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Helsinki Commission leadership, members, and initiatives are frequently featured in both the U.S. and foreign press.

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  • U.S. Congressman Pledges to Push for ICC Indictment of Belarusian President Lukashenka

    The chairman of the U.S. Helsinki Commission has pledged to call on the Obama administration to push for the indictment of hard-line Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka by the International Criminal Court (ICC). While the chances of an indictment are unlikely, the pledge by Representative Chris Smith (Republican, New Jersey) was a clear sign that U.S. lawmakers have not forgotten the egregious human rights situation in the country ruled by the man some dub "Europe's last dictator." At a Helsinki Commission hearing that focused on Minsk's continuing crackdown on political opposition and civil society, Smith said he would send a letter to members of the Obama administration and the UN Security Council asking them to push for the indictment. In an interview with RFE/RL, he later said, "When you commit atrocities for 17 years, as [Lukashenka] has done, the time has come." "[Although] Belarus is not a signatory to the ICC, to the Rome Statute -- and nor are we, frankly -- we've done this before, and we did it with [President Omar al-] Bashir in Sudan. It will take a lot of work, but we need to begin that effort now to get the [UN] Security Council to make a special referral to begin that process," he said. "I'm sure China and Russia will object, but that's worth the fight, because this man commits atrocities on a daily basis against his own people," Smith added. The congressman made his pledge following the testimony of former Belarusian presidential candidate Ales Mikhalevich, who is in Washington for the first time since his release from a detention center in Minsk on February 19. Mikhalevich was one of seven opposition candidates and more than 600 people arrested during the regime's violent crackdown on protesters following Lukashenka's disputed reelection in December 2010. The official reaction to demonstrations drew widespread international condemnation and a coordinated sanctions program by Brussels and Washington. The financial and travel restrictions were accompanied by a boost in funding for the country's beleaguered civil society, journalists, and activists. As the one-year anniversary of the election approaches, watchdogs say the jailing and harassment of human rights defenders and protesters continues, while the independent media and judiciary face intense, often institutionalized, pressure. Mikhalevich says he had to sign agreement on collaborating with the Belarusian state security forces, which are still called the KGB, in order to secure his release. He has since been granted political asylum in the Czech Republic. Ahead of meetings with State Department officials and Washington-based NGOs, he told U.S. lawmakers that supporting Belarusian civil society -- and not holding out hope that Lukashenka will reform -- is the only way to effect change. "I'm absolutely sure that Lukashenka is ready to defend his power by all possible means. Unfortunately, we can compare Lukashenka with [former Libyan leader Muammar] Qaddafi. So I urge the United States, the European Union, and the international community not to trust another game of liberalization badly played by the regime," he said. "Cooperate only with independent civil society in Belarus: nongovernmental organizations, both unregistered and registered, independent newspapers and media, and democratic activists." Analysts say Lukashenka has long employed the tactic of pledging to loosen to grip on the country in exchange for a reprieve from sanctions -- a tactic that has worked in the past. Observers say he has also sought to capitalize on rifts between the United States and the EU, as well as between neighboring Russia and the West, to inhibit united action against his regime. After testifying, Mikhalevich told RFE/RL that he hoped the United States would more fully take on the role of "bad cop" if the EU, which borders Belarus and relies on it as a transit country for gas from Russia, hesitates to do so. "I'm absolutely sure than in order to succeed, the international community should have both the good cop and bad cop. Someone should play the role of the bad cop, and unfortunately, the European Union would not play this role. So I hope that the United States will be ready to do it," Mikhalevich said. Mikhalevich also offered a harrowing account of what he called "constant mental and physical torture" during his two months in custody, including being "stripped naked and forced to assume various positions." "Our legs were pulled apart with ropes and we could feel our ligaments tear," Mikhalevich said in his prepared remarks. Smith appeared visibly moved by account. "Rather than calling them the KGB, it ought to be called the KGB 'P' for 'perverts.' Masked men who strip other men naked, and women, presumably, as well -- those are acts of perversion that should not go unnoticed by the international community," said the Congressman. In July, the U.S. House of Representatives approved a bill sponsored by Smith that would strengthen existing sanctions against Minsk. It is awaiting consideration in the Senate. Smith told RFE/RL that Western attention on the situation in Belarus had been "obscured" to some extent by the events of the Arab Spring, and especially by the global economic downturn. He said that pushing for ICC action would be a sign that human rights are not "taking a back seat." "I've been very much involved for years in the special [UN-backed] court that [U.S. prosecutor] David Crane oversaw for Sierra Leone, and what I learned from that, and from the Rwandan court, and of course from the Yugoslav court, which held [Slobodan] Milosevic and [Ratko] Mladic and [Radovan] Karadzic to account, is that these thugs are frightened by the fact that they may be held to account. And Lukashenka will fear it, I believe, if we make a very serious effort to hold him to account at the International Criminal Court," said Smith. Mikhalevich told RFE/RL that he thinks the chances of ICC action against Lukashenka are slim, but that the prospect of such a move could help pressure the regime to release its political prisoners. "I think that definitely, it's very difficult to organize any [such] political process unless thousands of people are being killed, but still, it's necessary to do all attempts," he said. "And you never know how this regime will develop -- and how many victims we will have next year."

  • Russia: U.S. Congressmen Propose Sanctions in Lawyer’s Death

    Members of the United States Congress introduced legislation on Wednesday that would impose financial sanctions and visa bans on Russian officials implicated in the case of Sergei L. Magnitsky, a Russian lawyer who died in prison in Moscow in November after being ensnared in tax inquiry. The measure’s sponsors — including Senator Benjamin L. Cardin, a Maryland Democrat, and Representative Jim McGovern, a Massachusetts Democrat — said it was intended to spur the Russian government to properly investigate Mr. Magnitsky’s death. His defenders contend that he was jailed in an effort to force him to falsify testimony against Hermitage Capital Management, a major foreign investment fund that once had large holdings in Russia. His death caused widespread outrage and focused renewed attention on police tactics and corruption in Russia.

  • U.S. Lawmakers Push Visa Sanctions in Russian Case

    More than 60 Russians linked to the death of an anti-corruption lawyer would be barred from the United States and its financial markets under a bill introduced in the Congress on Wednesday. The measure says that sanctions would be lifted only after Russia brings to justice those responsible for the 2009 death of Sergei Magnitsky, a lawyer for what was once Russia's top equity fund, Hermitage. But the bill, introduced by Senator Benjamin Cardin and Representative James McGovern, both Democrats, faces a steep climb to get passed before Congress completes its work for the year. Human rights activists charge that Russian authorities subjected Magnitsky to conditions amounting to torture in a failed bid to force him to testify in their favor in a battle with Hermitage over a $234 million tax fraud scheme. Magnitsky died after being repeatedly denied medical treatment in pre-trial detention. He had accused Russian officials of stealing the millions of tax dollars paid by his client. A Democratic aide said the bill has drawn bipartisan interest and lawmakers might get to it when they return to Washington after the November 2 congressional election for what is expected to be a final few weeks of work. "Nearly a year after Sergei's death, the leading figures in this scheme remain in power in Russia," said Cardin, who also chairs the human rights monitoring U.S. Helsinki Commission, an independent federal agency. "If we expect any measure of justice in this case, we must act in the United States," said Cardin. "At the least, we can and should block these corrupt individuals from traveling and investing their ill-gotten money in our country."

  • Opening a Second Front

    The death in prison of Sergei Magnitsky, a young Russian lawyer, remains one of the darkest scandals in the blotchy history of Russia's criminal justice system, exemplifying a culture of impunity in which power and wealth are fungible, and those who get in the way get squashed. Mr Magnitsky died of untreated pancreatis in pre-trial detention. He hadaccused Russian officials of stealing millions of tax dollars paid by his client, Hermitage Capital Management. Energetic lobbying by the head of Hermitage, the American-born financier Bill Browder, now seems to be getting somewhere. Two senior American lawmakers, Senator Benjamin L. Cardin (a Democrat from Maryland), who is Chairman of the congressional Helsinki Commission and James P. McGovern (a Democratic congressman from Massachussetts), who chairs the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, have introduced laws that would prohibit some 60-odd Russian officials linked to his death from visiting the United States, and freeze any assets they hold under American jurisdiction. (The Russian officials concerned have either made no public comment, or deny all wrongdoing). Mr Cardin said: “Nearly a year after Sergei’s death, the leading figures in this scheme remain in power in Russia. It has become clear that if we expect any measure of justice in this case, we must act in the United States...At the least we can and should block these corrupt individuals from traveling and investing their ill-gotten money in our country.” Mr McGovern said: “I have introduced the ‘Justice for Sergei Magnitsky Act of 2010’ in the House of Representatives as a direct consequence of the compelling testimony at a hearing on human rights in the Russian Federation in the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission. The death of this courageous whistleblower in a Russian prison is the consequence of an abysmal prison system and corruption aimed at defrauding the Russian Treasury of billions. We know about Sergei Magnitsky, and we know about Mikhail Khodorkovsky, but how many more Magnitskys and Khodorkovskys are currently suffering in Russian prisons? My bill addresses the root causes of these severe human rights violations -- the Russian prison system and official corruption. We should not rest until justice is achieved in Sergei’s case, and the money is returned to its rightful owners -- the people of the Russian Federation."

  • Lawmakers Dive into Sensitive China, Russia Issues

    Lawmakers in the House pushed forward last week on legislation to pressure China to raise the value of its currency, while this week legislators will highlight the case of a Russian oil tycoon believed by many to be in prison solely for his vocal opposition to the Kremlin. Both are sensitive foreign policy areas that the White House may well wish Congress would avoid. House Democrats last week advanced a bill meant to impose tariffs against Chinese goods due to the undervaluation of the yuan. Legislation put forward by Reps. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) and Tim Murphy (R-Pa.) was pushed through Ways and Means on voice vote Friday, with tweaks made to not violate international trade rules. Fearing rankled relations with China, the Obama administration had urged lawmakers to lay off while urging Beijing to enact currency reforms. But the administration in recent weeks has shown signs it is growing impatient with China, with Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner vowing to bring up the issue at the Nov. 11-12 G-20 summit in South Korea. "For years, the Bush Administration, the Obama Administration, and Members of Congress have tried to persuade the Chinese government to allow its currency to respond to market forces. No significant progress has been made," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said in a statement Wednesday. "It is time for Congress to pass legislation that will give the Administration leverage in its bilateral and multilateral negotiations with the Chinese government – so that U.S. businesses and workers have a more level playing field in world trade." In Thursday's White House press briefing, presidential assistant and Asian affairs director Jeff Bader said that whereas currency discussions usually comprise a quarter of the meeting time between President Obama and Chinese leaders, the issue dominated "most of the meeting" at the United Nations on Thursday between Obama and Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao. "The president made no commitment to Premier Wen about this legislation," Bader told reporters, adding that the administration would not take a position on the bill. "I don’t recall that this specific bill was brought up, although there was discussion about the attitude of the Congress. And Premier Wen clearly is well aware of that." The House will vote on the China bill next week, though it is unclear whether the Senate will act next week or in a lame-duck session. One factor may be whether China allows its currency to appreciate between now and the lame-duck session. And this week, lawmakers will shine a light on a case that Russia doesn't want to be cast as a case of political persecution. The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, upon learning that lawyers of an imprisoned Russian entrepreneur would be in Washington, scheduled a briefing for Wednesday to discuss the case of Mikhail Khodorkovsky. Khodorkovsky became the richest man in Russia as he led the oil giant Yukos after the fall of the Soviet Union. A vocal critic of then-President Vladimir Putin, he was imprisoned in 2005 on fraud charges. When he was eligible for parole, Russian prosecutors levied fresh embezzlement and money laundering charges against him that could net an additional 22 years behind bars. Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), chairman of the Helsinki Commission, told The Hill that the briefing is intended to bring attention to the "unacceptable type of treatment he has received" -- and put other nations on notice against "using the criminal justice system for political ends." "If it goes unchallenged, it becomes the norm," Cardin said. Cardin co-sponsored a sense of the Senate resolution, now stuck in the Foreign Relations Committee, with Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) in June 2009 that brands the Khodorkovsky case "a politically-motivated case of selective arrest and prosecution that serves as a test of the rule of law and independence of the judicial system of Russia." A sister resolution introduced by Rep. James McGovern (D-Mass.) similarly sits in the House Foreign Affairs Committee, co-sponsored by Reps. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.), Robert Wexler (D-Fla.) and Frank Wolf (R-Va.). On June 21, Cardin and Wicker, both members of the Foreign Relations panel, engaged in a colloquy on the Senate floor to draw attention to the Khodorkovsky case. "I cannot speak for the leadership of the Senate as to why it hasn't been brought up," Wicker said of their 2009 resolution. The senator, who told The Hill that he's long been interested in Russia issues, said he is "very disappointed in recent years with the Putin regime and it seems clear to me that the international community recognizes this also." "They're inching back toward the dictatorship that they had under communism," he said. "Khodorkovsky's offense for which he is being imprisoned is having the temerity to speak out against the Russian regime and their serious backsliding on areas such as democracy, freedom of speech and the rule of law." The Kremlin certainly disagrees, and the congressional attention won't make Russia happy with relations between the federation and the U.S. at a sensitive point. Russia denies any political motivation in the case while making clear it doesn't want foreign interference in the matter. Putin vowed this month not to interfere with the latest trial while simultaneously accusing Khodorkovsky of having "blood on his hands." Cardin said Putin could step in to stop what the Helsinki Commission calls "legal hooliganism." "They can do something about it," he said. "We are asking Putin and others to take action in this case." From behind bars, Khodorkovsky continues to write about what he sees as the crumbling of democracy and the rule of law in Russia and has urged world leaders to re-examine relations with the country. Writing in the Observer last weekend, Khodorkovsky, who pointedly referred to himself as a "political prisoner," urged British Prime Minister David Cameron to put human rights first in efforts to restore relations with the Kremlin -- which have been sullied the past few years after the London murder of spy-turned-Putin critic Alexander Litvinenko -- and help Russians "who are searching for a way out of the darkness of totalitarianism into the light of freedom." Back in 2005, then-Sen. Obama, along with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), co-sponsored a sense of the Senate introduced by then-Sen. Biden that said Khodorkovsky did not received a fair trial, that the charges were politically motivated and that "the judiciary of Russia is an instrument of the Kremlin." After becoming president and declaring the reset button with Russia hit, Obama has spoken carefully on the Khodorkovsky case. "It does seem odd to me that these new charges, which appear to be a repackaging of the old charges, should be surfacing now," he said on a visit to Moscow in July 2009. Obama said it would be improper to interfere in Russia's legal process and praised President Dmitry Medvedev's "courageous initiative" to strengthen the rule of law. Wicker said he knows that the case remains among the State Department's many concerns. "The administration is well aware of the disturbing trend we've seen in Russia's cavalier attitude toward the rule of law," he said. Cardin said he's not sure what priority the case takes on the administration's agenda. There are definite foreign policy priorities on the table for Obama. He wants passage of the START arms reduction treaty, which made it out of Senate Foreign Relations this month. And cooperation is sought when it comes to reining in Iran. The administration praised Moscow on Thursday for complying with international sanctions and freezing a plan to sell Iran a series of long-range surface-to-air missiles. “This continues to demonstrate how Russia and the United States are cooperating closely on behalf of our mutual interests, and global security,” the White House said in a statement. However, the Kremlin quickly stressed that this doesn't end their military cooperation with the Islamic Republic. And many on Capitol Hill are intent on telling Russia it needs to cooperate more on democracy and human rights concerns. "I don't think that one commission briefing is going to completely reverse the injustice to Mr. Khodorkovsky, but the greater attention that can be put on this, the greater the pressure on Russia and others who need to reform their judicial systems," Helsinki Commission spokesman Neil Simon told The Hill.

  • U.S. Commission Denounces France's Roma Evictions

    An independent US commission of elected officials that monitors human rights in Europe denounced Wednesday the controversial forced deportations of Roma from France to Romania and Bulgaria. "The situation of Roma in Europe will not be fixed by playing a shell game with them," said Florida Democratic representative Alcee Hastings, co-chairman of from the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission. "I perceive such actions as wrong-headed political maneuvers, particularly the discriminatory policy of targeting Roma for expulsion," Hastings added, saying that France and other countries "should focus on integrating Roma where they are." French President Nicolas Sarkozy and his administration have been under fire for weeks, and now face possible legal action from the European Union for a policy of deporting members of the traveling communities. The French government has in recent months expelled thousands of Roma, whom the government accuses of acts of criminality, including aggressive begging and theft. "Minority communities are part of a larger fabric of society and we are all put at risk when those who seek to divide for political gain are allowed to take the lead," Hastings said in commission statement to Congress, at a hearing on the situation facing minorities in France. French Ambassador Pierre Vimont insisted to US lawmakers however that there was "nothing like a collective action against this so called community," referring to the Roma. The French government, he said, was "taking measures against individual citizens that are creating a problem relating mostly to public order." France has charged that one in five thefts in the Paris area was carried out by a citizen of Romania, noting that many Romanians in Paris are from the Roma minority. France has deported some 1,000 Roma migrants to Bulgaria and Romania since last month, and more than 8,000 Roma have been deported since the beginning of the year, after 9,875 were expelled in 2009.

  • Iraqis Face Threat

    The United States has a "moral obligation" to resettle tens of thousands of Iraqis who helped U.S. troops and civilian groups and who now face death threats from al Qaeda terrorists, members of Congress told Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates. In letters to the two Cabinet members, the seven senators and 15 House members complained that the Obama administration is moving too slowly to grant visas to the doomed Iraqis and blamed bureaucrats for narrowly applying a law designed to relocate the Iraqis to the United States. They also warned Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Gates that time is running out, as the deadline for the end of U.S. combat operations looms at the end of August. The United States plans to draw down its 64,000 soldiers in Iraq to 50,000 and switch to a training and advisory role with the Iraqi army until a complete U.S. troop withdrawal by Dec. 31, 2011. "Resettlement to the United States could be the only safe option for thousands of our Iraqi employees," said Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin, Maryland Democrat and chairman of the congressional Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, who organized the letters with Co-chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings, Florida Democrat. "The United States has a moral obligation to stand by those Iraqis who have risked their lives and the lives of their families to stand by us in Iraq for the past seven years, and doing so is also in our strategic self interest," the letters said. "Providing support for our Iraqi allies will advance U.S. national security interests around the world, particularly in Afghanistan, by sending a message that foreign nationals who support our work abroad can expect some measure of protection." Al Qaeda and other terrorists have threatened to kill the Iraqis who aided the United States, denouncing them as traitors and collaborators. The members of Congress called for swifter processing of the 15,000 visas authorized under the Special Immigrant Visa Program, which has approved visas for only 2,145 Iraqis. They complained that U.S. consular officers are misinterpreting the program by considering only Iraqis who worked directly for the U.S. Embassy or for U.S. contractors and subcontractors and denying visas to Iraqis who worked for U.S.-funded nongovernmental organizations. Besides Mr. Cardin and Mr. Hastings, the signatories of the letter included Sen. Richard J. Durbin, Illinois Democrat and assistant majority leader; Sen. Richard G. Lugar, Indiana Republican and the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee; and Rep. Howard L. Berman, California Democrat and chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. AFRICAN STAR The story of Africa is too often written in blood by tyrants who oppress their people while enriching themselves. However, one nation in southern Africa has been the exception for decades. Botswana is a peaceful, democratic nation, prosperous by African standards. One of Botswana's best leaders is coming to Washington to serve as a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Festus Mogae, president from 1998 to 2008, will study the way governments deal with AIDS, the deadly virus that ravaged the continent. "I look forward to interacting with knowledgeable people informed on issues in HIV/AIDS in Africa in the Wilson Center and around Washington," Mr. Mogae said last week after the Wilson Center announced his appointment. Mr. Mogae has been widely recognized for his efforts to combat AIDS and promote democracy. "We are delighted to welcome one of the world's most progressive leaders on the HIV/AIDS pandemic," said Steve McDonald, director of the Wilson Center's Africa program.

  • American Consumers

    One of the major factors that creates failed and corrupt governments around the world is us -- Americans -- and our insatiable consumption of oil. As the largest petroleum consumers in the world, we are the driving force of a global energy market in which the suppliers are often corrupt regimes maintaining power in part through the revenues they extract from our consumption. If we want to fix the problem of failed states, we must start by reforming our own approach to energy: adopting smart-growth policies, driving less, and creating alternative energy sources. Until then, we are just fueling the very corruption we condemn. Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin of Maryland chairs the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (U.S. Helsinki Commission).

  • The Risk and Rewards in Afghanistan's Resources

    The New York Times, in a front-page story last week, reported that $1 trillion worth of minerals was buried in the mountains of Afghanistan. Geologists, Afghan officials and mining companies stand ready to launch a modern-day gold rush. Before everyone charges in, however, we need to recognize the risks and rewards inherent in these resources. This story ran soon after major news outlets noted that the U.S. military wants to fight corruption in Afghanistan’s government as a key to winning the war. In principle, these deposits mean resources for Afghanistan to build its economy as the “Saudi Arabia of lithium.” But expanding Afghanistan’s economy from the current $12 billion to potentially $1 trillion will be a boon only if these resources are managed properly. Many other countries already have proved that resource revenue often leads to corruption and instability. For example, roughly 60 developing countries are rich in natural resources yet home to more than two-thirds of the world’s poorest people. Despite billions of dollars per year in oil, gas or mineral revenue, these countries rank among the worst when it comes to economic growth, authoritarian governance, poverty and political instability. The Afghan reports should spur immediate action in Congress to ensure transparency in how U.S. and international companies tap these resources. Transparency in the oil, gas and mining sectors has been endorsed for years by the G-8, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and regional development banks. It is clear to financial leaders that transparency is key to holding governments accountable for the needs of their citizens — and for greater energy security overall. If citizens and international organizations know how much money a country is paid for oil access, it is harder for its leader to claim the government would happily build roads, schools and hospitals but cannot afford them. Transparency will help those who want to follow the money to combat corruption, poverty and violence. In countries with rival ethnic groups, like Afghanistan, it also helps ensure that revenues are distributed equitably. Afghanistan has made a good first step by joining the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, a voluntary international standard designed to promote transparency in the oil, gas and mining sectors. This group has made tremendous strides in changing the culture of secrecy that surrounds the extractive industries. But too many countries and companies remain outside this system. It is time to create an international standard for transparency in law. Secrecy of extractive payments carries real risks for citizens — and investors. We introduced the Energy Security Through Transparency Act to require most extractive industries — including oil, gas and mining companies — to disclose what they pay local governments for access to natural resources. This simple step, adding information to filings already required by the Securities and Exchange Commission, could help promote civil society and combat corruption in countries both blessed and cursed with natural resources. The extractive industries face unique material and reputational risks in the form of country-specific taxes and regulations. Challenges are compounded by the substantial capital companies need and the importance of natural resource access to the national security and strategic objectives of the United States and other major energy and mineral consumers. Creating a reporting requirement with the SEC can capture a larger portion of the international extractive corporations than any other single mechanism — thereby setting a global standard for transparency and promoting a level playing field. Our bill could help in following the money trail, making it harder to hide corruption and easier to bring the reforms needed to ensure that the blessing of natural resources does not turn into a curse. Afghanistan is at a crossroads. If we want to leave Afghanistan with a viable economy and a stable government, we have to help the nation get this right. Our bill could be the linchpin in a far larger U.S. and international effort, at all levels of government, to promote transparency and open the books in Afghanistan. The newfound resources would then lead to a new era of prosperity — and not be squandered through corruption. Afghanistan’s future — and the success of U.S. and NATO men and women serving in Afghanistan — are at stake. Sens. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) and Dick Lugar (R-Ind.) serve on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

  • U.S. Congress Committee Calls for More Action on Property Restitution

    The head of the Helsinki Commission at the United States Congress,  Senator Ben Cardin, has criticized Poland for delaying the process of dealing with the restitution of Jewish property confiscated during and after WW II. Representative of the Obama administration, Stuart Eizenstat also expressed hope that the problem will be solved soon. Speaking during the session of the Helsinki Commission in Washington, Senator Ben Cardin indicated Poland and Lithuania as the two countries which have done least to solve the problem. "Successive Polish governments promised that the issue of compensation will be dealt with. None has done anything about it,” he said. In March 2001, the Polish parliament approved a law for the restitution of private property, though the right to file a claim was limited to those with Polish citizenship as of December 31, 1999. The law was subsequently vetoed by the President of Poland. The Terezin Declaration, a nonbinding set of guiding principles aimed at faster, more open and transparent restitution of art, private and communal property taken by force or under duress during the Holocaust, was approved at the Prague Holocaust Era Assets Conference in June last year. Poland was a signature to the non-binding agreement. Senator Cardin added he was aware that due to the relocation of borders and massive resettlements of people following the war, property restitution in Poland is a complicated issue. “Solving of the problem is difficult but not impossible” he added.   Former US Ambassador to the EU Stuart Eizenstat, the country’s delegate to the Prague Conference on the return of assets looted during World War Two also addressed the Commission, Tuesday. He said that the reprivatization law currently being prepared in Poland is defective as it does not include the restitution of properties located in Warsaw. Poles themselves were the victims of Nazism and communism so the restitution issue is difficult, he remarked, at the same time expressing hope that the legislative work will be corrected. Prime Minister Donald Tusk announced back in 2008 that legislation which aimed to tackle the issue had been prepared but the global finance crisis meant that plans had to be shelved due to increasing public debt. “The escalation of demands does not help in the creation of a political climate needed to pass an anti-discrimination, re-privatisation law,” declared Poland’s Foreign Minister, Radek Sikorski, commenting last year on the appeal from Jewish organizations for the return  property confiscated under Nazi occupation in Poland from heirless victims during the Holocaust.

  • The Burqa Ban and the Erosion of Human Rights

    France's Action Is An Affront To Millions And A Challenge To Us All French President Nicolas Sarkozy's promotion of a ban on burqas seems to be exacerbating tensions in Europe between Muslims and non-Muslims. While a small fraction of French Muslim women wear the religious head covering, France has a sizable Muslim population of 6 million, and this ban is an affront to them and a clear violation of their human rights. In defending the ban, President Sarkozy said it would protect the "dignity of women," and he called for the ban to be imposed without "making people feel stigmatized." He seems unaware that banning a practice limited to just one group of people really is the definition of stigmatizing. Such initiatives only further alienate and marginalize Muslims in France and beyond. The rhetoric used to push the burqa ban as a way to protect French pride and allegiance does nothing to veil the anti-immigrant sentiments now being seized upon by other European politicians, including mainstream parties. Earlier this month, Silvana Koch-Mehrin, vice president of the European Parliament, proclaimed burqas make her "anxious" and should be banned in her native Germany and throughout Europe. Just weeks ago Belgian legislators passed a similarly intolerant law. Italian officials recently fined a Muslim woman for wearing a veil, citing existing law that bans the wearing of masks. But the assault on the Muslim faith in Europe doesn't stop with religious dress. Last year, Switzerland banned the building of minarets, the iconic steeples at mosques. Right-wing conservative parties from across Europe recently met in Germany to discuss efforts to institute a European Union-wide ban of minarets. These lawmakers clearly see playing on current xenophobic sentiments politically expedient, but the fact is that such laws violate universal rights to religious freedom and expression and are highly discriminatory, designed to only target those of the Islamic faith. President Obama was clear when he addressed the issue of burqa bans head-on in his Cairo speech, delivered nearly a year ago. "I reject the view of some in the West that a woman who chooses to cover her hair is somehow less equal," he said. Sadly, in a year's time we have not seen the president's European counterparts speak out as forcefully on the side of religious freedom. At the U.S. Helsinki Commission, we speak out. We hold open hearings on tough topics and publicly question government leaders when they fail to live up to their international commitments made through the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. But in the case of the ongoing burqa debate and so many other questions of civil liberties, we should not have to speak out alone. Whether it is a spike in anti-Semitism, violence against Roma or the current wave of actions against Muslims, parliamentarians, presidents and other political leaders need to speak with one voice to condemn discrimination. We need much more of this in Europe today. Excluding individuals and groups from the public square, literally or figuratively, will only contribute to a weakening of society and an erosion of democracy and human rights. In place of discrimination, we need dialogue that is inclusive and promotes mutual understanding. Such citizen engagement does not mean abandoning national traditions or patriotic values, as some, like President Sarkozy, seem to suggest. Instead, it helps countries like France to stay on track with their international commitments to democracy and human rights. Enacting laws like burqa bans sets countries on a slippery slope that can quickly lead to religious minorities feeling forced to practice their faith underground. As the French philosopher Voltaire aptly observed, "Prejudices are what fools use for reason." In the ongoing burqa debate, I hope rational heads will prevail over narrow-mindedness. While Muslim women clad in burqas or other coverings make easy targets today, one has to ask: Who will be next?

  • Add One More Name to the Terrorist List

    The recent arrest of the alleged Times Square bomber who lived in Connecticut has the American public rethinking the origins of terrorism, just as last year's conviction of members of the Liberty City Six in the Sears Tower bombing plot reawakened South Floridians to would-be attackers in our midst. In both cases, U.S. officials deserve high praise for keeping innocent people safe and prosecuting criminals, but in our effort to monitor terrorist groups worldwide, I fear this administration is letting one group off the hook. In preparing their 2009 report identifying foreign terrorist organizations, it appears the State Department forgot the Caucasus Emirate. This group claimed responsibility for the March 30 Moscow subway suicide bombings that killed 40 people. It reportedly prepared 20 suicide bombers in 2009, declared Jihad on the United States and Russia, and its original leader trained at an al-Qaida camp in Afghanistan. If all that is not enough to justify listing the emirate as a terrorist organization, I don't know what is. That is why I recently introduced House Resolution 1315 to urge the Obama administration to label members of the Caucasus Emirate what they are — terrorists. Isolating violent extremists from political and financial support remains a key objective in the struggle against terrorism, and that is exactly what the State Department's designations achieve. In naming specific groups as terrorist organizations, the United States stigmatizes them internationally and heightens awareness of their actions. Unfortunately, the administration may see the group's violent actions as merely another symptom of instability in the Caucasus region, because it seems they were not going to be listed as a foreign terrorist organization in a report that was scheduled to be released April 30. After the introduction of my resolution, the State Department decided to delay that report's release for four to six weeks to ensure its accuracy. I appreciate the department's diligent work, but so long as the report fails to label the Caucasus Emirate a terrorist organization, it will fail to be accurate. The designation invokes strong legal ramifications in the United States, making it illegal to knowingly provide material or technical support to members of the terrorist group. Members of known terrorist groups are barred from U.S. travel, and U.S. financial institutions are required to freeze funds linked to the organization and report them to the Treasury Department. None of these actions have yet been taken against the Caucasus Emirate, despite it being responsible for a staggering 62 violent attacks in Russia since January. Indeed, there should be no question of the threat the Caucasus Emirate poses to the national security of the United States and our allies. Even today, Caucasus Emirate affiliates continue to fight against U.S. forces in Afghanistan and Iraq. The administration's acknowledgement of this reality is a necessary step in our committed effort against violent extremism.

  • U.S. Lawmaker Urges Action on Russian Lawyer's Death

    A U.S. senator is urging the State Department to deny entry to the United States for all Russian officials responsible for the prison death of a lawyer. Sergey Magnitsky died in November after spending nearly a year in jail. He was awaiting trial on tax-evasion charges linked to his work with a British investor barred from Russia because of allegations he was a security risk. Maryland Democratic Sen. Benjamin Cardin released a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Monday asking her to deny entry of several senior officials from the Russian Interior Ministry, the Federal Security Service and the Federal Tax Service. Magnitsky's colleagues and attorney believe them to be involved in the death of Magnitsky.    

  • Putin Says Stalin Massacred Poles Out of Revenge

    Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin made an unprecedented gesture of good will to Poland on Wednesday by attending a memorial ceremony for 22,000 Poles executed by Soviet secret police during World War II. But hours later he soured the mood by offering a controversial justification for the massacres. After attending the solemn event with Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk, Putin said Soviet dictator Josef Stalin ordered the atrocity as revenge for the death of Red Army soldiers in Polish prisoner of war camps in 1920. Putin said 32,000 troops under Stalin's command had died of hunger and disease in the Polish camps. "It is my personal opinion that Stalin felt personally responsible for this tragedy, and carried out the executions (of Poles in 1940) out of a sense of revenge," Putin said, the RIA Novosti news agency reported. The Polish side had no immediate response to this suggestion. U.S. Sen. Benjamin Cardin, who has advocated greater Russian recognition of the atrocities, said there can be no justification for the murder of innocent people. "I think trying to rationalize the massacre in any way is unwarranted. You can't justify that under any scenario. It was senseless and there was no just cause. Those are the facts," Cardin, who chairs the U.S. Helsinki Commission, told The Associated Press. Earlier on Tuesday, Putin offered a gesture of reconciliation to Poland by becoming the first Russian leader to ever commemorate the Katyn massacres with a Polish leader. He said earlier in the day that the two nations' "fates had been inexorably joined" by the atrocities. The 22,000 Polish officers, prisoners and intellectuals were massacred by Stalin's secret police in 1940 in and around Katyn, a village near Russia's border with Belarus. During the ceremony, Putin also offered what appeared to be his harshest condemnation of Stalin's rule to date on Tuesday, saying: "In our country there has been a clear political, legal and moral judgment made of the evil acts of this totalitarian regime, and this judgment cannot be revised." But his speech stopped short of offering any apology to Poland or calling the massacres a war crime, as some officials in Poland and the United States had urged him to do. Also, while giving the go-ahead to a joint historic commission on the matter, Putin gave no concrete pledge that all Soviet archives documenting it would finally be unsealed. Tusk used his emotional speech about the Polish victims to push Putin on this point. "Prime minister, they are here. They are in this soil. The eye sockets of their bullet-pierced sculls are looking and waiting to see whether we are able to transform violence and lies into reconciliation," Tusk said. But at an evening news conference, Putin said Russia already has disclosed everything except for the perpetrators' names, which are being kept secret out of "humanitarian" regard for their surviving relatives. Putin also said Russian people should not be blamed for the atrocities at Katyn. "For decades, attempts have been made to cover up the truth about the Katyn executions with cynical lies, but suggesting that the Russian people are to blame for that is the same kind of lie and fabrication," he said. For half a century, Soviet officials claimed that the mass executions had been carried out by Nazi occupiers during the Second World War. But the Soviet Union under Mikhail Gorbachev's rule admitted in 1990 that the crimes had been committed by Stalin's NKVD secret police, a precursor to the KGB. The disclosure opened the floodgates of historical consciousness across the Soviet Union, speeding its demise as nations across the Eastern bloc awoke to the horrors of the Soviet regime and sought independence. As recently as December, Putin resisted a broad denunciation of Stalin's reign. He told a call-in show with the Russian public that it was "impossible to make an overall judgment" against Stalin because he had industrialized the nation and played a key role in defeating the Nazis. Russia also has clashed with its neighbors in Eastern Europe over what it has perceived as offenses to the legacy of Stalin and the Red Army. The relocation of a Soviet war memorial in Estonia in 2007 was met with a bristling reaction from Moscow, as was a resolution made by European lawmakers in 2009 equating Stalinism and Fascism. Putin's meeting with Tusk seems to be part of a broader Kremlin effort to avoid similar confrontations and improve ties with Europe. President Dmitry Medvedev wrapped up a two-day visit to Slovakia on Tuesday, and said in the capital, Bratislava, that the EU-member state was a "very convenient and open door for Russia to the European Union." "We are ready to actively go through this door," Medvedev said during a televised news conference with his Slovak counterpart, Ivan Gasparovic. During the visit — marking the 65th anniversary of the Slovak capital's liberation from Nazi rule — Medvedev gave Slovak officials World War II documents from Russia's state archives.

  • Meeting of Russian, Polish Leaders Could Shed Light on 1940 Massacre

    A historic meeting scheduled for Wednesday between top leaders of Russia and Poland is expected to provide new details about Russia's mass execution of 22,000 Polish officers in the Katyn forest in 1940 and may open the way toward improved relations between the two countries. The mass slaying of the Polish prisoners of war by the Soviet secret police is one of the darker and less known chapters of World War II, said Kyle Parker, a Russian expert and policy adviser to the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, an independent U.S. agency that helps formulate American policy for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. The mass graves were discovered in 1943 by the Wehrmacht, the German armed forces, after their defeat at Stalingrad. The discovery caused a diplomatic crisis.  

  • Cardin: Take Action Against Child Slavery

    More than a century after ratification of the 13th Amendment, thousands of slaves are still transported to America each year. The International Labor Organization estimates that over 12 million people worldwide are held in bondage at any point in time, nearly 2 million of whom are child sex slaves. Modern day human traffickers have developed creative and ruthless methods to extend the practice of slavery into the 21st century, making their crimes more difficult to detect and counter. The United States, starting with leadership from the U.S. Helsinki Commission, has always been at the forefront of combating these crimes, but more work remains, not only at home, but abroad where developing nations often lack the resources and mechanisms to confront traffickers. That is why Senators Barbara Boxer (D-CA), Sam Brownback (R-KS) and I recently introduced the Child Protection Compact Act. This legislation is critical to protecting children, the most vulnerable prey of human traffickers. This bill will help coordinate an international response against trafficking in persons by empowering the State Department to partner with foreign governments, so a lack of resources in one country does not mean a lack of action to protect children from these crimes. Under this legislation, if a government demonstrates a commitment to eliminate trafficking, they will qualify for a 3-year agreement with the Secretary of State. The agreements, or compacts, will identify effective measures to address institutional weaknesses and increase local governments' capacity. Under the agreement, the United States would provide up to $15 million to support government initiatives such as improved law enforcement, victim-friendly courts, and shelters for rescued children. The Senate bill is similar to legislation introduced in the House of Representatives by my colleague on the Helsinki Commission, Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ), whose bill has attracted 95 bipartisan cosponsors. By supporting bills like ours, lawmakers stand up to remind the world that slavery in all forms is unacceptable. The Child Protection Compact Act is the next stage of the American effort in leading the world in fighting this atrocity.  

  • U.S. Helsinki Commission: Ukraine Needs to Accelerate Reforms

    Ukraine's new President Viktor Yanukovych 'will need to accelerate economic and political reforms, tackle systemic corruption and overcome the rule of law deficit, including building up an underdeveloped judiciary to strengthen its independence', U.S. Helsinki Commission Chairman Senator Benjamin L. Cardin said in the first Congressional hearing on Ukraine in Washington on Tuesday, information of the Voice of America. "Such reforms will reduce Ukraine's vulnerability to outside pressures and bring it closer to its stated goals of European integration," Senator Cardin emphasized. "Ukraine has developed an open and pluralistic political system and media freedoms have expanded," said U.S. Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Congressman Alcee L. Hastings, who served as deputy head of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly election observation mission in Ukraine in February and has observed two other national elections there. "Although Ukraine has had good elections now for the last five years, I can tell you that you need more than good elections to make a functioning democracy," he added. In turn, Anders Aslund, Senior Fellow at Peterson Institute for International Economics, underlined that two thirds of young Ukrainians have higher education, but they have no opportunity to apply their knowledge in particular areas. Aslund said that this is a reason why Ukraine is ranked 110th worldwide on GDP per capita.

  • U.S. Helsinki Group Slams Baku Court's Refusal of Bloggers' Appeal

    The U.S. Helsinki Commission has criticized a Baku court's rejection of appeals by two Azerbaijani bloggers against their prison sentences, RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service reports. Emin Milli was sentenced in November to 2 1/2 years in prison and Adnan Hajizade to two years on charges of hooliganism arising from what the commission chairmen said "appeared to be a crude, government-arranged incident at a restaurant" in July 2009. Both bloggers were well-known for their satirical comments on Azerbaijani government policy. The Baku court rejected their appeal on March 10. Both men, and a number of rights groups, have insisted the incident behind the jailing was a provocation and the motives connected to their very public criticism of the government. Senator Benjamin Cardin (Democrat, Maryland), the U.S. Helsinki Commission chairman, said the bloggers' case "is the latest in a long series of setbacks for independent journalism and civil society in Azerbaijan." Commission Co-Chair Congressman Alcee Hastings (Democrat, Florida), said it "illustrates the lack of independence of Azerbaijan's judicial system." Congressman Robert Aderholt (Republican, Alabama) said the bloggers' conviction "seems to indicate a determination to stifle dissent before the parliamentary election later this year." The U.S. Helsinki Commission wrote in December to Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev expressing concern about the convictions and calling for a fair appeal process. Azerbaijani authorities did not reply to that letter.

  • U.S. Congressional Delegation Applauds Spain for Its Leadership in the Fight Against Terrorism

    A delegation of congressmen and U.S. senators praised the "leadership" of Spain in the fight against terrorism today following talks in Madrid with Spanish Interior Minister Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba. "Spain is an important U.S. partner. We want to thank the Spanish people and its government for their leadership in the fight against terrorism," said the head of the delegation, Democratic Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin. Cardin led a delegation composed of senators and congressmen of the of U.S. Congress’ Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (Helsinki Commission), which visited Spain today after talks on Monday with Moroccan authorities. In a press conference held at the U.S. Embassy in Madrid, the senator also praised "the Spanish government's decision to send 500 extra troops to Afghanistan, which is a very important step in successfully combating Al Qaeda’s terrorist network in Afghanistan.” Cardin, the chairman of the commission, also thanked the Spanish Executive for its decision to accept five prisoners from the U.S. prison in Guantanamo. While expressing that he is "very pleased with Spain’s leadership of the European Union (EU), the senator confessed that he is “very disappointed" with the decision of the European Parliament (EP) to block the banking transfer agreement with the U.S. "We believe this is a step backwards (...) in curbing terrorism," said the chairman of the Helsinki Commission, arguing that "money can lead to information that can prove invaluable in catching terrorists," Cardin said that "Spain shares this concern,” since the decision of the EP forces the EU to renegotiate the controversial agreement to ensure greater privacy and data protection. For its part, the Spanish Interior Ministry issued a statement saying that Rubalcaba and the delegation had met to analyze the cooperation between Spain and the U.S. in combating terrorism. Both sides agreed on the need to continue working together in this area and addressed, among others, issues relating to air safety. The congressmen also met with other members of the Spanish executive, such as the Secretary General of the Spanish Presidency, Bernardino Leon, and the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, Angel Losada. Established in 1976, the Helsinki Commission is an independent U.S. government agency that monitors and encourages compliance with the commitments of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

  • OSCE Welcomes Kazakhstan as Chair, but Raises Its Record on Rights

    The U.S. arm of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has welcomed Kazakhstan as the new chair of the organization but cautioned the former Soviet republic that it must improve its own rights record if it wants to be effective in its new role. At a hearing in Washington today, Helsinki Commission co-chair Representative Alcee Hastings (Democrat-Florida) said he had spearheaded U.S. support of Kazakhstan's appointment as the new rotating chair at the organization's ministerial meeting in Madrid in 2007. Kazakhstan, a vast, oil-rich Central Asian nation, is being closely scrutinized by the West now that it has assumed the 2010 rotating chairmanship on promises to usher in democratic reforms itself.  

  • Kazakhstan: Foreign Minister's Arrival in Washington Highlights Democratization vs. Security Debate

    Kazakhstan’s foreign minister, Kanat Saudabayev, is in Washington from February 1-4. He is expected to seek US backing for two prestige events: a summit of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to be held in Kazakhstan; and a one-on-one meeting between US President Barack Obama and Kazakhstani President Nursultan Nazarbayev. In January, Kazakhstan took over the chairmanship of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe [OSCE]. Some human rights advocates in Washington argue that Kazakhstani officials have not fulfilled reform commitments made in connection with their country’s selection as OSCE chair, and add that now is a good opportunity to press for stronger movement for those reforms. Three US senators (John Kerry, Robert Casey, and Benjamin Cardin) sent a letter to Saudabayev on January 19, calling on Kazakhstan authorities to carry out a procedural review of the case involving Yevgeny Zhovtis, a human rights activist in Kazakhstan who was convicted last year of vehicular manslaughter and sentenced to four years in prison.  

  • Ukraine Presidential Hopefuls Fear Election Fraud

    In the final hours of the Ukraine's bitterly fought presidential campaign, candidates accused one another of planning to commit campaign fraud and experts warned of the possibility of post-election unrest. But among many Ukrainian voters, the no-holds barred campaign may have inspired as much apathy as outrage and some observers were predicting a relatively smooth first-round vote Sunday. Prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who helped lead the 2004 Orange Revolution, has accused front-runner Viktor Yanukovych and his Party of Regions of planning a campaign of voter fraud through falsified absentee ballots and other methods. ''Yanukovych and the Party of Regions are preparing a large-scale falsification in Ukraine,'' Tymoshenko said, speaking to the media Thursday. ''For this purpose, they have formed on a corrupt basis a puppet majority in the Central Election Commission.'' Most polls show Tymoshenko running second behind Yanukovych in the race. If no candidate gets more than 50 percent of the vote Sunday, as expected, there will be a runoff between the two top vote getters sometime in February. Sergei Markov, a member of the Russian parliament and an election observer, said Tymoshenko's fraud charges are part of an effort to prepare her supporters to challenge a Yanukovych victory. ''Claims that the opposition is trying to rig the vote show that the other side is ideologically preparing to reject the election in case they lose,'' said Markov, whose views on many issues are thought to reflect the thinking of the Kremlin. He spoke at the expert panel Friday. Yanukovych meanwhile has warned that his supporters will not allow any candidate to steal the current presidential contest, as he claims happened in 2004. The pro-Russian candidate's initial victory in that race was thrown out by the Supreme Court following the Orange street protests and accusations of widespread fraud by authorities on Yanukovych's behalf. ''No such scenario will be allowed,'' Yanukovych told reporters during a campaign trip to eastern Ukraine Thursday, referring to the street rallies that helped reverse his victory. ''If anybody is hoping for that, we will disappoint them.'' Yanukovych noted that in 2004 he called off plans for mass demonstrations by his supporters in the capital to avoid clashes with Orange protesters. He suggested that this time, his partisans would not back down against those who challenge a Yanukovych victory. Vladimir Fesenko, the head of Ukraine's Penta Center for Applied Political Research, predicted that neither Tymoshenko nor Yanukovych would accept defeat in the runoff, which is expected to pit the two old adversaries against one another. Instead, he said, they would challenge any defeat with peaceful protests. But he warned that if Tymoshenko's and Yanukovych's demonstrators face off, it could escalate into violence. ''Neither wants a real war,'' Fesenko said. ''But unfortunately there are risks. Often it is difficult to control people once they're on the streets. There could be adventurists from either camp that could provoke a clash.'' Authorities say they are planning to deploy thousands of police Sunday to ensure an orderly first round ballot. Foes of Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko released a tape this week of a purported conversation between her and Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili, in which he supposedly says he is sending 2,000 ''battle-ready'' observers to monitor the race. ''No worries, we are sending the best prepared and most battle-ready people to you,'' the voice alleged to be Saakashvili's says on the tape, which was played Friday at a panel of analysts and sociologists. Some here interpreted Saakashvili's purported comment as a pledge to support Tymoshenko in post-election street protests. Spokespeople for both Tymoshenko and Saakashvili declined to comment, and the authenticity of the tape could not be determined. Evgeny Kopatko, chief sociologist at Ukraine's R&B Group, a consultancy, said Friday that if tensions rise after the election, that ''could split the country in two, and this is a very serious risk, economically and politically. The country would be virtually uncontrollable.'' Parliament speaker Vladimir Litvin on Friday appealed to supporters of Ukraine's rival political leaders, urging not to take to the streets as they did in 2004. ''Today I'm calling on all of the politicians not to deal in actions on the Maidan,'' Litvin said, referring to Kiev's central square where tens of thousands rallied every day for weeks in late 2004. President Viktor Yushchenko, the eventual winner in 2004, is standing for re-election, but his popularity has plunged and his chances look slim. He warned that the elections could usher in an authoritarian government. ''Should there be an authoritarian regime of either Yanukovych or Tymoshenko, with the criminal elements that will come along, it will take away the freedom of expression,'' he said. Five years after the Orange Revolution brought tens of thousands of people to the streets of the capital, public cynicism appeared widespread. Voters have offered to sell their votes on Web sites for the equivalent of between about $10 and $100. Despite the dire warnings, Alcee Hastings, a U.S. congressman who is deputy head of the international observer mission, told reporters Friday that so far no one has come up with evidence of intended voting irregularities. ''While the candidates accuse each other of fraud, neither of them has presented you in the media with a smoking gun,'' he said. ''I don't think there's going to be widespread fraud.'' Hastings noted that the election will come under intense scrutiny. He said there are more international observers in Ukraine for the presidential contest than for any previous election in the former Soviet Union. But Hastings did not rule out isolated efforts to falsify votes. ''Remember, I'm from Florida, the land of the hanging chads and the butterfly ballots,'' he said, referring to the disputed 2000 U.S. presidential contest and the controversial Florida vote count.

  • U.S. Senator Laud Iraq's Plan to Become EITI Candidate Country

    US Sens. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.) and Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.) expressed their strong support for Iraq’s commitment to make its oil and gas industry more transparent following Iraq’s Jan. 11 announcement that it plans to become an Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative candidate country. EITI is an international coalition of governments, companies, and others that promotes good governance through publication of oil, gas, and mining revenues, the two Senate Foreign Relations Committee members noted on Jan. 12. “Corruption remains a significant problem in Iraq,” said Lugar, the committee’s ranking minority member. “As oil and gas is the single largest source of revenue [there], it is important that the revenue generated benefit the people of Iraq and not just a handful of businessmen and officials. By committing to implement EITI, Iraq is creating a foundation for good governance in a sector critical to Iraq’s future stability.” Cardin said, “This is a significant step toward a greater future for Iraq.” The senator also has promoted EITI as chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, more commonly known as the US-Helsinki Commission. “The EITI process has proven to strengthen civil society and increase revenue transparency. By joining this coalition, Iraq’s leaders are committing to transparency that will empower citizens to hold their government accountable,” Cardin maintained. Iraqi Prime Minister Noori al Malaki announced Jan. 11 that Iraq plans to become an EITI candidate country in February and would implement the initiative in May. With 11% of the world’s total reserves, Iraq would become the largest oil-producing nation to implement the standards, EITI officials said. At a conference launching Iraq’s effort in Baghdad, Jonas Moberg, who heads EITI’s secretariat, said the country’s implementation of EITI would be important in driving Iraq’s recovery and ensuring that its oil and gas wealth was managed for its citizens’ benefit. Lugar and Cardin, along with eight other cosponsors, recently introduced S 1700, the Energy Security Through Transparency Act, which aims to increase transparency through public disclosure of oil, gas, and mining payments, and encourage US participation in EITI.

  • Dancers Call Attention to Iraqi Refugees

    For the past six years, news of the Iraq War has flooded the airwaves: the body count — more than 100,000 civilians and more than 4,500 soldiers; the cost — $700 billion; and the uncertainty about when the conflict will end and what the final outcome will be. But one aspect of the tragic situation that does not garner as much attention is that of those Iraqis who have been forced to flee their homes, heading to a dubious future in an unfamiliar land. A performance on Tuesday will highlight the escalating humanitarian crisis of refugees seeking some semblance of safety in nearby countries such as Syria, Lebanon and Jordan. Millions of Iraqis have been displaced because of the war, and the situation remains dire for many of them. “Still Waiting, Still Suffering,” which will be performed by the D.C.-based CityDance Ensemble, highlights the refugees’ plight in a personal and dramatic way. The event is being sponsored by the Helsinki Commission, which is headed by Sen. Benjamin Cardin (D-Md.) and Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-Fla.). The hope is that the event will alert people to the often forgotten suffering of Iraqis, as well as educate people about the ethical and security implications of the crisis. “We’re trying to give people in the audience a sense of what these people have lived through,” said Paul Emerson, co-founder and artistic director of CityDance. “It’s trying to say, ‘This is something we shouldn’t forget about.’” Hastings said it is imperative that the U.S. take a more active role in addressing the refugee crisis, as it is only likely to worsen with plans for a surge in Afghanistan. “If we as a nation and our allies who participated in causing the displacement of these people” don’t take action, “we can only imagine what our detractors will do to recruit people.” The large numbers of refugees migrating to Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Egypt take a severe toll on the economies of those countries and strain their educational and health care systems as well, Hastings said. As refugees come under increasing duress, they become ripe for the propagandizing by terrorist groups such as Hezbollah and al-Qaida. “When people don’t have any hope, they turn to whatever they can,” Hastings said. Neil Simon, communications director for the Helsinki Commission, said the performance could have more of an effect than a floor speech or lecture might because of the “emotional information” presented through the dance. “Perhaps they’ll build up a different sort of empathy for the cause,” Simon said. In order to prepare for the “Still Waiting, Still Suffering” performance, Emerson and the dancers traveled to Lebanon, Syria and Jordan to meet with Iraqi refugees there. Most did not want to be identified but shared their stories of exile and distress after leaving their homeland, Emerson said. Those experiences were then translated into “Still Waiting, Still Suffering.” The piece will consist mostly of dance performances, but video, animation and spoken-word elements will also be incorporated. Emerson said he hopes the event will demonstrate the way in which art can be a conduit to talking about politics and policy. But more importantly than that, the dance is meant to give at least some representation to the millions who are suffering because of the Iraq War. “The main message is to not forget these people who are waiting for international action,” Simon said.   The free performance will take place Tuesday at the Capitol Visitor Center from 4 to 5:30 p.m.

  • Embassy Row: Swiss "Intolerance"

    The leaders of a congressional human rights panel criticized Swiss voters for approving a resolution to ban the further construction of mosque minarets and warned that the prohibition violates European religious freedom standards. "If this ban on religious expression is allowed to stand, Switzerland will clearly be out of step with its OSCE commitments of freedom of religion and belief," Rep. Alcee L. Hastings said this week, referring to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. The 56-nation OSCE is a major human rights alliance throughout Europe and Eurasia. Mr. Hastings, Florida Democrat, is the co-chairman of the congressional Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe. "I hope the Swiss courts will overturn this referendum and that the Swiss government will double its efforts to implement anti-discrimination laws and have an open and honest dialogue about religious and ethnic tolerance," Mr. Hastings added. Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin, the commission chairman, expressed worries that the referendum will send the message that Swiss are an intolerant people. "The Swiss vote to ban minarets is worrying for a number of reasons, including the fact that the Swiss people have seen fit to limit the religious practice of one particular group," the Maryland Democrat said. "I trust the Swiss government will work swiftly to be sure that the Swiss are not viewed as an intolerant people." Swiss citizens endorsed the referendum Sunday with 57.5 percent of the vote. The referendum bans the further construction of minarets, the mosque towers used to broadcast daily calls to prayer, but it does not restrict the construction of further mosques. In Switzerland, Ulrich Schuler, the architect of the referendum endorsed by the Swiss People's Party, told reporters that the ban was necessary because minarets are symbols of radical Islamic demands to impose Muslim laws in the majority Christian country.

  • Twitter This

    The most interesting question President Obama fielded in China came over the Internet, via the U.S. Embassy, from a Chinese citizen who asked, "Do you know of the firewall? Should we be able to use Twitter freely?" In response, Mr. Obama, speaking at a town hall in Shanghai, did not directly address China's massive Internet censorship operation -- "the firewall" -- and he confessed that he does not use Twitter. But he said, "I'm a big supporter of not restricting Internet use, Internet access, other information technologies like Twitter." No doubt that's correct. And, just as likely, Mr. Obama is not aware that his State Department not only is doing next to nothing to support Internet freedom in countries such as China, but that it also has been slow-walking congressional initiatives to do so. For two years Congress has appropriated funds to support groups that are developing ways to circumvent the Chinese firewall and those erected in Iran, Burma, Cuba and other repressive countries. The most prominent of the groups, the Global Internet Freedom Consortium, says it has the capacity to host 1.5 million users daily. Its technology works: Shiyu Zhou, the deputy director of the consortium, testified to the U.S. Helsinki Commission last month that at the height of opposition protests on June 20, more than 1 million Iranians used the system. He said that with $30 million of additional funding, capacity could be increased to 50 million users a day, making it "prohibitively expensive for any repressive government to counter our efforts." A bipartisan coalition that includes Sens. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.) and Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) and Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) has been trying to channel the necessary funding. A total of $20 million has been included in the past two State Department budgets, and $30 million more is pending in the Senate's version of the 2010 budget. But State hasn't passed the money on to the firewall-busters. Instead it gave the lion's share of its 2008 appropriation to a group that specializes in conducting media studies and training journalists, and it has failed to distribute the 2009 funds, even though the fiscal year ended nearly three weeks ago. The department says it is increasing the staff dedicated to working on Internet freedom issues and that it is funding some "implementing partners" that it won't identify. Still, no money is going to the one organization with a proven record of overcoming firewalls. The group's advocates suspect that that's because the Global Internet Freedom Consortium is identified with China's banned Falun Gong movement -- and State is fearful of Beijing's reaction to any U.S. support for it. The Obama administration has already done plenty to appease the Chinese regime. The least it can do is act on the president's own words about the value of free information -- and help give Chinese their chance to Twitter.

  • Embassy Row: Wall Fallout

    A Democratic congressman this week used a celebration of the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall to criticize President Obama for failing to nominate a U.S. ambassador to a key European human rights panel. Rep. Alcee L. Hastings of Florida urged Mr. Obama to find time to fill the ambassadorship to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). "I'm disappointed that the administration has still not yet nominated an ambassador to one of the pre-eminent human rights organizations," said Mr. Hastings, co-chairman of the congressional version of the OSCE, the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe. "For a president who so strongly supports international engagement and reinvigorating multilateral institutions, I expected better." Mr. Hastings added that he hopes Mr. Obama will nominate an ambassador to the 56-nation OSCE before the end of the year. Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin, chairman of the congressional panel, called on the United States "to renew its commitment to human rights, not as a personal belief of any political leader or simply an administration policy but as a moral obligation of our country to uphold international law and universal principles." The Maryland Democrat joined other panel members, including the ranking Republican, Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas, for the commemoration of the fall of the Wall at the Newseum, which displays the largest section of the Wall outside of Germany. Ambassadors Klaus Scharioth of Germany and Cosmin Vierita of Romania also attended the event, along with House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, Maryland Democrat, who chaired the congressional commission in 1989 when Germany tore down the Berlin Wall.

  • Senator Cardin on NBC4 (WRC)

    Reporter: Next Monday marks 20 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall. Today a special dead ration remembering the historical event took place at the museum. The wall separating east and west Berlin came down November 9, 1989. The museum here in D.C. has a piece of the wall on display. You are looking at it there. Current and former leaders of the U.S. Helsinki Commission reflected on the importance of the fall of the wall to the end of the cold war. Senator Cardin: "Hundreds of people were killed trying to flee the grip of communism. Many lost their lives suffering under the crushing, suffocating ways of totalitarianism. The people opening the gate of this wall transformed the continent, yet surely changed the course of history." Reporter: The Commission helped thousands escape soviet communism in the '80s. They helped give human rights advocate as voice in their respected countries.

  • Cardin Live on Fox5 Morning News

    Anchor: Well, it might not seem possible but it has been 20 years since the berlin wall fell ending nearly 30 years of a divided Germany. Today there will be a special event commemorating this historic event. Senator, good morning. Cardin: Allison, pleasure to be with you. Anchor: We will talk about why you are there in a little bit. you are standing in front of history. those watching who don't know the significance, could you tell us how huge this moment in history was 20 years ago. Cardin: The Berlin wall divided a city and state and a continent. it was the symbol of to tall tar -- totalitarism. When a question was asked when the wall would be open and the firm responded saying it would be open that day, it changed the future of Europe. Today we celebrate that 20 years in which the wall has been down, but we dedicate ourselves to the fact that there are still walls up that deny people the basic rights that they are entitled to and we really dedicate ourselves to helping people whose voices need to be heard. Cardin: You are at the museum. That piece of history is the largest chunk, if you will, of the wall outside of Germany and we have it here in our backyard. We do. I have a little piece in my office. I was in Berlin when the wall was coming down and the moment in history for me to be actually taking a hammer and knock down part of the wall. Anchor: Wow. You are joining fellow members of congress speaking out in an event where walls still stand because the fight, as you said, for democracy, freedom around the world is not over. >> Absolutely. That's what the Helsinki Commission, which I have the honor of chairing, one of our missions is to make sure that not just the 56 countries that belong to the Helsinki process but the entire world to live up to the basic human rights commitment to its people. >> Anchor: This agency with the federal government, the mission is to fight for that. Cardin: Absolutely. We are one of 56 countries that have signed on to the Helsinki accords which basically say we will respect human rights. We have the right to challenge human rights activities in any of our member states. We will work not only for security and prosperity but also for human rights because they are all linked together. Anchor: For those watching and we talked about you could be in -- we talked about this yesterday, we could have a child in college who might not have ever known about the significance of this. So, for those watching, what would you hope the message to resonate would be? Cardin: I think we need to learn from history. I remember going through checkpoint charley which you had to do in order to get from West Berlin to East Berlin. It's hard to imagine people being killed because they tried to escape East Berlin to go to West Berlin. Hundreds lost their lives. The wall was not just a division. It was a real differences between freedom and democracy. The lesson to learn is that freedom is something that everybody wants. We have to fight for it. It's not free. We have to continue our campaign to make sure that every person, every country respects the rights of the citizens. Anchor: In the meantime, we celebrate the shining moment in history. Thank you for joining us today. Cardin: Thank you.  

  • U.S. Diplomats Rap Astana's Democratization Performance

    As Kazakhstan prepares to assume the chair of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, US diplomats are exerting pressure on Astana to enact promised reforms. Kazakhstan’s laws on media, elections and political parties continue to "fall short of OSCE standards," Philip Gordon, assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, asserted in written testimony submitted for a hearing October 28 of the US Helsinki Commission. Gordon also pointed out in his testimony that "Kazakhstan has not held an election that the OSCE has deemed fully to have met OSCE commitments and international standards." Both Gordon and Michael Posner, the assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor, called attention to the case of Yevgeny Zhovtis, a human rights activist convicted in September for vehicular manslaughter. The trial was allegedly marred by procedural violations. Even so, a Kazakhstani judge rejected an appeal of the conviction. The US Helsinki Commission’s chair, Sen. Benjamin Cardin, a Democrat from Maryland, said the Obama administration and the State Department has given short shrift to human rights, adding that the issue of the OSCE summit in Kazakhstan presented an opportunity for the United States to take a strong stand on human rights.  

  • Why Tyrants Like Twitter

    When hundreds of thousands of Iranians took to the streets this summer to protest election results, headlines around the world anointed it the "Twitter Revolution." Iranians by the thousands Tweeted, Facebooked, blogged, video streamed and posted on scores of Web sites to share the events with the rest of the world, thwarting government attempts to censor coverage of the post-election violence. Twitter in particular appeared so powerful that the U.S. State Department even asked the micro-blogging service to delay a scheduled network upgrade to ensure Tweeting Iranians wouldn't lose access. But while Twitter and its new media cousins have given millions of people around the world the unprecedented ability to speak out and quickly organize against repressive governments, some experts caution that social media doesn't only benefit the social activists. "I'm not sure we understand the implications of building public spheres," said Evgeny Morozov, Yahoo! Fellow at Georgetown University's E.A. Walsh School of Foreign Service. New Media Empowers All Forces In a U.S. Helsinki Commission hearing on new media in authoritarian regimes, Morozov last week warned that new media "will power all political forces, not just the forces we like." Despite efforts to encourage the growth of pro-democratic groups online, he said research into the blogospheres in Egypt, Palestine and Russia suggest that the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas and groups of Russian nationalists and fascists are among the most active users of blogs and social media. "Blind support for promoting blogging and social networking may have a lot of very unpleasant unexpected consequences," Morozov said. While it's true that governments may have lost some power to Internet-based modes of communication that empower many voices, he said authoritarian regimes have benefited from those same communication channels in other ways. "The Internet has made it much more effective and cheaper to spread propaganda," Morozov told ABCNews.com. New Media Can Give Appearance of Openness In Russia, the government befriends new media entrepreneurs who spin online conversation in the government's favor. The Chinese, Morozov said, have created a "50 cent party" composed of thousands of people across the country who get paid 50 cents for each comment they leave online. For some authoritarian governments, new media can be used to give the appearance of openness and legitimacy. In a piece written earlier this year for the human rights blog openDemocracy.org, Babak Rahimi, a professor of Iranian and Islamic Studies at the University of California, San Diego, wrote about the "politics of Facebook" in Iran. Part of the reason could be to encourage younger people to vote, thereby boosting electoral participation and signaling state legitimacy, Rahimi wrote. Another reason could be to identify dissenters. "By unblocking Facebook and creating a false sense of open and fair elections, the intelligence services are able to monitor the activities of dissidents who may feel more comfortable to express their views on Facebook," he wrote. But the primary reason, Rahimi continued, was so authorities could show off their strength as a legitimate power. "By conceding small amounts of liberty, the regime also hopes to gain approval for its 'progressive' nature," he said. Morozov said that new media has also made it easier for repressive regimes to identify dissenters. Instead of employing hundreds of people to read published material, rulers can automate the process with computers programmed to search for keywords. The Beijing-based TRS Information Technology, a search technology and text mining company, helps China control public opinion by using keywords to search for subversive content, the Financial Times reported earlier this year. A marketing manager for the company told the Financial Times that it was starting to sell services that allowed monitors to track comments and forecast public opinion. He also said police use the technology to focus attention on certain groups of people, such as university student forums. 'Cat and Mouse Thing' for Activists to Stay Ahead Though there are risks to opening up public spaces online, experts also say that with ongoing awareness of developments in new technology, progress is possible. During last week's Helsinki Commission hearing, Nathan Freitas, an adjunct professor with the Interactive Telecom Program at New York University and developer of technology for protests, said there are numerous stories of Chinese, Tibetan and other activists being monitored via Skype, Yahoo!, e-mail and other online tools. Still, he said that when activists protested for Tibetan independence during the 2008 Olympic games, China's efforts to block coverage didn't stop the protestors from broadcasting their activities. Digital video cameras, handheld computers and live streaming camera phones helped their protests succeed, Freitas said. "It's a cat and mouse thing, staying one step ahead," he told ABCNews.com. Activists need to stay on top of a government's technical capabilities as well as its overall priorities. And the best use of new media for activists changes from country to country. For example, given China's ambitious business aspirations, it can't block as much of the Internet as countries with more humble goals, Freitas said. But a government's grand plans can also provide exploitable opportunities. Although China may crack down on Skype, e-mail and other communication channels, because it wants to encourage small businesses, Freitas said devices like BlackBerries work well in China. "The irony of the world is that everyone wants a piece of the Internet commerce cookie? These countries are promoting the people getting computer science degrees, so you're seeing the rapid rise of intelligence and capabilities within the countries themselves," he said. "If you can find the loopholes that tie in technology with commerce, it's kind of a sweet spot."

  • Cardin Eyes Climate Measures Here and Abroad

    Behind the scenes of the energy debate, Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., is working to prepare the United States for the December United Nations climate change summit in Copenhagen. Cardin was recently in Athens to deliver an address on climate change to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), a regional security coalition. He was there as part of his duties as chairman of the U.S. Helsinki Commission, an independent federal agency staffed by congressional members and administration officials that works with OSCE. Cardin is also a member of the Environment and Public Works Committee, which is currently marking up the climate legislation introduced recently by Sens. John Kerry, D-Mass., and Barbara Boxer, D-Calif. NationalJournal.com spoke with Cardin after his trip to get his take on some of the key components of a global climate change treaty and domestic climate legislation. NJ: You have called for an international treaty to include an "enforcement mechanism" against imports" from countries that don't meet their international goals of reducing greenhouse gases. Can you elaborate on this proposal? Cardin: What we want to make sure is that once we set international targets, and each state has their requirements and each state enacts their laws, that in fact there is an enforcement of those limits. If we enact targets and countries are supposed to meet their targets and they don't, we're not going to meet our overall targets. So, there needs to be a mechanism for enforcement. ... What it would mean is that if a country is supposed to meet a certain target and they don't meet that target, the products that come from their country into the international marketplace would be assessed the carbon difference as to how much it would have cost to comply with their standards. That assessment would be an import fee, basically, for a product entering another market. NJ. Would this serve the same function as a border tax? Cardin: In reality, yes, it's the same thing. But it's not enacted by a country. It's an international standard. So rather than the United States having a border adjustment, it would be an international regime under the climate change [agreement] rather than under the WTO. NJ: The legislation that passed the House in June includes a border tax provision. Are you in support of a border tax as part of domestic legislation? Cardin: I think you have to be able to address the question as a U.S. parliamentarian: How do you protect an American company in competition if a product made from another country is not subject to the same regime as the American company on reducing carbon -- or paying for the cost of carbon? So I think you have to be able to answer that question. I would rather answer it through international enforcement, but if you can't through international enforcement then I think it's certainly a legitimate issue for each country to deal with on their own. NJ. Several lawmakers have criticized the border tax, saying it could trigger trade wars between countries. Do you think implementing an international provision like this would prevent trade wars? Cardin: I'm not so sure that the provision that's in the House bill would promote a trade war, so I'm not going to concede that point. But I do believe it is much more understandable internationally if it's done under Copenhagen rather than each country acting on its own. NJ. What do you see as the Kerry-Boxer bill's strongest international components? Cardin: First, it provides U.S. leadership on the targets. The targets are aggressive. Secondly, it provides financing for the developing world, which is certainly a major issue in the international community. It also provides direct financing for deforestation remedies. NJ: Is there anything not included in the bill that you think should either be included in that bill or be at the forefront of the discussions in Copenhagen? Cardin: I'm working with Senator Kerry on making sure our international obligations are adequately funded. That's a continuing effort. I'm not sure if I'm going to be totally satisfied about what I see in the first efforts. NJ: President Obama is scheduled to visit China in November. What do you think should be his goals going into that meeting? Cardin: I hope we'll have a bilateral with China on some of these issues. ... I hope we'll be able to show some mutual progress. The fact that these meetings are taking place is significant in and of itself. The fact that China is becoming more and more of a player by their individual actions on climate change is important. Where China has not moved as aggressively as I would like is agreeing to work directly with the international community rather than just unilateral actions. And I hope the president can advance that need for China to be very bold in Copenhagen, really working closely with the developing world to make sure we get a successful conclusion. So I would like the president to advance that in November. NJ: Experts have predicted that China is set to outpace the United States, not to mention the rest of the world, in producing renewable energy, making this more of a competition than an international cooperation. Is that part of your concern? Cardin: Right. China is very strategic when it comes to trying to position itself in the international trade and investments in other countries. So they're continuing to act that way on climate change, being very strategic, understanding that it means job growth and the development of their own economy. Where I have not seen China is their willingness to enter into an international regime, and I think that's the challenge. NJ: Where do you predict Congress will be in its climate change debate come December? Cardin: Chairman Boxer has announced hearings and she intends to go to markup, so I think it is now becoming more and more likely that we'll have a bill out of the Environment and Public Works Committee before Copenhagen. I'm not sure how much further we'll get than that. But I think there is momentum in the United States Senate for more support -- Sen. [Lindsey] Graham and Sen. Kerry's piece in the New York Times was certainly encouraging. There seems to be some momentum developing in the Senate, so that's what we want to see... giving the president the confidence to commit the United States to significant responsibilities in Copenhagen. NJ: How do you think the U.S. should respond to the criticism that the Senate's goal of reducing emissions by 20 percent by 2020 isn't even close to what it should be aiming for? Cardin: I personally believe we could do better than 2020, but I think that's certainly a very forward aggressive goal -- puts the United States at the forefront internationally on carbon reduction. Those who say it's not enough -- let's see how well they're doing themselves. ... Can we be more aggressive? Absolutely. But this would be a huge step forward. NJ: Do you think there is going to be any "sleeper" region -- an area of the world not discussed much in the media -- that will come to the fore during international climate change talks? Cardin: You've got to look at South America. That's a critical part of the equation. NJ: In what respect? Cardin: The environmental issues concerning forestation, concerning the costs of the developing world. That's a part of the world that we need to look at. Africa also. South America and Africa are regions that we have to be mindful of during this debate. There is a lot of carbon capture capacity there.

  • Nigerian Oil Tycoons Jittery Over U.S. Bill on Corruption

    Nigerian oil tycoons and major oil exporting companies have developed cold feet over plans by the federal government to adopt and partner the United States on a new bill introduced by the U.S. The bills seeks among other things, to bring to book corrupt oil exporters. LEADERSHIP gathered yesterday that the Nigerian government through its embassy in the United States is already tracking the new legislation introduced late last month in the U.S that would require oil, gas and mineral companies traded on the U.S. stock exchange to publish details of their deals with foreign governments. The bill, according to reports will not be limited to American firms only, but would cover any foreign company that is traded on the U.S. exchange or raises capital in the U.S and is thus required to file SEC reports. Over 100 top oil companies would be affected by the bill designed to promote transparency, particularly in the oil industry, where corruption often keeps profits from trickling down to the local population. The legislation co-sponsored by Senators Ben Cardin, D-Md., Russ Feingold, D-Wis., Richard Lugar, R-Ind., Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., and Roger Wicker, R-Miss. Is already receiving international support, especially by oil exporting countries which cannot account for all the huge monies they earn from oil exports. Sarah Pray, the U.S. coordinator for Publish What You Pay, a coalition in 30 countries pushing for more accountability in extractive industries, was reported to have said that with the bill “Citizens can say, 'we saw you earned $7 billion last year, and we want you to manage it better,” Experts consider the new U.S bill very significant for countries like Nigeria which is listed at the bottom of the Berlin-based Transparency International's 2008 Corruption Perception index. Corruption and weak governance can dampen foreign investments, lead to poor industry management and fuel violence, particularly in Nigeria where there have been persistent crisis in its oil rich Niger Delta region leading to reductions in production and disabilities in global oil prices. Analysts say that Nigeria needs to monitor the new U.S bill on corrupt oil exports as it coincides with the Nigerian Petroleum Industry Bill (PIB). The Nigerian government had proposed a Petroleum Industry Bill expected to revive the entire oil and gas industry in the country. Considering the importance of Nigeria in the global oil and gas industry, and also its crumbling oil and gas industry, due to militant activities in the Niger Delta. The PIB has huge expectations attached with it as it is seen as a veritable avenue by the Nigerian government to restructure the oil and gas industry in the country and provide a lifeline to the indigenous oil sector. However, with the higher taxes and royalties in the proposed bill, the fiscal terms for the international oil companies have been made tougher. Whether the PIB will successfully bring to an end the militancy problem in the Niger Delta region and reposition Nigeria in the international oil and gas market remains skeptical. Nevertheless, on paper, the bill provides strategies and tools for the transformation of the Nigerian oil and gas industry to stand the test of time. Since 1956 when oil was first discovered in commercial quantity in oloibiri,in River State a huge revenue of over $400 billion accrued to the nation from petroleum exports. but this has not translated into physical development and most of Nigerians still live below poverty lines and this again underscores the need for Nigeria to evolve a strong law on its oil exports to ensure that revenues accruing to it from oil exports are ploughed back into the development of the country.

  • Ukraine Lauded for Nixing Hotel Near Babi Yar

    Two U.S. lawmakers hailed Ukraine for halting the construction of a hotel near the site of a Nazi massacre. Sen. Benjamin Cardin (D-Md.) and Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-Fla.) co-chair the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, an agency charged with monitoring and encouraging compliance with the Helsinki Final Act and other commitments. "The city authorities of Kiev deserve credit for their rapid response to concerns from human rights and Jewish groups on this issue," Cardin, who last visited the memorial park in 2007, said last week. "I applaud their swift action to overturn the city council's insensitive decision and respect the memory of the victims at Babi Yar." The hotel was to be built close to the site of Babi Yar, a ravine near Kiev, where more than 33,000 people were murdered over a two-day period from Sept. 29, 1941. Half were children. Cardin also commended Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko for his pledge "to protect as a sacred spot the site of the Nazi massacre." Between September 1941 and 1943, some 150,000 people were executed by Nazi troops in wooded areas on the outskirts of Kiev. Most were Jews, but the total also included ethnic Ukrainians, Russians, Poles and Roma, or gypsies.  

  • Bill Seeks Disclosure of Foreign Payments

    Five US senators have introduced a bill which would require companies with stock traded on US exchanges to report payments to foreign governments for oil, gas, and mineral extraction in their regular Securities and Exchange Commission filings. The measure is designed to prevent governments in countries rich with natural resources from hiding payments they receive from energy and mineral producers to finance corrupt activities, the lawmakers said. “History shows that oil and gas reserves and minerals can be a bane, not a blessing, for poor countries, leading to corruption, wasteful spending, military adventurism, and instability,” said Richard P. Lugar (R-Ind.), ranking minority member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the bill’s primary sponsor. “Too often, oil money intended for a nation’s poor lines the pockets of the rich or is squandered on showcase projects instead of productive investments,” he continued. Sens. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.), Russell J. Feingold (D-Wis.), Charles E. Schumer (D-NY), and Roger F. Wicker (R-Miss.) cosponsored the measure.

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