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Chairman Wicker Welcomes Progress toward Religious Freedom in Uzbekistan

Friday, July 27, 2018

WASHINGTON—Following his meeting with a high-level delegation from the Government of Uzbekistan participating in this week’s first Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom, Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) issued the following statement:

“I commend Secretary Pompeo for highlighting the progress made by Uzbekistan at the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom this week. If Uzbekistan fully follows through with essential reforms, it can be a model for other countries that have been the worst violators of religious freedom. My discussion with Foreign Minister Kamilov, Senator Safoyev, and MP Saidov highlighted how the United States can work with Uzbekistan to strengthen religious freedom, democracy, our militaries, agriculture, and ultimately security.”

The Uzbek delegation to the ministerial included Abdulaziz Kamilov, Minister of Foreign Affairs; Sodyq Safoyev, First Deputy Chairman of the Senate; and Akmal Saidov, Member of Parliament and Head of the National Human Rights Center.

The Secretary of State designated Uzbekistan as a “Country of Particular Concern” for particularly severe violations of religious freedom in 2006, 2009, 2011, 2014, 2016, and January 2018, as required by the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998. On June 1, following the release of the 2017 International Religious Freedom Report, Chairman Wicker recognized the efforts made by Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev and his government to bring Uzbekistan into compliance with its international commitments to respect religious freedom. Based on that progress, Chairman Wicker encouraged Secretary Pompeo to consider inviting Uzbekistan to participate in the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom.

On June 11, Chairman Wicker introduced a bipartisan resolution (S.Res.539) urging President Trump to take action against some of the worst violators of religious freedom in Europe and Central Asia. S.Res.539 emphasizes the positive steps that Uzbekistan has taken and calls for President Trump to develop a strategy to advance religious freedom in Eurasia that prioritizes supporting ongoing reforms in Uzbekistan.

In July, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe passed as part of its “Berlin Declaration” an amendment by Chairman Wicker recognizing the Government of Uzbekistan’s ongoing reforms.

 

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The death of a Radio Free Europe journalist while in custody in Turkmenistan demonstrates starkly how dangerous the journalist’s profession can be. In Kazakhstan and Tajikistan, electronic media are tightly controlled. Print media enjoy more latitude but their grounds for maneuver are also limited. A reporter in Kazakhstan who wrote articles implicating local officials and businessmen in the recent clashes between Kazakhs and Chechens has been missing for about a month. Kyrgyzstan is more difficult to characterize, because the state has been weaker than elsewhere in Central Asia and less capable of asserting its control of the media. But since the Tulip Revolution, restrictions on the free flow of information have loosened and I would say that free media have developed farther in Kyrgyzstan than anywhere else in Central Asia. Still, it is very disturbing that Kyrgyz authorities raided publishing houses last week, as the confrontation between the government and protesters heated up. 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Opposition leaders who refused to accept another rigged election led throngs of protesters against Eduard Shevardnadze’s government. You will recall that at a crucial moment, the Rustavi-2 TV station aligned itself with the opposition Troika and played a critical role in galvanizing the public to reject the official election results. In short order, this resistance movement mushroomed into peaceful regime change that sparked similar events in Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan. The lesson was not lost on leaders of other post-Soviet states. Shevardnadze’s counterparts in other CIS capitals were determined to avoid his fate and they resolved that no analogue to Rustavi-2 would arise on their turf. For the most part, I must say, they have pulled it off: outside Ukraine and to some degree Kyrgyzstan, nothing of the sort is permitted. In Georgia today, opposition figures maintain that Rustavi-2 has become a pro-government station. But other TV stations air broadcasts critical of President Saakashvili. Today, Russian and Uzbek media excoriate the United States for allegedly plotting more “color revolutions.” To stem the tide, a broad panoply of tactics has been deployed. Prominent among them have been the expulsion of democracy-promoting NGOs, including many U.S.-based organizations, and the throttling of media outlets. What lessons should we draw from this state of affairs? The first is that most governments of the post-Soviet states understand Thomas Jefferson quite well. They see freedom of the media as a threat which they are determined to neutralize. Second, they have been rather too successful in this endeavor. Even outside the extreme cases of Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, certain topics remain taboo in most countries, specifically criticism of the head of state or revelations about high-level corruption. This is particularly true of electronic media, and first and foremost TV. However, there is some reason for hope. I believe that pressure exerted by outside forces, including foreign capitals and international organizations, including the OSCE, can have an impact. For example, last week, Kazakhstan’s Culture and Information Minister announced that in response to OSCE criticism, the government has withdrawn a bill that would have imposed licensing requirements on publishing houses. Proposed legislation to regulate the Internet has been withdrawn and he said the authorities are ready to introduce a moratorium for “distorting the truth,” to free journalists from criminal persecution. At least under certain circumstances, then, and over the longer term, outside pressure and suasion can have a positive impact – even if gradually. But this also strengthens my conviction that now is not the time cut back on U.S. broadcasting to the post-Soviet republics. Freedom of the media is in real danger there, and those seeking alternative sources of information need our help. I am determined to make sure they get it. Let me conclude by quoting a heroic Russian journalist who understood the real meaning of Thomas Jefferson’s words over two centuries ago: Anna Politkovskaya. “My job is simple: to look around and write what I see.” That is how she described her task in accepting the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly 2003 Prize for Journalism and Democracy for her investigative reporting on developments in war-torn Chechnya. Last October, an assassin’s bullet brought her brilliant career and life to a sudden end. Anna knew the risks, given the death threats against her, but this courageous professional would not be deterred. Her murder is a reminder of the tremendous risks journalists take for daring to look and report on events that others prefer remain hidden.

  • Russia and Central Asia: the Growing Policy Challenges for the International Community

    Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies Distinguished Speakers and Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen, I would like to thank Freedom House for inviting me to speak at this important event. Freedom House has well earned its reputation as one of the foremost democracy-promoting organizations in the world. Moreover, Nations in Transit – whose 2007 edition this conference is launching – has become an indispensable source of information, measuring the advance of democratization around the globe. Thanks also to SAIS for co-hosting and my congratulations to you on the success of your Russia and Eurasian Studies Program. As Paula said, I Chair the Helsinki Commission, which Congress created in 1976 to monitor and promote implementation of the Helsinki Final Act in all the participating States. Moreover, I have recently completed two years as president of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly – the only American to ever hold that post. In that capacity, I visited 31 OSCE states, including Russia and all the Central Asian countries. In my travels and in Washington, I have met with presidents and foreign ministers, with parliamentarians, opposition leaders and dissenters, and with journalists and human rights activists. In these remarks, I would like to give you my assessment of where I see democratic governance and human rights trending in the region, more than 15 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union. But first, I want to state that we need to take back the moral high-ground that we once stood on. This starts by holding ourselves accountable when human rights issues arise here at home. Not that we have anything to be afraid of. But we must take away the credibility of those who would accuse us of double standards. As Chairman of the Helsinki Commission, this will be one of my priorities. Let me now talk about Russia. You are all surely familiar with President Putin’s speech in Munich last month, and how pundits have characterized U.S.-Russian relations these days. It’s a bad sign when our Secretary of Defense has to note that “one Cold War was enough.” Actually, one Cold War was more than enough. Now, I understand that Russians remember the 1990s very differently than we do. Despite what many viewed from abroad as a “springtime” of freedom for Russia and the territory of the former Soviet Union, many citizens of Russia remember the nineties as a period of tremendous economic dislocation, rampant crime, chaos at home, and humiliation abroad. The relative order and, at least, superficial international respect that President Vladimir Putin brought to Russia has been welcomed by a majority of the Russian population and seems to be strongly supported by the younger generation. From our point of view, this runs somewhat counter to the assumption that the post-communist generation would yearn for still greater freedom and be less pugnacious. It is necessary that we find a way to come to grips with these divergent views of the recent past as we look to the future. So it’s understandable that today, Russians proudly proclaim that “Russia is back.” This is certainly true, and in no small measure due to high energy prices. Nor is it surprising that a great country with vast human and material resources should rebound from even the disruptions of the last 20 years. What troubles me and many others is what kind of Russia has returned to a leading role on the world stage. Russian officials maintain that their democracy is developing in its own way and in accordance with its own traditions. They accuse the United States of unilateralism in foreign affairs and of seeking to impose the American form of democratic governance on Russia and the rest of the world and hypocritically meddling in the affairs of others. To be sure, our attempts to spread the undeniable benefits of the American experience have not always been distinguished by cultural sensitivity. But I get nervous when I hear the phrase “according to our own traditions and national mentality.” No rational person expects Ivan Ivanov to be a carbon copy of John Johnson. However, there are certain basic shared assumptions about what democratic governance entails: freedom of religion; freedom of speech; freedom of assembly; rule of law; a reasonable distribution of power between the branches of government; an independent judiciary; etc. I would also note that reference to one’s “traditions” as a method of denying rights to others is not solely a Russian phenomenon. There’s little doubt that under President Putin – who is undeniably popular – some people have begun to live better materially. Many Russians are proud of their president, of his sober, disciplined approach to government and his determination to restore Russia’s greatness. But in Russia – and Central Asia – we have witnessed the emergence of super-presidencies, which have overwhelmed the legislative and the judicial branches. For instance, in successfully recentralizing power in the Kremlin, President Putin has turned the Duma into a virtual rubber stamp. True, the Duma was quite complicit in this. And I am aware that American history has also produced “honeymoons” between popular chief executives and a congressional majority representing the same political party. We’ve just finished a six year version right here in Washington. But I hope my colleagues in the Russian Duma would agree that a vital element of representative government is a legislature that acts as a check on executive power. As for judicial independence – a critical component of checks and balances – when was the last time a court in Russia ruled contrary to government wishes in a politically sensitive case in which the Kremlin or the security forces – some would say they are synonymous – have an interest? Especially alarming is the contraction of freedom of the media. The Kremlin now controls all major TV stations, which parrot the official perspective. As for newspapers, though less popular as a source of information, journalism has become a very dangerous profession. In fact, according to the International News Safety Institute, Russia is the second most dangerous country for journalists in the world – the first is Iraq. Just last week, yet another investigative journalist died under suspicious circumstances. There is a long list of such crimes, which have largely gone unsolved. Obviously, the Fourth Estate is being told to shut its mouth, if it wants to keep its head. Furthermore, I am troubled by the government’s attempts to rein in civil society, at least those elements that the Kremlin views as threatening. Many of you may have read about the judge who recently fined members of a local human rights group for meeting in a school with foreign visitors without notifying the authorities – a mentality that smacks frighteningly of the Soviet era. Russian officials often get irritated when they hear the terms “managed democracy” or “sham democracy.” But I see in Russia a system that attempts to carefully control politics, in which the public has been removed from the political process while the state’s well-connected individuals have taken charge of the country’s most profitable giant companies. And it is hard for me to see how or when this system will open up again. One way the system could open up is through legitimate presidential elections in 2008, when President Putin is expected to retire. But to judge by the current difficulties reported by “outsiders” testing the waters in Russia, there is no reason to expect that opposition candidates can count on an equal playing field. The rise of “illiberal democracy” at home is also reflected in Russia’s behavior abroad. For example, Moscow’s unrelenting pressure on Georgia and Moldova has tarnished Russia’s reputation as a conscientious upholder of international law. Especially worrying for Europe are possible interruptions in oil and gas supplies, as has happened during Russia’s disputes with its neighbors. Not surprisingly, Washington and other capitals – even Minsk – are wondering whether Russia can be a reliable supplier of the energy on which our economies depend. Of course, Russia should be able to enjoy the benefits of its energy resources, which account for fully one-quarter of its GDP. But what will benefit Russia, as well as transit and consumer countries, would be more transparency and predictability in energy supply. Think of Russia moving toward a Canadian or Norwegian model instead of an OPEC model. This would entail the promotion of free-market policies in the energy sector. It would mean the protection of property rights, which ensure fair competition, backed up by a commitment to the rule of law that give these rights some meaning. Such transparency and predictability will help ensure that Russia can rationally exploit its resources and that consuming countries can sleep easy – and warm – at night. And Russia’s leaders must understand that other states have become hypersensitive to the possibility that the Kremlin will exploit its control of hydrocarbons for political gain and draw the appropriate conclusions. Yet I often wonder if they do. Sometimes it seems that oil has simply gone to people’s heads in Moscow. As a senior member of the Intelligence Committee, I am well aware of the gravity of the terrorist threat facing this country as well as Russia. I understand the need for us to work together to confront this danger to the whole world. But the legitimate struggle against terrorism cannot be an excuse for gross violations of international humanitarian law and norms – Chechnya comes to mind in this context. Before moving on to Central Asia, I would just emphasize my sincere belief that we best advance our interests with Russia in an atmosphere of mutual respect and not of mutual recrimination. Knee-jerk Russia bashing may be emotionally satisfying for some and may help bolster budgets for others, but it does little to promote our goals and, in fact, closes many doors for dialogue and understanding. On the other hand, being best friends should not be the measure of successful bilateral relations. We need to focus our efforts more on bolstering Russia’s nascent democratic institutions rather than on the rapidly changing faces of the Russian elite. I would also add that I support granting Permanent Normal Trade Relations to Russia. Russia has complied with our law. We spend millions of dollars promoting rule of law abroad, but we seem unable or too preoccupied to comply with our own legislation and retire this Cold War relic. Let me now turn to Central Asia. Over the last 15 years, we have seen the rise of the familiar “super-president,” the controlled parliament, the supine judiciary and the media under pressure, while the families and cronies of rulers prosper. In Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, no political opposition has been permitted. Turkmenistan – which is still a one-party state today – has been one of the most repressive countries in the world, virtually a post-Soviet North Korea, with a similar cult of personality. In Kazakhstan and Tajikistan, opposition is tolerated but tightly controlled; there is very little opposition representation in their parliaments. Only Kyrgyzstan has bucked the Central Asian trend to some degree. Former President Akaev did not control the political arena as his counterparts did and civil society was much stronger than elsewhere in the region. So it was not surprising that if an opposition-led protest movement in the region had any chance of toppling a government, it would be in Kyrgyzstan. All this was true even before the 2003 Rose Revolution in Georgia. But that historic event, followed by Ukraine’s Orange Revolution and the March 2005 Tulip Revolution in Kyrgyzstan, upset the rulers of most former Soviet states. Central Asian leaders, especially Uzbekistan’s President Karimov, have moved to preempt similar uprisings in their countries by undercutting opposition activists, NGOs – including foreign ones, like Freedom House and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty – and human rights groups. In this campaign they have received backing from Moscow, which has warned of sinister U.S. plots of regime change. Indeed, Moscow unfortunately seems to see democratization as a key weapon in a zero-sum competition for influence with the United States. Russia viewed the revolutions in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan not only as unwelcome achievements of democracy but as a new, historic Western “incursion” into its own sphere of influence. Its apparent strategy is to build alliances with repressive rulers, while dismissing Western disapproval of their authoritarianism as geo-politically motivated. In fact, an anti-revolutionary alliance of states has emerged, embracing most post-Soviet republics and China as well. And these efforts have borne fruit – since Kyrgyzstan, the wave has receded, at least for now. This situation puts U.S. policymakers in a tough spot. Even before September 11, Washington had struggled to find ways to move Central Asian rulers towards more political openness. But they had already concluded that even if relations with the Americans were not very close, the U.S. interest in security, energy and providing a strategic alternative to Russia meant that Washington might criticize flawed elections or human rights problems but would not level serious sanctions or cut off ties. After September 11, the countries of Central Asia saw the opportunity for closer relations with the United States, which was happy to accommodate them in the name of fighting terrorism. An agreement on strategic cooperation was struck with Uzbekistan. We opened military bases there and in Kyrgyzstan. The Tajiks and even Turkmenistan cooperated in overflights and assistance corridors to Afghanistan. Today, economic concerns have come to equal security priorities: with the price of a barrel of oil down to about $60 from a high in the mid-70s and Kazakhstan’s oil and Turkmenistan’s gas beckoning, how do we influence Central Asia’s leaders to liberalize their political systems? It doesn’t look like they want to and they seem to think they don’t have to. There are no easy answers to this question. Obviously, we cannot compel them to democratize or observe their human rights commitments. We have 150,000 troops in Iraq but we can’t ensure basic order, much less build a democratic state there at this time. Even in the 1990s, when Russia was much weaker and poorer than it is today, our leverage was limited. Today, I have the sense that our criticism has the opposite effect on Russian officials. The countries of Central Asia don’t have issues of superpower rivalry with the United States, and they do want to have good relations with us, which facilitates dialogue with them about democratization and human rights. Still, those in power want to remain there – it is their highest priority and they will resist systemic reforms that could threaten their position. You might infer from this overview that I am a pessimist. Not at all. No black man who grew up during the halcyon days of the segregated south and became a judge and then a Congressman while a black woman from the segregated south is Secretary of State can be a pessimist. But I have become more realistic and pragmatic. Let me share with you some conclusions I have drawn. First, democratic transformations take much longer than we would like. The experience of the former Soviet Union proves that the collapse of communism is necessary but not sufficient. We should understand we are in this for the long haul. Second, repressive leaders often maintain that their people are not ready for democracy. I think, however, that publics are much more ready than governments. People in Russia and Central Asia, who have experienced or witnessed enough disruption for several lifetimes, understandably value stability and predictability. But that does not mean they do not want the basic gifts of democracy and human rights. Everyone wants a say in his or her own government and to be treated with respect. When circumstances permit, those desires, I believe, will come to the fore. Third, we in the West saw the so-called color revolutions as a glorious exercise in popular sovereignty, as people peacefully went to the streets to oust corrupt, unresponsive regimes. But we sometimes forget that revolutions are evidence of failed politics. They reflect a crisis in the relations between state and society when people have no satisfactory methods of influencing policy or seeking redress of grievances, such as recourse to the courts for the impartial administration of justice. So while I welcome the Rose, Orange, and Tulip revolutions, I regret their necessity. Slow, steady progress towards democratic governance would be better for all concerned. It is this goal we should work for, through the building of institutions that promote the rule of law and civil society. Fourth, in the absence of established institutions, the ruler’s character remains critical in such highly personalized political systems. It was clear, for example, that while President Niyazov lived, there was no chance of reform in Turkmenistan. The notion may not be popular among some scholars today, but his long reign clearly demonstrates the power of individuals to shape history, certainly for ill and I hope, for good. Fifth, succession can spark unexpected events and accelerate or slow down institution-building. I suspect the death of President Niyazov in December has got the other Central Asian leaders thinking. They are not young men and they have some serious inheritance issues to consider. Nowhere has there been established any tested method for peacefully transferring power at the top. In Kyrgyzstan, a head of state has been removed, but presidential succession has come to be associated with street politics as much as constitutional requirements. In the other countries…well, we will have to see. But barring dramatic headlines, the first important such decision will come in Uzbekistan. President Karimov’s term runs out this year. He will have to decide whether to step down or resort to some ploy to remain in office. I believe that if he chooses the latter course, he will damage his reputation still further and make instability more likely. Whatever happens, however, I strongly believe that all of Central Asia will be watching how President Putin handles his own succession problem. If he steps down, some may be more inclined to follow his example. Sixth, we must not turn our backs on the region and its people. I know Uzbekistan is a repressive state and I share the widespread revulsion at the slaughter in Andijon, but does it help us not to be engaged with President Karimov? Have we gained anything by these frozen relations – quite apart from the loss of our base at K-2, has democracy advanced in Uzbekistan while we criticize him from afar? At the same time, Tashkent must understand we cannot turn a blind eye to atrocities. I have supported the European Union’s serious effort to restore ties with Uzbekistan based on human rights progress, but I would welcome a good faith gesture from Tashkent. For example, Umida Niyazova, a human rights activist who used to work for Freedom House and Human Rights Watch, is in jail. I call on President Karimov to release her immediately. As for Turkmenistan, President Niyazov’s death offers no guarantees of liberalization. But at least there is reason now to hope for a more rational leadership that will focus on the public good, not the president’s ego. I see mixed messages coming out of Ashgabat. On the one hand, the new president has pledged to broaden internet access and has restored the tenth grade and physical education to the school curriculum. That doesn’t sound like much but when you start from such a low base, it can seem like a huge improvement. I expect that gradually, the more bizarre aspects of President Niyazov’s misrule will disappear. But I hope to see much more – the release of people jailed on political grounds and the beginnings of political pluralism. I expect to travel to Ashgabat to discuss with the new Turkmen leaders the prospects for systemic democratization. We need to engage with them in a process of consultation and give and take. Let me conclude by mentioning a few things we should not do, starting with not shooting ourselves in the foot. I have in mind the Voice of America. As many of you probably know, the American Administration has called for major cuts in VOA broadcasting, including closing down the Uzbek and Georgian Services and ending radio programs while retaining television transmission in Russian and Ukrainian. This, ladies and gentlemen, seems to me to be the height of folly. As I have argued here, the democratic transition in the former Soviet Union is far from secure. VOA broadcasts are one of the most effective, biggest-bang-for-the-buck tools in our arsenal to propagate democratic ideals. And in this connection, I want to associate myself with remarks made on Thursday by my good friend Tom Lantos, Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, in a hearing on U.S. assistance. Like him, I simply cannot comprehend why we should now cut our funding for democracy promotion – especially to the tune of 40 percent. He called for more aid to NGOs that try, under ever worsening conditions, to promote freedom in Russia. I am in full solidarity with him and together with likeminded Members of Congress, we hope to roll back the VOA cuts and increase assistance for democracy promotion. The same applies to funding for the OSCE, which the budgeters also want to slash. Please be assured that I will fight this. Paula, I’ve gone on for quite some time. I hope I haven’t overstayed my welcome. Thank you once again for inviting me. Let me end here and I look forward to hearing from the other speakers.

  • Religious Community Bulldozed in Kazakhstan

    Today I express my deep concern about the destruction of thirteen homes in a Hare Krishna commune outside of Almaty, Kazakhstan. It is a saddening development considering that Kazakhstan is a participating State in the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and has been vigorously pursuing a bid to chair the OSCE in 2009. I am greatly troubled by the actions taken against this peaceful religious community, which is reminiscent of the “bad old days.”  On November 21, 13 Hare Krishna homes were destroyed in the Sri Vrindavan Dham commune in the village of Seleksia, 25 miles from Almaty. Orders to bulldoze the homes reportedly came from the Karasai District Court, giving the residents only 24-hours’ notice to gather all their possessions. When the bulldozers arrived, they came under the escort and supervision of riot police. The belongings of some who refused to leave were thrown out in the snow, and their furniture and larger household items taken away to be destroyed. Families were left without a home and many others left without water and electricity in the cold of winter.  More damage could still be done – 53 more homes (one of which houses a temple) could be demolished and their 116-acre communal farm could be seized. Making this outrage all the more disturbing, the Karasai District Court reportedly announced that it will charge the community for the demolition expenses! I appreciate the strong statement issued by the U.S. Embassy in Astana urging Karasai district authorities to “refrain from any further aggressive actions.”  The conflict over the commune has steadily intensified since a regional court ruled in March to confiscate the farm without compensation. A special government commission was established in response to international criticism to negotiate with the Hare Krishnas, but this process was short-circuited when the bulldozers revved up. Authorities justify these heartless actions by citing legal problems with the purchase of the farm by Hare Krishna’s in 1999, but most observers believe this is nothing more than a land grab dressed up as a legal proceeding.  Despite Kazakhstan’s positive reputation for religious tolerance, I have been concerned by governmental actions against minority religious communities, such as the heavy fines (and sometimes arrests) during the past six months against Baptist ministers representing unregistered congregations. Also worrisome are increasingly harsh government policies toward Muslims who practice their faith independent of the government-controlled Muftiate. While President Nazarbayev’s initiative to bring world religions together to promote tolerance is laudable, his government’s harsh treatment of small and independent groups displays a sad absence of tolerance.  In short, I do not believe these actions befit a country that would be a leader of nations. I urge President Nazarbayev and the Government of Kazakhstan to end these practices, withdraw the court cases to seize the Hare Krishna’s land, and ensure that all individuals are compensated for their lost property.

  • Southeastern Europe: Moving from Ethnic Cleansing and Genocide to Euro-Atlantic Integration

    When I was appointed Chairman of the Helsinki Commission in early 1995, Mr. Speaker, the U.S. foreign policy establishment and its European counterparts were seized by a genocidal conflict of aggression against Bosnia-Herzegovina. Many here in the Congress were already deeply involved in bipartisan efforts to end the conflict by urging a decisive, international response under U.S. leadership. I can still recall the sense of horror, outrage and shame when the Srebrenica massacre occurred and nothing was done to stop it and other atrocities committed against civilians. Slobodan Milosevic, meanwhile, was comfortably entrenched as Serbia’s leader, with Kosovo under his repressive thumb. The situation was truly bleak.  Today, relative calm prevails throughout the Balkans region, though simmering tensions and other serious problems could lead to renewed crisis and conflict, if left unchecked. Overcoming the legacy of the past and restoring dignity and ensuring justice for the victims will require sustained engagement and vigilance. Integrating the countries of the region into European institutions can advance this process.  Slovenia has become a full-fledged member of both NATO and the European Union. Croatia is well on its way to similar membership, and Macedonia and Albania are making steady progress in the right direction. In a welcome development, Bosnia-Herzegovina, the epicenter of bloody carnage and mass displacement in the mid-1990s, was invited last week to participate in NATO’s Partnership for Peace Program, along with Serbia and the newly independent state of Montenegro.  As a longstanding member and leader of the Helsinki Commission, I want to highlight some of the numerous initiatives we have undertaken in an attempt to draw attention to developments in the Balkans and to influence related policy. Since 1995, we have convened more than 20 hearings on specific aspects of the region as well as related briefings, legislation, letters, statements and meetings. These efforts have been undertaken with an uncommon degree of bipartisanship. In this regard, I particularly want to thank the Commission’s outgoing Ranking Member, Mr. Cardin of Maryland, for helping to make this a reality. Among the Commission’s most noteworthy accomplishments, I would include garnering the strong support that contributed to the establishment of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia and pressing countries to cooperate in bringing those responsible for war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide to justice. I would include the change in U.S. policy from relying on Milosevic to implement the Dayton Agreement to supporting democracy in Serbia as the long-term and genuine partner in building regional peace and stability.  We have maintained a significant focus on elections, encouraging all the countries in the region to strive to meet international standards for free and fair elections as well as referenda. There has been tremendous progress in this regard.  The Commission’s support for the OSCE, I believe, has helped the organization’s field activities in southeastern Europe to be more successful in promoting respect for the human rights and fundamental freedoms of all the people, regardless of ethnicity. Finally, on the more controversial policy of NATO’s action against Serbia in 1999, the Commission served as a forum to air differing views on the policy response while finding common ground in addressing the humanitarian crises, documenting human rights abuses and holding human rights violators to account.  Mr. Speaker, while welcoming this progress in southeastern Europe, I would caution against complacency as the region faces significant challenges. Maintaining positive momentum will require much from actors in the region as well as the international community, including the United States.  First and foremost is the situation in Kosovo. The pending decisions that will be made on Kosovo’s status give rise to growing expectation as well as apprehension and concern. Despite the many debates on larger issues of sovereignty, territorial integrity and self-determination, these decisions should and will ultimately be judged by whether or not they lead to improved respect for human rights, especially the rights of those people belonging to the Serb, Roma and other minority communities in Kosovo. The members of the minority communities deserve to be treated as people, not as pawns in a fight over territory and power. They should be allowed to integrate rather than remain isolated, and they should not be discouraged from integration when opportunities arise. I remain deeply concerned that these issues are not being given the attention they deserve. Whatever Kosovo becomes, OSCE and other international human rights standards must apply.  Similarly, there is a need to ensure that justice is vigorously pursued for the victims of horrendous human rights violations. Conditionality on assistance to Serbia, as well as on that country’s integration, must remain firmly in place until Belgrade cooperates fully in locating at-large indicted war criminals and facilitating their transfer to the ICTY in The Hague. It is an outrage that Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic remain at large. After refusing to take meaningful action on these cases, Serbia cannot be let off the hook now, but should be pressed to comply with its international obligations.  A related issue is that of missing persons. Ten years after Dayton, additional mass graves continued to be uncovered, and the identification of the remains of relatives and loved ones is important for the survivors of past atrocities and their societies. The Commission recently held a briefing on identifying remains found in mass graves in Bosnia, and I hope that support for determining the fate of missing persons can be further strengthened.  While some progress has been made in combating trafficking in persons in the region, all countries there need to intensify their efforts to end this modern-day form of slavery. Political will and adequate resources will be required, including through enhanced efforts by law enforcement and more vigorous prosecution of traffickers while providing protection for their victims.  Religious freedoms also remain a cause for concern. Various laws in the region allegedly providing for religious freedom do more to restrict this fundamental right by establishing thresholds for registration, by discriminating against small or new religious groups through tiers of recognition with associated privileges for traditional faiths, and by precluding the sharing of creeds or limiting free speech. These restrictions are particularly burdensome to smaller religious groups and can lead to stigmatization, harassment, and discrimination against their members. For instance, Kosovo’s new religion law singles out certain communities for special status while failing to address how other religious groups can obtain juridical personality as a religious organization, thereby creating a significant legal void from the start. I urge Kosovo authorities to follow the progressive Albanian system and create a neutral registration system of general applicability. Macedonia is considering a draft law now, and I hope authorities will fully adopt the recommendations of the OSCE Panel of Experts on Religious Freedom, as certain provisions of the draft regarding the granting of legal personality need additional refinement. I similarly call on Serbian officials to amend their current law and ensure all groups seeking registration receive legal status. Meanwhile, there is a need to step up efforts to respect the sanctity and ensure the safety of places of worship that have in the past been the targets of ethnically-based violence in Kosovo, Bosnia, Serbia and elsewhere.  Mr. Speaker, concerted efforts by courageous leaders in the Balkans and elsewhere have helped move the region from the edge of the abyss to the threshold for a brighter and more prosperous future. I congratulate the countries of southeastern Europe on the progress achieved thus far and encourage them to make further progress to ensure that all of the people of the region benefit.

  • The Shanghai Cooperation Organization: Is It Undermining U.S. Interests in Central Asia?

    This Commission examined activities of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization since its inception in 2001 and its effects on the U.S. mission in Central Asia. The United States is vitally interested in the transition of the Central Asian states to democracy and to market economies. The region is also a critical partner in the war on terrorism. However, many of the Central Asian countries still lack inclusive governing bodies. Countries such as Uzbekistan may use the SCO as cover against international criticism about their authoritarian systems.  The witnesses and Commissioners discussed the future for relations with Central Asia with the possibility of a stronger influence from the SCO.

  • Helsinki Commission Leadership Condemns Kyrgyz Return of Uzbek Refugees

    Helsinki Commission Chairman Senator Sam Brownback (R-KS) and Co-Chairman Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-NJ) expressed outrage about the forced return of Uzbek refugees by the Kyrgyz Government. Four refugees and one asylum seeker were deported on Wednesday to Uzbekistan, from which they had fled. “I am profoundly disappointed that Kyrgyzstan has forcibly returned these five individuals,” said Senator Brownback. “Kyrgyzstan did allow the UN to resettle to third countries the majority of refugees fleeing the Andijon shootings. I do not understand this change in policy, which certainly damages Kyrgyzstan’s international reputation. The consequences of this decision may be life threatening for the refugees.” “I urge President Bakiev to ensure this grave mistake is not repeated with other Uzbeks seeking shelter in Kyrgyzstan from the repressive Karimov regime,” added Senator Brownback. “I also urge President Karimov to allow the international community access to the returnees.” Four individuals were recognized as refugees by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which had reportedly found third countries to accept their resettlement. Despite repeated UNHCR requests to Kyrgyz officials to allow the transfer, Kyrgyz authorities deported all five individuals to Uzbekistan on Wednesday. UNHCR had not been granted sufficient access to the fifth individual to determine whether he qualified as a refugee. “The forcible return of refugees to Uzbekistan, an egregious human rights abuser, is unconscionable and outrageous,” said Rep. Smith. “I had hoped the United States had found a reliable partner in President Bakiev, but apparently he’s more interested in pleasing Tashkent by offering up these poor souls for likely mistreatment than in upholding international commitments.” “Considering this and the recent expulsion of two American diplomats on specious grounds, we should take a long and hard look at the policies coming out of Bishkek and how they will affect the bilateral relationship,” said Rep. Smith. The four Uzbeks were being detained in the southern Kyrgyz city of Osh for over one year due to an Uzbek extradition request. They were part of a larger group of over 400 refugees that crossed into Kyrgyzstan fleeing the shootings by Uzbek security forces in May 2005 in the Uzbek city of Andijon. UNHCR recognized the entire group as refugees under the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, to which Kyrgyzstan is a signatory. The group was transferred to Romania last year for resettlement processing. Under the nonrefoulement obligation of the UN Refugee Convention, Contracting States must not forcibly return individuals to situations where their life and freedom would be threatened. In addition, Kyrgyzstan is obligated by the UN Convention Against Torture to not return individuals if there are substantial grounds for believing they would be in danger of being subjected to torture.

  • Uzbekistan: Are There Prospects for Change?

    This briefing evaluated the political status of Uzbekistan, which, under the rule of President Islam Karimov, has been a repressive, authoritarian state that bans opposition and maintains Soviet-style censorship. Since the bloody events in Andijon in May 2005, however, repression has intensified, with a countrywide crackdown on human rights activists, religious groups and members of opposition groups. The void left by NGOs that promote democracy that have been forced to leave the country was especially concerning. Witnesses testifying at this briefing – including Mr. Abdurahim Polat, Chairman of the Birlik Party; Mr. Muhammad Salih, Chairman of the Erk Party; Mr. Gulam Umarov, son of Sanjar Umarov, the imprisoned Chairman of the Sunshine Coalition; and Dr. Martha Brill Olcott, Senior Associate with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace – addressed prospects for democratization in Uzbekistan, particularly in light of the upcoming presidential election in that country.

  • Statement on Religious Freedom in Central Asia at the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly

    Central Asia remains a region with one of the worst record on religious freedom, and Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan are the two most repressive regimes in the entire OSCE region. I therefore want to thank Christian Solidarity Worldwide and the Open Society Institute for holding this event to shine a light on these two countries. I also want to say it’s a pleasure to be here today with Kimmo Kiljunen, my colleague from the Finish delegation. The U.S. Helsinki Commission, of which I am a part, has actively engaged all five “Stans,” and especially these two. With Uzbekistan, despite accepting OSCE commitments to the contrary, the Karimov regime continues its policies of prohibiting unregistered religious activities, jailing thousands of Muslims, and prohibiting the ability of individuals to share their beliefs. Since the Andijon killings last May, the regime has clamped down even harder on all freedoms, but especially religious liberties. Reports indicate that twelve churches have since been stripped of registration, thus making any religious activity “illegal” and subject to significant penalties. There is even concern that a pastor in Andijon may be sentenced to up to 10-20 years in jail for his church work, forcing him to flee the country. The suppression of independent Muslim activity continues unabated, with Forum 18 now reporting that authorities are attempting to stop Muslim schoolchildren from attending mosques. The United States has always recognized that Uzbekistan faces real threats from extremists operating behind the guise of religion and our efforts to urge moderation should never be construed as supporting their ideology or activities. While the tragic events in Andijon were not specifically related to religious freedoms, the spark that ignited the protests was the over zealous prosecution of an Islamic sect. I will therefore continue to urge Uzbekistan to bring its policies into conformity with its OSCE commitments on religious liberties and allow the free practice of religion for all. However, due to the deteriorating conditions for religious freedom, I also believe that sanctions under the International Religious Freedom Act, passed by the Congress in 1998, should also be considered by the State Department. In neighboring Turkmenistan, the Niyazov regime continues to limit the abilities of its citizens to fully enjoy their religious liberties. The recent arrest of local human rights defenders and their relatives on the eve of a European Parliament delegation visit graphically demonstrates the repressive and paranoid nature of the Niyazov regime. Despite some modifications in their laws regulating religious practice, Turkmenistan continues to prohibit unregistered religious activities and to harass both registered and unregistered communities. Independent Muslim and evangelical groups, the Russian Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church all continue to experience problems in obtaining registration and operating freely. The former grand mufti also remains jailed. I will continue to raise with Turkmen officials the need to end the ban on unregistered religious activity, to register all groups so desiring, and to end the harassment of all communities. Although there have been some modest reforms in the past, if Turkmenistan doesn’t restart the reform process, I also believe that sanctions under the International Religious Freedom Act may be warranted. Although this event focuses on religious freedom in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, I do want to comment on a current development in Kazakhstan regarding media freedoms. Kazakhstan does have a better record on religious freedom than these two other countries. However, I was very disappointed that President Nazarbaev signed into law yesterday a very problematic bill that could severely limit freedom of expression. Some of the troubling aspects of the new law include that it reportedly doubles the number of grounds on which authorities may deny a media outlet registration; creates unduly restrictive registration procedures for new media outlets and re-registration procedures for existing media companies; and provides authorities with further opportunities to censor critical media. Considering the criticism the bill received from international and domestic media groups, and considering that Kazakhstan wishes to chair the OSCE in 2009, I am distressed that the President would sign this flawed law into force. I therefore urge the Government of Kazakhstan to revise the new law to ensure that OSCE norms on media freedom are fully respected. In closing, I want to thank CSW and OSI for convening this event and I look forward to working with you all in the future. By working together, we can hopefully motivate Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan to moderate their oppressive policies towards religious freedom.

  • Belgium’s Chairmanship of the OSCE

    The Belgian Government assumed Chairmanship of the OSCE in January 2006.  The first half of 2006 saw a number of developments within, and adjacent to, the OSCE region that formed the focus of the hearing.  Among the issues addressed were developments in Central Asia and neighboring Afghanistan, the emergence of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, the political situation in the Caucasus, and human rights trends in the Russian Federation.  Commissioners also focused on OSCE democracy-promotion work, with a special emphasis on election monitoring, programs to combat anti-Semitism and other forms of intolerance, and initiatives aimed at promoting greater international cooperation to curtail human trafficking and child pornography.

  • Human Rights, Democracy, and Integration in South Central Europe

    The hearing, led by the Hon. Christopher H. Smith,  the Hon. Sam Brownback , and the Hon. Benjamin L. Cardin, focused primarily on the legal restrictions on religious activities and other attacks on religious freedom, lagging efforts to combat trafficking in persons, discrimination and violence against Roma, and the prevalence of official corruption and organized crime. The efforts to encourage Bosnia-Herzegovina to move beyond the limitations imposed by the Dayton Peace Agreement will be discussed. Further, the plight of the displaced and minority communities of Kosovo, and the need for Serbia to cooperate fully with the International Criminal Tribunal will also be covered.   

  • Advancing the Human Dimension in the OSCE: The Role of the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights

    This hearing, led by the Helsinki Chairman the Hon. the Hon. Sam Brownback, Co-Chairman the Hon. Christopher H. Smith Office, and ranking member the Hon. Alcee L. Hastings, examined the role that Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) has played over the last fifteen years. ODIHR’s role in advancing human rights and the development of democracy in the OSCE participating States was noted and agreed to be particularly important. ODIHR is engaged throughout Western Europe and the former Soviet Union in the fields of democratic development, human rights, tolerance and non-discrimination, and promotion of the rule of law and has set the international standard for election observation. Within the hearing, the challenges that ODIHR faces were examined, specifically those instigated by the Russian Federation, Belarus and a small minority of the OSCE participating states seeking to undermine the organization under the guise of reform.  ODIHR has earned an international reputation for its leadership, professionalism, and excellence in the area of election observation.  That being said, ODIHR’s mission is much broader, encompassing a wide range of human rights activities aimed at closing the gap between commitments on paper and the reality on the ground in signatory countries.    

  • Statement on Human Rights in Central Asia at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

    First, let me thank the organizers of this conference for inviting me to speak.  I applaud the co-sponsors for putting together this timely and sober gathering to mark the one-year anniversary of the Andijon events. I won’t bother talking to this audience about the human rights situation in Central Asia.  The State Department’s annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices routinely characterize the human rights observance in each country as “poor.”   Some non-governmental organizations (NGOs) here today probably consider that too lenient, and I agree with them.   It’s not surprising that countries which emerged from 70 years of communism should have difficulties creating rule of law states.  But after 15 years of independence we should be seeing some separation of powers and a strong civil society.  Instead, we see “super-presidents,” who have overwhelmed legislatures and judicial systems.  Several have been in power for about 20 years, after rigged or canceled elections.  “Royal families” control the most lucrative sectors of the economy and the media. Of course, newspapers in Kazakhstan have more leeway than in Uzbekistan or Turkmenistan.  But even in Kazakhstan, reports on presidential misdeeds are taboo.    Only in Kyrgyzstan do we see a freer media and hope of more in the future.  And only in Kyrgyzstan is the president’s relationship with the other branches of power not yet set in a pattern of executive branch dominance.  Yet a Tulip Revolution was necessary last year to bring about change in Kyrgyzstan, which raises serious questions about prospects for evolutionary development toward democracy in Central Asia.   This brings us to Uzbekistan.  No Central Asian country worked harder during the last 15 years to develop good strategic relations with Washington and to counterbalance residual Russian influence. But the country’s terrible human rights record complicated the development of a closer relationship.  President Islam Karimov allows no opposition, torture is pervasive, for years human rights groups were unregistered, and Tashkent has waged war against Muslims who wanted to practice their faith outside state-approved channels.    Now, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan is a terrorist group affiliated with al-Qaeda, and Hizb-ut-Tahrir is virulently anti-Western and anti-Semitic.  But Karimov’s exclusive reliance on repression only exacerbates matters and has probably supplied cadres for radical and terrorist organizations.   After September 11, 2001, we needed Uzbekistan’s cooperation and Karimov was delighted to help.  Uzbekistan gave us a military base and the March 2002 agreement on strategic cooperation was signed in Washington.  We agreed to support Uzbekistan, and Uzbekistan pledged to move towards democracy. But Karimov only implemented the democratization commitments just enough for Tashkent and Washington to point to “progress.” Gradually, frustration grew on both sides.  It was just a matter of time before the arrangement collapsed.   People often date the breakdown of U.S.-Uzbek relations to the events that happened in Andijon on May 12 and 13, 2005. We did not condone the violent takeover of government buildings in that city.  But we condemned the indiscriminate shootings in the square that followed and when we called for an independent, international investigation, Karimov balked.    As we all know, he began to move against U.S. NGOs.  Few remain in Uzbekistan today.  Then we were unceremoniously booted out of the K-2 base.  But ties had actually soured long before, because Karimov saw the Stars and Stripes behind the Georgian, Ukrainian and Kyrgyz revolutions. Most alarming for Tashkent was the Tulip Revolution which proved that “people power” was possible in Central Asia.    Like President Putin, Central Asian leaders insist that a sinister hand, based in Washington but using American NGOs working in the region, plotted the downfall of Eduard Shevardnadze, Leonid Kuchma and Askar Akaev -- and is now gunning for them.  So a split has developed in Central Asia.  Kyrgyzstan, though plagued by criminality and sometimes seemingly chaotic, is better off than with the previous corrupt regime and well disposed towards the U.S.    Uzbekistan’s Karimov sees us as his greatest strategic danger; he has cracked down even harder and state-run media accuse us of trying to enslave Uzbekistan. Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan are suspicious of our allegedly revolutionary goals but still want to maintain good ties – as long as they are not threatened by civil society.  And Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan surely assume that we want their oil and gas too much to stir the pot. What can we do about this?  How can we try to make things better, especially keeping in mind that U.S. influence is limited?   This week I will be re-introducing my Central Asia bill, to help ensure that the United States is doing everything possible to encourage these governments to respect human rights and democratization.  The act will also bring greater consistency to U.S. policy, creating a framework to guide our bilateral relations in Central Asia.   The Central Asia Democracy and Human Rights Promotion Act supports the President’s freedom agenda by providing $118 million in assistance for human rights and democracy training and $15 million for increased Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and Voice of America broadcasting.    The new Act will also establish a certification mechanism for the distribution of assistance to each government. The Secretary of State will determine whether each has made “significant improvements in the protection of human rights.”  This system will have a national security waiver and is modeled on the current system in Foreign Ops appropriations for Kazakhstan and expanded for all five countries.   In addition, considering the forced return of Uzbek refugees from Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, the new Act will require the Secretary of State to report on whether any government is “forcibly returning Uzbeks or other refugees who have fled violence and political persecution.” This is modeled on language regarding Kyrgyzstan in Foreign Ops appropriations and expanded for all five countries.    Notably, my new legislation will create a sanctions section for Uzbekistan.  First, the bill concretizes into law the limitations already in place in Foreign Ops appropriations. The limitation prevents funding to the Uzbek Government unless the Secretary of State determines the government is “making substantial and continuing progress” towards respect for human rights and that the Uzbek Government begins a “credible international investigation” of Andijon.   In addition, the new Act mirrors European Union sanctions by establishing a visa ban and an export ban on munitions.  The sanctions section also establishes an asset freeze for Uzbek officials, their family members, and their associates implicated in the Andijon massacre or involved in other gross violations of human rights.   Ladies and gentlemen, it is hard to promote democratization in strategically important countries whose leaders want to keep all real power in their own hands. Our task is especially complicated by the fact that Russia – which has re-emerged as a major international player, thanks to sky-high oil prices – is working hard to undermine our efforts.  But I think the measures which I’ve outlined here in brief offer a good chance of achieving our goals.   Thank you for your attention.  I look forward to hearing the other participants’ views and your comments.   

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