAGM leadership. Instead, they face fear and uncertainty regarding their own livelihoods and the future of their families. The journalists in question do the important work of providing unbiased news and information to the most closed-off corners of the world. They play a pivotal role at Voice of America because of their critical language skills and connections within the countries they cover. We urge you to answer questions from the Congress on this matter immediately. The Congress still has not been informed about the specifics of USAGM’s new policy and for what reason the routine J-1 visa renewal process for these individuals has been stalled. We request a briefing on this policy within the next 30 days. Additionally, we ask that you put into place a policy outlining USAGM’s steps to protect the personal security of VOA journalists working under its auspices. Sincerely,  

  • Hastings and Wicker Condemn Apparent Poisoning of Alexei Navalny

    WASHINGTON—Following today’s apparent poisoning of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) and Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) issued the following joint statement: “Sadly, Alexei Navalny is the latest in a long line of Russians to be targeted for supporting freedom and democracy in their country. These attacks are intended to silence dissent, but instead they highlight the cruelty, intolerance, and lawlessness of the Putin regime. We hope there will be consequences for those who carried out this crime and for those who approved it. We join many from around the world in praying for Alexei as he now fights for his life.” Navalny fell suddenly and seriously ill on a flight from Tomsk, Russia, to Moscow on the morning of August 20, 2020. The flight made an emergency landing and paramedics rushed Navalny to the hospital. He remains unconscious and on a ventilator, in stable but serious condition. Navalny has been the subject of numerous attacks and arrests connected to his anti-corruption work. In July 2019, Chairman Hastings and Co-Chairman Wicker expressed concern about Navalny’s hospitalization for an unknown “allergic reaction” following his arrest by Russian authorities ahead of pro-democracy protests. Navalny is the latest in a series of political activists who have been poisoned after opposing the Putin regime.  Former Russian military intelligence officer and British double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were almost killed in Salisbury, England by exposure to the nerve agent Novichok in 2018. Russian democracy advocate Vladimir Kara-Murza was poisoned in 2015 and 2017. Former FSB officer Alexander Litvinenko died from radiation poisoning in London in 2006. In 2004, journalist Anna Politkovskaya was sickened on a flight; she survived only to be shot two years later.  These and similar instances are widely considered to be organized and sanctioned by the highest levels of the Russian Government.

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

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

  • The OSCE: A Bulwark Against Authoritarianism

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

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

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

  • Human Rights at Home: Values Made Visible

    Statues, monuments, memorials, and museums—and the events and people they represent—may become societal or even interstate flashpoints. They also have the potential to help heal wounds, educate the public, and inform policymaking as leaders seek to address historic wrongs, bridge divisions, and build a shared future. As the debate over U.S. statues and memorials intensified, the Helsinki Commission convened a hearing on "Values Made Visible" to examine what the United States conveys to the world through its public monuments and memorials and how acknowledgment of the past can encourage restitution, reparations, and restorative justice.  Commissioner Rep. Gwen Moore (WI- 04) chaired the hearing.   Testimony was received from Kevin Gover, Acting Undersecretary for Museums and Culture for the Smithsonian Institution, the world's largest museum, education, and research complex; Princess Maria-Esmeralda of Belgium; former OSCE Secretary General and High Commissioner on National Minorities Lamberto Zannier; and former Vice Mayor of Charlottesville Dr. Wes Bellamy. Rep. Moore observed that the Helsinki Commission has frequently encouraged other OSCE participating States to address difficult chapters of their histories, and called out those who propagate revisionism, distort the past for contemporary political purposes, stoke grievances against their neighbors, or persecute civil society, scholars, or journalists who write about uncomfortable truths. The Helsinki Commission also has supported the preservation of sensitive sites of remembrance, including Auschwitz; supported access to archives; and encouraged governmental and public officials’ efforts to acknowledge past wrongs and heal societal divisions. Rep. Moore concluded that the United States must make our values more visible in the public places administered on behalf of the American people. Undersecretary Gover used four prominent, albeit controversial, sculptures at the Alexander Hamilton U.S. Customs House, an historic building in Manhattan that is part of the Smithsonian Institution, as the references points for his remarks. Like many other monuments across the U.S. landscape, if they serve as "a provocation for meaningful public conversation and reckoning, they have value. In the absence of such a conversation, they are mere monuments to White supremacy and should not remain." “In the late 19th and early 20th century, one of the most successful gaslighting operations in world history was taking place with the invention of the mythical ‘lost cause’ to explain the Civil War. The monuments were part of that but it was really quite a comprehensive propaganda operation. . . It feels like these young people today were taught something different, or at least that they didn't buy that old narrative. And so they're going to lead us into a new and better place with regard to our public spaces." —Acting Undersecretary Kevin Gover. Previously, as Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs in the United States Department of the Interior, Mr. Gover issued an apology to Native American people on behalf of the Bureau of Indian Affairs for the historical conduct of the bureau.   Princess Esmeralda noted that the brutal murder of George Floyd has compelled an acknowledgment of institutionalized racism stemming from colonialism and slave trade. "In the wake of the homicide of George Floyd, statues started to be unbolted and removed… Unbolting the statues of Leopold II was part of a desire to expunge a past written with partiality by the colonizer," she said. Princess Esmeralda also noted that King Phillippe of Belgium sent a letter to President Felix Tshisekedi of the Democratic Republic of Congo, expressing his deep regrets for the acts of violence and atrocities.  The letter was preceded by a vote in the Belgian Parliament agreeing to establish a truth and reconciliation commission, which will also include opening some previously closed archives. Ambassador Zannier discussed the potential for differing historical narratives to create internal friction within a state as well as friction between states. He also observed that nations rely heavily on historical interpretation to create a common sense of purpose and belonging. "The situation changes when societies are diverse, and when a symbol, or a monument, with the name of the street becomes provocative for part of the population,” he said. Ambassador Zannier also underscored the importance of key OSCE principles regarding the promotion of human rights, the fight against discrimination and racism, and protection of minority rights. He encouraged the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly to engage on these issues. Dr. Bellamy, who led the effort to remove statues of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson from his city’s parks, underscored the historic context for the erection of many of the statues glorifying the Confederacy, such as those erected in Charlottesville in 1924. He argued that the messages communicated through those statues will not be changed until such statues are removed and reflected in the allocation of public resources.   Related Information Witness Biographies  Human Rights at Home Safe, Inclusive, and Equitable Societies Briefing: Truth, Reconciliation, and Healing OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities: Contested Historical Legacies in Public Spaces OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities: Open Letter on Symbols in Public Spaces  

  • Hastings and Wicker Lament Death of Kyrgyz Activist Azimjan Askarov

    WASHINGTON—Following last weekend’s death of Kyrgyz human rights defender Azimjan Askarov in prison, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) and Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) issued the following statement: “We are deeply saddened by the tragic death of human rights activist Azimjan Askarov and extend our condolences to his family and friends. It is a travesty that Kyrgyz authorities never addressed Mr. Askarov’s credible allegations of torture or rectified the violations of fair trial standards, which were documented by the OSCE and others. Instead, the poor handling of his case demonstrated the shortcomings of the country’s judicial system and authorities’ ethnic nationalism. “Only weeks ago, we called on President Jeenbekov to release Mr. Askarov immediately because of his poor health. We will not forget Mr. Askarov or the injustices inflicted on him by the Kyrgyz authorities.” Activist Azimjan Askarov died on July 25, 2020, one day after being transferred to a prison hospital. He had suffered from poor health for years, but his heath reportedly had deteriorated in the past weeks. He was 69. Mr. 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.”

  • Societal Impact of Public Monuments and Memorials to Be Discussed at Helsinki Commission Hearing

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following online hearing: HUMAN RIGHTS AT HOME Values Made Visible Wednesday, July 29, 2020 10:00 a.m. Watch Live: www.youtube.com/HelsinkiCommission Statues, monuments, memorials, and museums—and the events and people they represent—may become societal or even interstate flashpoints. They also have the potential to help heal wounds, educate the public, and inform policymaking as leaders seek to address historic wrongs, bridge divisions, and build a shared future. As the debate over U.S. statues and memorials intensifies, witnesses at this online hearing will examine what the United States conveys to the world through its public monuments and memorials and discuss how acknowledgment of the past can encourage restitution, reparations, and restorative justice. The following witnesses are scheduled to testify: Ambassador Lamberto Zannier, former OSCE Secretary General and High Commissioner on National Minorities H.R.H. Maria-Esmeralda of Belgium, journalist and documentary filmmaker Kevin Gover, Acting Under Secretary for Museums and Culture, Smithsonian Institution Dr. Wes Bellamy, author and former Vice-Mayor of Charlottesville, VA Since its establishment, the Helsinki Commission has championed historical justice throughout the OSCE region. Commissioners have called on public officials to reject Holocaust denial, and acknowledge the Soviet-created famine in Ukraine, genocides in Armenia and Bosnia, and the massacre at Katyn Forest. The commission also has supported the preservation of sensitive sites of remembrance, including Auschwitz, and supported access to archives. Commissioners have defended the freedom of academics, civil society representatives, and journalists persecuted for telling uncomfortable truths about the past. The commission has supported governments’ and public officials’ efforts to acknowledge past wrongs and heal societal divisions.

  • Chairman Hastings, Rep. Meeks Issue Statement on Foreign Affairs Funding for Diversity and Global Anti-Racism Programs

    WASHINGTON—Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) and Rep. Gregory W. Meeks (NY-05) today issued the following joint statement regarding the language in the Fiscal Year 2021 State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs (SFOPS) appropriations bill that supports efforts to foster diversity and inclusion in international affairs and provide protections for minority and indigenous populations abroad: “Our success in securing more funding and reporting requirements to diversify America’s diplomatic workforce and combat global racism is bittersweet, as this will be the first time that Congressman John Lewis’ signature will be absent as we finalize the process of securing these important steps in the House appropriations process.  We urge Senate appropriators to support these efforts as the Senate moves forward on its bill. “John was the conscience of Congress, a champion of human rights not just here in the United States, but globally wherever there was intolerance and bigotry. For close to a decade we have fought alongside John to make sure the SFOPs appropriations bill reflected the importance of that mission, including working to ensure that the workforces of our State Department and USAID reflects to the world the diversity of our nation. We worked with John to direct that the State Department create and increase initiatives that promote racial equality and combat discrimination, including in the Western Hemisphere where the U.S. should be working more diligently to protect minorities and indigenous populations that are severely at risk, and in Western Europe where George Floyd protests have highlighted racial profiling and ongoing racial disparities with roots in colonialism and the transatlantic slave trade. “As John’s good friend Dr. King famously said, ‘injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.’ As the House prepares for floor consideration of the House SFOPs bill, we thank House Appropriators for recognizing the importance of the funding and directives that we have requested.  We are proud to have worked with John now and over the years for additional funding for our international efforts to correct racial injustice worldwide.  He continues to be a driving force as we honor his legacy with our ongoing focus to realize these efforts.” Measures in the SFOPS appropriations bill championed by Congressmen Lewis, Hastings, and Meeks that will come to the House floor for votes this week include: $2 million to support international academic and professional and cultural exchanges through partnerships with historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs). Promoting stable democracies in the Western Hemisphere by implementing joint action plans between the United States and Colombia and Brazil to support racial and ethnic equality, and expanding the Western Hemisphere’s Race, Ethnicity, and Social Inclusion Unit’s programming to other regions. Funding to expand the State Department and USAID diversity and hiring, retention, and promotion efforts for its workforce, including by supporting mid-career and senior professional development opportunities, and partnerships with minority serving institutions, and the Charles B. Rangel, Thomas R. Pickering, and Donald M. Payne programs for undergraduate and graduate students. A report to Congress on all State Department and USAID efforts to address the global rise in racial discrimination. Expanding opportunities for minority owned businesses to compete for Department of State contracts and grants. $25 million to support Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities. Support for State Department programming that encourages representative governance and advances social inclusion in 12 European cities.

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