Title

Helsinki Commission Calls for Release of Imprisoned Journalists in OSCE Region

Also Notes Deterioration of Press Freedom, Journalist Safety in Many OSCE Participating States
Friday, May 01, 2015

WASHINGTON—In advance of World Press Freedom Day on May 3, Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04), chairman of the Helsinki Commission, issued the following statement:
 
“On World Press Freedom Day, I pay tribute to the courage and commitment of the many journalists in the OSCE region and beyond who risk their lives on a daily basis to document stories of corruption, conflict, and human rights abuses.
 
“In several OSCE participating States, governments use increasingly sophisticated tactics to threaten and discourage professional journalism. In the worst cases, journalists are being jailed in failed attempts to stifle political dissent. This is unacceptable behavior for nations committed to the fundamental freedoms and human rights described in the Helsinki Final Act, and I call on all OSCE participating States, particularly Turkey, Azerbaijan, and Uzbekistan, to release those journalists who remain imprisoned.
 
“Unfortunately, journalists in the OSCE region also face other daily threats to their lives, especially those members of the media who report from conflict zones. More than 200 attacks on journalists have been reported as a result of the Russia-Ukraine conflict alone; some of those brave journalists have paid the ultimate price.
 
“I am proud that the OSCE continues to lead the way with initiatives focused on journalist safety in the field, ending impunity, and improving media safety online, and I especially commend the work of the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media Dunja Mijatovic. However, much remains to be done to advance the safety of journalists in our region and around the world.”
 
On May 5, Chairman Smith plans to introduce the World Press Freedom Protection Act of 2015 in the U.S. House of Representatives. The legislation would authorize the President to deny entry visas to individuals who have credibly threatened press freedom; restrict some U.S. activities of executives of state-owned media organizations from countries where American journalists are threatened or harassed; and urge the U.S. Government to include press freedoms and Internet freedom as part of international treaty negotiations and trade agreements.

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Brian Fitzpatrick (PA-01) focused on addressing corruption. “It should come as no surprise to anyone … that legislatures have one of the most important roles to play in combating corruption—that of establishing a transparent and accountable legal and financial framework that empowers law enforcement officials and is maximally resistant to fraud,” he said.  Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (RI) said that the United States “is back” in efforts to combat climate change and noted recent U.S. legislation designed to address shell companies that support a global dark economy by sheltering “assets of thieves.”  Rep. Gwen Moore (WI-04) spoke about the devastating impact of the pandemic on women in the healthcare industry as well as on small business, and she expressed concern about risks to supply chains and business ties to both China and Russia.   Three Members of Congress also participated in of the General (Third) Committee on Democracy, Human Rights and Humanitarian Questions.   Rep. Cohen asserted that human rights has reclaimed its place in U.S. foreign policy, and emphasized human rights in concerns in Russia, Belarus, and Hungary. He expressed particular concern about the poisoning and recent arrest of Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny and called for Belarus to release political prisoners and to hold elections with OSCE observers. Rep. Marc Veasey (TX-33) took the floor in a later debate, responding to a report on the OSCE’s observation of the U.S. general elections in November 2020.  He stressed the need for U.S. states that currently prohibit or restrict international observation to consider a more open approach and   concluded that “our election officials and state legislators should read this report,” along with “any American who cares about his or her country.  It is a broad snapshot of our entire electoral complex system that we have here.”  Rep. Robert Aderholt (AL-04) raised concerns about discriminatory restrictions on religious assembly during the pandemic, as well as on the diminishing free media environment in many participating States. “Press freedom in the OSCE region has continued to decline as some governments are using economic, legal, and extra-legal tools to silence independent media and also to bolster loyal outlets and dozens of journalists are imprisoned in the OSCE region,” he said. “We’ve seen that in Russia, we’ve seen that in Belarus, we’ve seen that in Turkey, detaining scores of journalists in recent national protests.” There was one side event held in conjunction with the Winter Meeting, organized by the Norwegian Helsinki Committee in cooperation with the Lithuanian Mission to OSCE. 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  • Hastings and Cardin on Report that Saudi Crown Prince Approved Khashoggi Killing, New State Department “Khashoggi Ban”

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  • Helsinki Commission Digital Digest: February 2021

  • OSCE Ministerial Council Appoints Top Leaders, Adopts Several Key Decisions Amidst Constraints of COVID-19 and Conflict in Europe

    By Shannon Simrell, Representative of the Helsinki Commission to the U.S. Mission to the OSCE Foreign ministers of the 57 OSCE participating States convened on December 3 - 4, 2020, for the 27th OSCE Ministerial Council. For the first time, this annual gathering was convened in an entirely virtual format due to the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite a turbulent year, which included managing not only the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic but also the global anti-racism protests initiated following the killing of George Floyd; ongoing protracted conflicts in Moldova, Georgia, and Ukraine; fraudulent elections and systemic human rights violations in Belarus; and a renewal of active conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia, consensus was achieved on many, but not all, draft decisions. The United States delegation to the Ministerial Council was led by Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun. The delegation and included Deputy Assistant Secretaries of State George P. Kent, Michael Murphy, and Bruce Turner; Acting Assistant Secretary of State Philip Reeker; U.S. Ambassador to the OSCE James Gilmore; U.S Helsinki Commission Chief of Staff Alex Johnson; and Helsinki Commission staff Robert Hand, Janice Helwig, Rebecca Neff, Erika Schlager, Shannon Simrell, Dr. Mischa Thompson, and Alex Tiersky. A Call to “Turn a Corner” from Crisis to Cooperation Leveraging the meeting’s virtual format, national statements were livestreamed, offering transparency of the proceedings. Albanian Prime Minister and OSCE Chairperson-in-Office Edi Rama opened the meeting by recalling the solidarity of the signatories of the Helsinki Final Act and Charter of Paris and requesting that ministers “turn a corner” and demonstrate the political will required to address the multiple and complex challenges faced by the organization and across the region. In his remarks, Deputy Secretary Biegun reaffirmed U.S. priorities for engagement at the OSCE, underscoring the commitment to European peace and security and highlighting key challenges facing the OSCE region including Russia’s continued aggression in eastern Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia, and the destabilizing effect of its flagrant violations of the OSCE’s foundational principles.  He called upon Belarus to hold accountable those responsible for its human rights violations and electoral crisis, urged Armenia and Azerbaijan to engage with the Minsk Group Co-Chairs to attain a lasting end to the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, and warned States against using COVID-19 as a pretext to restrict civil society, independent media, or public access to information. Finally, he expressed concern about the increasing number of political prisoners and the rise in cases of anti-Semitism, anti-Roma racism, and other forms of hatred and hate crimes in the OSCE region since the onset of the pandemic.  Consensus Achieved on Organizational Leadership, Preventing Torture, Countering Corruption, and More Despite the challenges inherent in virtual negotiations, consensus was achieved on 11 texts spanning all three OSCE dimensions of comprehensive security and supporting the organization’s internal governance. Ministers agreed on the appointment of the OSCE’s top four leaders: Helga Schmid (Germany) as Secretary General, Maria Teresa Ribiero (Portugal) as Representative on Freedom of the Media, Matteo Mecacci (Italy) as Director of the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), and Kairat Abdrakhmanov (Kazakhstan) as High Commissioner on National Minorities.  The decisions broke a months-long impasse after Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, Turkey, and others blocked the reappointment of the previous executives, leaving the organization leaderless since July. Participating States also reached consensus on several decisions that added to OSCE’s body of commitments. One such decision concerned the prevention and eradication of torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, building on existing OSCE commitments. A version of the text was originally proposed in 2014 by Switzerland during their 2014 Chairpersonship of the OSCE. The initiative reflected the country’s historic leadership in the area of international humanitarian law and profound concerns regarding torture in the context of counterterrorism efforts.  The proposal was reintroduced over successive Ministerial Councils before its adoption in 2020.  The widespread use of torture and other horrific abuse by Belarusian authorities, documented by the November 2020 report under the OSCE Moscow Mechanism, added urgency to this decision this year.  As adopted, the decision includes explicit references to enforced disappearances and to incommunicado detention. Participating States also adopted decisions on preventing and combating corruption; strengthening co-operation to counter transnational organized crime; deepening cooperation with OSCE’s Asian Partners;  supporting the Transdniestrian settlement process (also known in the OSCE as the “5+2” format, which brings together representatives of Moldova, Transdniestria, the OSCE, the Russian Federation, Ukraine, the European Union, and the United States); and selecting North Macedonia to chair the organization in 2023. Unfinished Business Unfortunately, participating States did not reach consensus on several other important drafts, including one co-sponsored by the United States and Belarus based on lessons learned during the COVID-19 pandemic that would have set out new commitments for participating States to effectively combat human trafficking during times of emergency. Other proposals, including texts to modernize the Vienna Document (a wide-ranging confidence- and security-building measure that includes provisions requiring notification of significant military activities, as well as an exchange of information about armed forces, military organization, and major weapon and equipment systems), enhance public-private partnerships to counter terrorism, and counter trafficking in natural resources were scuttled by Russian, Azerbaijani, and Armenian intransigence.  Some drafts which did not reach consensus among all 57 states were turned into statements issued and signed by those countries that had supported their adoption. The United States signed onto nine such statements to support the concept of women, peace and security outlined in UN Security Council Resolution 1325; modernization of the politico-military framework of the Vienna Document; and a number of statements related to the OSCE’s role in addressing regional challenges like ending the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, improving human rights compliance by Belarus, countering Russian aggression in Ukraine and the Republic of Georgia, and addressing challenges relating to the COVID-19 pandemic.   The Albanian Chairperson, together with the OSCE’s 2019 Slovak Chairperson, and the OSCE’s three incoming Chairpersons (the “Quint”) issued two joint statements, one expressing concern about the ongoing conflict in Ukraine and another reaffirming the principles enshrined the Helsinki Final Act and the Charter of Paris for a New Europe. Side events highlight continuing challenges The Ministerial Council’s four side events highlighted priority areas for participating States and for the Parliamentary Assembly. Due to the virtual format, events on the Belarus Moscow Mechanism report, human rights violations in Crimea, combatting human trafficking during the COVID-19 crisis, and the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly’s call for renewed political will to address contemporary challenges, attracted hundreds of participants. Deputy Assistant Secretary Kent closed the Moscow Mechanism side event by promising to maintain a focus on the situation in Belarus, to support efforts to hold authorities accountable for torture and other human rights violations, and to ensure the voice of the Belarusian people is heard in determining their country’s future. At a side event organized by the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly titled “A Call to Action: Reaffirming a Common Purpose,” Helsinki Commission Ranking Member Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) affirmed the strong bipartisan support in the United States for the OSCE, and recognized it as vital forum to promote security, defend human rights and encourage democratic development in all OSCE countries. He argued that greater political accountability rather than organizational reform would make the OSCE more relevant and effective in the years ahead. “It remains the responsibility of the participating States to hold each other to account. In the face of repression at home or aggression abroad, the OSCE will succeed as a multilateral forum as long as those who are true believers stand united in defending the ten Helsinki principles and forthrightly raise violations in this forum.” ​ Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), Ranking Member, U.S. Helsinki Commission, OSCE MC 2020 Side Event on “A Call to Action” Due to challenges related to convening during the COVID-19 pandemic, the NGO network Civic Solidarity Platform did not organize its annual Civil Society Conference, which had been held in conjunction with each OSCE Ministerial Council since its first convening during the 2010 OSCE Summit in Astana. Instead, the network organized a series of webinars in December to maintain focus on key issues of concern. 2021: OSCE’s Swedish Chairpersonship “Back to Basics” Looking ahead to its 2021 Chairpersonship, Swedish Foreign Minister Ann Linde said that Sweden will work to get “back to basics:” defending the European security order, contributing to resolving conflicts, and upholding the OSCE’s comprehensive concept of security with a special focus on human rights, democracy, and gender equality.

  • Retrospective on the 116th Congress

    By Emma Derr, Max Kampelman Fellow “For more than four decades, the Helsinki Commission has championed human rights and democracy across North America, Europe, and Central Asia. While we have worked to keep these concerns on the U.S. agenda, much remains to be accomplished.” ​ Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20), Chairman, U.S. Helsinki Commission In the OSCE region, 2019 and 2020 were marked by unprecedented challenges stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic, calls for racial justice, systematic human rights issues, and ongoing regional conflicts amidst U.S. presidential, Congressional, and regional and local elections. Through these crises, U.S. Helsinki Commission leadership worked tirelessly to ensure that human rights and comprehensive security continued to be promoted through the United States’ foreign and domestic policy agendas. 2020 also marked the 30th anniversary of the Charter of Paris, which set unprecedented commitments to human rights, providing an opportunity for OSCE participating States to reflect and bolster human rights commitments during such a crucial time. Through hearings and briefings, legislative activities, public statements and reports, and engagement with other foreign policy actors, the Helsinki Commission has focused on human rights and security challenges both in the United States and abroad to advance the commission’s priorities in the 116th Congress: principled foreign policy; human rights at home; parliamentary diplomacy; and safe, inclusive, and equitable societies. Additional policy focuses include regional security, election observation, OSCE engagement, and anti-corruption work. View a comprehensive list of activities in the Helsinki Commission's report on the 116th Congress.  Principled Foreign Policy From respect for sovereignty and the territorial integrity of states to human rights and fundamental freedoms, commitments undertaken by OSCE participating States underpin peace and stability in the OSCE region and form the basis of comprehensive security for all people. The Helsinki Commission strives to ensure that the protection of human rights and democratic development are central to a principled U.S. foreign policy. During the 116th Congress, Belarus, Russia, Turkey, Hungary, Ukraine/Crimea, and the Balkans attracted particular attention, given the ongoing human rights and regional conflict issues in those countries. Belarus Following over two decades of authoritarian rule supported by the Kremlin, a political crisis erupted in Belarus in the summer of 2020. After August 9 elections, the Alexander Lukashenko regime claimed victory, and the country saw an unrelenting crackdown by Belarusian authorities on peaceful protests, civil society, and the media. According to international observers, Belarus has not had free and fair national elections since Lukashenko was first elected president in 1994. Unprecedented crowds continue to protest the election. Ahead of the election, Lukashenko eliminated his main political competition through disqualification or imprisonment. Numerous protestors, supporters of opposition candidates, and journalists were arrested as last-minute candidate Svetlana Tsikhanovskaya drew unprecedented crowds to her rallies. Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) called on President Lukashenko “to order the release of those who have been detained for political reasons and allow real political competition in Belarus.” After the elections and in reaction to the human rights abuses perpetrated by the Lukashenko regime, Chairman Hastings wrote to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin requesting that the U.S. administration revoke access to the U.S. financial system for the nine largest state-owned companies in Belarus. “The United States stands with the people of Belarus, who have a right to make free choices about their country’s future and to protest peacefully.” ​ Sen. Roger Wicker (MS), Co-Chairman, U.S. Helsinki Commission After the invocation by 17 OSCE participating States of the Moscow Mechanism to report on human rights concerns in Belarus and subsequent investigation, Professor Wolfgang Benedek—the selected rapporteur—joined the Helsinki Commission for a podcast to discuss his findings, including evidence of fraudulent elections, systematic human rights violations, and a general situation of impunity for perpetrators. Regional Security and Stability In May 2020, following reports that the Trump administration planned to withdraw from the Treaty on Open Skies, Chairman Hastings urged Congress to support the United States’ allies and partners in Europe, as “withdrawing from the Open Skies Treaty can only benefit Putin’s continuing campaign of aggression against Russia’s neighbors.” Chairman Hastings also authored an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for the 2021 Fiscal Year to reflect support for the Open Skies Treaty and stated his regret in November when the U.S. withdrew from the treaty. The Helsinki Commission held a joint hearing in November 2019 with the House Foreign Affairs Committee concerning the importance of the Open Skies Treaty for security and stability in Europe and released a podcast on the treaty’s benefits, the complexity of execution, and current challenges in implementation. In July 2019, for the first time in its 43-year history the Helsinki Commission convened outside of the United States for a field hearing to underscore America’s commitment to Baltic Sea regional security and emphasize its unwavering support for U.S. friends and allies. The commission also held a briefing to discuss the potential use of energy, specifically oil and gas projects, to achieve foreign policy goals, as well as the extent to which energy independence can reduce the ability of hostile actors to destabilize the European region by threatening to cut off access to energy supplies. Turkey, Hungary, Ukraine/Crimea, and the Balkans In April 2019, Co-Chairman Wicker and Ranking Member Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) introduced the Defending United States Citizens and Diplomatic Staff from Political Prosecutions Act to address arbitrary arrests which contribute to Turkey’s deteriorating respect for human rights under President Erdogan. In April 2019, the Helsinki Commission hosted a briefing on recent developments in Hungary concerning a steady erosion of freedom, the rule of law, and quality of governance. Later that year, the commission reported on an amendment to the Hungarian religion law, which continues to discriminate against people on the basis of their faith. In late 2019, Co-Chairman Wicker successfully pressed Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban to stop the blockage of the European Union version of the Magnitsky Act. The U.S. Magnitsky Act allows the use of sanctions as a tool to target alleged human rights abusers and corruption, and its European counterpart would do the same. In May 2020, Co-Chairman Wicker and Ranking Member Cardin urged U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to work with the European Union’s High Representative to advance EU Magnitsky Sanctions.  Following a mob attack in October 2019 on a Jewish community center providing office space to civil society groups in Budapest, Chairman Hastings and Ranking Member Cardin called the Hungarian government to take action during this “alarming escalation of violence toward minorities and civil society groups.” In 2020, the commission released a report detailing the escalating rhetorical attacks and legislative restrictions against civil society as Orban continues to consolidate power in Hungary. In December 2019, Helsinki Commission Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) and Commissioner Rep.  Emanuel Cleaver II (MO-05) introduced the bipartisan Ukraine Religious Freedom Support Act in the House of Representatives, and Co-Chairman Wicker introduced the act, cosponsored by Helsinki Commissioner Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (NH), to the Senate. The act, which would combat Russia’s religious freedom violations in the Crimea and Donbas regions of Ukraine, unanimously passed in the House of Representatives in November 2020 and awaits Senate action. In July 2019, the Helsinki Commission hosted a briefing about reunifying societies divided by war, genocide, and other tragedies in areas such as the Balkans, as well as promoting reconciliation and healing for Holocaust survivors and other victims of Nazi persecution who continue to seek justice worldwide. Twenty years after two U.S. citizens were brutally murdered in Serbia in the aftermath of the 1999 conflict in Kosovo, their brother Ilir joins the Helsinki Commission to share his family’s fight for justice in the face of inaction by Serbian authorities. Election Observation In 1990, all OSCE participating States pledged to hold free and fair elections and to invite international observers. OSCE election observation missions often are undertaken jointly by the OSCE Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) and the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (PA). These election observation missions have been recognized as one of the most transparent and methodical ways to encourage States’ commitment to democratic standards and have become a core element of the OSCE’s efforts to provide feedback on the election processes to the benefit of candidates and voters alike. Commissioners and staff have observed well over 100 elections since 1990, and in 2020 alone, the OSCE has been invited to observe elections in nearly 20 OSCE participating States, including the United States. In 2019, the commission held a briefing focused on the benefits and challenges of international election observation, best practices, and emerging issues such as voting technology and security. In addition, the use of disinformation to influence elections has become a pervasive and persistent threat in all 57 OSCE participating States. Ahead of the 2020 general elections, the commission held a briefing on the intersections and influences of disinformation and COVID-19 on the electoral process. Election observation is an important way to help monitor these effects on the workings of democracy. A limited election observation mission was deployed by the OSCE to observe the 2020 general election in the United States. Despite the challenges posed by the pandemic, the OSCE team was confident it produced a thorough, impartial, fact-based assessment that concluded the elections were free and fair, as well as “competitive and well managed despite legal uncertainties and logistical challenges” posed by the pandemic and the polarized political climate. OSCE Institutions and Policy During the past two years, the Helsinki Commission hosted hearings featuring both the Albanian and Slovakian OSCE Chairs in Office, as well as the OSCE Representative for Freedom of the Media Harlem Desir, to discuss OSCE institutional priorities such as human rights violations, conflict resolution, and the safety of journalists. In January 2020, the Helsinki Commission welcomed OSCE Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights Director Ambassador Ingibjörg Sólrún Gísladóttir, in her first appearance before Congress, to address challenges in the OSCE region related to human rights and democracy.  In December 2020, the Helsinki Commission held a hearing, “U.S. Priorities for Engagement at the OSCE,” where Ambassador Philip T. Reeker U.S. State Department Senior Bureau Official, who has been serving in the role of Acting Assistant Secretary for Europe and Eurasia since March 2018, emphasized that the United States is focused on upholding Helsinki Final Act commitments and pushing all participating States to live up to their own commitments to these principles. Human Rights at Home Like all other OSCE participating States, the United States must also examine how well—or how poorly—it is living up to its own OSCE commitments. In the 116th Congress, the Helsinki Commission took a hard look at human rights at home. “If the United States wants to remain a credible voice in the promotion of human rights abroad, we must fiercely protect them at home.” Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20), Chairman, U.S. Helsinki Commission In summer 2020 the Helsinki Commission launched a series of hearings focused on restorative justice related to public monuments and memorials, the safety of journalists, and implications of domestic human rights issues for U.S. leadership. The commission also convened political and civil rights leaders to discuss the impact of George Floyd’s tragic death on the need to shape policies that confront and prevent racism and racist acts. The Helsinki Commission dealt at further length with the safety of journalists and freedom of the media in the United States. In the aftermath of attacks on journalists covering protests calling for racial justice, Chairman Rep. Hastings expressed the need to take an “honest and critical look at America’s own record in recent weeks on protecting journalists and safeguarding press freedom.” The U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM) supports networks that reach more than 350 million people across the world, many of whom otherwise would not have access to independent, unbiased news. When USAGM failed to renew J-1 visas for foreign Voice of America (VOA) journalists, Chairman Rep. Hastings, Ranking Member Sen. Ben Cardin, and Helsinki Commissioners Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), and Rep. Marc Veasey (TX-33) demanded that U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM) CEO Michael Pack provide a detailed explanation and called for new policies to protect the personal security of VOA journalists working under the USAGM. Safe, Inclusive, and Equitable Societies Civil rights are human rights, and advancing societies that are safe, inclusive, and equitable is central to the work of the Helsinki Commission. Anti-racism initiatives have always been a priority for the commission, but they found particular focus in 2020 in conjunction with the exposure of systemic racism in police brutality and the disproportionate impacts of COVID-19 on minority populations.  Commissioners looked inward to the United States’ own domestic policies, as well as outward to other OSCE countries, to develop ideas and policies that promote principles of social inclusion, empowering diverse populations and enhancing the ability for everyone to fully participate in society. Over the past decade, Chairman Hastings has drawn attention to the racism and discrimination faced by black Europeans, recognizing their fight for inclusion. In March 2019, he introduced legislation establishing a strategy to protect the collective history and achievements of people of African descent and to promote the human rights of people of African descent worldwide, and a year later, he introduced a bill to implement a government-wide diversity and inclusion plan. “Across the globe we find racial disparities between those of African descent and other populations in education, employment, health, housing, justice, and other sectors. At the same time, hate crimes and racial profiling targeting black populations are increasing,” said Chairman Hastings. “A global strategy ensures we are monitoring whether countries around the world are providing equal protections and opportunity to all within their borders.” Chairman Hastings also collaborated with other Helsinki Commissioners to address racism globally. In July 2020, Chairman Hastings, along with Helsinki Commissioners Rep. Gwen Moore (WI-04), Rep. Cleaver, Rep. Veasey, and 35 other Members of the United States Congress, including the Congressional Black Caucus Chair, called for a sweeping plan of action following the European Parliament’s Juneteenth Day resolution supporting protests against racism and police brutality. Chairman Hastings and Rep. Gregory W. Meeks (NY-05) also issued a statement regarding foreign affairs funding for diverse, global anti-racism programs, commemorating John Lewis’ yearly leadership in securing these appropriations requests. In September, Chairman Hastings and other Helsinki Commissioners joined members of the European Parliament’s Civil Liberties Committee and Subcommittee on Human Rights to discuss combating racism and systemic discrimination on both sides of the Atlantic. In October, Ranking Member Cardin joined the office of the OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities for an online event that evaluated the applicability of the 2006 Recommendations on Policing in Multi-Ethnic Societies, highlighted relevant legislation, and discussed structural changes to address discriminatory police violence. Ahead of International Roma Day in 2020, the Helsinki Commission hosted a discussion about racism against Roma, the largest ethnic minority in Europe who have historically faced enslavement and continue to battle discrimination. The conversation focused on the state of Roma rights in Europe, as well as resolutions introduced by Helsinki Commission leaders to celebrate Romani American heritage. Reports from nearly every corner of the OSCE region suggest that minority groups have been impacted especially hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, and an extended episode of "Helsinki on the Hill" takes an in-depth look at the pandemic’s impact on vulnerable populations, such as the Roma, and the role of governments in addressing that impact. In December 2019, the Helsinki Commission convened a hearing to focus on public diplomacy initiatives that cultivate leaders who espouse democratic principles, including inclusive and representative governance. The commission also released a podcast discussing how to achieve equitable and inclusive democracies  through political inclusion and economic empowerment. Guests discussed their experiences on the front lines of the fight for greater diversity and inclusion in Europe, and in the transatlantic policymaking space more broadly.  Members of the Helsinki Commission have long supported diversity and inclusion efforts in international affairs including through the annual Transatlantic Inclusion Leaders Network (TILN) workshop, a hearing about the state of diversity and inclusion in Europe, and a new transatlantic democracy program for youth “On the Road to Inclusion.” In March 2020, Chairman Hastings introduced the Leadership Institute for Transatlantic Engagement (LITE) Act, calling for the creation of a transatlantic institute focused on strengthening democratic principles and values in the West, as well as pioneering inclusive and intergenerational solutions to current challenges that would empowering individuals across generations and from diverse backgrounds with the knowledge, tools, opportunity, and access to fully participate in their democracies. The commission also supports diversity in the diplomatic corps. Chairman Hastings, Co-Chairman Wicker, and Ranking Member Cardin joined bipartisan Congressional efforts to support annual funding for State Department and USAID diversity fellowship programs, as well as study abroad opportunities. Parliamentary Diplomacy Parliamentary diplomacy advances comprehensive security and democratic institutions in the OSCE region and acts as a tool to promote safe, inclusive and equitable societies. Commissioners have championed the development of parliamentary assemblies for regional organizations throughout the world and participate regularly in the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA), which offers opportunities for engagement among parliamentarians from OSCE participating States. The Helsinki Commission organizes bicameral U.S. delegations to OSCE PA meetings throughout the year. With 17 of 323 seats, the United States has the largest representation in the assembly. In the 116th Congress, commissioners explored ways to defend human rights, hold the Kremlin accountable, and maximize cooperation with OSCE Mediterranean partners at OSCE PA meetings. Commissioners visited Hungary, Tunisia, Israel, and Morocco in bipartisan delegations aiming to strengthen shared principles, and Commissioners reported on these visits at OSCE PA meetings as well. Co-Chairman Wicker led the largest bipartisan, bicameral U.S. delegation in history to the 28th Annual Session of the OSCE PA in July 2019 in Luxembourg. At this annual session, Helsinki Commission Ranking Member Cardin, who also serves as OSCE PA Special Representative on Anti-Semitism, Racism, and Intolerance, hosted a U.S. side event in his capacity as Special Representative on the topic of adopting an action plan to counter hate and foster inclusion. Following a two-day seminar organized by Helsinki Commission and the OSCE PA in February 2020, Future Leadership for Political Inclusion in the OSCE Region: A Seminar for Young Parliamentarians, nearly 20 young legislators from OSCE participating States issued a joint declaration emphasizing the important role young people must play in addressing human rights and security challenges across the world. The commission hosted OSCE PA officials for a briefing in December of 2019 to share a parliamentary perspective on the priorities and objectives of the Albanian chairmanship of the OSCE amid regional conflicts and resistance to democratic reforms in some countries in the OSCE region. The commission also regularly hosts hearings, convenes panels, and participates in events related to parliamentary diplomacy, highlighting the important role the OSCE PA and other parliamentary assemblies play in holding governments accountable to standards of cooperation and human rights. Corruption During the 116th Congress, the Helsinki Commission promoted efforts to combat corruption in the OSCE region, recognizing it as a threat to democracy, security, and human rights. The commission’s work focuses on authoritarian kleptocracy, a form of autocratic government that relies on financial globalization and secrecy to steal and maintain power. Members of the Helsinki Commission introduced the Rodchenkov Act, the Kleptocrat Exposure Act, the Combating the Illicit Trade in Tobacco Products Act (CITTPA), the Countering Russian and Other Overseas Kleptocracy (CROOK) Act, the Foreign Extortion Prevention Act, and the Transnational Repression Accountability and Prevention (TRAP) Act. The Rodchenkov Act passed through both chambers of Congress and was signed into law by President Trump on December 4, 2020. The act establishes criminal penalties for doping schemes, provides restitution for victims, protects whistleblowers from retaliation, and shares information with the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency. Passage of the bipartisan legislation was spearheaded by Co-Chairman Wicker and Commissioner Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (RI) in the Senate and former Commissioners Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (TX-18) and Rep. Michael Burgess (TX-26) in the House of Representatives. “This legislation is a great bipartisan accomplishment for the rights of athletes, the protection of whistleblowers, and our common goal of keeping criminals out of international sports,” said Co-Chairman Wicker.  The commission also organized briefings to draw attention to issues like money laundering and official corruption, as well as to share best practices on innovative corruption policies.

  • COVID-19 IMPACTS OSCE’S 2020 HUMAN DIMENSION WORK

    By Erika Schlager, Counsel for International Law; Janice Helwig, Senior Policy Advisor;  and Shannon Simrell, Representative of the Helsinki Commission to the U.S. Mission to the OSCE The regular and planned schedule of OSCE meetings for 2020 was significantly altered by the COVID-19 pandemic. It now falls to the 2021 Chair-in-Office, Swedish Foreign Minister Ann Linde, to steward the Organization—and its human dimension activities—through the next phase of the pandemic. Changes to the OSCE’s regular order began on March 14, when Austrian authorities ordered a lockdown in response to the emerging pandemic.  OSCE meetings in Vienna, where the OSCE is headquartered, were canceled for the second half of that month.  Pressing business was conducted remotely, which allowed the Permanent Council to renew the mandate for the Special Monitoring Mission (SMM) in Ukraine and adopt the SMM budget on March 19.  After a regularly scheduled recess from April 6 to April 17, some OSCE meetings resumed as the organization shifted to primarily online meetings.  Some used a “hybrid” or “blended” format, permitting in-person engagement in Vienna (to the extent that in-person gatherings were allowed by changing local health measures), reinforced by additional participation through videoconferencing.  Two-day Supplementary Human Dimension Meetings, the Alliance Against Trafficking meeting, and the Annual Security Review Conference were held in a hybrid format.  Some other meetings, such as the annual Human Dimension Seminar in Warsaw, were not held at all.  Separately, the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly canceled its annual session, which had been scheduled in Vancouver in July. 2020 Human Dimension Implementation Meeting As the participating States and the OSCE institutions strove to adjust to circumstances created by the COVID-19 pandemic, convening the annual Human Dimension Implementation Meeting (HDIM) presented particular challenges due to its length and complexity. Reflecting the extraordinary times, the 2020 Human Dimension Implementation Meeting was canceled by decision of the participating States. Spanning two weeks, the HDIM is significantly longer than other OSCE meetings. It typically draws more than a thousand representatives of government and civil society from across the OSCE’s expansive time zones. According to its mandate, the HDIM holds six hours of formal sessions each day covering the full range of human dimension concerns including freedoms of assembly, association, expression, and religion or belief; countering anti-Semitism, racism, and xenophobia; and democratic institutions such as free and fair elections, the rule of law, and independence of the judiciary.  Dozens of side events are also organized by nongovernmental organizations, OSCE institutions, other international organizations, and participating States, which meet for up to an additional six hours a day. Side events allow participants to focus on specific issues of concern in greater depth. The most significant aspect of HDIM is that civil society representatives may speak during formal sessions on equal footing with government representatives.  Governments and civil society alike use HDIM as a forum to cultivate contacts among and between civil society and governments.  As a practical matter, the critical human rights violations that would be the focus of any implementation review were unabated by the pandemic.  On the contrary, some governments used the pandemic to distract from their long-standing human rights shortcomings. In addition, the pandemic created additional areas of concern, such as government surveillance ostensibly related to health monitoring, punitive measures against real or alleged critics of a government’s pandemic responses, and the scope and duration of emergency measures adopted in response to the pandemic. When considering how to hold the HDIM in the context of COVID-19, organizers and participants alike debated how, or indeed whether, HDIM’s unique aspects could be shoe-horned into an on-line format. The United States argued that the HDIM could and should be convened in an adjusted, blended format.  “It is precisely because of the impact of the pandemic on human rights and democracy that the HDIM must be held. [. . .] 2020 is EXACTLY the year we need HDIM most.” Harry Hummel, advisor to the Netherlands Helsinki Committee with extensive experience attending HDIMs, noted that some of these challenges had already been met for the first two Supplementary Human Dimension Meetings and that hybrid meetings would have some advantages.  However, he concluded that all online or hybrid HDIM variants would have significant disadvantages for civil society, particularly since one of the most important components of the HDIM—informal, person-to-person contacts—could not be replicated virtually A majority of OSCE participating States agreed. After extensive consultations among participating States, the Chair-in-Office, and the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) —the OSCE institution mandated to organize the HDIM—the Permanent Council decided on September 11 that the HDIM (originally scheduled for September 21–October 2) would, exceptionally, not take place in 2020 due to the unprecedented, extraordinary, and unpredictable circumstances caused by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.  The Permanent Council also stated that this decision did not establish any precedent for the organization of future HDIMs. Following the announcement, Chairman Alcee Hastings stated, “We should use this time wisely by redoubling our efforts to ensure that all OSCE participating States implement their OSCE commitments. The pandemic has revealed—and in some cases amplified—human rights shortcomings, democratic weaknesses, racial inequities, and social vulnerabilities across the region.”  At a hearing before the Helsinki Commission on September 17, OSCE Chair-in-Office Edi Rama reaffirmed the importance of HDIM. He stated, “This is a huge loss for our organization. Together with [the] Permanent Council, [the] Human Dimension Implementation Meeting is a constituent part of the OSCE’s mechanism for the review and assessment of the implementation of our commitments.” Working to Keeping Human Dimension Issues Top of Mind To provide an additional platform in 2020 for human dimension issues, the OSCE held a series of webinars between September 28 and November 6, 2020, organized by ODIHR in cooperation with the Office of the Representative on Freedom of the Media (RFoM) and the Office of the High Commissioner on National Minorities (HCNM), and with the support of the 2020 Albanian OSCE Chairmanship.  The sessions focused on racism, xenophobia, and intolerance and discrimination; combating racism and discrimination against Roma; the rule of law; access to information and freedom of the media; democratic lawmaking; multilingual education; and human rights defenders. Some of the webinars touched on subjects such as the prevention of torture (part of the discussion on human rights defenders) and access to information that also were the subject of subsequent negotiations for Ministerial Council decisions.  Although the webinars raised important human rights issues, they could not substitute for the HDIM, particularly as their format and short duration did not permit significant dialogue with civil society. Looking Ahead to 2021 In a December 3 address to the annual OSCE Ministerial Council, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun called for sustained vigilance. “We must press governments to uphold their human dimension commitments, give audience to the voices of civil society, and hold a Human Dimension Implementation Meeting in 2021 where governments are called to account for their actions,” he said. As 2021 Chair-in-Office, Sweden will have the task of consulting with the participating States on the entire calendar of OSCE meetings and events, continuing to adjust plans as needed in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. There has been strong support among participating States for moving the HDIM, which is typically been held in the early fall, to earlier in the year to prevent any conflict with the annual United Nations General Assembly meeting.  Given the inability to hold a regular HDIM in 2020, if public health conditions permit, it would be ideal to move the HDIM forward in 2021.

  • Helsinki Commission Digital Digest: November 2020

  • OSCE ELECTION OBSERVERS RELEASE 2020 PRELIMINARY FINDINGS ON THE UNITED STATES GENERAL ELECTIONS

    By Emma Derr, Max Kampelman Fellow and Robert Hand, Senior Policy Advisor The U.S. election system has passed the “extreme stress test,” according to the head of the 2020 general election observation mission organized by the Organization for Cooperation and Security in Europe. International observers representing 39 OSCE participating States presented their preliminary conclusions at a press conference on November 4, 2020 in Washington D.C. The observation mission is a joint effort between the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) and the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (PA). Ambassador Urszula Gacek of Poland, who led the ODIHR observers, said the U.S. electoral system had been subjected to an “extreme stress test” this year due to COVID-19 and the polarized political climate. While announcing the mission’s findings, she concluded, “The American electoral process appears to have passed that test.” Observers deliver the post-election statement in Washington D.C. Photo courtesy of the OSCE PA. In 1990, all OSCE participating States pledged to hold free and fair elections and to invite international observers. To meet this OSCE commitment, in March 2020 the U.S. Department of State invited the OSCE to observe the November 3 elections. As part of the OSCE election observation process, the observers focus their reporting on issues such as legal framework, election administration, new voting technologies, campaign environment and finance, and coverage of elections by media. Recommendations are then issued to improve the electoral processes to benefit citizens. “The United States is leading by example, showing that election observation is a way to promote democracy both at home and abroad,” said OSCE Parliamentary Assembly member Michael Georg Link, who served as Special Coordinator and leader of the short-term observer mission. This is the ninth election the OSCE has observed in the U.S. since 2002. The OSCE began its work during the summer of 2020 by conducting a comprehensive review of the electoral process. A Needs Assessment Report was published in July, which recommended observation.  Once the core team of the observation mission was deployed,  an Interim Report was released in October. Head of OSCE PA election observation mission Kari Henriksen in Ann Arbor, Michigan​ in October. Photo courtesy of the OSCE PA. The Needs Assessment Report noted “the conduct of these elections will be the most challenging in recent decades” and that “in a highly polarized environment, there is an increased need for external and independent overview of the electoral process, including of the election day proceedings.” ODIHR sent a limited election observation mission (LEOM) to the United States on September 29, which included observing early voting. The core team was comprised of eleven experts from ten participating States, led by Gacek. On election day, 50 observers were deployed by ODIHR, alongside 65 observers that included parliamentarians and support staff from the OSCE PA, to 30 states and the District of Columbia. Michael Georg Link and Andreas Nothelle speak with a poll worker at a polling station in Washington D.C. on Election Day. Photo courtesy of the OSCE PA. Despite the challenges, the OSCE team was confident it produced a thorough, impartial, fact-based assessment. As Link noted, the OSCE’s role is not to draw a “thumbs up, thumbs down” political conclusion or compare results to other countries or even to previous elections in the same country. The mission hopes to foster post-election dialogue about its recommendations, and a final report is expected in January 2021. All OSCE election observation reports are accessible on the OSCE website.   Findings Overall Assessment The OSCE’s Preliminary Report concluded that the November 3, 2020 general elections were free and fair, as well as “competitive and well managed despite legal uncertainties and logistical challenges.” It also noted that the pluralistic and diverse media provided comprehensive coverage of the campaign. Freedom of expression was respected, and a wide range of available election-related information enabled voters to make an informed choice. Early and postal voting was significantly expanded, allowing for higher voter participation amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The work of election administration under difficult circumstances “enjoyed general confidence.” The elections were “extensively observed” by both partisan and non-partisan citizen observers, which increased the transparency of the election process. The preliminary report stated, “Election day was orderly and took place in a peaceful atmosphere without unrest or intimidation. Mitigating measures against the pandemic were generally in place and followed.” Any interruptions at polling places due to problems with voting equipment were quickly addressed. Political Polarization The 2020 presidential campaign was characterized by deep political polarization. During the year, controversy arose regarding the conduct of elections amid the COVID-19 pandemic which took hold in February and March.  The death of George Floyd in Minneapolis in late May elevated calls for racial justice, leading to peaceful protests as well as confrontation and instances of violence. The OSCE/ODIHR Election Observation Mission 2016 Final Report said that the last presidential campaign was characterized by harsh personal attacks and intolerant rhetoric by one candidate, a trend that continued in 2020. This year’s preliminary findings highlighted the incumbent president’s “discriminative and pejorative statements” and also noted that “the two leading presidential candidates accused each other of corruption, fraud, working for foreign interests, an inability to lead, and support for extremist groups.” Overall, the international election observers concluded that this rhetoric shifted the focus away from policies and party platforms and toward negative campaigning. Legitimacy of Elections The 2020 Interim Report noted that many ODIHR election observers expressed concerns about the  “the incumbent President’s repeated allegations of a fraudulent election process and postal vote in particular.” This led to concern over public trust in the process and outcome as well as the potential for political violence in the aftermath of elections. At the November 4 press conference, Link stated that “baseless allegations of systematic deficiencies, notably by the incumbent President, including on election night, harm public trust in democratic institutions.” Link and Gacek both said that the OSCE’s observations will be ongoing as the votes continued to be counted. “Nobody – no politician, no elected official – should limit the people’s right to vote. Coming after such a highly dynamic campaign, making sure that every vote is counted is a fundamental obligation for all branches of government,” said Link. Alternative Voting The preliminary findings indicate “an unprecedented volume of litigation over voting processes in the months before the elections, with over 400 lawsuits filed in 44 states.” The report states that such litigation, focusing on minimizing the COVID-19 health risks of in-person voting, created uncertainty and placed undue burden on voters and election officials. Despite these obstacles, opportunities to vote early were expanded due to the pandemic. The interim report said that even though there was concern over the level of preparedness of election officials with minimal exposure to postal votes, many states allowed absentee ballots to be processed before election day and allowed voters to correct mistakes that may have otherwise led to ballot rejection. According to the preliminary report, “Early voting was conducted in-person in 39 states and the District of Columbia, with voting periods ranging from 45 to 3 days. Long queues were reported in a number of states. All states provided voters with the option to cast a postal ballot…By election day, more than 100 million voters had already cast their votes.” The OSCE observed the processing and handling of postal ballots and reported no indication of systemic problems or issues. Secrecy of the vote is not guaranteed by all states for postal and out-of-country electronic voting, which the report—in line with several previous EOM reports—notes does not align with OSCE commitments. Election Observation On election day, the OSCE observed the election process and visited a limited number of polling stations. According to the preliminary report, “Election day was observed by numerous partisan and non-partisan citizen observers across the country, with rights and responsibilities ranging from observing signature and ballot verification to challenging the eligibility of a voter or of individual ballots.” Gacek lauded the enormous effort made by election workers and citizens working the polls, as well as a record voter turnout amidst pandemic challenges and legal uncertainty. “We were received very favorably -- made to feel very welcomed,” said Gacek. Five states and the District of Columbia permit observation by international observers by law, and eighteen states restrict observation. During the press conference, Link noted that there are a number of states where international election observers are not allowed inside polling premises. The OSCE has noted these restrictions since its 2004 report. Link said that he hoped state laws would be amended to allow for international observer access, as the current restrictions are not in line with OSCE commitments. However, Article 1 of the U.S. Constitution devolves the responsibility to conduct elections to the states. As a part of this power, each state has different laws about election observers.  Some do not allow international election observers into polling places. Other states do, but most are silent on the matter, leaving it to the discretion of election officials. Disenfranchisement Disenfranchisement has been an issue raised by OSCE election observation missions since 2008. For example, the OSCE noted that U.S. residents of the District of Columbia and overseas territories do not have voting representation in Congress. Also, an estimated 5.2 million citizens are not permitted to vote due to criminal convictions, even after serving their sentence. The OSCE notes that this restriction disproportionately affects African Americans and violates the principles of universal suffrage. Voter Registration and Identification As stated in previous reports of OSCE election observation missions to the United States, 2020 observers concluded in the “Statement of Preliminary Findings and Conclusions” that voter registration and identification requirements can be unduly restrictive for certain groups of citizens, such as Native Americans and low-income citizens. Identification documents are required in 34 states. Campaign Finance Since 2008, OSCE reports on U.S. elections noted a high level of campaign spending; this year, the mission estimated that campaign expenditures were expected to reach $14 billion. OSCE concerns include campaign finance laws that facilitate a lack of donor transparency and unlimited spending of Super PACs.

  • Coronavirus in the OSCE Region

    By Emma Derr, Max Kampelman Fellow A novel coronavirus was first identified in Wuhan, China in December 2019. Termed COVID-19, the disease spread rapidly around the globe. As of October 2020, 1.18 million people have died from COVID-19, and over 227,000 of these deaths have occurred in the United States. COVID-19 is one of the most devastating public health crises since the Spanish Flu of 1918. From hospital beds to protective gear, governments across the world face significant challenges in combating its morbidity and death rates. In addition to the domestic coronavirus policies implemented at the national level, multilateral organizations such as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) have taken their own steps to curb the vast negative impacts of the novel coronavirus. Examples of Coronavirus Policy Responses across the OSCE Region Countries in the OSCE region have developed a wide variety of policies to combat the significant public health, political, and economic challenges caused by the coronavirus. As the number of cases has surged or declined in various countries, coronavirus restrictions are changing on a weekly basis. In most countries, policies exist at a national level, and many countries have also imposed regional restrictions. In the United States, state and local authorities impose their own restrictions. The varying responses of the United States, Sweden, France, and Turkmenistan illustrate the many coronavirus policy differences that exist in the OSCE region. The scientific publication “Our World in Data,” in collaboration with the University of Oxford, created a “Government Response Stringency Index” using nine response indicators, including school closures and travel bans. With 100 as the strictest ranking, the index currently ranks the United State at 62.5, France at 46.76, and Sweden at 37.04. Turkmenistan is not on the index. Government Response Stringency Index as of October 28, 2020. Graphic courtesy of Our World in Data.  United States In the United States, federal action largely has been confined to restrictions on international travel and immigration, with state governors enacting their own policies concerning closures and restrictions. State policies differ in scope and timeline but most center around issues such as face mask requirements, the number of people who can gather, health guidelines for business operations, social distancing measures, state travel restrictions and quarantine orders, restaurant and bar capacities, prohibitions on non-essential medical procedures, and in-person or online school decisions. Local officials, such as state health officers and mayors, have also imposed restrictions at the county or city level, sometimes in conflict with more or less stringent state-level guidance. State restrictions change rapidly, but the New York Times has created a map with up-to-date state data and policy actions. France The French government first locked down the country on March 17, requiring citizens to provide travel permits when leaving their homes. In May, France began to gradually reopen schools and public transport at the same time as other European countries, such as Belgium and Spain, eased restrictions. Masks are mandated on public transit and recommended when social distancing guidelines cannot be followed. According to France’s government website, as of October, local curfews were imposed in the Paris region, as well as eight other cities. These changes arrive amid a European “second wave,” which includes a spike in coronavirus cases in France. On October 29, another lockdown was announced and is expected to extend until December 1. All nonessential travel outside the home is strictly prohibited as it was with the first lockdown, but this time around, schools will remain open. Sweden In the spring of 2020, Sweden kept its borders open, and became one of the few OSCE participating States that did not go into lockdown. Instead, gatherings of over 50 people, sporting events, and visits to nursing homes were prohibited; bars, restaurants and schools remained open. The general advice issued by the Public Health Agency of Sweden reminds citizens to stay at home when experiencing symptoms, wash their hands regularly, and socially distance from one another. The agency does not recommend face masks in public spaces. Due to its high per capita death rate, Swedish health officials recently released national restrictions on nightclubs, as well as other regional measures. On October 26, new local guidelines were introduced in Uppsala and Malmo, where cases have been increasing. Residents were told to avoid public transport and to only socialize with people within their households. Turkmenistan Turkmenistan is the only OSCE participating State to deny that it has been affected by COVID-19. There is significant doubt both in the international community and among Turkmen NGOs that this is the case. There have been numerous deaths of high-level government officials and people in prisons reportedly due to “pneumonia.” Humanitarian concerns have been raised as patients with COVID-19 symptoms have been overwhelming hospitals. Although the World Health Organization visited the country and did not directly contradict the official narrative, following the visit, Turkmen authorities imposed “preventive” restrictions similar to those in other countries. The country has restricted travel and border crossings; closed restaurants, shopping malls, theaters, and parks; and mandated the use of masks and social distancing in public. OSCE Action The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) is the world’s largest regional security organization with 57 participating States. Leaders of OSCE institutions and offices have stated their continuing commitments to OSCE principles and stress the importance of unity and solidarity as its nations fight to control the pandemic.  “Now is the time for unity. The COVID-19 virus does not distinguish between peoples or countries; its threat is universal. This underscores that security is common, comprehensive and indivisible,” said the Chair of the OSCE Permanent Council Igli Hasani and his colleagues in a letter earlier this year. The OSCE seeks to provide leadership through guidelines and policy recommendations that address the challenges presented by the novel coronavirus. The organization has also been active in examining the economic, environmental, and security implications of the coronavirus across the OSCE region. “In today’s highly interconnected world, it is necessary to have strong solidarity and a cooperative approach at all levels: community, state, regional, and global,” stated Vuk Zugic, OSCE Coordinator of Economic and Environmental Activities. Minority Groups and Vulnerable Populations On the Helsinki on the Hill podcast “Communities at Risk,” Ambassador Lamberto Zannier, the former OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities and a current OSCE PA High-Level Expert, spoke about providing protection for the most vulnerable during this health crisis. “We felt that the issue of protecting the diversity of the society and ensuring that all social groups are included in the policies, and there is an equal treatment for all, was not at the forefront of the concerns of many governments,” he said. “We started to see problems of discrimination. We started to see problems with hate speech. We started seeing problems with access of some of the population to basic services.” In March, as OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities, Zannier released recommendations for short-term responses to COVID-19 to support social cohesion in OSCE states, and in April, the HCNM released a full set of policy recommendations that call on countries to take into account diversity when implementing state emergency measures, such as providing public services and media communications in minority languages. Voting and Elections The OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) is mandated to address issues related to democracy, human rights, and rule of law, including freedom of the press, freedom of movement, and democratic elections.  ODIHR released a report in October outlining best alternative voting practices in the context of COVID-19, focusing on secrecy, equality, and universality. Human Trafficking ODIHR also conducted an empirical survey of survivors of human trafficking and issued a report in June that examined the impact of COVID-19 on human trafficking trends and recommended how OSCE states could respond. According to OSCE PA Special Representative on Trafficking in Persons and former Helsinki Commission Chair Rep. Chris Smith, “The COVID-19 pandemic has increased the vulnerability of children to becoming victims of trafficking and sexual exploitation. Today, with most schools closed, children are spending more of their time online where they are vulnerable to being groomed by sexual predators and lured into trafficking situations. One way we can fight this and protect our children now is by education to keep them safe online and by developing age-appropriate training tools for children, parents and educators.” Parliamentary Diplomacy The OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA) has hosted several webinars focused on the effects of the coronavirus on human rights and democracy. The webinar titled “COVID’s impact on conflicts in the OSCE region” addressed obstacles to conflict resolution, humanitarian aid efforts, and implementation of the fundamental principles agreed to under the Helsinki Final Act. Helsinki Commissioner and Chair of the OSCE PA General Committee on Political Affairs and Security Rep. Richard Hudson attended the discussion and stated his concern over “the COVID-19 pandemic and its potential to further inflame existing conflicts in the OSCE area or potentially generate new ones.” He said it was important for the Parliamentary Assembly to stay informed on the OSCE’s role in the conflict cycle, specifically in Ukraine and Georgia. Other speakers emphasized his message and noted that people in conflict zones are on one of the most dangerous frontlines of the pandemic. In May, the OSCE PA hosted a webinar titled “Respecting Human Rights and Maintaining Democratic Control During States of Emergency.” In his comments, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) emphasized the importance of protecting fundamental freedoms. “I am sorry, but not surprised that some governments have taken the need for emergency measures as an opportunity for repressive measures,” he stated. “Hungary is the only OSCE participating State that does not have a sunset clause for the expiration of its emergency measures or requiring parliamentary approval for an extension.  Parliamentary oversight is absolutely essential, especially when governments seek to exercise extraordinary powers.” During the webinar, Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), Helsinki Commission Ranking Member and the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly Special Representative on Anti-Semitism, Racism, and Intolerance, also addressed concerning aspects of COVID-19 emergency responses. “Emergency provisions which restrict freedom of speech or freedom of the media are especially concerning and may actually undermine our efforts to address this health emergency. We need to ensure that journalists, medical professionals, scientists and others can provide the public with information we need to battle COVID,” he said. OSCE Field Missions OSCE field missions have been actively adapting to support host countries’ needs during this pandemic. Since April, several missions have helped to provide medical supplies and equipment to their host countries. The OSCE Presence in Albania, a field operation that cooperates with Albania’s Border and Migration Police, donated medical supplies to Albania’s Border Police in May. The team also visited border crossing points to assess existing protocols. The OSCE Programme Office in Dushanbe provided protective gear and sanitizing supplies to its partners in Tajikistan, and the OSCE mission to Montenegro delivered food and hygiene products to support the country’s Red Cross.  Handover of personal protective equipment to Regional Health Administration of Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region on July 25, 2020. (Photo courtesy of OSCE/Umed Qurbonov) The OSCE has also facilitated online medical trainings for border officials in Turkmenistan and donated IT equipment to the Canton 10 Ministry of Education to support Bosnia and Herzegovina. The Special Monitoring Mission in Ukraine has been impacted by the pandemic by restrictions on mission member movement, but the mission nevertheless continues to be a key international actor in the country, informing on developments in the conflict areas of Donetsk and Luhansk.

  • Hastings and Wicker Call for Free and Fair Elections, Anti-Corruption Action, and Protection of Human Rights in Kyrgyzstan

    WASHINGTON—In response to the tumultuous change of power in Kyrgyzstan, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) and Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) issued the following statement: “Kyrgyzstan should ensure that changes to its electoral system adhere to the rule of law, are transparent, and allow for input from civil society. Its citizens, many of whom took to the streets in protest over allegations of vote buying and corruption during the annulled October 4 parliamentary election, should have confidence that the system is fair and that new elections are conducted properly and reflect the will of the people. “For the country to move forward, authorities should seriously address endemic corruption and protect private businesses and foreign investment. We are also disturbed by reports of pressure and harassment directed toward political opposition, human rights activists, and journalists. We urge Kyrgyzstan to ensure that human rights are protected during this difficult time, including the rights of persons belonging to ethnic minorities. “We believe that the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe could play an instrumental role in assisting Kyrgyzstan with any electoral or constitutional changes, as well as preparations for and observation of new elections. It also could support the role of civil society and independent media. Kyrgyzstan should take full advantage of this possibility.” What started as a popular revolt by youth and opposition groups over fraudulent elections on October 4 and endemic corruption resulted in the resignation of President Jeenbekov and the installation of Sadyr Japarov as both Kyrgyzstan’s acting president and prime minister. OSCE election observers concluded that the October 4 parliamentary election “was competitive and candidates could, in general, conduct their activities freely” but “credible allegations of vote buying remain a serious concern” and “a number of controversial CEC decisions raised questions about its impartiality.” The country will hold both new parliamentary and new presidential elections. Presidential elections have been scheduled for January 10, but the timing for parliamentary elections remains unclear. Parliament has already made some changes to the electoral code and is discussing further reform. Japarov announced that he would step down as president in December to allow him to run for president and thereby get around a constitutional provision that bans the acting president from doing so.

  • ONGOING TRANSATLANTIC ENGAGEMENT THROUGH THE OSCE PARLIAMENTARY ASSEMBLY

    Mr. HUDSON. Madam Speaker, I rise today to highlight my recent efforts to engage with our allies across Europe to address the current political turmoil in Belarus and seek a way forward. On September 23, I joined a video call of the leadership of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE PA), where I serve as Chairman the Committee on Political Affairs and Security. Joining us for the discussion were the Head of the Belarusian delegation to the OSCE PA, Mr. Andrei Savinykh, and the leader of the Belarusian opposition and former presidential candidate, Ms. Svetlana Tikhanovskaya. Ms. Tikhanovskaya shared with us the long struggle of the people of Belarus for their rights under President Alexander Lukashenko's 26-year authoritarian rule. The fraudulent presidential election on August 9, in which Lukashenko claimed he ``won'' with over 80 percent of the vote, led thousands of Belarusians across the country to come out into the streets. They risk physical harm and imprisonment to demand free and fair elections and the release of political prisoners. Unfortunately, these individuals have been met with brute force from the authoritarian regime. They continue to injure and detain protestors, journalists, and even bystanders on a massive scale. Instances of torture in detention have been reported, and some have been killed. Lukashenko is clearly afraid for his political future. In another desperate move, he recently held an illegal, early "inauguration'' in an attempt to consolidate his illegitimate power. I strongly condemned Lukashenko's violent repression of Belarusians and express solidarity for their desire to choose their own leadership in a democratic and transparent manner and to exercise their fundamental freedoms without fear of violent repercussions or harassment. During our meeting, I noted two particular cases that we in the United States are watching closely. U.S. citizen Vitali Shkliarov, who was in Belarus visiting family, was unjustly detained in July and languishes in a Belarusian prison since the end of July. We are concerned for his welfare and I called for his release. I also mentioned that the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Minsk-Mogilev, Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz, has been denied re-entry to Belarus after a visit abroad, even though he is a citizen. He has openly criticized the government's use of violence against peaceful people, including the detention of priests and clergy, and we fear that this too is a political act on the part of Lukashenko and an infringement on religious freedom. The future of Belarus belongs to its people, and, as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has emphasized, this path should be ``free from external intervention.'' Indeed, my colleagues in the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly understand that it is not our place to choose the leadership of Belarus, but to use the unique role of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly as a representative body to foster authentic dialogue, prevent and resolve conflict, and hold each other accountable. As an OSCE participating State, Belarus has an obligation to abide by the provisions of the Helsinki Final Act, including those on human rights and fundamental freedoms. I am pleased that 17 participating States of the OSCE, including the United States, have invoked the Moscow Mechanism, which will establish a mission of independent experts to look into the particularly serious threats to the fulfillment of human rights commitments in Belarus. The report that the mission issues will hopefully offer us greater insight into the situation in Belarus and recommendations for future actions. It is a privilege, through the U.S. Helsinki Commission, to represent the United States Congress in the Parliamentary Assembly of the OSCE. The Parliamentary Assembly provides Members of Congress with a unique, bipartisan opportunity to work with our friends and allies to help resolve pressing global issues while promoting our shared values. Because the Parliamentary Assembly includes representatives of Belarus and our European allies, it is uniquely suited to address the human rights and security implications of the moment in Belarus. Madam Speaker, please join me today in calling for an end to violence and mass detentions in Belarus and recognizing the importance of continued Congressional engagement with the Parliamentary Assembly of the OSCE.

  • Editorial Independence Critical for U.S. International Broadcasting

    By Jordan Warlick, Policy Advisor Access to accurate, unbiased information is imperative for a functioning democracy. Citizens need access to credible news in order to make informed decisions about the future of their nation. According to the most recent U.S. National Security Strategy, “an informed and engaged citizenry is the fundamental requirement for a free and resilient nation. For generations, [U.S.] society has protected free press, free speech, and free thought.” As part of its commitment to press freedom worldwide, the United States supports the development of local independent media in countries where government-controlled media dominates the information landscape. It also brings independent media to these information-starved spots through specific services—like Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, and others—under the aegis of the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM). The mission of USAGM, which oversees the Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia, Middle East Broadcasting Networks, and the Office of Cuba Broadcasting, is vital to the U.S. national interest: “to inform, engage and connect people around the world in support of freedom and democracy.” USAGM networks reach more than 350 million people across the globe, many of whom otherwise would not have access to independent, unbiased news. Because providing access to credible media is a more effective tool of diplomacy than attempting to push U.S. propaganda overseas, USAGM and the media organizations it oversees are deliberately, legally structured against acting like a propaganda mouthpiece for the U.S. government.  The credibility and reliability of Voice of America and other USAGM networks hinge on a statutory firewall that protects them from political interference and has been in place since President Gerald Ford signed Voice of America’s charter in 1976. More than 40 years of bipartisan support for USAGM has been critical to its success. In 1994 President Bill Clinton signed the International Broadcasting Act, which established the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG)—now USAGM—to oversee Voice of America and  its sister networks. The legislation specifically mandated that broadcasting overseen by the BBG must “be conducted in accordance with the highest professional standards of broadcast journalism.” It also required that the Director of BBG to “respect the professional independence and integrity” of the U.S. international broadcasting services it oversees. When the BBG became the U.S. Agency for Global Media in 2017, USAGM retained the same statutory commitments to protecting the independence of its networks, including that the Chief Executive Officer of USAGM must “respect the independence and integrity” of the broadcasting services. Voice of America’s mission today—“producing accurate, balanced and comprehensive reporting, programming, online and social media content for a global audience, particularly to those who are denied access to open and free media”—would not be possible without this political firewall. Like any other privately owned media outlet, these networks must remain free to produce independent reporting, including that which is critical of U.S. government policies. Unlike many other state-controlled international media outlets, including Russia’s RT and Sputnik or China’s CCTV, USAGM networks have a storied history of bringing credible, reliable news to audiences behind the Iron Curtain, the Great Firewall of China, and beyond. It would be particularly damaging if the United States was perceived to be attempting to tear down the legal firewall protecting Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, and the other international broadcasters from political interference.

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