Title

Helsinki Commission Briefing to Examine Corrosive Impact of Disinformation on the Electoral Process

Monday, May 18, 2020

WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following briefing:

DISINFORMATION, COVID-19, AND THE ELECTORAL PROCESS

Thursday, May 21, 2020
10:30 a.m. – 11:30 a.m.

Register to attend.

Free and fair elections are one of the most fundamental measures of a democratic society. During the 2016 presidential elections, many Americans became aware for the first time that disinformation can be easily coupled with technology by state and nonstate actors to disrupt and muddy the information space in the months, weeks, and days leading up to an election.  The use of disinformation to influence elections has since become a pervasive and persistent threat in all 57 OSCE participating States, one which many countries still struggle to adequately address.

With presidential, parliamentary, or local elections scheduled in 15 OSCE participating States before the end of the year, the stakes cannot be higher. The COVID-19 pandemic has added another level of complexity, as Russia, China, and Iran are all attempting to use the crisis to drive a wedge between the United States and Europe. Governments in the region are struggling to respond, with some enacting measures that further restrict the free flow of information and threaten press freedom.

This briefing will examine the implications of this emerging threat to the electoral process and explore opportunities for nations, state and local governments, the private sector, and civil society to collaborate to identify and mitigate disinformation’s corrosive effects.

Expert panelists scheduled to participate include:

  • Heather Conley, Senior Vice President for Europe, Eurasia, and the Arctic, The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS)
  • Nina Jankowicz, Disinformation Fellow, Woodrow Wilson Center Science and Technology Information Program; author of “How to Lose the Information War”
  • Sophia Ignatidou, Academy Associate, International Security Programme, Chatham House
Media contact: 
Name: 
Stacy Hope
Email: 
csce[dot]press[at]mail[dot]house[dot]gov
Phone: 
202.225.1901
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    Mr. CARDIN. Mr. President, in my capacity as Chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, I am pleased to commend Miklos Haraszti, the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, for his years of dedicated service in the cause of advancing freedom of expression and media. An accomplished writer and journalist as well as a courageous human rights activist in his native Hungary for decades prior to the end of the Cold War, he was elected to parliament in the early 1990s. Since his appointment to his current position in 2004, Mr. Haraszti has been an outspoken champion for beleaguered journalists throughout the OSCE region. Mr. Haraszti's periodic reports have proven invaluable in tracking trends regarding laws, policies and practices governing freedom of expression and media in the participating states. He has been vigilant in monitoring and reporting on issues arising from the adoption of "extremism'' laws in a growing number of OSCE countries. The Representative on Freedom of the Media has likewise been a strong voice in calling for decriminalization of defamation and a critic of attempts by some regimes to restrict the Internet and new media technologies. Most importantly, he has responded to specific urgent situations and cases, including instances involving the harassment, physical attacks, and even murder of journalists. He has never shied away from naming names, he has never played favorites, and he has been a voice for those whom governments would like to silence. Next month Mr. Haraszti will conclude his service as the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media. You can write a great mandate for a high-level official, but if you don't appoint the right person to the job, you won't get results. Mr. Haraszti has been the right person for the right job and we have been very fortunate that he has given 6 years to serve the greater good in the OSCE region. The OSCE participating States will be hard pressed to find an individual to match his professionalism, passion, and integrity. I join my colleagues at the Helsinki Commission in expressing our deep appreciation to Miklos Haraszti, a tireless advocate for freedom of expression and media, for his service and we wish him the best in his future pursuits.

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''But unfortunately there are risks. Often it is difficult to control people once they're on the streets. There could be adventurists from either camp that could provoke a clash.'' Authorities say they are planning to deploy thousands of police Sunday to ensure an orderly first round ballot. Foes of Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko released a tape this week of a purported conversation between her and Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili, in which he supposedly says he is sending 2,000 ''battle-ready'' observers to monitor the race. ''No worries, we are sending the best prepared and most battle-ready people to you,'' the voice alleged to be Saakashvili's says on the tape, which was played Friday at a panel of analysts and sociologists. Some here interpreted Saakashvili's purported comment as a pledge to support Tymoshenko in post-election street protests. Spokespeople for both Tymoshenko and Saakashvili declined to comment, and the authenticity of the tape could not be determined. Evgeny Kopatko, chief sociologist at Ukraine's R&B Group, a consultancy, said Friday that if tensions rise after the election, that ''could split the country in two, and this is a very serious risk, economically and politically. The country would be virtually uncontrollable.'' Parliament speaker Vladimir Litvin on Friday appealed to supporters of Ukraine's rival political leaders, urging not to take to the streets as they did in 2004. ''Today I'm calling on all of the politicians not to deal in actions on the Maidan,'' Litvin said, referring to Kiev's central square where tens of thousands rallied every day for weeks in late 2004. President Viktor Yushchenko, the eventual winner in 2004, is standing for re-election, but his popularity has plunged and his chances look slim. He warned that the elections could usher in an authoritarian government. ''Should there be an authoritarian regime of either Yanukovych or Tymoshenko, with the criminal elements that will come along, it will take away the freedom of expression,'' he said. Five years after the Orange Revolution brought tens of thousands of people to the streets of the capital, public cynicism appeared widespread. Voters have offered to sell their votes on Web sites for the equivalent of between about $10 and $100. Despite the dire warnings, Alcee Hastings, a U.S. congressman who is deputy head of the international observer mission, told reporters Friday that so far no one has come up with evidence of intended voting irregularities. ''While the candidates accuse each other of fraud, neither of them has presented you in the media with a smoking gun,'' he said. ''I don't think there's going to be widespread fraud.'' Hastings noted that the election will come under intense scrutiny. 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  • 60th Anniversary of the Voice of America's Ukrainian Service

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  • Twitter This

    The most interesting question President Obama fielded in China came over the Internet, via the U.S. Embassy, from a Chinese citizen who asked, "Do you know of the firewall? Should we be able to use Twitter freely?" In response, Mr. Obama, speaking at a town hall in Shanghai, did not directly address China's massive Internet censorship operation -- "the firewall" -- and he confessed that he does not use Twitter. But he said, "I'm a big supporter of not restricting Internet use, Internet access, other information technologies like Twitter." No doubt that's correct. And, just as likely, Mr. Obama is not aware that his State Department not only is doing next to nothing to support Internet freedom in countries such as China, but that it also has been slow-walking congressional initiatives to do so. For two years Congress has appropriated funds to support groups that are developing ways to circumvent the Chinese firewall and those erected in Iran, Burma, Cuba and other repressive countries. The most prominent of the groups, the Global Internet Freedom Consortium, says it has the capacity to host 1.5 million users daily. Its technology works: Shiyu Zhou, the deputy director of the consortium, testified to the U.S. Helsinki Commission last month that at the height of opposition protests on June 20, more than 1 million Iranians used the system. He said that with $30 million of additional funding, capacity could be increased to 50 million users a day, making it "prohibitively expensive for any repressive government to counter our efforts." A bipartisan coalition that includes Sens. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.) and Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) and Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) has been trying to channel the necessary funding. A total of $20 million has been included in the past two State Department budgets, and $30 million more is pending in the Senate's version of the 2010 budget. But State hasn't passed the money on to the firewall-busters. Instead it gave the lion's share of its 2008 appropriation to a group that specializes in conducting media studies and training journalists, and it has failed to distribute the 2009 funds, even though the fiscal year ended nearly three weeks ago. The department says it is increasing the staff dedicated to working on Internet freedom issues and that it is funding some "implementing partners" that it won't identify. Still, no money is going to the one organization with a proven record of overcoming firewalls. The group's advocates suspect that that's because the Global Internet Freedom Consortium is identified with China's banned Falun Gong movement -- and State is fearful of Beijing's reaction to any U.S. support for it. The Obama administration has already done plenty to appease the Chinese regime. The least it can do is act on the president's own words about the value of free information -- and help give Chinese their chance to Twitter.

  • Violence and Impunity: Life in a Russian Newsroom

    This briefing evaluated the status of press freedom in Russia. For nearly a decade, Russia's once-vibrant independent media has lost ground to an increasingly authoritarian state and currently many of Russia's most promising journalists suffer routine harassment, or worse. This muzzling of the press is a clear violation of Russia’s international commitments. The inability of the media to play its important role in Russia is a threat to democracy with negative implications for U.S.-Russia relations. Top independent Russian journalists and a former senior Russian government official on Russia’s backsliding on press freedoms in recent years testified at this briefing to present their perspectives on this issue. The murders of Igor Domnikov, Anna Politkovskaya and Anastasia Baburina were cited to underscore what has become an environment of fear and intimidation within the Russian media. The international community was called upon to continue the discussion with Russia about the ongoing investigations into these murders.

  • U.S. Diplomats Rap Astana's Democratization Performance

    As Kazakhstan prepares to assume the chair of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, US diplomats are exerting pressure on Astana to enact promised reforms. Kazakhstan’s laws on media, elections and political parties continue to "fall short of OSCE standards," Philip Gordon, assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, asserted in written testimony submitted for a hearing October 28 of the US Helsinki Commission. Gordon also pointed out in his testimony that "Kazakhstan has not held an election that the OSCE has deemed fully to have met OSCE commitments and international standards." Both Gordon and Michael Posner, the assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor, called attention to the case of Yevgeny Zhovtis, a human rights activist convicted in September for vehicular manslaughter. The trial was allegedly marred by procedural violations. Even so, a Kazakhstani judge rejected an appeal of the conviction. The US Helsinki Commission’s chair, Sen. Benjamin Cardin, a Democrat from Maryland, said the Obama administration and the State Department has given short shrift to human rights, adding that the issue of the OSCE summit in Kazakhstan presented an opportunity for the United States to take a strong stand on human rights.  

  • Why Tyrants Like Twitter

    When hundreds of thousands of Iranians took to the streets this summer to protest election results, headlines around the world anointed it the "Twitter Revolution." Iranians by the thousands Tweeted, Facebooked, blogged, video streamed and posted on scores of Web sites to share the events with the rest of the world, thwarting government attempts to censor coverage of the post-election violence. Twitter in particular appeared so powerful that the U.S. State Department even asked the micro-blogging service to delay a scheduled network upgrade to ensure Tweeting Iranians wouldn't lose access. But while Twitter and its new media cousins have given millions of people around the world the unprecedented ability to speak out and quickly organize against repressive governments, some experts caution that social media doesn't only benefit the social activists. "I'm not sure we understand the implications of building public spheres," said Evgeny Morozov, Yahoo! Fellow at Georgetown University's E.A. Walsh School of Foreign Service. New Media Empowers All Forces In a U.S. Helsinki Commission hearing on new media in authoritarian regimes, Morozov last week warned that new media "will power all political forces, not just the forces we like." Despite efforts to encourage the growth of pro-democratic groups online, he said research into the blogospheres in Egypt, Palestine and Russia suggest that the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas and groups of Russian nationalists and fascists are among the most active users of blogs and social media. "Blind support for promoting blogging and social networking may have a lot of very unpleasant unexpected consequences," Morozov said. While it's true that governments may have lost some power to Internet-based modes of communication that empower many voices, he said authoritarian regimes have benefited from those same communication channels in other ways. "The Internet has made it much more effective and cheaper to spread propaganda," Morozov told ABCNews.com. New Media Can Give Appearance of Openness In Russia, the government befriends new media entrepreneurs who spin online conversation in the government's favor. The Chinese, Morozov said, have created a "50 cent party" composed of thousands of people across the country who get paid 50 cents for each comment they leave online. For some authoritarian governments, new media can be used to give the appearance of openness and legitimacy. In a piece written earlier this year for the human rights blog openDemocracy.org, Babak Rahimi, a professor of Iranian and Islamic Studies at the University of California, San Diego, wrote about the "politics of Facebook" in Iran. Part of the reason could be to encourage younger people to vote, thereby boosting electoral participation and signaling state legitimacy, Rahimi wrote. Another reason could be to identify dissenters. "By unblocking Facebook and creating a false sense of open and fair elections, the intelligence services are able to monitor the activities of dissidents who may feel more comfortable to express their views on Facebook," he wrote. But the primary reason, Rahimi continued, was so authorities could show off their strength as a legitimate power. "By conceding small amounts of liberty, the regime also hopes to gain approval for its 'progressive' nature," he said. Morozov said that new media has also made it easier for repressive regimes to identify dissenters. Instead of employing hundreds of people to read published material, rulers can automate the process with computers programmed to search for keywords. The Beijing-based TRS Information Technology, a search technology and text mining company, helps China control public opinion by using keywords to search for subversive content, the Financial Times reported earlier this year. A marketing manager for the company told the Financial Times that it was starting to sell services that allowed monitors to track comments and forecast public opinion. He also said police use the technology to focus attention on certain groups of people, such as university student forums. 'Cat and Mouse Thing' for Activists to Stay Ahead Though there are risks to opening up public spaces online, experts also say that with ongoing awareness of developments in new technology, progress is possible. During last week's Helsinki Commission hearing, Nathan Freitas, an adjunct professor with the Interactive Telecom Program at New York University and developer of technology for protests, said there are numerous stories of Chinese, Tibetan and other activists being monitored via Skype, Yahoo!, e-mail and other online tools. Still, he said that when activists protested for Tibetan independence during the 2008 Olympic games, China's efforts to block coverage didn't stop the protestors from broadcasting their activities. Digital video cameras, handheld computers and live streaming camera phones helped their protests succeed, Freitas said. "It's a cat and mouse thing, staying one step ahead," he told ABCNews.com. Activists need to stay on top of a government's technical capabilities as well as its overall priorities. And the best use of new media for activists changes from country to country. For example, given China's ambitious business aspirations, it can't block as much of the Internet as countries with more humble goals, Freitas said. But a government's grand plans can also provide exploitable opportunities. Although China may crack down on Skype, e-mail and other communication channels, because it wants to encourage small businesses, Freitas said devices like BlackBerries work well in China. "The irony of the world is that everyone wants a piece of the Internet commerce cookie? These countries are promoting the people getting computer science degrees, so you're seeing the rapid rise of intelligence and capabilities within the countries themselves," he said. "If you can find the loopholes that tie in technology with commerce, it's kind of a sweet spot."

  • Twitter Against Tyrants: New Media in Authoritarian Regimes

    Held after a year in which Twitter and Facebook catalyzed protest movements in Iran and Moldova and authoritarian regimes around the world unleashed new tools of Internet control, this briefing considered the ways in which new media and Internet communication technologies affect the balance of power between human rights activists and authoritarian governments. Panelists who spoke at this briefing focused on new media’s role in protests and elections, the ways in which it empowers civil society activists, and the darker side: how dictators use new technology to control and repress their citizens. The response of authoritarian regimes to the significant opportunities for advancing freedom through new media was addressed.  

  • The Western Balkans: Policy Responses to Today's Challenges

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  • Commission Plays Leading Role at Parliamentary Assembly in Lithuania

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Background of the OSCE PA The Parliamentary Assembly was created within the framework of the OSCE as an independent, consultative body consisting of more than 300 parliamentarians from each of the 56 countries, which stretch from the United States and Canada throughout Europe, the Caucasus and Central Asia. The Annual Sessions are the chief venue for debating international issues and voting on a declaration addressing human rights, democratic development, rule of law, economic, environmental and security concerns among the participating States and the international community. The United States delegation is allotted 17 seats in the Assembly. Robust Congressional participation has been a hallmark of the Parliamentary Assembly since its inception nearly 20 years ago, ensuring U.S. interests are raised and discussed. 18th Annual Session This year’s Annual Session, hosted by the Parliament (Seimas) of Lithuania from June 29 to July 3, brought together more than 500 participants from 50 of the 56 OSCE participating States under the theme: “The OSCE: Addressing New Security Challenges.” The Standing Committee -- the Assembly’s leadership body (composed of Heads of Delegations from the participating States and the elected officers) -- met prior to the Annual Session. Senator Cardin, as Head of Delegation and an OSCE PA Vice President, represented the United States. Chaired by the OSCE PA President, Portuguese parliamentarian João Soares, the committee heard reports from the Assembly’s Treasurer, German parliamentarian Hans Reidel, and from the Assembly’s Secretary General, R. Spencer Oliver of the United States. The Assembly continues to operate well within its overall budget guidelines and to receive positive assessments from auditors on financial management. The committee unanimously approved the proposed budget for 2009-2010. The Standing Committee also approved several changes in the OSCE PA’s Rules of Procedure, especially related to gender balance and the holding of elections for officers, as well as 24 Supplementary Items or resolutions for consideration in plenary or committee sessions. The committee brought up as an urgent matter a resolution regarding the detention of Iranian citizens employed by the British Embassy in Tehran. Senator Cardin spoke in support of the resolution. With the Standing Committee’s business concluded, Assembly President Soares opened the Inaugural Plenary Session, stressing in his opening remarks the need for OSCE reform. The first session concluded with a discussion of gender issues led by Swedish parliamentarian Tone Tingsgaard that included comments from Rep. Gwen Moore. A Special Plenary Session the next day was scheduled to accommodate the OSCE Chair-in-Office, Greek Foreign Minister Dora Bakoyannis, who had just presided over an informal meeting of OSCE foreign ministers in Corfu, Greece, to launch a new, high-level dialogue on European security. Senator Cardin attended the Corfu meeting as a representative of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly. Following her speech, Bakoyannis engaged in a dialogue with parliamentarians on a number of OSCE issues. Lithuanian Foreign Minister Vygaudas Usackas also addressed the special session. Lithuania will chair the OSCE in 2011. U.S. Member Involvement The U.S. delegation actively participated in the work of the Assembly’s three General Committees – the first committee for Political Affairs and Security; the second for Economic Affairs, Science, Technology and the Environment; and the third on Democracy, Human Rights and Humanitarian Questions. Each committee considered its own draft resolution, prepared by an elected Rapporteur, as well as 23 of the 25 Supplementary Items. Two Supplementary Items, including one by President Soares on Strengthening the OSCE, were considered in plenary session. Representatives Chris Smith, Mike McIntyre, and Gwen Moore each proposed resolutions that were adopted dealing with freedom of expression on the Internet, international cooperation in Afghanistan, and prevention of maternal mortality respectively. Members of the U.S. delegation were also instrumental in garnering support for Supplementary Items introduced by others, co-sponsoring eight resolutions introduced by delegations of other countries. The U.S. delegation was responsible for 26 amendments to either the committee draft resolutions or various Supplementary Items. Chairman Cardin proposed climate-related amendments to a resolution on energy security and suggested the OSCE initiate work with Pakistan in the resolution on Afghanistan. Co-Chairman Hastings worked on numerous human rights and tolerance issues. Other amendments were sponsored by: Sen. Durbin on improving international access to clean water; Sen. Voinovich on combating anti-Semitism; Sen. Wicker on preserving cultural heritage; Rep. Smith on preventing the abuse of children; and Rep. Butterfield on responding to climate change. Bilateral Meetings The U.S. delegation also engaged in a variety of activities associated with the Annual Session, holding bilateral meetings with the delegations of Russia and Georgia focusing on their respective internal political developments and the tension in the Caucasus since Russia invaded Georgia last August and then sought to legitimize breakaway regions. Separate meetings were also held with Lithuanian President Valdas Adamkus and other Lithuanian leaders, at which the delegation pressed for new laws to resolve outstanding claims of property seized during the Nazi and Communist eras. The delegation also presented President Adamkus a letter from President Barack Obama on the occasion of the 1000th anniversary of the first written reference to Lithuania. Members of the U.S. delegation attended a working lunch to discuss gender issues, hosted by Swedish parliamentarian Tingsgaard. A variety of social events, including a reception hosted by the British delegation at their embassy, afforded numerous informal opportunities to discuss issues of common concern. U.S. Leadership As a demonstration of active U.S. engagement, a Member of the U.S. Congress has always held some elected or appointed leadership role in the OSCE PA. The Vilnius Annual Session has allowed this to continue at least through July 2012. Chairman Cardin was reelected to a three-year term as one of nine Vice Presidents, a very welcome development given his long record of OSCE engagement going back to his years in the House of Representatives. Rep. Aderholt, who has attended every OSCE PA Annual Session since 2002 and often visits European countries to press human rights issues, was elected Vice Chair of the third General Committee, which handles democracy and human rights. President Soares was reelected for a second term and selected Rep. Smith to serve as a Special Representative on Human Trafficking and asked Co-Chairman Hastings to continue serving as Special Representative on Mediterranean Affairs. An unfortunate development in the election of new officers is the absence of a representative of the Russian Federation. Because the United States government may disagree so substantively with current Kremlin policies, the U.S. government has always felt it critical to welcome Russian engagement in the OSCE PA. It was, therefore, a disappointment that the head of the Russian Federation delegation, Alexander Kozlovsky, reversed course and decided not to run for a Vice Presidency seat and more disappointing that a political bloc at the OSCE PA defeated Russian incumbent Natalia Karpovich as rapporteur of the Third Committee. Karpovich had been accommodating of U.S. human rights initiatives in her draft resolution. Vilnius Declaration Participants at the closing plenary session adopted the final Vilnius Declaration -- a lengthy document which reflects the initiatives and input of the U.S. delegation. Among other things, the declaration calls for strengthening the OSCE in order to enhance its legitimacy and political relevance; addresses conventional arms control, disarmament and other security-related issues of current concern in Europe; calls for greater cooperation in the energy sector and better protection of the environment; and stresses the continued importance of democratic development and respect for human rights, especially as they relate to tolerance in society and freedom of expression. The most contentious part of the declaration related to the promotion of human rights and civil liberties twenty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, which included language noting the 70th anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. While some of the language may have been provocative, strong Russian objections to the entire text appeared to be motivated by a desire to defend a Stalinist past and minimize its crimes. The Russian delegation’s effort to block passage of this resolution reflects a similar sentiment in Moscow that recently led to the creation of a widely-criticized commission "for counteracting attempts to falsify history to the detriment of Russia's interests." As a July 9 column for The Economist noted about recent Russian efforts to excuse Stalinism, the “debate in Vilnius makes it a bit harder to maintain that stance.” Some of Russia’s traditional friends and allies in the OSCE PA were noticeably absent from the debate. The Balkans While the Congressional delegation’s work focused heavily on representing the United States at the OSCE PA, the trip afforded an opportunity to advance U.S. interests elsewhere in Europe. While Co-Chairman Hastings traveled to Albania to observe that country’s first parliamentary elections since becoming a NATO member earlier this year, the rest of the delegation visited Bosnia-Herzegovina. Bosnia-Herzegovina is still recovering from the conflict in the 1990s and the associated horrors of the Srebrenica genocide and massive ethnic cleansing. The reverberations of the conflict continue to hinder prospects for European and Euro-Atlantic integration. The United States was instrumental in bringing the Bosnian conflict to an end in 1995, especially with the negotiation of the Dayton Agreement, and the United States has invested considerable financial, diplomatic and military resources in the post-conflict period. The visit came one month after Vice President Joe Biden visited Sarajevo with a message of renewed U.S. engagement in the Balkans. While meetings with Bosnian political leaders revealed little willingness to work constructively toward constitutional reform needed for an effective central government, a meeting with English-speaking university students revealed a refreshing desire to overcome ethnic divisions and move the country forward. Belarus Given its proximity to Vilnius, members of the Congressional delegation visited Minsk, the capital of Belarus, to press for greater democracy and respect for human rights in that country. Belarus has remained a repressive state over the years even as its European neighbors have transitioned from being former Soviet or Warsaw Pact states to EU and NATO members or aspirants. Following a delegation meeting with President Alexander Lukashenka, Belarusian authorities released imprisoned American Emanuel Zeltzer, who was convicted of espionage in a closed trial and had numerous health concerns. The delegation also urged for greater progress in meeting the conditions in the Belarus Democracy Act passed by the U.S. Congress in 2004 and reauthorized in 2006. A meeting with political activists provided useful information on the situation for political opposition, non-governmental organizations and independent media. Finally, the delegation pressed Belarus’ officials to allow for an increased U.S. diplomatic presence in the country. In response to expanding U.S. sanctions, Minsk kicked out 30 diplomats last year, including the U.S. ambassador, leaving a staff of five at the U.S. Embassy. During the course of the Vilnius Annual Session, Senator Voinovich also broke away for a brief visit to Riga, Latvia. That visit was among the highest level visits from a U.S. official in three years, and was important for our relations with this NATO ally, which has deployed troops with Americans in Afghanistan without caveat and recently suffered losses which easily impact such a small country. U.S. interests abroad are advanced through active congressional participation in the OSCE PA. The 19th Annual Session of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly will be held early next July in Oslo, Norway.

  • Moldova’s Recent Elections: Prospects for Change in Europe’s Poorest Country

    This briefing took place in the wake of the June 20th, 2009 parliamentary elections in Moldova. Nearly 60 percent of the Moldovan populace voted, and nearly 3,000 international and local observers were present. The international election observation mission consisted of delegations from the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly, and the European parliament. The international election observation mission evaluated the elections positively overall, but noticed a number of shortcomings, particularly in the process of registration of electoral lists and the overall tense climate of the electoral campaign.

  • The Iran Crisis and the OSCE Neighbors

    The Hon. Mike McIntyre presided over this hearing, with the then recent re-election of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in mind. With witnesses – Former Assistant Secretary of State David Kramer, senior fellow of the German Marshall Fund of the United States; Jennifer Windsor, executive director of Freedom House; and Stephen Blank, research professor of National Security Affairs at the Strategic Studies Institute of the U.S. Army War College – McIntyre discussed the enormous implications of the hardline president’s landslide re-election. Iran’s neighbors who belong to the OSCE, such as Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Krygyzstan, were keenly aware of Ahmadinejad’s glide to victory, with reactions ranging from curiosity to anxiety concerning how the Iranian public would react. The Iranian citizenry met Ahmadinejad with nonviolent, yet persecuted, protests in the streets, similar to other demonstrations of civil disobedience in Iran’s neighboring countries. So, the question then becomes what the effects of Ahmadinejad’s re-election are on post-Soviet states.

  • The Medvedev Thaw: Is It Real? Will It Last?

    This hearing discussed U.S. foreign policy towards Russia, focusing on how to improve relations while taking Russia’s compliance with human rights seriously.   The witnesses and Commissioners discussed the implications of Dmitri Medvedev becoming president and Vladimir Putin retaining power as Prime Minister.

  • The Trouble with the Recent Iranian Elections

    Mr. President, as Chairman of the U.S. Helsinki Commission, which has had decades of experience monitoring election and promoting democracy and human rights, I would like to take this moment to speak on a troubling matter that has filled headlines around the world in the last few days. We have all seen the images. Violence and mass protests are erupting across Iran following the hasty vote count of a deeply flawed presidential election process in that country. Yet another unfortunate chapter is unfolding before our eyes that reinforces Iran’s record as a police state and totalitarian regime more concerned with keeping its tight grip on power than yielding to the will of the people. I stand with President Obama calling for the government to exercise restraint and the violence to end. Regrettably, at least seven people have been killed and countless others injured. We may never know the true results of this election, given the lack of international monitoring. But what we do know is that in the last few days we have witnessed tens of thousands of Iranians raise their voice in protest to ensure that their vote meant something. On Friday, voters in Iran lined up in unprecedented numbers to choose their next president. I, like many others, was dismayed on Saturday to hear the ruling clerics rush to announce that Ahmadinejad had won re-election by a large margin. Regardless of the limited official scope of his duties, President Ahmadinejad’s consistent pattern of noxious remarks and his belligerent attitude inject understandable tension around the Middle East and beyond. He has used the presidential podium to instigate conflict with the international community, pursue acquisition of nuclear weapons, and spew hatred and intolerance toward Israel and the United States. I cannot say and will not say what could have been or should have been if any other candidate was elected, but there is no doubt whatsoever as to Ahmadinejad’s unfitness as a leader. Equally troubling were the almost immediate reports coming from Tehran and elsewhere around Iran that there were deep flaws in this election. Elections do not equal democracy, nor do they guarantee that the will of the people will be reflected in their government. But this was not a free and fair election from the start. In Iranian Presidential elections, only a select group of candidates approved by a 12-person Council of Guardians are eligible to run. The Iranian regime, headed by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei continues to severely restrict civil liberties including freedom of speech, expression, assembly, and association. Freedom to discuss ideas without threat of oppression is a fundamental human right that is essential to a government truly reflecting the will of its people. This freedom is absent in Iran. Typically, Iranian elections and public expressions are carefully monitored and manipulated by the ruling regime to prevent challenges to their authority. The last few days we have seen something different. The tens of thousands of people lining the streets of Tehran – in an incredible rebuttal to the ruling powers – want to know that the votes that they cast are counted properly. The deliberate lack of transparency in the vote tabulation and the blatant attempts to block mass communications among citizens, particularly the youth, are too glaring to ignore. Even the Supreme Leader has been forced to backtrack on his immediate approval of the results and has called for at least the appearance of a recount in some disputed areas. Americans know something about wanting to have their votes counted accurately. The difference between our two nations is when the results of a U.S. election were in dispute, the world spotlight shined bright on the process and the people involved resolved the conflict peacefully. Transparency and openness is not a hallmark of Iranian elections. Even before the presidential election took place, Iran’s totalitarian regime blocked personal communications like texting and access to the Internet. Media have been confined to Tehran, if they haven’t been asked to leave the country. The regime’s ongoing attempts to curtail communication and silence protests – often with brutal force – demonstrate the regime’s fear of losing a grip on power. Allegations of a fraudulent vote count are a symptom of a regime that has survived by mixing select elements of democracy into an authoritarian power structure that oppresses its people. On June 12, the people of Iran did not vote for the Supreme Leader of their country. Under the current system, Khamenei and his supporters will continue to dictate policy to the President of Iran, regardless of who that president is and whatever policy decisions the president is authorized to make. The people of Iran want their voices to be heard and they should be assured that the world is listening. I urge those in power in Iran also to listen and implement the reforms necessary to allow the will of the people to be expressed. I look forward to a future when the people of Iran have an opportunity for a free and fair election of leaders of their choosing. It is my sincere hope that one day this vision will be realized, and the voice of the Iranian people will truly be heard.

  • Albania’s Elections and the Challenge of Democratic Transition

    In this briefing, Co-Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings examined the democratic progress made in Albania on the eve of the country’s parliamentary elections, set for June 28, 2009.  This examination was to assess Albania’s overall preparedness for European integration after it had applied for candidate status with the European Union and joined the NATO Alliance. Panelists - including Rep. Eliot L. Engel (D-NY), Co-Chair, Albania Issues Caucus, Elez Biberaj, Director, Eurasia Division, Voice of America, Jonas Rolett,  Regional Director for South Central Europe, Open Society Institute, and Robert Benjamin, Regional Director for Central and Eastern Europe, National Democratic Institute - discussed the prospects for the upcoming elections to be held in accordance with the standards set by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which would be observing the election.

  • The Western Balkans: Challenges for U.S. and European Engagement

    This hearing discussed the recent progress of the seven countries of the Western Balkans with regards to internal stability, democratic development, minority rights, anti-corruption efforts, and the rule of law. The witnesses evaluated each country’s progress and that of the region as a whole. In addition, the hearing also focused on the on the election process in each country and whether they had met the OSCE standards for elections.

  • Human Rights in Afghanistan

    Janice Helwig, policy advisor at the Commission, examined the current state of human rights in Afghanistan, a Partner for Cooperation of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).  While some progress has been made, rule of law and protection of human rights remains fragile. Witnesses Sima Samar and Scott Worden highlighted the harassment, intimidation, and violence human rights defenders and civil society leaders face while women and girls continue to be threatened and even attacked as they try to go to work or school.  They discuss the limited, if any, freedom of speech or belief reflected by the killings of journalists and the imposing of the death penalty on those who seek to convert from Islam to Christianity. 

  • Turkmenistan: Prospect for Change?

    The purpose of this hearing was to examine Turkmenistan’s parliamentary elections- the first such election since the regime changed. The hearing focused on whether the election might mark a turning point at all for Turkmenistan as well as whether Turkmenistan has made progress on Democratic reforms. Positive signs were reviewed, particularly on education, but also areas of concern, such as reports of Turkmen officials pressuring young men not to apply for study programs in the United States. The distinguished witnesses and Commissioners reviewed the reform process and the significant advancements since the death of longtime President, Berdimuhamedov. In regards to areas of further reform and advancement, the hearing addressed measures in which the U.S. and the OSCE should respond to better the human rights condition in Turkmenistan.

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