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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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  • Religious Freedom in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan

    Hon. Chris Smith, Co-Chairman of the Helsinki Commission, highlighted key policies of repression by Uzbekistan such as refusing registration for religious groups seeking legal status and perpetrating acts of aggression against members of these groups, and emphasized the lack of religious freedom for practicing Muslims in the country. Additionally, recent violations of religious freedom in Turkmenistan in spite of attempts at reform were evaluated. Witnesses testifying at the hearing - Witness One, a Baptist from Turkmenistan; Felix Corley, Editor of Forum 19 News Service; John Kinahan, Assistant Editor of Forum 19 News Service; and Joseph K. Grieboski, President of the Institute on Religion and Public Policy – presented personal testimonies and illustrated the importance of addressing the commitments of the governments of Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan to upholding religious freedom as members of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

  • Religious Speech Limitations in Sweden

    Mr. Speaker, freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief is a fundamental element of international human rights norms. It is inextricably intertwined with other fundamental rights, including the rights to freedom of speech, freedom of association and freedom of assembly. Considering this, I am increasingly concerned by European trends to place limitations on religious speech under the guise of preventing offense or limiting hate speech. One such case concerns Ake Green, the pastor of a Pentecostal church in Kalmar, Sweden, who was sentenced to 1 month in prison for “inciting hatred” against homosexuals.   Pastor Green’s troubles began on July 20, 2003, when he expressed his disapproval of homosexuality in a sermon, founded upon his understanding of the Bible. He did not incite nor encourage his congregation on the small southeastern island of Oland to violence. He did, however, express his personal opinion on homosexuality and made a personal moral judgment that the lifestyle was sinful. He later circulated the sermon text to media outlets in an attempt to insert an alternative view into Sweden’s “marketplace of ideas.”   When prosecutors saw the sermon printed, they brought charges against Pastor Green for “inciting hate” toward homosexuals. A district court agreed in June 2004, finding his sermon to be criminal. One particularly alarming quote from the district court’s decision stated, “It is forbidden to use the Bible or similar material to threaten or express disrespect for homosexuals as a group.” Mr. Speaker, should pastors really be sent to jail for sermons that a court deems “disrespectful” or “offensive”? Should the state really dictate how a religious leader interprets the Bible, the Torah, or other religious texts? The district court’s ruling raises the question of whether ministers and priests in Sweden are really free to preach their beliefs.   I recognize that the right to freedom of expression is not absolute and not all speech is protected. After 9/11 and the Madrid and London bombings, we have all seen how criminals abuse religion to preach violence and lead others in criminal deeds. Authorities are within their rights to take legal action to curtail the speech when it rises to the level of posing an imminent threat of actual criminal action. The international community and the European Court of Human Rights have recognized this high threshold for limiting speech activity. Yet we must be careful to not limit religious liberties and speech rights.   Thankfully, Pastor Green has not spent a night in jail while his case is on appeal. Also encouraging was the February decision by an appellate court to overturn the conviction, saying it is not illegal to preach a personal interpretation of the Bible. However, Sweden’s chief prosecutor, Fredrik Wersaell, appealed to the Supreme Court, contending that Green violated Sweden’s 2003 hate crimes law. The Supreme Court will hear the appeal on November 9th.   Undoubtedly, Swedes enjoy tremendous religious freedoms and generally Sweden is a staunch defender of human rights. However, in this case, the government has sought to limit basic religious teachings. I believe the criminalization of the use of the Bible to express beliefs, if not overturned, will have frighteningly broad ramifications for the free practice of religion in Sweden and beyond.

  • American Agenda Moves Forward at the 14th Annual OSCE Parliamentary Assembly

    The 14th Annual Meeting of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly convened in Washington, DC, July 1-5, 2005. Speaker of the House, J. Dennis Hastert (R-IL), the host for this year’s Assembly, welcomed more than 260 parliamentarians from 51 OSCE participating States as they gathered to discuss various political, economic, and humanitarian issues under the theme, “30 Years since Helsinki: Challenges Ahead.”  Commission Chairman Senator Sam Brownback (R-KS) served as head of the U.S. Delegation, Co-Chairman Christopher H. Smith (R-NJ) was delegation vice-chairman.  Secretary of State Dr. Condoleezza Rice gave the inaugural address at the assembly’s opening session, thanking the members of the OSCE PA for their work toward “human rights, the rule of law, free and fair elections, and the development of transparent, accountable institutions of government across the OSCE community and around the globe. “As the Chairman-in-Office and Parliamentary Assembly take a fresh look at the OSCE agenda and consider these and other items, preserving the integrity of Helsinki principles and ensuring that the OSCE continues to be an agent of peaceful, democratic transformation should be paramount objectives,” Secretary Rice said. Chairman Brownback in plenary remarks underscored the rich history of the Helsinki Process, unwavering U.S. commitment to human rights and the dignity of the individual, and the dramatic advances made in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan.  At the same time, he pointed to the remaining work to be done in the OSCE region and beyond to meet the promises made with the signing of the 1975 Helsinki Final Act.      Offering guidance to the body, OSCE PA President and Helsinki Commissioner Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (D-FL) reiterated the gathering’s theme:  “In this new Europe, and in this new world, the OSCE and the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly must stand ready to respond to new threats and challenges, and this means evolving and adapting to new realities.” Agenda and Issues Among the issues considered by the Assembly were recommendations for changes in the OSCE Code of Conduct for Mission Members, efforts to combat human trafficking, and calls for greater transparency and accountability in election procedures in keeping with OSCE commitments made by each of the 55 participating States. The First Committee on Political Affairs and Security met to discuss matters of terrorism and conflict resolution, including resolutions on the following topics: terrorism by suicide bombers the situation in Abkhazia, Georgia terrorism and human rights Moldova and the status of Transdniestria Under the chairmanship of Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-MD), the Second Committee on Economic Affairs, Science, Technology and Environment moved on a number of issues, including resolutions and amendments on: small arms and light weapons maritime security and piracy the OSCE Mediterranean dimension money laundering the fight against corruption The Third Committee on Democracy, Human Rights and Humanitarian Questions tackled a number of resolutions, as well as two supplementary items brought by members of the U.S. Delegation.  Other topics addressed by the Committee included:         the need to strengthen the Code of Conduct for OSCE Mission Members combating trafficking in human beings improving the effectiveness of OSCE election observation activities The Assembly plenary met in consideration of the resolutions passed by the general committees as well as the following supplementary items: improving gender equality in the OSCE combating anti-Semitism Special side events were held in conjunction with the 5-day meeting, including a briefing on the status of detainees at the U.S. Naval Station at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, held by senior U.S. officials from the Departments of Defense and State.  Members of the U.S. Delegation also participated in the following organized events: Parliamentary responses to anti-Semitism Working breakfast on gender issues Mediterranean side meeting Panel discussion on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict Human rights in Uzbekistan Meeting of the parliamentary team on Moldova In addition, while participating in the Assembly, members of the U.S. Delegation held bilateral meetings with fellow parliamentarians from Azerbaijan, Georgia, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan.  They also had formal discussions with the newly appointed OSCE Secretary General Marc Perrin de Brichambaut. Key U.S. Initiatives The successful adoption of a number of supplementary items and amendments to the Assembly’s Washington Declaration illustrated the extent of the activity of the members of the U.S. Delegation in the three Assembly committees.  The delegation met success in advancing its initiatives in human trafficking, election observation activities, and religious freedom. As a result, the Washington Declaration reflects significant input based on U.S. initiatives. In the General Committee on Democracy, Human Rights and Humanitarian Questions, Senator Voinovich (R-OH) sponsored, and successfully passed, a supplementary item on funding for the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) to allow it to continue its missions and responsibilities. Speaking on the passage of his resolution on combating trafficking at the hands of international peacekeepers, Co-Chairman Smith said, “In the past, the lack of appropriate codes of conduct for international personnel, including military service members, contractors, and international organization’s employees, limited the ability to counter sexual exploitation and trafficking.  That is finally changing.” The U.S. Delegation also overwhelmingly defeated text offered by the Russian Delegation that would have weakened the ability of ODIHR to effectively perform election observations.  Co-Chairman Smith, principal sponsor of the amendments that served to frustrate the Russian resolution, praised the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly saying, “The Parliamentary Assembly has reaffirmed the central and historic leadership role of the OSCE’s Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights in monitoring elections….Parliamentarians from the participating States have soundly rejected the ploy to weaken OSCE election standards, holding participating States accountable when they fail to fulfill their OSCE election commitments.” On the issue of religious freedom, the U.S. Delegation carried through two amendments to the final Assembly declaration. “I am very pleased that these amendments passed,” said Co-Chairman Smith, who offered the amendments to the draft resolution.  “However, the fact that the first amendment passed by only 10 votes underscores the continuing challenge in the fight for religious liberties in the OSCE region.  The fact that parliamentarians are willing to discriminate against minority religious communities is sobering.” In addition, an amendment brought by Del. Eleanor Holmes-Norton (D-DC) that calls on the U.S. Congress to grant voting rights for residents of the District of Columbia secured passage. Leadership Positions Commissioner Hastings was re-elected unanimously to another one-year term as the President of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly.  Joining the U.S. leadership on the Parliamentary Assembly, Commissioner Benjamin L. Cardin was also re-elected Chairman of the General on Economic Affairs, Science, Technology and Environment by unanimous decision.  Commission Co-Chairman Christopher H. Smith continues in his role as Special Representative on Human Trafficking to the OSCE PA.  Additionally, Rep. Hoyer chaired the Ad Hoc Committee on Transparency and Accountability, which works to foster greater response from the governments of participating States to Assembly initiatives. The close of the Assembly was marked with the adoption of the Washington Declaration and concluding remarks by OSCE PA President Hastings. The Parliamentary Assembly will meet again next year, July 3-7, in Brussels, Belgium. U.S. Delegation to 14th Annual OSCE Parliamentary Assembly: Commission Chairman Sen. Sam Brownback (R-KS) Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-NJ) Commission Ranking Member Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-MD) Sen. George Voinovich (R-OH) Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-MD) Rep. Louise McIntosh Slaughter (D-NY) Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (D-FL) Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-AL) Rep. Mike McIntyre (D-NC) Rep. Joseph R. Pitts (R-PA) Rep. Mike Pence (R-IN) Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC)

  • Human Rights in Iran: Prospects and the Western Response

    By Ronald J. McNamara, International Policy Director In response to ongoing developments in Iran, on June 9 the U.S. Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also called the U.S. Helsinki Commission, held a hearing entitled, “The Iran Crisis: A Transatlantic Response,” to examine the continuing pattern of serious human rights violations in Iran and consider how to formulate an effective transatlantic response. The hearing is part of a series to explore emerging threats to countries in the OSCE region. Iran shares borders with several OSCE participant States: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Turkey, and Turkmenistan and also borders Afghanistan, an OSCE Partner for Cooperation. Commission Chairman Senator Sam Brownback (R-KS) focused squarely on the deteriorating human rights climate in Iran: “Across the border, Iran's human rights record is dismal and getting worse. The Iranian regime employs all of the levers of power to crush dissent, resorting in every form of persecution, even so far as execution. No effort is spared to silence opposition.” “Freedom denied” sums up the regime’s approach to fundamental human rights across the board, observed Chairman Brownback, “the tyrants in Tehran time and time again have shown a zeal for crushing outbreaks of free thought. Having come down hard on vestiges of independent media, the regime has pursued those who sought refuge on the Internet as a domain for democratic discussion.” Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-NJ) drew attention to the extensive economic ties between many European countries and Iran, suggesting that such interests influence policy toward Tehran. Smith also questioned the effectiveness of existing UN human rights structures and the need for major reform of the system. Dr. Jeff Gedmin, Director of the Aspen Institute Berlin, testifying before the Commission, noted the paradigm shift in U.S. foreign policy following the 9/11 terrorist attacks: “It’s changed our thinking about democracy, not only for the moral reasons, but because, as the president and others have said, the old realism, the old stability sort of policies didn't keep us safe, either. They weren’t fully moral, and they didn’t keep us safe.” Gedmin urged a more assertive approach toward Iran that would link the security approach and the human rights and democracy approach, and warned against concentrating on the former to the exclusion of the latter. Gedmin called for ensuring that promotion of democracy is part of any dialogue with the regime, while admitting that European commercial interests could complicate matters. In his testimony, Tom Melia, Deputy Executive Director of Freedom House, focused on the dynamics of democracy promotion more generally and efforts to foster related U.S. and European cooperation through the Trans-Atlantic Democracy Network initiative involving senior government officials and NGO activists from both sides of the Atlantic. He admitted that there are a variety of European perspectives on how best to encourage democratic change, contrasting “the more traditional Western European officials around Brussels and the newly arrived officials from Central and Eastern Europe….who are willing to be strong allies.” Citing the recently released report How Freedom is Won, Melia noted that broad civic engagement can speed democratic reform and that the absence of opposition violence in the struggle for change ultimately enhances the prospects for consolidation of democracy. Turning to Iran, he noted that the June 17th elections in that country “are not about filling the offices that matter in Iran.” Ms. Goli Ameri, Co-Founder of the Iran Democracy Project, addressed the complexities faced by Iranian-Americans who have thrived in the freedom and opportunity offered in the United States, and who hope that such liberties will be seen in Iran itself. She explained some of the differing approaches advocated within the community: “In my experience, there are three different views on U.S. policy towards Iran amongst Iranian-Americans. One group believes that the U.S. needs to take an active role and make regime change an official U.S. policy. The second group believes that freedom from decades of oppression can only come from the Iranian people themselves without any type of outside involvement.” Ameri continued, “In my travels, the majority of Iranian-Americans I met have a third, more considerate way in mind. They speak as concerned citizens of the United States and independent of political opposition groups or extremist political doctrines. They care about U.S. long-term interests as much as they care for their compatriots in Iran…Iranian-Americans support the promotion of a civil society and a civil movement in Iran. However, they want to ascertain that the format of support does not hurt the long-term security and interests of the United States, as well as not sully the mindset of the Iranian people towards the United States.” Ameri emphasized that Iranian-Americans, “differentiate between support for civic organizations and support for opposition groups, with the latter being of zero interest.” Dr. Karim Lahidji, an Iranian human rights activist since the late 1950s who fled Iran in 1979, pointed to contradictions that exist within the Islamic Republic of Iran, including the “farce” that the regime is somehow based on popular sovereignty. He noted that “power itself is dual in the sense that, on one hand, there is this [unelected] supreme guide, who is kind of a Superman, who supersedes over the other branches of government” and exercises “100 percent real executive power.” Under the current structures in place in Iran, Lahidji stressed, “the underlying and governing principle, it's not equality. It is discrimination that really rules” in which “the rights of the common citizen are different from the rights of Muslims, or the rights of non-Muslims are different from the rights of Muslims. Women don't have the same rights as men. But common people don't have the same rights as the clergy.” He concluded, “Under the present constitution, any reform of the power structure in the country that would lead to democracy or respect of human rights is impossible.” Manda Ervin, founder of the Alliance of Iranian Women, focused on the daily difficulties facing the average Iranian, including rising unemployment, unpaid workers, and other hardships that have spawned manifestations of civil disobedience that are in turn repressed by security and paramilitary forces. Hunger strikes and sit-ins by university students and journalists are common and are met with repression by the authorities. Citing arrests of activists, including members of the Alliance of Iranian Women, Ervin stated, “The regime of Iran practices gender apartheid and legal abuse of children. The constitution of this regime belongs to the 7th century and is unacceptable in the 21st century.” In an impassioned conclusion Ervin said, “the people of Iran need our support, our moral support, our standing in solidarity with them. They don't want words any more. They don't trust words. They want actions. They want United States and Europe to stand together against the regime of Iran.” The panelists repeatedly cited Iranian youth and the efforts of NGO activists as key elements in building a brighter future for Iran. The United States Helsinki Commission, an independent federal agency, by law monitors and encourages progress in implementing provisions of the Helsinki Accords. The Commission, created in 1976, is composed of nine Senators, nine Representatives and one official each from the Departments of State, Defense and Commerce.

  • Progress and Challenges: The OSCE Tackles Anti-Semitism and Intolerance

    By Ron McNamara, International Policy Director & Knox Thames, Counsel The OSCE Conference on Anti-Semitism and on Other Forms of Intolerance convened in Córdoba, Spain, from June 8-9, 2005. The conference, the third since the Helsinki Commission’s 2002 groundbreaking hearing on “Escalating Anti-Semitic Violence in Europe,” was well attended with many participating States represented by senior-level officials.  New York Governor George E. Pataki headed the U.S. Delegation. Specific sessions were held on: Fighting anti-Semitism and other forms of discrimination, and promoting tolerance - from recommendations to implementation; Anti-Semitism and the media; Education on the Holocaust and on anti-Semitism; Responding to anti-Semitic and hate-motivated crimes; Fighting intolerance and discrimination against Muslims; Fighting intolerance and discrimination against Christians and members of other religions; and, Fighting racism, xenophobia and other forms of intolerance and discrimination. Specialized workshops were focused on: Anti-Semitism and the Media; Implementation of OCDE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights’ (ODIHR) Taskings in the Field of Tolerance and Non-Discrimination; Promoting Tolerance and Ensuring Rights of Religion and Belief; and Combating Racism and Discrimination against Roma and Sinti. Side events were organized to address:  Education on the Holocaust and anti-Semitism; Combating hate speech online in the OSCE framework; Anti-Semitism and satellite television; Teaching the Holocaust and the History of Anti-Semitism in Catholic Schools: Promoting Tolerance and Interfaith Understanding; Why Should We Work Together? The ODIHR’s Law Enforcement Officer Training Program for Combating Hate Crimes; The role of Parliaments in Combating Anti-Semitism; The Anti-Semitism/terrorism Nexus, Hate sites on the Internet; and Discrimination, Hate crimes and Intolerance on the grounds of homophobia. The Conference was preceded by a one-day NGO Forum hosted by the Three Cultures Foundation on June 7, 2005 in Seville.  The opening session included presentations by Professors Gert Weisskirchen and Anastasia Crickley and Ambassador Omur Orhun, who are the three Personal Representatives of the outgoing OSCE Chair-in-Office, Slovene Foreign Minister Dimitrij Rupel.   There was also a video presentation by U.S. Helsinki Commission Chairman Senator Sam Brownback [available here]. The Córdoba Conference was the product of intense negotiations following last year’s Berlin Conference and the adoption of a number of specific commitments by OSCE countries aimed at stemming the tide of anti-Semitism and related violence.  Numerous participating States had actively resisted the convening of a meeting exclusively focused on anti-Semitism and instead argued in favor of a “holistic” approach to tolerance issues.  As OSCE Chair-in-Office (CiO) Dimitrij Rupel put it, “I also hope that Córdoba, and after Córdoba, a truly holistic approach to combat all forms of discrimination and intolerance will prevail, as this is the most effective way to address this issue.” While supporting a broader approach, others, including the U.S. Helsinki Commissioners, voiced concern that the focus on anti-Semitism as a unique form of intolerance not be lost, especially given the dimensions of the Holocaust and European history. Most participating States used the Córdoba Conference to reiterate their commitment to combating anti-Semitism and other forms of intolerance.  Disappointingly few, however, cited concrete steps they are undertaking to implement existing OSCE commitments.  One of the few exceptions was the Solicitor General of the United Kingdom, who reported on the evolution of anti-hate legislation in his country and a new law being considered by Parliament to address anti-religious bigotry.  The Italian and Polish delegations also noted some tangible progress. CiO Rupel reported on initiatives undertaken by the OSCE to improve implementation of commitments made in Berlin.  He also warned that “we must be vigilant against discrimination and show no tolerance for intolerance,” a theme repeated by numerous subsequent speakers. U.S. Helsinki Commissioner Alcee L. Hastings addressed the Córdoba Conference in his capacity as President of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly.  Hastings reminded participants of the role of parliamentarians, including members of the Helsinki Commission, in ensuring that the issue of anti-Semitism and related violence were given priority in the OSCE framework. The most tangible results to come out of the Córdoba Conference was the Córdoba Declaration, as well as reports presented by the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) on “Combating Hate Crimes in the OSCE Region” and “Education on the Holocaust and on Anti-Semitism.”  The declaration recognized that some forms of intolerance need proper definition, and reiterated the Berlin Declaration’s  acknowledgement that “international developments or political issues, including in Israel or elsewhere in the Middle East, never justify anti-Semitism.” According to the ODIHR reports, 13 participating States have not provided any information on statistics, legislation and national initiatives relating to hate crimes.  Of the 42 participating States that have responded, only 29 countries have provided information and statistics on hate crimes and violent manifestations of racism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, and intolerance.  The quality of information varied widely – one country’s statistical submission consisted of a single sentence. Beyond implementation issues and concerns, three outstanding questions remain to be resolved: Will the OSCE maintain a distinct focus on anti-Semitism or will the issue be folded into a more generic tolerance rubric? Will the current mandates for the three personal representatives be extended? What form will future follow-up, including the possible location of future conferences, on tolerance-related matters take? There is also some concern that the Personal Representatives of the Chair-in-Office have been hampered in undertaking their tasks, and have been hamstrung by limitations that have been imposed on their activities.  It is also unclear whether the newly incoming Chair-in-Office will reappoint the three representatives or, if so, if he will maintain their distinct portfolios. Discussions in Córdoba did little to narrow differences on these points.  The United States has been among the few stalwarts committed to sustaining a particular focus on anti-Semitism.   At the same time, a growing number of countries prefer a “holistic” approach, where distinct issues are discussed under a generic theme. Governor Pataki in closing remarks stressed the need to move beyond words: “We have all given our speeches in the best prose we can muster, but there is more to combating anti-Semitism and intolerance than mere speeches.”  He urged that future follow-up focus on implementation; endorsed the reappointment of the three Personal Representatives under their existing titles; called for preserving a distinct focus on anti-Semitism; supported continuing efforts to combat intolerance and discrimination against Muslims, Christians, and other faiths; and urged further institutionalization of tolerance and non-discrimination work.  Pataki concluded, “We can talk, we can coordinate through the OSCE, but the primary responsibility ultimately rests with the participating States.”      U.S. DELEGATION Governor George E. Pataki, Head of U.S. Delegation Hon. Jennette Bradley, Treasurer, State of Ohio The Most Rev. Charles J. Chaput, Archbishop of Denver and Commissioner, U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom Sander Ross Gerber, Chairman and CEO of the XTF Group and President of the Gerber Capital Management Group Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean and founder, Simon Wiesenthal Center Kamal Nawash, founder, Free Muslims Coalition Rabbi David Zwiebel, Executive Vice President for Government and Public Affairs, Agudath Israel of America

  • Unrest in Uzbekistan: Crisis and Prospects

    This briefing, held in the wake of protests in the town of Andijon in eastern Uzbekistan that were violently put down by Uzbek troops on May 13, examined the crisis in Uzbekistan and U.S. policy options toward the regime of President Islam Karimov. The Uzbek regime has long been listed as an abuser of human rights. Among those participating in the briefing were: H.E. Samuel Zbogar, Ambassador of Slovenia and representative of the OSCE Chairman-in-Office; Dr. Abdurahim Polat, Chairman of the Uzbek opposition Birlik Party; Mr. Michael Cromartie, Commissioner of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom; Dr. Martha Brill Olcott, Senior Associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace; and Mr. Daniel Kimmage, Central Asia Analyst for Radio free Europe/Radio Liberty. The participants called for Uzbekistan to strive to resolve this situation peacefully, and continue to meet its commitments as a participating State in the OSCE.

  • Report on Slovakia's Religion Law

    Since the ouster of the Meciar regime in 1998, Slovakia has made a remarkable transition to democracy. Once described as “the black hole of Europe,” Slovakia officially became a member of NATO on March 29, 2004 and joined the European Union on May 1, 2004. Most recently, Bratislava hosted the joint summit held by U.S. President George W. Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Moreover, Slovakia has become a voice for fundamental freedoms in its own right. At the same time, the United States has continued to raise a number of longstanding concerns with Slovakia. The most serious human rights problems in Slovakia are those experienced by members of the Romani minority, who face profound discrimination in most walks of life as well as racially motivated violence. The Slovak law concerning religion is also problematic, as it contains the most demanding registration scheme in the entire OSCE region. Due to the discriminatory nature of the current legal structure, new religious communities or groups unable to meet the burdensome numerical requirements are denied rights and privileges afforded to recognized religious groups. At the 2003 OSCE Maastricht Ministerial Council, Slovakia and all other participating States pledged to “ensure and facilitate” the free practice of religion or belief “alone or in community with others . . . through transparent and non-discriminatory laws, regulations, practices and policies.”  In light of this and other OSCE commitments, it is hoped Slovakia will amend the registration system and eliminate the numerical threshold.

  • Unregistered Religious Groups in Russia

    This hearing focused the disfranchisement of religious minorities Russia.  In several cases, authorities unfairly targeted religious groups with excessive force and threatened their right to worship. The hearing examined these cases and what the OSCE and U.S. have done in response. The witness John V. Hanford, III, Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, gave testimony about specific measures the State Department has in place in Moscow for addressing this issue and what the administration of President Bush has done to respond directly to these violations.

  • Religious Freedom in Turkey

    Helsinki Commission Staff Advisor, Elizabeth Pryor, presented an opportunity for discussion on the situation faced by Muslims, Protestants, members of the Armenian Orthodox Church, and the Jewish community in the Republic of Turkey. Numerous injustices that occurred in spite of significant steps taken by the government to improve conditions for the enjoyment of religious liberty were addressed. Witnesses testifying at the hearing – including Marve Kavakci, Former Member of the Turkish Grand National Assembly; Rev. Fr. Vertanes Kalayjian, Pastor of St. Mary Armenian Apostolic Church and Representative of the Eastern Diocese of the Armenian Apostolic Church of America; Van Krikorian, Founding Member of the Turkish-Armenian Reconciliation Commission; Jeff King, President of the International Christian Concern; and Barry Jacobs, Director of Strategic Studies for the Office of Government and International Affairs  American Jewish Committee – presented testimonies regarding personal experiences with religious injustice in an effort to encourage Congress to urge Turkish officials to adhere to principles of religious freedoms.

  • Ankara's Efforts to Undermine the Greek Orthodox Church in Turkey

    By Chadwick R. Gore Staff Advisor The Helsinki Commission briefing, “The Greek Orthodox Church in Turkey: A Victim of Systematic Expropriation” was held on March 16, 2005. The ecumenical panel of experts included: Archbishop Demetrios, Primate of the Greek Orthodox Church in America and Exarch of the Ecumenical Patriarch; Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick, Archbishop of Washington; Rabbi Arthur Schneier, President of the Appeal of Conscience Foundation; Dr. Anthony Limberakis, National Commander of the Archons of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of the Order of St. Andrew the Apostle; and Dr. Bob Edgar, General Secretary of the National Council of Churches. Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-NJ) opened the briefing and Commission Senior Advisor Elizabeth B. Pryor moderated. Co-Chairman Smith described the issue of the status of the Orthodox Church in Turkey as “black and white.” Turkey’s practice of property seizures, continuous impediments to land ownership and church repairs, and the denial of legal status for the Ecumenical Patriarchate are all in direct contradiction to Ankara’s OSCE commitments. While the current government has initiated a broad regime of reforms, Co-Chairman Smith encouraged the government to do more. “Turkey has a proud history of religious tolerance, but current government policies appear targeted to bring about the eventual exodus of Greek Orthodoxy from Turkey entirely,” said Rep. Smith. “I urge the Government of Turkey to continue with its good reform program, take actions to support its Orthodox citizens, and to bring its laws and policies into conformity with OSCE commitments.” Archbishop Demetrios provided a detailed account of the maltreatment of the Greek Orthodox Church in Turkey. Since the government-provoked riots against the Greek Orthodox minority in 1955 – when the community numbered around 100,000 – the Church has been reduced to its present day remnant of 3,000 believers or less. The survival of this minority has been threatened by the continued closure of the Halki Theological School. This seminary, which was closed in 1971 on the pretext that privately run institutions were no longer legal, was the only school in the country for the training of Orthodox clergy. The continued closure means the Greek Orthodox Church in Turkey is unable to train new clergy in-country. The Archbishop also detailed cases of government confiscation of other church property. The two most significant accounts of such seizure are a recent Supreme Court ruling allowing the government to take possession of an historic orphanage on the island of Pringipo, and the expropriation of 152 properties of the Balukli Hospital in Istanbul. In addition, Demetrios noted that the government does not recognize the word “ecumenical” in the Ecumenical Patriarchate, thus denying the principal body of the church legal status. Rabbi Schneier relayed his experiences from multiple trips to Turkey speaking in support of the Greek Orthodox Church in crisis. After the fall of the Soviet Union, Turkey was thought to be a model of peaceful, religious coexistence for countries of Central Asia. In 1991, Rabbi Schneier met with the Patriarch and proposed a “Peace and Tolerance Conference.” The conference, which occurred in 1994, was widely supported by various religions and seemed to set a new tone for religious tolerance in Turkey and the region. Schneier urged the Turkish Government to take advantage of the world-wide respect that the Ecumenical Patriarchate has gained as a religious institution that preaches tolerance and fosters inter-religious cooperation. In conclusion, Rabbi Scheiner admonished the Turkish Government “to live and let live.” Dr. Limberakis detailed the various religious liberty violations he had personally witnessed on several trips to Turkey. He provided charts, showing that in 1936 the Greek Orthodox Church owned more than 8,000 properties. By 1999, its holdings had been reduced to about 2,000 places and today that number is less than 500. For the properties the church retains, the government has been slow or non-responsive in issuing building permits and allowing for repairs. The Church of the Virgin Mary, which was severely damaged in the 2003 terrorist bombings in Istanbul, waited more than a year for the building permits to rebuild. Limberakis categorized this as “emblematic of the modus operandi of the Government of Turkey.” Limberakis also discussed the Balukli Hospital and Home for the Aged. In addition to having some of its properties seized, the government has recently informed the hospital that it is subject to a 42% retroactive tax dating back to 1999. He recounted how he was assured by government leaders in February 2004 that the Halki Seminary would reopen and that it would possibly be operational for the 2004-2005 school year. September 2004 came and no progress was made. In a meeting in December 2004, the issue was discussed with Turkish officials but no further assurances were given. Dr. Edgar began his testimony by stressing the importance of the Ecumenical Patriarch, not only to Orthodox believers, but to Christians around the world for thousands of years. Istanbul has retained “its place of ecclesiastical prominence among the Orthodox Churches and its place of honor throughout the entire Christian world.” Edgar lauded the Ecumenical Patriarch as the “symbolic leader of the world’s 250 million Orthodox Christians.” Edgar discussed how the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne, which formally recognized the Greek Orthodox community as a minority in Turkey, guarantees the community’s rights. The Turkish Constitution states that religious liberties are to be enjoyed by all. Though the government has made promises, the implementation is lacking. Cardinal McCarrick agreed with others in saying that the Turkish Government greatly misunderstands the importance of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. He said, “Turkey, one would hope, would be so proud to have among its citizens and among its religious leaders one whose influence is felt not only beyond its borders, but throughout the world.” He discussed Pope John Paul II’s tremendous respect and honor for Patriarch Bartholomew, the current Ecumenical Patriarch and leader of the Orthodox Church. McCarrick briefly mentioned Turkey’s Law on Foundations which has created difficulties for non-Muslim religious communities. He reported that revenues from property transactions were often frozen and that religious institutions were often required to pay corporate taxes. Over the years members of the Helsinki Commission have been consistent and vocal advocates for the Greek Orthodox Church, as well as other religious groups experiencing problems in Turkey, be they Muslim, Christian or other. The briefing made it clear the Government of Turkey needs to take several positive steps to fulfill the Helsinki commitments regarding freedoms of religion and assembly which it has freely accepted. First, the apparent systematic expropriation of the properties of the Greek Orthodox Church ascribed as legal under the foundation laws of Turkey must cease. While such actions may be legal they are clearly wrong and prevent Turkey from fulfilling its basic Helsinki commitments. One can easily perceive sinister motives in the application of these laws regarding religious institutions—they appear to have as their goal the eradication of the Greek Orthodox from all of Turkey. Turkey needs to remove religious institutions from under these laws and free religious institutions from their burden. Second, Turkey needs to appreciate that freedom of the spirit is not a threat to the state. Allowing such freedom actually enhances one’s commitment to and love of country. The current system erodes the fundamental glue that keeps citizens proud of their lineage. And, finally, Turkey needs to look outward to the modern world to realize that the great democracies not only allow freedom of religion and assembly, accompanied by speech rights, but encourage them. Both the state and the citizen will grow better in the light of openness, acceptance and tolerance. This briefing was the first in a series of three, with the second briefing focusing on the Turkish Government’s treatment of other religious communities in the country. The last event will be with representatives of the Turkish Government in Ankara, addressing a variety of issues including those discussed in the first two briefings. United States Helsinki Commission intern Alesha Guruswamy contributed to this article.

  • The Greek Orthodox Church in Turkey: A Victim of Systematic Expropriation

    In this briefing, Co-Chairman Smith described the issue of the status of the Orthodox Church in Turkey and condemned Turkey’s practice of property seizures; continuous impediments to land ownership and church repairs; and the denial of legal status for the Ecumenical Patriarchate as direct contradictions to Ankara’s OSCE commitments. The progress that the Government of Turkey has made in its reform program as well as the actions that should be taken in the future to support its Orthodox citizens and to bring its laws and policies into conformity with OSCE commitments was also discussed. Witnesses providing testimony at the briefing addressed a range of topics, including the confiscation of church property and other religious liberty violations undertaken by the government. A combination of personal experience and historical evidence was used by the witnesses to illuminate these violations and present suggestions for improving religious liberty in the future.

  • Religious Freedom in Southeastern Europe

    By H. Knox Thames, CSCE Counsel While the free practice of religion is generally enjoyed in Southeastern Europe, problematic policies exist that run counter to commitments made when countries from the region joined the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). Issues range from discriminatory legal schemes denying small religious communities registration to harsh government actions against unpopular religious groups and their leaders. As will be discussed, having a legal mechanism for religious groups to achieve juridical personhood is important in ensuring religious freedom for all. Furthermore, this does not necessitate the creation of special religion laws, as legal status can be established through tax or corporation laws. Albanian and Bosnian Examples Despite shortcomings in other areas, Albania’s system for conferring registration and legal status to religious communities could serve as a model to others in the region. All religious groups with at least five members and meeting minimal criteria may obtain legal and non-profit status under the Law on Associations, the same status given to any applicant group, whether religious or secular. Albania’s neutral approach avoids the problematic entanglements of special religion laws common elsewhere in the region. Bosnia and Herzegovina missed an opportunity to lead by example, as many parts of its recently passed Law on Freedom of Religion and the Legal Position of Churches and Religious Communities are well constructed, explicitly protecting manifestations of religious belief while limiting the ability of the government to interfere in the internal affairs of a religious group. Unfortunately, the law also contains troubling provisions which include penalties against free speech while setting numerical thresholds for obtaining legal status. For unregistered groups to qualify for official status, they must meet a membership threshold of at least 300 citizens. The law could be brought into harmony with OSCE commitments, should the Bosnian parliament amend the law, either expunging or significantly reducing this numerical requirement. While there has been marked improvement in recent years, the lack of physical security for minority religious communities and their places of worship as well as ineffective law enforcement and judicial action remain real problems. Police and prosecutors in Bosnia and Herzegovina have proven slow or unwilling to protect minority groups in some areas. The answer is not a specially crafted religion law with novel criminal penalties, but better enforcement of current laws by police and determined prosecutions by authorities. OSCE Leadership: Bulgaria and Slovenia Despite Bulgaria’s status as OSCE Chairman-in-Office in 2004, religious freedom conditions took a turn for the worse when, in July, the authorities seized properties used by the alternative Bulgarian Orthodox synod for more than 10 years. The 2002 Law on Religions blatantly favors the Bulgarian Orthodox Church over the alternative Orthodox synod and other religious groups, thereby providing legal cover for the church seizures. While there is no numerical threshold for registration, the legal system established by the law appears open to manipulation and arbitrary decisions. Additionally, the sanctions available under the Law on Religions are also ambiguous yet far-reaching, potentially restricting a variety of religious freedom rights. It is not too late for Bulgarian authorities to erase this dark spot by immediately reinstating to the alternative synod full control of the seized properties until the courts settle the dispute. The overall situation for religious freedom is good in Slovenia, which became Chairman-in-Office of the OSCE on January 1, 2005. The registration system for religious communities is simple, and there are no numerical thresholds or formal requirements to overcome. While the small Muslim community in Ljubljana has experienced problems in obtaining permission to build a mosque, it appears the matter is being resolved. One city counselor successfully initiated a referendum in May opposing the zoning regulation change to allow the building of the mosque. However, the Constitutional Court found the referendum to be unconstitutional, thereby removing this hurdle to construction. It is hoped there will be no further bureaucratic delays, so construction can begin as Slovenia takes up the OSCE chairmanship. Law and Practice in Croatia and Macedonia While the freedom to practice religion is generally respected in Croatia, the Law on the Legal Status of Religious Communities passed in July 2002 falls short of OSCE commitments, establishing a discriminatory, tiered system of registration. For a new religious group to enjoy the rights and benefits available with the higher Religious Communities status, it must demonstrate a membership of at least 500 individuals and be registered under the lesser Religious Association status for five years. Benefits explicitly given to Religious Communities include: freedom to operate independently; capacity to determine their internal organization; freedom to conduct religious meetings in their own or leased space; tax exemptions; the right to establish schools; and ability to receive state funding. Considering Croatia’s candidacy for the European Union, current EU members France, the Netherlands, Italy, Germany, and Slovenia do not use membership thresholds in conferring registration. In addition to the excessive numerical threshold and the five-year prohibition on registering new groups as Religious Communities, the law declares that the name and insignia of a religious group may not contain the official names and insignia of other countries. Doing so will cause the denial of registration. In addition, it is unclear under the law whether Religious Communities or Associations may legally conduct meetings in private homes or apartments. To lessen the likelihood of problems in the future and to set a positive example for others, Croatia should correct these deficiencies, as well as eliminate or significantly reduce the 500-member threshold. The legal framework governing religious freedom in Macedonia is ambiguous, due to Constitutional Court decisions striking down provisions of the 1997 Law on Religious Communities and Religious Groups, such as the numerical threshold for registration. Since religious groups are required to register, the lack of a clear mechanism can be problematic. Adding to the confusion, the U.S. State Department reports that the remaining provisions of the religion law are not consistently applied, leading to arbitrary delays in granting registration. The government could easily close this gap by creating simple avenues to obtain equal status either through the civil or administrative code. In addition to these legal problems, concern exists about the situation surrounding Bishop Jovan (Zoran Vraniskovski). Macedonian officials, in response to the ecclesiastical dispute concerning the status of the Macedonian Orthodox Church, have over-reacted to Jovan’s activities on behalf of the Serbian Orthodox Church. Authorities in January 2004 arrested Jovan for conducting a church service in a private apartment. Responding to complaints of neighbors about disturbing the peace is appropriate, but sentencing him to 18 months in jail for “causing national, racial or religious hate, discord and intolerance” is excessive and unjustified. Escalating things further, police officials in October reportedly bulldozed the foundations of a new chapel Jovan’s followers had begun to build, allegedly because local authorities had not received permission to start construction. (There is also concern about reports the government intends to demolish another Serbian Orthodox Church established in the village of Luzani.) Those sympathetic to the larger issues surrounding the Macedonian Orthodox Church and its status should be among the first to defend the rights of others to participate in the church of their choosing. The government, at least, must exhibit more restraint and end these harassments, and also pay reparations for the destroyed buildings. Problematic Draft Laws Elsewhere The legal framework for Serbia remains uncertain, since the 1976 communist-era law was abandoned in 1993. A draft religion law circulated earlier this year contained numerous shortcomings, blatantly tilting the playing field in favor of seven “traditional” communities and establishing the numerical threshold of 1000 members for new groups to register. Despite improvements, the new draft micromanages the affairs of religious groups, while making contingent most of the rights and benefits available to religious communities on the meeting of the burdensome 1000-member threshold. For smaller groups, this will result in the serious limitation of their activities; the draft prohibits unregistered groups from renting or owning land for worship, using private apartments for meetings, holding public events, receiving donations or opening schools or orphanages. Registration can be revoked for vague and arbitrary reasons – if a group “destroys family” or “disrupts spiritual integrity . . . for the purpose of . . . spreading its doctrine.” The draft reaches into the internal affairs of religious groups, as all are “obliged” to “inspire understanding” of others and not “spread lies, prejudices or intolerance” against other faiths. In addition, local officials would be empowered to monitor how religious groups use voluntary contributions. Serbian authorities are urged to seek technical assistance and input from individuals on the OSCE Panel of Experts on Religious Freedom or Belief, just as their predecessors at the federal, Yugoslav level did roughly two years ago, in order to develop a new draft that comports with international norms and practice. Regarding other issues, a dispute over a Romani church in Leskovac will be resolved when municipal authorities fulfill a pledge to provide some of the land nearby for an alternative site. The State Department reports the Belgrade Islamic community continues to have problems obtaining land and government approval to open an Islamic cemetery. In addition, in response to the burning of two mosques in March, reports indicate that 12 people of the 100 plus arrested have been charged with criminal offenses, and news of convictions should be forthcoming. There is also concern about religious freedom in Kosovo, as reportedly only three individuals have been found guilty for their involvement in the March violence that resulted in the destruction or damage of 30 Serbian Orthodox Churches and monasteries. The two-year prison sentences issued were suspended, making the penalties nothing more than a slap on the wrist. In addition, recent legislative initiatives are troubling, as the latest draft of the Law on Religious Freedom and Legal Status of Religious Communities falls short of international standards. The drafting process has been closed to minority religious communities, as well. The comments of minority communities should be actively sought and fully considered during the public debate. Among its many problematic portions, the draft creates the preferential status of a Religious Community, while providing virtually no rights for the lesser Union of Natural Persons. Small or new groups are prevented from obtaining Religious Community status, as they must have 500 members and have been operating in Kosovo for at least five years, but it is unclear how that time is tolled. Only Religious Communities can publish materials, either in print or electronically, or obtain funds from voluntary contributions. The draft unduly limits speech and activities of all groups, stating they shall not “disrupt other religious communities, or citizens without religious convictions, in public manifestation of religion or other conviction.” The government may also select certain religious groups to participate in the Committee for Relations with Religious Communities, thereby giving favored faiths an inappropriate degree of oversight or veto over other religious groups. Lastly, for existing Religious Communities, the law would make rights contingent on reregistering successfully within six months of passage. There is growing concern by reports coming out of Romania regarding a new draft religion law being reviewed by a parliamentary subcommittee. Reliable sources indicate this legislation is based on the highly flawed 1999 draft, which set the numerical threshold for registration at 0.5% of Romania’s population, or over 100,000 people. If reports are true, it is deeply concerning that the parliament would resurrect this seriously problematic bill rather than starting afresh and incorporating the views of interested Romanian religious communities. The OSCE Panel of Experts would be willing to provide technical assistance if invited by the government, and such a gesture would help ensure the legislation upholds all OSCE commitments on religious freedom.

  • Democratization in Central Asia

    Mr. Speaker, as the 108th Congress comes to an end, I want to make some observations about democratization in Central Asia, an energy-rich and geo-strategically important region. All these states are ruled by secular leaders who cooperate with Washington against terrorists. There are U.S. bases in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, to help promote stabilization in Afghanistan. This collaboration benefits us, as well as Central Asian presidents, and should certainly continue. But unfortunately, these countries are some of the worst human rights violators in the OSCE space. Everywhere in the region, super-presidents dominate the political arena, with parliaments and judicial systems dependent on the executive branch. Media are under heavy government pressure; in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, Soviet-era censorship continues in force. Equally characteristic of Central Asian states is corruption, which has not only enriched the ruling families and the favored few at the top but has impeded the development of free media and independent courts.   True, much of this characterization could be said about all the post-Soviet states to some degree, including Russia. But it is important to point out that there is a counter, or competing tendency in the region, exemplified by Georgia’s Rose Revolution of a year ago. While Georgia has a long way to go, there is no doubt about the legitimacy or popularity of its leader, President Mikheil Saakashvili. Also the peaceful protest movement he led to overturn the results of a rigged election has emboldened opposition activists throughout the former Soviet Union to believe that society may yet be able to have a voice in who governs and how.   Central Asian leaders were quick to claim that circumstances in Georgia were so different from their own that no parallels were possible. Still, the Georgian example sent shivers down their spines. That is one reason why the elections in Central Asia that have taken place this year have been, as they were in the past, carefully controlled, with predictable outcomes.   Uzbekistan, for example, is holding parliamentary elections in December. No opposition parties have been allowed to operate in Uzbekistan since 1992-1993. Despite pressure from Washington, Tashkent refused to register opposition parties this year, leaving only five pro-government parties to participate. Moreover, Uzbek authorities have contrived to keep opposition candidates from registering in single mandate races – even though officials told the U.S. Delegation to the OSCE Human Dimension Implementation Review Meeting in Warsaw in October that opposition candidates would be able to run. The result is obvious in advance: another pro-government, pocket parliament, with no dissenting voices and no capacity to perform any oversight of the executive branch. It should be noted that there have been several outbursts of popular dissatisfaction in Uzbekistan in the last few months; President Islam Karimov’s tightly-run political system may be less stable than many suppose.   In neighboring, oil-rich Kazakhstan, opposition parties are registered and were able to compete in September’s parliamentary election. Kazakhstan had previously expressed its desire to become OSCE Chairman-in-Office in 2009, and many observers linked Kazakhstan’s chances to a good grade on the parliamentary election. But the assessment of OSCE and Council of Europe monitors – citing numerous infractions and an uneven playing field for pro-government parties and the opposition – was critical. Kazakhstan’s chances of winning the OSCE Chairmanship have clearly diminished. At the same time, President Nursultan Nazarbaev – who is under investigation for corruption by the U.S. Department of Justice – has announced his intention to run, yet again, for reelection in 2006. Some commentators speculate that he may hold snap elections next year, to keep his opposition off guard. Should he win and serve out another seven-year term, he will have been in office almost 25 years.   Obviously, Mr. Speaker, Central Asian leaders do not find the responsibilities of the presidency too burdensome: Tajikistan’s President Imomaly Rakhmonov last year orchestrated a referendum on constitutional changes that could allow him to remain in office until 2020. True, Tajikistan is the only country in Central Asia where Islamic political activism is tolerated. We await with interest the parliamentary elections, in which opposition and Islamic parties will participate, scheduled for next February.   As for Turkmenistan, one of the most repressive countries on earth, I’m pleased to note that freedom of religion advanced a bit. The government of President Saparmurat Niyazov took some steps to liberalize the process of registration for confessions – instead of 500 adult members per locality, now only five nationwide are needed to register a community. For years, only Sunni Islam and Russian Orthodoxy were legal; now Ashgabat has registered Baptists, Adventists, Hare Krishna’s, and Baha’is. Moreover, the authorities released six Jehovah’s Witnesses, although two others remain jailed along with the former grand mufti. These steps – taken under Western and especially U.S. pressure, but which we welcome nonetheless – allowed Turkmenistan to escape designation by the U.S. Government as a Country of Particular Concern this past year. However, troubling reports continue to emerge about limitations on religious freedom and harassment of registered and unregistered religious communities. We must continue to monitor the situation closely and encourage Turkmenistan to continue moving forward with reforms, as even the improved situation is far from meeting OSCE standards on religious freedom.   In all other respects, however, democratization has made no progress. Turkmenistan remains the only one-party state in the former Soviet bloc and Niyazov’s cult of personality continues unabated. Recently, he tried to discuss holding presidential elections in 2008. But in a farcical scene, the assembled officials and dignitaries refused to hear of it. They “insisted” that Niyazov remain Turkmenistan’s leader in perpetuity; he, duly humbled by their adulation, took the issue off the table.   This brings us to Kyrgyzstan, in many ways the most intriguing of the Central Asian states. Of all the region’s leaders, only President Askar Akaev, who has held office for almost 15 years, has announced his intention not to run next year for reelection – though he has phrased the pledge carefully if he changes his mind. Kyrgyzstan is also the only Central Asian country where a large-scale protest movement has ever seemed poised to force a Head of State out of office: in summer 2002, thousands of people furious about the shootings of demonstrators in a southern district blocked the country’s main road, and threatened a mass march on the capital, Bishkek. Ultimately, the movement petered out but the precedent of public activism was set.   President Akaev’s stated intention not to run again, the upcoming parliamentary (February 2005) and presidential (October 2005) elections and Kyrgyzstan’s history of protest movements make for an interesting situation. In the next few months, Akaev must make fateful decisions: the most important is whether or not to run again. If he chooses to stay in office for another term, he risks sparking demonstrations. Though Kyrgyzstan is not Georgia, something akin to a Rose Revolution should not be excluded as a possible scenario. If Akaev opts to step down, however, we should not expect that he, his family and entourage would permit free and fair elections. More likely, he will try to select a successor – as Boris Yeltsin did with Vladimir Putin in Russia – and act to ensure his victory. But that course, too, could lead to protests.   Any decision Akaev makes – with intrusive, anxious neighbors looking over his shoulder – is risky and might have resonance beyond Kyrgyzstan’s borders. For that reason, the elections in Kyrgyzstan next year are of great interest not only to the voters of that country but to capitals near and far. Mr. Speaker, I hope to be able to report to this chamber next year that democratization has made strides in Central Asia.

  • OSCE Conference Focuses on Racism, Xenophobia, and Discrimination

    By H. Knox Thames CSCE Counsel The second Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe conference on Tolerance and the Fight against Racism, Xenophobia and Discrimination convened in Brussels, Belgium, September 13-14, 2004.  Along with the first conference held last fall in Vienna, the two meetings were part of broad efforts by OSCE participating States to address concerns about intolerance and anti-Semitism. Alphonso Jackson, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, led the United States Delegation.  Other U.S. delegates included Dr. Maha Hadi Hussain, University of Michigan; Tamar Jacoby, Senior Fellow at the Manhattan Institute; William Cardinal Keeler, Archbishop of Baltimore; Larry Thompson, former U.S. Deputy Attorney General; Robert L. Woodson, President of the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise; and Stephan M. Minikes, U.S. Ambassador to the OSCE. Conference participants included 47 OSCE participating States, five Mediterranean Partners for Cooperation, and many non-governmental organizations representing a range of interests.  His Royal Highness Prince Filip of Belgium, His Royal Highness Prince Hassan of Jordan, and His All Holiness Patriarch Bartholomew I addressed the opening session of the conference.  United States Helsinki Commission Member Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (D-FL) also spoke at the opening session in his capacity as President of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly. The Brussels Conference consisted of four plenary sessions and four workshops.  Considering the broad themes of the conference, the plenary sessions focused on a variety of issues related to intolerance: governmental actions in law enforcement and promoting tolerance; efforts to combat discrimination against legal migrant workers; and efforts to promote tolerance through education and the media.  The workshop topics were equally diverse, addressing discriminatory government policies affecting religious freedoms, promotion of tolerance toward Muslims, and combating discrimination based on color. The Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights also reported on its strategy and activities relating to tolerance.        Members of the U.S. Delegation participated fully in all aspects of the conference, giving introductory statements at plenary sessions and actively engaging in discussions regarding various forms of discrimination. In the first session, “Legislative and Institutional Mechanisms and Governmental Action, including Law Enforcement,” U.S. Head of Delegation, Secretary Jackson noted that “abuses prompted by disregard for the principles of tolerance and non-discrimination occur in countries across the globe.  Some come in the form of individual acts of racism that harm only small numbers of people at a time.  Others come in the form of national policies that discriminate against certain segments of society.  All pose a challenge that all countries must confront directly in order to guarantee the freedom, democracy, and prosperity that we hold dear.” During the workshop entitled “Facilitating Freedom of Religion and Belief through Transparent and Non-Discriminatory Laws, Regulations, Policies and Procedures,” Cardinal Keeler stressed that participating States must “work to implement non-discriminatory laws, avoiding those that limit the ability of groups to operate equally. Registration systems should not create unfair tiered systems offering unique benefits and privileges to some and lesser legal status to others, or establish numerical thresholds almost impossible to meet.” Dr. Hussain’s contribution to the workshop on “Promotion of Tolerance and Non-Discrimination toward Muslims” addressed a number of issues, also singling out specific examples of governmental discrimination against Muslims.  “While the threat of terrorism is real and it can never be condoned, the negative attention stigmatizes communities and fosters xenophobia against minorities—be they Muslims, Arabs or others,” said Hussain.  “It also can result in violation of individual privacy and abuse of police powers.  It is hard to justify these actions, particularly in democratic states where human and minority rights are meant to be protected.” In the closing session, Secretary Jackson urged OSCE participating States and conference participants to combat all forms of discrimination, especially those based on skin color.  He spoke from his own experiences growing up in the southern United States in the 1960s during the  Civil Rights Movement.  Jackson noted how far the United States has traveled toward tolerance.  He observed, however, that work within the United States is not finished.  “That is why we gathered here this week to share our experiences and learn all we can from one another … to discuss the successes we have achieved in our respective countries … and to recommit ourselves to resolving the challenges that remain,” Secretary Jackson said.  “We know there is much work ahead of us, but as nations committed to promoting tolerance and diversity, we must focus the combined and concerted efforts of government, civil society, and individuals in the pursuit of positive change.”  The U.S. Delegation proposed 13 recommendations for consideration in future efforts to address issues of discrimination and intolerance, which included: Leaders of participating States should speak out and take resolute action against attacks and crimes directed at individuals based on race, color, religion, political or other opinion, sex, language, national or social origin, property, birth or other status. Participating States without anti-discrimination laws should enact such legislation at the earliest opportunity.  Those states with anti-discrimination laws should make strengthening such legislation a top priority.  All states may consult ODIHR on best practices. Participating States should reach out to minority communities and establish procedures for the reporting of possible bias-motivated crimes and violations of anti-discrimination laws.  Authorities should ensure the rapid and effective investigation and prosecution of such crimes. Participating States, OSCE Institutions, and NGOs should cooperate in developing training programs for law enforcement and justice officials on legislation relating to hate crimes and its enforcement. Participating States should affirmatively declare that institutionalized discrimination against religious communities is unacceptable and ensure that their legal systems foster equality, not subordination, of religious groups.  Registration laws, policies, and procedures should be non-discriminatory, neutral and transparent and should not use overly burdensome numerical or temporal thresholds. The OSCE should consider meetings on the promotion of tolerance and nondiscrimination toward Muslims. The conference concluded in similar fashion to the Berlin Conference on Anti-Semitism, with the reading of a declaration by OSCE Chair-in-Office, Bulgarian Foreign Minister Solomon Passy.  The “Brussels Declaration” condemned “without reserve all forms of racism, xenophobia and anti-Semitism and other acts of intolerance and discrimination, including against Muslims” and organizations and individuals that promote “hatred or acts of racism, xenophobia, discrimination, or related intolerance, including against Muslims, and anti-Semitism.”  In parallel to the Berlin Declaration, the Brussels Declaration also declared “unambiguously that international developments or political issues never justify racism, xenophobia or discrimination,” while also rejecting the “identification of terrorism and extremism with any religion, culture, ethnic group, nationality or race.”  Following the Berlin precedent, the Brussels Declaration incorporated a previously agreed Permanent Council decision setting forth actions participating States and ODIHR should undertake.  Reinforcing the PC decision for Berlin, participating States again agreed to “collect and maintain reliable information and statistics about hate crimes” and to forward that information to ODIHR periodically, and directed ODIHR to work with international organizations in this endeavor and to report their findings to the Permanent Council.  States decided to “take steps to combat acts of discrimination and violence” against Muslims, migrants and migrant workers, and to consider “undertaking activities to raise public awareness of the enriching contribution of migrants and migrant workers to society.”  In addition, governments committed to “consider establishing training programmes for law enforcement and judicial officials on legislation and enforcement of legislation relating to hate crimes.”  The Brussels Declaration and statements given at the conference are available at http://www.osce.org/events/conferences/tolerance2004.  The United States Helsinki Commission, an independent federal agency, by law monitors and encourages progress in implementing provisions of the Helsinki Accords.  The Commission, created in 1976, is composed of nine Senators, nine Representatives and one official each from the Departments of State, Defense, and Commerce.     United States Helsinki Commission Intern Judy Abel contributed to this article.

  • OSCE Conference Focuses on Racism, Xenophobia, and Discrimination

    By H. Knox Thames CSCE Counsel The second Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe conference on Tolerance and the Fight against Racism, Xenophobia and Discrimination convened in Brussels, Belgium, September 13-14, 2004.  Along with the first conference held last fall in Vienna, the two meetings were part of broad efforts by OSCE participating States to address concerns about intolerance and anti-Semitism. Alphonso Jackson, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, led the United States Delegation.  Other U.S. delegates included Dr. Maha Hadi Hussain, University of Michigan; Tamar Jacoby, Senior Fellow at the Manhattan Institute; William Cardinal Keeler, Archbishop of Baltimore; Larry Thompson, former U.S. Deputy Attorney General; Robert L. Woodson, President of the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise; and Stephan M. Minikes, U.S. Ambassador to the OSCE. Conference participants included 47 OSCE participating States, five Mediterranean Partners for Cooperation, and many non-governmental organizations representing a range of interests.  His Royal Highness Prince Filip of Belgium, His Royal Highness Prince Hassan of Jordan, and His All Holiness Patriarch Bartholomew I addressed the opening session of the conference.  United States Helsinki Commission Member Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (D-FL) also spoke at the opening session in his capacity as President of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly. The Brussels Conference consisted of four plenary sessions and four workshops.  Considering the broad themes of the conference, the plenary sessions focused on a variety of issues related to intolerance: governmental actions in law enforcement and promoting tolerance; efforts to combat discrimination against legal migrant workers; and efforts to promote tolerance through education and the media.  The workshop topics were equally diverse, addressing discriminatory government policies affecting religious freedoms, promotion of tolerance toward Muslims, and combating discrimination based on color. The Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights also reported on its strategy and activities relating to tolerance.       Members of the U.S. Delegation participated fully in all aspects of the conference, giving introductory statements at plenary sessions and actively engaging in discussions regarding various forms of discrimination. In the first session, “Legislative and Institutional Mechanisms and Governmental Action, including Law Enforcement,” U.S. Head of Delegation, Secretary Jackson noted that “abuses prompted by disregard for the principles of tolerance and non-discrimination occur in countries across the globe.  Some come in the form of individual acts of racism that harm only small numbers of people at a time.  Others come in the form of national policies that discriminate against certain segments of society.  All pose a challenge that all countries must confront directly in order to guarantee the freedom, democracy, and prosperity that we hold dear.” During the workshop entitled “Facilitating Freedom of Religion and Belief through Transparent and Non-Discriminatory Laws, Regulations, Policies and Procedures,” Cardinal Keeler stressed that participating States must “work to implement non-discriminatory laws, avoiding those that limit the ability of groups to operate equally. Registration systems should not create unfair tiered systems offering unique benefits and privileges to some and lesser legal status to others, or establish numerical thresholds almost impossible to meet.” Dr. Hussain’s contribution to the workshop on “Promotion of Tolerance and Non-Discrimination toward Muslims” addressed a number of issues, also singling out specific examples of governmental discrimination against Muslims.  “While the threat of terrorism is real and it can never be condoned, the negative attention stigmatizes communities and fosters xenophobia against minorities—be they Muslims, Arabs or others,” said Hussain.  “It also can result in violation of individual privacy and abuse of police powers.  It is hard to justify these actions, particularly in democratic states where human and minority rights are meant to be protected.” In the closing session, Secretary Jackson urged OSCE participating States and conference participants to combat all forms of discrimination, especially those based on skin color.  He spoke from his own experiences growing up in the southern United States in the 1960s during the  Civil Rights Movement.  Jackson noted how far the United States has traveled toward tolerance.  He observed, however, that work within the United States is not finished. “That is why we gathered here this week to share our experiences and learn all we can from one another … to discuss the successes we have achieved in our respective countries … and to recommit ourselves to resolving the challenges that remain,” Secretary Jackson said.  “We know there is much work ahead of us, but as nations committed to promoting tolerance and diversity, we must focus the combined and concerted efforts of government, civil society, and individuals in the pursuit of positive change.” The U.S. Delegation proposed 13 recommendations for consideration in future efforts to address issues of discrimination and intolerance, which included: Leaders of participating States should speak out and take resolute action against attacks and crimes directed at individuals based on race, color, religion, political or other opinion, sex, language, national or social origin, property, birth or other status. Participating States without anti-discrimination laws should enact such legislation at the earliest opportunity.  Those states with anti-discrimination laws should make strengthening such legislation a top priority.  All states may consult ODIHR on best practices. Participating States should reach out to minority communities and establish procedures for the reporting of possible bias-motivated crimes and violations of anti-discrimination laws.  Authorities should ensure the rapid and effective investigation and prosecution of such crimes. Participating States, OSCE Institutions, and NGOs should cooperate in developing training programs for law enforcement and justice officials on legislation relating to hate crimes and its enforcement. Participating States should affirmatively declare that institutionalized discrimination against religious communities is unacceptable and ensure that their legal systems foster equality, not subordination, of religious groups.  Registration laws, policies, and procedures should be non-discriminatory, neutral and transparent and should not use overly burdensome numerical or temporal thresholds. The OSCE should consider meetings on the promotion of tolerance and nondiscrimination toward Muslims. The conference concluded in similar fashion to the Berlin Conference on Anti-Semitism, with the reading of a declaration by OSCE Chair-in-Office, Bulgarian Foreign Minister Solomon Passy.  The “Brussels Declaration” condemned “without reserve all forms of racism, xenophobia and anti-Semitism and other acts of intolerance and discrimination, including against Muslims” and organizations and individuals that promote “hatred or acts of racism, xenophobia, discrimination, or related intolerance, including against Muslims, and anti-Semitism.”  In parallel to the Berlin Declaration, the Brussels Declaration also declared “unambiguously that international developments or political issues never justify racism, xenophobia or discrimination,” while also rejecting the “identification of terrorism and extremism with any religion, culture, ethnic group, nationality or race.” Following the Berlin precedent, the Brussels Declaration incorporated a previously agreed Permanent Council decision setting forth actions participating States and ODIHR should undertake.  Reinforcing the PC decision for Berlin, participating States again agreed to “collect and maintain reliable information and statistics about hate crimes” and to forward that information to ODIHR periodically, and directed ODIHR to work with international organizations in this endeavor and to report their findings to the Permanent Council.  States decided to “take steps to combat acts of discrimination and violence” against Muslims, migrants and migrant workers, and to consider “undertaking activities to raise public awareness of the enriching contribution of migrants and migrant workers to society.”  In addition, governments committed to “consider establishing training programmes for law enforcement and judicial officials on legislation and enforcement of legislation relating to hate crimes.” The Brussels Declaration and statements given at the conference are available at http://www.osce.org/events/conferences/tolerance2004. The United States Helsinki Commission, an independent federal agency, by law monitors and encourages progress in implementing provisions of the Helsinki Accords.  The Commission, created in 1976, is composed of nine Senators, nine Representatives and one official each from the Departments of State, Defense, and Commerce.  United States Helsinki Commission Intern Judy Abel contributed to this article.

  • Greater Regulation of Religion in Kazakhstan?

    Mr. Speaker, as Chairman of the U.S. Helsinki Commission I am concerned about Kazakhstan’s draft law on combating extremist activity, as the legislation could violate Kazakhstan’s OSCE commitments on religious freedom and damage the country’s positive reputation on religious tolerance and liberty. In President Nursultan Nazarbaev’s address to the parliament on September 1, he urged deputies to pass the bill while dismissing concerns about the further regulation of religion. Nevertheless, the text is problematic in several respects and would benefit from further refinement. Considering that Kazakhstan wishes to be the OSCE Chair-in-Office in 2009, I urge Kazakhstan to seek the advice of the OSCE Panel of Experts on Religious Freedom or Belief, as President Nazarbaev wisely did two years ago regarding a proposed draft law on religion. Intended to combat terrorism, the draft law would criminalize membership in certain groups or the holding of certain beliefs, rather than combating actual criminal deeds. A critical portion of the law is also vague, as the text fails to define clearly the term “extremism.” The omission is glaring and will very likely lead to its misapplication. In addition, the draft uses the word “religious” ten times and links religion with an ill-defined understanding of “extremism.” In the context of an anti-terrorism law, such a connection gives rise to concern, as these types of statutes can easily be misused against unpopular religious communities. The draft law would strengthen state control over religious activity by giving the State Agency for Work with Religious Associations the ability to monitor groups. From its observations, the State Agency can recommend the banning of a group for “extremist activity,” but again the text does not spell out what activities would qualify. Another problematic provision included in the draft concerns the foreign classification of a group as “extremist,” as the law will honor the classification by another country and ban their activity in Kazakhstan. This clause would in effect allow the long arm of a repressive government to outlaw a group in Kazakhstan, as well. I remember when a Moscow court labeled the Salvation Army as a “paramilitary” organization; under this draft bill, Kazakhstan could follow this erroneous assertion and ban this well-respected humanitarian organization. Existing Kazakh law fully provides for the prosecution of criminal acts, so these new provisions are not only unnecessary but harmful. In fact, some articles of current law are too restrictive. For example, Article 375 of the Administrative Code, which requires the registration of religious groups, should be removed. I have received consistent reports since the promulgation of Article 375 of unregistered groups being penalized for legitimate activities and their facing civil and criminal sanctions. Considering the recurring misuse of civil regulations, I fear further abuse under the draft law. I understand that President Nazarbaev is concerned about the spread of extremism in his country, especially from “radical” Islamic groups. The President may be tempted to follow the actions of his neighbors, especially Uzbekistan, but I would advise him otherwise. The Uzbek Government has for years ruthlessly clamped down on pious Muslims suspected of being associated with Hizb ut-Tahrir. This reactionary and heavy-handed policy has proven counterproductive, antagonizing the devout Muslim population and leaving it receptive to other, radical voices. Instead of defeating terrorists, demanding legal requirements for religious practice and Uzbekistan’s harsh responses have restricted the religious freedoms of the many peaceful Muslims and Christians wanting to practice their faith. Obviously, individuals involved in criminal activity in Kazakhstan should be punished. But, by banning entire groups, particularly independent mosques outside the control of the state-backed Muslim Spiritual Association, entire communities will be penalized. The result will be the inappropriate limiting of a fundamental freedom, while doing little to prevent criminal acts. In closing, the Congress of World and Traditional Religions convened by President Nazarbaev himself was successful in bringing together Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist and Hindu leaders to discuss tolerance and understanding. I fear that the draft law on extremism, if not amended, will sully Kazakhstan’s reputation on religious tolerance by unduly limiting religious freedoms through the criminalization of certain memberships and beliefs as opposed to addressing real criminal activity.

  • Religious Freedom in the Caucasus

    Helsinki Commission Chairman Hon. Chris Smith and Commission Staff Advisors Elizabeth Pryor and Knox Thames evaluated issues regarding religious freedom in the Caucasus states. In Azerbaijan, unregistered religious communities experienced harassment from authorities; in Armenia, government policy regarding registration restriction for religious groups conflicted with the government’s commitment to human rights; and Georgian authorities needed to investigate and prosecute perpetrators of violent assaults against religious minorities. Witnesses testifying at the hearing – including Eric Rassbach, Counsel for The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty; Andre Carbonneau, Attorney for Jehovah’s Witnesses; and Dr. Paul Crego, Senior Cataloging Specialist for the Library of Congress – focused on the violations of religious freedom perpetrated by the governments of each of these three states and emphasized the potential role of the international community, and specifically the United States government, in resolving these violations.

  • Commission Hearing Surveys Human Rights in Putin's Russia

    By John Finerty Staff Advisor The United States Helsinki Commission held a hearing on May 20, 2004 to review governance practices and human rights in the Russian Federation under President Vladimir Putin.  Witnesses focused on media independence, religious freedom, judicial procedures, xenophobia and anti-Semitism, and the war in Chechnya. Opening the hearing, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-NJ) expressed apprehension that President Putin was leading Russia in an authoritarian direction, increasingly reliant on Russia’s security apparatus and intelligence agencies to govern the country.  Commission Ranking Member Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-MD) also voiced his concerns, focusing on corruption in the Russian Government and abuses in the war in Chechnya. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Steven Pifer stated that Russians enjoy freedom of travel and emigration, and an independent print media that engages in robust political debates; religious association and expression is generally free, and Russians have incorporated voting into their political practices. However, Pifer voiced concern with the Putin administration’s undue influence on judicial proceedings, state control or sway over the broadcast media, the pressuring of non-governmental organizations, anti-Semitism, abuses in the war in Chechnya, and the lack of a level electoral playing field for the political opposition. Ambassador Pifer cited the U.S. record of advocating democratization and human rights to the Russian leadership, while pursuing cooperation on mutual security interests such as the war on terrorism, arms control, counter-proliferation, and the resolution of regional conflicts. Gary Kasparov, former world chess champion and chairman of Committee 2008: Free Choice, presented a critical view of the Putin administration, lamenting the slide of the Russian Government into authoritarianism.  He described a variety of policies undertaken by the Putin administration that he viewed as backtracking from the democratic progress of the 1990s, including the curtailment of civil liberties and the flagrant abuse of human rights. Specifically, Kasparov described government influence over the broadcast media and manipulation of elections. The war in Chechnya had been sidelined as a topic of news discussion, he asserted, thus facilitating the concealment of wartime human rights abuses.  He also faulted the media for disregarding the ineptness of government responses to terrorist attacks. On elections, Kasparov characterized the December 2003 parliamentary polls as unfair, and predicted that President Putin would use parliamentary maneuvers to change the constitution and extend his term, perhaps indefinitely. Mr. Kasparov condemned Russian activities in the Chechen war and described how “hundreds of Chechens, if not thousands, are being interrogated, tortured and killed” by Russian soldiers. He called for the deployment of independent observers to monitor Russian behavior and promote observance of human rights.  As a final critique, Kasparov charged that Putin had stripped the judicial system of its independence and was using it to silence political opponents and critics, such as Mikhail Khordorkovsky and Igor Sutyagin. As for solutions, Kasparov highlighted his efforts to expose the corruption of the December 2003 elections through a lawsuit and public advocacy. He also urged the United States to use diplomatic means to leverage the Russian Government into democratic and civil liberties concessions. Edward Lozansky, president of Russia House and the American University in Moscow, offered a contrasting opinion, pointing to the successes of the Putin administration in taming the “oligarchs” and encouraging economic growth. He viewed state control of the broadcast media as less of a crisis, contending that free alternatives, such as print, electronic, and foreign media, provide the people with a variety of viewpoints. Ultimately, Dr. Lozansky argued, “President Putin enjoys overwhelming support of the Russian people” and that the Russian people “can freely express their opinions.” In closing, Lozansky suggested the United States should not undermine its relationship with Russia through unnecessary criticism, since bilateral cooperation between the nations remains essential in the war on terrorism, space exploration, energy, and the environment.  Engagement and dialogue, rather than condemnation, is paramount, he suggested. Reverend Igor Nikitin, president of the Association of Christian Churches in Russia, offered a mixed assessment of the status of religious liberty in Russia.  In northwest Russia and St. Petersburg particularly, religious tolerance is the norm.  In other regions, however, Protestant churches and other non-Orthodox denominations have experienced discrimination and bureaucratic malfeasance.  For instance, an unconstitutional requirement for churches to register their members – as opposed to merely the institution – is frequently enforced by local authorities, and a Moscow court has ordered the “liquidation” of the city’s community of Jehovah’s Witnesses.  Nikitin urged measures to educate Russian officials on the importance of religious freedom as a civil liberty. Nickolai Butkevich, Research and Advocacy Director of the Union of Councils for Jews in the Former Soviet Union, discussed the situation regarding xenophobia and the treatment of minorities in Russia. Mr. Butkevich noted that President Putin has made efforts at the national level to combat xenophobia, but that implementation of relevant directives is uneven at the local level. Some regions and cities have combated xenophobia and anti-Semitism, while other authorities have actively encouraged it. Mr. Butkevich described cases in Vladivostok, Voronezh, and other cities where individuals had been subject to abuse and local authorities reacted uncaringly or in collusion with perpetrators. In answer to a question posed by Chairman Smith on the disparity between the Russian Government’s public and international pronouncements that it will combat anti-Semitism and its failed implementation of such policies domestically, Butkevich blamed the disparity on a lack of prioritization by the central government.  Mr. Kasparov contended though that President Putin has done nothing to address anti-Semitism or quell xenophobia. Answering other questions on the attitudes of the United States and the West toward the Chechen situation, governmental corruption, and the judiciary, Dr. Lozansky replied that Russia is stabilizing under the pragmatic policies of President Putin and that the international community must engage the country on matters of mutual interest. The witnesses responded with divergent views as to whether Russia was moving toward autocracy.  While Kasparov made his case strongly that Russia was, Lozansky again insisted that it was not.  Mr. Butkevich suggested that Russia was “backsliding toward authoritarianism,” but that President Putin certainly retains popular support. Reverend Nikitin stressed that the next few years will determine whether Russia evolves toward civil and religious liberty or tsarist, oppressive governance reemerges. The United States Helsinki Commission, an independent agency, by law monitors and encourages progress in implementing provisions of the Helsinki Accords. The Commission created in 1976, is composed of nine Senators, nine Representatives, and one official from the Departments of State, Defense, and Commerce. United States Helsinki Commission Intern Colby Daughtry contributed to this article.

  • OSCE Meeting Examines Hate Crimes and Racist, Xenophobic, and Anti-Semitic Internet Propaganda

      “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” – Voltaire By Erika Schlager CSCE Counsel on International Law On June 16 and 17, 2004, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s participating States met in Paris for a meeting on “the Relationship between Racist, Xenophobic and Anti-Semitic Propaganda on the Internet and Hate Crimes.”  The meeting was part of an OSCE focus this year on racism, xenophobia, discrimination, and anti-Semitism and, like two other special human dimension meetings scheduled for this year, was mandated by the OSCE Ministerial Meeting held Maastricht last December. Conferences on anti-Semitism (held in Berlin, April 28-29) and racism, discrimination and xenophobia (to be held in Brussels, September 13-14) are intended to build on high-level meetings already held last year in Vienna on those same subjects. The Paris meeting focused on a specific issue – the Internet - related to the overall topic.   The convocation of a special meeting on the relationship between racist, xenophobic and anti-Semitic propaganda on the Internet and hate crimes was the product of advocacy by non-governmental organizations such as IN@CH, the International Network Against Cyber Hate, and the leadership of the Government of France.  IN@CH had previously raised awareness of the problem of hate mongering on the Internet at the OSCE’s annual Human Dimension Implementation Meeting in 2002 and, at the 2003 Human Dimension Implementation Meeting, hosted a side-event on the subject.  Historically, the OSCE has been most effective when governments gain a sense of ownership of an issue and exercise leadership in moving it forward.  Non-governmental organizations typically play a critical role in identifying concrete human rights problems and bringing them to the attention of governments. The U.S. Delegation to the Paris meeting was jointly led by Ambassador Stephan M. Minikes, head of the U.S. Mission to the OSCE; R. Alexander Acosta, Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights; and Dan Bryant, Assistant Attorney General for Legal Policy.  Markham Erickson, General Counsel from Net Coalition; Brian Marcus, Director of Internet Monitoring; Anti-Defamation League, and Ronald Rychlak, Professor of Law and Associate Dean, University of Mississippi Law School, joined the delegation as Public Members.  Other members of the delegation came from the Department of State, the Department of Justice, and the Helsinki Commission.  The United States Delegation engaged fully in the 2-day meeting, making presentations in all formal sessions and side events, holding bilateral meetings, and conducting consultations with non-governmental organizations.  Assistant Attorney General Dan Bryant was a keynote speaker. Although the meeting was mandated to examine the relationship between hate propaganda on the Internet and hate crimes, few participants actually discussed the nexus between these two phenomena.  For many participants, the existence of a cause-and-effect relationship was simply an article of faith or intuition, and did not lead to an exploration of the nature of that relationship.  As a consequence, the meeting made only a marginal contribution to an understanding of which populations might be most vulnerable to the influence of hate propaganda, whether hate propaganda on the Internet fosters some particular kinds of hate crimes more than others, or whether the effect of hate propaganda on the Internet plays a different role in fostering violent crimes than, for example, weak law enforcement or public officials who make or refuse to condemn racist, anti-Semitic or xenophobic remarks.  It is not clear whether web-based hate propaganda is related to spikes in hate crimes that have occurred in some countries in recent years, or why, as seems to be the case, some places with unfettered Internet access have relatively lower levels of hate crimes than other places with similarly unfettered Internet access. Nevertheless, participants did address a broad range of subjects related to hate propaganda, hate crimes and the Internet over the course of the two days.  Formal sessions focused on “Legislative Framework, Including Domestic and International Legislation Regarding Propaganda on the Internet and Hate Crimes,” “The Nature and Extent of the Relationship between Racist, Xenophobic and anti-Semitic Propaganda on the Internet and Hate Crimes,” “Public and Private Partnerships in the Fight Against Racism, Xenophobia and Anti-Semitism on the Internet – Best Practices,” and “Promoting Tolerance on and through the Internet – Best Practices to Educate Users and Heighten Public Awareness.”   Side events were held on “Guaranteeing Media Freedom on the Internet,” “‘The IN@CH Network’ - Dealing with Cyber Hate on a Daily Basis,” “Identifying Examples of Hate Speech: A BBC Monitoring Project,” “Filtering: Princip, the Solution that goes beyond Key Words,” “Satellite Television and Anti-Semitism: How to Combat the Dissemination in Europe of Racist and Anti-Semitic Propaganda through Satellite Television?” and “Promoting Awareness of Anti-Semitism in the European Classroom: Teacher Training, Curricula, and the Internet.” A number of speakers, including U.S. Government representatives, discussed the legal mechanisms for action that might be taken when hate propaganda rises to the level of a crime in and of itself, such as when the hate propaganda constitutes a threat or incitement to a criminal action.  Many speakers discussed the role of non-governmental organizations in monitoring and facilitating the removal of hate sites from the web when they violate the terms of agreements with their Internet service providers (ISPs).  Some participants described ways in which the pernicious effects of hate speech can be mitigated or countered.  For example, a Canadian non-governmental organization, Media Awareness Network, made a presentation on programs in Canadian schools designed to teach children to distinguish between hate propaganda sites and legitimate information sources.  Vividly illustrating the challenges and risks for those organizations which monitor and report on the activities of extremist hate groups, the offices of People Against Racism, a Slovak non-governmental organization that participated in Paris meeting, were burned out only weeks before the meeting opened. Although there was broad agreement on the goal of combating hate propaganda, some participants flagged concerns about the methods that might be used to that end.  For example, industry representatives provided some insight regarding difficulties faced due to the technological challenges of tracking, filtering, or blocking hate propaganda transmitted through the Internet, emails, or text messaging.  Some concepts of regulation, they argued, could not be effectively implemented given the state of current technology.  Asking ISPs to be responsible for screening all content on the web is not feasible, anymore than making telephone companies responsible for everything that gets said over the telephone. A few participants drew attention to factors other than hate propaganda on the Internet that may contribute to hate crimes.  A Russian non-governmental representative, for example, remarked that there was more anti-Semitism in the Russian State Duma than on Russian-language web sites.  And, illustrating the complexities of deciding exactly what constitutes hate propaganda, one non-governmental representative argued that evangelical Christian sites that reach out to Jews should be considered anti-Semitic.  Similarly, the Russian delegation identified the web sites of the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Hare Krishnas as “promoting hate doctrines.” Other concerns were voiced as well.  Some non-governmental groups suggested that ISPs were ill-suited to determine whether web sites constituted hate propaganda or not.  One described an ISP that removed an innocuous site devoted to English philosopher John Stuart Mill after that non-governmental organization – testing the bases upon which ISPs would act – urged the ISP to take down the allegedly racist site. Regulation of hate propaganda by ISPs, they concluded, lacked transparency and accountability. Some speakers warned that combating hate propaganda could be used as a pretense for sanctioning views disfavored by the regime.  The International League for Human Rights suggested that states with “weak democratic institutions and traditions” should not be entrusted with additional powers of control beyond those that already exist.  Indeed, some speakers argued there have already been instances where laws against incitement to racial hatred (or similar laws) have been misapplied for political or other purposes.  The ongoing fight against terrorism, they suggested, increases that danger.  In fact, only days after the Paris meeting concluded [June 22], the Paris-based watchdog Reporters without Borders released a report entitled “Internet Under Surveillance,” documenting repression of the Internet around the globe.  One of the U.S. recommendations made during the meeting was that the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media should examine whether hate speech laws are being enforced in a discriminatory or selective manner or misused to suppress political dissent.  The full texts of statements circulated at the Paris meeting by the United States and other participants are available through the OSCE’s Internet web site at http://www.osce.org/events/conferences/anti-racism. One of the sub-texts of the meeting was the putative “Atlantic Divide.” In the context of discussions of “cyber hate” and hate crimes, this phrase was used to describe the perceived gulf between the United States’ and Europe’s approaches to hate propaganda.  According to the adherents of the “Atlantic divide” theory, the United States is a free-speech Wild West, where speech has no limitations or legal consequences.  “Europe,” in contrast, is portrayed as a unified region speaking with one voice, populated by those who have wisely learned from the horrors of World War II that dangerous speech can and must be sanctioned and that governments are easily capable of performing this task and do so as a matter of course.  The “Atlantic Divide” perception was fostered by Robert Badinter, former French Minister of Justice and current president of the OSCE Court of Arbitration and Conciliation, who, in a keynote address, dramatically appealed to the United States to “stop hiding behind the first amendment.” Others, however, implicitly or explicitly rejected this overly simplistic image.  In the United States, a long chain of legal authority recognizes that the right to free speech and freedom of expression is not absolute.  As U.S. Public Member Robert Rychlak noted, “When speech crosses the line and becomes more than speech – when it presents a clear and present danger – the authorities must be prepared to step in and take legal action.  At that time, the speech may constitute an actual threat, true harassment, or be an incitement to imminent lawlessness.”  Department of Justice officials separately gave examples of numerous recent cases where individuals were prosecuted for sending email messages that rose to the level racially motivated threats.  While it is important not to over-read these or related cases – criminal sanctions based purely on one’s opinion remain prohibited – they should dispel the misimpression that there are no limitations whatsoever on speech or the consequences of speech in the United States. Conversely, the context of the meeting also provided an opportunity to reflect on the image of Europe as a continent uniformly bound in a single regulatory approach to hate speech.  In reality, the national laws relating to hate speech of individual European countries vary considerably; what constitutes prohibited speech in one country may be permitted in the next.  Moreover, both national courts and the European Court of Human Rights apply balancing tests to speech restrictions that, while not identical to balancing tests applied by U.S. courts, are not entirely dissimilar.  The Hungarian Constitutional Court, for example, in May 2004 held that a proposed hate speech law would violate the free speech provisions of the Hungarian Constitution.  Just before the opening of the Paris meeting, on June 13, the French Constitutional Council struck down parts of a new law governing communication over the Internet (adopted to implement a June 8, 2000, European Union directive on electronic commerce). The United States Helsinki Commission, an independent federal agency, by law monitors and encourages progress in implementing provisions of the Helsinki Accords.  The Commission, created in 1976, is composed of nine Senators, nine Representatives and one official each from the Departments of State, Defense, and Commerce.

  • Helsinki Commission Briefing Sheds Light on Russia's Human Rights Situation

    By John Finerty CSCE Staff Advisor On June 7, 2004, the United States Helsinki Commission held a briefing with four prominent Russian human rights activists to examine the state of human rights and civil liberties in the Russian Federation.  Entitled “Russia: Are Rights in Retreat?,” the briefing covered such topics as elections, Chechnya, religious liberty, media freedom and the overall functioning of the legislative and judicial branches. The briefing was a follow up to the Commission’s May 20th hearing on “Human Rights in Putin’s Russia.” The briefing panel included Ludmilla Alexeeva, Chairwoman of the Moscow Helsinki Group and President of the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights.  Other participants were Arseni Roginsky, Chairman of the International Memorial Society; Alexei Simonov, Head of the Glasnost Defense Fund; and Mara Polyakova, Director of the Independent Council for Legal Expertise. Commission Deputy Chief of Staff Ronald J. McNamara began the briefing with a moment of silence to honor the passing of President Ronald Reagan, a “stalwart supporter of freedom and human rights.” McNamara noted the timeliness of the briefing given Russian President Vladimir Putin’s U.S. visit to Sea Island, Georgia, for the G-8 Summit.  He stated that despite Putin’s claim that “nothing will stop Russia” in its quest for economic and democratic freedom, some of Putin’s comments in his State of the Federation address had raised concerns over the Kremlin’s commitment to promote civil society in Russia.  Putin’s accusations of NGOs seeking outside funding and not addressing serious issues were particularly troubling insofar as they may signal the beginning of a crackdown against NGOs in Russia.  Mr. McNamara also referenced the growing problem of “spy mania,” with potentially chilling implications for Russia’s academics and scientific community. Arseni Roginsky began his remarks by stating that the trend in Russia over the past few years has been marked by “the efforts of the powers-that-be to destroy the isolated islands of independence and democracy that still continue to exist in Russia.”  Specifically, Roginsky pointed to the new Russian law limiting public demonstrations and a new law on referenda.  In sentiments echoed by other panelists, he decried the emergence of “made-to-order” elections controlled almost exclusively by the Putin administration and moneyed interests. Ms. Alexeeva later reiterated the concern about the changes on referenda, noting that even if the requisite two million signatures can be garnered, under the new law she believes mid-level Russian bureaucrats will be able to stop indefinitely the progress of a referendum. While the Putin administration has been quick to point to the Russian Constitution and its promise of free speech, Roginsky and panelist Alexei Simonov both claimed that this de jure right does not exist in reality.  According to Simonov, while Russians may be legally entitled to say or print controversial statements, these sentiments are ignored by the powers-that-be. He contended that “[freedom of speech] means not only to shout out but to be heard.”  According to Simonov, there are only four independent-minded Russian magazines with a combined circulation of around 500,000. Smaller such newspapers exist as well, but the costs of protecting against defamation suits, which number more than 50 per month according to Simonov, make it increasingly hard for them to stay in business.  He also stated that most editorials in newspapers are written by what amount to essentially local bureaucrats; most newspapers rely on government or private funding, making them hardly free and independent.  Simonov estimates that only 10 to 15 percent of newspapers are self-sustaining. “Most of them take money from somewhere, and each has this special somewhere, but nobody wants to speak of these ‘somewheres,’” he concluded. Related to this issue is more direct government control over radio and television broadcasts which are the main source of information for most Russians. Ms. Alexeeva and other panelists asserted that “government-controlled media reported those campaigns [in 2003/2004] in an utterly biased way,” denying access to opposition candidates and giving the United Russia Party extensive coverage. Another common theme throughout the briefing was the lack of judicial independence or reform. Mr. Roginsky prefaced the topic by noting that “…the court system is under great influence of the nationalistic, patriotic ideology that is flourishing in Russia at this time.” He specifically spoke of a recent case involving four Russian soldiers who admitted to killing six Chechen civilians by mistake and then attempting to cover it up.  In Mr. Roginsky’s words, “The jury and the courts did state that indeed the murder had taken place; the people were killed. The people who were being tried were those who perpetrated the killing; however, they were not [found] guilty.” Mara Polyakova spoke extensively about judicial reform.  She admitted that new democratic laws are being passed which reflect democratic principles, but the mechanisms needed to implement these principles are often lacking or are thwarted.  She also stated that prisoners in Russia are tortured and that court records are still falsified.  “The judges are still dependent in spite of the fact that their independence was loudly proclaimed in the constitution and other laws, because the real power remains in the hands of the chairmen of the courts who are part of or prone to influence by the executive,” Polyakova said. Speaking specifically on the war in Chechnya, Roginsky described the large number of Chechen civilians abducted or kidnapped monthly, and the one-sided propaganda about the conflict emanating from the state-controlled media. However, Mr. Roginsky denied that the term “genocide” applies to the current Chechen situation (as opposed to the 1944 deportations), calling it instead state-sponsored terror.  In response to a question regarding cutbacks in U.S. assistance for democracy programs in Russia, Simonov said, “Americans do not quite correctly understand what is happening in Russia.  They seem to like the democratic record of the current Russian Government, and they seem to be taking this rhetoric as the truth.”  On a similar note, he later recommended that U.S. officials and international organizations should “never take at face value anything said by officials in Russia.” Mr. McNamara raised the religious freedom issue, specifically the labeling of non-Russian Orthodox groups as “non-traditional religions” and the court-ordered “liquidation” of the Jehovah’s Witnesses organization in Moscow, despite federal recognition.  Ms. Alexeeva responded by saying that it would appear the Russian Orthodox Church is striving to become a state religion as it once was.  The panelists were pessimistic about the chances of a successful appeal of the recent Moscow court decision against the Jehovah’s Witnesses, although Simonov suggested that any pressure from President Bush during the G-8 Summit might have an impact. Despite the comments of the panelists painting a fairly bleak picture of the state of civil and human rights in Russia, Ms. Alexeeva did caution that “if you look from the outside in, everything seems to be more frightening than when you are on the inside of that state. I don’t think the fascist system is being created in our country, and even less that it has already been created.” In closing the briefing, Mr. McNamara sought to put events in perspective by recalling that in November 1986 there were 700 known Soviet political prisoners and prisoners of conscience as well as tens of thousands of divided families in the U.S.S.R.  He noted that all of those prisoners had been released and many of those emigration cases resolved by January 19, 1989, President Reagan’s final day in office. The United States Helsinki Commission, an independent federal agency, by law monitors and encourages progress in implementing provisions of the Helsinki Accords. The Commission, created in 1976, is composed of nine Senators, nine Representatives and one official each from the Departments of State, Defense, and Commerce. United States Helsinki Commission Intern Nicholas Adams contributed to this article.

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