Title

Chairman Smith Supports Genocide Victims in Syria and Iraq

New Legislation from Smith, Eshoo, Franks, and Fortenberry Would Provide Relief to Victims, Accountability for Perpetrators
Thursday, September 08, 2016

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.

Media contact: 
Name: 
Stacy Hope
Email: 
csce[dot]press[at]mail[dot]house[dot]gov
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    History has shown that robust engagement in multilateral arenas represents long-term realism: to lead, we must be involved; to protect our national interests and the principles we hold dear, we must remain engaged; and to inspire those who suffer every day under authoritarian regimes, we must hold our own country to the highest standards on the world stage. Unfortunately, efforts to maintain America’s preeminence in the world have come under increasing pressure in recent years. These challenges are not isolated and are waged on many fronts – economically, militarily, and diplomatically. Some may use these challenges as an excuse to retreat, claiming that engagement in international organizations like the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) adds no value. We believe that quite the opposite is true. If we want to continue to lead, protect, and inspire, we need the OSCE’s opportunities for multilateral engagement more than ever. Amid the alphabet soup of institutional acronyms, many Americans probably have not heard of the OSCE, let alone know that it is the largest regional security organization in the world. Comprising 57 countries, it links Vancouver in the West to Vladivostok in the East, spanning North America, Europe, and Central Asia. We are members of the organization’s Parliamentary Assembly, where we have represented our country and our principles in a forum of international lawmakers for a combined 34 years. We have engaged the OSCE, as a whole, even longer. We know firsthand the value of U.S. leadership and sustained high-level engagement in the organization – and conversely, we know the enormous risks that would come with retreat. A Broader Definition of Security The essential, enduring value of the OSCE can be traced back to its founding and the ideological transformation that it quietly unleashed. In the 1950s, the Soviet Union first conceived the idea of the Helsinki Final Act. The founding charter of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, or CSCE, later institutionalized as today’s OSCE, would eventually be signed in 1975. Moscow saw the document as a way to validate post-World War II border changes and tighten its stranglehold on Eastern Europe. The Kremlin, no doubt, also hoped to create an alternative to NATO and weaken U.S. ties to Europe. As troops massed along the Iron Curtain after the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, Europe began to see some value in greater East-West engagement. The United States saw the Soviet proposal as a damage-mitigation exercise at best. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger famously decried the Helsinki Final Act, saying, “They can write it in Swahili for all I care… The Conference can never end up with a meaningful document.” Opposition to the Helsinki Final Act was not limited to Foggy Bottom. The Wall Street Journal published the editorial “Jerry, Don’t Go” just prior to President Ford’s departure to sign the document in Finland, reflecting widespread opposition from U.S. foreign policy hawks and Americans across the country who descended from the “captive nations” of Eastern Europe. What most observers at the time overlooked, however, was the Helsinki Final Act’s uniquely comprehensive definition of “security.” The Act contains 10 principles guiding inter-state relations, including respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms; respect for sovereign equality; recognition of the territorial integrity of states; and the commitment of states to fulfill in good faith their obligations under international law. The integration of human rights into a concept of security was revolutionary. The Act also provided that any country signatory could publicly challenge any other country that wasn’t living up to Helsinki principles, either internally or externally. This was remarkable for its time. These two innovations made the Act a rallying point for human rights advocates everywhere, especially dissident movements in the one-party communist states of the Soviet bloc. Groups like Charter 77 in Czechoslovakia, Solidarity in Poland, and other monitoring groups in the Soviet Union and Baltic States that were crucial to the eventual collapse of communism in Europe relied on Helsinki commitments in their advocacy. With U.S. leadership, meetings of the CSCE also became venues for frank exchanges, where countries committing human rights abuses were named and victims identified. The strongest weapons in the U.S. arsenal – democratic ideals, market principles, and the primacy of individual rights – rallied European friends and allies, attracted Soviet satellites, and left Moscow isolated, if not fully convinced. Today's Inflection Point We were both serving in the House of Representatives shortly after the Soviet Union collapsed in the early 1990s. We were aware that the transitions ahead would be difficult, particularly as horrific ethnic cleansing spread in the Balkans and a brutal war was waged in Chechnya. Although we were on opposite sides of the aisle, we were joined in our conviction that liberal democracy would ultimately prevail throughout Europe and into Central Asia. Unfortunately, our confidence was dramatically misplaced. Thirty years later, instead of the peace and prosperity we expected in the OSCE region, we are at an inflection point, faced with uncertainty and the increasing erosion of the security framework that followed the Cold War. In recent elections, we’ve watched nationalist parties gain a strong foothold in Europe. NATO ally Turkey – one of the world’s most oppressive regimes toward journalists – is succumbing to authoritarian rule, weakening checks on executive power and targeting more than 100,000 perceived opponents of the ruling party in sweeping purges. Vladimir Putin continues to violate the sovereignty and territorial integrity of not just Ukraine – where, in areas controlled by Russia, pro-Ukrainian sentiment is met with imprisonment, torture, or death – but also Georgia, where Russia has occupied 20 percent of the country’s territory for more than a decade. The Russian government supports separatists in the Transnistrian region of Moldova, interferes in elections in the United States and Europe, and undermines faith in democratic governments worldwide through cyberattacks and information warfare. An era of increasing nationalism, Kremlin revisionism, and rising authoritarianism may not, at first, seem to be the best moment to revitalize multilateral diplomacy. But it has been, and will continue to be, in our national interest to promote democracy, the rule of law, and human rights around the world – just as we did more than 40 years ago in the Finnish capital. Those Helsinki commitments, and their institutionalization over time, empower us to stand up for our values and for comprehensive security at a time in which we absolutely must. In April 2017, we – along with every other senator currently serving on the Helsinki Commission – introduced a resolution urging President Trump to recognize the importance of the Helsinki Final Act and the OSCE as well as their relevance to American national security. We hope the administration will endorse this effort. A Record of Results The value of the OSCE and the effectiveness of American involvement are evident in the organization’s more recent evolution and achievements. This is no Cold War relic. We have seen examples of multilateral success in many initiatives, beginning with its quick embrace of newly independent states, from the Balkans to Eastern Europe and Central Asia. As multiethnic states broke apart, the OSCE created a high commissioner on national minorities in 1992 to address ethnic tensions and proactively prevent conflict between or within states over national minority issues. Participating states developed mechanisms to respond to the most recalcitrant actors, such as the unprecedented suspension of Yugoslavia the same year for the “clear, gross, and uncorrected” violations of Helsinki principles by the regime of Slobodan Milosevic against Bosnia and Herzegovina. Under OSCE auspices, internal political confrontations in Serbia in 1996 and Albania in 1997 were resolved through high-level engagement before they became a broader threat to peace and prosperity in Europe. The United States led the way, generating the political will to act quickly and with resolve. Robust field missions also were created in the 1990s to respond to conflicts, first in the Balkans and then extending into Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, and Central Asia. In some places, such as Kosovo, the OSCE often was the only acceptable international monitor or facilitator on the ground, serving as the eyes and ears of the international community, bringing opposing sides together, and mitigating spillover effects in neighboring countries. Today, the OSCE’s civilian Special Monitoring Mission (SMM) to Ukraine is the only independent observer group in the war zone. Established in 2014 to monitor implementation of the Minsk Agreements, its approximately 700 monitors provide clear and unbiased reporting of ceasefire violations and human costs of the conflict. Approximately half of the U.S. contribution to the OSCE goes toward funding the SMM. The mission faces challenges, including attempts to sabotage its work and concerns about security. The latter was tragically demonstrated by the death of Joseph Stone, a U.S. paramedic killed last year when his vehicle struck a landmine in separatist-controlled territory. Without the SMM’s reporting, however, we would lack critical information to understand and address ongoing Russian aggression against Ukraine. Kremlin propaganda would have a clear field to disguise the true nature and scale of the conflict. The OSCE also sets the gold standard for election observation across the region. The organization’s trained observers partner with international lawmakers, including ourselves, to analyze election-related laws and systems and the effectiveness of their implementation. The evaluations that these missions produce are critical benchmarks for OSCE countries and support U.S. efforts to promote human rights, democracy, and the rule of law around the world. Pressure from the organization and its participating states has been a major factor in the release of political prisoners in countries like Azerbaijan. For example, the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, and the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly publicly condemned Baku for its targeting of investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova and the broader use of its judicial system to repress political opponents, journalists, and minorities. The Helsinki Commission also weighed in. In May 2016, Ismayilova was released from prison. Our actions in this and similar cases demonstrate global leadership. We welcome the recent nomination of a new U.S. permanent representative to the OSCE. This important post has remained vacant for far too long. We urge our Senate colleagues to swiftly consider the nominee, who will be responsible for leading America’s vigorous defense of democracy and human rights in the region. Let us also not overlook the fact that our work in the OSCE in relation to Russia is not simply to counter Moscow’s anti-democratic ambitions. Follow-up meetings to the original Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe became one of a shrinking number of places where East-West dialogue could take place during the Cold War. Likewise, after Russia was suspended from the G8 in March 2014, today’s OSCE provides one of the few remaining opportunities to engage with Russia and hold the Kremlin accountable to principles it has endorsed. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov attends OSCE ministerial meetings, where he easily – and with great success – engages with senior officials from around the region. That alone should encourage our secretary of state to be present. Secretary Tillerson attended the 2017 ministerial, and we urge Secretary Pompeo to do the same. Future Challenges Along with successes, we also have seen areas where multilateralism has fallen short. Areas like Nagorno-Karabakh, Transnistria, Chechnya, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia have consumed OSCE attention and resources, but unfortunately, the organization’s actions have not thawed these frozen conflicts. The OSCE may have kept things from getting worse than they might have been otherwise; this is something to praise, but cannot yet be counted as a win. These efforts have been hindered in part by the otherwise positive requirement that major decisions in the organization require consensus. This rule is vital to the OSCE’s success. The organization can convene all parties on an even footing and – because no country can claim that it didn’t voluntarily agree to its commitments – the rule gives unique force to the OSCE’s actions. However, decision-making by consensus also allows a single intransigent country to wield its veto as a weapon, even in cases of otherwise overwhelming agreement. In 2008, Russia successfully blocked the OSCE from establishing a field mission in Georgia as Russian-backed separatists occupied South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Since then, resistance to hosting or authorizing field missions, a core capability of the OSCE, has spread. Belarus kicked out its OSCE mission in 2011. Azerbaijan forced the mission in Baku to close in 2015, and two years later, it insisted on the shuttering of a mission in Armenia. Mongolia, the newest OSCE participating state, has repeatedly requested a mission to foster its continued democratic development and build closer ties with other participating states. Moscow consistently blocks that request. A related and ongoing problem is the lack of transparency of the OSCE’s decision-making. Opening its official deliberations to the public would help make those countries that thwart progress more broadly accountable for their recalcitrance. A more recent challenge comes from the government of Turkey. Ankara continues to use the 2016 coup attempt as pretext for not only violently repressing its citizens and detaining others, including Americans, but also for limiting the participation of non-governmental organizations in certain OSCE meetings. The OSCE is the only international organization that allows NGOs to participate equally with governments in meetings on human rights commitments, allowing these groups to raise their concerns directly. If Turkey has its way, human rights groups might be denied a seat at the table. It is easy to imagine which countries quietly hope this effort will succeed. The United States must continue to make it clear that it is not one of them. Indeed, the moral here is that the United States should not only support the strengths and potential of the OSCE, but we must also be present and potent when progress and principles are challenged within the organization. Our colleagues in both chambers of Congress have the passion and determination to do just that. In these days of partisan discord, we must remember – and treasure – the fact that Congress is broadly committed to the principles enshrined in the Helsinki Final Act: respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, democratic principles, and liberty. We see this in the establishment of the Helsinki Commission itself, a unique agency conceived by Congress to strengthen the legitimacy of human rights monitoring, defend those persecuted for acting on their rights and freedoms, and ensure that violations of Helsinki provisions are given full consideration in U.S. foreign policy. The OSCE’s broad membership and comprehensive definition of security make it an ideal platform to advocate for our interests in a vital region. Its institutions remain singularly placed to moderate regional conflicts, promote respect for human rights, and safeguard essential elements of democracy. We have not only the right, but also the duty, to hold countries responsible if they fail to adhere to the basic principles that we all agreed to in 1975. We also have the responsibility to hear and consider other participating states when they feel that the United States is not fully meeting our commitments. Leading by example means that we must be held accountable, too. At this critical juncture, when the rules-based order appears particularly fragile, any weakening or absence of the OSCE could irreversibly damage the chances for democracy and peace in the region. We must not allow that to happen – and the key is our own steadfastness, in words and deeds. Roger Wicker (@SenatorWicker) is chairman of the U.S. Helsinki Commission and a vice president of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly. A member of the Republican Party, he has represented Mississippi in the Senate since December 2007. He previously represented Mississippi for 13 years in the House of Representatives. Ben Cardin (@SenatorCardin) is ranking Senate member of the U.S. Helsinki Commission. He serves as special representative on anti-Semitism, racism, and intolerance for the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly. A member of the Democratic Party, he has represented Maryland in the Senate since January 2007 after 20 years in the House of Representatives.

  • Chairman Wicker Welcomes Nomination of James Gilmore as U.S. Ambassador to the OSCE

    WASHINGTON—Following yesterday’s nomination of Gov. Jim Gilmore to serve as Representative of the United States to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) issued the following statement: “I applaud the Trump Administration’s decision to appoint Gov. Jim Gilmore to this important post. Nominating someone of Gov. Gilmore’s stature sends a firm message to Vienna about America’s engagement in OSCE initiatives. I urge my Senate colleagues to move swiftly on this nomination.” Gov. Gilmore currently serves as President and CEO of American Opportunity Foundation. Previously, he served as Governor of Virginia, Attorney General of Virginia, and as Chairman of the Congressional Advisory Panel to Assess Domestic Response Capabilities for Terrorism Involving Weapons of Mass Destruction, a national panel established by Congress to assess federal, state, and local government capabilities to respond to a terrorist attack. Gov. Gilmore served in the United States Army for three years, where he was assigned to United States Army Intelligence in West Germany. He is a graduate of the University of Virginia and the University of Virginia School of Law. Gov. Gilmore is the recipient of the Air Force Exceptional Service Award and the Joint Service Commendation Medal for Service to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.  If confirmed, Gov. Gilmore will have the rank of Ambassador. With 57 participating States in North America, Europe, and Central Asia, the OSCE is the world's largest regional security organization. Headquartered in Vienna, Austria, the OSCE sets standards in fields including military security, economic and environmental cooperation, and human rights and humanitarian concerns. In addition, the OSCE undertakes a variety of preventive diplomacy initiatives designed to prevent, manage, and resolve conflict within and among the participating States.

  • A New Approach to Europe?

    President Trump has turned decades-old conventional wisdom on U.S. policy towards Europe on its head. His description of the European Union as a foe and embrace of populist leaders from Hungary’s Viktor Orban to Italy’s Giuseppe Conte have little historical precedent since World War II. With transatlantic relations in flux, observers wonder whether the approach that has guided our policy towards Europe since World War II has run its course.  At this Helsinki Commission briefing, distinguished experts on U.S.-European relations examined the historical context of the relationship and asked whether European integration remains in the U.S. national interest, and whether populist movements in Europe should be considered a threat or an opportunity. 

  • Beyond Tolerance

    George Washington penned a letter to the Touro Synagogue of Newport, Rhode Island in 1790, underscoring that “everyone shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.” Washington envisioned an America where religious pluralism was not just present but actively protected. This briefing examined the role of faith in the public square as a good in and of itself and as a public good. Eric Treene, Special Counsel for Religions Discrimination in the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice, noted a duality in the spirit of the American Constitution’s Establishment Clause and the 1777 Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom: neither should someone be forced to support a certain faith nor should he be made to suffer on account of his faith. Treene reemphasized that natural law solidifies our inalienable right to pursue religion and that the founding fathers believed that pluralism must not exclude certain religions. Treene said the Department of Justice strives to defend sincere and “deeply held” religious beliefs while permitting faith to flourish as much as possible without government intervention. Beyond the external ability to worship, Father Deacon Andrew Bennett, Canada’s first Ambassador for Religious Freedom and Director of the Cardus Religious Freedom Institute, underscored faith’s meaningful ability to address metaphysical and existential questions which have been answered by a myriad of faith traditions. Pluralism means that differing ethical and moral views are to be protected insofar as they are non-violent. Fundamentally, pluralism demands freedom of religion, and Father Deacon Bennett argued that a pluralistic society best promotes human flourishing. Dr. Sophie van Bijsterveld, Senator in the Dutch Parliament and Professor of Religion, Law and Society at Radboud University, noted that respect and tolerance, which are often invoked in the context of pluralism, are not clearly defined. To achieve these coexistent ends, she borrowed terms from the former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams to argue that government authorities may employ “programmatic secularism,” which deters religious activity, or “procedural secularism,” which welcomes religious activity. A contextual understanding of the word “secular” matters especially to current debates over the intersection between values and controversial political subjects like immigration, integration, foreign influencing, and radicalization, etc. Democratic governments struggle to define secularism, and they are further beset by broader definitions from international bodies like the European Court of Human Rights which seeks to protect religious liberties individually yet universally.   Equal treatment among varying cases has been a challenge, as Dr. van Bijsterveld noted that “equal treatment applies in equal circumstances [but] equal treatment…is not necessarily identical treatment.” While the legal uncertainty resulting from diverse religious practice does pose a challenge to legal institutions, overreliance on secularism in the name of fairness could also threaten equal treatment of religious activities. Ideally, secularism is a neutral ideology, but in Canada, Father Deacon Bennett expressed concern over a “prescribed diversity” and understanding of secularism which might fetter religious freedom. Under “prescribed diversity,” official support for any one ideology risks belittling or demonizing other forms of religious expression under what Father Deacon Bennett termed “illiberal totalitarianism in the public square.” A balance must be maintained so that faith is not reduced to an entirely private affair, compelling faith to vacate the public square. Treene commented on this difficult tension through the example of French laïcité, government-enforced secularism in the public square. The French government has not been a neutral referee in the fight between secularism and religious expression, and controversial decisions like the French headscarf ban have endeavored to solidify a secular foundation in the public square, arguably at the expense of religious expression. The degrees to which religion should counteract secularism or vice versa will continue to be debated, but the panelists all concurred that it is the role of society to respect inherent human dignity and to respect others’ rights to freedom of conscience, expression and association. As Dr. van Bijsterveld noted, this also includes mutual understanding between public authorities and religious communities. The implication of such cooperation is especially significant in a politically polarized society because greater amounts of religious freedom correlates with decreased levels of social conflict, according to recent scholarship at the Religious Freedom Research Project. Following George Washington’s encouragement of diverse religious practice in 1790’s America, we too should respect faith’s essential place in the public square in 2018, panelists argued.

  • Helsinki Commission Briefing to Explore Shifts in U.S. Approach to Europe

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following briefing: A NEW APPROACH TO EUROPE? U.S. Interests, Nationalist Movements, and the European Union Thursday, November 1, 2018 10:00 a.m. Senate Dirksen Office Building Room 562 Live Webcast: www.facebook.com/HelsinkiCommission President Trump has turned decades-old conventional wisdom on U.S. policy towards Europe on its head. His description of the European Union as a foe and embrace of populist leaders from Hungary’s Viktor Orban to Italy’s Giuseppe Conte have little historical precedent since World War II.  With transatlantic relations in flux, observers wonder whether the approach that has guided our policy towards Europe since World War II has run its course.  At this Helsinki Commission briefing, distinguished experts on U.S.-European relations will examine the historical context of the relationship and ask whether European integration remains in the U.S. national interest and whether populist movements in Europe should be considered a threat or an opportunity.   Expert panelists scheduled to participate include: Ted R. Bromund, Senior Research Fellow in Anglo-American Relations, Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom, The Heritage Foundation Paul Coyer, Research Professor, The Institute of World Politics Jeffrey Rathke, President, American Institute for Contemporary German Studies, Johns Hopkins University

  • Faith in the Public Square to Be Discussed at Helsinki Commission Briefing

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following briefing: BEYOND TOLERANCE Faith in the Public Square Monday, October 29, 2018 2:30 p.m. Russell Senate Office Building Room 188 Live Webcast: www.facebook.com/HelsinkiCommission Religious freedom is enshrined in the constitution and laws of the United States, Canada, and many western European countries. As participating States of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, they have repeatedly affirmed that religious freedom is a fundamental freedom and committed to respecting it. But over the past few decades, there have been shifts to language and attitudes of “tolerance” regarding faith in the public square. This briefing will examine faith in the public square as a good in and of itself, a social good, and essential for modern democracy. Panelists will discuss the interplay between public expressions of faith and law, policy, culture, society, and human flourishing in the United States, Canada, and Europe. They will also discuss philosophy underpinning original and shifting understandings of faith in the public square. The following panelists will offer brief remarks, followed by questions: Eric Treene, Special Counsel for Religious Discrimination, Civil Rights Division, U.S. Department of Justice Rev. Dr. Andrew Bennett, Canada’s Ambassador for Religious Freedom (2013-2016); current Director, Cardus Religious Freedom Institute Dr. Sophie van Bijsterveld, Senator, Dutch Parliament, and Professor of Religion, Law and Society, Radboud University

  • Helsinki Commission Welcomes Confirmation of New Human Trafficking Ambassador-at-Large

    WASHINGTON—Following the confirmation by the U.S. Senate of John Cotton Richmond to be Ambassador for Trafficking in Persons and the Director of the U.S. Department of State’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons (J/TIP), Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) and Co-Chairman Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04) issued the following statements:  “Ambassador Richmond brings a wealth of expertise, commitment, and compassion to his new role leading the federal government’s domestic and global response to human trafficking,” said Chairman Wicker. “He understands how to prosecute traffickers, protect victims, and prevent future trafficking.” “Ambassador Richmond has demonstrated a strong commitment to thorough research and evidence-based action on sex and labor trafficking,” said Co-Chairman Smith, who also serves as the Special Representative on Human Trafficking Issues to the Organization on Security and Cooperation in Europe Parliamentary Assembly President. “These traits will serve him well as he oversees the development of the State Department’s annual Trafficking in Persons Report—our most successful diplomatic tool to promote best practices and ensure accountability.” Most recently, Ambassador Richmond was the director of the Human Trafficking Institute, a nonprofit in Washington, D.C., devoted to empowering police and prosecutors to stop traffickers. He also has firsthand experience as a federal prosecutor in the U.S. Department of Justice’s Human Trafficking Prosecution Unit and has served as an expert on human trafficking for the United Nations and the European Union.  Additionally, he was the director for the International Justice Mission’s anti-slavery work in India. In his new role, Ambassador Richmond will coordinate federal government agency efforts to combat human trafficking and assist victims in the United States, as well as assist other countries in meeting their commitments under the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, especially Women and Children (Palermo Protocol). Ambassador Richmond will also oversee the development of the State Department’s annual Trafficking in Persons Report, which lays bare the record of 189 countries, summarizing a country’s progress and offering concrete recommendations for progress.  Both the report and the Ambassador-at-Large position were created by Co-Chairman Smith’s Trafficking Victim’s Protection Act of 2000 and its reauthorizations.  

  • The Backpage.com Bust

    By Felicia Garcia, Max Kampelman Fellow On April 6, 2018, customers in search of sexual services on massive ad marketplace Backpage.com were met with U.S. law enforcement agency logos and the words “Backpage.com and affiliated websites have been seized.” Backpage.com, the world’s second largest classified advertising website—which operated in 97 countries and had an estimated value of more than $500 million—was seized for allegedly promoting and facilitating sex trafficking of adults and children. The website company has been accused of not only knowingly advertising sexual services, but also of turning a blind eye to the sexual exploitation of women and children. In all, the U.S. Department of Justice (DoJ) has charged seven individuals in a 93-count federal indictment for facilitation of prostitution and money laundering.  The seizure of Backpage.com occurred just days before President Trump signed a new law that allows trafficking victims and state prosecutors to target websites that create a market for human trafficking. The Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) and the Stop Enabling Sex Trafficking Act (SESTA)—referred to jointly as FOSTA/SESTA—were written to curtail online sex trafficking by making it “a federal crime to own, manage, or operate a website with the intent to promote or facilitate prostitution.”  The legislation allows state prosecutors to levy charges against individual websites without relying on the intervention of federal law enforcement. It also ensures that trafficking victims who were advertised on such websites can sue the websites that profited from their exploitation. With the combination of the Backpage.com seizure and FOSTA/SESTA, Bradley Myles, CEO and executive director of the Polaris Project, found that “the online sex market has rapidly transformed from centralized and crowded to dispersed and sparse. Drop in Online Sex Ad Volume One of the biggest victories of the Backpage.com seizure and SESTA/FOSTA law has been the immediate reduction in ads.  According to data collected by web search tool Memex and analyzed by Rob Spectre, CEO of childsafe.ai, commercial sex ads dramatically decreased immediately after the Backpage.com seizure.  According to Spectre, over the past several months there has been a marked downward shift in the online sex market, with an analysis of North America showing a 62 percent reduction in sex advertising online. Spectre found that nationwide, these ads dropped from approximately 2,750,000 in March to 1,000,000 ads in April—and many of these remaining ads are duplicates. Prior to the closure of Backpage.com, law enforcement agencies struggled to sift through millions of sex ads posted in search of likely trafficking victims using tools like Memex, TraffickJam, and Spotlight.  Their job was made even more difficult by the efforts of Backpage.com and others to hide the telltale signs of human trafficking—such as words or images that conveyed that the victim was a child—in the ads.  Traffickers risked posting their victims online because they could hide like a needle in the haystack; now they have less “haystack” to hide in. Buyers are also feeling the haystack effect. Previously anonymous because of the crowded marketplace, they can no longer easily hide from law enforcement—and this fear of discovery seems to have depressed demand. In attempts to fight trafficking, the New York Police Department Human Trafficking Team has operated a demand deterrence program where they posted fake ads every day and recorded the number of responses. After the Backpage.com seizure, responses to decoy ads dropped 64 percent. “Perception of risk in this population [of buyers] is now at an all-time high,” said Spectre. More Victims Coming Forward The dramatic decline in the online sex trafficking market also seems to have created conditions where sex trafficking victims are coming forward for services. In his research, Spectre found that "all victims' groups are reporting increases in self-referrals with some shelters indicating in the immediate aftermath that demand [for services] doubled. Beds have always been scarce in every American market—now LE [law enforcement] agencies are reporting they are almost impossible to find."  New Challenges While the dramatic decline in online sex ads is a remarkable accomplishment, the change in online slave markets will require law enforcement and NGOs to adapt to effectively continue the fight against human trafficking. For example, the seizure of Backpage.com left a market with buyers looking for a place to go.  Some more daring sex service websites are now competing fiercely for customers and finding ways to attract more traffic onto their sites by duplicating ads and soliciting first time buyers. Monitoring efforts by law enforcement that were previously focused on Backpage.com now must be scattered among dozens of smaller websites. Analyzing data collected from a diffuse market rather than a centralized one makes the process even more difficult—but not impossible. Since April, Memex, TraffickJam, and Spotlight have been updating their law enforcement tools to be effective in a post-Backpage.com market.  Companies also are finding creative ways to manage the new risks of selling sex online. Some online website companies that profit from prostitution and trafficking are moving offshore to reduce the risk of government interference, to continue their connections with their current customers, and to extend their reach to new customers. Such offshoring makes it more difficult—but not impossible—for U.S. law enforcement to prosecute these websites. Experts are also watching for any other unintended side effects of the Backpage.com closure, such as an increase in risky or illegal activity. For example, law enforcement agencies in Riverside County, CA, report that prostituted individuals are forced by their pimps or traffickers to meet the same quota as they were when they were advertising online, putting them in an even more dangerous situation as they are forced to work on the streets, private residences, and at truck stops. Adapting to these new challenges in the United States may require action from Congress, including funding to properly equip law enforcement agencies with efficient monitoring tools and dedicated staff to use those tools; promotion of cooperation and information-sharing among law enforcement agencies, non-profit organizations, and governments at the local, regional, and federal level; and demand reduction through preventative action and prosecution of buyers and traffickers. Since many companies are offshoring their business in fear of being sued by trafficking victims or prosecutors in the United States, other OSCE participating States must be vigilant to ensure that their State—and population—do not become the new victims of exploitative websites. In 2017, the OSCE Ministerial Council called on participating States to hold accountable those who misuse the Internet Communication Technologies to knowingly or recklessly facilitate access to children for sexual exploitation or child trafficking—such as by advertising children on websites—highlighting that such individuals should be prosecuted as traffickers.

  • Politically-Motivated (In)Justice

    Since 2008, Lithuanian judge and parliamentarian Neringa Venckiene has been seeking justice for her young niece, who was allegedly sexually molested by two Lithuanian government officials. Despite a court ruling that there was enough evidence to indict the child’s mother for facilitating the molestation, the niece was taken from Judge Venckiene and returned to the mother’s care, preventing the girl from testifying further in an ongoing trial against her alleged abusers.  In 2013, Judge Venckiene fled Lithuania to seek political asylum in the United States, fearing retribution not only for her efforts to protect her niece but also for her leadership in a new anti-corruption political party.  Lithuanian prosecutors have charged Judge Venckiene with at least 35 crimes, ranging from petitioning the court on her niece’s behalf, to speaking to journalists about the case, to bruising an officer during her struggle to keep her niece from being returned to the accused mother. Five years after arriving in the United States, Judge Venckiene’s political asylum case has still not been heard, but U.S. authorities are moving to extradite her under the U.S.-Lithuania extradition treaty for bruising the officer who was returning the girl to the accused mother during the trial.  The hearing explored the limits of extradition among allies, especially when charges appear politically motivated. Witnesses discussed the evidence of political motivation, including statements made publicly by the recent Chairman of the Lithuanian Supreme Court calling Judge Venckiene “an abscess in the judicial and the political system,” and “the trouble of the whole state.” Several witnesses argued forcefully that these and other actions by Lithuanian authorities demonstrate blatant political motivation.  Dr. Vytautas Matulevicius, a member of the Seimas from 2012 to 2016 for the anti-corruption political party led by Judge Venckiene said, “...[T]he case of N. Venckienė itself can be regarded as a typical recurrence of the Soviet legal system—a person who talks too much about the crimes of influential people can be turned into a criminal herself.”  Human rights litigator Abbe Jolles calling Judge Venckiene’s extradition to a system with “no chance of a fair trial” a “likely death sentence.” The hearing examined other lenses through which to view the legal case for extradition. Law Professor Mary Leary explored the definitions of human trafficking established by Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 (P.L. 106-386) and by the Palermo Protocol. She advised that [as has been alleged], “if evidence exists that the abusers provided financial and other benefits to the mother of the child victim, this child sexual abuse could also implicate child sex trafficking.”    Concerns were also raised about the humanitarian standards of the Lithuanian prison system. As Ms. Jolles noted, several countries have previously refused Lithuanian extradition requests over concerns of unacceptable conditions and the possibility of torture.  In addition, the United States cited Lithuania in a 2017 report for prison conditions below international standards. The litany of charges against Judge Venckiene that have been added and subtracted was also considered. In particular, the legitimacy of the charge of assaulting a police officer during the seizure of her niece was questioned.  It remains unclear why Lithuanian prosecutors did not arrest Judge Venckiene while she was living in Lithuania for a year after the alleged assault, or why they would have allowed an alleged felon to immigrate to the United States and reside there for over two years before eventually filing for her extradition.  This, again, suggested the possibility of political motivation behind the charges. The Government of Lithuania was invited to participate in the hearing, or to suggest a witness to represent its perspective, but declined. Instead, the Embassy of Lithuania provided a written statement.

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