Title

Chairman Hastings Remembers 27th Anniversary of Khojaly Massacre

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

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.

 

Media contact: 
Name: 
Stacy Hope
Email: 
csce[dot]press[at]mail[dot]house[dot]gov
Phone: 
202.225.1901
Relevant countries: 
Leadership: 
  • Related content
  • Related content
Filter Topics Open Close
  • 14th Annual South Caucasus Media Conference

    The Annual South Caucasus Media Conference hosted by the OSCE Office of the Representative of Freedom of the Media brings together government officials, journalists, media experts, and civil society representatives to discuss media freedom in the countries of the South Caucasus: Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. Initiated in 2004 by former Representative of Freedom of the Media Miklos Haraszti, the South Caucasus Media Conference aims to address modern challenges to media freedom and discuss common problems and potential solutions. Conference focuses have ranged from internet freedom and governance, to public service broadcasting, to dealing with libel. Following a year where the term “fake news” entered common media lexicon, the 2017 conference was appropriately titled “Fake news, disinformation, and freedom of the media.” Panels at the conference were well-balanced with perspectives from government officials, journalists, and media experts across the countries of the South Caucasus and beyond. The practice of bringing many stakeholders to the table is an effective way to identify shared problems and best practices to promote media freedom in the South Caucasus region. Whenever possible, the OSCE practices an open-door policy to include participants from NGOs and civil society. This gives government and civil society actors equal seats at the table and facilitates unfettered dialogue. Download the full report to learn more. Contributor: Jordan Warlick, Office Director

  • First Person: Election Observation in Armenia

    By Everett Price, Policy Advisor As the Helsinki Commission’s policy advisor for Armenia, I participated in the election observation mission (EOM) to Armenia organized by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA) from March 31 to April 3, 2017. On April 2, the Republic of Armenia held its first parliamentary election since approving constitutional amendments in a popular referendum in 2015 that transition the country from a semi-presidential to a parliamentary system. The election was also significant as the first nation-wide vote held under sweeping 2016 revisions to the country’s electoral code that implemented a new process for allocating legislative seats, improved transparency, mandated advanced voter authentication measures, and increased female and minority representation quotas. I was one of a 63-member delegation of parliamentarians and staff deployed by the OSCE PA to serve as short-term observers to the Armenian election. This parliamentary delegation complemented the work of a team of 14 experts, 28 long-term observers, and over 300 short-term observers sent throughout the capital and across the country by the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR). Representatives from the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) and the European Parliament (EP) also participated. The OSCE PA and ODIHR regularly lead EOMs in the OSCE region at the invitation of the host country. (Learn more about OSCE election observation.) In the days before the vote, our OSCE PA observation team received extensive briefings on the election process and current political dynamics from ODIHR experts and from Armenian government officials, political parties, civil society, and media representatives. These briefings focused on allegations of electoral violations, the complexity of the electoral code, the role of international and local observers, and the tenor of the campaign. We heard a “unified message of concern” from civil society representatives.  Citizen activists, journalists, and opposition members told us that the ruling party would abuse its access to administrative resources to get out the vote and that it, and other parties, would engage in voter intimidation and vote buying.  They warned that while new electoral procedures might mitigate concerns about the casting and counting ballots, the ruling party and powerful oligarchs would wield improper influence outside the voting booth, diminishing the fairness of the vote. One political commentator assessed that the difficult economic situation experienced by many voters during this election season would make them especially susceptible to selling their vote. Briefers also discussed the complexity of Armenia’s new electoral code and the extent to which it would address past electoral violations. Significantly, this was Armenia’s first time employing electronic voter identification, multiple ballots, and a partial open list voting system that allows voters to express their preference for specific candidates. The code incorporated many recommendations from Armenian civil society, ODIHR, and other international experts and was generally assessed as a positive step forward. Concerns remained, however, about the complexity of voting procedures, voter registration policy, relatively weak campaign finance transparency provisions, and restrictions on citizen observer participation, among other issues.       Civil society activists specifically raised concerns about the overall number of citizen observers and the rules governing their access to polling stations. Armenia registered over 28,000 citizen observers in a country of less than 3 million people, prompting concerns about overcrowding at polling stations and questions about the origins of the organizations and individuals behind these observation missions. One civil society representative said that only 600 of the citizen observers were from known NGOs and that many of the rest are likely from NGOs established by political parties. Some worried that the large number of citizen observers was meant to suppress the participation of legitimate groups since the electoral code stipulates that a maximum of 15 citizen observers are allowed in a polling station at one time. Ruling party officials, meanwhile, noted that hundreds of citizen observers were foreigners registered under local NGOs. They intimated that these observers could be a vehicle for unwelcome foreign influence. One media representative characterized the content of the campaign as “the most primitive” in recent memory, while another political commentator lamented the “poverty of ideas” and “competition of personalities” on display. Several members of the media and some political party officials regretted that lack of any televised debate among candidates—only three of the nine parties and political coalitions on the ballot were willing to hold such a debate. What’s more, several journalists noted that many parties actively avoided the press and restricted most of their candidates from interacting with the media.    Before dawn on election day, two other observers and I deployed to our first assigned polling station to watch the opening procedures. At a school in downtown Yerevan, I watched as the precinct chairwoman capably organized the precinct committee that worked together to prepare the space and voting materials for the arrival of the day’s first voters. The importance of orderliness at this particular polling station became evident within the hour when presidential security arrived to prepare for Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan to cast his vote there. Despite this exceptional circumstance, in other ways the experience at this polling station typified the voting I observed elsewhere throughout the day. I saw non-credentialed citizens hovering watchfully—and in violation of the electoral code—outside the polling station and engaging voters—likely local party officials keeping tabs on voter participation. Inside the polling place there was some overcrowding, a malfunctioning electronic voter authentication device, and modest voter confusion about the voting procedure, which involved selecting among nine separate ballots and optionally marking a candidate preference on the reverse side. I visited a total of seven polling places that day, stretching from downtown Yerevan to the shores of Lake Sevan and the surrounding hinterland 60km northeast of the capital. In larger precincts I witnessed large contingents of party proxies and citizen observers monitoring the vote. In several instances, citizen observers credentialed under the name of a local NGO turned out to be from foreign countries and were unable to explain to me the mission of their organization, highlighting the opaque origins of some citizen observation efforts. In most precincts I saw a mix of credentialed and non-credentialed individuals from political parties and local NGOs mingling inside and outside the polling station, engaging voters, and generally making their presence felt. Our day ended in Yerevan where we observed the closure procedure at a polling place where about 700 votes had been cast. The precinct chairwoman carefully walked the precinct committee through the process step by step, openly acknowledging to us the difficulty of carrying out the complex procedure for the first time. The tallying took place transparently in front of us and in full view of several local observers and party proxies that stayed late into the night to oversee the count. We had the opportunity, along with our fellow observers, to ask questions of the precinct chairwoman about how she and her team were adjudicating individual ballots and counting votes. Although my observations here are anecdotal, they are consistent with the preliminary findings and conclusions of the international election observation mission that the elections “were well administered and fundamental freedoms were generally respected” although the vote was “tainted by credible information about vote-buying and pressure on civil servants and employees of private companies.” The end result was a vote that suffered from “an overall lack of public confidence and trust.” (Read the full Statement of Preliminary Findings and Conclusions.)        While Armenia’s democracy took some important strides in the procedural conduct of this election, much work remains to be done. With the vote tallying complete, Armenia now embarks on a critical period of transition to a parliamentary system that will be fully realized at the end of the President’s final term in April 2018. All political actors, but particularly the new governing coalition, must shoulder their responsibilities to ensure that this new system of governance earns the trust of the public it serves. To build this trust, Armenia would benefit from a process of political evolution that accompanies its institutional transition and procedural reforms. Specifically, Armenia’s political parties and new parliament would do well to ensure a competition of ideas replaces the all too common clashes of personalities and patronage networks on display during this election.

  • Helsinki Commission Leaders to Azerbaijan: Release All Political Prisoners

    WASHINGTON—On the traditional holiday of Nowruz, Helsinki Commission leaders called on the Azerbaijani government to immediately release all remaining political prisoners and honor its OSCE commitments to human rights, democracy, and the rule of law. “It is disappointing that President Aliyev released only a small number of political prisoners among several hundred pardons he issued prior to Nowruz,” said Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS). “OSCE participating States commit to respecting freedom of expression, including the freedom to exchange information and views without interference from public authorities. The Government of Azerbaijan should uphold this commitment by releasing opposition figures, civil rights activists, journalists, and religious leaders who are currently in jail for peacefully exercising their rights. This is particularly true in the case of former presidential candidate Ilgar Mammadov, who recently entered his fifth year in prison on politically-motivated charges.”  “President Aliyev’s pardons left dozens of human rights activists, journalists, and political dissidents languishing in prison and subject to mistreatment,” said Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04). “I call on President Aliyev to respect human rights and democracy in his country and immediately release all prisoners of conscience.” In 2016, the Government of Azerbaijan pardoned 148 inmates in the days leading up to Nowruz, including more than a dozen people identified as political prisoners by leading human rights organizations. This year, the Government issued pardons to more than 400 prisoners, but only four political prisoners were freed.

  • Smith and Eshoo Reintroduce Emergency Bill to Help Genocide Survivors

    WASHINGTON—Following his December 2016 mission to Erbil in the Kurdistan region of Iraq to meet with Christian survivors of ISIS genocide, Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04), along with his Democratic colleague Rep. Anna Eshoo (CA-18), today reintroduced their bipartisan legislation to provide emergency relief to survivors of genocide and ensure accountability for perpetrators. The Iraq and Syria Genocide Emergency Relief and Accountability Act (H.R. 390) is an enhanced version of the Smith-Eshoo bill (H.R. 5961) they introduced in 114th Congress. “The reintroduction of this bill is timely because just last month I saw in Iraq the lack of humanitarian aid for Christian genocide survivors. These genocide survivors told me the United States and global community had abandoned them. They are at-risk from freezing winter temperatures and require emergency help,” said Smith. “Tens of thousands of Christian genocide survivors in Iraq and Syria need our help now and it is essential that emergency humanitarian aid for the survivors be provided,” said Rep. Eshoo. “I thank Chairman Smith for his passionate leadership on this issue and I look forward to working with him and all my colleagues in Congress to quickly move this aid package and bring relief to those who continue to suffer.” The Syriac Orthodox Archbishop of Mosul, Nicodemus Sharaf, who had to seek refuge in Erbil from ISIS, told Smith, “We are the last people to speak the Aramaic language. Without help, we are finished.” The Chaldean Catholic Archdiocese of Erbil invited Smith to Erbil and has been supporting more than 70,000 Christians who escaped ISIS – almost 1/3 of the 250,000 Christians remaining in Iraq – with food, shelter, and medical care. It also serves Yezidis and Muslims displaced by ISIS. The Archdiocese has had to rely entirely on donations from organizations like the Knights of Columbus and Aid to the Church in Need. “Because the U.S. Government and United Nations have so far failed to support this life-saving work of the Archdiocese of Erbil, these Christian genocide survivors continue to hang on the edge between life and death,” added Smith.  Among its key provisions, H.R. 390 directs the U.S. Administration to: Support entities that are effectively serving genocide survivors in-country, including faith-based entities; Support entities that are conducting criminal investigations into perpetrators of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes in Iraq and Syria; Create a “Priority Two” (“P-2”) designation that Christians and other genocide survivors from religious and ethnic minority communities are of “special humanitarian concern to the United States” and therefore able to access an overseas application interview for the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program without needing a referral from the UN; Vet P-2 refugee applicants like any other Iraqi or Syrian refugee applicant and not admit them to the U.S. unless they have cleared this vetting; Assess and address the humanitarian vulnerabilities, needs, and triggers that might force survivors to flee their homes; Identify warning signs of deadly violence and other forms of persecution against genocide survivors from vulnerable religious and ethnic minority communities, or against other members of these communities, in Iraq or Syria; Identify gaps in U.S. law so that the American justice system can prosecute foreign perpetrators of genocide, crimes against humanity, or war crimes present in the U.S., as well as any Americans who commit such crimes; Encourage foreign countries to add identifying information about suspected perpetrators of such crimes to their security databases and security screening. The other original 15 cosponsors are Rep. Mark Meadows (R), Rep. Juan Vargas (D), Rep. Pete Sessions (R), Rep. Dan Lipinski (D), Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R), Rep. Louise Slaughter (D), Rep. Trent Franks (R), Rep. Robert Pittenger (R), Rep. Gus Bilirakis (R), Rep. Randy Hultgren (R), Rep. Randy Weber (R), Rep. David Trott (R), Rep. Sean Duffy (R), Rep. Jody Hice (R), and Rep. Barbara Comstock (R).   Background The Smith-Eshoo bill is supported by many groups, including the Knights of Columbus, Family Research Council, In Defense of Christians, 21st Century Wilberforce Initiative, Commission for International Justice and Accountability, HIAS, Aid the Church in Need USA, Open Doors, A Demand for Action, Yezidi Human Rights Organization International, Religious Freedom Institute, Christian Solidarity Worldwide, and Syrian Accountability Project, and Civitas Maxima. It is also supported by all the former US Ambassadors-at Large for War Crimes, David Scheffer (1997-2001), Pierre Prosper (2001-2005), Clint Williamson (2006-2009), and Stephen Rapp (2009-2015), as well as the Founding Chief Prosecutor of the Special Court for Sierra Leone, David Crane; Director of the Center for Religious Freedom Nina Shea; and the author of Defying ISIS, Rev. Johnnie Moore. Since 2013, Rep. Smith has chaired nine congressional hearings on atrocities in Iraq and Syria, including one titled The ISIS Genocide Declaration: What Next? and another titled Atrocities in Iraq and Syria: Relief for Survivors and Accountability for Perpetrators. He authored the bipartisan H. Con. Res 121, which the House passed overwhelmingly and calls for the formation of an ad hoc tribunal for perpetrators of crimes against humanity and war crimes in the Syrian conflict. Smith also authored with Eshoo the bipartisan, historic Frank Wolf International Religious Freedom Act (H.R. 1150), which the President signed into law. Smith and Eshoo also introduced H.R. 5961, the forerunner to H.R. 390. Just before Christmas, Smith traveled to the Erbil area of Kurdistan region of Iraq to meet with Christian genocide survivors and visit a camp for 6,000 displaced Christians, managed and supported by the Archdiocese of Erbil. He also met with Christian leaders; non-governmental organizations; and officials from the U.S., countries like Hungary and Poland that are proactively supporting assistance to Christian genocide survivors, and the United Nations. Christians have lived in Iraq since the 1st century and there were as many as 1.4 million in 2002. Sectarian violence and targeting of Christians reduced their presence to 500,000 by 2013, the year before ISIS started its genocide against them. At the end of 2015, less than 250,000 Christians remained in Iraq.

  • Smith Denounces Azerbaijan Law Criminalizing Online ‘Insults’ To President

    WASHINGTON—Following the amendment of Azerbaijan's criminal code last week, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04) made the following statement: “Make no mistake, anyone imprisoned under the new provisions of Azerbaijan’s criminal code – which make online ‘insults’ of the president a punishable offense – will be a political prisoner.  These new provisions clearly violate international human rights standards and Azerbaijan’s OSCE commitments. I urge the government of Azerbaijan to repeal these provisions and to release political prisoners, including Ilgar Mammadov, Seymur Haziyev, and Abdul Abilov, who have been wrongly jailed for criticizing the government.” Chairman Smith is the sponsor of the Azerbaijan Democracy Act of 2015 (H.R. 4264), a bill he introduced to draw attention to the systematic efforts of the Government of Azerbaijan to eliminate the voices of independent journalists, opposition politicians, and civil society groups. In addition to denying U.S. visas to senior leaders of the Government of Azerbaijan, those who derive significant financial benefit from business dealings with senior leadership, and members of the security or judicial branches, the Azerbaijan Democracy Act also expresses the sense of Congress that financial penalties should be considered. Sanctions could be lifted when the Azerbaijani government shows substantial progress toward releasing political prisoners, ending its harassment of civil society, and holding free and fair elections.

  • Smith: Azerbaijan Referendum Lacks Legitimacy

    WASHINGTON—Following today’s announcement of the results of the constitutional referendum in Azerbaijan, in which the government reported 91 percent approval of sweeping constitutional changes, including extending the presidential term and increasing the president’s powers, Helsinki Commission Chair Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04) issued the following statement: “It is clear that the package of constitutional changes put to a vote yesterday is designed to degrade checks on the power of the president. Regardless of the final tally, this referendum is the culmination of a process that lacks legitimacy. The Azerbaijani government rushed these significant changes to a vote while depriving the Azerbaijani people of their fundamental rights necessary to freely debate the matters under consideration.  For weeks, political activists and journalists have withstood rounds of detention and harassment by the government, part of an effort to suppress the voices of those who oppose the government’s planned changes. Only a year ago, Azerbaijan blocked OSCE election observation of its parliamentary elections, illustrating Baku’s unwillingness to allow its citizens to cast ballots consistent with its OSCE commitments. I remain deeply concerned that this illegitimate process will further delay the democratic future Azerbaijanis desire and deserve. I renew my call for the Government of Azerbaijan to release all prisoners of conscience and drop charges and travel bans against them and their colleagues in civil society serving suspended sentences.” On September 8, Chairman Smith and other Members of Congress wrote an open letter to President Aliyev about the content of the Azerbaijani government's proposed amendments. In December 2015, Chairman Smith introduced H.R. 4264, the Azerbaijan Democracy Act, a bill that would deny U.S. visas to senior members of the Azerbaijani government until such a time that Azerbaijan makes substantial progress toward releasing political prisoners, ending its harassment of civil society, and holding free and fair elections.

  • Hearing Addresses Genocide, War Crimes Driving Refugee Crisis in OSCE

    WASHINGTON—At a hearing convened today by Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04), witnesses unanimously expressed support for Chairman Smith’s recently introduced Iraq and Syria Genocide Relief and Accountability Act of 2016 (H.R. 5961), bipartisan legislation that provides relief to victims of genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes in Iraq and Syria, and accountability for perpetrators.   “The atrocities in Iraq and Syria have been so horrible, for so long, with so little action from the Administration, that it has been difficult to hope. Nevertheless, when [Secretary Kerry] declared genocide, we dared to hope that finally the Administration would hear the voices of the victims and act. Instead, the Administration has said the right words and done the wrong things,” said Chairman Smith. “Displaced genocide survivors cannot pay for food, medicine, or shelter with words from Washington,” Chairman Smith continued.  “When the Executive Branch fails to acts, then Congress must require it to act. That is why I recently authored and introduced the bipartisan Iraq and Syria Genocide Relief and Accountability Act of 2016, with Representative Anna Eshoo as my lead cosponsor.” Witnesses discussed ways to support religious and ethnic communities that have survived such atrocities. In addition, they encouraged the U.S. to fund the criminal investigation, prosecution, and conviction of the perpetrators, and identified gaps in U.S. criminal statutes that make it difficult to prosecute Americans or foreigners in the U.S. who have committed such crimes. Former U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes Issues David Scheffer said, “H.R. 5961 demonstrates an undeniable logic: the survivors of genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes in Iraq and Syria merit the fullest possible assistance of our government, including consideration of admission of victim refugees to the United States.” “The perpetrators of atrocity crimes not only in Iraq and Syria but elsewhere in the world should be subject to investigation and prosecution,” Scheffer continued. “Federal jurisdiction over crimes against humanity and war crimes remains non-existent or very limited…it is a raw fact that the United States is currently a sanctuary for alien perpetrators of crimes against humanity or war crimes.” “The Iraq and Syria Genocide Relief Act [is] a much needed, not to mention overdue, piece of legislation,” said Chris Engels, deputy director of the Commission for International Justice and Accountability. “Criminal investigations done contemporaneously with the criminal acts are essential to ensuring later accountability. Otherwise, as we have seen in the past, evidence is lost and those responsible for these mass human rights violations go unpunished.” Witnesses also highlighted the humanitarian vulnerabilities and lack of assistance that force the survivors to flee their homes and recommended ways to support entities effectively serving genocide survivors in-country, including faith-based organizations. Steve Rasche, legal counsel and director of resettlement programs for the Chaldean Catholic Archdiocese of Erbil, noted, “Since August 2014, other than initial supplies of tents and tarps, the Christian community in Iraq has received nothing in aid from any U.S. aid agencies or the UN. When we have approached any of these entities regarding the provision of aid assistance …we have been told that we have done too well in our private efforts…every morning we wake up and rob six Peters to pay 12 Pauls.” “The current policy prioritizes individual needs but does not consider the needs of vulnerable communities,” said Carl Anderson, Supreme Knight, Knights of Columbus. “On one hand, we have the unanimous policy of the elected branches of the United States Government stating that a genocide is occurring. On the other hand we have an aid bureaucracy that is allowing the intended consequence of the genocide to continue, even though it is in our power to stop it.” “There is nothing unconstitutional, illegal, unethical or unprofessional about prioritizing their right to survival as a community,” Anderson added, referring to Christian and other communities that face extinction in Iraq and Syria. Bill Canny, executive director for migration and refugee services at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), said, “We are gravely concerned by the small number of religious minorities who have been resettled in the United States during the current fiscal year.” “It is unclear at the time of this writing precisely why the percentage of Syrian Christians, who have been registered as refugees or resettled in the United States as refugees, is so low,” Canny continued. “It is clear, however, that Christians and other religious minorities have become a target for brutality at the hands of the non-state actor ISIS, and that they are fleeing for their lives, and that far too few of them have been attaining U.S. resettlement.” USCCB resettles more refugees annually in the U.S. than any other agency. Chairman Smith was joined at the hearing by a bipartisan group of lawmakers, including Helsinki Commission Co-Chair Senator Roger Wicker (MS), Ranking Commissioner Senator Ben Cardin (MD), and Commissioners Rep. Joe Pitts (PA-16) and Rep. Alan Grayson (FL-09). In 2013, ISIS began its brutal campaign of extermination and expulsion in Syria, expanding to Iraq in 2014. Many of those who survived these atrocities have been joining the flood of refugees streaming out of the region to Europe and other areas of safety. Resolving their plight is a key component to helping address the refugee crisis and has been of intense interest to countries in the OSCE region.

  • Atrocities in Iraq & Syria: Relief for Survivors and Accountability for Perpetrators

      The civil war in Syria, which began in early 2011 and since spread into Northern Iraq has devastated both countries. Estimates of the number of people who have died during Syria's civil war since March 2011 range from 250,000 to 470,000. In Iraq, the estimated range is between 19,000 and 41,650 deaths since January 2014. The people living in these regions have been subjected to an extensive list of atrocities  including genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes. Thosands of refugees have fled Iraq and Syria to seek refuge in the OSCE region. The desperate situation in these areas has resulted in the worst refugee crisis since World War II. With the war in Iraq and Syria showing little signs of abating the danger for vulnerable groups in these countries continues to worsen.  This hearing examined the current situation in Iraq and Syria regarding the persecution of religious and ethnic minorities, and looked at how the United States and the international community can best help protect persecuted people in this region and ensure that perpetrators of genocide and related crimes in Iraq and Syria are punished. It featured witnesses from CIJA, the former Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes Issues, and leaders from the Catholic community. “The atrocities in Iraq and Syria have been so horrible, for so long, with so little action from the Administration, that it has been difficult to hope. Nevertheless, when [Secretary Kerry] declared genocide, we dared to hope that finally the Administration would hear the voices of the victims and act. Instead, the Administration has said the right words and done the wrong things,” said Helsinki Commission Chairman Chris Smith (NJ), “When the Executive Branch fails to acts, then Congress must require it to act. That is why I recently authored and introduced the bipartisan Iraq and Syria Genocide Relief and Accountability Act of 2016, with Representative Anna Eshoo as my lead cosponsor."  Witnesses discussed ways to support religious and ethnic communities that have survived such atrocities. In addition, they encouraged the U.S. to fund the criminal investigation, prosecution, and conviction of the perpetrators, and identified gaps in U.S. criminal statutes that make it difficult to prosecute Americans or foreigners in the U.S. who have committed such crimes. Former U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes Issues David Scheffer said, “H.R. 5961 demonstrates an undeniable logic: the survivors of genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes in Iraq and Syria merit the fullest possible assistance of our government, including consideration of admission of victim refugees to the United States.” “The perpetrators of atrocity crimes not only in Iraq and Syria but elsewhere in the world should be subject to investigation and prosecution,” Scheffer continued. “Federal jurisdiction over crimes against humanity and war crimes remains non-existent or very limited…it is a raw fact that the United States is currently a sanctuary for alien perpetrators of crimes against humanity or war crimes.” “The Iraq and Syria Genocide Relief Act [is] a much needed, not to mention overdue, piece of legislation,” said Chris Engels, deputy director of the Commission for International Justice and Accountability. “Criminal investigations done contemporaneously with the criminal acts are essential to ensuring later accountability. Otherwise, as we have seen in the past, evidence is lost and those responsible for these mass human rights violations go unpunished.” Witnesses also highlighted the humanitarian vulnerabilities and lack of assistance that force the survivors to flee their homes and recommended ways to support entities effectively serving genocide survivors in-country, including faith-based organizations. Steve Rasche, legal counsel and director of resettlement programs for the Chaldean Catholic Archdiocese of Erbil, noted, “Since August 2014, other than initial supplies of tents and tarps, the Christian community in Iraq has received nothing in aid from any U.S. aid agencies or the UN. When we have approached any of these entities regarding the provision of aid assistance …we have been told that we have done too well in our private efforts…every morning we wake up and rob six Peters to pay 12 Pauls.” “The current policy prioritizes individual needs but does not consider the needs of vulnerable communities,” said Carl Anderson, Supreme Knight, Knights of Columbus. “On one hand, we have the unanimous policy of the elected branches of the United States Government stating that a genocide is occurring. On the other hand we have an aid bureaucracy that is allowing the intended consequence of the genocide to continue, even though it is in our power to stop it.” Bill Canny, executive director for migration and refugee services at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), said, “We are gravely concerned by the small number of religious minorities who have been resettled in the United States during the current fiscal year.” “It is unclear at the time of this writing precisely why the percentage of Syrian Christians, who have been registered as refugees or resettled in the United States as refugees, is so low,” Canny continued. USCCB resettles more refugees annually in the U.S. than any other agency. Chairman Smith was joined at the hearing by a bipartisan group of lawmakers, including Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Senator Roger Wicker (MS), Ranking Commissioner Senator Ben Cardin (MD), and Commissioners Rep. Joe Pitts (PA-16) and Rep. Alan Grayson (FL-09).                

  • Azerbaijan’s Constitutional Referendum Creates Crisis of Legitimacy

    WASHINGTON—In a recent letter to Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04) expressed deep concern about the country’s September 26 constitutional referendum, which proposes changes that would undermine Azerbaijan’s international obligations to protect democracy. The bipartisan letter urging President Aliyev to reconsider holding the referendum and to live up to his government’s commitment to human rights was also signed by Helsinki Commissioner Rep. Joe Pitts (PA-16) and Rep. Adam Schiff (CA-28). “By lengthening presidential terms and expanding presidential authorities, the proposed constitutional changes are susceptible to abuse that would entrench political authority, making it less responsive to the will of the Azerbaijani people,” the Members of Congress wrote. “We are especially troubled by amendments that would restrict fundamental rights that are vital to open public debate and government accountability.” Proposed changes to Azerbaijan’s constitution include extending the presidential term from five to seven years; removing the age limits for holding elected office; providing immunity for vice presidents; allowing the president to dissolve the national assembly and call early elections; and reorganizing the presidential line of succession. The Government of Azerbaijan has already faced international criticism for its crackdown on journalists, activists, opposition politicians, and members of religious minorities.  The referendum would further restrict fundamental freedoms by placing limits on freedom of expression when it provokes “hostility,” freedom of assembly when it “disrupt[s]…public morale,” and property rights when they violate “social justice and effective use.” “The upcoming referendum creates a grave crisis of legitimacy,” the letter read. “Neither the international community nor the Azerbaijani people can have confidence in a vote that takes place without free access to information, open debate, and transparency. That the Azerbaijani people are being asked to vote on measures that erode democratic principles makes the situation even more unacceptable.” In December 2015, Chairman Smith introduced H.R. 4264, the Azerbaijan Democracy Act, a bill that would deny U.S. visas to senior members of the Azerbaijani government until such a time that Azerbaijan makes substantial progress toward releasing political prisoners, ending its harassment of civil society, and holding free and fair elections. The full text of the letter is below. September 8, 2016 His Excellency Ilham Aliyev President of the Republic of Azerbaijan Presidential Palace Istiglaliyyat Street 19 Baku, AZ 1066 Dear President Aliyev, We write to you to express our deep concern regarding Azerbaijan’s upcoming constitutional referendum on September 26, 2016. We believe that the proposed changes to the constitution and the means for adopting them will undermine your government’s international obligations to protect democracy and human rights. By lengthening presidential terms and expanding presidential authorities, the proposed constitutional changes are susceptible to abuse that would entrench political authority, making it less responsive to the will of the Azerbaijani people. We are especially troubled by amendments that would restrict fundamental rights that are vital to open public debate and government accountability. Shortly following independence, the Government of Azerbaijan in 1992 joined the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) thereby expressing its commitment to the protection of fundamental rights and freedoms as one of the basic purposes of government. We regret that in the years hence Azerbaijan's human rights record fails to reflect this commitment. Time and again, the credibility of Azerbaijani elections has been marred by credible reports of ballot stuffing and irregularities with vote counting, as well as limitations on freedom of expression and freedom of association. These troubling precedents motivate our concern about the upcoming referendum. If successful, the vote would change the constitution to extend the presidential term from five to seven years, remove the age limits for holding elected office, provide immunity for vice presidents, allow the president to dissolve the national assembly and call early elections, as well as reorganize the presidential line of succession. Additionally, it would subject fundamental rights to vaguely worded restrictions, circumscribing freedom of expression when it provokes “hostility,” freedom of assembly when it “disrupt[s]…public morale,” and property rights when they violate “social justice and effective use.” We are deeply concerned that Azerbaijani voters are being asked to consider such consequential changes to Azerbaijan’s constitutional framework in a climate that makes free debate all but impossible. In recent days, it has been reliably reported that a number of political activists campaigning against the referendum and several journalists have been detained on trumped-up charges and some have faced mistreatment and torture at the hands of authorities. Even before the latest round of arrests and intimidation, half a dozen journalists were already in jail, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty has remained closed since December 2014, and other independent journalists and media outlets faced official harassment. The upcoming referendum creates a grave crisis of legitimacy. Neither the international community nor the Azerbaijani people can have confidence in a vote that takes place without free access to information, open debate, and transparency. That the Azerbaijani people are being asked to vote on measures that erode democratic principles makes the situation even more unacceptable. We urge you to reconsider this constitutional referendum and to re-invigorate your government’s flagging commitment to promote the freedom and dignity of its people by ceasing all harassment and proceedings that target political activists and journalists who peacefully express their visions for Azerbaijan. We are inspired by the example of these brave voices and hope that your government will recognize that Azerbaijan’s strength and stability derives from the liberty of its people. Sincerely, Christopher H. Smith Member of Congress Joseph R. Pitts Member of Congress Adam B. Schiff Member of Congress           

  • Introducing the Iraq and Syria Genocide Relief and Accountability Act of 2016

    Mr. Speaker, I rise today to introduce H.R. 5961, the Iraq and Syria Genocide Relief and Accountability Act of 2016. Since ISIS’ blitzkrieg across the multiethnic and religiously diverse mosaic of eastern Syria and western Iraq in 2014, I have chaired four hearings focused on the implications of this appalling advance for religious and ethnic minorities in those areas. Events in the region and the expert testimony of witnesses quickly revealed that ISIS was not merely focused on territorial conquest—the group was ideologically committed to exterminating ancient religious communities and cleansing its self-proclaimed caliphate of anything but its vicious and fundamentalist interpretation of Islam. Many of my colleagues and I were certain early on that ISIS was committing genocide. We pressed the Administration to formally acknowledge that fact until the Secretary of State did so in March of this year. But the most pressing question issue has always been the lives of those religious minorities right now that face extinction under this tyranny of terror. The Iraq and Syria Genocide Relief and Accountability Act of 2016 is an answer to the question of what the United States can do to mitigate this suffering, save lives, and build a more sustainable future for Syria and Iraq. The bill tackles this overwhelming challenge on three fronts by directing the Administration to take additional measures to improve the lives of displaced genocide survivors, provide some of them with an additional lifeline to escape their war torn lands, and support efforts that will help preserve the presence of religious minority communities in those areas for years to come. In a hearing this May that I chaired called “The ISIS Genocide Declaration: What Next?” Carl Anderson, Supreme Knight of the Knights of Columbus—who has been a leader in drawing attention to the plight of Christians in this conflict—testified that “Repeatedly we hear from Church leaders in the region that Christians—and other genocide survivors—are last in line for assistance from governments.” We can and must do better. To that end, H.R. 5961 requires the Administration to assess and address the humanitarian vulnerabilities, needs, and triggers to flee, of religious and ethnic communities that were targeted for genocide or otherwise severely persecuted. It directs the Administrations to fund entities that are effectively providing assistance to these communities and guarantees that faith-based organizations on the ground are not excluded from U.S. assistance. One such example is the Chaldean Catholic Archdiocese of Erbil, which provides assistance to internally displaced families of Yezidis, Muslims, and Christians, including food and resettlement from tents to permanent housing, as well as rental assistance, for Yezidis, medical care and education to Yezidis and Muslims through its clinics, schools, and university – which are open to everyone. The Archdiocese provides some form of each of these kinds of assistance to all of the estimated 10,500 internally displaced Christian families in the greater Erbil region. Yet as it provides these critical services, it has not received a single penny from any government. H.R. 5961 is clear that the Administration must be supporting entities, regardless of whether they are faith-based, that are heroically providing assistance to genocide survivors on the ground. In recognition of the extraordinary suffering of these religious and ethnic communities, and their extraordinary vulnerability to persecution, H.R. 5961 requires the Administration to create a Priority Two, or “P-2,” visa category of special humanitarian concern that would provide one additional avenue for genocide survivors to seek resettlement in the United States through the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program. It is important to note that this is not a “fast track” to resettlement—P-2 applicants undergo the same security screening as all refugee applicants. But this special category allows them to access an overseas interview wherever the United States interviews refugee applicants, without needing a referral from the UN, an NGO, or a US Embassy, as is usually the case. This bill also addresses a critical factor that will influence the continued presence of smaller, vulnerable religious communities in Syria and Iraq beyond this conflict: accountability for those who perpetrate heinous crimes against them. H.R. 5961 directs the Administration to prioritize supporting the criminal investigation, prosecution, and conviction of perpetrators of genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes. These efforts will be focused on funding and supporting entities that are conducting criminal investigations, building Syrian and Iraqi investigative and judicial capacity, or collecting and preserving evidence for eventual use in domestic courts, hybrid courts, or internationalized domestic courts. Whether they are members of the Asad regime, ISIS, or some of the Popular Mobilization Brigades in Iraq, there can be no impunity for individuals who committed these dreadful crimes. H.R. 5961 also directs the Administration to identify gaps in our criminal statutes to facilitate the prosecution of American perpetrators, and non-Americans present in the United States, of crimes against humanity and war crimes. Without accountability, without humanitarian assistance reaching these religious and ethnic communities, we risk losing the invaluable, ancient presence of these communities in these countries altogether. This will feed violent extremism and dim the future of Iraq and Syria.  I urge my House colleagues to support this measure that will deliver immediate assistance to genocide survivors, help prosecute and punish perpetrators, and invest in a sustainable future for these persecuted religious and ethnic communities in the lands in which they have lived for so many generations.

  • It’s Time for the United States to Act on Azerbaijan

    David J. Kramer is senior director for human rights and democracy at the McCain Institute for International Leadership and a former assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor. Richard Kauzlarich is an adjunct professor at George Mason University and former U.S. ambassador to Azerbaijan and to Bosnia and Herzegovina. Earlier this year, President Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan looked like he was softening his authoritarian grip on his country. In March, he released 14 political prisoners ahead of his visit to Washington for President Obama’s Nuclear Security Summit. Even the harsh anti-American rhetoric from Azerbaijani officials and regime media seemed to subside. While in Washington, Aliyev had sit-downs with Vice President Biden and Secretary of State John F. Kerry. But since the April summit, Aliyev’s regime has intensified its crackdowns on freedoms. Azerbaijan’s rapid, dangerous deterioration demands more decisive action from the United States, yet the Obama administration has remained largely silent. The government in Baku has increased its arrests and detentions of another dozen opposition figures, peaceful religious believers and civil society activists. Nearly 100 political prisoners are languishing in the country’s jails. Azerbaijani writer Akram Aylisli was detained at the national airport and prevented from leaving the country. Faig Amirli, financial director of Azadliq newspaper and assistant to the chairman of the Azerbaijan Popular Front Party, was arrested last month. Other opposition politicians arrested in August include Natiq Jafarli,  executive secretary of the REAL movement, and NIDA civic movement activist Elgiz Qahraman. The situation on the ground may get even worse. On Sept. 26, Aliyev’s regime plans to force a referendum which aims to enhance his powers. The result of the referendum is already known; we can be sure that the government will ensure its approval. That means that Aliyev can extend his term from five to seven years, create new positions of vice president (to which he might name a member of his family) and lower the age for members of parliament — opening the door for his son Heydar to be elected. It would not be a surprise if elections were called early under the new constitution to ratify these authoritarian steps. Quiet diplomacy, we are told, is the only way to protect American interests in Azerbaijan. Along with its strategic location on the Caspian Sea between Russia and Iran, the country of 8 million is rich in oil and gas resources, and plays a role as a national security ally to the United States. No American interests are served if Azerbaijan’s increasing authoritarianism explodes into a political and social crisis. Moreover, Azerbaijan is following in the footsteps of Vladimir Putin’s media tactics in Russia by increasingly  painting the United States as the enemy. An editorial in the state-approved media outlet, Haqqin, accused the United States of “losing” Azerbaijan, “driving it into a corner” and “neglecting a valuable partnership” with Baku. The editorial warned that Azerbaijan will be left with no option but to establish closer relations with its immediate neighbors, Iran and Russia. Aliyev’s supporters have pointed to the failed Turkey coup and have accused the United States of supporting opposition forces not only to spoil the upcoming referendum — but to plot a coup in Azerbaijan. Aside from legislation introduced by Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-N.J.) last December and the cries of activists and human rights groups, Azerbaijan has received a free pass from the Obama administration. Rarely do either the U.S. Embassy in Baku or the State Department in Washington speak out against human rights abuses. Even the 2014 raid on U.S.-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) and the arrest of one of its journalists, Khadija Ismayilova, triggered a mild response from Washington. Ismayilova was released from prison earlier this year but has been refused permission to travel outside the country. RFE/RL  is still barred from operating in Azerbaijan, as are most American nongovernmental organizations. In the past, we have called for sanctions — asset freezes and visa bans — against Azerbaijani officials involved in and responsible for gross human rights abuses, similar to the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law and Accountability Act for Russia. President Obama doesn’t need new legislation to take such measures; he can do so under existing presidential authorities. Beyond that, we should withhold U.S. support for International Monetary Fund and World Bank assistance should Azerbaijan request it amid its deteriorating economic situation and end Overseas Private Investment Corporation and Export-Import Bank lending to Azerbaijan. The United States should consider recalling our ambassador for extended consultations over human rights concerns as well as the rising anti-American rhetoric of Azerbaijan officials and government-sanctioned media. We also need to get the Europeans on board with similar measures. These steps should be taken unless and until all the political prisoners are released and the referendum enhancing Aliyev’s powers is voided. Letting Azerbaijan follow through on its threat to form closer ties with Moscow and Tehran without balance from the United States may be a necessary, albeit unpleasant, learning experience for the regime in Baku. The problem in Azerbaijan is not that Aliyev has too little power; it is that he exercises the power he has in the wrong ways against innocent people.  America’s silence as the situation on the ground worsens risks making us accomplices to a looming human rights disaster in Azerbaijan.

  • Chairman Smith Supports Genocide Victims in Syria and Iraq

    WASHINGTON—Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04), Rep. Anna Eshoo (CA-18), Rep. Trent Franks (AZ-08), and Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (NE-01) today introduced bipartisan legislation to provide relief for survivors of the ISIS-perpetrated genocide against vulnerable religious and ethnic groups in Syria and Iraq, and to ensure that perpetrators of genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes in those countries are punished. The Iraq and Syria Genocide Relief and Accountability Act of 2016, H.R. 5961, directs the U.S. Administration to treat these heinous acts as the crimes that they are, and to prioritize supporting the criminal investigation, prosecution, and conviction of perpetrators. “Mass murder and rape are not only human rights violations – they are also criminal acts that require careful investigation, documentation, and prosecution to bring the perpetrators to justice,” said Chairman Smith. “We need to support entities doing this work in the field, and close gaps in U.S. law so that our justice system can prosecute foreign perpetrators present in the U.S., as well as any Americans who commit such crimes.” The legislation also requires the U.S. State Department to create a “Priority Two” (“P-2”) designation for Iraqi and Syrian survivors of genocide, and other persecuted religious and ethnic groups in Iraq or Syria. Refugees who meet the P-2 criteria are able to apply overseas for resettlement in the United States without requiring a referral from the United Nations, an NGO, or a U.S. Embassy. “Although a P-2 designation does not guarantee admission to the United States – applicants must still clear the same security screening as other refugees – it provides victims of genocide with a much-needed additional path to access the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program,” said Chairman Smith. Finally, the bill directs the U.S. Administration to identify warning signs of deadly violence against genocide survivors and other vulnerable religious and ethnic communities in Iraq or Syria; assess and address the humanitarian vulnerabilities, needs, and triggers that might force them to flee their homes; and ensure that the U.S. supports entities effectively serving genocide survivors, including faith-based entities. Chairman Smith noted that the Chaldean Catholic Archdiocese of Erbil, which provides vital assistance to internally displaced families of Yezidis, Muslims, and Christians, including to all of the approximately 10,500 Christian IDP families in the Erbil region, has received no funding from the U.S. Government or any other government. “So far, the Administration has failed to keep its promise to enable these genocide survivors to remain in Iraq and Syria. It is overlooking groups, like the Chaldean Catholic Archdiocese of Erbil, that are serving tens of thousands of survivors every day. If the needs of these communities are ignored, thousands of victims may have to leave their ancient homelands forever and never return,” Chairman Smith said.

  • U.S. Delegation to OSCE PA Drives International Action against Human Trafficking, Discrimination, and Anti-Semitism

    WASHINGTON—Seven members of Congress traveled to the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA) Annual Session in Tbilisi, Georgia last week to demonstrate the U.S. commitment to the principles of the Helsinki Final Act, including respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. At the Annual Session, which brought together nearly 300 parliamentarians from 54 of the 57 OSCE participating States, the U.S. lawmakers introduced several successful resolutions and amendments targeting current challenges facing the OSCE region, ranging from human trafficking to discrimination and anti-Semitism to the abuse of Interpol mechanisms to target political opponents and activists. The delegation included Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04), Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS), Commissioner Rep. Robert Aderholt (AL-04), Commissioner Rep. Randy Hultgren (IL-14), Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick (PA-08), Rep. Richard Hudson (NC-08), and Rep. David Schweikert (AZ-06). Rep. Aderholt currently serves as a vice-president of the OSCE PA, while Sen. Wicker was re-elected to a third term as chair of the OSCE PA Committee on Political Affairs and Security, also known as the First Committee, during the annual meeting. Chairman Smith led international lawmakers in battling international human trafficking and child sex tourism through a successful resolution calling on all OSCE participating States to raise awareness of sexual exploitation of children in travel and tourism (SECTT), especially by convicted pedophiles, business travelers, and tourists. Chairman Smith, who serves as the OSCE PA Special Representative on Human Trafficking Issues, also hosted a July 3 briefing on U.S. efforts to prevent SECTT through a new international reciprocal notification system – known as International Megan’s Law – that facilitates timely communications among law enforcement agencies. A second U.S. resolution, authored by OSCE PA Special Representative for Anti-Semitism, Racism and Intolerance and Helsinki Commission Ranking Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), called for action against the anti-Semitic and racist violence sweeping across North America and Europe. The resolution, which passed overwhelmingly, urged members of the OSCE to develop a plan of action to implement its long-standing body of tolerance and non-discrimination agreements, called for international efforts to address racial profiling, and offered support for increased efforts by political leaders to stem the tide of hate across the region. The resolution was fielded by Commissioner Hultgren. Chairman Smith also called on participating States to more effectively prevent and combat violence against European Jewish communities through the introduction of two amendments to the resolution of the OSCE PA General Committee on Democracy, Human Rights and Humanitarian Questions (also known as the Third Committee). His first amendment called for the explicit recognition of the increase in anti-Semitic attacks in the region, while the second encouraged participating States to formally recognize and partner with Jewish community groups. Responding the abuse of Interpol systems for politically motivated harassment by Russia and other members of the OSCE, Co-Chairman Wicker authored a successful amendment to the First Committee resolution, which called on participating States to stop the inappropriate placement of Red Notices and encouraged Interpol to implement mechanisms preventing politically motivated abuse of its legitimate services. The amendment was fielded by Rep. Hudson. During the Annual Session, members of the delegation also offered strong support for important resolutions fielded by other countries, including one by Ukraine on human rights in illegally occupied Crimea and another on the 30th anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear accident. They voted for a highly relevant resolution on combating corruption fielded by Sweden, and helped to defeat a Russian resolution attacking the Baltic States, Poland and Ukraine in the context of combating neo-Nazism.  U.S. delegates indicated their support for the work of attending Azerbaijani human rights activists, and met with attending members of the Israeli Knesset.  While in Tbilisi, the group also met with several high-ranking Georgian officials, including Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili; Tedo Japaridze, Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, Parliament of Georgia; Mikheil Janelidze, Georgian Minister of Foreign Affairs; and David Bakradze, Georgian Minister of European and Euro-Atlantic Integration.

  • Chairman Smith Introduces Bipartisan, Bicameral Bill to Aid Holocaust Survivors

    WASHINGTON—U.S. Senators Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) and Marco Rubio (R-FL) and U.S. Representatives Chris Smith (R-NJ) and Joe Crowley (D-NY) today introduced the Justice for Uncompensated Survivors Today (JUST) Act. This bipartisan and bicameral bill will improve efforts to assist Holocaust survivors and the families of Holocaust victims by requiring the State Department to report on the progress of certain European countries on the return of, or restitution for, wrongfully confiscated or transferred Holocaust-era assets. “Holocaust survivors—witnesses to the brutal murders, torture and heartless thievery of the Nazis and their accomplices—continue to be cheated and defrauded, inexplicably, as they fight for the rightful return of their stolen property,” said Rep. Smith, who chairs the U.S. Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission. “This bill will help survivors get justice instead of excuses from their governments.” “We urgently need an improved public accounting of other countries’ efforts to address Holocaust-era property restitution issues,” said Senator Baldwin. “Tragically, we are losing survivors every day, and it is my sincere hope that this legislation, by shining a spotlight and solidifying this issue as an American foreign policy priority, will spur action in countries that are falling short of their obligations, ultimately resulting in a measure of justice for these individuals who have waited far too long.” “I am pleased to be the lead Republican sponsor of this important bipartisan legislation which, if passed, will play a critical role in ensuring that Holocaust-era property restitution is finally realized,” said Senator Marco Rubio. “Seventy years after this dark chapter in human history, the restitution of Jewish communal, private and heirless property in Central and Eastern Europe, illegally confiscated by the Nazis and their collaborators during World War II, remains a largely unresolved issue and a source of lasting pain for many Holocaust survivors and their heirs. American leadership in addressing this injustice is vital, which is precisely what this legislation will provide. I join Senator Baldwin in pressing for swift passage of this measure.” “Several decades removed from the horrors of the Holocaust, a substantial amount of Jewish-owned property still hasn’t been returned to their rightful owners, nor have they been compensated. This is unacceptable,” said Rep. Crowley, Vice Chair of the Democratic Caucus. “It’s important that we do what we can to ensure European governments are keeping their word, and I’m proud to join my colleagues in this legislation that will put us one step closer to bringing justice to Holocaust victims, survivors, and their families.” Seventy years after the Holocaust, in which the unprecedented looting of Jewish assets was a central aspect, the restitution of Jewish communal, private, and heirless property in Central and Eastern Europe remains unresolved. Indeed, decades after the Holocaust and the fall of Communism, most formerly Jewish-owned, real properties confiscated by the Nazis and their collaborators have not been returned, nor has compensation been provided to the rightful owners or their heirs. The JUST Act will build on the international Terezin Declaration on Holocaust Era Assets and Related Issues of 2009, which affirms that the protection of property rights is an essential component of a democratic society based on the rule of law and recognizes the importance of restituting or compensating Holocaust-related confiscations made during the Holocaust-era between 1933-45. Unfortunately, many nations that endorsed this declaration, including many of our NATO allies, have not fully addressed the restitution of Jewish communal, private and heirless property. The JUST Act permanently amends current law to require the State Department to report on certain countries’ compliance with and progress toward the goals of the 2009 Terezin Declaration on Holocaust Era Assets, as well as on what actions those countries are taking to resolve the claims of U.S. citizens. This will enhance on-going U.S. efforts to urge Central and Eastern European countries to achieve progress on this issue and will help build on America’s commitment to ensuring justice for Holocaust victims and their families. “Holocaust-era property restitution provides a measure of justice to victims and their families, and to surviving Jewish communities, for the violation of their basic human rights. The JUST Act would encourage countries around the globe to live up to the existing international consensus they endorsed in 2009,” said Abraham Biderman, co-chairman of the World Jewish Restitution Organization's Executive Committee. “We commend Sens. Baldwin and Rubio for helping advance America’s leadership in the fight for justice for Holocaust victims and for the restitution of Holocaust era property.  It is critical to spotlight how countries are fulfilling property restitution commitments and to hold them accountable if they fail to do so.  Enshrining this as a priority of America’s human rights reporting provides another diplomatic tool to enhance the vital efforts of the Office of the Special Envoy for Holocaust Issues,” said Stacy Burdett, Vice President, Government Relations, Advocacy & Community Engagement, Anti-Defamation League. “Seventy years after the end of World War II and twenty-five years since democracy has been restored to the nations of Central and Eastern Europe there can no longer be any excuse for delaying the restitution of Holocaust-era properties to their rightful owners. We hope this legislation will push those governments to finally act,” said Rabbi Andrew Baker, Director, International Jewish Affairs, AJC. The JUST Act has received strong support from organizations across the country including World Jewish Restitution Organization (WJRO), American Jewish Committee (AJC), Anti-Defamation League (ADL), J Street, Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA), B’nai B’rith International, HIAS refugee assistance organization, Milwaukee Jewish Federation and the Jewish Home and Care Center Foundation in Milwaukee.

  • Chairman Smith Leads International Legislators against Human Trafficking, Child Sex Tourism

    WASHINGTON—The OSCE Parliamentary Assembly passed a resolution authored by Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04) against international human trafficking and child sex tourism. The resolution was passed at the 2016 annual session of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA), and has an agenda-setting effect for the 57-member intergovernmental organization. Smith, who leads the U.S. Delegation to this year’s OSCE PA Annual Session, introduced a resolution calling on all OSCE participating States to work with the private sector and civil society to raise awareness of sexual exploitation of children in travel and tourism (SECTT), especially by convicted pedophiles, business travelers, and tourists.  The resolution also urges all OSCE participating States to enact laws allowing them to prosecute their citizens and legal permanent residents for child sexual exploitation committed abroad, and to strengthen international law enforcement cooperation to ensure that nations know about travel by convicted pedophiles prior to their arrival. “More children than ever before are being exploited – child sex tourism is soaring while protection lags,” said Chairman Smith. “We must work together to protect children from convicted pedophiles and opportunistic predators who exploit local children with impunity during their travels abroad. Prevention and prosecution should go hand in hand.” In addition to introducing the SECTT resolution, Chairman Smith hosted a July 3 briefing on U.S. efforts to prevent SECTT through a new international reciprocal notification system – known as International Megan’s Law – that facilitates timely communications among law enforcement agencies. “Child predators thrive on secrecy – a secrecy that allows them to commit heinous crimes against the weakest and most vulnerable,” said Chairman Smith.  “Recent changes in the laws of the United States and partner countries are putting child predators on the radar when they travel internationally, but much remains to be done.” Chairman Smith has served as OSCE PA Special Representative on Human Trafficking Issues since 2004. His efforts to raise the profile of the human trafficking problem in the OSCE region are reflected in the 2013 Addendum to the OSCE Plan of Action to Combat Trafficking in Human Beings, and have prompted other parliamentarians to take the lead in addressing human trafficking in their respective capitals. Chairman Smith first raised the issue of human trafficking at the 1999 St. Petersburg Annual Session, the first time it appeared on the OSCE agenda. Since then, he has introduced or cosponsored a supplementary item and/or amendments on trafficking at each annual session of the OSCE PA, including on issues such as sex tourism prevention, training of the transportation sector in victim identification and reporting, corporate responsibility for trafficking in supply chains, and special protections for vulnerable populations. In addition to authoring the 2016 International Megan’s Law to Prevent Child Exploitation and Other Sexual Crimes through Advanced Notification of Traveling Sex Offenders, he authored the landmark U.S. Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 and its 2003 and 2005 reauthorizations. Chairman Smith co-chairs the United States Congressional Human Trafficking Caucus.

  • Chairman Smith Champions Improved Security for European Jewish Communities at Annual Meeting of OSCE Parliamentarians

    WASHINGTON—At the 2016 OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA) Annual Session, meeting in Tbilisi, Georgia this week, Helsinki Commission Chair Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04) today called on participating States to more effectively prevent and combat violence against European Jewish communities in the face of increasing anti-Semitic violence in the region. “Violent anti-Semitic attacks are on the rise in several European countries – and there is a lot more we can do to stop it,” said Chairman Smith, who led the U.S. delegation to the event. “European police and security forces should be partnering with Jewish community security groups, and the United States government should be working with the European governments to encourage this. The terrorist threat to European Jewish communities is more deadly than ever. We must act to prevent a repeat of the horrific massacres of Paris and Copenhagen.”  Chairman Smith offered two amendments to the draft resolution of the OSCE PA General Committee on Democracy, Human Rights and Humanitarian Questions (also known as the Third Committee). His first amendment called for the explicit recognition of the increase in frequency, scope, and severity of anti-Semitic attacks in the OSCE region, while the second called on participating States to formally recognize and partner with Jewish community groups to strengthen crisis prevention, preparedness, mitigation, and responses related to anti-Semitic attacks. Both amendments reflect consultations with and requests from European Jewish communities. Chairman Smith has a long record as a leader in the fight against anti-Semitism.  He co-chairs the Bipartisan Task Force for Combating Anti-Semitism in the U.S. House of Representatives and authored the provisions of the U.S. Global Anti-Semitism Review Act of 2004 that created the Office to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism within the U.S. State Department. In 2015, he authored House Resolution 354, a blueprint for strengthening the safety and security of European Jewish communities. Following his landmark 2002 hearing on combating the escalation of anti-Semitic violence in Europe, “Escalating Anti-Semitic Violence in Europe,” he led a congressional drive to place the issue of combating anti-Semitism at the top of the OSCE agenda. As part of this effort he authored supplemental resolutions on combating anti-Semitism, which were adopted at the 2002, 2003, and 2004 Annual Sessions of the OSCE PA. In 2004 the OSCE adopted new norms for its participating States on fighting anti-Semitism. Chairman Smith is a founding member of the the Inter-Parliamentary Coalition for Combating Anti-Semitism (ICCA), where he also serves on the steering committee. In the 1990s, he chaired Congress’s first hearings on anti-Semitism and in the early 1980s, his first trips abroad as a member of Congress were to the former Soviet Union, where he fought for the release of Jewish “refuseniks.”

  • Helsinki Commission Leaders Welcome Release of Khadija Ismayilova

    WASHINGTON – Following today’s announcement that the Azerbaijani government has freed investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova from prison, Representative Chris Smith (NJ-04), Chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, and Senator Roger Wicker (MS), Co-Chairman of the Commission, issued the following statement: “We welcome the release of Khadija Ismayilova from her unjust imprisonment. However, we call on the Government of Azerbaijan to drop all charges against her and reopen the RFE/RL Baku bureau. “Khadija’s case is not the only one in which Azerbaijan has used its judicial system to punish those who have voiced independent opinions. Others, like opposition leader Ilgar Mammadov, remain jailed for their efforts to promote human rights, the rule of law, and democracy. We salute their courage and once again urge the Government of Azerbaijan to live up to its OSCE commitments, ending its repression of the political opposition, journalists, and religious minorities.” Chairman Smith convened a December 2015 hearing on the plight of Ismayilova and her fellow prisoners of conscience in Azerbaijan. He is also the author of the Azerbaijan Democracy Act of 2015 (H.R. 4264), a bill he introduced to draw attention to the systematic efforts of the Government of Azerbaijan to eliminate the voices of independent journalists, opposition politicians, and civil society groups. In addition to denying U.S. visas to senior leaders of the Government of Azerbaijan, those who derive significant financial benefit from business dealings with senior leadership, and members of the security or judicial branches, the Azerbaijan Democracy Act also expresses the sense of Congress that financial penalties should be considered. Sanctions could be lifted when the Azerbaijani government shows substantial progress toward releasing political prisoners, ending its harassment of civil society, and holding free and fair elections. Chairman Smith has also spoken out on multiple occasions on behalf of Ismayilova and other political prisoners in Azerbaijan.

  • On World Press Freedom Day, Helsinki Commission Chair Urges Azerbaijan: Free Khadija!

    WASHINGTON—On May 3, Chairman Rep. Chris Smith of the Helsinki Commission Issued the following statement:   “Today marks World Press Freedom Day. Freedom of the media is an essential foundation for democracy and human rights every day of the year. Journalists play a critical role in ensuring free and fair elections, combating corruption, and holding governments accountable.  In some OSCE countries, they do so at extraordinary personal risk.  Let’s not forget Anna Politkovskaya or the many other Russian journalists murdered in the past fifteen years – whose killers have still not been brought to justice. Press freedom remains unknown in Russia. But today we remember above all Khadija Ismayilova, a fearless investigative journalist harassed and currently imprisoned by the government of Azerbaijan.” Anna Politkovskaya testified on human rights abuses in the Chechnya war before a hearing Rep. Smith chaired in 2003 – and was murdered in Moscow in 2006. In 2007 Chairman Smith authored H. Con. Res. 151 on Politkovskaya and other independent journalists killed in Russia since 2000, which passed the House by a vote of 388-1. Beginning in 2010 Khadija Ismayilova, an investigative journalist in Azerbaijan, published hard-hitting investigative reports on corruption at the highest levels of the Azerbaijani government. In response, the Azerbaijani state security services tried to intimidate her. When that failed, in 2014, the government arrested her on trumped-up charges.   “If the Government of Azerbaijan thought it could deflect attention from its abuses by locking up Khadija, they were sorely mistaken.  In fact, Khadija’s continued imprisonment only serves as a constant reminder of the corruption she sought to expose.  Her imprisonment is wrong and she should be released immediately." In December 2014 the Government of Azerbaijan arrested investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova on spurious charges and subsequently raided the offices of her employer, U.S.-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL).  After a lengthy trial that was widely condemned by the international community for numerous irregularities, in September Ms. Ismayilova was sentenced to 7.5 years in prison. Her appeal was denied on November 25, 2015, and the RFE/RL Baku Bureau has remained shuttered by the Government of Azerbaijan.  The Helsinki Commission’s hearing on Azerbaijan’s Persecution of RFE/RL Reporter Khadijah Ismayilova can be found here. Her recent editorial in the Washington Post can be found here.  Chairman Smith is the sponsor of the Azerbaijan Democracy Act of 2015 (H.R. 4264), a bill he introduced on December 16, 2015, to draw attention to the systematic efforts of the Government of Azerbaijan to eliminate the voices of independent journalists, opposition politicians, and civil society groups. In addition to denying U.S. visas to senior leaders of the Government of Azerbaijan, those who derive significant financial benefit from business dealings with senior leadership, and members of the security or judicial branches, the Azerbaijan Democracy Act also expresses the sense of Congress that financial penalties should be considered. Sanctions could be lifted when the Azerbaijani government shows substantial progress toward releasing political prisoners, ending its harassment of civil society, and holding free and fair elections.

  • 'Don't let Azerbaijan use political prisoners as props'

    The Washington Post Don’t let Azerbaijan use political prisoners as props By Khadija Ismayilova Khadija Ismayilova is an investigative journalist and contributor to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Azerbaijani service. She has been imprisoned in Azerbaijan since December 2014. I am writing this letter from jail in Baku, Azerbaijan, where I’m serving a 7½ -year sentence for a crime I never committed. I am a journalist and my only “crime” was to investigate high-level corruption within the government and family of Azeri President Ilham Aliyev . Aliyev inherited power from his father in 2003 and changed the constitution in 2009 so he could stay in power indefinitely. He has been called an enemy of the press by international watchdogs, while abusing other fundamental freedoms and violating people’s right to truth and decency. Aliyev is in Washington this week to attend the Nuclear Security Summit that began Thursday. To get an invitation to this event from President Obama, he had to pardon several political prisoners. A lthough they have been released from jail, they remain confined within the country, barred from leaving, and justice has not been restored. This is a very costly invitation for Aliyev, who for years refused to accept international pressure or criticism on this issue. His response was, always, that Azerbaijan doesn’t have political prisoners. In December, Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-N.J.) introduced the Azerbaijan Democracy Act to recognize Azerbaijan’s violations of human rights and freedoms and to hold individual officials accountable. It must pass. But why were some of the political prisoners suddenly set free? What has changed? Aliyev needed these prisoners so that in exchange for their release, he could shake hands with Obama or get a loan from the World Bank to finance his failing currency and crippled economy after the sudden fall of oil prices. Aliyev is shamelessly trying to use political prisoners as bargaining chips to advance his foreign policy agenda. And they are supposed to be happy that they were freed. I am happy — very happy — that some political prisoners have been released. But their fights, and mine, are not over. I am not a toy to be exchanged for diplomatic gain by Baku or Washington so that officials can continue to pretend that it is business as usual. We are hostages of the regime, whether we are inside or outside of prison. Freedom is my universal and constitutional right, and Aliyev failed to protect it as the head of state. I am not going to ask to be pardoned for a crime I never committed. I am free even now, in jail, and my freedom is not for sale. So President Obama, please ask President Aliyev to stop muzzling the independent media and civil society. Ask him to explain the billions of petrodollars wasted on white-elephant projects for the benefit of a few. Ask him when he is going to hold free and fair elections. Ask him when he is going to let all the political prisoners go free. Ask him when fundamental freedoms can become a right, in practice — not a gift that he can give or take away. I asked these questions, and I ended up in jail. These are important questions. They must not go unanswered. And we will fight until justice is fully served.

  • Senator Wicker Responds to ICTY's Verdict on Bosnian Serb Leader

    WASHINGTON—Senator Roger F. Wicker, Co-Chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (U.S. Helsinki Commission), made the following statement in regard to yesterday’s sentencing of former Bosnian Serb political leader Radovan Karadzic at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), located in The Hague, to 40 years imprisonment for war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide: “Yesterday’s conviction of Radovan Karadzic confirmed what we knew all along, namely that he was responsible for some of the worst atrocities to occur in Europe since World War II. Forty years in prison pale in comparison to the tens of thousands of innocent deaths that he caused. But it is good to see some measure of justice. I am hopeful that he never sees the light of day.” The Hague-based International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) found Radovan Karadzic guilty of 10 out of 11 counts of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide during the 1992-1995 conflict in Bosnia and Herzegovina.  He was acquitted of one count of genocide, finding that the prosecution did not prove beyond a reasonable doubt his genocidal intent in relation to crimes committed in seven municipalities across Bosnia and Herzegovina.  Karadzic was the leading political figure among Bosnian Serbs during the conflict.  The court, while taking into account mitigating circumstances, nevertheless sentenced the 70 year-old Karadzic to 40 years in prison for his crimes.

Pages