Title

Chairman Hastings Welcomes Release of Country Reports on Human Rights

Thursday, March 14, 2019

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.

Media contact: 
Name: 
Stacy Hope
Email: 
csce[dot]press[at]mail[dot]house[dot]gov
Phone: 
202.225.1901
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    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following hearing: THE STATE OF DIVERSITY AND INCLUSION IN EUROPE Race, Rights, and Politics Wednesday, September 11, 2019 10:00 a.m. – 12:00 p.m. Cannon House Office Building Room 210 Live Webcast: www.youtube.com/HelsinkiCommission Against the backdrop of recent European elections, European political leaders will discuss the state of their democracies and recent efforts to address issues of diversity and inclusion amidst rising prejudice and xenophobic violence, including from far-right extremist groups.  The hearing will also examine the impact of anti-discrimination policies and diversity initiatives aimed at ensuring and protecting equal rights as European countries attempt to balance the economic needs of immigration and other benefits of diverse populations with continuing national identity and security concerns. The following speakers are scheduled to participate: Councilor Irene Appiah (Hamburg, Germany) Vice-Chair Domenica Ghidei Biidu, European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (Netherlands) MEP Romeo Franz (Germany) MEP Pierrette Herzberger-Fofana (Germany) MEP Evin Incir (Sweden) MP Danièle Obono (France) MEP Samira Rafaela (Netherlands)

  • House Majority Leader, Helsinki Commissioners Decry Efforts to Shutter Community Center in Hungary

    WASHINGTON—Following renewed efforts by authorities in Hungary to shutter the Aurora Community Center in Budapest, House Majority Leader Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (MD-05), Helsinki Commission Ranking Member Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), and Helsinki Commissioner Rep. Gwen Moore (WI-04) issued the following statements: “During my visit to Budapest earlier this summer, I saw firsthand the important resources Aurora provides to the community,” said Majority Leader Hoyer. “The latest attempt by Hungarian authorities to shut down Aurora speaks volumes about the country’s shrinking space for civil society. On the thinnest of pretexts, the rule of law in Hungary is being hijacked to serve one party's political interests.” “Aurora nurtures a vibrant community of civil society groups and has become a symbol of independent organizations in Hungary,” said Sen. Cardin, who also serves as the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (PA) Special Representative on Anti-Semitism, Racism, and Intolerance. “Unfortunately, such activism is viewed as a threat by those in power, who—through constant legal harassment—are attempting to permanently close Aurora’s doors. Aurora and organizations like it should be protected, not targeted.” “In a time when those who spew hate and divisiveness seem to be ascendant, initiatives like Aurora that build inclusive societies and strengthen democracy are needed more than ever,” said Rep. Moore. “I was honored to visit the center and meet with its president, Adam Schonberger, with my colleagues earlier this year.” Majority Leader Hoyer, Sen. Cardin, and Rep. Moore visited the Aurora Community Center in Budapest in July, en route to the 2019 OSCE PA Annual Session in Luxembourg. Marom, a Hungarian Jewish association, established and runs Aurora Community Center, an umbrella organization that provides office space to other small civil society groups in Budapest, including the Roma Press Center, migrant aid, and Pride Parade organizers. Over the past two years, Hungarian authorities repeatedly have accused Marom of administrative violations ranging from mismatched dates on official documents to, most recently, lacking an appropriate agreement with the center’s landlord. Under the Orbán government, the conditions for independent nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in Hungary have deteriorated. In 2014, armed police carried out raids on 13 civil society organizations, seizing computers and documents for alleged financial misconduct. No charges were ever brought against the NGOs.  In 2017, Hungary adopted a Russian-style "foreign agent" law which, according to the U.S. Department of State, “unfairly burdens a targeted group of Hungarian civil society organizations, many of which focus on fighting corruption and protecting human rights and civil liberties.” In 2018, Hungary passed a law establishing a 25 percent tax on organizations which engage in “propaganda activity that portrays immigration in a positive light.” It is a tax on government-disfavored speech.  Hungary also adopted amendments to its "law on aiding illegal migration" that makes handing out know-your-rights leaflets punishable by up to one year in prison.  Hungary will hold municipal elections on October 13.

  • Hastings and Wicker Condemn Police Crackdown on Russian Pro-Democracy Protesters and Opposition Leader Alexei Navalny

    WASHINGTON—Following violent police crackdowns on protesters during a weekend of pro-democratic demonstrations in Moscow, as well as the arrest of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny days before the protest and his subsequent hospitalization, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) and Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) issued the following statement: “We condemn the extraordinary use of force by riot police against peaceful protesters in Moscow seeking a free and fair electoral process. Ahead of the upcoming September 8 municipal elections, we hope that the citizens of Russia will be able to exercise their rights to participate freely in the democratic process, including voicing their opinion about the transparency of the system of voting and nomination of candidates. “We also are concerned about the health of opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who was arrested on Wednesday, July 24, and subsequently hospitalized following an unknown ‘allergic reaction.’ We will be monitoring the situation closely.” Last weekend, thousands of Russian people took to the streets of Moscow to protest the exclusion of several opposition candidates from the ballot for upcoming City Duma municipal elections on September 8. On July 24, Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny was arrested, reportedly for his plans to lead the protests. On Sunday, July 28, Navalny’s spokeswoman Kira Yarmysh announced that Navalny suddenly had been hospitalized while in government custody.

  • Truth, Reconciliation, and Healing

      Today, many countries seek to address historic wrongs, heal wounds, bridge divisions, and build a shared future. Truth and reconciliation efforts to encourage restitution, reparations, and restorative justice have been called for in many places, including the United States, Western Europe, Canada, and the Balkans, while Holocaust survivors and other victims of Nazi persecution continue to seek justice worldwide. In June, Amsterdam city councilors voted to apologize for the city’s role in the transatlantic slave trade. In April, Belgium’s Prime Minister Charles Michel apologized for the kidnapping of thousands of children born to mixed-race couples during its colonial rule in several African countries.  In 2015, Sweden published a historic white paper on abuses and rights violations against Roma in the 20th century.  A decade ago, Canada established a reconciliation process in response to the Indian Residential School legacy, which forced First Nation children to attend government-funded boarding schools. On July 18th, 2019, the U.S. Helsinki Commission held a briefing entitled, “Truth, Reconciliation and Healing: Towards a Unified Future,” 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. Speakers addressed official government apologies, truth and reconciliation processes, restitution, reparations, and other policy prescriptions that have been used or are currently being considered to address historic wrongs and unify citizens in countries across Europe and North America. According to Dr. Gail C. Christopher, “this country was built over two and a half centuries with the deeply embedded fallacy of a hierarchy of human value, that some human beings just simply don’t have value.” She continued, “racism, anti-Semitism, religious bias, extremism, xenophobia – they all have their root in this fundamental fallacy of a hierarchy of human value. […] Our country has a history of enslaving people, committing genocide among Indigenous people, and embracing centuries of institutionalized racism [additionally] inequities caused by racism [are] costing our nation almost $2 trillion annually in lost purchasing power, reduced job opportunities, and diminished productivity.”  She went on to note that unlike other countries that have endured war, sectarian or racial strife, the United States has never undertaken a comprehensive Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) or other process, undergirding the antiquated belief in a hierarchical separation of races.  To address this problem, she discussed her efforts to adapt a truth and reconciliation process across America based upon “truth, racial healing, and transformation.”    Ambassador Stuart Eizenstat discussed his work over three U.S. administrations to provide belated justice for victims of the Holocaust and other victims of Nazi tyranny during World War II, as a Special Representative of the President and Secretary of State on Holocaust-era issues. “I’ve negotiated $17 billion in recoveries for Holocaust survivors who suffered under the Nazis.  Eight billion as a U.S. government representative under Clinton and Obama administrations and $9 billion as the chief negotiator for the Jewish claims conference in our annual negotiations with Germany,” he stated.  The payments covered everything from forced enslaved labor, unpaid insurance policies, to looted works of art including for non-Jews in some cases.  His other efforts included a presidential commission on the Holocaust led by Eli Wiesel that led to the creation of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and $5 billion for a German remembrance foundation. He also described how Jewish refugees were refused entry into some countries, or their assets confiscated and then used to finance Nazi war efforts.  Citing the Justice for Uncompensated Holocaust Survivors (JUST) Act, he called for Congress to hold hearings on findings from a report to be released in November 2019 on whether countries have met their commitments under the Terezin Declaration. Former Flemish Christian and Democratic Party (CD&V) Councilwoman Tracy Tansia Bibo spoke in her video testimony about recent efforts to address the horrors of Belgian colonialism from the period of Leopold II through the 1960s where people's hands were cut off when they did not reach their rubber quota, communities and villages burned in response to uprisings and women were raped.  As one of the authors of Belgian legislation that led to an apology from the Prime Minister, Councilwoman Bibo described efforts to provide reparations and other means of redress for the kidnapping and forced adoption of close to 20,000 children from former Belgian colonies in Burundi, Congo, and Rwanda.  She noted that in addition to the apology, archives had been opened and travel assistance provided to support families in finding one another.  With the work of the Belgian government on hold since the last elections, she highlighted continuing efforts towards reconciliation and healing for Belgium and its former colony, including open societal dialogue; recognition of colonization and its modern day-effects; education and knowledge about colonization and racism; and reparations to address social and economic inequities stemming from institutional racism and colonization. “It's hard to talk about reparations,” she said. “Reparations is about fighting racial inequalities created by political systems that in the past were maintained by a privileged group. Hearings to determine exactly what this recovery means are therefore necessary… What if we finance programmes that, for example, aim to provide better health care for the black population who, according to studies, are more affected by certain diseases? What if we eliminate inequality in education by means of targeted programmes? Reparations is about more than handing out cheques to the black population. It is about eliminating inequalities.” Dutch Councilman and ChristienUnie Party Leader Don Ceder shared a European perspective on truth and reconciliation efforts, following his role in passing June 2019 legislation calling for a formal apology for the city of Amsterdam’s role in enslaving close to 600,000 Africans in the colonies and the Netherlands being the largest slave trader between West African and South America in the 17th century.  The apology is scheduled to take place July 1, 2020 on the Dutch day of remembering the abolition of slavery also known as Keti Koti - a Surinamese term that means “the chains are broken.”  According to Ceder, the effort was a result of seven political parties coming together because, “we see that a formal apology for the shared past is a mature step to a consolidated shared future in Amsterdam [in part because] though slavery has been abolished since 1863 in the Netherlands, the traces remain visible everywhere around the city today.”  Amsterdam will join cities such as Liverpool and Charleston and countries such as Benin and Ghana in issuing formal apologies for their participation in racial oppression, in addition to the European Parliament calling for all Member states to apologize for their roles.  Ceder recognized that a new narrative may be needed to redefine Amsterdam with the understanding that withholding truth only creates an obstacle to a unified future.    Dr. Diane Orentlicher cited numerous lessons learned from her work in Bosnia-Herzegovina. “Experience in many countries has shown that, unless they are adequately addressed, historic wrongs leave deep wounds, whose toxic legacy afflicts not only victims but whole societies.  […] Social divisions rooted in wrongs and oppression will not be fixed without an honest reckoning, including a robust acknowledgement and condemnation of the original wrongs and a determination to address their toxic legacies.”  Listing “denial” and “silence” as some of the main barriers to societies recovering from tragedy, she stated, “I do not believe Bosnia can become unified in any meaningful sense until public officials and other elites, as well as ordinary citizens, acknowledge the full extent of atrocities committed by members of their in-group and unequivocally condemn their crimes.“  Acknowledging that addressing historic wrongs can be painful, she noted the importance of honesty, bringing people together, courageous and innovative leadership, and persistence.

  • OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media Harlem Desir to Appear at Helsinki Commission Hearing

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following hearing: STATE OF MEDIA FREEDOM IN THE OSCE REGION Thursday, July 25, 2019 3:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m. Capitol Visitor Center Room HVC-210 Live Webcast: www.youtube.com/HelsinkiCommission Journalists working in the 57 participating States of the Organization for Security and Cooperation (OSCE) are facing increased risks to their lives and safety. According to a new report released the Office of the Representative for Freedom of the Media, in the first six months of 2019, two journalists have been killed and an additional 92 attacks and threats—including one bombing, three shootings, and seven arson attacks—have targeted members of the media. In his first appearance before Congress, OSCE Representative for Freedom of the Media Harlem Desir will assess the fragile state of media freedom within the OSCE region. Mr. Desir also will address the number of imprisoned media professionals as well as the violence, threats, and intimidation directed toward female journalists. The hearing will explore the threat posed by disinformation and online content designed to provoke violence and hate.  Following the hearing, at 5:00 p.m. in Room HVC-200, the Helsinki Commission will host a viewing of the documentary, “A Dark Place,” which details the online harassment of female journalists working in the OSCE region.

  • Minority Faiths Under the Hungarian Religion Law

    By Erika Schlager, Counsel for International Law This is a July 16, 2019, update to the article “Minority Faiths Under The Hungarian Religion Law," originally posted on July 8, 2017 (reprinted below). In 2011, Hungary adopted a new church law that entered into effect in 2012. The law stripped hundreds of faiths of their legal status overnight, deprived them of state resources to which they had previously been entitled, and resulted in other limitations. In December 2018, Hungary amended its religion law (effective as of April 15, 2019). The purpose of the amendment was to implement judgments of Hungary’s Constitutional Court as well as the European Court on Human Rights which held that Hungary’s religion law discriminated against faiths and churches. However, the amended law includes elements that, in practice, will continue discriminatory elements of the 2011 law for several more years and, in some respects, exacerbate the situation for minority faiths. The existing (2011) legal framework already distinguished among churches for the purposes of allocating government resources and benefits. The 2018 amendment added additional tiers to the categories, resulting in a more complex system. The four new tiers or categories are: religious association (with the right to be called a “church”), listed church, registered church and recognized church. Only the most “privileged” tier (recognized church) has the rights previously enjoyed by religious organizations recognized as churches before the passage of the 2011 law. Faiths which enjoyed legal recognition before the 2011 law but were stripped of that recognition under the 2018 law continue to be forced to accept the status of religious association and excluded from all the “privileges” granted to the higher categories. In other words, the 2018 amendment simply carries over the framework of the 2011 law. Additionally, the Hungarian Parliament – a body of elected officials – still decides which religious organizations are in the privileged tier (recognized church), making this an inherently political distinction. The amendment does make two improvements. First, it allows all religious organizations that secure state recognition to determine their own internal organizational structure. (Under the law passed in 2011, this was not the case.) Second, it permits people to donate 1% of their income tax to any religious organization that secures one of the four approved statuses. However, the amendment does not automatically enable organizations previously excluded from this support to receive it. On net, the December 2018 amendment fails to implement fully the court’s rulings or end the discrimination of the 2011 law, leaving some religious groups in limbo. The amendment did not provide a remedy for churches that were stripped of their status under the 2011 law, and faiths categorized in what is now the lowest tier (“religious association”) cannot be upgraded to the status of listed or registered churches without renouncing all future state, European Union, and foreign support or collecting the 1% income tax donation but remaining excluded from the benefits of "recognized" status during a prolonged transitional period. Minority Faiths Under The Hungarian Religion Law June 8, 2017 On April 25, 2017, the European Court on Human Rights announced a judgment in the case of the Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship v. Hungary.  This decision followed a 2014 finding by the Court that Hungary's 2011 law on religion violated the rights to freedom of association and freedom of religion.  In light of the failure of Hungary to end continuing violations, the April judgment awarded the Evangelical Fellowship €3 million in damages.  Religious Discrimination after the 2011 Law The case has its origins in changes made to Hungary’s religion law, which establishes a framework for the registration, or official recognition, of churches.  The law was rushed through parliament in June 2011 in a midnight parliamentary session as part of a massive three-year wave of 700 new laws, a new constitution, and five amendments to the Constitution passed between 2010 and 2013.  The “church law,” as it is known, came into force in 2012 and stripped legal recognition from over 300 previously recognized faiths; only 14 faiths retained their status under the new law.  The law gives the exclusive authority to the elected politicians in the Hungarian parliament to determine what constitutes a church, based on a parliamentary review of a religious community’s faith and rites; bylaws and internal rules; and elected or appointed administrative and representative bodies. The parliament then makes its decision according to a two-thirds vote.  Churches recognized by the parliament are granted a range of financial benefits and other privileges, including the ability to minister to co-religionists in public institutions such as schools, prisons and the military; unregistered faiths are denied these benefits.   Religions that lose their state recognition may have their assets confiscated by the state.  Hungarian Ombudsman Mate Szabo criticized the law when it was adopted and the Constitutional Court has twice struck down parts of the new religion law.  Parliament changed the law to allow unrecognized groups to identify as “churches” (translation:  “you can call yourself whatever you want”), but refused to alter the discriminatory framework that excludes unregistered faiths from the benefit of official status (translation:  “you’ll still have second-class status”).  In other words, there was no meaningful legislative change to address the law’s shortcomings.   The Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship, joined by several smaller groups, including Mennonites, two small reformed Jewish congregations, and a Buddhist congregation, brought the case that was decided by the European Court in 2014.  The European Court held that the “church law” is “inconsistent with the State’s duty of neutrality in religious matters that religious groups had to apply to Parliament to obtain re-registration as churches and that they were treated differently from incorporated churches with regard to material benefits without any objective grounds.”  Damages were awarded to the other religious communities in 2016, but the Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship continued to seek damages in light of continuing violations. In its April 2017 decision, the court awarded €3 million to the Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship.  The damages for discriminatory treatment included the loss of personal income tax donations and the corresponding supplementary State subsidy; the loss of State subsidies intended to support the applicant’s social and educational institutions; the loss of subsidies for religious teaching; and the loss of salary supplements paid to the staff employed by church institutions providing public-interest services. Unfortunately, the Court does not have the authority to compel Hungary to change its religion law and it is up to the Hungarian parliament to take the measures to comply with the ruling.  (The Court may award damages again – and again – in the case of continuing violations.) De-registered churches may be able to get a judgment for damages in Strasbourg, but only Budapest can provide a legal remedy.  The government may be trying to squeeze the Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship out of existence by depriving them of the benefits extended to other faiths and forcing them to devote resources to constantly litigate and re-litigate the same violations.  Smaller churches de-registered after 2011 have already largely been shuttered.  About the Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship The Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship broke from the Hungarian Methodist Church in the mid-1970s over the issue of collaboration with the communist regime. As a faith that would not bend to the communist regime, the Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship was subsequently forced underground and persecuted for engaging in charitable work with the poor at a time when the communist regime was loath to admit that poverty was a serious problem.  After the fall of the communist regime, in 1991 the Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship was officially recognized until stripped of this status under the 2011 law.  The Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship is known for its charitable and humanitarian work, particularly with Romani communities, and runs schools, homeless shelters, and soup kitchens. However, becausethe Hungarian tax authority has refused to issue a tax number to deregistered churches such as the Evangelical Fellowship, it is impossible for them to be designated them as recipients of a 1 percent charitable donation on tax forms.   Related Issues In 2017, the Hungarian Government has also proposed a Russian-style “foreign agents” law, which is currently scheduled for a vote by parliament, possibly on June 13. In recognition of criticism that, among the draft law’s many problems, it would stigmatize groups that receive foreign funding – including support from co-religionists in other countries – the current draft was altered to include a carve-out exception for religious organizations and sports.  If adopted, the law may spur the adoption of copycat laws in the region that might not have the same carve-outs for religious groups.  During a press conference in April, Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s chief of staff Janos Lazar suggested that Hungarian groups that receive foreign funding should be designated with a star.  He later apologized.

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