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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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  • Calling Upon Turkey to Facilitate the Reopening of the Halki Seminary

    Mr. President, this week's visit to Washington by the Ecumenical Patriarch, Bartholomew I, is an appropriate occasion to renew calls for the reopening of the Halki Seminary, without further delay. Founded in 1844, the Theological School of Halki, located outside modern-day Istanbul, served as the principal seminary for Ecumenical Patriarchate until its forcible closure by the Turkish authorities in 1971. Counted among alumni of this preeminent educational institution are numerous prominent Orthodox scholars, theologians, priests, and bishops as well as patriarchs, including Bartholomew I. Many of these scholars and theologians have served as faculty at other institutions serving Orthodox communities around the world. Despite occasional indications by the authorities of pending action to reopen the seminary, to date all have failed to materialize. Earlier this year, several of my colleagues from the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, which I chair, joined me in a letter to President Obama to underscoring our longstanding concern over the continued closure of this unique institution. The continued denial of requests for the reopening of the seminary stands in clear violation of Turkey's obligations under the 1989 OSCE Vienna Concluding Document, which affirmed the right of religious communities to provide ``training of religious personnel in appropriate institutions.'' While there is no question that the Halki Seminary is the appropriate institution for training Orthodox clergy in Turkey, the Government of Turkey continues to refuse to reopen the school. In his address to the Turkish Grand National Assembly in April, President Obama said, ``Freedom of religion and expression lead to a strong and vibrant civil society that only strengthens the state, which is why steps like reopening Halki Seminary will send such an important signal inside Turkey and beyond.'' In a welcomed development, Turkey's Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan met with the Ecumenical Patriarch in August. In an address to a wider gathering of minority religious leaders that day, Erdogan concluded by stating, ``We should not be of those who gather, talk and disperse. A result should come out of this.'' Mr. President, I urge Prime Minister Erdogan to follow through on the sentiment of those remarks by actions that will facilitate the reopening of the Halki Seminary without further delay. I am told that the Theological School of Halki is situated atop the summit of the Hill of Hope. For those of us who have pursued this issue over the years, our hope has been that we would indeed witness the reopening of this historic institution. I remain hopeful and encourage Prime Minister Erdogan to act decisively and without condition on this matter before his upcoming visit to Washington.  

  • Co-Chairman Hastings Chairs Meeting in Israel on Countering Discrimination in the Mediterranean Region; Meets with Prime Minister Olmert

    By Marlene Kaufmann, General Counsel During two days in December 2007 a unique meeting of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) occurred in Tel Aviv, Israel. For only the second time in eleven years, Israel was chosen by the OSCE participating States to host the annual Mediterranean Seminar -- a meeting designed to encourage dialogue about, and strategies for, improved cooperation between the OSCE participating States and their Mediterranean Partners for Cooperation -- Algeria, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Morocco and Tunisia. As Special Representative for Mediterranean Affairs of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, Co-Chairman Hastings had worked tirelessly to bring the Partners together in Israel for their annual seminar. Unfortunately, official participation by the Partner States was limited, with only Jordan and Egypt sending representatives to the plenary sessions. However, more than seventy delegates from thirty-five countries attended the seminar and robust participation by NGOs from both sides of the Mediterranean yielded spirited discussion and specific recommendations for future OSCE efforts to combat discrimination. Prior to joining the seminar, the Co-Chairman traveled to Jerusalem for a private meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. The two discussed prospects for negotiations toward a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict following the Annapolis conference, as well as continued threats to Israel’s security including Iran’s ongoing nuclear program. Co-Chairman Hastings also met with Jordanian Ambassador to Israel, Ali Al-Ayed, to discuss his country’s views on the security situation in the region as well as the impact of the massive displacement of Iraqi citizens, including more than a half million who have sought refuge in Jordan. More than 4.7 million Iraqis have been displaced since 2003, including 2 million who have fled to Syria, Jordan and other countries in the region. This is the largest population displacement in the Middle East since 1948. Co-Chairman Hastings has introduced legislation to address this growing humanitarian crisis which provides aid for Jordan and other countries in the region that are hosting Iraqi refugees. The Co-Chairman’s visit also included a briefing by Israel’s Director for relations with the United Nations and International Organizations and a tour of a newly constructed desalination facility in Ashkalon, the largest in the region. Desalination is a critical part of the social and economic infrastructure of the Middle East as it is in the Co-Chairman’s congressional district and the entire State of Florida. Under the broad theme “Combating Intolerance and Discrimination and Promoting Mutual Respect and Understanding,” seminar participants examined such topics as the implementation of OSCE tolerance-related commitments in the participating States and the Mediterranean Partners for Cooperation and lessons learned; promoting respect for cultural and religious diversity and facilitating dialogue; and countering discrimination in the OSCE and Partner states. In his opening remarks to the session on Countering Discrimination in the OSCE Participating States and the Mediterranean Partners for Cooperation, Co-Chairman Hastings pointed out that combating discrimination against individuals because of their race, religion, national origin or gender is a core principle of the Helsinki Process and is essential to stable, productive, democratic societies. “The reality,” said Hastings, “is that none of our societies is immune from the ignorance, indifference or outright hatred that fosters discrimination, intolerance, and ultimately destruction of every sort.” Co-Chairman Hastings noted that hate crimes had increased 8% in the U.S. during 2007 amidst the resurgence of the noose and swastika, unfair equation of Muslims and migrants with terrorism, violent attacks on gays, and the derogatory parodying of minority groups in the media and elsewhere in society. “Elsewhere in the OSCE, the situation is not any better,” he said. “A number of European countries have voted extremist political parties into office that openly espouse xenophobic, racist, and anti-Semitic views in the name of preserving national identity and security.” These scene-setting remarks were followed by presentations from a distinguished panel including Slovenian Ambassador, Mr. Stanislav Rascan, European Commission Ambaassador Mr. Lars Erik Lundin, Israeli lawyer Ms. Gali Etzion and Professor Gert Weisskirchen, a Member of the German Bundestag and Personal Representative of the OSCE Chairman-in-Office on Combating anti-Semitism. Their remarks, and the discussion that followed, focused on combating discrimination through legal measures, including legislative initiatives, as well as implementation by courts; education, in particular for young people; special challenges regarding discrimination against women, including religious laws; and the necessity of continuing dialogue between governments, parliaments and NGOs on ways and means to empower individual citizens. In his closing remarks, Co-Chairman Hastings strongly urged the participants to focus on implementation of anti-discrimination laws and regulations and promotion of civic programs that encourage tolerance. He pointed out that all of us as individuals, and in particular government officials, have an obligation to combat intolerance and discrimination, as well as promote mutual respect and understanding. Hastings also stated his intention to visit all Mediterranean Partner countries within a year in his capacity as Special Representative for Mediterranean Affairs of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly. On May 16, 2008, Co-Chairman Hastings again traveled to Israel, accompanying Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, and other senior Members of Congress to mark Israel’s 60th Anniversary. Co-Chairman Hastings and the delegation met with President Peres, Prime Minister Olmert, Defense Minister Barak and Foreign Minister Livni, as well as with the leaders of the Jewish, Christian and Muslim communities in Jerusalem. The Co-Chairman also accompanied Speaker Pelosi on a side trip to Baghdad where they met with Prime Minister Maliki and the Speaker of the Iraqi Parliament, the Council. December 2008 offered the opportunity for Co-Chairman Hastings to fulfill his promise to the OSCE Mediterranean Partners Seminar and again visit all the Mediterranean Partner countries. The Co-Chairman traveled to Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt and Israel where he met with parliamentarians and senior government officials. Co-Chairman Hastings also met with Jordanian officials in Egypt and expressed his intention to visit Jordan to complete his tour of the region in 2009. For details of the Co-Chairman’s December 2008 visit, see “U.S. Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Alcee L. Hastings Visits OSCE Mediterranean Partners to Advance Regional Cooperation,” Helsinki Commission Digest, Volume 40, Number 34.

  • Helsinki Commission Staff Examine Impact of International Efforts in Kosovo on Human Rights

    By Clifford Bond and Robert Hand Helsinki Commission Staff In early December 2008, Helsinki Commission staff visited Kosovo to review the changing mandates of a wide range of international actors in Kosovo. The visit coincided with the European Union’s deployment of a Rule of Law Mission in Kosovo, known as EULEX, which took place successfully but revealed the potential for regional instability. The Commission staff delegation met with a variety of international and local actors in Pristina, Kosovo’s capital. It traveled to the Visoki Decani, a monastery of the Serbian Orthodox Church where it met with church representatives, and to the nearby town of Peja/Pec where it met with field representatives of the International Civilian Office (ICO) and the OSCE. The delegation also visited both sides of the divided northern city of Mitrovica where it visited displacement camps and the rebuilt neighborhood for the city’s Romani population in addition to other meetings. The International Community Kosovo asserted its independent statehood in February 2008, in the context of the plan put forward by former Finnish President, UN official, and Nobel laureate Martti Ahtisaari. In so doing, Kosovo’s leadership pledged to implement the plan in full, which means accepting international supervision and providing decentralized authority and numerous rights and privileges to the Serb and, to a lesser extent, other minority communities. The Ahtisaari plan, however, assumes agreement by all parties, but Serbia, backed by Russia at the United Nations, refuses to accept the loss of what it considers still to be its province. The United States and most European countries have recognized Kosovo’s independence, but a few European Union members remain either reluctant or strongly against doing so, either due to ties with Serbia or fear of separatist movements within their own borders. Spain was frequently singled out as the one country that not only opposes Kosovo’s independence but seems intent on undermining its recognition by others. Combined with the widespread need for consensus decision-making, most of the international community’s field missions must, to one degree or another, act neutrally on questions of status, to the detriment of their effectiveness and the enormous frustration of Kosovar Albanians who desire that Kosovo’s independence be respected. The EULEX deployment brought these differing perspectives to the fore. In order to obtain an EU-wide agreement, a UN blessing and the acquiescence of Belgrade and local Serbs under Belgrade’s control, a compromise effort known as the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s “6-point plan” was put forward that prompted angry protest among the Kosovar Albanian majority and an official rejection from Pristina. Posters throughout the city proclaimed EULEX to be “Made in Serbia”. After several delays and despite continued ambiguity regarding which government was the actual host, the Mission deployed on December 9 throughout Kosovo, not just in areas under Pristina’s control. That the deployment proceeded smoothly and peacefully was viewed as a success, although ambiguities purposefully placed in its mandate to allow both Albanians and Serbs to maintain their positions, as well as the lack of political oversight and coordination among EULEX’s three areas of responsibility (police, courts and customs), likely mean that EULEX will face additional tests of its resolve in the future. For now, the most noteworthy result of the deployment is the anticipated end of inefficient UNMiK operations, which have come to symbolize the holding pattern in which Kosovo has found itself since 1999. The deployment could also signal a more cooperative tone among Kosovo’s Serbs. In northern Mitrovica and contiguous areas bordering Serbia, there are signs that Belgrade may no longer support more militant and corrupt Kosovo Serb leaders. In the enclaves to the south, where the majority of Kosovo Serbs live, there may also be more room for local accommodation and inter-ethnic cooperation, with questions of status put to the side. Following Serbian elections in May that strengthened pro-democratic and pro-European forces in society, Belgrade seems to want at least more transparency and accountability in the “parallel institutions” it has so far financed, and it may try to reduce its subsidies. It also seems to want to avoid violence, especially any violence that could be blamed on the Serb side. It is unclear how far it will push to assert control and responsibility in light of UNMiK’s dwindling role, or whether it will allow EULEX and eventually the ICO to fill the void. Unfortunately, divisions within the European Union almost invite continued Serbian intransigence. Without being given a clear choice between trying to hold onto Kosovo and achieving European integration, the Serbian Government still plays the “Kosovo card,” which garners popular support at home without any apparent repercussions. The situation on the Kosovar Albanian side is a bit clearer. Despite internal political posturing, there is really little difference within this community when it comes to defending Kosovo’s independence. The deliberations that led the EULEX deployment pushed the Kosovo government about as far as it could go. While the achievement of independence has so far made the Ahtisaari plan worth embracing, many of its provisions relating to Serb communities have been no easy sell, especially in the many localities where nationalism and intolerance continue to prevail. When governments of European countries which have recognized Kosovo’s independence nevertheless treat it as something less than an independent and sovereign state, the Kosovars are naturally outraged and increasingly distrustful. This could be countered somewhat by the establishment of embassies in the capitals of those countries who have thus far recognized Kosovo, particularly in Europe, staffed by competent diplomats in order to ensure that the Kosovo point-of-view is made clear to policy-makers. The United States should also counter European diplomatic tendencies to placate traditional regional powers and treat the new states of Europe as second-class states. In the meantime, as those in government may try to adhere to their Ahtisaari commitments, those in opposition have also been able to capitalize on the situation. This poses a challenge to Kosovo’s shaky democratic institutions, which are still very much in transition. Some have expressed concern that the further development of democratic capacities could be thwarted by the need to meet unpopular international demands. While EULEX moves forward and UNMiK winds down, other international players need to find their role. As one analyst commented, the international community has lost the coherence of its structure and has become a confusing maze to local parties. The International Civilian Office is perhaps the most important, yet vulnerable, of the current players. A creation of the Ahtisaari plan, it is by definition not status neutral, and has a relatively strong mandate to supervise post-status Kosovo. Serb opposition to cooperation with the ICO makes this difficult, but the hesitancy of the status-neutral players to cooperate, coordinate and support the ICO will severely weaken its effectiveness to Kosovo’s long-term detriment. The OSCE Mission in Kosovo, the organization’s largest, is facing even more difficult times. Once known for its solid monitoring of events throughout Kosovo and for developing democratic capacity, the early threat of Belgrade and Moscow to close the Mission cast a shadow over its future and a considerable portion of its personnel have moved to the ICO or otherwise left the OSCE in Kosovo. Mission leadership has also been controversial; while this may have stabilized with a new Head of Mission, the OSCE lost some serious ground. Most interlocutors felt that the Mission is a bit oversized, and needs to focus on core areas such as promoting free media, human rights and inter-ethnic dialogue, where the OSCE has genuine expertise and credibility. KFOR, the NATO-led peacekeeping force, seems to be the one constant of the international presence that garners unquestioned respect and seems prepared to handle whatever instability may lie ahead. It is the acknowledged last resort for providing security, but its presence helps ensure a security baseline that will deter provocations and enhance confidence at the local level. KFOR representatives seem confident that lessons were learned from the violence of 2004 and that greater flexibility across lines of operations, more consistent rules for engagement and an unwillingness to let the particulars of status from getting in its way will be effective in keeping the peace in Kosovo. A Need for Dialogue Many of the problems which exist among both the Kosovar Albanian majority and the Kosovo Serb minority could be resolved through greater dialogue, both within Kosovo and between Belgrade and Pristina. There is some effort to achieve this through civic organizations and religious institutions, as well as business contacts. There is also some interaction in technical areas such as regarding missing persons from the 1998-99 conflict, or in the reconstruction of churches and other religious sites damaged or destroyed in the March 2004 riots. Unfortunately, a suitable venue for direct contact between Belgrade and Pristina needs to be found. Pristina is ready, at least in principle, but Belgrade is not. One area where the Kosovo authorities could act more swiftly, without precondition, and likely to their own long-term benefit, is the resolution of outstanding property claims. The resolution of property claims is a major hindrance to the return of displaced persons, and it holds up legal usage of property even when a return is unlikely. In some cases at least, displaced Serbs and others may only wish to get their property back so they can sell it. While there may be solid reasons for wanting to encourage displaced persons to return to Kosovo -- and some efforts to do this were underway in December – ultimately each individual needs only the opportunity to make a free choice. To do this, those with outstanding property claims need to have their cases resolved. The issue of property claims came up repeatedly in meetings, and seems a greater issue than security and freedom of movement at present. Some hope the EULEX deployment could provide a second chance for property restitutions and returns. Both sides, but especially some Kosovo leaders who formerly fought with the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), could probably also help facilitate the resolution of more missing persons cases, of which just under 2,000 remain. While there has been success in bringing government representatives and surviving family members together under international auspices, local efforts to help locate grave sites appear to be half-hearted, at best. It is unlikely that progress in this area will enhance community reconciliation efforts in any major way, but a positive signal to do more could lead to a broadening of dialogue on other issues. Ultimately, this remains a humanitarian issue that deserves additional effort no matter what. At present, Kosovo authorities seem committed to implementing the Ahtsaari plan in its entirety. Relevant laws have been passed, and those involved in developing local self-government seem committed to implementation. The real test, of course, will come when the Kosovo Serbs decide to respond and engage and are able to do so without worry of retribution from Belgrade. One local analyst noted that developing the necessary trust between the two sides will be a process, and should be taken one step at a time rather than pushed. The Plight of Roma in the North A continual concern to the Helsinki Commission has been the plight of displaced Roma in northern Mitrovica, most of whom fled their original neighborhood, or mahalla, which was destroyed in 1999. Growing criticism of the conditions in the camps, particularly the health hazards caused by lead contamination, finally convinced the international community in 2005 first to establish a temporary relocation facility that was safer and to make a concentrated effort to rebuild housing where the original mahalla in the south was located. Romani families resisted the move, due to warranted lack of trust in the international community and a lack of awareness of how severe the health threat really was. Local Serbian leaders as well as Romani community leaders living elsewhere in Europe, however, originally also did much to discourage the move, both benefiting from a situation in which successful returns did not take place. Commission staff visited the last of the original camps, Cesmin Lug, as well as the new camp adjacent to it, a former KFOR base known as Osterode. They also visited the original mahalla, which had additional apartment buildings and some private houses constructed since the last Commission visit in May 2007. Despite the availability of housing, residents of the camps continue to resist moving, despite continued concerns about health conditions. Local Serbian leaders, who now want the land where Osterode is located, seem no longer to be discouraging the move, and Roma living abroad likewise seem to have less influence on the situation. Security for Roma in the south, once a concern, seems less so now. Those who remain in the camps seem primarily motivated by a continued distrust of the international community as well as lingering hopes for a better offer. The inability of the local economy to provide income, particularly in the south, also plays a significant role, as does the desire to keep children in Serb-run schools, despite being segregated into separate classes. Meanwhile, there is increasing pressure from foreign governments to prioritize the resettling of Kosovo Roma they intend to deport, rather than those displaced in Kosovo and living in camps. It is clear that, while there has been some progress on this issue, a limited set of additional options will need to be considered to resolve the situation, including the possibility of permanent resettlement in the north.

  • 2008 Human Dimension Implementation Meeting

    The OSCE’s 2008 Human Dimension Implementation Meeting offered an opportunity to review compliance on a full range of human rights and humanitarian commitments of the organization’s participating States. Tolerance issues featured prominently in the discussions, which included calls for sustained efforts to combat anti-Semitism and other forms of discrimination. A U.S. proposal for a high-level conference on tolerance issues in 2009, however, met with only tepid support. Core human rights issues, including freedom of speech and freedom of religion, continued to draw large numbers of speakers. Throughout the discussions, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) expressed concern about Kazakhstan’s failure to implement promised reforms and questioned its readiness to serve as OSCE Chair-in-Office in 2010. Greece, slated to assume the chairmanship in January, came under criticism for its treatment of ethnic minorities. As in the past, the United State faced criticism for retaining the death penalty and for its conduct in counter-terrorism operations. Belarusian elections, held on the eve of the HDIM, came in for a round of criticism, while Russia continued to advocate proposals on election observation that would significantly limit the OSCE’s independence in such activities. Finally, discussion of the Russia-Georgia conflict was conspicuous by its near absence, though related human rights and humanitarian concerns will likely receive more prominence in the lead up to and during the December OSCE Ministerial in Helsinki. Background From September 29 to October 10, 2008, the OSCE participating States met in Warsaw, Poland, for the annual(1) Human Dimension Implementation Meeting (HDIM). The HDIM is Europe’s largest human rights gathering, convened to discuss compliance by the participating States with the full range of human dimension commitments they have all adopted by consensus. The meeting was organized by the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), according to an agenda approved by consensus of all 56 participating States. The HDIM is the only multinational human rights meeting in Europe where representatives of NGOs and government representatives have equal access to the speakers list. Indeed, over half of the statements delivered at this year’s HDIM were made by NGO representatives. Such implementation review meetings are intended to serve as the participating States’ principal venue for public diplomacy and are important vehicles for identifying continued areas of poor human rights performance. Although the HDIM is not tasked with decision-making responsibilities, the meetings can provide impetus for further focus on particular human dimension concerns and help shape priorities for subsequent action. Coming in advance of ministerial meetings that are usually held in December, the HDIMs provide an additional opportunity for consultations among the participating States on human dimension issues that may be addressed by Ministers. (This year, for example, there were discussions on the margins regarding a possible Ministerial resolution on equal access to education for Roma and advancing work in the field of tolerance and non-discrimination, including the possibility of convening a related high-level meeting in 2009.) OSCE rules, adopted by consensus, allow NGOs to have access to human dimension meetings. However, this general rule does not apply to “persons and organizations which resort to the use of violence or publicly condone terrorism or the use of violence.”(2) There are no other grounds for exclusion. The decision as to whether or not a particular individual or NGO runs afoul of this rule is made by the Chairman-in-Office. In recent years, some governments have tried to limit or restrict NGO access at OSCE meetings in an effort to avoid scrutiny and criticism of their records. This year, in the run up to the HDIM, Turkmenistan held the draft agenda for the meeting hostage, refusing to give consensus as part of an effort to block the registration of Turkmenistan NGOs which have previously attended the implementation meetings and criticized Ashgabat. Turkmenistan officials finally relented and allowed the adoption of the HDIM agenda in late July, but did not participate in the Warsaw meeting. Along these lines, the Russian delegation walked out in protest when the NGO “Russian-Chechen Friendship Society” took the floor to speak during a session on freedom of the media. At the 2008 HDIM, senior Department of State participants included Ambassador W. Robert Pearson, Head of Delegation; Ambassador Julie Finley, Head of the U.S. Mission to the OSCE; Ambassador Karen Stewart, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor; and Mr. Bruce Turner, Acting Director, Office for European Security and Political Affairs. Mr. Will Inboden, advisor on religious freedom issues, and Mr. Nathan Mick, advisor on Roma issues, served as Public Members. Ms. Felice Gaer, Chair of the U.S. Commission on Religious Freedom, and Mr. Michael Cromartie, Vice Chair, also served as members of the delegation. Helsinki Commission Chief of Staff Fred L. Turner and Senior State Department Advisor Ambassador Clifford Bond also served as members of the U.S. Delegation, along with Helsinki Commission staff members Alex T. Johnson, Ronald J. McNamara, Winsome Packer, Erika B. Schlager, and Dr. Mischa E. Thompson. In comparison with previous HDIMs, the 2008 meeting was relatively subdued – perhaps surprisingly so given that, roughly eight weeks before its opening, Russian tanks had rolled onto Georgian territory. While the full scope of human rights abuses were not known by the time the meeting opened, human rights defenders had already documented serious rights violations, including the targeting of villages in South Ossetia inhabited by ethnic Georgians. Nevertheless, discussion of the Russian-Georgian conflict was largely conspicuous by its near absence. Highlights The annual HDIM agenda provides a soup-to-nuts review of the implementation of core human rights and fundamental freedoms (e.g., freedoms of speech, assembly and association; prevention of torture; right to a fair trial), as well as rule of law, free elections and democracy-building issues. National minorities, Roma, tolerance and non-discrimination are also on the agenda. The United States continued its longstanding practice of naming specific countries and cases of concern. In accordance with OSCE procedures, the agenda included three specially selected topics, each of which was given a full day of review. This year, those subjects were: 1) education and awareness-raising in the promotion of human rights; 2) freedom of religion or belief; and 3) focus on identification, assistance and access to justice for the victims of trafficking. Of the three, the sessions on religious liberty attracted the most speakers with over 50 statements. A large number of side events were also part of the HDIM, organized by non-governmental organizations, OSCE institutions or offices, other international organizations, or participating States. These side events augment implementation review sessions by providing an opportunity to examine specific subjects or countries in greater depth and often with a more lively exchange than in the formal sessions. Along with active participation at these side events, the United States held extensive bilateral meetings with government representatives, as well as with OSCE officials and NGO representatives. At the end of the second week of the HDIM, Human Rights Directors from capitals also held a working meeting to discuss issues of mutual concern, with a special focus on United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325, on women, peace and security. This year, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom also hosted a reception to honor the OSCE Panel of Experts on Freedom of Religion or Belief, as well as the tenth anniversary of the U.S. International Religious Freedom Act and the 60th anniversary of the UN Declaration of Human Rights. Greece, scheduled to assume the chairmanship of the OSCE starting in January 2009, came under particular criticism for its treatment of minorities. Unlike the highly emotional reactions of senior Greek diplomats in Warsaw two years ago, the delegation this year responded to critics by circulating position papers elaborating the Greek government’s views. Greece also responded to U.S. criticism regarding the application of Sharia law to Muslim women in Thrace by stating that Greece is prepared to abolish the application of the Sharia law to members of the Muslim minority in Thrace when this is requested by the interested parties whom it affects directly. Issues relating to the treatment of ethnic, linguistic and religious minorities in the OSCE region are likely to remain an important OSCE focus in the coming period, especially in light of developments in the Caucasus, and it remains to be seen how the Greek chairmanship will address these concerns in light of its own rigid approach to minorities in its domestic policies. Throughout the HDIM, many NGOs continued to express concern about the fitness of Kazakhstan to serve as OSCE Chair-in-Office in 2010 given serious short comings in that country’s human rights record. In particular, Kazakhstan was sharply criticized for a draft religion law (passed by parliament, but not yet adopted into law). One NGO argued that a Kazakhstan chairmanship, with this law in place, would undermine the integrity of the OSCE, and urged participating States to reconsider Kazakhstan for the 2010 leadership position if the law is enacted. Juxtaposing Kazakhstan’s future chairmanship with the possible final passage of a retrograde law on religion, the Almaty Helsinki Committee asked the assembled representatives, “Are human rights still a priority – or not?” (Meanwhile, on October 5, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice visited Kazakhstan.) On the eve of the HDIM, Belarus held elections. Those elections received considerable critical attention during the HDIM’s focus on democratic elections, with the United States and numerous others expressing disappointment that the elections did not meet OSCE commitments, despite promises by senior Belarusian officials that improvements would be forthcoming. Norway and several other speakers voiced particular concern over pressures being placed on ODIHR to circumscribe its election observation activities. Illustrating those pressures, the Russian Federation reiterated elements of a proposal it drafted on election observation that would significantly limit the independence of ODIHR in its election observation work. The Head of the U.S. Delegation noted that an invitation for the OSCE to observe the November elections in the United States was issued early and without conditions as to the size or scope of the observation. (Russia and others have attempted to impose numerical and other limitations on election observation missions undertaken by the ODIHR and the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly.) Tolerance issues featured prominently during discussions this year, as they have at other recent HDIMs. Forty-three interventions were made, forcing the moderator to close the speakers list and requiring presenters to truncate their remarks. Muslim, migrant, and other groups representing visible minorities focused on discrimination in immigration policies, employment, housing, and other sectors, including racial profiling and hate crimes, amidst calls for OSCE countries to improve implementation of existing anti-discrimination laws. Jewish and other NGOs called for sustained efforts to combat anti-Semitism. Representatives of religious communities expressed concern about the confusion made by ODIHR in its Annual Hate Crimes Report between religious liberty issues and intolerance towards members of religious groups. This year, some governments and NGOs elevated their concerns relating to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender persons, increasingly placing these concerns in the context of the OSCE’s focus on hate crimes. A civil society tolerance pre-HDIM meeting and numerous side events were held on a broad range of tolerance-related topics. The United States and several U.S.-based NGOS called for a high-level conference on tolerance issues to be held in 2009. Unlike in prior years, however, no other State echoed this proposal or stepped forward with an offer to host such a high-level conference. In many of the formal implementation review sessions this year, NGOs made reference to specific decisions of the European Court on Human Rights, urging governments to implement judgments handed down in recent cases. During the discussion of issues relating to Roma, NGOs continued to place a strong focus on the situation in Italy, where Roma (and immigrants) have been the target of hate crimes and mob violence. NGOs reminded Italy that, at the OSCE Supplementary Human Dimension Meeting in July, they had urged Italy to come to the HDIM with concrete information regarding the prosecution of individuals for violent attacks against Roma. Regrettably, the Italian delegation was unable to provide any information on prosecutions, fostering the impression that a climate of impunity persists in Italy. As at other OSCE fora, the United States was criticized for retaining the death penalty, contrary to the abolitionist trend among the OSCE participating States. Of the 56 OSCE participating States, 54 have abolished, suspended or imposed a moratorium on the death penalty and only two – the United States and Belarus – continue to impose capital punishment as a criminal sanction. Two side events held during the HDIM also put a spotlight on the United States. The first event was organized by Freedom House and entitled, “Today’s American: How Free?” At this event, Freedom House released a book by the same title which examined “the state of freedom and justice in post-9/11 America.” The second event was a panel discussion on “War on Terror or War on Human Rights?” organized by the American Civil Liberties Union. Speakers from the ACLU, Amnesty International and the Polish Human Rights Foundation largely focused on issues relating to the United States, including the military commission trials at Guantanamo, and official Polish investigations into allegations that Poland (working with the United States) was involved in providing secret prisons for the detention and torture of “high-value” detainees.(3) In a somewhat novel development, Russian Government views were echoed by several like-minded NGOs which raised issues ranging from claims of “genocide” by Georgia in South Ossetia to grievances by ethnic Russians in Latvia and Estonia. Ironically, the Russian delegation, in its closing statement, asserted that this year’s HDIM had an “improved atmosphere” due (it was asserted) to the efforts by both governments and NGOs to find solutions to problems rather than casting blame. As at past HDIMs, some sessions generated such strong interest that the time allotted was insufficient to accommodate all those who wished to contribute to the discussion. For example, the session on freedom of the media was severely constrained, with more than 20 individuals unable to take the floor in the time allotted, and several countries unable to exercise rights of reply. Conversely, some sessions – for example, the session on equal opportunity for men and women, and the session on human dimension activities and projects – had, in terms of unused time available, an embarrassment of riches. Following a general pattern, Turkmenistan was again not present at the HDIM sessions this year.(4) In all, 53 participating States were represented at the meeting. At the closing session, the United States raised issues of particular concern relating to Turkmenistan under the “any other business” agenda item. (This is the sixth year in a row that the United States has made a special statement about the situation in Turkmenistan, a country that some view as having the worst human rights record in the OSCE.) For the past two years, there has been a new government in Turkmenistan. The U.S. statement this year noted some positive changes, but urged the new government to continue the momentum on reform by fully implementing steps it already has begun. In addition, the United States called for information on and access to Turkmenistan’s former representative to the OSCE, Batyr Berdiev. Berdiev, once Turkmenistan’s ambassador to the OSCE, was reportedly among the large number of people arrested following an attack on then-President Niyazov’s motorcade in 2002. His fate and whereabouts remain unknown. OSCE PA President João Soares addressed the closing plenary, the most senior Assembly official to participate in an HDIM meeting. The Russian-Georgian Conflict With the outbreak of armed violence between Russia and Georgia occurring only two months earlier, the war in South Ossetia would have seemed a natural subject for discussion during the HDIM. As a human rights forum, the meeting was unlikely to serve as a venue to debate the origins of the conflict, but there were expectations that participants would engage in a meaningful discussion of the human dimension of the tragedy and efforts to stem ongoing rights violations. As it turned out, this view was not widely shared by many of the governments and NGOs participating in the meeting. The opening plenary session foreshadowed the approach to this subject followed through most of the meeting. Among the senior OSCE officials, only High Commissioner on National Minorities Knut Vollebaek squarely addressed the situation in the south Caucasus. Vollebaek condemned the19th century-style politicization of national minority issues in the region and the violation of international borders. At the time of the crisis, he had cautioned against the practice of “conferring citizenship en masse to residents of other States” (a reference to Russian actions in South Ossetia) and warned that “the presence of one's citizens or ‘ethnic kin’ abroad must not be used as a justification for undermining the sovereignty and territorial integrity of other States.” Sadly, that sound advice went unobserved in Georgia, but it is still applicable elsewhere in the OSCE region.(5) The statement delivered by France on behalf of the countries of the European Union failed to address the conflict. During the plenary, only Norway and Switzerland joined the United States in raising humanitarian concerns stemming from the conflict. In reply, the head of the Russian delegation delivered a tough statement which sidestepped humanitarian concerns, declaring that discussion of Georgia’s territorial integrity was now “irrelevant.” He called on participating States to adopt a pragmatic approach and urged acknowledgment of the creation of the new sovereign states of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, terming their independence “irreversible” and “irrevocable.” Perhaps more surprising than this Russian bluster was the failure of any major NGO, including those who had been active in the conflict zone collecting information and working on humanitarian relief, to take advantage of the opportunity to raise the issue of South Ossetia during the opening plenary. As the HDIM moved into its working sessions, which cover the principal OSCE human dimension commitments, coverage of the conflict fared better. The Representative on Freedom of the Media remarked, in opening the session on free speech and freedom of the media that, for the first time in some years, two OSCE participating States were at war. During that session, he and other speakers called on the Russian Federation to permit independent media access to occupied areas to investigate the charges and counter-charges of genocide and ethnic cleansing. The tolerance discussion included calls by several delegations for Russia to cooperate and respond favorably to the HCNM’s request for access to South Ossetia to investigate the human rights situation in that part of Georgia. Disappointingly, during the session devoted to humanitarian commitments, several statements, including those of the ODHIR moderator and EU spokesperson, focused narrowly on labor conditions and migration, and failed to raise concerns regarding refugees and displaced persons, normally a major focus of this agenda item and obviously relevant to the Georgia crisis. Nevertheless, the session developed into one of the more animated at the HDIM. The Georgian delegation, which had been silent up to that point, spoke out against Russian aggression and alleged numerous human rights abuses. It expressed gratitude to the European Union for sending monitors to the conflict zone and urged the EU to pressure Russia to fully implement the Six-Point Ceasefire agreement negotiated by French President Sarkozy. The United States joined several delegations and NGOs calling on all parties to the conflict to observe their international obligations to protect refugees and create conditions for their security and safe voluntary return. In a pattern observed throughout the meeting, the Russian delegation did not respond to Georgian charges. It left it to an NGO, “Ossetia Accuses,” to make Russia’s case that Georgia had committed genocide against the people of South Ossetia. A common theme among many interventions was a call for an independent investigation of the causes of the conflict and a better monitoring of the plight of refugees, but to date Russian and South Ossetian authorities have denied both peacekeeping monitors and international journalists access to the region from elsewhere in Georgia. A joint assessment mission of experts from ODIHR and the HCNM, undertaken in mid-October, were initially denied access to South Ossetia, with limited access to Abkhazia granted to some team members. Eventually, several experts did gain access to the conflict zone in South Ossetia, though to accomplish this they had to travel from the north via the Russian Federation. One can only speculate why Georgia received such limited treatment at this HDIM. The crisis in the south Caucasus had dominated OSCE discussions at the Permanent Council in Vienna for weeks preceding the HDIM. Some participants may have feared that addressing it in Warsaw might have crowded out the broader human rights agenda. Others may have felt that, in the absence of a clear picture of the circumstances surrounding the conflict and with so many unanswered questions, it was best not to be too critical or too accusatory of either party. The EU (and particularly the French) were, at the time of the HDIM, in the process of negotiating the deployment of European observers to the conflict zone, and may have feared that criticism of Russia at this forum would have only complicated the task. In fact, the EU’s only oblique reference to Georgia was made at HDIM’s penultimate working session (a discussion which focused on human dimension “project activity”) in connection with the work of High Commissioner for National Minorities. (One observer of this session remarked that there seemed to be a greater stomach for dinging the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights for shortcomings in its work than for criticizing Russia for invading a neighboring OSCE participating State.) Finally, other participants, particularly NGOs, seemed more inclined to view human rights narrowly in terms of how governments treat their own citizens and not in terms of how the failure to respect key principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity are invariably accompanied by gross violations of human rights and can produce humanitarian disasters. Amid simmering tensions between Russia and Georgia which could erupt into renewed fighting, and completion of a report requested by the Finnish Chairmanship in time for the OSCE’s Ministerial in Helsinki in early December, Ministers will have to grapple with the impact of the south Caucasus conflict and what role the OSCE will have. Beyond Warsaw The relative quiet of the HDIM notwithstanding, French President M. Nicolas Sarkozy put a spotlight on OSCE issues during the course of the meeting. Speaking at a conference in Evian, France, on October 8, he responded to a call by Russian President Dmitri Medvedev, issued in June during meetings with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, for a new “European Security Treaty” to revise Europe’s security architecture – a move seen by many as an attempt to rein in existing regional security organizations, including NATO and the OSCE. President Sarkozy indicated a willingness to discuss Medvedev’s ideas, but argued they should be addressed in the context of a special OSCE summit, which Sarkozy suggested could be held in 2009. The escalating global economic crisis was also very much on the minds of participants at the HDIM as daily reports of faltering financial institutions, plummeting markets, and capital flight promoted concerns over implications for the human dimension. Several delegations voiced particular concern over the possible adverse impact on foreign workers and those depending on remittances to make ends meet. Looking Ahead The human rights and humanitarian concerns stemming from the war in South Ossetia will likely come into sharper focus in the lead up to the December OSCE Ministerial in Helsinki as talks on the conflict resume in Geneva, and OSCE and other experts attempt to document the circumstances surrounding the outbreak of fighting and current conditions. The coming weeks can also be expected to bring renewed calls for an overhaul of the human dimension and the ODIHR by those seeking to curb attention paid to human rights and subordinate election monitoring activities. It remains to be seen whether Kazakhstan will fulfill the commitments it made a year ago in Madrid to undertake meaningful reforms by the end of this year. There is also the risk that a deepening economic crisis will divert attention elsewhere, even as the resulting fallout in the human dimension begins to manifest itself. It is unclear what priorities the Greek chairmanship will be set for 2009, a year that portends peril and promise. Notes (1) OSCE Human Dimension Implementation Meetings are held every year, unless there is a Summit. Summits of Heads of State or Government are preceded by Review Conferences, which are mandated to review implementation of all OSCE commitments in all areas (military-security, economic and environmental cooperation, and the human dimension). (2) Helsinki Document 1992, The Challenges of Change, IV (16). (3) Interestingly, at the session on human rights and counterterrorism, moderator Zbigniew Lasocik, member of the United Nations Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture, noted that Poland’s Constitutional Court had, the previous day, struck down a 2004 law that purported to allow the military to shoot down hijacked commercial aircraft – even if they were being used as weapons like the planes that killed thousands of people on 9/11. The Court reportedly reasoned that shooting down an aircraft being used as bomb would infringe on the constitutional protection of human life and dignity of the passengers. (4) Turkmenistan sent a representative to the HDIM in 2005 for the first time in several years. While responding to criticism delivered in the sessions, the representative appeared to focus more on monitoring the activities of Turkmen NGOs participating in the meeting. Turkmenistan subsequently complained that certain individuals who had been charged with crimes against the State should not be allowed to participate in OSCE meetings. Turkmenistan officials did not participate in the 2006 or 2007 HDIMs. Participation in the 2008 meeting would have been a welcome signal regarding current political developments. (5) The HCNM had previously expressed concern regarding Hungary’s overreach vis-a-vis ethnic Hungarian minorities in neighboring countries. In 2004, Hungary held a referendum on extending Hungarian citizenship to ethnic Hungarians abroad – an idea that still holds political currency in some quarters of Hungary – but the referendum failed due to low voter turnout.

  • The Museum of the History of Polish Jews

    Witnesses in this hearing spoke about their vision for the Museum of the History of Polish Jews, its mission, and what it means for Poland – a country that was once home to one of the largest Jewish communities in the world. The witnesses also highlighted the major significance the museum has for Poland and its post-war identity.

  • Human Rights, Civil Society, and Democratic Governance in Russia: Current Situation and Prospects for the Future

    This hearing, chaired by Helsinki Commission Chairman Hon. Sam Brownback and Ranking Member the Hon. Benjamin Cardin, focused on the tumoltuous developement of human right in Russia. For the past few years, a series of events in Russia has given cause for concern about the fate of human rights, civil society, and democratic governance in that country. Of particular concern is the recent promulgation of a law establishing greater governmental control over NGOs and an attempt by the Russian secret services to link prominent Russian NGOs with foreign intelligence services. Newsweek International wrote in its February 6, 2006 issue: “The Russian secret service is acting more and more like the old KGB.” At the same time, the Russian Federation accedes this year to the chairmanship of the Group of Eight Industrialized Nations (G-8), and will chair the Council of Europe Committee of Ministers beginning in May 2006.  

  • Continuing the Fight: Combating Intolerance and Discrimination against Muslims

    By Mischa Thompson, PhD, Staff Advisor The Cordoba conference was the first OSCE event to solely focus on the experiences of intolerance and discrimination against Muslim communities within the OSCE. Despite concerns that the conference took place during Ramadan and was primarily planned by the Spanish Chair-in-Office (CiO), the event offered an important forum for highlighting and addressing a range of concerns from both OSCE Participating States and the Muslim community. While questions of what form OSCE follow-up efforts will take remain, the need for such a conference was underscored by the multitude of concerns raised at the conference as well as current events highlighting existing tensions between Muslim and non-Muslim communities within and between OSCE Participating States. With estimates of 20 million Muslims in Western Europe and 14-23 million Muslims in Russia, Muslims are often cited as the largest religious minority in Europe and Islam as the fastest growing religion. Spain, in particular is experiencing an unprecedented growth in its immigrant population with the majority being Muslims. While Muslim communities’ experiences of prejudice and discrimination within many parts of the OSCE are not new, following the terrorist attacks in Madrid, London, and the United States, many participating States have increased their focus on the Muslim community amidst security and immigration concerns. In this context, the conference was planned by the Spanish CiO to address the historical and contemporary causes and consequences of intolerance against Muslims and the use of media, education, and other strategies to address the problem. In particular, five themes dominated the discussions: “Islamophobia”: Participants were concerned by the use of the term Islamophobia, which currently describes attitudes and behaviours ranging from hate crimes to housing discrimination and has led to unclear and inconsistent use. Several participants noted that the term leads all problems experienced by Muslims to be viewed as religious based, when race, culture, and socio-economic factors have also been cited as reasons for tensions and problems. Notably, the Holy See cautioned against only religious approaches and argued for increased attention on migration and culture. Gender equality: Participants raised concerns that gender equality issues were often confined to discussions about forced marriages, honor killings, and head scarves and other dress, while ignoring everyday experiences of discrimination, for example in employment. It was suggested that Muslim women were often politicized to exacerbate differences between Muslims and others, but often did not actually address the realities of Muslim women or serve to benefit them. Integration: Many Participating States highlighted changes to or the creation of integration policies and programs to address concerns voiced by Muslim communities. Several civil society groups noted that some of these efforts did not address: 1) the issues of xenophobia and racism exhibited by hate crimes and employment and housing discrimination that target even ‘integrated’ immigrants – i.e., those who are citizens, speak the language, hold college degrees, etc. and 2) that some of these policies were inherently discriminatory in that they only applied to Muslims and not other migrant populations. It was stressed that integration and discrimination policies be discussed together and that Muslim populations be able to participate in the decision-making process of the development of these policies in some capacity. Stereotypes: Concerns surrounding monolithic image of Muslims, such as all women wearing head scarves and all men being terrorist were highlighted. Mechanisms for addressing these stereotypes included ensuring that school textbooks accurately reflect the history of migration and Islam and Muslims in the world, especially in cases where religion is taught in schools. ‘Cultural competence’ and other diversity or sensitivity training for teachers and media was suggested. Several speakers suggested that aims to utilize “moderate Muslims” for public platforms had the potential to backfire by not being seen by Muslims as ‘true representatives’ and also serving to reinforce a non-existent, yet stereotypical dichotomy between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ Islam. Hate Speech: The need to strike a balance between protecting freedom of speech and the protection of vulnerable groups and individuals was discussed. Despite calls for defamation of religion laws, it was generally recommended that publicly speaking out and unequivocally condemning intolerant speech, not legislating against it, was the best response. Self-regulation, codes of conduct, internet monitoring and training for the media and other sectors of society, including the positive involvement of political leaders, was discussed as a means to best counter hate speech. The Conference ended with a declaration drafted by the Spanish CiO, which: reaffirmed that racism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, discrimination against Christians, and discrimination against Muslims, are against the core OSCE commitments, offered support for the three Personal Representatives, and, called upon the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) to strengthen the work of its Tolerance and Non-Discrimination Program on intolerance and discrimination against Muslims. The conference was preceded by a one-day Civil Society Preparatory Meeting hosted by the Spanish CiO with the goal of providing NGOs with an opportunity to prepare recommendations to be presented to the Cordoba conference. Of great concern were allegations that the Spanish CiO attempted to restrict the participation of NGOs in the preparatory meeting and at the Cordoba conference at a time when human rights defenders have increasingly been under attack within the OSCE. Generally, because there was such interest by participating States to speak during the opening sessions of the conference, there was little time to adequately discuss solutions to many of the issues on the Cordoba Conference agenda. While this suggests the need for a follow-up OSCE conference as proposed by the OSCE Mediterranean Partner, Algeria, few participating States explicitly outlined whether and how the OSCE should implement efforts discussed at the conference. Further consideration should therefore be given for ways to ensure the expeditious implementation of mechanisms that combat intolerance towards Muslims within the OSCE. This assertion was underscored one week later at a University of Michigan conference entitled, “Islamophobia/Islamophilia: Beyond the Politics of Enemy and Friend” where Muslim and non-Muslim scholars from around the world addressed the global security implications and human rights concerns associated with not successfully combating prejudice and discrimination against Muslims and mischaracterizations of Islam.

  • Remarks of Rep. Chris Smith to OSCE Conference on Promoting Tolerance Closing Plenary Session, Bucharest, Romania

    On behalf of the United States delegation, I would like to thank our Romanian hosts and you, the ministers, ambassadors, NGOs and my fellow delegates for engaging in a discussion of how to combat anti-Semitism and other forms of intolerance in the OSCE. Let me also commend the Romanian Foreign Minister, Mr. Adrian Cioroianu for proposing to host a regional anti-Semitism meeting. That is a magnificent gesture from Romania. On a more personal note, it is deeply gratifying for me, as a Congressman for 27 years who has focused on defending human rights, to see the representatives of so many OSCE States gathered here to reaffirm their commitment to combating intolerance. I was, to steal a phrase from former American Secretary of State Dean Acheson, “present at the creation” of this series of conferences. I remember when, at a hearing I chaired in 2002, in response to what appeared to be a sudden, frightening spike in anti-Semitism in some OSCE countries, including my own, we first proposed the idea for an OSCE conference on combating anti-Semitism. Dr. Samuels of the Wiesenthal Center in Paris testified at that hearing and said, “The Holocaust for 30 years after the war acted as a protective Teflon against blatant ant-Semitic expression. That Teflon has eroded, and what was considered distasteful and politically incorrect is becoming simply an opinion. But,” he quickly warned, “cocktail chatter at fine English dinners can end as Molotov cocktails against synagogues.” Convinced we had an escalating crisis on our hands, the U.S. teamed with several OSCE partners—especially Gert Weisskirchen from Germany—to push for action and reform. Those efforts led to Vienna, Berlin, Cordoba, and to Bucharest today. From the start, before any conference had even taken place, there were colleagues who thought the struggle against anti-Semitism should be folded into a more general effort against intolerance. Well-meaning as that might seem, it would have diluted our focus and resolve. Let’s be frank. Anti-semitism is a particularly insidious form of hate that has had horrific consequences, including genocide. In the span of human history, the Holocaust was yesterday. So I believe we did the wiser thing. We launched a new struggle against anti-Semitism, and a concurrent battle against other specific forms of intolerance such as discrimination against Muslims, Christians, members of other religions, and against racism, xenophobia, and other related forms of discrimination. We have moved ahead on all these issues. Those of us who helped birth the Vienna and Berlin conferences certainly never meant to restrict the OSCE’s field of concern. But we did believe that the OSCE should put and sustain a special emphasis on anti-Semitism. We believed that anti-Semitism is a unique evil, a distinct form of intolerance, the oldest form of religious bigotry, and a malignant disease of the heart that has very often led to murder. Next a brief word on implementation. In each of the conferences OSCE Participating States have made solemn, tangible commitments to put our words into action. Although in some countries progress has been made, anti-Semitic acts have not abated in others, and in some nations has actually gotten worse. So the United States welcomes the OSCE commitment to focus on individual problems and tailor responses to their specificity. This approach is reflected in the mandates of the three personal representatives and we call on more states to support and cooperate with their efforts to put increased muscle behind combating these problems. We welcome and encourage the continuation of ODIHR programs to develop curricula on teaching about the Holocaust, assisting States to enact hate crime legislation, to train prosecutors and police, especially peer-to-peer like the law enforcement officers program. And we should convene follow-up expert meetings and another implementation meeting in 2009. We can't allow human rights fatigue and indifference to set in. Finally, each of us knows we can and must do better. For our part, let me assure you that the members of the U.S. delegation will return home with fresh enthusiasm, commitment and resolve to eradicate the scourge of hate. We return home to insist that the purveyors of criminal acts of hate be vigorously pursued and prosecuted. Prosecutorial discretion is a wonderful concept in the administration of justice but our society is ill served when law enforcement looks the other way at anti-Semitic hate crimes. And we return with an urgent mission to expand Holocaust education and remembrance so that the words, “never again” finally have meaning, and to educate both young and old alike that human rights and tolerance are not fanciful words, but the only way a civilized, compassionate, and caring society can survive and prosper.

  • Religious Community Bulldozed in Kazakhstan

    Today I express my deep concern about the destruction of thirteen homes in a Hare Krishna commune outside of Almaty, Kazakhstan. It is a saddening development considering that Kazakhstan is a participating State in the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and has been vigorously pursuing a bid to chair the OSCE in 2009. I am greatly troubled by the actions taken against this peaceful religious community, which is reminiscent of the “bad old days.”  On November 21, 13 Hare Krishna homes were destroyed in the Sri Vrindavan Dham commune in the village of Seleksia, 25 miles from Almaty. Orders to bulldoze the homes reportedly came from the Karasai District Court, giving the residents only 24-hours’ notice to gather all their possessions. When the bulldozers arrived, they came under the escort and supervision of riot police. The belongings of some who refused to leave were thrown out in the snow, and their furniture and larger household items taken away to be destroyed. Families were left without a home and many others left without water and electricity in the cold of winter.  More damage could still be done – 53 more homes (one of which houses a temple) could be demolished and their 116-acre communal farm could be seized. Making this outrage all the more disturbing, the Karasai District Court reportedly announced that it will charge the community for the demolition expenses! I appreciate the strong statement issued by the U.S. Embassy in Astana urging Karasai district authorities to “refrain from any further aggressive actions.”  The conflict over the commune has steadily intensified since a regional court ruled in March to confiscate the farm without compensation. A special government commission was established in response to international criticism to negotiate with the Hare Krishnas, but this process was short-circuited when the bulldozers revved up. Authorities justify these heartless actions by citing legal problems with the purchase of the farm by Hare Krishna’s in 1999, but most observers believe this is nothing more than a land grab dressed up as a legal proceeding.  Despite Kazakhstan’s positive reputation for religious tolerance, I have been concerned by governmental actions against minority religious communities, such as the heavy fines (and sometimes arrests) during the past six months against Baptist ministers representing unregistered congregations. Also worrisome are increasingly harsh government policies toward Muslims who practice their faith independent of the government-controlled Muftiate. While President Nazarbayev’s initiative to bring world religions together to promote tolerance is laudable, his government’s harsh treatment of small and independent groups displays a sad absence of tolerance.  In short, I do not believe these actions befit a country that would be a leader of nations. I urge President Nazarbayev and the Government of Kazakhstan to end these practices, withdraw the court cases to seize the Hare Krishna’s land, and ensure that all individuals are compensated for their lost property.

  • Southeastern Europe: Moving from Ethnic Cleansing and Genocide to Euro-Atlantic Integration

    When I was appointed Chairman of the Helsinki Commission in early 1995, Mr. Speaker, the U.S. foreign policy establishment and its European counterparts were seized by a genocidal conflict of aggression against Bosnia-Herzegovina. Many here in the Congress were already deeply involved in bipartisan efforts to end the conflict by urging a decisive, international response under U.S. leadership. I can still recall the sense of horror, outrage and shame when the Srebrenica massacre occurred and nothing was done to stop it and other atrocities committed against civilians. Slobodan Milosevic, meanwhile, was comfortably entrenched as Serbia’s leader, with Kosovo under his repressive thumb. The situation was truly bleak.  Today, relative calm prevails throughout the Balkans region, though simmering tensions and other serious problems could lead to renewed crisis and conflict, if left unchecked. Overcoming the legacy of the past and restoring dignity and ensuring justice for the victims will require sustained engagement and vigilance. Integrating the countries of the region into European institutions can advance this process.  Slovenia has become a full-fledged member of both NATO and the European Union. Croatia is well on its way to similar membership, and Macedonia and Albania are making steady progress in the right direction. In a welcome development, Bosnia-Herzegovina, the epicenter of bloody carnage and mass displacement in the mid-1990s, was invited last week to participate in NATO’s Partnership for Peace Program, along with Serbia and the newly independent state of Montenegro.  As a longstanding member and leader of the Helsinki Commission, I want to highlight some of the numerous initiatives we have undertaken in an attempt to draw attention to developments in the Balkans and to influence related policy. Since 1995, we have convened more than 20 hearings on specific aspects of the region as well as related briefings, legislation, letters, statements and meetings. These efforts have been undertaken with an uncommon degree of bipartisanship. In this regard, I particularly want to thank the Commission’s outgoing Ranking Member, Mr. Cardin of Maryland, for helping to make this a reality. Among the Commission’s most noteworthy accomplishments, I would include garnering the strong support that contributed to the establishment of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia and pressing countries to cooperate in bringing those responsible for war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide to justice. I would include the change in U.S. policy from relying on Milosevic to implement the Dayton Agreement to supporting democracy in Serbia as the long-term and genuine partner in building regional peace and stability.  We have maintained a significant focus on elections, encouraging all the countries in the region to strive to meet international standards for free and fair elections as well as referenda. There has been tremendous progress in this regard.  The Commission’s support for the OSCE, I believe, has helped the organization’s field activities in southeastern Europe to be more successful in promoting respect for the human rights and fundamental freedoms of all the people, regardless of ethnicity. Finally, on the more controversial policy of NATO’s action against Serbia in 1999, the Commission served as a forum to air differing views on the policy response while finding common ground in addressing the humanitarian crises, documenting human rights abuses and holding human rights violators to account.  Mr. Speaker, while welcoming this progress in southeastern Europe, I would caution against complacency as the region faces significant challenges. Maintaining positive momentum will require much from actors in the region as well as the international community, including the United States.  First and foremost is the situation in Kosovo. The pending decisions that will be made on Kosovo’s status give rise to growing expectation as well as apprehension and concern. Despite the many debates on larger issues of sovereignty, territorial integrity and self-determination, these decisions should and will ultimately be judged by whether or not they lead to improved respect for human rights, especially the rights of those people belonging to the Serb, Roma and other minority communities in Kosovo. The members of the minority communities deserve to be treated as people, not as pawns in a fight over territory and power. They should be allowed to integrate rather than remain isolated, and they should not be discouraged from integration when opportunities arise. I remain deeply concerned that these issues are not being given the attention they deserve. Whatever Kosovo becomes, OSCE and other international human rights standards must apply.  Similarly, there is a need to ensure that justice is vigorously pursued for the victims of horrendous human rights violations. Conditionality on assistance to Serbia, as well as on that country’s integration, must remain firmly in place until Belgrade cooperates fully in locating at-large indicted war criminals and facilitating their transfer to the ICTY in The Hague. It is an outrage that Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic remain at large. After refusing to take meaningful action on these cases, Serbia cannot be let off the hook now, but should be pressed to comply with its international obligations.  A related issue is that of missing persons. Ten years after Dayton, additional mass graves continued to be uncovered, and the identification of the remains of relatives and loved ones is important for the survivors of past atrocities and their societies. The Commission recently held a briefing on identifying remains found in mass graves in Bosnia, and I hope that support for determining the fate of missing persons can be further strengthened.  While some progress has been made in combating trafficking in persons in the region, all countries there need to intensify their efforts to end this modern-day form of slavery. Political will and adequate resources will be required, including through enhanced efforts by law enforcement and more vigorous prosecution of traffickers while providing protection for their victims.  Religious freedoms also remain a cause for concern. Various laws in the region allegedly providing for religious freedom do more to restrict this fundamental right by establishing thresholds for registration, by discriminating against small or new religious groups through tiers of recognition with associated privileges for traditional faiths, and by precluding the sharing of creeds or limiting free speech. These restrictions are particularly burdensome to smaller religious groups and can lead to stigmatization, harassment, and discrimination against their members. For instance, Kosovo’s new religion law singles out certain communities for special status while failing to address how other religious groups can obtain juridical personality as a religious organization, thereby creating a significant legal void from the start. I urge Kosovo authorities to follow the progressive Albanian system and create a neutral registration system of general applicability. Macedonia is considering a draft law now, and I hope authorities will fully adopt the recommendations of the OSCE Panel of Experts on Religious Freedom, as certain provisions of the draft regarding the granting of legal personality need additional refinement. I similarly call on Serbian officials to amend their current law and ensure all groups seeking registration receive legal status. Meanwhile, there is a need to step up efforts to respect the sanctity and ensure the safety of places of worship that have in the past been the targets of ethnically-based violence in Kosovo, Bosnia, Serbia and elsewhere.  Mr. Speaker, concerted efforts by courageous leaders in the Balkans and elsewhere have helped move the region from the edge of the abyss to the threshold for a brighter and more prosperous future. I congratulate the countries of southeastern Europe on the progress achieved thus far and encourage them to make further progress to ensure that all of the people of the region benefit.

  • Statement on Religious Freedom in Central Asia at the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly

    Central Asia remains a region with one of the worst record on religious freedom, and Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan are the two most repressive regimes in the entire OSCE region. I therefore want to thank Christian Solidarity Worldwide and the Open Society Institute for holding this event to shine a light on these two countries. I also want to say it’s a pleasure to be here today with Kimmo Kiljunen, my colleague from the Finish delegation. The U.S. Helsinki Commission, of which I am a part, has actively engaged all five “Stans,” and especially these two. With Uzbekistan, despite accepting OSCE commitments to the contrary, the Karimov regime continues its policies of prohibiting unregistered religious activities, jailing thousands of Muslims, and prohibiting the ability of individuals to share their beliefs. Since the Andijon killings last May, the regime has clamped down even harder on all freedoms, but especially religious liberties. Reports indicate that twelve churches have since been stripped of registration, thus making any religious activity “illegal” and subject to significant penalties. There is even concern that a pastor in Andijon may be sentenced to up to 10-20 years in jail for his church work, forcing him to flee the country. The suppression of independent Muslim activity continues unabated, with Forum 18 now reporting that authorities are attempting to stop Muslim schoolchildren from attending mosques. The United States has always recognized that Uzbekistan faces real threats from extremists operating behind the guise of religion and our efforts to urge moderation should never be construed as supporting their ideology or activities. While the tragic events in Andijon were not specifically related to religious freedoms, the spark that ignited the protests was the over zealous prosecution of an Islamic sect. I will therefore continue to urge Uzbekistan to bring its policies into conformity with its OSCE commitments on religious liberties and allow the free practice of religion for all. However, due to the deteriorating conditions for religious freedom, I also believe that sanctions under the International Religious Freedom Act, passed by the Congress in 1998, should also be considered by the State Department. In neighboring Turkmenistan, the Niyazov regime continues to limit the abilities of its citizens to fully enjoy their religious liberties. The recent arrest of local human rights defenders and their relatives on the eve of a European Parliament delegation visit graphically demonstrates the repressive and paranoid nature of the Niyazov regime. Despite some modifications in their laws regulating religious practice, Turkmenistan continues to prohibit unregistered religious activities and to harass both registered and unregistered communities. Independent Muslim and evangelical groups, the Russian Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church all continue to experience problems in obtaining registration and operating freely. The former grand mufti also remains jailed. I will continue to raise with Turkmen officials the need to end the ban on unregistered religious activity, to register all groups so desiring, and to end the harassment of all communities. Although there have been some modest reforms in the past, if Turkmenistan doesn’t restart the reform process, I also believe that sanctions under the International Religious Freedom Act may be warranted. Although this event focuses on religious freedom in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, I do want to comment on a current development in Kazakhstan regarding media freedoms. Kazakhstan does have a better record on religious freedom than these two other countries. However, I was very disappointed that President Nazarbaev signed into law yesterday a very problematic bill that could severely limit freedom of expression. Some of the troubling aspects of the new law include that it reportedly doubles the number of grounds on which authorities may deny a media outlet registration; creates unduly restrictive registration procedures for new media outlets and re-registration procedures for existing media companies; and provides authorities with further opportunities to censor critical media. Considering the criticism the bill received from international and domestic media groups, and considering that Kazakhstan wishes to chair the OSCE in 2009, I am distressed that the President would sign this flawed law into force. I therefore urge the Government of Kazakhstan to revise the new law to ensure that OSCE norms on media freedom are fully respected. In closing, I want to thank CSW and OSI for convening this event and I look forward to working with you all in the future. By working together, we can hopefully motivate Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan to moderate their oppressive policies towards religious freedom.

  • Belgium’s Chairmanship of the OSCE

    The Belgian Government assumed Chairmanship of the OSCE in January 2006.  The first half of 2006 saw a number of developments within, and adjacent to, the OSCE region that formed the focus of the hearing.  Among the issues addressed were developments in Central Asia and neighboring Afghanistan, the emergence of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, the political situation in the Caucasus, and human rights trends in the Russian Federation.  Commissioners also focused on OSCE democracy-promotion work, with a special emphasis on election monitoring, programs to combat anti-Semitism and other forms of intolerance, and initiatives aimed at promoting greater international cooperation to curtail human trafficking and child pornography.

  • Human Rights, Democracy, and Integration in South Central Europe

    The hearing, led by the Hon. Christopher H. Smith,  the Hon. Sam Brownback , and the Hon. Benjamin L. Cardin, focused primarily on the legal restrictions on religious activities and other attacks on religious freedom, lagging efforts to combat trafficking in persons, discrimination and violence against Roma, and the prevalence of official corruption and organized crime. The efforts to encourage Bosnia-Herzegovina to move beyond the limitations imposed by the Dayton Peace Agreement will be discussed. Further, the plight of the displaced and minority communities of Kosovo, and the need for Serbia to cooperate fully with the International Criminal Tribunal will also be covered.   

  • Statement on Human Rights in Central Asia at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

    First, let me thank the organizers of this conference for inviting me to speak.  I applaud the co-sponsors for putting together this timely and sober gathering to mark the one-year anniversary of the Andijon events. I won’t bother talking to this audience about the human rights situation in Central Asia.  The State Department’s annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices routinely characterize the human rights observance in each country as “poor.”   Some non-governmental organizations (NGOs) here today probably consider that too lenient, and I agree with them.   It’s not surprising that countries which emerged from 70 years of communism should have difficulties creating rule of law states.  But after 15 years of independence we should be seeing some separation of powers and a strong civil society.  Instead, we see “super-presidents,” who have overwhelmed legislatures and judicial systems.  Several have been in power for about 20 years, after rigged or canceled elections.  “Royal families” control the most lucrative sectors of the economy and the media. Of course, newspapers in Kazakhstan have more leeway than in Uzbekistan or Turkmenistan.  But even in Kazakhstan, reports on presidential misdeeds are taboo.    Only in Kyrgyzstan do we see a freer media and hope of more in the future.  And only in Kyrgyzstan is the president’s relationship with the other branches of power not yet set in a pattern of executive branch dominance.  Yet a Tulip Revolution was necessary last year to bring about change in Kyrgyzstan, which raises serious questions about prospects for evolutionary development toward democracy in Central Asia.   This brings us to Uzbekistan.  No Central Asian country worked harder during the last 15 years to develop good strategic relations with Washington and to counterbalance residual Russian influence. But the country’s terrible human rights record complicated the development of a closer relationship.  President Islam Karimov allows no opposition, torture is pervasive, for years human rights groups were unregistered, and Tashkent has waged war against Muslims who wanted to practice their faith outside state-approved channels.    Now, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan is a terrorist group affiliated with al-Qaeda, and Hizb-ut-Tahrir is virulently anti-Western and anti-Semitic.  But Karimov’s exclusive reliance on repression only exacerbates matters and has probably supplied cadres for radical and terrorist organizations.   After September 11, 2001, we needed Uzbekistan’s cooperation and Karimov was delighted to help.  Uzbekistan gave us a military base and the March 2002 agreement on strategic cooperation was signed in Washington.  We agreed to support Uzbekistan, and Uzbekistan pledged to move towards democracy. But Karimov only implemented the democratization commitments just enough for Tashkent and Washington to point to “progress.” Gradually, frustration grew on both sides.  It was just a matter of time before the arrangement collapsed.   People often date the breakdown of U.S.-Uzbek relations to the events that happened in Andijon on May 12 and 13, 2005. We did not condone the violent takeover of government buildings in that city.  But we condemned the indiscriminate shootings in the square that followed and when we called for an independent, international investigation, Karimov balked.    As we all know, he began to move against U.S. NGOs.  Few remain in Uzbekistan today.  Then we were unceremoniously booted out of the K-2 base.  But ties had actually soured long before, because Karimov saw the Stars and Stripes behind the Georgian, Ukrainian and Kyrgyz revolutions. Most alarming for Tashkent was the Tulip Revolution which proved that “people power” was possible in Central Asia.    Like President Putin, Central Asian leaders insist that a sinister hand, based in Washington but using American NGOs working in the region, plotted the downfall of Eduard Shevardnadze, Leonid Kuchma and Askar Akaev -- and is now gunning for them.  So a split has developed in Central Asia.  Kyrgyzstan, though plagued by criminality and sometimes seemingly chaotic, is better off than with the previous corrupt regime and well disposed towards the U.S.    Uzbekistan’s Karimov sees us as his greatest strategic danger; he has cracked down even harder and state-run media accuse us of trying to enslave Uzbekistan. Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan are suspicious of our allegedly revolutionary goals but still want to maintain good ties – as long as they are not threatened by civil society.  And Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan surely assume that we want their oil and gas too much to stir the pot. What can we do about this?  How can we try to make things better, especially keeping in mind that U.S. influence is limited?   This week I will be re-introducing my Central Asia bill, to help ensure that the United States is doing everything possible to encourage these governments to respect human rights and democratization.  The act will also bring greater consistency to U.S. policy, creating a framework to guide our bilateral relations in Central Asia.   The Central Asia Democracy and Human Rights Promotion Act supports the President’s freedom agenda by providing $118 million in assistance for human rights and democracy training and $15 million for increased Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and Voice of America broadcasting.    The new Act will also establish a certification mechanism for the distribution of assistance to each government. The Secretary of State will determine whether each has made “significant improvements in the protection of human rights.”  This system will have a national security waiver and is modeled on the current system in Foreign Ops appropriations for Kazakhstan and expanded for all five countries.   In addition, considering the forced return of Uzbek refugees from Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, the new Act will require the Secretary of State to report on whether any government is “forcibly returning Uzbeks or other refugees who have fled violence and political persecution.” This is modeled on language regarding Kyrgyzstan in Foreign Ops appropriations and expanded for all five countries.    Notably, my new legislation will create a sanctions section for Uzbekistan.  First, the bill concretizes into law the limitations already in place in Foreign Ops appropriations. The limitation prevents funding to the Uzbek Government unless the Secretary of State determines the government is “making substantial and continuing progress” towards respect for human rights and that the Uzbek Government begins a “credible international investigation” of Andijon.   In addition, the new Act mirrors European Union sanctions by establishing a visa ban and an export ban on munitions.  The sanctions section also establishes an asset freeze for Uzbek officials, their family members, and their associates implicated in the Andijon massacre or involved in other gross violations of human rights.   Ladies and gentlemen, it is hard to promote democratization in strategically important countries whose leaders want to keep all real power in their own hands. Our task is especially complicated by the fact that Russia – which has re-emerged as a major international player, thanks to sky-high oil prices – is working hard to undermine our efforts.  But I think the measures which I’ve outlined here in brief offer a good chance of achieving our goals.   Thank you for your attention.  I look forward to hearing the other participants’ views and your comments.   

  • Floor Statement in Support of H.Con.Res. 190

    H. Con. Res. 190 expresses the sense of the Congress that the Russian Federation should fully protect the right of its people to worship and practice their faith as they see fit. This freedom is the right of all religious communities without distinct, whether registered or unregistered, and that is stipulated by the Russian Constitution and by international standards. Yet I am sorry to report religious freedom for minority religious communities throughout the Russian Federation have been under growing pressure as local officials and government authorities continue to harass and limit the abilities of these groups to practice their faith freely.  As we learned at a recent Helsinki Commission hearing, instances of violence have become alarmingly common. Arson attacks against churches in Russia have occurred in several towns and cities with little or no police response. In its 2005 International Religious Freedom Report, the State Department Office on International Religious Freedom notes: “Some Federal agencies and many local authorities continue to restrict the rights of various religious minorities. Moreover, contradictions between Federal and local laws and varying interpretations of the law provide regional officials with opportunities to restrict the activities of religious minorities. Many observers attribute discriminatory practices at the local level to the greater susceptibility of local governments than the Federal Government to discriminatory attitudes in lobbying by local majority religious groups. The government only occasionally intervenes to prevent or reverse discrimination at the local level.” Mr. Speaker, the internationally recognized expert on religious liberty in Russia, Larry Uzzell, has written: “Russia has now come to use as standard practice methods of religious repression that were applied only occasionally in the 1990s. Secular bureaucrats now typically refuse to authorize land transfers to Baptist churches and also forbid movie theaters or other public halls to sign rental contracts with them.” As a result, as an example: “In Moscow City alone some 10 Baptist congregations have ceased to exist simply because they could not find places within which to worship.” I would just note parenthetically, Mr. Speaker, I want to thank Larry for his extraordinary work in bringing this matter to the attention of the Congress. Larry is a tireless advocate for oppressed believers throughout Russia and Central Asia. He is facing some serious health issues now, and I would like to wish him a very speedy recovery. Mr. Speaker, in response to this growing and very negative trend in Russia, this resolution urges the Russian Federation to “ensure full protections of freedoms for all religious communities without distinction, whether registered or unregistered, and to end the harassment of unregistered religious groups by the security apparatus and other government agencies, as well as to ensure that law enforcement officials rigorously investigate acts of violence against unregistered religious communities, and to make certain that authorities are not complicit in such attacks.” I point out that in March 2004 a district court banned the religious activity of Jehovah's Witnesses in Moscow. For 2 years now the authorities have used the Moscow decision to harass the Jehovah's Witnesses Administration Center in St. Petersburg, with threats to “liquidate” the administrative center which could threaten local congregations of Jehovah's Witnesses throughout all of Russia. Members of the Russia's Muslim community and respected human rights activists have expressed concern regarding what they contend are large-scale fabrications of terrorism against Russian Muslims. One of Russia's Supreme Muftis has stated that random police checks and arrests are becoming commonplace throughout Russia for Russian Muslims. Let me reiterate that Russia has every right to defend itself against terrorism and to investigate and prosecute terrorists. Of course it does. Here in the United States we face the problem of combating terrorism while safeguarding civil liberties. I would urge the government, however, to strive for the proper balance in defending both its citizens as well as their civil liberties. Mr. Speaker, the religious liberty picture in Russia is not entirely dark, and it would be disingenuous to make that assertion. There are Nations that have worse records. They can be found on the list of “countries of particular concern” that is issued by the U.S. Department of State in its annual report on religious freedom around the world, so-called CPC countries like Vietnam.  However, Russia is a member of the U.N. Security Council, an OSCE-participating State, and will soon chair the Council of Europe. In addition, this year, it is the chair of the G-8 and the host of the G-8 Summit in St. Petersburg in July. Considering all of these positions, they should be expected to uphold basic, internationally recognized and accepted standards to protect peaceful religious practice. That is what this resolution is all about.

  • Statement in Support of H.Con.Res.190 (McIntyre)

    Mr. Speaker, I am very pleased that the House is considering H.Con.Res. 190 today, that urges the Russian Federation to protect fully the freedoms of all religious communities without distinction, whether registered and unregistered, as stipulated by the Russian Constitution and international standards. As stated in the resolution, the United States throughout its history has sought to protect the fundamental and inalienable human right to seek, know, and serve God according to the dictates of one’s own conscience.  I completely agree.  The “first right” of religious freedom must be respected, and so this resolution is of critical importance.  The Russian Federation is an OSCE participating State and has freely committed to protect this right, so that all may freely profess and practice the religion or belief, either alone or in community with others.  Russia has promised to do this through numerous OSCE documents, but also in its own constitution. Article 28 of the Russian constitution declares “everyone shall be guaranteed the right to freedom of conscience, to freedom of religious worship, including the right to profess, individually or jointly with others, any religion.” Unfortunately, this fundamental right is not always observed, especially for groups that are not registered with the government.  For groups denied registration, who have had their registration stripped, or refuse registration on religious grounds, the lack of registration means they experience significant difficulties in enjoying their religious liberties.  Registration is critical for religious groups to enjoy fully their religious freedoms, as many rights and privileges afforded to religious communities are contingent on obtaining registration.  In addition to discrimination by local authorities, in the last two years there have been more than ten arson attacks estimated on unregistered Protestant churches.  At a Helsinki Commission hearing that I attended last year on problems facing unregistered religious groups in Russia, I was troubled to learn of the lack of effective action by law enforcement to bring the criminals to justice. The perpetrators of these hateful acts have gone unpunished, with police and other officials turning a blind eye.  In the worst cases, law enforcement personnel have actually been the persecutors, carrying out violent actions against individuals from unregistered communities who are only wishing to practice peacefully their faith.  In closing, the Russian Federation is urged to do more, to ensure that all may fully enjoy their religious liberties.  I therefore urge my colleagues to support H.Con.Res. 190.   

  • Statement in Support of H.Con.Res.190 (Pitts)

    Mr. Speaker, I rise today in support of H. Con. Res. 190, urging the Russian Federation to protect and ensure religious freedom for all people in Russia.   Last year witnesses at a Helsinki Commission hearing on unregistered religious groups in Russia, provided alarming reports about the actions of local authorities towards unregistered or minority religious communities. Recurring reports of police harassment and criminal violence (that is rarely vigorously investigated) against these groups is jeopardizing the status of religious liberties in Russia.   Adding to the concerns are recent reports that the Duma is preparing legislation to regulate the activities of missionaries. Reportedly, the bill would create administrative and criminal penalties for “unlawful missionary work connected with provoking religious extremism.” There was also speculation in the Russian media that the Justice Ministry was looking to tighten the rules for granting visas to foreign missionaries. Furthermore, there are also reports that the Duma is considering an amendment to existing legislation that would require re-registration of registered religious organizations.   Mr. Speaker, these initiatives make evident that some people in the Russian government believe the role of the state is to control religious freedom rather than to facilitate and protect free expression. Officials know that it is very difficult for unregistered religious organizations to function effectively and freely—they know that limiting the actions of missionaries and restricting the distribution of visas would be the best option to control the growth of religious organizations.   The Congress must send a clear signal to President Putin and other Russian officials that religious freedom is a critically important issue and that we expect Russia to uphold its own constitution and its international commitments and protect the fundamental right of freedom of conscience. This resolution specifically urges Russia to fully protect religious freedoms for all religious communities, whether registered or unregistered, and to prevent the harassment of unregistered religious groups by the security apparatus and other government agencies. I strongly urge my colleagues to support H. Con. Res. 190.

  • Statement in Support of H.Con.Res. 190

    Mr. Speaker, I rise today in support of H. Con. Res. 190, urging the Russian Federation to protect and ensure religious freedom for all people in Russia. Last year witnesses at a Helsinki Commission hearing on unregistered religious groups in Russia, provided alarming reports about the actions of local authorities towards unregistered or minority religious communities. Recurring reports of police harassment and criminal violence (that is rarely vigorously investigated) against these groups is jeopardizing the status of religious liberties in Russia. Adding to the concerns are recent reports that the Duma is preparing legislation to regulate the activities of missionaries. Reportedly, the bill would create administrative and criminal penalties for “unlawful missionary work connected with provoking religious extremism.” There was also speculation in the Russian media that the Justice Ministry was looking to tighten the rules for granting visas to foreign missionaries. Furthermore, there are also reports that the Duma is considering an amendment to existing legislation that would require re-registration of registered religious organizations. Mr. Speaker, these initiatives make evident that some people in the Russian government believe the role of the state is to control religious freedom rather than to facilitate and protect free expression. Officials know that it is very difficult for unregistered religious organizations to function effectively and freely—they know that limiting the actions of missionaries and restricting the distribution of visas would be the best option to control the growth of religious organizations. The Congress must send a clear signal to President Putin and other Russian officials that religious freedom is a critically important issue and that we expect Russia to uphold its own constitution and its international commitments and protect the fundamental right of freedom of conscience. This resolution specifically urges Russia to fully protect religious freedoms for all religious communities, whether registered or unregistered, and to prevent the harassment of unregistered religious groups by the security apparatus and other government agencies. I strongly urge my colleagues to support H. Con. Res. 190.

  • Statement in Support of H.Con.Res. 190

    Mr. Speaker, I am very pleased that the House is considering H.Con.Res. 190 today, that urges the Russian Federation to protect fully the freedoms of all religious communities without distinction, whether registered and unregistered, as stipulated by the Russian Constitution and international standards. As stated in the resolution, the United States throughout its history has sought to protect the fundamental and inalienable human right to seek, know, and serve God according to the dictates of one’s own conscience.  I completely agree.  The “first right” of religious freedom must be respected, and so this resolution is of critical importance.   The Russian Federation is an OSCE participating State and has freely committed to protect this right, so that all may freely profess and practice the religion or belief, either alone or in community with others.  Russia has promised to do this through numerous OSCE documents, but also in its own constitution. Article 28 of the Russian constitution declares “everyone shall be guaranteed the right to freedom of conscience, to freedom of religious worship, including the right to profess, individually or jointly with others, any religion.” Unfortunately, this fundamental right is not always observed, especially for groups that are not registered with the government.  For groups denied registration, who have had their registration stripped, or refuse registration on religious grounds, the lack of registration means they experience significant difficulties in enjoying their religious liberties.  Registration is critical for religious groups to enjoy fully their religious freedoms, as many rights and privileges afforded to religious communities are contingent on obtaining registration.  In addition to discrimination by local authorities, in the last two years there have been more than ten arson attacks estimated on unregistered Protestant churches.  At a Helsinki Commission hearing that I attended last year on problems facing unregistered religious groups in Russia, I was troubled to learn of the lack of effective action by law enforcement to bring the criminals to justice. The perpetrators of these hateful acts have gone unpunished, with police and other officials turning a blind eye.  In the worst cases, law enforcement personnel have actually been the persecutors, carrying out violent actions against individuals from unregistered communities who are only wishing to practice peacefully their faith.   In closing, the Russian Federation is urged to do more, to ensure that all may fully enjoy their religious liberties.  I therefore urge my colleagues to support H.Con.Res. 190. 

  • Debate on "Present World Crisis Regarding Freedom of Expression and Respect for Religious Beliefs"

    In the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States, the people’s right to freedom of speech, including freedom of the press, and the people’s right to peacefully assemble to protest both, are guaranteed. As political leaders, we have a special responsibility—words have consequences.  When words can lead to anti-Muslim or anti-Semitic or anti-Christian actions—we have a responsibility to speak out against such expression.   The recent political cartoons published in the European press which mock the Prophet Mohammed and equate Islam and practicing Muslims with terrorism are not only offensive but also irresponsible because they foster anti-Muslim sentiment. We should protect the right of the press, but we should condemn such expressions as wrong.   If we do not act, we risk leaving a terrible legacy to our children.    Such a legacy would condone hate speech and racial and religious incitement.  Such a legacy would lead to more tragic and unjustifiable violence, more discrimination against Muslims and more attempts by government to improperly control the media.   We should act effectively and peacefully.    Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the most profound civil rights leader in the United States in the 20th Century, cautioned all of us that the legacy of hate and violence must not be hate and violence.  The violent response to the cartoons must be condemned, but our response to the cartoons must be decisive.   The OSCE has acted against anti-Semitism, racism, xenophobia and all forms of religious discrimination.  We have an action plan reinforced by ODIHR and our special representatives.   We need to reinforce our efforts to educate respect and understanding among all religions.  We need to strengthen training on the right and responsibility of a free media.  We need to promote specific and appropriate activities in each of our States to facilitate these goals.    As leaders, let our legacy be for each of our States—freedom of the press and greater understanding and respect for religious diversity.

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