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The OSCE: A Bulwark Against Authoritarianism
Just Security
Rep. Alcee L. Hastings and Amb. James S. Gilmore III
Thursday, August 13, 2020

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.

Leadership: 
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Cardin, OSCE PA Special Representative on Anti-Semitism, Racism and Intolerance, 2017 Winter Meeting Romani Political Participation Key to Change 2014 Diversity on the Rise 2012 Helsinki Commission Welcomes Unveiling of Berlin Memorial for Romani Genocide Victims 2010 Transatlantic Minority Political Leadership Conference OSCE Holds Conference in Astana on Tolerance and Non-Discrimination Copenhagen Anniversary Conference U.S. Commission Denounces France’s Roma Evictions The Burqa Ban and the Erosion of Human Rights 2009 Black European Summit International Roma Day Bracketed by Rising Extremism and Violence 2008 Report on the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination Review of the US and Seventh Annual Meeting of the UN Working Group on People of African Descent Racism and Xenophobia: The Role of Governments in Addressing Continuing Challenges Italian Fingerprinting Targeting Romani Communities Triggers Protests; OSCE Pledges Fact-Finding Commission Staff Participates in Conference on Roma; Greece Slated to Serve as OSCE Chair in 2009 Iraq Refugee Crisis: The Calm Before the Storm? 2007 Continuing the Fight: Combating Intolerance and Discrimination Against Muslims Sustaining the Fight: Combating Anti-Semitism and Other Forms of Intolerance within the OSCE 2006 Accountability and Impunity: Investigations Into Sterilization Without Informed Consent in the Czech Republic and Slovakia 1996 Ex Post Facto Problems of the Czech Citizenship Law Statements and Speeches 2020 Respecting Human Rights and Maintaining Democratic Control During States of Emergency Statement at the Meeting of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly Bureau Chairman Hastings, Rep. Meeks Issue Statement on Foreign Affairs Funding for Diversity and Global Anti-Racism Programs Chairman Hastings Marks International Roma Day, Notes Consequences of Systemic Racism Exposed by Pandemic 2019 Chairman Hastings Welcomes Release of Country Reports on Human Rights Helsinki Commission Chairman Condemns Mob Attacks on Roma in Europe 2015 Helsinki Commission Calls for Renewed Commitment to Defending Human Rights of Roma 2014 Statement from Helsinki Commission Chair on the Grand Jury Decision in the Michael Brown Shooting Case U.S. Helsinki Commission Commemorates Romani Revolt at Auschwitz, Deportation oh Hungarian Jews 2012 Roma Bridge Building 2011 Senator Cardin’s Response to Rep. King’s U.S. Anti-Muslim Hearings Attacks in Hungary and the Czech Republic 2010 Helsinki Commission Statement on International Human Rights Day Anti-Roma Actions Erupt in France, Europe 2009 Helsinki Commissioners Condemn Violence Against Roma U.S. Helsinki Commission Chairman Cardin and Co-Chairman Hastings Condemn Turkish Government Destruction of nearly 1,000-year-old Roma Neighborhood Helsinki Commission Applauds Unveiling of Romania Holocaust Monument Slovak Romani Sterilization Victims Win Damages U.S. Helsinki Commission Chairman Cardin and Co-Chairman Hastings Release Statement on Plight of Roma 2008 Helsinki Commission Welcomes Groundbreaking of Romani Memorial in Berlin U.S. Helsinki Commission Urges Respect for Human Rights of Roma Teach About the Genocide of Roma Recognizing Europe’s Black Population 2007 Remarks at the OSCE Conference on Combating Discrimination and Promoting Mutual Respect and Understanding 2005 Racist Manifestations in Romania Deserve Government Response The Decade of Roma Inclusion 2004 Mass Murder of Roma at Auschwitz Sixty Years Ago Roma Still Waiting for Their “Brown V. Board of Education” 2003 Action Plan on Improving the Situation of Roma and Sinti within the OSCE Area Political Participation and Leadership Transatlantic Minority Political Leadership Conference (TMPLC) Transatlantic Minority Political Leadership Conference Report 2019 Transatlantic Minority Political Leadership Conference Report 2018 Transatlantic Minority Political Leadership Conference Report 2017 Legislators Roundtable "Equity and Inclusion Policies for a Changing World" 2016 Second Annual Transatlantic Minority Political Leadership Conference Report 2011 Transatlantic Minority Political Leadership Conference Report 2010 Black European Summit: Transatlantic Dialogue on Political Inclusion 2009  Black European Summitt Report 2009 Transatlantic Inclusion Leaders Network (TILN) Transatlantic Inclusion Leaders Network Workshop 2019  TILN Leading Through Change 2019 Transatlantic Inclusive Leaders Network Workshop 2018 TILN Stregthening Our Democracies Through Inclusive Leadership 2018 Transatlantic Inclusion Leaders Network (TILN) Workshop 2017  #MovetheCouch: Transatlantic Leaders Convene in Brussels 2017 Five Years of the Transatlantic Inclusion Leaders Network 2016 TILN Fifth Anniversary: Celebrating Five Years and Looking Toward the Future TILN Workshop 2015 TILN Workshop 2014 TILN Workshop 2012-2013 TILN Conference U.S. State Department Remarks 2012 OSCE/ODHIR​ Romani Political Participation Key to Change Advancing Empowerment, Equity, and Human Rights Article Advancing Empowerment, Equity, and Human Rights Report  GMF/DOD Mission Critical: Inclusive Leadership for the Security Sector 2017 Mission Critical: Diversity and Inclusion Best Practices for Military 2013 “Helsinki on the Hill” Podcast Series 2020 Communities at Risk The Roma 2019 Equitable and Inclusive Democracies

  • Podcast: Welcome to Observe

    Election observation is a core element of the OSCE’s efforts to promote human rights, democracy, and the rule of law. Each OSCE participating State—including the United States—pledges to invite foreign observers to observe its elections. The United States plays an active role in OSCE election observation missions, both by providing observers for foreign elections as well as by inviting the OSCE to observe every general and midterm election since 2002. Ahead of the 2020 presidential election, veteran election observer Orest Deychakiwsky, former director of the OSCE’s Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights and current OSCE PA member Michael Link, and Deputy Secretary of the State of Connecticut Scott Bates share insights on the origins and value of OSCE election observation, along with the process of election observation from the OSCE and state perspective. "Helsinki on the Hill" is series of conversations hosted by the U.S. Helsinki Commission on human rights and comprehensive security in Europe and beyond. The Helsinki Commission, formally known as the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, promotes human rights, military security, and economic cooperation in 57 countries in Europe, Eurasia, and North America. Transcript | Episode 13 | Welcome to Observe: OSCE Election Observation and the United States

  • Podcast: Open Skies

    What was a Russian military plane doing taking pictures over Washington, DC? Arms control experts Alexandra Bell, Senior Policy Director at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, and Anthony Wier, Legislative Secretary for Nuclear Disarmament and Pentagon Spending at the Friends Committee on National Legislation, discuss the Treaty on Open Skies. The Open Skies agreement fosters inter-military transparency and cooperation among 34 different countries—including the United States and Russia—by allowing participants to overfly each other’s territory to record and share imagery of military and other installations. During the episode, Bell and Weir outline the role of Open Skies in the Euro-Atlantic security architecture, the treaty’s benefits, the complexity of execution, and current challenges in implementation. "Helsinki on the Hill" is series of conversations hosted by the U.S. Helsinki Commission on human rights and comprehensive security in Europe and beyond. The Helsinki Commission, formally known as the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, promotes human rights, military security, and economic cooperation in 57 countries in Europe, Eurasia, and North America. Transcript | Episode 4: Open Skies | Helsinki on the Hill

  • Podcast: Agents of the Future

    The creation of the Moscow Helsinki Group was announced on May 12, 1976, a day that Helsinki Commission Chair Sen. Ben Cardin has called, “One of the major events in the struggle for human rights around the globe.” The 11 founding members, including legends of the human rights movement like Yuri Orlov and Lyudmila Alexeyeva, came together as what was formally named the Public Group to Assist in the Implementation of the Helsinki Final Act in the USSR. Their mission was to monitor the Soviet government’s implementation of the human rights provisions of the historic 1975 Helsinki Accords. In this episode, Dmitri Makarov, co-chair of the Moscow Helsinki Group, and historian Sarah B. Snyder discuss the history and impact of the Helsinki monitors, as well as the important work the Moscow Helsinki Group continues to do today. The Helsinki Commission is indebted to Cathy Cosman for her input and contributions to the development of this episode.  "Helsinki on the Hill" is series of conversations hosted by the U.S. Helsinki Commission on human rights and comprehensive security in Europe and beyond. The Helsinki Commission, formally known as the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, promotes human rights, military security, and economic cooperation in 57 countries in Europe, Eurasia, and North America.   Transcript | Episode 16 | Agents of the Future: The 45th Anniversary of the Moscow Helsinki Group

  • Podcast: Seeking Justice in Serbia

    Twenty years after U.S. citizens Ylli, Agron, and Mehmet Bytyqi were brutally murdered in Serbia in the aftermath of the 1999 conflict in Kosovo, their brother Ilir documents his family’s fight for justice in the face of inaction by Serbian authorities. Ilir is joined by family lawyer Praveen Madhiraju and Helsinki Commission senior policy advisor Robert Hand. "Helsinki on the Hill" is series of conversations hosted by the U.S. Helsinki Commission on human rights and comprehensive security in Europe and beyond. The Helsinki Commission, formally known as the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, promotes human rights, military security, and economic cooperation in 57 countries in Europe, Eurasia, and North America. Transcript | Episode 2: Seeking Justice in Serbia | Helsinki on the Hill

  • Podcast: Massive, Systematic, Proven beyond Doubt

    President Alexander Lukashenko has been in power in Belarus since 1994. In the run-up to elections in the summer of 2020, the Lukashenko regime sought to eliminate political competition to  through disqualification, intimidation, and imprisonment.   Election Day proper featured widespread allegations of fraud.  Many countries, including the United States, rejected the election’s outcome as illegitimate and refused to recognize Lukashenko as the legitimate leader of Belarus.  The months since the election have seen an unrelenting crackdown by Belarusian authorities on peaceful protests, civil society, and the media. As a participating State in the OSCE, Belarus is party to a number of commitments on human rights and fundamental freedoms, such as the right to free and fair elections and the right to peaceful assembly.  In response to the apparent violation of these rights, 17 other OSCE states invoked one of the key human rights tools at their disposal: the Moscow Mechanism, a procedure that allows for the establishment of a short-term fact-finding mission tasked with producing a report on a specific human rights concern and recommendations on how to resolve it. In this episode, Professor Wolfgang Benedek, the rapporteur appointed to investigate the crisis in Belarus, discusses his findings that human rights abuses are "massive and systematic, and proven beyond doubt" and his recommendations to address the violations. "Helsinki on the Hill" is series of conversations hosted by the U.S. Helsinki Commission on human rights and comprehensive security in Europe and beyond. The Helsinki Commission, formally known as the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, promotes human rights, military security, and economic cooperation in 57 countries in Europe, Eurasia, and North America. Transcript | Episode 14 | Massive, Systematic, Proven beyond Doubt: Human Rights Violations in Belarus Exposed by the OSCE’s Moscow Mechanism

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