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Wicker: Celebrate First Amendment Religious Freedoms
Daily Journal
Tuesday, April 11, 2017

The First Amendment to our Constitution is a powerful expression of our right to the “free exercise” of religion. Americans can practice their faith without fear of persecution – a freedom that is not found in all parts of the world.

For Christians in the United States, the prevalence of religious persecution worldwide is especially heartbreaking as we approach Easter Sunday. We are reminded of the suicide bomber who targeted Christians on Easter Sunday last year in Pakistan, killing more than 70 and injuring hundreds. Sadly, this violence is not isolated. Pakistan ranks fourth on this year’s World Watch List created by the nonprofit group Open Doors USA. The list names 50 countries that have extreme, very high and high persecution of Christians. North Korea ranked first.

I currently serve as chairman of the U.S. Helsinki Commission, an agency comprised of members of Congress and federal officials to promote security and human rights in 57 countries in North America, Europe and Eurasia. The persecution of Christians and religious minorities remains a significant concern for the commission. In Syria, the Islamic State has waged a genocide against Christians, forcing thousands from their homes and destroying religious sites. In Russia, the government’s recent attempt to ban Jehovah’s Witnesses from practicing their faith is yet another affront to religious freedom in a country known for trampling human rights. Russia’s actions refute the international agreement that the U.S. Helsinki Commission seeks to uphold.

I have consistently supported legislative measures to protect Americans’ constitutional freedoms, including the exercise of religion. Political agendas should not encroach these rights. During the Obama administration, for example, I championed legislation that would allow military chaplains to refrain from performing marriage ceremonies if it would violate their conscience to do so. The religious expression of our military men and women is deserving of respect.

The same respect should be afforded to all Americans by our government agencies. I am encouraged by recent reports that President Trump is considering an executive order that would require federal agencies to protect the freedom of religion in their actions and policies. Earlier this month, I sent a letter with 17 other senators to President Trump expressing our support for this executive action and the need for federal agencies to follow the rule of law.

The letter reminds the President of attempts by the Obama administration to infringe on the rights of faith-based charities like the Little Sisters of the Poor. Obamacare forced the group either to pay a fine or offer services that they opposed for deeply held religious reasons. A Supreme Court ruling reaffirmed the religious liberty of the Little Sisters, just as it did for the owners of Hobby Lobby, who also raised religious objections to the health-care law.

Our founding documents built a foundation for religious liberty that is admired around the world. It is up to us to ensure that this foundation does not crumble.

Roger Wicker is a U.S. Senator from Mississippi. Contact him at 330 W. Jefferson St., Tupelo, MS 38803 or call (662) 844-5010.

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  • Reflecting on Chechnya

    By Mia Speier, Max Kampelman Fellow On December 11, 1994, Russian forces advanced into Chechnya, a republic in the North Caucasus near Georgia and Azerbaijan, to stop an attempt at secession. A Chechen separatist movement started to gain momentum following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Russians refused to allow any chance at separation. This marked the start of the First Chechen War, a conflict that erupted after decades of hostilities between the former Soviet government and the Chechen forces. The war dragged on for nearly two years, destroying the capital city of Grozny and killing tens of thousands of people—mostly civilians. The conflict, which started as an internal national movement, was complicated by flows of foreign money and foreign fighters. Militant Islamists joined the fight against Russia during the latter half of the war as part of a declared global jihad. Officials in Russia feared a repetition of the violence that occurred during the Soviet war in Afghanistan nearly a decade prior. Though Russia withdrew from Chechnya for a short time after the first war, the Second Chechen War broke out in 1999. This second war began after Putin blamed Chechen secessionists for bombings that killed Russian civilians, although there was no evidence of Chechen involvement in the bombings. Russian forces were sent into the republic again, and the Russian government succeeded in putting Chechnya under its control. Since then, the region has been a republic of Russia and is governed by Putin-appointed president Ramzan Kadyrov. Amid the conflict, however, the international community took steps to confront Russian aggression and violence in the region. On March 13, 1997, the U.S. Helsinki Commission convened a hearing called “The Future of Chechnya,” to discuss the efforts of Chechen citizens to free themselves from Russia’s painful yoke and fight back against Moscow’s defiance of international principles and the rule of law. The Helsinki Commission hearing focused on the 1994 Organization for Security and Cooperation Budapest Document that requires all participating States, including Russia, to ensure that their armed forces are commanded in a way that is consistent with international law. At the time of the hearing, an estimated 30,000 to 80,000 people had died in the territory, and tens of thousands of citizens had been displaced. The violence against and displacement of citizens in Chechnya was a clear violation of the Budapest Document. Then-Chairman Rep. Alfonse M. D’Amato chaired the hearing and noted that though many people were paying attention to the ongoing conflict in Bosnia at the time, it was important to also pay attention to the conflict in Chechnya and, more specifically, to think about the role of the OSCE in the region. “The world watched, horrified, as the Russian military used massive firepower against the Chechen guerrillas,” D’Amato said. “While the international community recognizes the principles of territorial integrity, there can be no doubt that in its effort to keep the Chechens in the Russian Federation, the Russian Government violated recognized international principles.” Since 1997, the Helsinki Commission has held several other public events related to human rights abuses, arbitrary arrests, abductions, and disappearances and the plight of Chechen refugees. In 2003, the commission penned a letter to then-Secretary of State Colin Powell urging the U.S. delegation at the United Nations Commission on Human Rights in Geneva to express concern over reported rights violations in Chechnya. Though it has been nearly 30 years since the First Chechen War, the situation in Chechnya remains bleak. In 2017, Congress passed a bipartisan resolution condemning widespread anti-LGBT persecution and violence in Chechnya after it was revealed that state law enforcement officials beat, imprisoned, and murdered hundreds of men perceived to be gay or bisexual. In June 2018, then-Chairman (and current Co-Chairman) Sen. Roger Wicker and Sen. Benjamin Cardin penned a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo urging the United State to invoke the OSCE’s Moscow Mechanism in response to escalating human rights abuses in Chechnya. The Moscow Mechanism allows for the establishment of a short-term fact-finding mission to address a specific human rights concern in the OSCE region. In November 2018, the 16 of the 57 OSCE participating States invoked the Moscow Mechanism to investigate the alleged disappearances, killings, and torture taking place in Chechnya—all of which were concerns raised at a Helsinki Commission hearing just months prior.  Though Russia failed to cooperate with the fact-finding mission, the resulting report concluded that the evidence clearly confirmed the allegations of very serious human rights violations and abuses in the Chechen Republic of the Russian Federation. Today, multiple reports of journalists and bloggers in Chechnya being beaten or murdered calls for even more concern for individual freedom and civil liberties in the region. In early February, Yelena Milashina, a prominent Russian journalist and lawyer who exposed the cruelty against gay Chechen men, was beaten in Grozny. Imran Aliev, an outspoken Chechen blogger who criticized President Ramzan Kadyrov, was found murdered in France earlier this year. Aliev’s death is one of many deaths and disappearances in recent years of Chechen dissidents throughout Europe, sparking heightened fears of Chechen death squads hunting down those seeking asylum outside of the republic.

  • Human Rights and Democracy

    For nearly three decades, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) has been at the forefront of efforts to promote human rights and democracy throughout the 57-nation OSCE region. Although best known for international election observation, ODIHR has also been instrumental in countering various forms of intolerance, helping governments combat human trafficking, protecting human rights defenders, and implementing OSCE commitments to fundamental freedoms. The U.S. Helsinki Commission convened the hearing to demonstrate bipartisan support for ODIHR, to reinforce the U.S.’s support related OSCE initiatives, and to hear about the ongoing work of ODIHR.  Commission Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) chaired the hearing and was joined by Commissioners Rep. Robert Aderholt (AL-04), Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), Rep. Gwen Moore (WI-04), and Rep. Marc Veasey (TX-33). Rep. Wilson’s opening remarks highlighted the historic achievements of ODIHR, which include assisting countries to “transition from communism to democracy,” supporting “civil society participation in OSCE events,” and facilitating “strong cooperation with the Parliamentary Assembly.”  In her first appearance before Congress, ODIHR Director Ambassador Ingibjörg Sólrún Gísladóttir addressed multiple challenges that have impeded the effectiveness of ODIHR activities. She then outlined ODIHR’s role in offering proactive solutions.  In particular, Ambassador Gísladóttir stressed the importance of dialogue and asserted that democracy is about “respect and trust, an acceptance of differing opinions, an exchange of views, and the willingness to share power and seek compromise.” She concluded on an optimistic note, emphasizing unity within the OSCE and its “commitment to democracy and to the wellbeing of its people.” Although conscious of ODIHR’s efforts, commissioners voiced concerns that some OSCE participating States are not complying with their commitments to uphold basic human rights standards. Commissioners specifically acknowledged restrictions on religious freedom in Russia, poor conditions for activists and journalists, and rising anti-Semitism and discrimination against the Roma people across the region. This hearing continued the Helsinki Commission practice of regularly engaging with senior OSCE officials.The Commission typically holds hearing with the foreign minister of the country holding the rotating chairmanship of the OSCE. The Commission has also held hearings with previous ODIHR directors as well as the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media.

  • Life Under Occupation

    Nearly six years into Russia’s illegal occupation of Crimea, the human rights situation there continues to deteriorate. Russian authorities have restricted freedom of speech and assembly, suppressed civil society activity, persecuted religious and ethnic minorities, muzzled dissent, and continue to implement an aggressive process of “Russification” toward residents of the peninsula.  The U.S. Helsinki Commission convened the hearing to explore Russia’s ongoing assault on Crimea’s vulnerable minorities, as well as its blatant disregard for human rights. As an occupying power, Russia bears the full weight of responsibility for the abuses being inflicted on the population of Crimea. Panelists discussed Russia’s repression of basic freedoms in Crimea and persecution of those who don’t recognize Russian authority. Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) chaired the hearing and was joined by Commission Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) and commissioners Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (RI), Rep. Robert Aderholt (AL-04), and Rep. Marc Veasey (TX-33). Chairman Hastings’ opening remarks addressed Russia’s attempts to stymie Ukraine’s relationship with the European community and the brutal tactics used throughout Crimea’s occupation. Hastings shed a light on the harsh reality of Russia’s continued occupation, which is “aimed at forcing a proud people into submission, whether they be civil society activists, community or religious leaders, artists, journalists, or simply those whose religion and ethnicity are viewed with distrust and fear.”   This hearing featured testimony from Oleg Sentsov, a Ukrainian writer and filmmaker who was sentenced to 20 years in jail by a Russian court on trumped-up charges of terrorism in 2014. In 2018, Sentsov became a worldwide symbol of defiance and courage when he launched a hunger strike on behalf of all Ukrainian political prisoners being held by Russia. He was released in September 2019. Tamila Tasheva, Deputy Permanent Representative of the President of Ukraine in the Autonomous Republic of Crimea, and Melinda Haring, Deputy Director of the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center, also served as witnesses. Sentsov addressed Russia’s “fabricated legal cases” and “long-term imprisonment” against those who simply think differently. He also testified about the various forms of torture he endured in a Russian prison. Sentsov voiced his appreciation for the United States’ continued efforts to counter Russian aggression in Ukraine and asked that Congress maintain pressure on the Putin regime. Tasheva focused her testimony on Russia’s persecution and internal displacement of “disloyal” groups, specifically the Crimean Tatars. Tasheva also called for the creation of an “international platform for negotiations on the return of the temporarily occupied Autonomous Republic of Crimea and the city of Sevastopol to sovereign Ukrainian jurisdiction.” Haring addressed the lack of free press in Crimea, asserting that “the media is controlled by the government.” She praised Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Crimea service, which tracks developments in Crimea and broadcasts them in three languages to the Crimean population. Haring also warned that the situation in Crimea is worsening, and that Russia has “effectively turned Crimea into a Russian military base.”  Throughout the hearing, commissioners expressed their concerns for freedom of religion, freedom of movement, and freedom of the press in Crimea. Commissioners also assured witnesses that support for President Zelensky and the fight for freedom in Ukraine is bipartisan and resolute.

  • Director of OSCE Office For Democratic Institutions and Human Rights to Testify at Helsinki Commission Hearing

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following hearing: HUMAN RIGHTS AND DEMOCRACY Obstacles and Opportunities in the OSCE Region Wednesday, January 29, 2020 10:00 a.m. Longworth House Office Building Room 1334 Live Webcast: www.youtube.com/HelsinkiCommission For nearly three decades, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) has been at the forefront of efforts to promote human rights and democracy throughout the 57-nation OSCE region. In her first appearance before Congress, ODIHR Director Ambassador Ingibjörg Sólrún Gísladóttir will discuss the organization’s flagship work in international election observation; countering anti-Semitism and other forms of intolerance; and helping governments to combat human trafficking, protect human rights defenders, and better implement their commitments to fundamental freedoms including assembly and religion. The OSCE, the world’s largest regional security body, is based on a comprehensive concept of security that recognizes that respect for human rights and functioning democratic institutions underpin regional peace and security. ODIHR provides support, assistance, and expertise to participating States and civil society to promote democracy, rule of law, human rights, and tolerance and non-discrimination. ODIHR observes elections at the invitation of participating States, reviews legislation, and advises governments on how to develop and sustain democratic institutions. The office also works closely with the OSCE’s field operations and organizes Europe’s largest annual human rights meeting, bringing together annually hundreds of government officials, international experts, civil society representatives and human rights activists.  

  • Helsinki Commission to Hold Hearing on Deteriorating Human Rights Situation in Crimea

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following hearing: LIFE UNDER OCCUPATION The State of Human Rights in Crimea Tuesday, January 28, 2020 10:00 a.m. Cannon House Office Building Room 210 Live Webcast: www.youtube.com/HelsinkiCommission Nearly six years into Russia’s illegal occupation of Crimea, the human rights situation there continues to deteriorate.  Russian authorities have restricted freedom of speech and assembly, suppressed civil society activity, persecuted religious and ethnic minorities, muzzled dissent, and continue to implement an aggressive process of “Russification” toward residents of the peninsula.  The hearing will feature Oleg Sentsov, a Ukrainian writer and filmmaker who was sentenced to 20 years in jail by a Russian court on trumped-up charges of terrorism in 2014. In 2018, Sentsov became a worldwide symbol of defiance and courage when he launched a hunger strike on behalf of all Ukrainian political prisoners being held by Russia. He and other witnesses will discuss the Russian Government’s continued assault on Crimea’s vulnerable minorities, as well as its blatant disregard for basic rights. The following witnesses are scheduled to participate: Oleg Sentsov, Ukrainian writer and filmmaker held prisoner by Russia for five years Tamila Tasheva, Deputy Permanent Representative of the President of Ukraine in the Autonomous Republic of Crimea Melinda Haring, Deputy Director, Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center; Senior Fellow, Foreign Policy Research Institute

  • Co-Chairman Wicker Introduces Ukraine Religious Freedom Support Act in Senate

    WASHINGTON—Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) yesterday introduced the Ukraine Religious Freedom Support Act (S. 3064) in the Senate. The legislation would combat Russia’s religious freedom violations in the Crimea and Donbas regions of Ukraine. Helsinki Commission Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) and Commissioner Rep.  Emanuel Cleaver, II (MO-05) introduced a bipartisan companion bill in the House of Representatives last week. “The Kremlin’s illegal land grab is accompanied by a brutal crackdown on religious freedom in Crimea and the Donbas,” said Co-Chairman Wicker. “This legislation would combat persecution of faith communities in Ukraine and ensure that Russian authorities are held responsible for their actions.” The Ukraine Religious Freedom Support Act would require the president of the United States to consider particularly severe violations of religious freedom in Russia-occupied or otherwise controlled territory in Ukraine when determining whether to designate Russia as a Country of Particular Concern (CPC) for such violations. The bill would clarify that Russia should be held responsible for violations in territory it controls or occupies illegally, not just for violations inside Russia’s internationally-recognized borders. The International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 requires the president to designate CPCs when their governments engage in or tolerate particularly severe violations of religious freedom. It also requires the president to take 15 specific actions, or other commensurate action, in response. Last year, on behalf of President Donald Trump, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo designated Russia for the Special Watch List of countries where violations are severe. Russian forces first invaded Crimea in February 2014 and continue to occupy it illegally. Since April 2014, Russia has controlled parts of the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine with non-state armed groups and illegal entities under its command. Under international humanitarian law, including the Geneva Conventions, Russia is responsible for religious freedom violations in Crimea and parts of the Donbas. As a participating State of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Russia has repeatedly committed to respect and protect freedom of religion or belief. The Helsinki Commission has compiled 16 documents outlining religious freedom commitments made by OSCE participating States.

  • Helsinki Commissioners Introduce Ukraine Religious Freedom Support Act

    WASHINGTON—Helsinki Commission Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) and Commissioner Rep.  Emanuel Cleaver, II (MO-05) yesterday introduced the bipartisan Ukraine Religious Freedom Support Act (H.R. 5408) in the House of Representatives. The legislation combats Russia’s religious freedom violations in the Crimea and Donbas regions of Ukraine. Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) plans to introduce a companion bill in the Senate next week. “For more than five years, Russia has illegally occupied Crimea and controlled part of the Donbas with the armed groups it commands. Kremlin personnel and proxies abduct, imprison, and torture people in those regions for their faith,” said Rep. Wilson. “Russian officials are culpable, and this bill helps ensure they are held accountable.” “The Kremlin persecutes peaceful religious communities in occupied Crimea and crony-controlled eastern Donbas even more brutally and broadly than it does in Russia,” said Rep. Cleaver. “The Russian Government is violating international humanitarian law and its international commitments to respect and protect religious freedom. Creating consequences for the Kremlin for this lawlessness will mean justice for the people of Ukraine.” The Ukraine Religious Freedom Support Act would require the President of the United States to consider particularly severe violations of religious freedom in Russia-occupied or otherwise controlled territory in Ukraine when determining whether to designate Russia as a Country of Particular Concern (CPC) for such violations. The bill clarifies that Russia should be held responsible for violations in territory it occupies illegally or controls, not just for violations inside Russia’s internationally-recognized borders. The International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 requires the president to designate CPCs when their governments engage in or tolerate particularly severe violations of religious freedom. It also requires the president to take 15 specific actions, or commensurate action, in response. Last year, on behalf of President Donald Trump, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo designated Russia for the Special Watch List of countries where violations are severe. Russian forces first invaded Crimea in February 2014 and continue to illegally occupy it. Since April 2014, Russia has controlled parts of the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine with non-state armed groups and illegal entities it commands. Under international humanitarian law, including the Geneva Conventions, Russia is responsible for religious freedom violations in Crimea and parts of the Donbas. As a participating State of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Russia has repeatedly committed to respect and protect freedom of religion or belief. The Helsinki Commission has compiled 16 documents outlining religious freedom commitments made by OSCE participating States. Original co-sponsors of the legislation include Helsinki Commissioners Rep. Gwen S. Moore (WI-04), Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (PA-01), Rep. Marc A. Veasey (TX-33), and Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09). Rep. Anna G. Eshoo (CA-18), Rep. Mark Meadows (NC-11), Rep. Mike Quigley (IL-05), Rep. Gus M. Bilirakis (FL-12), Rep. Daniel W. Lipinski (IL-03), Rep. Andy Harris, M.D. (MD-01), and Rep. Marcy Kaptur (OH-09) are also original co-sponsors.

  • Public Diplomacy, Democracy, and Global Leadership

    For more than a century, the United States has advanced shared human rights, economic, and security policy goals in the transatlantic relationship by cultivating people-to-people ties through public diplomacy initiatives.  As democracies around the world face new challenges emanating from demographic shifts, technological advancements, and evolving security threats, the need for public diplomacy initiatives that cultivate leaders who espouse democratic principles, including inclusive and representative governance, grows more relevant. The U.S. Helsinki Commission convened a hearing to focus on U.S.-led public diplomacy international exchange initiatives that strengthen democratic institutions by targeting young and diverse leaders, encouraging civic engagement, and fostering social inclusion and cohesion in the OSCE region. Presiding over the hearing, Chairman Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) stated, “This year, under my leadership, the Helsinki Commission has held events on the importance of international election observation, good governance, and focused on democratic backsliding in particular countries as part of our continued commitment to the underlying principles of the Helsinki Final Act.  Common to all of these issues is the role good leaders can play in ensuring free and fair elections; laws that are equitable, transparent, and enforced; and laying the groundwork to ensure protections and rights for all in their constituencies […] for the long-term stability of our nation and the transatlantic partnership.”  In his opening remarks, Chairman Hastings also noted that he planned to introduce legislation to support of leadership exchanges and knowledge-building between diverse transatlantic policymakers, and to encourage representative democracies. He also announced a February program for young OSCE parliamentarians to strengthen their political inclusion and advance peace and security efforts. Chairman Hastings was joined by Commissioners Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, II (MO-05) and Rep. Marc Veasey (TX-33). Rep. Veasey raised the importance of metrics in assessing the impact of leadership programs and soft diplomacy, while Rep. Cleaver stated, “For the first time since the end of World War II, the extreme right is actually winning seats in the German Parliament,” highlighting increased security risks related to public diplomacy programs operating in countries that have seen an increase in hate crimes and racial prejudice. Witnesses included Cordell Carter, II, Executive Director of the Socrates Program at the Aspen Institute; Stacie Walters Fujii, Chair of the American Council of Young Political Leaders; and Lora Berg, Counselor for Inclusive Leadership at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. Carter reviewed the Aspen Institute’s public policy programming on transatlantic relations and discussed the importance of promoting democratic values, including efforts to strengthen the capacity of congressional staff and encourage dialogues around the United States on being an “inclusive republic.”  He concluded by asking Congress to create more opportunities for public discourse on issues that threaten the stability of democracies around the world. Fujii discussed the importance of international exchanges in supporting democracies and the work of American Council of Young Political Leaders (ACYPL). ACYPL was founded in 1966 to strengthen transatlantic relationships by promoting mutual understanding among young political leaders in Western Europe and the former Soviet Union.  Critical aspects of the program include offering international leaders the opportunity to come to the U.S. to observe campaigning, polling stations, election returns, and the response of the American people to elections, complemented by follow-on educational conversations about democratic processes in their countries.  Berg highlighted the importance of public diplomacy initiatives in advancing inclusive leadership and observed that nations gain in richness and capacity when diversity is reflected in leadership. She also noted that inclusive leadership not only plays an important role in promoting social harmony, but it also helps to ensure economic growth, stating that “the places with the highest social cohesion are the most reliable for investment.” Berg explained that the GMF’s Transatlantic Inclusion Leaders Network (TILN) grew out of work she engaged in while working for the Department of State. TILN is an innovative network of young, diverse leaders across the United States and Europe supported by the Helsinki Commission and State Department.    Berg argued for the expansion of U.S. Government-supported public diplomacy inclusive leadership initiatives targeting youth and diverse populations in western democracies, including through public-private partnerships, the creation of a public diplomacy officer position in Europe to foster Europe-wide next generation transatlantic leadership, and increased political participation measures domestically and abroad for diverse populations.   

  • Helsinki Commission to Review Role of Professional Exchanges in Strengthening Democratic Institutions

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following hearing: PUBLIC DIPLOMACY, DEMOCRACY, AND GLOBAL LEADERSHIP An Approach for the 21st Century Thursday, December 5, 2019 10:00 a.m. Longworth House Office Building Room 1334 Live Webcast: www.youtube.com/HelsinkiCommission For more than a century, the United States has advanced human rights, economic, and security policy goals in Europe by cultivating people-to-people ties across the Atlantic. More than 500 heads of state, 100 Members of Congress, and thousands of professionals have participated in U.S. Government-sponsored exchanges, including the State Department’s International Visitor Leadership Program, while public and private organizations have hosted similar programs to bring leaders together.    Witnesses at the hearing will explore the origins and role of professional exchanges and other public diplomacy programs that strengthen relationships with U.S. allies in the face of shared challenges including eroding trust in democratic institutions, demographic shifts, technological advancements, and evolving security threats. In particular, the hearing will focus on international exchange initiatives that strengthen democratic institutions by targeting young and diverse leaders, encouraging civic engagement, and fostering social inclusion and cohesion in the OSCE region.  The following witnesses are scheduled to participate: Lora Berg, Senior Fellow, Leadership Programs, German Marshall Fund of the United States Cordell Carter, II, Executive Director, Socrates Program, The Aspen Institute   Stacie Walters Fujii, Chair, American Council of Young Political Leaders (ACYPL)   Photo credit: German Marshall Fund of the United States

  • Hastings and Cardin Condemn Mob Attack on Budapest Community Center

    WASHINGTON—Following Wednesday’s mob attack on Aurora, a small Jewish community center that provides office space to civil society groups in Budapest, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) and Ranking Member Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) issued the following statements: “Wednesday’s mob attack on Aurora is an alarming escalation of violence toward minorities and civil society groups in Hungary. This second attack by paramilitary-style extremists in less than a month sends a frightening message: Authorities cannot, or will not, protect you,” said Chairman Hastings. “A decade ago, far-right extremists in Hungary orchestrated dozens of violent attacks, murdering six Hungarians including five-year-old Robert Csorba. The Government of Hungary must not allow such a tragedy to occur again.” “The Hungarian Government may boast of a ‘zero-tolerance for anti-Semitism’ policy abroad, but in reality, in Budapest they traffic in anti-Semitic tropes, honor fascist-era leaders and ideologues, and stoke hatred of migrants and Muslims,” said Sen. Cardin, who also serves as the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly Special Representative on Anti-Semitism, Racism, and Intolerance. “Actions speak louder than words. I hope that available photographs of the mob will aid law enforcement in the investigation and prosecution of the perpetrators, and I commend the district’s newly elected mayor for visiting Aurora and seeking to ensure its safety.” Marom, a Hungarian Jewish association, established and runs Aurora Community Center, an umbrella organization that provides office space to small civil society groups including the Roma Press Center, migrant aid, and Pride Parade organizers. In Wednesday’s attack, the mob burned a rainbow flag and branded a para-military logo onto the premises. On September 26, the center also was attacked and vandalized by extremists. Under the Orbán government, the conditions for independent nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in Hungary have deteriorated. Over the past two years, Hungarian authorities have accused Marom of administrative violations ranging from mismatched dates on official documents to, most recently, lacking an appropriate agreement with the center’s landlord. In 2018, Hungary passed a law establishing a 25 percent tax on organizations which engage in “propaganda activity that portrays immigration in a positive light.” It is a tax on government-disfavored speech. Hungary also adopted amendments to its "law on aiding illegal migration" that make handing out know-your-rights leaflets punishable by up to one year in prison. In 2017, Hungary adopted a Russian-style "foreign agent" law which, according to the U.S. Department of State, “unfairly burdens a targeted group of Hungarian civil society organizations, many of which focus on fighting corruption and protecting human rights and civil liberties.” The bill was proposed by the far-right wing party Jobbik. In 2014, armed police carried out raids on 13 civil society organizations, seizing computers and documents for alleged financial misconduct. No charges were ever brought against the NGOs. Between 2008 and 2010, at least six people were murdered, many others were injured, and whole communities were terrorized in a series of attacks by right-wing extremists.  Maria Balog was shot in her own home in a middle-of-the-night raid that also wounded her 13-year-old daughter. Jeno Koka was shot as he got in his car to go to work. Five-year-old Robert Csorba and his father were killed by sniper fire while attempting to escape an arson attack on their home.

  • Chairman Hastings on Yom Kippur Shooting outside German Synagogue

    WASHINGTON—Following yesterday’s shooting outside of a synagogue in Halle, Germany, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) issued the following statement: “I am heartbroken to hear about the shooting near a synagogue in Germany where Jewish worshippers gathered to observe Yom Kippur. I stand in solidarity with the two innocent lives lost and the families and worshippers who were impacted by this senseless act of violence and hatred. As we commemorate the one-year anniversary of the Pittsburgh synagogue tragedy later this month, we must do more across borders to address these common challenges together.”

  • 2019 Human Dimension Implementation Meeting

    From September 16 to September 27, OSCE participating States will meet in Warsaw, Poland, for the 2019 Human Dimension Implementation Meeting (HDIM), organized by the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR).  As Europe’s largest annual human rights conference, the HDIM brings together hundreds of government and nongovernmental representatives, international experts, and human rights activists for two weeks to review OSCE human rights commitments and progress. During the 2019 meeting, three specifically selected topics will each be the focus of a full-day discussion: “safety of journalists,” “hate crimes,” and “Roma and Sinti.” These special topics are chosen to highlight key areas for improvement in the OSCE region and promote discussion of pressing issues. Human Dimension Implementation Meeting 2019 Since the HDIM was established in 1998, the OSCE participating States have a standing agreement to hold an annual two-week meeting to review the participating States’ compliance with the human dimension commitments they have previously adopted by consensus. The phrase “human dimension” was coined to describe the OSCE norms and activities related to fundamental freedoms, democracy (such as free elections, the rule of law, and independence of the judiciary), humanitarian concerns (such as refugee migration and human trafficking), and concerns relating to tolerance and nondiscrimination (such as countering anti-Semitism and racism). Each year, the HDIM allows participating States to assess one another’s implementation of OSCE human dimension commitments, identify challenges, and make recommendations for improvement. The HDIM agenda covers all human dimension commitments, including freedoms of expression and the media, peaceful assembly and association, and religion or belief; democratic elections; the rule of law; tolerance and non-discrimination; combating trafficking in persons; women’s rights; and national minorities, including Roma and Sinti. Unique about the HDIM is the inclusion and strong participation of non-governmental organizations. The United States has been a stout advocate for the involvement of NGOs in the HDIM, recognizing the vital role that civil society plays in human rights and democracy-building initiatives. OSCE structures allow NGO representatives to raise issues of concern directly with government representatives, both by speaking during the formal working sessions of the HDIM and by organizing side events that examine specific issues in greater detail. Members of the U.S. delegation to the 2019 HDIM include: Ambassador James S. Gilmore, U.S. Permanent Representative to the OSCE and Head of Delegation Christopher Robinson, Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs Roger D. Carstens, Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor Elan S. Carr, Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism Alex T. Johnson, Chief of Staff, U.S. Helsinki Commission

  • Minority Faiths Under the Hungarian Religion Law

    By Erika Schlager, Counsel for International Law This is a July 16, 2019, update to the article “Minority Faiths Under The Hungarian Religion Law," originally posted on July 8, 2017 (reprinted below). In 2011, Hungary adopted a new church law that entered into effect in 2012. The law stripped hundreds of faiths of their legal status overnight, deprived them of state resources to which they had previously been entitled, and resulted in other limitations. In December 2018, Hungary amended its religion law (effective as of April 15, 2019). The purpose of the amendment was to implement judgments of Hungary’s Constitutional Court as well as the European Court on Human Rights which held that Hungary’s religion law discriminated against faiths and churches. However, the amended law includes elements that, in practice, will continue discriminatory elements of the 2011 law for several more years and, in some respects, exacerbate the situation for minority faiths. The existing (2011) legal framework already distinguished among churches for the purposes of allocating government resources and benefits. The 2018 amendment added additional tiers to the categories, resulting in a more complex system. The four new tiers or categories are: religious association (with the right to be called a “church”), listed church, registered church and recognized church. Only the most “privileged” tier (recognized church) has the rights previously enjoyed by religious organizations recognized as churches before the passage of the 2011 law. Faiths which enjoyed legal recognition before the 2011 law but were stripped of that recognition under the 2018 law continue to be forced to accept the status of religious association and excluded from all the “privileges” granted to the higher categories. In other words, the 2018 amendment simply carries over the framework of the 2011 law. Additionally, the Hungarian Parliament – a body of elected officials – still decides which religious organizations are in the privileged tier (recognized church), making this an inherently political distinction. The amendment does make two improvements. First, it allows all religious organizations that secure state recognition to determine their own internal organizational structure. (Under the law passed in 2011, this was not the case.) Second, it permits people to donate 1% of their income tax to any religious organization that secures one of the four approved statuses. However, the amendment does not automatically enable organizations previously excluded from this support to receive it. On net, the December 2018 amendment fails to implement fully the court’s rulings or end the discrimination of the 2011 law, leaving some religious groups in limbo. The amendment did not provide a remedy for churches that were stripped of their status under the 2011 law, and faiths categorized in what is now the lowest tier (“religious association”) cannot be upgraded to the status of listed or registered churches without renouncing all future state, European Union, and foreign support or collecting the 1% income tax donation but remaining excluded from the benefits of "recognized" status during a prolonged transitional period. Minority Faiths Under The Hungarian Religion Law June 8, 2017 On April 25, 2017, the European Court on Human Rights announced a judgment in the case of the Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship v. Hungary.  This decision followed a 2014 finding by the Court that Hungary's 2011 law on religion violated the rights to freedom of association and freedom of religion.  In light of the failure of Hungary to end continuing violations, the April judgment awarded the Evangelical Fellowship €3 million in damages.  Religious Discrimination after the 2011 Law The case has its origins in changes made to Hungary’s religion law, which establishes a framework for the registration, or official recognition, of churches.  The law was rushed through parliament in June 2011 in a midnight parliamentary session as part of a massive three-year wave of 700 new laws, a new constitution, and five amendments to the Constitution passed between 2010 and 2013.  The “church law,” as it is known, came into force in 2012 and stripped legal recognition from over 300 previously recognized faiths; only 14 faiths retained their status under the new law.  The law gives the exclusive authority to the elected politicians in the Hungarian parliament to determine what constitutes a church, based on a parliamentary review of a religious community’s faith and rites; bylaws and internal rules; and elected or appointed administrative and representative bodies. The parliament then makes its decision according to a two-thirds vote.  Churches recognized by the parliament are granted a range of financial benefits and other privileges, including the ability to minister to co-religionists in public institutions such as schools, prisons and the military; unregistered faiths are denied these benefits.   Religions that lose their state recognition may have their assets confiscated by the state.  Hungarian Ombudsman Mate Szabo criticized the law when it was adopted and the Constitutional Court has twice struck down parts of the new religion law.  Parliament changed the law to allow unrecognized groups to identify as “churches” (translation:  “you can call yourself whatever you want”), but refused to alter the discriminatory framework that excludes unregistered faiths from the benefit of official status (translation:  “you’ll still have second-class status”).  In other words, there was no meaningful legislative change to address the law’s shortcomings.   The Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship, joined by several smaller groups, including Mennonites, two small reformed Jewish congregations, and a Buddhist congregation, brought the case that was decided by the European Court in 2014.  The European Court held that the “church law” is “inconsistent with the State’s duty of neutrality in religious matters that religious groups had to apply to Parliament to obtain re-registration as churches and that they were treated differently from incorporated churches with regard to material benefits without any objective grounds.”  Damages were awarded to the other religious communities in 2016, but the Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship continued to seek damages in light of continuing violations. In its April 2017 decision, the court awarded €3 million to the Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship.  The damages for discriminatory treatment included the loss of personal income tax donations and the corresponding supplementary State subsidy; the loss of State subsidies intended to support the applicant’s social and educational institutions; the loss of subsidies for religious teaching; and the loss of salary supplements paid to the staff employed by church institutions providing public-interest services. Unfortunately, the Court does not have the authority to compel Hungary to change its religion law and it is up to the Hungarian parliament to take the measures to comply with the ruling.  (The Court may award damages again – and again – in the case of continuing violations.) De-registered churches may be able to get a judgment for damages in Strasbourg, but only Budapest can provide a legal remedy.  The government may be trying to squeeze the Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship out of existence by depriving them of the benefits extended to other faiths and forcing them to devote resources to constantly litigate and re-litigate the same violations.  Smaller churches de-registered after 2011 have already largely been shuttered.  About the Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship The Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship broke from the Hungarian Methodist Church in the mid-1970s over the issue of collaboration with the communist regime. As a faith that would not bend to the communist regime, the Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship was subsequently forced underground and persecuted for engaging in charitable work with the poor at a time when the communist regime was loath to admit that poverty was a serious problem.  After the fall of the communist regime, in 1991 the Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship was officially recognized until stripped of this status under the 2011 law.  The Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship is known for its charitable and humanitarian work, particularly with Romani communities, and runs schools, homeless shelters, and soup kitchens. However, becausethe Hungarian tax authority has refused to issue a tax number to deregistered churches such as the Evangelical Fellowship, it is impossible for them to be designated them as recipients of a 1 percent charitable donation on tax forms.   Related Issues In 2017, the Hungarian Government has also proposed a Russian-style “foreign agents” law, which is currently scheduled for a vote by parliament, possibly on June 13. In recognition of criticism that, among the draft law’s many problems, it would stigmatize groups that receive foreign funding – including support from co-religionists in other countries – the current draft was altered to include a carve-out exception for religious organizations and sports.  If adopted, the law may spur the adoption of copycat laws in the region that might not have the same carve-outs for religious groups.  During a press conference in April, Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s chief of staff Janos Lazar suggested that Hungarian groups that receive foreign funding should be designated with a star.  He later apologized.

  • Responding to Hate

    In the past year alone, places of worship in Christchurch, Colombo, Pittsburgh, and Poway were targets of hate-based violence, resulting in the tragic loss of more than 300 lives.  Effectively countering hate crimes requires a comprehensive effort bringing together government institutions, criminal justice systems, civil society actors, and international organizations.  Religious actors and interfaith institutions play an important role in promoting safe and inclusive societies and reducing violence, hostility, and discrimination. The U.S. Helsinki Commission convened a hearing on Tuesday, July 16, 2019 that examined the role of religious actors in responding to hate domestically in the United States and throughout the OSCE region. The hearing, titled “Responding to Hate: The Role of Religious Actors,” focused on how faith-based institutions can promote safe and inclusive societies and reduce violence, hostility, and discrimination. Helsinki Commissioner Rep. Gwen Moore (WI-04) chaired the hearing and was joined by other commissioners including OSCE PA Special Representative on Anti-Semitism, Racism, and Intolerance and Helsinki Commission Ranking Member Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), Rep. Richard Hudson (NC-08), Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (TX-18), Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (PA-01), and Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09). Rep. Moore opened the hearing by stating, “All of us have something to gain from those who look different, pray differently, and may come from a different place. And we must not wait until tragedy strikes, again and again and again, to learn the value of mutual respect. We must seize every opportunity to denounce hate-motivated violence, and in doing so we protect the value of freedom of expression, the hallmark of democracy.” She also paid homage to six Sikh worshippers killed near her district in Oak Creek, Wisconsin seven years ago. In his opening remarks, Sen. Cardin recounted his side event at the 28th Annual Session of the OSCE PA earlier in July, titled, “Countering Hate: Lessons from the Past, Leadership for the Future,” where he called on parliamentarians to act now to prevent a repeat of the past where bigotry and violence resulted in the deaths of millions under Nazi rule. Witnesses at the hearing described how religious actors and interfaith institutions can work together to further human rights and protections for all, domestically and throughout the OSCE region. Witnesses also shared strategies to prevent and respond to hate, ignorance, and violence targeting our societies, including places of worship. Father James Martin shared a video testimony about his response to the Pulse nightclub shooting, which at the time was the largest mass shooting in U.S. history, taking 49 lives. He noted that the LGBT community received an outpouring of love and support the in the aftermath of the tragedy, with the notable exception of the Catholic church. Father Martin said, “Why am I bringing this up? Because when it comes to the role that religious actors and organizations can play in combatting hate crimes, the most effective thing they can do is to get their own houses of worship in order. Racism, sexism, and homophobia still exist in many Christian denominations – my own included.” He ended his testimony by underlining that “the most important thing that religious actors and organizations can do to combat hate crimes is not only to fight the hatred on the outside, but on the inside as well.” Imam Gamal Fouda also testified by video and remarked on New Zealand’s response to the tragic shooting that targeted and killed Muslims at the Al Noor Mosque and Linwood Islamic Centre in Christchurch, where he is the imam. “New Zealand set a good example to the whole world for how to look after your people, how to actually support all your people. And we all stand together against hate, hate speech, and hate crimes,” he said. He said the power of New Zealand was demonstrated in the wake of the Christchurch shooting and called for more education on the strength of diverse and inclusive societies. “We have to stand together looking at the diversity in our communities as something that is strengthening our community,” he said. “It is the secret of the power of our community to see different colors and different languages.” Rabbi Jeffrey Myers, victim, witness, and survivor of the 2018 attack on the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, PA—the worst attack on a synagogue in the history of the United States—stated, “The metaphor of America as a melting pot, is a beautiful image, but sadly, it is not true, [because …we] do not know our neighbors. We live in silos, with no bridges connecting them. Many choose to live in their own private silos, not wanting ‘others’ to enter their silo.” He believes that the key to addressing hate—what he referred to as the “H-word”— is to learn to build bridges. “Some people just don’t know how to build a bridge. This is where religious leaders like me make a difference…I’m a bridge builder. When the Muslim community extended an olive branch to me, I responded by offering an olive tree,” he said. Reverend Aaron Jenkins testified on the power of developing partnerships and relationships across different sectors of society to adequately tackle the issue of hate and hate crimes wherever they occur. He remarked, “Any plan to address hate must engage faith actors within and across their faith traditions in respectful and meaningful ways. We cannot wait until the next hate crime happens.” He stated that partnerships, resources, and relationships were needed to address the problem. Radia Bakkouch spoke about the situation in France and Coexister’s “belief in the concept of ‘faith for good’ and the practice of interfaith cooperation in empowering young people to address violence and exclusion.” She stressed the importance of defending pluralistic societies and highlighted the importance of building coalitions to address the rise in hate-based violence taking place in France and elsewhere in Europe. Usra Ghazi detailed federal hate crimes statistics, highlighting that hate crimes historically and consistently are underreported. This, she said, is partly due to a lack of a standardized reporting processes and “strained relationships between bigotry-impacted communities and law enforcement entities.” Ghazi shared that many members of the Muslim, Arab, and Sikh communities affected by anti-Muslim discrimination, hate, and violence in the United States have opted to keep low profiles rather than report these events. She stressed, “Due to the rise of hate crimes and hate speech against Muslim and Sikh Americans, these communities by necessity have had to organize outreach efforts to humanize themselves while raising cultural and religious literacy among their neighbors and governments.” Ghazi also shared positive examples of how discriminated communities are building their civic health, getting more involved in elections, and running for office at record rates. “We now have Muslim and Sikh mayors of American cities, as well as officials from these faiths in a range of governmental positions. These efforts help to ensure that our cities, counties and states are truly representative of the rich diversity of American communities.” Alina Bricman’s video testimony concluded the hearing. She presented an overview of the first-ever report of Young Jewish Europeans: perceptions and experiences of antisemitism, released July 4, 2019. Findings included that “44 percent of young Jewish Europeans have faced anti-Semitic harassment, that’s almost 1 in 2 Jews; […] and 25 percent identified as too scared to display Jewish-affiliated ornaments or accessories.” To address the problem, Bricman recommended investing in education (such as anti-racist and anti-bias training) that emphasizes the importance and strength of diversity and diverse communities, supporting civil society, and depoliticizing anti-Semitism and racism by having leaders engage responsibly in the public arena where it is not viewed as a left or right issue.

  • Helsinki Commission Hearing to Examine Role of Religious Actors in Responding to Hate

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following hearing: RESPONDING TO HATE The Role of Religious Actors Tuesday, July 16, 2019 11:00 a.m. – 1:00 p.m. Rayburn House Office Building Room 2200 Live Webcast: www.youtube.com/HelsinkiCommission In the past year alone, places of worship in Christchurch, Colombo, Pittsburgh, and Poway were targets of hate-based violence, resulting in the tragic loss of more than 300 lives.  Effectively countering hate crimes requires a comprehensive effort bringing together government institutions, criminal justice systems, civil society actors, and international organizations.  Religious actors and interfaith institutions play an important role in promoting safe and inclusive societies and reducing violence, hostility, and discrimination. Witnesses will describe how religious actors and interfaith institutions can work together to further human rights and protections for all in the OSCE region, and share strategies to prevent and respond to hate crimes and violence targeting our societies in public places, including places of worship and social institutions. The following witnesses are scheduled to participate: Rabbi Hazzan Jeffrey Myers, Rabbi and Cantor, Tree of Life Synagogue, Pittsburgh, PA Father James Martin, Editor at Large, America Media, New York, NY Imam Gamal Fouda, Imam, Al Noor Mosque, Christchurch, New Zealand Radia Bakkouch, President, Coexister, Paris, France Alina Bricman, Elected President, European Union of Jewish Students, Brussels, Belgium Usra Ghazi, Director of Policy and Programs, America Indivisible; Mayor’s Interfaith Council, Washington, DC Reverend Aaron Jenkins, Vice President of Policy and Advocacy, The Expectations Project (TEP), Washington, DC Additional witnesses may be added.

  • The Helsinki Process: A Four Decade Overview

    In August 1975, the heads of state or government of 35 countries – the Soviet Union and all of Europe except Albania, plus the United States and Canada – held a historic summit in Helsinki, Finland, where they signed the Final Act of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe. This document is known as the Helsinki Final Act or the Helsinki Accords. The Conference, known as the CSCE, continued with follow-up meetings and is today institutionalized as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, or OSCE, based in Vienna, Austria. Learn more about the signature of the Helsinki Final Act; the role that the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe played during the Cold War; how the Helsinki Process successfully adapted to the post-Cold War environment of the 1990s; and how today's OSCE can and does contribute to regional security, now and in the future.

  • Co-Chairman Wicker on Release of 2018 Report on International Religious Freedom

    WASHINGTON—Following the release of the 2018 Report on International Religious Freedom by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback, a former chairman of the Helsinki Commission, Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) issued the following statement: “This report shows that some of the worst government violators of religious freedom in the world continue to be in Eurasia, including Russia, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan. I am concerned that these OSCE participating States have not made any progress in implementing their commitments to ensure freedom of religion. “One exception where the situation has improved is Uzbekistan. I hope the final version of the country’s new religion law will demonstrate the commitment of President Mirziyoyev and his government to advancing religious freedom reforms. I would not want a situation in which the new law retains the most problematic elements of current law. That would put Uzbekistan at risk of remaining on the Special Watch List or even once again being designated as a Country of Particular Concern. “The Government of Uzbekistan must also keep its promise to formally work with international experts, including the OSCE Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, to ensure its religion law complies with Uzbekistan’s international commitments.” In October 2018, Co-Chairman Wicker urged the Government of Uzbekistan to formally request that the OSCE Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights conduct a legal review of Uzbekistan’s draft religion law. He repeated the call during a December 2018 Helsinki Commission hearing with Ambassador Brownback. Following last year’s International Religious Freedom Report, Secretary of State Pompeo designated OSCE participating States Tajikistan and Turkmenistan as Countries of Particular Concern. Turkmenistan has been designated as a CPC since 2014 and Tajikistan since 2016. Pompeo further designated Uzbekistan and Russia for the Special Watch List, for continuing religious freedom violations. For Uzbekistan, the designation upgrades the country’s ranking in recognition of progress made under the regime of President Mirzoyoyev. Uzbekistan was a CPC from 2006 to 2017. Russia was designated for the Special Watch List for the first time. As OSCE participating States, these countries repeatedly have committed themselves to respecting religious freedom. The annual State Department International Religious Freedom Report details religious freedom in every country. The report includes government policies violating religious belief and practices of individuals and religious groups, and U.S. policies to promote religious freedom around the world. Following the release of the annual report, the Secretary of State has 90 days to submit updated designations for the Countries of Particular Concern and the Special Watch List.

  • Chairman Hastings on Release of 2018 Report on International Religious Freedom

    WASHINGTON—Following the release of the 2018 Report on International Religious Freedom by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback, a former chairman of the Helsinki Commission, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) issued the following statement: “The Helsinki Commission welcomes the release of the annual International Religious Freedom Report. Robust reporting on the full range of human rights—including respect for religious liberties—is critical to the preservation of democratic institutions. “The report details a number of continuing concerns in countries including Hungary and Turkey. In Hungary, government officials have engaged in anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic rhetoric and publicly venerated World War II-era anti-Semites and Hitler allies. Amendments to Hungary's controversial 2011 religion law came into effect in April, but it is not yet clear if the new and more complicated law will end discrimination against the Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship and other faiths. In Turkey, long-standing concerns persist about respect for the rights of Alevis and non-Muslim minorities to freely manage their religious activities and internal affairs. “These violations of religious freedom are extremely troubling, especially since Hungary and Turkey—like all participating States of the OSCE—have committed to protecting freedom of religion or belief and preventing intolerance and discrimination based on religious grounds.” The annual State Department International Religious Freedom Report details religious freedom in every country. The report includes government policies violating religious belief and practices of individuals and religious groups, and U.S. policies to promote religious freedom around the world.

  • Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe and Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Commitments Regarding Freedom of Religion or Belief

    The 57 participating States of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe have repeatedly committed to recognizing and respecting freedom of religion or belief. The 35 participating States of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe–the forerunner of the OSCE–signed the Helsinki Final Act of 1975, which included: “The participating States will recognize and respect the freedom of the individual to profess and practice, alone or in community with others, religion or belief acting in accordance with the dictates of his own conscience.” The OSCE’s Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights has staff dedicated to freedom of religion or belief, led by a senior advisor. ODIHR legal reviews to help participating States comply with their OSCE commitments have included existing law and draft legislation on freedom of religion or belief. ODIHR only conducts such reviews after receiving a formal invitation from a participating State. A panel of OSCE/ODIHR experts on freedom of religion or belief assists OSCE/ODIHR, and the ODIHR director appoints the panel’s 14 members every three years. This compilation, developed by Helsinki Commission staff, covers CSCE/OSCE commitments on freedom of religion or belief in 16 documents from the Final Act to the OSCE Ministerial Council in 2015. It includes the document title, excerpted text, and links to the original document. Participating States have also made commitments relating to discrimination or hate crimes base on religion or belief. Some examples are in “OSCE Human Dimension Commitments: Thematic Compilation.” This Helsinki Commission compilation only includes commitments on freedom of religion or belief. The Commission will update the compilation when new commitments on freedom of religion or belief are made.

  • Russia's Counterproductive Counterterrorism

    Russia’s counterterrorism approach, which is problematic in both conception and execution, makes Moscow an ill-suited partner with the United States in this field, experts told the U.S. Helsinki Commission at a hearing on June 12, 2019.  The hearing closely examined the development, history, and repercussions of the Kremlin’s approach to counterterrorism under Vladimir Putin, including Moscow’s attempts to present itself as a regional and global leader on this issue.  Witnesses included Dr. Michael Carpenter, Senior Director of the Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement at the University of Pennsylvania and former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense; Rachel Denber, Deputy Director, Europe and Center Asia Division, Human Rights Watch; and Dr. Mariya Y. Omelicheva, Professor of Strategy at the United States National War College of the National Defense University.  In his opening statement, Rep. Richard Hudson (NC-08), who chaired the hearing, noted concerns expressed by many, including the U.S. Director of National Intelligence, about Russia’s attempts to assume the mantle of leadership in the counterterrorism sphere, through efforts that include placing Russian nationals in senior counterterrorism positions in international organizations.  Rep. Hudson further expressed concern regarding overly broad use of “terrorism” and “extremism” labels by the Kremlin and authoritarian regimes across Central Asia, in contravention of their commitments to human rights Rep. Hudson was joined by other Helsinki Commissioners. Sen. Cory Gardner (CO) underscored the inherently destabilizing nature of Russia’s counterterrorism policies and practices and recalled legislation he has introduced that would require the Department of State to formally determine whether Russia should be designated a state sponsor of terrorism.  Rep. Robert Aderholt (AL-04) raised questions regarding Russia’s role in the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight 17 over eastern Ukraine and whether such an action amounts to state-sponsored terrorism, as well as the impact of Russia’s counterterrorism policies on its Muslim population.  Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (PA-01) drew upon his experience in the Federal Bureau of Investigation to highlight the challenges of sharing investigative techniques and best practices for fighting terrorism with Russia, as opposed to other countries in the region.  Dr. Omelicheva discussed how the Kremlin has increasingly prioritized fighting terrorism, both as a policy and as a political theme. She described how punitive measures, rather than a focus on socioeconomic improvement to address root causes of radicalization, have long been a preferred method of Russia’s military and security services for addressing terrorism.  She also noted that some Central Asian states have copied the Kremlin’s heavy-handed methods.    Ms. Denber noted the broad criminal code Russian authorities inappropriately apply—under the guise of fighting terrorism—to persecute people “inconvenient” to the Kremlin.  She discussed in detail other domestic applications of Russia’s counterterrorism criminal laws, including monitoring and storing of Russian citizens’ internet metadata, as well as labeling groups like Jehovah’s Witnesses as extremist organizations.  Russia’s counterterrorism policies may well have alienated segments of Russia’s Muslim population and led individuals to join extremist organizations such as the Islamic State and Hizb ut-Tahrir, Ms. Denber stated.       Dr. Carpenter asserted that active U.S.-Russia counterterrorism cooperation runs counter to U.S. interests and values—highlighting Russia’s penchant for claiming to be fighting extremism while actually punishing dissidents, notably individuals in Crimea critical of the ongoing occupation of the peninsula.  “A single mother was recently imprisoned on extremism charges because she had posted comments critical of Russia’s annexation of Crimea on her social media feed,” he said.    Dr. Carpenter’s experience in government led him to conclude, “Russia approaches counterterrorism from the position of counterintelligence;” when Russia cooperates, it is with the aim of eliciting information rather than pursuing common solutions. Using Syria as an example, he emphasized how Russian leadership does not think in win-win terms when it comes to counterterrorism, even when the U.S. does.  “Moscow will be happy, of course, to host dozens of international conferences, and will periodically suggest that a solution is within reach.  But at the end of the day, its interests are best served when Iran, Hezbollah and Assad are in power to make mischief in the region, because that’s when Russia’s influence with the Europeans, with Israel, and the Gulf States is at its peak,” he said.  Dr. Omelicheva added to these comments with an overview of lessons the Russian government has learned in past failed counterterrorism operations, including the Dubrovka Theater hostage crisis of 2002 and Beslan school siege of 2004.     “The key lesson that the government learned was that they have to have sufficient force to secure the perimeter of the counterterrorism operation, that they need to be able to constrain the freedom of movement, the freedom of mass media, and other types of freedom.” 

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