Title

Chairman Hastings Applauds Release of JUST Act Report on Assets Wrongfully Seized During Holocaust Era

Wednesday, July 29, 2020

WASHINGTON—Following today’s release of the JUST Act report by the U.S. Department of State, pursuant to legislation passed by Congress in 2017 and signed into law in 2018, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) issued the following statement:

“I applaud the State Department officials in embassies around the globe who have contributed to the reporting on this complicated and deeply compelling issue and the ongoing work of the Office of Holocaust Issues.

“The matters covered in this report—restitution of communal and religious properties, compensation for stolen private property, rightful ownership of looted artwork, and access to archives—are among the most challenging we have faced.

“This report not only seeks ways to address ‘one of the largest organized thefts in history,’ but also reminds us that these thefts were essential elements of the crime of genocide, depriving the victims of the very means of survival. Most importantly, the report demonstrates that, with requisite political will, progress can be made even after the passage of a great deal of time.”

In 2017, Congress passed the Justice for Uncompensated Survivors Today (JUST) Act, which required the State Department to provide a one-time report to Congress to assess the national laws and policies of countries relating to the identification of, return of, or restitution for assets wrongfully seized during the Holocaust era.

In July 2019, the Helsinki Commission hosted a briefing on truth, reconciliation and healing, where expert panelists reviewed lessons learned and discussed ways to heal and reunify societies divided by war, genocide, hierarchal systems of human value, and other tragedies stemming from extreme nationalism, racism, anti-Semitism, and other forms of ethnic and religious discrimination.

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Stacy Hope
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    WASHINGTON—From July 4 to July 8, Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) led the largest bipartisan, bicameral U.S. delegation in history to the 2019 OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA) Annual Session in Luxembourg. The participation of 19 members of Congress showed the deep U.S. commitment to European security and to countering Kremlin aggression and anti-democratic trends across the 57-country OSCE region. “The size of our delegation for this Parliamentary Assembly is a clear demonstration of the importance that the Americans place on this institution and its mission,” said Sen. Wicker ahead of the official opening of the event, which brought together approximately 300 parliamentarians from North America, Europe, and Central Asia. Sen. Wicker, who also serves as a vice-president of the OSCE PA, was joined in Luxembourg by House Majority Leader and former Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Steny Hoyer (MD-05); Helsinki Commissioners Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), Rep. Robert Aderholt (AL-04), Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), Rep. Richard Hudson (NC-08), and Rep. Gwen Moore (WI-04). Other participants included Sen. John Cornyn (TX), Sen. Rick Scott (FL), Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04), Rep. Tom Cole (OK-04), Rep. Val Demings (FL-10), Rep. Jeff Duncan (SC-03), Rep. Garret Graves (LA-06), Rep. Tom Graves (GA-14), Rep. Andy Harris (MD-01), Rep. Billy Long (MO-07), Rep. Gregory Meeks (NY-05), and Rep. Lee Zeldin (NY-01). In the opening plenary, Rep. Hoyer, a founder of the OSCE PA, reminded the delegates of the OSCE’s commitment to human rights, fundamental freedoms, and democratic governance. Rep. Moore then spearheaded the passage of a resolution on protecting and engaging civil society that was originally introduced by Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20). The assembly also adopted a second U.S. initiative on educating children to avoid human trafficking introduced by Rep. Smith, who serves as OSCE PA Special Representative on Human Trafficking Issues. Fourteen of the 16 amendments proposed by the U.S. delegation were adopted, including those holding the Kremlin accountable for the collapse of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty; criticizing Moscow for abusing INTERPOL diffusions to harass Kremlin critics abroad; expressing concern about the overreliance of European countries on Russia for energy supplies; and seeking to protect those who report hate crimes from retaliation.  During the annual session, Sen. Wicker and Rep. Smith co-hosted a presentation to raise awareness and encourage reporting of efforts to entice children into being trafficked. Sen. Cardin, who serves as the OSCE PA Special Representative on Anti-Semitism, Racism and Intolerance, hosted a discussion on best practices to combat hate in society. Prior to attending the annual session, Co-Chairman Wicker convened the first-ever Helsinki Commission hearing held outside of the United States. In Gdansk, Poland, senior U.S. civilian and military leaders briefed members of Congress on their approaches to enhancing security in the region. High-level defense officials from Lithuania, Poland, Finland, Sweden, and Estonia also provided regional perspectives on the evolving security environment in and around the Baltic Sea. Hearing participants included Lt. Gen. Stephen M. Twitty, Deputy Commander, United States European Command; Douglas D. Jones, Deputy Permanent Representative, United States Mission to NATO; Raimundas Karoblis, Minister of National Defense, Republic of Lithuania; Maj. Gen, Krzysztof Król, Deputy Chief of the General Staff of the Polish Armed Forces; Janne Kuusela, Director-General, Defense Policy Department, Ministry of Defense of the Republic of Finland; Jan-Olof Lind, State Secretary to the Minister for Defense, the Kingdom of Sweden; and Kristjan Prikk, Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Defense, the Republic of Estonia. The hearing underscored America’s commitment to security in the Baltic Sea region and its unwavering support for U.S. friends and allies.

  • Countering Hate: Lessons from the Past, Leadership for the Future

    Today at the 28th Annual Session of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly in Luxembourg, Helsinki Commission Ranking Member Sen. Ben Cardin hosted a U.S. side event in his capacity as OSCE PA Special Representative on Anti-Semitism, Racism and Intolerance. The event, “Countering Hate: Lessons from the Past, Leadership for the Future,” called for parliamentarians from across the 57 OSCE participating States to adopt an action plan to counter bias and discrimination and foster inclusion.  Several members of the U.S. delegation—along with U.S. Ambassador to the OSCE James Gilmore and U.S. Ambassador to Luxembourg Randy Evans—attended the event, where speakers included Dr. Rebecca Erbelding of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and OSCE parliamentarians Michael Link (Germany), Nahima Lanjri (Belgium), and Lord Alf Dubs (United Kingdom). “We are here today to exchange information on what we are doing in our home countries to address the problem and how we might be able to develop a plan of action to work better together to address the rise in hate-based incidents we have been witnessing across the OSCE region and beyond from Pittsburgh and Poway to Christchurch,” said Sen. Cardin. “It is not only the most vulnerable in our societies whom are in danger when we fail to act, but the very foundations of our democracies.” Dr. Rebecca Erbelding of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum shared a cautionary tale, reminding the audience, “The Holocaust did not appear out of nowhere [and] the Nazi Party was in power in Germany for eight years before mass killing began.”  Warning signs in the past were ignored, she stated.  “A rise of populist leaders, of simple solutions, of demonizing minorities, of propagandizing hate, of neglecting or ignoring refugee protections, of isolationism, of appeasement—these factors, when taken together, have led to genocide in the past, and not just in Europe. We must [..] work together to prevent genocide in the future.”  OSCE parliamentarian and former director of the OSCE Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) Michael Link stressed the need for action, saying that we are witnessing these first alarming signs of hate, but have a choice in whether we will repeat the past. He lauded the success of and need to continue the OSCE’s Words Into Action project funded by the German government to increase education on addressing anti-Semitism, security protections for the Jewish community, and build diverse coalitions across communities against hate. He cautioned that Romani populations should also not be forgotten in the efforts to address the problem. OSCE parliamentarian Nahima Lanjri described rampant discrimination in Belgium’s employment sector and its negative impact on the labor market. Citing the need for increased tools to fight all forms of discrimination that have the negative affect of repressing talents needed for societies to flourish, she called for more disparities data and initiatives that address economic and other forms of discrimination and bias. Lord Dubs, a British parliamentarian who was born in Prague in what was then Czechoslovakia, was one of 669 Jewish children saved by English stockbroker Nicholas Winton, and others, from the Nazis on the Kindertransport.  He shared a recent hate post he had received online and stressed the need to address increasing hate in our societies through education, legislation against hate speech and discrimination, and by shifting public opinion that denigrates communities instead of building them up. U.S. House Majority Leader Rep. Steny Hoyer cited the anti-discrimination work of Brian Stevenson and stressed that difference does not make one “less than." Parliamentarian Hedy Fry of Canada noted rising hate crimes in her country amid numerous initiatives addressing disparities and inclusion. U.S. Rep. Gregory Meeks highlighted the importance of Jewish and African-American coalitions in the civil rights movement. Stating that no group should have to fight for their rights alone if we truly espouse democratic values, he said, we all should be joining the Roma in their human rights struggle.  U.S. Rep. Val Demings called for the conversation to also include LGBT+ communities, recalling the tragic mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub in her Orlando, Florida district.  The sessions concluded with Special Representative Cardin calling for an OSCE Action Plan to address bias and discrimination and foster inclusion and OSCE/ODIHR Advisor Dermana Seta providing an overview of tools currently offered by the OSCE to assist governments in addressing hate crimes and discrimination. 

  • The Helsinki Process: A Four Decade Overview

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

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

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

  • STANDARD FOR JUSTICE: JUNE 10, 2010

    By Annie Lentz, Kampelman Fellow On June 10, 2010, seven senior Bosnian Serb officials were convicted of war crimes by the United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY). This was the largest trial to date held before the ICTY, which uncovered an organized and strategic attack against civilians and UN-protected safe areas in 1995 during the conflict in the Balkans. Bosnian Serb political and military leaders Radovan Karadžić and Ratko Mladic were later convicted of orchestrating the criminal plan. The trial began on August 21, 2006 and continued for 425 days until concluding on September 15, 2009. The inquiry featured testimony from 315 witnesses, with 5,383 exhibits of evidence totaling 87,392 pages. U.S. Helsinki Commission leaders expressed their support for the convictions handed down by the Tribunal, serving justice to those involved in the genocide of about 8,000 ethnic Bosniak men and boys residing in Srebrenica, an enclave  in Bosnia and Herzegovina which fell despite U.N. protection. Then-Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin said, “The ethnic cleansing that occurred in Bosnia was orchestrated by individuals who are now finally facing justice for their crimes. Others awaiting trial or who believe they may have escaped prosecution should take this as a sign that they too will answer for their crimes against humanity.” “The wheels of justice may not always turn as fast as victims’ families would like, but the convictions of Vujadin Popovic and Ljubisa Beara show the strength of the International War Crimes Tribunal to hold people to account,” said then-Co-Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings. Following calls from Helsinki Commission leadership and other human rights advocates, the ICTY was established in reaction to the atrocities committed during the decade of conflicts in the former Yugoslavia. It was the first international attempt to hold political leaders accountable for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide since the Nuremburg and Tokyo trials following World War II, and it established that the massacre committed in Srebrenica in July 1995 constituted genocide. Other crimes committed in Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Kosovo included mass ethnic cleansing campaigns in which millions were displaced, thousands of women and girls were raped, and many others were detained and tortured.  The death toll in Bosnia and Herzegovina alone is believed to have exceeded 100,000 individuals.  The ICTY concluded its work in 2017, having indicted 161 individuals in connection to crimes during the conflicts in the Balkans while setting global precedents regarding cases of genocide, crimes against humanity, violations of the laws or customs of war, and grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions. Ninety offenders were sentenced to serve prison time in 14 European states. The Tribunal also set the standard for how such atrocities should be handled to achieve international justice. In December 2017, the Helsinki Commission organized a public briefing to assess the accomplishments of the tribunal and ongoing efforts to pursue justice for atrocities in the Western Balkans.    

  • Helsinki Commission Leaders Commemorate Holocaust Remembrance Day

    WASHINGTON—As the country commemorates Holocaust Remembrance Day and mourns the victims of the shooting at the Chabad of Poway synagogue, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20), Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS), and Ranking Members Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) and Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) issued the following statements: “More than 70 years ago, Nazis slaughtered millions of innocents, and we said, ‘Never Again.’ Tragically, we are still battling anti-Semitism, racism, and other forms of intolerance across the OSCE region, including in our own country,” said Chairman Hastings. “Our communities must come together to condemn vile acts of hatred like the tragedy in Poway.  We honor the victims by not only remembering the millions who were lost, but also continuing to fight to protect human rights for all.” “As we solemnly mark Holocaust Remembrance Day, we mourn the millions of lives lost to Hitler’s evil, including the six million Jews murdered because of anti-Semitism—the world’s oldest hatred,” said Co-Chairman Wicker. “Bigotry continues today, and we have recently seen religiously motivated violence, including attacks on Jews worshipping at synagogues. Holocaust Remembrance Day is an occasion to reflect on these tragedies and to aspire to the heroism of those resistors in Europe who fought the Nazis and saved thousands.”    “Today, communities of all creeds and nationalities come together to commemorate one of the darkest times in human history. We honor the six million Jews who perished and those who survived the Holocaust,” said Sen. Cardin. “The recent tragedy in Poway following the horrific murders in Pittsburgh are a painful reminder that our work is not finished.  We must come together to reject all forms of hate, racism, and xenophobia. We must pledge to speak up for one another, regardless of whether our neighbor looks, worships or lives like us.” “‘We Remember’ cannot be just a phrase—it must be a promise to forever recall the victims that perished, the families that were separated, and the communities that courageously rebuilt,” said Rep. Wilson. “The devastation of the Holocaust must never fade from our collective memory and never be repeated. Saturday’s attack on peaceful worshippers in Poway is evidence that we must do more to ensure that the lessons of one of the worst tragedies in human history are not forgotten.”

  • Chairman Hastings Welcomes Release of Country Reports on Human Rights

    WASHINGTON—Following yesterday’s release by the State Department of the Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2018, Helsinki Commission Chair Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) issued the following statement: “I welcome the release of this year’s Country Reports on Human Rights Practices. These reports, mandated by law and prepared by the Department of State, exemplify Congress’ intent to keep human rights front and center in U.S. foreign policy. As members of Congress consider foreign assistance and military aid, as we build alliances and take the measure of our foes,  these reports help ensure that democracy and fundamental freedoms are given full consideration.” The annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices cover internationally recognized individual, civil, political, and worker rights, as set forth in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international agreements. The State Department must submit these reports to Congress on an annual basis, in accordance with the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 and the Trade Act of 1974, which require that U.S. foreign and trade policy take into account countries’ performance in the areas of human rights and workers’ rights.

  • Chairman Hastings Remembers 27th Anniversary of Khojaly Massacre

    WASHINGTON—On the 27th anniversary of the Khojaly Massacre, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) issued the following statement: “Khojaly, a town in the Republic of Azerbaijan, was home to a barbaric act of brutality that desecrated the norms and principles of international law, human rights, and freedoms. Armenian forces, with the support of the 366th motorized rifle regiment of the Russian army, stormed the besieged town of Khojaly engaging in acts so violent that their effects are still felt in the community, indeed the entire country, to this day… “Marking the anniversary of a tragedy is always a solemn occasion. However, as a member of the Azerbaijan Caucus, I believe it is important to recognize and remember those whose lives were lost. I ask my colleagues to join me in offering condolences to the people of Azerbaijan.” Chairman Hastings’ full statement was entered into the Congressional Record. On February 26, 1992, during the brutal war between Armenia and Azerbaijan, hundreds of Azerbaijani men, women, and children were killed by Armenian forces in Khojaly, in Nagorno-Karabakh.  

  • Slovak Chairmanship Convenes Conference on Anti-Semitism

    By Dr. Mischa Thompson, senior policy advisor and Erika Schlager, counsel for international law From February 5-6, 2019, Slovakia, the 2019 OSCE Chair-in-Office, convened government officials and civil society representatives in Bratislava to discuss best practices to combat anti-Semitism in the OSCE region. The event followed the 2018 Italian Chairmanship’s conference in Rome and took place shortly after International Holocaust Remembrance Day (January 27). The OSCE Chair-in-Office, Slovak Foreign Minister Miroslav Lajcik, opened the meeting, which was Slovakia’s first event of the year. Senator Ben Cardin, who serves as the OSCE Special Representative on Anti-Semitism, Racism, and Intolerance, participated by video and shared his most recent report prepared for the OSCE PA. U.S. Ambassador to Slovakia Adam Sterling represented the United States at the conference opening.     We are witnessing today a growth in anti-Semitic and xenophobic rhetoric across Europe and North America, not just on the fringes, but by political leaders who are fostering a permissive environment of hate.  Today’s conference is a timely call to action… As leaders, I ask that you join me today in working across the OSCE community to ensure that all people in our borders are able to live and worship in safety and dignity.  I also call on you to act by adopting a Plan of Action to Address Violence and Discrimination across the OSCE region so that we can win this fight. Sen. Ben Cardin, OSCE PA Special Representative   On the opening day of the conference, the White House announced the appointment of Elan S. Carr as the United States Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism. Many members of the Helsinki Commission, including Chairman Alcee L. Hastings, had urged the president to fill this Congressionally mandated position. As part of his first official trip, Carr participated in the Bratislava conference, where he met with representatives of civil society in his new capacity and held consultations with OSCE officials. Conference Follows Deadliest Anti-Semitic Attack in U.S. History For a second year in a row, an OSCE conference on anti-Semitism convened in the months following a deadly attack, fueled by anti-Semitism and extremism, in the United States. Just as the August 2017 events in Charlottesville were present in the minds of those gathering in Rome in January 2018, the memory of Jewish worshippers massacred at the Tree of Life Synagogue on October 27, 2018, where 11 people were murdered and several others wounded, underpinned every moment of the Bratislava conference. A January 29, 2019, indictment of the alleged shooter specifically asserts that he “willfully caused bodily injury to 11 deceased and 2 surviving victims because of their actual and perceived religion.” The charges illustrate the relationship between “ordinary” criminal acts such as murder, targeting individuals because of their identity, and other criminal violations of civil rights (in this case, obstruction of the free exercise of religious beliefs).   “Last October, in the deadliest anti-Semitic attack in U.S. history, a gunman killed eleven Jews as they gathered for services at a synagogue in Pittsburgh. As the White House stated: ‘This atrocity was  chilling act of mass murder. It was an act of hatred. Above all, it was an act of evil. … We all have a duty to confront anti-Semitism in all its forms everywhere and anywhere it appears.’” U.S. Ambassador Adam Sterling   Government Officials Pledge to Continue OSCE Efforts The first day of the conference featured OSCE Secretary General Thomas Greminger, OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) Director Ingiborg Gisladottir, World Jewish Congress CEO Robert Singer, and President of the Central Union of Jewish Religious Communities in Slovakia Igor Rintel. Rabbi Andrew Baker, the Chair-in-Office’s Personal Representative on Combating Anti-Semitism, reviewed progress that had been made in combating anti-Semitism over the past 15 years. Nevertheless, he observed that recent surveys indicate “[s]ignificant numbers of Jews have witnessed or experienced anti-Semitic attacks. Over a third are reluctant to wear anything in public that would identify them as being Jewish. A similar percentage will even avoid attending Jewish events for fear of an anti-Semitic encounter.” While asserting that, “[w]e can claim credit that through these years the OSCE has been in the forefront of the struggle,” he also observed that the “general climate has worsened, with growing racist and populist movements, a coarsening of public discourse in the easy ability of social media to amplify anti-Semitism and other forms of intolerance.” Government representatives reflected on the problem of anti-Semitism in their own countries, with some presenting rather favorable pictures. Many speakers during the conference noted the importance the definition of anti-Semitism by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (adopted in May 2016); several government officials reported how their countries are implementing the definition in practice. Four other panels focused on security of Jewish communities and individuals; the role of education in addressing anti-Semitism and promoting Holocaust remembrance initiatives; the role of media and social media; and the role of civil society and coalition building to address anti-Semitism and all forms of intolerance and discrimination.  Dr. Mischa E. Thompson, Helsinki Commission Senior Policy Advisor, speaking at the conference on media and social media. Christina Finch, the head of Head of ODIHR’s Tolerance and Non-Discrimination Department, reported on the completion of ODIHR’s unprecedented multi-year project, “Turning Words into to Action to Address Anti-Semitism.”  Grounded in the 2014 Basel Ministerial Declaration and funded by the German government, the project focused on security, education, and coalition building.  She outlined additional steps ODIHR is taking to help participating States implement the Security Guide developed as part of the “Words Into Action” project and the upcoming roll-out of an on-line Hate Incident Reporting Platform.  Hungary in Focus During the conference, remarks by Austrian Foreign Minister Karin Kneissl and Hungarian State Secretary Szabolc Takacs were notable for their broad negative portrayals of Muslims, refugees, and migrants as a source of anti-Semitism. One civil society speaker subsequently noted, “It gave me great unease that at a conference on anti-Semitism, far-right backed politicians are able to have a stage, to have a platform, to put forward highly Islamophobic content.  It gave me great unease that speakers from countries that have a terrible record with their Jewish communities, where Jewish communities face some of the most complicated struggles today, are able to say ‘everything is okay in my country.’  I was very happy that . . . our panel called out Hungary as a place where we have seen recently a lot of conspiracy theories, a lot of this very tactical rhetoric that without being blatantly anti-Semitic still manages to put anti-Semitic messages out there.” State Secretary Takacs also warned of the threat from extremist parties such as Jobbik, Hungary’s own far-right party. In fact, Hungary’s ruling party, Fidesz, generally has remained silent in the face of anti-Semitic and anti-Roma messages from Jobbik, implemented parts of Jobbik’s political program (including the adoption of the 2017 anti-NGO law), and amplified Fidesz’s own most notorious anti-Semitic and anti-Roma propagandist.  

  • First Person: Encountering Auschwitz

    By Rachel Bauman, Policy Advisor During the annual OSCE Human Dimension Implementation Meeting (HDIM) in Warsaw, I joined 21 other members of the U.S. delegation on my first visit to the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial Museum, the site of the former concentration and death camp in Nazi-occupied Poland. The mass murder of Jews, Poles, Romani people, Soviet political prisoners, and other groups by the Nazi state is almost too monstrous for comprehension, especially from a distance. Fewer and fewer Holocaust survivors remain, and though many of their memories have been preserved, soon there will be no witnesses to speak to the horrors of the past. What remains of Auschwitz-Birkenau, perhaps the most notorious death camp, is a testament to the millions of people slaughtered by the Nazi regime. Auschwitz I, though significantly smaller than Birkenau, is largely intact, and houses powerful exhibitions giving a deeply personal glimpse into a tragedy that often seems too large to grasp. For me, the faceless masses of black-and-white history book photos were brought into sharp relief through collections of objects found after Soviet forces liberated Auschwitz on January 27, 1945.  Enormous piles of eyeglasses, human hair shaved from the bodies of women dragged from the gas chambers, and children’s shoes were on display as a reminder of the simple trappings of humanity denied to the victims. We laid a wreath at the Wall of Death, an execution site, and finished the tour with a silent walkthrough of a gas chamber, illuminated by the holes in the ceiling from which Zyklon-B pellets rained down on the trapped prisoners. At Birkenau, we walked along the original train tracks where wagonloads of people were selected to either die in the gas chambers or labor in terrible conditions in which disease, starvation, and exposure meant that the average prisoner perished mere months after arrival.  The remains of the killing factory, hastily destroyed upon the approach of the Soviets, are a haunting illustration of the scale of Nazi atrocities. The final death toll of Auschwitz is estimated at 1.3 million, with Jews accounting for about 90 percent of the murdered.  One in six Jews killed during the Holocaust were killed at Auschwitz.  The evils of anti-Semitism, racism, and persecution of minority groups still exist today. At the Birkenau memorial to the victims, Ambassador Brownback reminded us that the United States must continue to defend human rights around the world. Helsinki Commission Chief of Staff Kyle Parker (left) and Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback (right) lay a wreath at Auschwitz at the Death Wall where those who attempted to escape were shot. As we prepared to depart, the clouds lifted over Birkenau, revealing a sunny sky, in stark contrast with the heavy grief of the morning.  Each of us processed the visit differently, but all experienced a renewed sense of the importance of our mission upon returning to the HDIM.

  • The Human Dimension is a Parliamentary Priority

    Each September, the OSCE focuses considerable attention on its body of commitments in the human dimension, ranging from human rights and fundamental freedoms, to democratic norms and the rule of law, to tolerance in society and other humanitarian concerns. For two weeks, the participating States and interested non-governmental organizations gather in Warsaw, Poland, to review implementation of OSCE commitments in each of these areas.  This Human Dimension Implementation Meeting (HDIM) is organized under the auspices of the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR). Other OSCE institutions, like the High Commissioner for National Minorities and the Representative on the Freedom of the Media, also participate in the exchange of views. Traditionally, the OSCE’s Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA) is also represented at the meeting, and its presence this year was particularly strong. About the OSCE PA The OSCE PA is one of the original institutions of the OSCE and consists of 323 parliamentarians who gather three times a year, including at an annual session each summer where resolutions are adopted. Today’s high-profile OSCE work on human trafficking, anti-Semitism, and media freedom began years ago with initiatives undertaken by the assembly and transferred at the urging of parliamentarians to national governments for concrete follow-up activity. Decision-making in the OSCE PA is usually based on a majority vote, which contrasts with the consensus needed among government representatives in OSCE diplomacy. This allows the Assembly to address issues, particularly in the human dimension, in a way that reflects the overwhelming opinion of the participating States but would be unlikely to succeed in other OSCE bodies, where representatives of offending countries can block action.  For example, in the past five annual sessions the OSCE PA has adopted resolutions condemning Russia’s clear, gross, and uncorrected violations of Helsinki principles in it aggression against Ukraine, including violations in the human dimension.  At the 2018 annual session in Berlin last July, Russian parliamentarians unsuccessfully opposed consideration and adoption of a text on human rights violations in Russian-occupied Crimea, and on the human rights situation in Russia itself. The OSCE PA also criticizes other countries’ record in the human dimension records—including actions of the United States—but the assembly’s criticism is generally commensurate with the severity of perceived violations. The OSCE PA defends ODIHR in its work facilitating implementation of commitments where needed, and civil society in its advocacy of human rights. At the 2018 annual session, parliamentarians condemned the ongoing efforts of Turkey and some other countries to restrict non-governmental voices at the HDIM and other human dimension events, or to dilute them with non-governmental organizations formed at the behest of some of the more repressive regimes in the OSCE region.  In Berlin, the OSCE PA called “on all OSCE participating States to welcome NGO participation in OSCE events, and to reject all efforts to restrict participation in OSCE human dimension events so long as these groups do not resort to or condone violence or terrorism, to ensure the broadest possible contribution from NGOs to the OSCE’s work and a full and unrestricted exchange of information and opinions.” OSCE PA Participation in HDIM 2018 OSCE PA President George Tsereteli addresses the 2018 Human Dimension Implementation Meeting in Warsaw. In 2018, five OSCE PA officers—all elected members of national parliaments—spoke at the HDIM.  OSCE PA President George Tsereteli of Georgia addressed the gathering’s opening session, observing that while the human dimension is also known as the “third dimension” of the OSCE’s comprehensive approach to security, it “should always be our first priority.” “When we put our OSCE hats on, our primary goal is to better the lives of the more than one billion people in the OSCE area,” said President Tsereteli. “Our duty is to respond to their desire to live in a free society, where democratic debate is encouraged and not stifled, where journalists are respected and not jailed or killed, where a simple citizen can trust that his or her voice counts and is not discarded.” Two of the OSCE’s nine Vice Presidents—Isabel Santos of Portugal and Kari Henriksen of Norway—also attended. Santos focused on the human rights of migrants, and Henriksen on promoting opportunities for women and children that will protect them from human trafficking. Two of the three officers of the OSCE PA’s General Committee on Democracy, Human Rights, and Humanitarian Questions were also in Warsaw. Committee chair Margareta Kiener Nellen of Switzerland addressed hate crimes and hate speech, including ways to combat them, while committee rapporteur Kyriakos Hadjiyianni of Cyprus focused on challenges to freedom of the media, ranging from rhetorical attacks to violence and incarceration of journalists. OSCE PA human rights committee rapporteur Kyriakos Hadjiyianni delivers remarks at the freedom of the media session at the 2018 HDIM in Warsaw. Other Human Dimension Activities Throughout the year, the OSCE PA deploys short-term election observation missions and represents the OSCE as a whole in reporting the preliminary conclusions immediately after elections take place. The assembly also has an active Ad Hoc Committee on Migration, chaired by Belgian parliamentarian Nahima Lanjri, which encourages humane treatment of refugees and migrants alike, including respect for their rights, in accordance with international norms.  Various Special Representatives of the OSCE PA President also have human dimension portfolios, including Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Chris Smith (Human Trafficking Issues) and Ranking Commissioner Sen. Ben Cardin (Anti-Semitism, Racism and Intolerance).

  • Interview with Chris Engels, Director of Investigations and Operations, Commission for International Justice and Accountability

    By Nathaniel Hurd, Senior Policy Advisor The Commission for International Justice and Accountability is a non-governmental organization that investigates atrocity crimes and terrorism committed during conflicts and prepares evidence for prosecutions in criminal trials. Chris Engels is a lawyer with more than 15 years of international experience. In 2016, he testified before the Helsinki Commission on bringing perpetrators of genocide and related crimes to justice. This interview covers the work of CIJA and Engels, U.S. national security interests, legacy, and current efforts on accountability for international crimes and terrorism, the support of Congress, and how being an American from Mississippi shaped Engels’ life and career. What is the Commission for International Justice and Accountability? CIJA’s core work is to collect evidence of international crimes such as genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and terrorism committed during conflicts. Our current investigations include Iraq, Syria, Burma, and the Central African Republic. We have seen in our careers that evidence against dictators, military leaders, terrorist groups and others who committed terrible crimes, often against their own citizens, is destroyed, stolen, or hidden away by those responsible for these crimes. Because it is close to impossible for government law enforcement or international organizations to work in these places, given the security issues related to operating in an active conflict zone, we have taken on this task. We are able to collect, preserve and analyze all types of evidence, including paper documents, hard drives, laptops, and smart phones as well as open source and social media materials. We also speak to witnesses, whether they be victims, bystanders or those who had some role in the organizations that we are looking into. An important part of this work is to bring together evidence that demonstrates the responsibility of leaders who hide behind layers of command, who don’t get their hands dirty but are most responsible for the terrible crimes they plan and order others to commit. We also work with governments that are trying to deal with insurgent groups in their own countries. It’s completely reasonable that governments have little experience dealing with collection and analysis of evidence of these types of crimes, until they are attacked by an armed group. We’ve been dealing with these crimes for a long time and can advise and assist them as they fight to stop an insurgency and build cases against those who are responsible for the crimes. We help ensure that the right people are prosecuted for the full range of their crimes. The job is challenging, but we have a great group of people working with us who are highly motivated to make sure these criminals don’t get away with their crimes. Our team is made up of investigators, analysts, lawyers, and security professionals from a number of countries, with experience in all of the recent conflicts around the globe. We are also a local organization in a way, because we have team members from the countries we work in who are incredibly committed to bringing to justice those who are tearing their countries apart. Together, we are a unique and dedicated group. That’s the key to our success. Religious and ethnic minorities, like Christians and Yazidis, were targeted by ISIS for genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes. What work has CIJA done on atrocity crimes against these groups? CIJA is designed to tackle these challenging issues. We have done a great deal of work to identify those ISIS members responsible for crimes against minorities such as Yazidis and Christians, and we hope to do more. I believe that our work not only promotes justice for minority victims, but also helps to cut through political rhetoric and get to the facts. On the one hand, criminal investigations will lead to the individuals responsible being brought to justice. This is key for any community. We need to make sure that those who target minority groups are not allowed to go free, particularly in the same areas, living amongst the same groups that they killed, tortured and abused. At the same time, some people see these terrible crimes committed against minorities as a political issue, and then might refuse to label crimes a genocide or crimes against humanity for political reasons. Providing high quality evidence of the crimes committed, can minimize the politics involved and redirect people to the important issues, the safety of minority communities, justice for past crimes, and the right to return to and remain in their homes and their communities as quickly as possible. What is human rights documentation? How is it different from the work of CIJA? CIJA is the first, and still only, nonprofit set up to collect and analyze evidence of international crimes during conflict for prosecution. Other groups conduct what you’ve called human rights documentation. This is different in form and substance. Human rights documenters focus on collecting information and statistics on crimes committed. They then publish reports in order to raise awareness of crimes and lobby for other governments to get involved. This is noble work, unfortunately today, we see in Syria a situation where it is possibly the most heavily documented conflict in history from a human rights advocacy perspective, but this great work has not slowed the abuses committed in the country. Another difference is that CIJA investigates up to a criminal law standard, documenting the chains of custody of materials for example so that the evidence can be used successfully at trial. This level of evidence collecting is not needed for human rights documentation. Also, we are committed to working with law enforcement. Human rights documenters do not always want to work with law enforcement, because they want to remain independent in their reporting or because they do not have consent of their sources to share information with law enforcement. This all makes sense for their work. We simply have a different focus Who funds CIJA? We have had a number of donors over the years. Our current donors include the United Kingdom, Canada, the European Union, Germany, Demark, the Netherlands, and Norway. Describe your work as Director for Investigations and Operations. There is plenty of variety in my work, and I enjoy that. I am constantly on the road meeting with our field team members, working with local law enforcement, talking to witnesses, and training others to do this type of work. Of course, I spend some days in the office behind a computer hammering out management reports, doing research, writing up notes of interviews, and managing the operational side of the organization. That includes sitting with our team leaders to work out investigative plans, addressing security issues across the different conflict zones and countries where we have people, and developing strategies for our future work. I work with a great team full of dedicated people who all work hard. It is not always the case that you get to work with a competent team that enjoys their work. I am extremely fortunate to have such a professional and passionate team at CIJA. Describe CIJA’s collaboration with the Department of Homeland Security, FBI, and other U.S. government entities. By design, CIJA has a strong relationship with U.S. law enforcement. CIJA’s primary goal is to assist in the prosecution of those responsible for the terrible crimes committed during conflicts. We have the advantage of being able to operate safely in conflict zones with unique skills to preserve the materials we collect in a way that they can be used at trial. This is the key to our success. We are not interested in writing reports, human rights advocacy or political discussions. Those things are, of course, important. But CIJA focuses simply and solely on collecting evidence to ensure dictators, terrorists, and their cronies who kill, torture, and rape civilians do not escape justice. Once we have done our job, the information needs to get to law enforcement so that justice can be done. To do that, we work with any legitimate governmental agency that is investigating these types of crimes including the FBI and DHS. We are happy to work with them and believe it is our responsibility to do so. We received over 500 requests last year to assist in law enforcement investigations and the number is increasing this year. In the United States, this work has a national security element as well. If we can stop these criminals from getting into the United States, then we are all better off. By collecting evidence now, we can identify those who are responsible for these crimes and this information can assist in making sure they do not get visas and are not allowed to enter the United States. You can see how this information provides important data necessary to secure our U.S. borders against international criminals. Have members of Congress supported the work of CIJA? Oh yes. The best example of this is probably from congressional hearings on the issue. I have had the opportunity to appear before the Helsinki Commission and the Lantos Commission to discuss international criminal justice. Helsinki Commission Chairman Senator Wicker and Co-Chairman Congressman Smith, are both great supporters of this type of work and they fully support our justice efforts. More generally, you can see the will of Congress to support this type of work in the many resolutions, laws passed, and bills still making their way through Congress–like H.R. 390 (Iraq and Syria Genocide Emergency Relief and Accountability Act). It is clear to me that Congress supports justice for victims of these crimes and sees the value in making sure dictators and terrorists are brought to justice, giving notice to those who may consider similar paths in the future. How is this work relevant to the national security of the United States? It is directly relevant in many ways. For example, we have spent the last four years investigating individuals associated with Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. We have collected a great deal of evidence on fighters who had no plans to leave Syria when they arrived. Those who were completely happy to participate in the terrible crimes committed against civilians while Islamic State was winning the fight. Today, with the near totally defeat of Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, we see that many of these fighters are now trying to get back into Europe and eventually will attempt to make their way to America. The evidence we have will help ensure these individuals are not allowed to travel freely, and if they do try to do so, they will be arrested and prosecuted. I’d say a second benefit is that our evidence shows clearly that these so-called holy warriors were in reality drug traffickers, human traffickers, rapists, slavers, thugs and criminals that simply used their power to exploit and abuse anyone they chose for any reason. I think this helps open the eyes of some vulnerable young people who might join these types of groups. Islamic State has made good use of propaganda, but the reality is very different. Demonstrating this with strong evidence is a necessary part of any effort to stop the ideology from spreading into the country. We are happy to be working on that. It’s also important to say that governments that do not respect the rights of their own people certainly do not respect the rights of other people. It is not a coincidence that many governments which permit or even actively engage in the murder, torture, and rape of their citizens also protect, harbor, and even support people engaged in international terrorism. Regimes willing to engage in atrocities often become exporters of that terror to the United States and our allies at home and abroad. When the international community holds officials accountable for their crimes through fair trials, not only is justice served but it can also deter those who threaten peace and security from acting in the future. What is the American legacy, past and present, on this work? America’s leadership has promoted international justice from its earliest days. We were the engine behind the Nuremburg Tribunal and the other post-WWII prosecutions. We were a driving force for the Yugoslav and Rwanda tribunals. America has been an advocate of justice across the world and ready to stand up against dictators who were killing their people. This process is never simple; it’s often messy. But we as a people have pushed forward this sense of responsibility to protect others who cannot protect themselves. I believe that is a noble American trait that should preserved. What is it like being an American doing this work? What do you tell people abroad about your home country and home state? Do you miss home when you are abroad? Absolutely, I miss home when I am abroad. I think there are a lot of people working internationally who used this type of work to get out of the place they came from for whatever reason. That is not me. I love Mississippi; my family is there and so are the catfish and the crawfish. I believe in the work I do and that work takes me all over the world, but Jackson is my home. To put it more succinctly, the first house I bought was in Jackson, and I assume the last house I live in will be in Jackson as well. That is not to say I do not enjoy my time abroad. Even after 15 years or so of working overseas, I still feel lucky to be out in the world meeting interesting people from different backgrounds, hearing their stories and sharing some of my own Mississippi stories as well. Mississippi is complex, with all its relaxed, humid goodness mixed up with its troubled history. We all know, if you don’t keep an eye on that history, it will try to catch back up with the present, and I think most Mississippians are mindful of that. I used to be frustrated by all the preconceived notions people had about the South, but I got over that long ago. Sometimes, though, I have to remind people that I didn’t just pop out of the screen from a Hollywood movie or some anachronistic South, lacking culture and grammar, divided into two simplistic race-based groups that perpetually make bad decisions that keep them both poor and ignorant. To tell the truth, I still find it amusing and a little ironic that people who have never visited the South are okay with telling me about how bad things are in the South, but do not see any problem with stereotyping a whole region based on their limited information. I also think that Americans are often criticized for stereotyping or profiling other countries and regions based on limited information. But that mistake is universal. Every place, every people, every country is complex. Just living in a foreign country will teach you that and the learning will be quick. That’s what makes things interesting. The complexities and differences provide us with opportunities to think differently, act differently, and appreciate new perspectives. We in Mississippi can learn from the complex challenges people in other nations have faced. But we have much to share with them as well. More importantly, I run into tons of people who know something about Mississippi, whether it’s because of their love for blues or food, they have family or friends in Mississippi, or they’ve visited and want to talk about their next visit to the South. It’s great to talk to those people whether in Europe, the Middle East, Asia or on a plane in between. I also find plenty of people who are mystified by the South and want to know more. As you’ve probably guessed, I have plenty to say on that topic. There is more to be done to bring communities together in the South, but this experience can be a positive. We have come a long way as a group of people, while still facing relative poverty and still building trust across communities. There is a message in this work for those that are experiencing a civil war or reeling from its immediate aftermath. It’s a long road and not everyone is on board, but our example can give hope to those who currently have little reason to believe their tomorrow will be any better than their today. Describe growing up, going to college, and living in Mississippi. I grew up during a sweet spot in time for a Southerner, I believe. Being born in the mid-70’s, I spent my youth without the Internet. This not only freed up a great deal of time to run around in the woods, paddle down rivers, and occasionally act like I was fishing, but it also meant I was sort of sequestered, unknowingly, from the rest of the world. I also saw a changing South, and a changing Mississippi. By the time I could remember things going on around me, the great unrest of the civil rights era had shifted to a time of Southern-paced reconciliation and while no one would say it was perfect, we were moving forward as Mississippians throughout my youth. I think that reconciliation, like justice, is not something to be completed; it is an ongoing process and must be consciously acted upon by each generation. Looking back, I think we were doing that in my youth. I also picked up a great deal about fairness and respect for individuals from living in Mississippi. We are a people who believe in the power of the individual to change his or her place in life and that those who abuse their power should not be allowed to take advantage of folks. There is a balance in Mississippi between not getting involved in another person’s business and standing up when someone is being mistreated. I think that, as simplistic as it might sound, is the root of my drive to do this work. Mississippi is my home. My family and friends are in Mississippi. My house is in Mississippi. I vote in Mississippi, and I am a member of the Mississippi Bar Association. I spend a lot of time in foreign countries because my work requires it. When people ask me where I am from, I am proud to tell them I’m from Mississippi. I love to tell the story of Mississippi, and when I’m home, I love to live that story. What about your experience as an American, specifically one from Mississippi, has fueled your commitment to justice, accountability, counter-terrorism and preventing violence extremism? What have you learned as an American, from Mississippi, that formed how you see others? I think my experiences growing up have given me some small level of insight into the desire of those I work with to reconcile and rebuild a peaceful and successful society that is better for their children. It’s not just about bringing those to justice who are responsible for these atrocities, it is also about bringing society back together, reconciling after these conflicts, and justice is an important part of that. In Bosnia for years after the war, women walked down the street and saw their rapists, men saw their torturers and young children saw those who executed their fathers and mothers. Communities cannot mend without justice. Martin Luther King Jr. said it well, “True peace is not merely the absence of tension: it is the presence of justice.” I like to think my work helps to ensure that justice is present for dictators and war criminals wherever they might be. Yes, some would consider investigating atrocities in Syria and Iraq a dangerous job, and sometimes it might even seem futile given the fact the conflict has lasted so long, but I believe the time will come when the world will try those responsible, and when that time comes CIJA’s work will ensure that the proper evidence is ready and available. In the meantime, we are constantly working with law enforcement agencies around the world to arrest and prosecute those who leave Syria and Iraq and are found in countries willing to bring them to justice. What are the most satisfying aspects of your job? I hate that there is a need for my job, but I love doing it. One of the most satisfying parts of my job is to see criminals who thought they were going to get away with torturing and killing their own people, their neighbors, and former classmates, arrested and prosecuted for their terrible acts. But it’s not just about bringing those powerful criminals to justice, it is also about bringing society back together and reconciling after these conflicts. Ensuring those who were most responsible are taken out of the mix and are serving out criminal sentences for their crimes is key to making sure the rest of the society can move forward. I don’t believe we can solve all the problems in the world, but I want to do a good job at this small piece of it. If I can do that, then I feel like all the time and energy is worth it.

  • Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism Act of 2018

    Mr. Speaker, I rise today in support of H.R. 1911, the Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism Act of 2018. This important legislation would elevate the position of Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism to the rank of Ambassador, reporting directly to the Secretary of State; as the primary advisor and coordinator for U.S. government efforts to monitor and combat Anti-Semitism and Anti-Semitic incitement in foreign countries. Many notable groups support this initiative, including the American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League, and The Jewish Federations of North America, and I am proud to stand with them to ensure that the United States continues to play a leading role in combatting Anti- Semitism across the globe. Those of us who have served on the U.S. Helsinki Commission have taken efforts to combat anti-Semitism at the international level. As Ranking Democratic Member of the United States Helsinki Commission, I have long worked with representatives of governments throughout Europe to highlight the resurgence of Anti-Semitism and elevate efforts to push back against this despicable resurgence through education, outreach, and improved security. Mr. Smith, Mr. Hoyer, Senator Cardin and I have all chaired the Helsinki Commission, and together, we have worked with several other Members of both the House and Senate, as well as with parliamentarians particularly from Germany and Canada, to have the Parliamentary Assembly of the 57-country OSCE condemn the escalation of anti-Semitic violence in Europe. We first did this at the Assembly's 2002 annual session in Berlin, Germany, and have kept it on the agenda there ever since, suggesting measures to counter anti-Semitic statements and acts of violence alike. I pushed it strongly while serving as President of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly from 2004 to 2006, and then as chairman of the Commission from 2007 to 2008. We succeeded in getting OSCE institutions, officials and diplomatic representatives to incorporate efforts to combat anti-Semitism and other forms of intolerance into their ongoing work. I know Mr. Smith continues to raise the issue in the Assembly as the current co-chair of the Helsinki Commission, and Senator Cardin serves as the Assembly's Special Representative on Anti- Semitism, Racism and Intolerance. Ensuring that our country continues to lead in the fight against Anti-Semitism is a priority that we should all embrace. I fully support this measure and urge my colleagues to do the same.

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