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Helsinki Commission Chairman Condemns Russian-backed Syrian Government Offensive in Idlib

Wednesday, March 04, 2020

WASHINGTON—In response to mounting casualties from clashes between Turkish and Russian-backed Syrian forces in northwestern Syria and the Turkish government’s decision to open its borders to refugee flows toward mainland Europe, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) issued the following statement:

“A vicious Russian and Syrian government offensive in Idlib province is responsible for the unacceptable military escalation, civilian suffering, and displacement crisis we have witnessed in recent days and weeks,” said Chairman Hastings. “Presidents Putin and Assad must stop this assault immediately and comply with international humanitarian law requiring them to protect civilians and civilian infrastructure. I further urge the Trump administration to deploy appropriate resources to address these pressing security and humanitarian challenges, which will undoubtedly impact the OSCE region. We must sustainably meet the needs of the most vulnerable and the countless refugees resulting from Russian and Syrian aggression.”

On February 27, Russian-backed Syrian forces killed at least 33 Turkish soldiers in the northwestern Idlib province of Syria. Following this incident, the Turkish government announced the opening of Turkey’s borders for refugees and migrants to go westward to European Union member countries, despite the March 2016 EU-Turkey agreement “to end the irregular migration from Turkey to the EU.” That agreement is founded on the multi-billion euro EU Facility for Refugees in Turkey established in 2015. According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees in a March 2 statement, the daily rate of refugees and asylum-seekers arriving in Greece from Turkey has increased in March.    

Since early December, fighting in northwestern Syria has displaced more than 948,000 people, including 569,000 children and 195,000 women, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Turkey hosts more than 3.5 million Syrian refugees.

Along with the United States, Tukey is a NATO ally. The United States, Russian Federation and Turkey, are  participating States of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

Media contact: 
Name: 
Stacy Hope
Email: 
csce[dot]press[at]mail[dot]house[dot]gov
Phone: 
202.225.1901
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While it was a bad week for reports on the state of Russian media, it was inevitably a much worse week for those trying to correct or improve it. “Journalism in Russia is dead. It happened quite a while ago,” Kaplan said. “There are small islands of freedom of speech in Russia,” she said, but they aren’t on TV, and they aren’t available to those who don’t know how to access certain sites. Besides, she said, the sophisticated propaganda machine will figure out how to move onto the internet, too. “Russian journalists face the biggest challenge. Their job is simply to survive.” Hanging in the air is the idea that, at present, surviving is actually journalism’s job, too.

  • Helsinki Commission, Lantos Commission Announce Joint Briefing on Turkish Referendum

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the U.S. Helsinki Commission, and the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, today announced the following briefing: TURKEY POST-REFERENDUM: INSTITUTIONS AND HUMAN RIGHTS Tuesday, May 2, 2017 10:30 AM Rayburn House Office Building Room 2255 Human rights abuses by the Turkish government have proliferated under the state-sanctioned emergency measures imposed in the aftermath of the July 2016 failed coup attempt.  Turkish authorities have fired as many as 130,000 public workers, including teachers, academics, police officers, and soldiers, and thousands have been arrested. Hundreds of journalists have had their credentials revoked and dozens of media outlets have been shut down. Human rights groups have documented widespread reports of intimidation, ill-treatment and torture of those in police custody. On April 16, 2017, Turkey held a referendum on a package of amendments that transforms the country’s institutions in major ways. The position of prime minister was eliminated and the executive powers of the president were expanded, enabling him to appoint ministers without parliamentary approval, exert more influence over the judiciary, and call early elections. Coming on top of the post-coup crackdown, how will Turkey’s changing institutions affect human rights in the country? Panelists will discuss how U.S. policy makers can most effectively encourage the protection of human rights to promote the interests of the Turkish people given the strategic importance of the U.S.-Turkey bilateral relationship. The following panelists are scheduled to participate: Henri Barkey, Director, Middle East Program, Wilson Center Ebru Erdem-Akçay, Turkish political scientist Beata Martin-Rozumilowicz, Regional Director for Europe and Eurasia, International Foundation for Electoral Systems Nate Schenkkan, Project Director, Nations in Transit, Freedom House

  • Helsinki Commission Staff Attend OSCE Permanent Council

    By A. Paul Massaro III, policy advisor, Janice Helwig, Representative of the Helsinki Commission to USOSCE, Orest Deychakiwsky, policy advisor, Alex Tiersky, policy advisor, and Jackson Lines, intern On March 30, 2017, Ambassador David Killion, Chief of Staff of the Helsinki Commission, and Helsinki Commission Policy Advisors Paul Massaro and Everett Price attended the Permanent Council (PC) of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in Vienna. Helsinki Commission staff members occasionally have the opportunity to attend OSCE events, including PC meetings, which help inform the work of Congress with regard to the OSCE region. What is the Permanent Council? In contrast to OSCE Summit or Ministerial Meetings, which are held annually and provide political direction and standard setting for the OSCE, the Permanent Council is the regular body for political consultations and decisions concerning the day-to-day operational work of the OSCE, and also provides a forum to address current issues. PC Meetings are held once a week at the Ambassadorial level in Vienna, Austria, and usually consist of a report by the head of an OSCE field mission or an invited speaker, and discussion of current issues. Any decisions are taken by consensus.   The PC is generally closed to the public and press, although press may be allowed in for statements by high-level visitors, and academic and other visiting groups are occasionally allowed to observe the proceedings. The Helsinki Commission, joined by the State Department, has long recommended opening the Permanent Council and webcasting it as a way to improve transparency. The United States Mission to the OSCE (USOSCE) regularly posts statements it makes in the PC on its website and shares them on social media. March 30 Meeting The March 30 meeting included a report by Ambassador Michael Scanlan, Head of the OSCE Mission to Moldova, which focused largely on discussions of the future status of Transnistria within Moldova; a discussion of Russian intervention in Eastern Ukraine; and remarks on media freedom in Belarus and religious freedom in Russia. Ambassador Scanlan noted that, due to a lack of elections this year, 2017 is an important opportunity to address the Transnistrian autonomy issue in a meaningful way. Many participants expressed hope that a mid-May conference meant to open dialogue on the issue would make tangible steps towards Transnistrian autonomy. If a framework can be agreed upon, the PC volunteered the OSCE to mediate talks finalizing the deal. The United States, through its Chargé d’Affaires, Kate Byrnes, intervened on each issue. On Moldova, the United States reaffirmed its commitment to working with the 5+2 partners to find a comprehensive conflict settlement that respects the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Moldova and affords a special status for the Transnistrian region. On Ukraine, the United States summarized the appalling continuation of Russia’s ongoing aggression and detailed violations of the ceasefire. The U.S., Ms. Byrnes stated, “affirms its staunch support for Ukraine’s sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity within its internationally-recognized borders.” While no participant was willing to take responsibility for the escalation of tensions in Ukraine, all delegations remained concerned with the situation and agreed that both sides in the conflict need to abide by the Minsk Agreements if progress towards peace is to continue. The United States also condemned crackdowns on protestors in Russia and Belarus. The United States, EU, and the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights Director (ODIHR) Michael Link joined together to issue statements reminding Belarus of the need to uphold its obligations to human rights and fundamental freedoms as part of the OSCE. The U.S. and EU delegations also condemned the arrests of protestors in Russia. Both called for the release of those arrested, with a particular focus on Alexei Navalny. Finally, the United States expressed concern about a Russian court case against the Jehovah’s Witnesses that could lead to the disenfranchisement of the group in Russia, violating OSCE commitments to uphold freedom of religion.

  • First Person: Election Observation in Armenia

    By Everett Price, Policy Advisor As the Helsinki Commission’s policy advisor for Armenia, I participated in the election observation mission (EOM) to Armenia organized by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA) from March 31 to April 3, 2017. On April 2, the Republic of Armenia held its first parliamentary election since approving constitutional amendments in a popular referendum in 2015 that transition the country from a semi-presidential to a parliamentary system. The election was also significant as the first nation-wide vote held under sweeping 2016 revisions to the country’s electoral code that implemented a new process for allocating legislative seats, improved transparency, mandated advanced voter authentication measures, and increased female and minority representation quotas. I was one of a 63-member delegation of parliamentarians and staff deployed by the OSCE PA to serve as short-term observers to the Armenian election. This parliamentary delegation complemented the work of a team of 14 experts, 28 long-term observers, and over 300 short-term observers sent throughout the capital and across the country by the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR). Representatives from the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) and the European Parliament (EP) also participated. The OSCE PA and ODIHR regularly lead EOMs in the OSCE region at the invitation of the host country. (Learn more about OSCE election observation.) In the days before the vote, our OSCE PA observation team received extensive briefings on the election process and current political dynamics from ODIHR experts and from Armenian government officials, political parties, civil society, and media representatives. These briefings focused on allegations of electoral violations, the complexity of the electoral code, the role of international and local observers, and the tenor of the campaign. We heard a “unified message of concern” from civil society representatives.  Citizen activists, journalists, and opposition members told us that the ruling party would abuse its access to administrative resources to get out the vote and that it, and other parties, would engage in voter intimidation and vote buying.  They warned that while new electoral procedures might mitigate concerns about the casting and counting ballots, the ruling party and powerful oligarchs would wield improper influence outside the voting booth, diminishing the fairness of the vote. One political commentator assessed that the difficult economic situation experienced by many voters during this election season would make them especially susceptible to selling their vote. Briefers also discussed the complexity of Armenia’s new electoral code and the extent to which it would address past electoral violations. Significantly, this was Armenia’s first time employing electronic voter identification, multiple ballots, and a partial open list voting system that allows voters to express their preference for specific candidates. The code incorporated many recommendations from Armenian civil society, ODIHR, and other international experts and was generally assessed as a positive step forward. Concerns remained, however, about the complexity of voting procedures, voter registration policy, relatively weak campaign finance transparency provisions, and restrictions on citizen observer participation, among other issues.       Civil society activists specifically raised concerns about the overall number of citizen observers and the rules governing their access to polling stations. Armenia registered over 28,000 citizen observers in a country of less than 3 million people, prompting concerns about overcrowding at polling stations and questions about the origins of the organizations and individuals behind these observation missions. One civil society representative said that only 600 of the citizen observers were from known NGOs and that many of the rest are likely from NGOs established by political parties. Some worried that the large number of citizen observers was meant to suppress the participation of legitimate groups since the electoral code stipulates that a maximum of 15 citizen observers are allowed in a polling station at one time. Ruling party officials, meanwhile, noted that hundreds of citizen observers were foreigners registered under local NGOs. They intimated that these observers could be a vehicle for unwelcome foreign influence. One media representative characterized the content of the campaign as “the most primitive” in recent memory, while another political commentator lamented the “poverty of ideas” and “competition of personalities” on display. Several members of the media and some political party officials regretted that lack of any televised debate among candidates—only three of the nine parties and political coalitions on the ballot were willing to hold such a debate. What’s more, several journalists noted that many parties actively avoided the press and restricted most of their candidates from interacting with the media.    Before dawn on election day, two other observers and I deployed to our first assigned polling station to watch the opening procedures. At a school in downtown Yerevan, I watched as the precinct chairwoman capably organized the precinct committee that worked together to prepare the space and voting materials for the arrival of the day’s first voters. The importance of orderliness at this particular polling station became evident within the hour when presidential security arrived to prepare for Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan to cast his vote there. Despite this exceptional circumstance, in other ways the experience at this polling station typified the voting I observed elsewhere throughout the day. I saw non-credentialed citizens hovering watchfully—and in violation of the electoral code—outside the polling station and engaging voters—likely local party officials keeping tabs on voter participation. Inside the polling place there was some overcrowding, a malfunctioning electronic voter authentication device, and modest voter confusion about the voting procedure, which involved selecting among nine separate ballots and optionally marking a candidate preference on the reverse side. I visited a total of seven polling places that day, stretching from downtown Yerevan to the shores of Lake Sevan and the surrounding hinterland 60km northeast of the capital. In larger precincts I witnessed large contingents of party proxies and citizen observers monitoring the vote. In several instances, citizen observers credentialed under the name of a local NGO turned out to be from foreign countries and were unable to explain to me the mission of their organization, highlighting the opaque origins of some citizen observation efforts. In most precincts I saw a mix of credentialed and non-credentialed individuals from political parties and local NGOs mingling inside and outside the polling station, engaging voters, and generally making their presence felt. Our day ended in Yerevan where we observed the closure procedure at a polling place where about 700 votes had been cast. The precinct chairwoman carefully walked the precinct committee through the process step by step, openly acknowledging to us the difficulty of carrying out the complex procedure for the first time. The tallying took place transparently in front of us and in full view of several local observers and party proxies that stayed late into the night to oversee the count. We had the opportunity, along with our fellow observers, to ask questions of the precinct chairwoman about how she and her team were adjudicating individual ballots and counting votes. Although my observations here are anecdotal, they are consistent with the preliminary findings and conclusions of the international election observation mission that the elections “were well administered and fundamental freedoms were generally respected” although the vote was “tainted by credible information about vote-buying and pressure on civil servants and employees of private companies.” The end result was a vote that suffered from “an overall lack of public confidence and trust.” (Read the full Statement of Preliminary Findings and Conclusions.)        While Armenia’s democracy took some important strides in the procedural conduct of this election, much work remains to be done. With the vote tallying complete, Armenia now embarks on a critical period of transition to a parliamentary system that will be fully realized at the end of the President’s final term in April 2018. All political actors, but particularly the new governing coalition, must shoulder their responsibilities to ensure that this new system of governance earns the trust of the public it serves. To build this trust, Armenia would benefit from a process of political evolution that accompanies its institutional transition and procedural reforms. Specifically, Armenia’s political parties and new parliament would do well to ensure a competition of ideas replaces the all too common clashes of personalities and patronage networks on display during this election.

  • Russian Supreme Court Considers Outlawing Jehovah's Witness Worship

    The Russian Supreme Court could declare the Jehovah's Witnesses an extremist organization in a Wednesday hearing, a move that would lead to the seizure of the church's headquarters near St. Petersburg and the outlawing of the group’s organized worship. In advance of the hearing, international concern has grown. “If the Supreme Court rules in favour of the authorities, it will be the first such ruling by a court declaring a registered centralized religious organization to be ‘extremist,’” the UN human rights’ high commissioner's office said in a statement on Tuesday. The ruling would also cap off years of increased restrictions by the Russian Federation against minority religions. Last summer, Russia introduced an anti-terrorism law that also restricted evangelism, and a regional court ordered the deportation of six missionaries with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In 2015, a court banned the Church of Scientology’s Moscow branch. Under a Russian law passed in 1997, there is freedom of religion, but four faiths are designated to be traditional—Orthodox Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism—and other religious organizations must register with the government. Some groups, like Jehovah’s Witnesses, who are registered, still face bureaucratic and legal hurdles. Jehovah's Witness leaders estimate that there are 175,000 Russian-based adherents to the faith, which was founded in the United States the 1870s. Unlike Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox Christians, Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that Jesus is the son of God but do not believe in the Trinity. “They would basically be prosecuting Jehovah’s Witnesses as criminals,” David Semonian, international spokesperson for the Jehovah’s Witnesses, says of the pending court declaration. “Anyone who would actually would have our publications could be criminalized. It is of great concern.” Jehovah’s Witnesses have filed a counter claim asking the court to rule the Justice Ministry’s actions as political repression. A ruling in favor of the ministry would make it a crime for Jehovah’s Witnesses to worship in the Russian Federation and dissolve the faith’s legal means to own or rent Kingdom Halls, their places of worship. In 2015, the Russian Federation banned the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ website JW.org, and customs officials stopped shipments of Jehovah’s Witnesses’ Bibles, citing the possibility they were extremist literature. Last year, Russia threatened to close the group’s national headquarters. Roman Lunkin, a human rights fellow at the Wilson Center and an expert on church-state relations in Russia, says that Russian authorities have been targeting minority religions as “extremists” in an effort to demonstrate support for the Russian Orthodox Church and to marginalize organizations with suspected pro-western sympathies. "The treatment of the Jehovah’s Witnesses reflects the Russian government’s tendency to view all independent religious activity as a threat to its control and the country’s political stability," the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom said in a statement on Tuesday. “Jehovah’s Witnesses are no threat to either the Russian Orthodox Church or to the Russian Government,” Semonian says. “The constitution guarantees freedom of worship, and that is all we are asking, to have the same rights as other religious groups have so we can go about our ministry in a peaceful way.” Jehovah’s Witnesses are pacifists, and their religious beliefs require them to abstain from political activity. They declare allegiance only to God, not to a state or political entity. They do not vote, lobby, protest, or join military. This lack of participation can be seen as a threat if a state demands nationalist and patriotic activity. “The persecution of the Jehovah’s Witnesses is very much tied to the resurgence of a new view of nationalism, where everything within the state is fine, but anything outside of the state has to be crushed,” Kristina Arriaga de Bucholz, a U.S. commissioner for International Religious Freedom appointed by House Speaker Paul Ryan, says. “A pacifist group that tells its members that their allegiance is to something outside of the government is immediately a group that will be perceived as dangerous to the regime.” Other minority Christian groups in Russia, like evangelicals, have not yet faced the same level of scrutiny. Lunkin says it is impossible to accuse evangelicals of extremist activity because their literature and Bible translation matches that of the Russian Orthodox Church. Jehovah’s Witnesses have their own translation of the Bible, and they also have their own magazine and educational materials. Evangelicals also have closer relationships with government officials, he says. “It’s [about] a protection of traditional religions, and the Orthodox identity of Russian people,” Lunkin says. “But in fact it is about protecting personal power, because the main fear is changing of regimes in Russia.” Jehovah’s Witness church leadership has reached out to the U.S. State department’s Office of International Religious Freedom, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, and the U.S. Helsinki Commission for aid. “We will do everything within our legal means to have the judgment reversed,” Semonian says. “Jehovah’s Witnesses are known worldwide for our peaceful activities, and under no circumstances would we ever resort to violence or any other activity that could be misunderstood or considered extremist.” Jehovah’s Witness leaders have also asked their eight million members worldwide to write letters to Russia officials, including President Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, to ask them to intervene. Instructions tell writers to “be candid but respectful,” and to mention how the faith has benefited their families. “Keep in mind that ‘a mild answer turns away rage,’ and ‘a gentle tongue can break a bone,’” the instructions say, quoting the Biblical book of Proverbs. The decision will come as the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom is finalizing its annual report identifying countries of concern, its first such report for the Trump administration. The Commission is a bipartisan government advisory group that makes policy recommendations to the President, Congress, and the Secretary of State. Since 2009, the group has designated Russia as a “Tier 2” nation, on the watch list one step below countries of particular concern. “The fate of the Jehovah’s Witnesses is the fate of any religious group that does not pledge its allegiance to the Russian government,” Arriaga says. “April 5 will definitely mark a new chapter of religious persecution in post-Soviet Russia.”

  • Baltic War Game Scenario Plays Out at Helsinki Commission

    On March 3, 2017, U.S. Helsinki Commission staff, joined by Congressional staff from various offices, took part in an interactive, informal simulation led by the RAND Corporation, which demonstrated RAND’s research on the shape and probable outcome of a near-term hypothetical Russian invasion of the Baltic states. The meeting followed the Commission’s December 2016 briefing, Baltic Security After the Warsaw NATO Summit, where RAND expert Michael Johnson presented the research and war-game approach exploring how a hypothetical Russian invasion of the Baltics would actually play out tactically. During the event, Johnson and his team not only described their research but also demonstrated the advantages of the flexible platform of physical simulation in such a context. Attendees were able to “play out” military deployments on both sides of the board, representing both Russian and NATO forces. Using a physical model – as opposed to a digital platform – allowed attendees to pose hypothetical scenario-based questions to one another and to the RAND team, and to explore the defense outcomes on a representative military theater. The RAND simulation demonstrated that, under current NATO postures, Russian forces would be likely to be able to take the capitals of all three Baltic States in 60 hours or less. More information on the war-gaming research by Michael W. Johnson and David A. Shlapak can be found in their report, Reinforcing Deterrence on NATO’s Eastern Flank: Wargaming the Defense of the Baltics (2016).

  • Helsinki Commissioners Meet with U.S. 6th Fleet Leadership

    By Alex Tiersky, Global Security / Political-Military Affairs Advisor U.S. Helsinki Commission En route to the 2017 OSCE Parliamentary Assembly Winter Meeting in Vienna, five members of the Helsinki Commission and four other members of Congress made a strategic stopover in Naples, Italy, for a closed-door briefing at the headquarters of the U.S. 6th Fleet. Members of the Delegation, led by Helsinki Commission Chairman Senator Roger Wicker (MS), discussed several regional security challenges with Vice Admiral Christopher W. Grady (Commander, U.S. 6th Fleet, Deputy Commander, U.S. Naval Forces Europe [NAVEUR], and Commander, Naval Striking Forces NATO) and his subordinates. These included ongoing operations against ISIS; migration flows across the Mediterranean; and Russia’s increasingly assertive regional military posture and activities. In addition to Senator Wicker, members of the U.S. Congressional Delegation at the 6th Fleet briefing included Helsinki Commissioners Rep. Roger Aderholt (AL-04), Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), Rep. Alcee Hastings (FL-20), and Rep. Richard Hudson (NC-08). The Delegation also included Senator Lamar Alexander (TN), Rep. Lloyd Doggett (TX-35), Rep. Eliot Engel (NY-16), and Rep. Trent Kelly (MS-01). About the 6th Fleet As Commander of U.S. 6th Fleet, Vice Admiral Grady directs the operations of U.S. ships, submarines and aircraft and the Sailors and civilians who operate them in Europe and swaths of Africa. NAVEUR has a number of task forces and subordinate units organized around functions including surface naval activity, missile defense, logistics, land-based patrol aircraft, Naval Expeditionary Forces, and submarine forces. The U.S. 6th Fleet conducts the full spectrum of joint and naval operations, often in concert with allied, joint and interagency partners in order to advance U.S. national interests and security and stability in Europe and Africa.  The main lines of operation of the 6th Fleet include Operation Inherent Resolve (counter-ISIS) and Operation Atlantic Resolve (demonstrating continued commitment to collective security of NATO), as well as reassurance and deterrence activities with European allies and partners such as military exercises including SEA BREEZE (a multinational exercise co-hosted by the U.S. and Ukraine Navies with several thousand troops from more than a dozen nations) and BALTOPS (which last year featured 6,100 maritime, ground, and air force troops exercising maritime interdiction, anti-subsurface warfare, amphibious operations, and air defense, and demonstrating resolve among NATO and partner forces to defend the Baltic region).

  • The Helsinki Commission, Forty Years Ago and Today

    Spencer Oliver saw the foundation of the Helsinki Commission as its first Chief of Staff, from 1976 to 1985. After subsequent service as Chief Counsel at the House Foreign Affairs Committee, he served as the first Secretary General of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly from October 1992 to December 2015. Spencer Oliver, a personal witness to the diplomacy that brought trans-Atlantic relations from the Cold War era to the present, recently paid a visit to the Helsinki Commission offices he first opened in 1976.  After a nine-year tenure as the Commission’s first Chief of Staff, Mr. Oliver remained involved with the Helsinki Process through his subsequent career in the Congress and at the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly. Mr. Oliver gave a short interview on the Commission’s accomplishments over four decades, and prospects for the future. Before the establishment of the Helsinki Commission in 1976, Oliver observed, “human rights were not really a component of U.S. foreign policy. It was the Commission that made a strong effort for President Carter to make human rights a definite element in his foreign policy portfolio.” He recalled a private foreign policy strategy meeting in the fall of 1976 with then-candidate Jimmy Carter’s foreign policy team. Then-Helsinki Commission Chairman Dante B. Fascell, a U.S. Representative from Florida, made a pitch about why human rights should be on Carter’s agenda.  Senator Hubert Humphrey, a very close friend and advisor to Carter, slammed his hand on the table and said, “By golly, Dante’s right! Human rights ought to be one of the principal pillars of the Carter foreign policy!” After Carter took office, Chairman Fascell and his staff, including Mr. Oliver, met with the new President’s Secretary of State, Cyrus Vance, to discuss a plan to make human rights a U.S. foreign policy priority. They recommended that: 1) the State Department position of “Coordinator of Humanitarian Affairs” be elevated to a full Bureau for Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs; 2) Patricia M. Derian, a civil rights activist from Mississippi, become the first Assistant Secretary of State to head that Bureau; 3) the Assistant Secretary also become the State Department’s representative on the Helsinki Commission; and 4) the Helsinki Commission be fully integrated into inter-agency CSCE planning and the U.S. Delegation to the upcoming CSCE Review Meeting in Belgrade. The Secretary agreed and implemented these recommendations, despite resistance within the State Department. “Without Dante Fascell and Patt Derian, human rights probably would not have had the place it eventually did in American foreign policy,” Oliver observed. Oliver mentioned with sadness the passing of Derian in May 2016. Mr. Oliver explained that the Helsinki Commission was also partly responsible for creating the practice of human rights implementation, review, and accountability. At the 1977 Belgrade Review Meeting, the Helsinki Commission participants in the U.S. Delegation articulated specific cases of human rights abuses and violations of the Helsinki Accords committed by the Soviet Union. In response, the Soviet delegation shot back with criticisms of U.S. human rights issues, such as racism and poverty, to which the United States responded by investigating and reporting factually on these concerns. By publishing a human rights compliance report, the United States set a precedent for accountability on the part of all Helsinki Final Act signatory states. “The Helsinki Accords,” Oliver explained, “were not just about how the countries treat one another, but also about how countries treat their own citizens.” Noting that, today, Russia’s human rights conditions are worse than they have been since the collapse of the USSR, Mr. Oliver recalled moments that looked more promising. Accompanying Fascell to Moscow in April 1986, he was among the first American officials to meet with Mikhail Gorbachev after his consolidation of power as leader of the Soviet Union. In a four-hour meeting at the Kremlin on a Saturday morning, Mr. Oliver expected Gorbachev to find recourse to concerns raised by displaying the same defensiveness and counter-criticism as previous Soviet leaders. Instead, Gorbachev was honest about the issues his country was facing, and expressed his intention to enact economic and political reforms to open the Soviet Union up to the rest of the world. Mr. Oliver left that meeting feeling encouraged about the direction of the USSR. This progressive streak in Russian leadership was short-lived, as illustrated by Vladimir Putin’s increasingly authoritarian rule and denial of basic freedoms. Mr. Oliver believes that Putin’s rise to power and current popularity result from the turmoil and economic devastation of the 1990s, compounded with his tight grip on the media. “There’s no country in the world where the dictator controls the media and he isn’t running at 80 percent in the polls,” he said. In terms of U.S. policy towards Russia, Mr. Oliver believes that strengthening and widening those economic sanctions already in place would put the most pressure on the Russian government to change its ways. “When the Russians invaded Crimea, they broke every one of the ten principles of the Helsinki Final Act,” he said.  “We should let the Russians know that we don’t intend to back off until they change their ways.” In the meantime, the Commission can continue to play an important role maintaining the gains made in promoting human rights through bilateral as well as multilateral diplomacy.

  • Senator Roger Wicker to Lead Helsinki Commission

    WASHINGTON—Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell yesterday appointed Senator Roger Wicker (MS) to chair the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, during the 115th Congress. Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04) has been appointed by Speaker of the House Paul Ryan to co-chair the Commission. "I am honored to be named Chairman of the U.S. Helsinki Commission,” Wicker said. “The Commission has a storied history in promoting peace, security, and democratic development in Europe and the former Soviet states. I am confident that it will continue to fulfill its commitment to regional security, just as it has throughout key moments over the past four decades. Given the current threats and challenges facing Europe and Central Asia, the Commission’s role as a consistent and credible monitor of Helsinki Act commitments is critical to combating pressing regional threats, such as terrorism, human trafficking, and Russia’s territorial aggression.” “I am pleased to join Chairman Wicker and the other members of the Commission as we defend democracy and human rights throughout the OSCE region,” said Co-Chairman Smith. “In particular, we must continue to support the territorial integrity of Ukraine; to combat the horrific practice of human trafficking; to battle anti-Semitism; and to address the underlying causes of the refugee crisis in Europe and beyond.” The 115th Congress marks the first time Senator Wicker will chair the bipartisan, bicameral Helsinki Commission. Chairman Wicker has served on the Helsinki Commission since 2011 and co-chaired the Commission in the 114th Congress. Since November 2014, Senator Wicker has also chaired the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA) Committee on Political Affairs and Security, where his work has centered on sustaining constructive security dialogue among all participating States and ensuring compliance with international commitments. Co-Chairman Smith has been a member of the Helsinki Commission since 1983. He has previously chaired the Commission and serves as a member of the OSCE PA, where he is the Special Representative on Human Trafficking Issues.

  • Smith Leads Mission to Genocide Survivors in Iraq

    ERBIL, Iraq—Just days before Christmas, a leading human rights lawmaker, Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04), went to Iraq to witness first-hand the plight of Christians who escaped ISIS into the Erbil area of the Kurdistan region and the failure of the Obama Administration to help them. After meeting with Christian families and leaders, and officials from the U.S., other OSCE participating States, and the United Nations, Smith said he returns to Washington to lead Congressional efforts to target more humanitarian aid to Christians and other religious minorities who have survived genocide. Smith also visited a camp for 6,000 internally displaced people, managed and supported by the Chaldean Catholic Archdiocese of Erbil. “This Christmas season, the survival of Christians in Iraq, where they have lived for almost 2,000 years, is at stake,” said Smith, who chairs both the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe and the House panel on global human rights and international organizations. “Today I met with Christian families who survived the ISIS genocide and have been ignored for two years by the Obama Administration. I hope that President-Elect Trump will act urgently to make sure his Administration helps these Christians with the funds Congress has approved for survivors of ISIS atrocities.” The Syriac Orthodox Archbishop of Mosul, Nicodemus Daoud Sharaf, who had to flee ISIS and seek refuge in Erbil, told Smith, “So often concern for Christians is minimized. I am so happy, because you are the first American who has come to just ask about the Christians. We pray that President Trump will help us. We are the last people to speak the Aramaic language. Without help, we are finished.”   “I also saw how the Obama Administration has shortchanged organizations conducting criminal investigations and collecting, preserving, and preparing evidence usable in criminal trials. Perpetrators will dodge punishment unless there is specific evidence linking them to specific atrocity crimes. My Iraq and Syria Genocide Relief and Accountability Act legislation is a blueprint for how to assist Christians and other genocide survivors and hold perpetrators accountable. I will be working tirelessly to get this bill on the new President’s desk when we reconvene in January,” added Smith. Responding to reports that the UN Office on the Prevention of Genocide is considering excluding Christians from its findings of ISIS genocide victims and recommendations for prosecution, Smith said, “Even the Obama Administration determined that ISIS has been committing genocide against Christians. It would be outrageous if the UN ignored the overwhelming evidence and turned its back on these people who have suffered so much.” Background In 2002, there were as many as 1.4 million Christians in Iraq. After years of sectarian conflict, followed by the ISIS genocide that began in 2014, they have dropped to less than 250,000. Most of the Christians who survived ISIS fled to the Erbil area, which now hosts more than 70,000 internally displaced Christians, almost a third of all Christians in Iraq. Iraqis have been eight percent of the refugees and migrants who arrived by sea in the OSCE region in 2016. The Chaldean Catholic Archdiocese of Erbil has provided most of the assistance to these displaced Christians – and has also assisted Yezidis and Muslims – including food, shelter, medical care, trauma care, and preparations for the impending winter. Smith was invited to Erbil by Archbishop Bashar Warda, head of the Archdiocese. During their meeting, Archbishop Warda emphasized that unless the ancient Christian communities of Iraq received significant financial support very soon, they may not survive. At a September hearing of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, chaired by Smith and titled Atrocities in Iraq and Syria: Relief for Survivors and Accountability for Perpetrators, Steve Rasche, Legal Counsel and Director of IDP Resettlement Programs for the Archdiocese, testified and said, “Since August 2014, other than initial supplies of tents and tarps, the Christian community in Iraq has received nothing in aid from any US aid agencies or the UN.” He added, “There’s a mistaken belief that it doesn’t get cold in Iraq. It snows in Erbil in the wintertime. Even the people that we’ve put in shelters, it gets incredibly cold for them at night, and so there are additional costs for heating oil and blankets. That is a concern for us. Our costs will go up.” Since 2013, Smith has chaired nine congressional hearings on atrocities in Iraq and Syria, including one titled The ISIS Genocide Declaration: What Next? and another titled Fulfilling the Humanitarian Imperative: Assisting Victims of ISIS Violence. He is also the author of the bipartisan Iraq and Syria Genocide Relief and Accountability Act (H.R. 5961), co-sponsored by Rep. Anna Eshoo (CA-18), which includes key provisions directing the U.S. Administration to: Support entities that are effectively serving genocide survivors in-country, including faith-based entities; Assess and address the humanitarian vulnerabilities, needs, and triggers that might force survivors to flee their homes; Identify warning signs of deadly violence against genocide survivors and other vulnerable religious and ethnic communities in Iraq or Syria; Support entities that are conducting criminal investigation into perpetrators of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes in Iraq and Syria; Close gaps in U.S. law so that the American justice system can prosecute foreign perpetrators present in the U.S., as well as any Americans who commit such crimes; Encourage foreign countries to add identifying information about suspected perpetrators  of such atrocity crimes in their security databases and security screening; Create a “Priority Two” (“P-2”) designation for persecuted religious and ethnic groups in Iraq or Syria. This legislation is supported by many groups including the Knights of Columbus, 21st Century Wilberforce Initiative, In Defense of Christians, Yazidi Human Rights Organization International, Commission for International Justice and Accountability, Center for Religious Freedom at the Hudson Institute, Religious Freedom Institute, Simon Wiesenthal Center, Open Doors, and others. The bill has also been endorsed by all of the former U.S. Ambassadors-at-Large for War Crimes: David Scheffer (1997-2001), Pierre-Richard Prosper (2001-2005), Clint Williamson (2006-2009), and Stephen Rapp (2009-2015). Smith also authored the bipartisan H. Con. Res 121, which the House passed overwhelmingly and calls for the formation of an ad hoc tribunal for perpetrators of crimes against humanity and war crimes in the Syrian conflict. Just last week, the President signed into law the bipartisan, historic Frank Wolf International Religious Freedom Act (H.R. 1150), which Smith authored and Eshoo co-sponsored. This law makes sweeping changes that will help ensure that the U.S. Administration and the State Department have the tools, training, and resources to anticipate, help prevent, and respond to genocide and other persecution against religious communities like Christians in Iraq and elsewhere. Smith continues to encourage leaders in other OSCE countries to provide more humanitarian assistance to Christian genocide survivors and support criminal investigations into and prosecutions of perpetrators.

  • Helsinki Commission Leaders Mark International Human Rights Day

    WASHINGTON—To mark International Human Rights Day on December 10, Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04), Chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, and Sen. Roger Wicker (MS), Co-Chairman of the Commission, issued the following statements: “2016 has been a challenging year for the OSCE region – some governments have backslid on human rights, and humanitarian crises on the OSCE’s periphery in Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere have driven waves of refugees into the OSCE region,” Chairman Smith said. “And despite our best efforts, child sex tourism is soaring while protection lags. We each have an essential role to play in fighting for the human rights of those who are persecuted, whether they are political prisoners in Azerbaijan, refugees fleeing genocide in Syria, journalists in Turkey, or victims of human trafficking in our own country. We must all become human rights defenders.” “We live in a world with significant security challenges, from cyber threats to terrorism to acts of aggression by one of our own OSCE participating States,” said Co-Chairman Wicker. “However, as we work to maintain regional stability, we remember that security cannot exist independently from securing fundamental human rights. Today, we recommit ourselves to democracy, the rule of the law, and the rights of all people to determine their future free from tyranny and oppression.” “The Helsinki Final Act is clear: human rights issues in one OSCE country are of direct and legitimate concern to all participating States,” Chairman Smith concluded. “I call on the 57 nations of the OSCE to defend the rights and dignity of the most vulnerable, and to provide humanitarian assistance to victims of genocide and war in the Middle East.”

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