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Helsinki Commission Chair Chris Smith Shines Light on Egregious Rule-of-Law Abuses by Russian Government

Hearing Witnesses Testify to Repeated Violations of International Security, Economic, Human Rights Agreements
Wednesday, October 21, 2015

WASHINGTON—At a Congressional hearing today, the U.S. Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, spotlighted the many recent violations of the rule of law committed by the Russian government.

“Forty years after the signing of the Helsinki Final Act, we face a set of challenges with Russia, a founding member of the organization, that mirror the concerns that gave rise to the Helsinki Final Act,” said Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04), who called the hearing. “At stake is the hard-won trust between members, now eroded to the point that armed conflict rages in the OSCE region. The question is open whether the principles continue to bind the Russian government with other states in a common understanding of what the rule of law entails.”

“Russia’s annexation of Crimea and subsequent intervention in the Donbas region not only clearly violate this commitment, but also every guiding principle of the 1975 Helsinki Final Act.  It appears these are not isolated instances.  In recent years, Russia appears to have violated, undermined, disregarded, or even disavowed fundamental and binding arms control commitments,” Smith continued. “[I also] question Russia’s OSCE commitment to develop free, competitive markets that respect international dispute arbitration mechanisms...[and recent government actions] demonstrate Russia’s readiness to abuse its laws and judicial system to limit individual freedoms both within and beyond its borders.”

Witness testimony highlighted case studies corresponding to each of the three dimensions of comprehensive security established by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE): politico-military security; economic and environmental security; and human rights and fundamental freedoms.

Tim Osborne, executive director of GML Ltd., the majority owner of the now-liquidated Yukos Oil Company, said, “It is clear that the Russian Federation is not honoring its obligations and commitments under the rule of law or in a manner consistent with the Helsinki process.  Russia’s tendency, more often than not, has been to ignore, delay, obstruct or retaliate when faced with its international law responsibilities…Russia cannot be trusted in international matters and that even when it has signed up to international obligations, it will ignore them if that is what it thinks serves it best.”

“Russia had engaged in the uncompensated expropriation of billions of dollars of U.S. investments in Yukos Oil Company,” observed former U.S. Under Secretary of State for Economic, Business and Agricultural Affairs Ambassador Alan Larson. “American investors—who owned about 12 percent of Yukos at the time of the expropriation—have claims worth over $14 billion, and they are entitled to compensation under international law even though they have no option for bringing claims directly against the Russian Federation.”

Vladimir Kara-Murza, a well-known Russian activist and the coordinator of the Open Russia Movement, said, “Today, the Kremlin fully controls the national airwaves, which it has turned into transmitters for its propaganda…the last Russian election recognized by the OSCE as conforming to basic democratic standards was held more than 15 years ago.”

“There are currently 50 political prisoners in the Russian Federation,” Kara-Murza continued. “These prisoners include opposition activists jailed under the infamous ‘Bolotnaya case’ for protesting against Mr. Putin’s inauguration in May 2012; the brother of anti-corruption campaigner Alexei Navalny; and Alexei Pichugin, the remaining hostage of the Yukos case.”

“A clear pattern emerges when one looks at Russia’s implementation of its arms control obligations overall,” observed Stephen Rademaker, former Assistant Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security and Nonproliferation. “Should Moscow conclude such agreements have ceased to serve its interest, it will ignore them, effectively terminate them, violate them while continuing to pay them lip service, or selectively implement them…Russia believes that this is how great powers are entitled to act, and today Moscow insists on acting and being respected as a great power.”

Chairman Smith was joined at the hearing by a panel of lawmakers including Commission Co-Chairman Senator Roger Wicker (MS) and Representative Robert Aderholt (AL-04).

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    Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are welcomed at many, though not all, meetings of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). OSCE rules for NGO participation are much simpler and more inclusive than at the United Nations (UN) or other international organizations, particularly as concerns human dimension events. One of the advantages of the OSCE is that it is the only international organization in which NGOs are allowed to participate in human dimension meetings on an equal basis with participating States. NGOs—no matter how small—can raise their concerns directly with governments.  (Governments have a right of reply.)  In addition, NGOs can hold side events during human dimension meetings in which they can focus on specific subjects or countries in greater depth than in the regular sessions of the event.  Download the full report to learn more. Contributor: Janice Helwig, Representative of the Helsinki Commission to the U.S. Mission to the OSCE

  • The Magnitsky Act at Five

    In 2009, Russian tax lawyer Sergei Magnitsky was brutally murdered in prison after uncovering the theft of $230 million by corrupt Russian officials. On December 14, 2012, the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act was signed into law in the United States, establishing punitive sanctions – including financial freezes and visa restrictions – for those complicit in Magnitsky’s murder and other human rights abuses in the Russian Federation.  For the past five years, the Magnitsky Act has served as a basis for fighting corruption in Russia and the Putin regime’s systematic violations of the human rights of Russian citizens. On the fifth anniversary of the Magnitsky Act, the Helsinki Commission examined the implementation of the legislation, the resistance of the Russian government to it, and the impact of sanctions on senior members of Putin’s inner circle. The Commissioners heard testimony from William Browder, CEO of Hermitage Capital Management, Garry Kasparov, Chair of the Human Rights Foundation, and the Hon. Irwin Cotler, PC, OC, Chair of the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights. Sen. Roger Wicker (MS), Chairman of the Helsinki Commission, began by recognizing the retirement of Amb. David Killion, Chief of Staff of the Commission since 2014, and thanking Amb. Killion for his service. Before introducing the witnesses, Sen. Wicker condemned the corruption plaguing the Russian government, and quoted the murdered Russian opposition politician Boris Nemtsov, who called the Magnitsky Act “the most pro-Russian law passed in the United States.” Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04), Co-Chairman of the Commission, criticized the Russian government’s response to the Magnitsky Act. He described the harm done to vulnerable Russian orphans by their government’s decision to ban American parents from adopting children from Russia. Mr. Smith also noted that he and many other Americans involved in the passage of the Magnitsky Act have since been denied visas to enter Russia. This response, he said, shows that the Magnitsky Act “struck right to the heart of the Kremlin’s elite.” Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), the Helsinki Commission’s ranking senator, praised the witnesses for their commitment to promoting human rights in Russia, and thanked the members of the Helsinki Commission and other members of Congress who played a role in the passage of the Magnitsky Act. Mr. Cardin also recognized the passage of Magnitsky legislation in Canada, Estonia, Lithuania, and the United Kingdom, and recalled the power of American leadership on human rights, noting that, “when we lead, we find that other countries follow.” William Browder, the first witness to testify, recalled the historic nature of the Magnitsky Act. “On the day it passed, I could never have predicted how far the Magnitsky Act would spread around the world,” he said. “Without exaggeration, it has become the most important piece of human rights legislation passed in this century.” He also called attention to the future of the Magnitsky movement, noting that the parliaments of Ukraine, South Africa, and Gibraltar are considering introducing similar legislation. In closing, Mr. Browder presented several suggestions to the Commission, including adding additional names to the list of sanctioned individuals, and encouraging other G7 countries to adopt Magnitsky legislation. Garry Kasparov reiterated that the targeted sanctions imposed by the Magnitsky Act only apply to corrupt officials, and not the Russian people. “Russian national interest and Putin’s interests are diametrically opposed in nearly every way,” he said. “This is why legislation that targets Putin and his mafia is pro-Russian, not anti-Russia.” Mr. Kasparov observed that the Kremlin’s reaction proved the worth of the Magnitsky Act, and that, “it is essential to increase the pressure, to continue with what works now that the right path has been confirmed.”  At the conclusion of his testimony, Kasparov observed that “Putin and his gang . . . aren’t jihadists or ideologues, they are billionaires. . . .  Follow the money, the real estate, the stock and reveal it, freeze it, so that one day it can be returned to the Russian people from whom it was looted.”  More succinctly in a follow-up question, he quipped, “Banks, not tanks.” Irwin Cotler gave an overview of the passage of the Canadian Magnitsky Act, and described the goals of the global Magnitsky movement. The aim of Magnitsky legislation is “to combat the persistent and pervasive culture of corruption, criminality, and impunity and the externalized aggression abroad, of which Putin’s Russia is a case study” and “to deter thereby other prospective violators,” he said. Passing such legislation also “tells human rights defenders, the Magnitskys of today, that they are not alone, that we stand in solidarity with them, that we will not relent in our pursuit of justice for them, and that we will undertake our international responsibilities in the pursuit of justice.”

  • OSCE Adopts Child Trafficking Ministerial Decision Modeled on Initiative of Co-Chairman Smith

    WASHINGTON—On December 8, the OSCE concluded its annual meeting of the Foreign Ministers of 57 OSCE participating States by adopting a ministerial decision on combatting child trafficking—modeled on OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (PA) resolutions adopted in 2016 and 2017, authored by Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04).  Rep. Smith is the Special Representative on Human Trafficking Issues in the OSCE PA. Entitled “Strengthening Efforts to Combat All Forms of Child Trafficking, Including for Sexual Exploitation, as well as Other Forms of Sexual Exploitation of Children,” the decision provides practical steps for participating States to protect children from traveling sex offenders, and from misuse of the internet for child trafficking and other sexual exploitation.  “Traveling sex offenders rely on secrecy and anonymity to commit crimes against children; the new decision will deter the sexual exploitation of children at home and abroad, and aid in the prosecution of child sex traffickers,” said Smith. The decision calls on each of the OSCE participating States to keep a register of individuals who have committed sex offenses against a child, and to share that information with the law enforcement in destination countries—which would give the United States warning of foreign sex offenders entering U.S. borders.  The decision also calls on OSCE participating States to enact extra-territorial jurisdiction in order to “prosecute their citizens for serious sexual crimes against children, even if these crimes are committed in another country.”   “Some believe the laws of a destination country allow sexual exploitation of a child, or rely on the fact that the judicial system in the destination country is weak,” Smith continued.  “The Ministerial decision underscores the universal human rights of the child to be protected from sexual exploitation and calls for participating States to put all abusers on notice—they will be prosecuted when they return home.”  In addition, the Ministerial decision echoes the Parliamentary Assembly resolutions by calling for accountability of those who misuse the Internet to knowingly or recklessly facilitate access to children for sexual exploitation or child trafficking—such as by advertising children on websites—highlighting that such individuals should be prosecuted as traffickers. “With this binding decision, the foreign ministries of the 57 OSCE participating States stand united with the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly to protect children from trafficking and other sexual exploitation across the OSCE region,” said Smith. Smith first raised the issue of human trafficking at the 1999 OSCE PA Annual Session in St. Petersburg, the first time it appeared on the OSCE agenda. Since then, he has introduced or cosponsored a supplementary item and/or amendments on trafficking at each annual session of the OSCE PA, including on issues such as sex tourism prevention, training of the transportation sector in victim identification and reporting, corporate responsibility for trafficking in supply chains, and special protections for vulnerable populations. In addition to authoring the 2016 International Megan’s Law to Prevent Child Exploitation and Other Sexual Crimes through Advanced Notification of Traveling Sex Offenders, he authored the landmark U.S. Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 and its 2003 and 2005 reauthorizations. Chairman Smith co-chairs the United States Congressional Human Trafficking Caucus.

  • Combating Kleptocracy with the Global Magnitsky Act

    In 2016, Congress passed the Global Magnitsky Act, which seeks to prohibit the worst foreign human rights offenders and most corrupt officials operating anywhere in the world from entering into the United States and to block their U.S. assets. This law requires that each year on December 10 (Human Rights Day), or the first day Congress is in session thereafter, the President submit a report to Congress that includes a list of each foreign person sanctioned under the law during the preceding year. The anti-corruption provisions are of particular interest given how wide-ranging and unprecedented they are as a tool to combat kleptocracy. While combating corruption has traditionally focused on internal reforms and best practices, the Global Magnitsky Act enables the United States to target those individuals who steal from their populations and abuse the global financial system as well as those who facilitate their grand corruption. This briefing provided an overview of the scourge of corruption in the OSCE region and how the Global Magnitsky Act can be employed to combat it. It included a discussion of the types of individuals and groups that should come under consideration for placement on the sanctions list and the ramifications of any such placement.

  • The International Tribunal and Beyond: Pursuing Justice for Atrocities in the Western Balkans

    Between 1991 and 2001 the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, made up of six republics, was broken apart by a series of brutal armed conflicts. The conflicts were characterized by widespread and flagrant violations of international humanitarian law, among them mass killings of civilians, the massive, organized and systematic detention and rape of women, torture, and practices of ethnic cleansing, including forced displacement. In 1992 the U.N. established a Commission of Experts that documented the horrific crimes on the ground and led to the 1993 creation of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY). This month, after more than two decades of persistent, ground-breaking efforts to prosecute the individuals responsible for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide in the former Yugoslavia, the ICTY is concluding its work. As it prepares to close its doors, this briefing will assess the tribunal’s achievements and limitations, and most importantly, what still needs to be done by the countries of the region to seek justice in outstanding cases, bring greater closure to victims, and foster greater reconciliation among peoples. Panelists discussed these questions and suggested ways that the United States, Europe, and the international community as a whole can encourage the further pursuit of justice in the Western Balkans.

  • Sea Rescues: Saving Refugees and Migrants on the Mediterranean

    Ships on the Mediterranean Sea have rescued 117,000 refugees and migrants bound for Europe so far in 2017, and many more since the crisis first reached the continent in 2015. In the past two years, almost 12,000 refugees and migrants have died or gone missing. Many of the sea rescues have been conducted by coast guard and naval ships from frontline European countries; the European Union’s Border and Coast Guard Agency, also known as Frontex; and EUNAVFOR MED Operation Sophia. Merchant ships have also played an important role in sea rescues of migrants and refugees on the Mediterranean. According to the International Chamber of Shipping, merchant ships have rescued more than 41,300 of them since 2015. This briefing examined how rescue operations work; what ships are obligated to do when they become aware of a vessel in distress; issues of human trafficking and smuggling; how well governments, shipping companies, and international organizations coordinate and collaborate with each other on sea rescues; major challenges that currently exist for navies, coast guards, and merchant ships involved in rescue operations; and recommendations to address these challenges.

  • 2017 OSCE Ministerial

    Foreign Ministers of the 57 OSCE participating States met in Vienna on December 7 and December 8, 2017 for the 24th OSCE Ministerial Council meeting. The United States was represented by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who in his statement described the OSCE as “an indispensable pillar of our common security architecture that bolsters peace and stability in Europe and Eurasia.” Secretary Tillerson focused much of his statement on the conflict in Ukraine, reiterating the United States’ commitment to Ukraine’s sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity within its internationally recognized borders; calling for full implementation of the Minsk agreements; and confirming that Crimea-related sanctions will remain in place until Russia returns full control of the peninsula to Ukraine. In addition, he raised the importance of addressing radicalization and terrorism; the security consequences of irregular flows of migrants; and long-running conflicts in Georgia, Moldova, and Nagorno-Karabakh. The Ministerial Council adopted decisions on reducing the risk of conflict from the use of information and communication technologies; strengthening efforts to prevent trafficking in human beings; strengthening efforts to combat all forms of child trafficking and sexual exploitation of children; promoting economic participation; as well as a statement on the negotiations on the Transdniestrian settlement process in the “5+2” Format. Unfortunately, as has been the case for the past several years, the Ministerial Council was not able to reach consensus to adopt decisions in the human dimension, mainly due to Russian reluctance. Instead, 44 countries made a joint statement on human rights and fundamental freedoms, expressing concern about human rights and stressing the importance of civil society. Several  side events and other meetings took place on the margins of the Ministerial. Secretary Tillerson held several bilateral meetings, including one with Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov. The OSCE Parliamentary Assembly held a meeting of its Bureau, and the NGO-network Civic Solidarity Platform held its annual OSCE Parallel Civil Society Conference. Helsinki Commission staff served as members of the U.S. Delegation to the Ministerial.

  • The Legacy of Sergei Magnitsky

    By Woody Atwood, Intern In 2008, a Russian tax lawyer named Sergei Magnitsky representing Hermitage Capital Management in a dispute over alleged tax evasion discovered a $230 million fraud being committed by Russian law enforcement officers assigned to the case. Magnitsky reported the fraud to the authorities and was arrested soon after by the same officers he had accused. For almost a year, Magnitsky was held in squalid prison conditions, denied visits from his family, and beaten by guards. Despite developing serious cases of gallstones, pancreatitis, and cholecystitis, he was denied medical attention. On November 16, 2009, Sergei Magnitsky was beaten to death in his cell. He had been imprisoned for 358 days, just seven days short of the maximum legal pre-trial detention period in Russia. A year later, Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), then Chairman of the Helsinki Commission, introduced the Justice for Sergei Magnitsky Act, directing the U.S. Secretary of State to publish a list of individuals involved in Sergei’s detention and death, and enabling the government to deny these individuals entry to the United States and freeze their American assets. The bill was reintroduced in the next Congress as the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act. This version covered all individual who commit extrajudicial killings, torture or otherwise egregiously violate the human rights of activists or whistleblowers in Russia. Both houses of Congress passed the new bill in late 2012 as part of the Russia and Moldova Jackson-Vanik Repeal and Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act. On December 14, 2012, President Obama signed the Magnitsky Act into law, establishing severe consequences for the worst human rights violators in Russia. Just weeks after the passage of the Magnitsky Act, the Russian parliament and government responded by passing a law banning American families from adopting children from Russia. The law immediately terminated adoptions that were being processed, and many children, including children with serious disabilities, who were due to leave Russia were never able to join their American families. In 2013, the Russian government also issued a list of 18 American officials banned from entering Russia. In 2015, Sen. Cardin and Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04), who was then chairing the Helsinki Commission, introduced the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act to expand the authorities established by the original Magnitsky Act to include the worst human rights violators and those who commit significant acts of corruption around the world. The legislation required the President to annually issue a list of individuals sanctioned under it on Human Rights Day (December 10) or the soonest day thereafter when the full Congress is in session. The global version was passed in December 2016 as part of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2017. The story of Sergei Magnitsky and the actions of the U.S. Congress have sparked a global movement to hold individual perpetrators accountable for their human rights violations and corruption. In the last year, Estonia, Canada, the United Kingdom, and Lithuania have all passed their own Magnitsky laws. In honor of Human Rights Day and the fifth anniversary of the Magnitsky Act, and to correspond to the deadline for the annual Global Magnitsky List, the U.S. Helsinki Commission is holding two events related to the legacy of Sergei Magnitsky. On Wednesday, December 13, at 3:00PM Commission staff will lead a public briefing on “Combating Kleptocracy with the Global Magnitsky Act,” and on Thursday, December 14, Commissioners will hear testimony on “The Magnitsky Act at Five: Assessing Accomplishments and Challenges.”

  • International Anti-Corruption Day 2017: Curtailing Kleptocracy

    By Paul Massaro, Policy Advisor and John Engelken, Intern On Saturday, December 9, the Helsinki Commission joins the United Nations and many others in recognizing International Anti-Corruption Day, which is of particular importance today given the ease with which illicit financial flows traverse national borders. International Anti-Corruption Day was established as part of the UN’s passage of the United Nations Convention against Corruption, which was adopted on October 31, 2003. This legally binding international agreement focuses on five key areas of anti-corruption policy: preventive measures, criminalization and law enforcement, international cooperation, asset recovery, and technical assistance and information exchange. Given corruption’s global nature, disproportionate victimization of economically vulnerable communities, and corrosion of democracy, human rights, and the rule of law, participating in anti-corruption efforts worldwide is a central responsibility of the Organization on Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the U.S. Helsinki Commission. No form of corruption is so insidious as kleptocracy, or “rule by thieves.” Kleptocrats abuse the global financial system, moving massive wealth from their home countries to nations where the rule of law is more established; they then use these ill-gotten funds to finance crime and terrorism, fund extravagant lifestyles, and corrode political institutions from the inside out. The frequency with which kleptocratic regimes engage in corrupt activity and money-laundering to maintain political power and accumulate material wealth emphasizes the need for governments and international bodies to coordinate more closely and step up their work to root out corruption. It also emphasizes the need for countries where the rule of law is respected to adopt reforms that make it more difficult for kleptocrats to abuse their legal and financial frameworks. Encompassing a region that contains both corrupt kleptocracies that steal state and business assets and rule-of-law democracies in which those stolen assets are hidden, the OSCE is uniquely situated to confront the problem of corruption, and has taken on a number of commitments to do just that. In particular, the 2012 Dublin Declaration and the 2014 Basel Decision contain language calling for domestic reforms consistent with the rule of law and political transparency initiatives, in tandem with more concerted anti-corruption efforts. In addition, these texts contain commitments to combat the transnational money-laundering that makes grand corruption possible and encourage private firms to play a greater role in identifying and countering corruption. The U.S. Helsinki Commission regularly highlights the problem of corruption through public events, publications, and statements. In 2017 alone, the Commission has held four briefings on the issue – Countering Corruption in the OSCE Region: Returning Ill-Gotten Assets and Closing Safe Havens; Energy (In)Security in Russia’s Periphery; Kleptocrats of the Kremlin: Ties Between Business and Power in Russia; and Ukraine’s Fight against Corruption – as well as two Congressional hearings, The Romanian Anti-Corruption Process: Successes and Excesses and Combating Kleptocracy With Incorporation Transparency. In addition, the Commission has published two short thematic articles, Russia’s Weaponization of Corruption (And Western Complicity) and Beyond Pipelines: Breaking Russia’s Grip on Post-Soviet Energy Security, as well as a brief overview of corruption in Russia and an in-depth report on Ukraine’s fight against corruption. Finally, the Commission’s Chairman, Senator Roger Wicker, recently made a statement regarding Ukraine’s fight against corruption. On International Anti-Corruption Day, the Helsinki Commission remains committed to doing its part in the fight against corruption and applauds the efforts of other national, international, and non-governmental organizations doing the same.  

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