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Helsinki Commission Leadership Condemns Kyrgyz Return of Uzbek Refugees

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Helsinki Commission Chairman Senator Sam Brownback (R-KS) and Co-Chairman Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-NJ) expressed outrage about the forced return of Uzbek refugees by the Kyrgyz Government. Four refugees and one asylum seeker were deported on Wednesday to Uzbekistan, from which they had fled.

“I am profoundly disappointed that Kyrgyzstan has forcibly returned these five individuals,” said Senator Brownback. “Kyrgyzstan did allow the UN to resettle to third countries the majority of refugees fleeing the Andijon shootings. I do not understand this change in policy, which certainly damages Kyrgyzstan’s international reputation. The consequences of this decision may be life threatening for the refugees.”

“I urge President Bakiev to ensure this grave mistake is not repeated with other Uzbeks seeking shelter in Kyrgyzstan from the repressive Karimov regime,” added Senator Brownback. “I also urge President Karimov to allow the international community access to the returnees.”

Four individuals were recognized as refugees by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which had reportedly found third countries to accept their resettlement. Despite repeated UNHCR requests to Kyrgyz officials to allow the transfer, Kyrgyz authorities deported all five individuals to Uzbekistan on Wednesday. UNHCR had not been granted sufficient access to the fifth individual to determine whether he qualified as a refugee.

“The forcible return of refugees to Uzbekistan, an egregious human rights abuser, is unconscionable and outrageous,” said Rep. Smith. “I had hoped the United States had found a reliable partner in President Bakiev, but apparently he’s more interested in pleasing Tashkent by offering up these poor souls for likely mistreatment than in upholding international commitments.”

“Considering this and the recent expulsion of two American diplomats on specious grounds, we should take a long and hard look at the policies coming out of Bishkek and how they will affect the bilateral relationship,” said Rep. Smith.

The four Uzbeks were being detained in the southern Kyrgyz city of Osh for over one year due to an Uzbek extradition request. They were part of a larger group of over 400 refugees that crossed into Kyrgyzstan fleeing the shootings by Uzbek security forces in May 2005 in the Uzbek city of Andijon. UNHCR recognized the entire group as refugees under the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, to which Kyrgyzstan is a signatory. The group was transferred to Romania last year for resettlement processing.

Under the nonrefoulement obligation of the UN Refugee Convention, Contracting States must not forcibly return individuals to situations where their life and freedom would be threatened. In addition, Kyrgyzstan is obligated by the UN Convention Against Torture to not return individuals if there are substantial grounds for believing they would be in danger of being subjected to torture.

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    WASHINGTON—To commemorate the 45th anniversary of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the U.S. Helsinki Commission, on June 3, Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) and commission leaders Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) and Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) issued the following statements: “The Helsinki Commission has played a vital role in elevating the moral dimension of U.S. foreign policy and prioritizing the protection of fundamental freedoms in our dealings with other nations,” said Chairman Cardin. “From fighting for fair treatment of Jews in the Soviet Union, to developing landmark legislation to address human trafficking, to demanding sanctions on human rights violators and kleptocrats, and so much more, the commission consistently has broken new ground.” “For 45 years, the commission has flourished as a bipartisan and bicameral platform for collaboration within the federal government. Its purpose is not to support a specific party or administration, but instead to advance transatlantic cooperation, promote regional security and stability, and hold OSCE participating States accountable to their promises,” said Sen. Wicker. “Our commissioners’ united front against threats to democracy and human rights worldwide has become a pillar of U.S. international engagement.” “I am grateful to have experienced the crucial role played by U.S. engagement in the Helsinki Process, both as an election observer in Bulgaria in 1990, and later as a lawmaker and commissioner,” said Rep. Wilson. “The Helsinki Commission is unique in its ability to adapt to evolving global challenges. The defense of human rights and democracy looks different now than it did during the Cold War, but we continue to unite over the same resilient principles and commitment to fundamental freedoms.” On June 3, 1976, U.S. President Gerald Ford signed the Helsinki Commission into existence through Public Law 94-304 to encourage compliance with the Helsinki Final Act of 1975—the founding document that lays out the ten principles guiding the inter-state relations among today’s OSCE participating States. The agreement created new opportunities to engage with European partners on human rights, cooperative security, economic opportunities, and territorial disputes, and the commission played an integral role in ensuring that human rights became a key component of U.S. foreign policy. Forty-five years after its founding, the Helsinki Commission continues to engage with participating States to confront severe and persistent violations of human rights and democratic norms. Since its establishment, the Helsinki Commission has convened more than 500 public hearings and briefings. It regularly works with U.S. officials in the executive branch and Congress to draw attention to human rights and security challenges in participating States, including racism, anti-Semitism, and intolerance; corruption; human trafficking; and Russia’s persistent violations of the Helsinki Final Act in its relations with Ukraine and other OSCE countries.

  • Helsinki Commission Condemns Lukashenko Regime for Forced Landing of Commercial Jetliner Leading to Arrest of Raman Pratasevich

    WASHINGTON—Following Alexander Lukashenko’s order to divert and forcibly land a commercial plane in Minsk in order to arrest Belarusian activist and journalist Raman Pratasevich and civil society activist Sofia Sapega, Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), Commission leaders Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) and Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02), and Commissioner Richard Hudson (NC-08) issued the following statements: “Dictators like Alexander Lukashenko increasingly seek to use extraterritorial surveillance, intimidation, harassment and even assassination against their political opponents,” said Chairman Cardin. “The kidnappings of Raman Pratasevich and Sofia Sapega from a commercial aircraft illegally forced by military aircraft to land in Minsk creates a precedent of terror that, if unchecked, could limit dissidents’ ability to travel freely. An international crime of this magnitude, engineered by the self-styled leader of Belarus, requires a strong international response, starting with Magnitsky sanctions on those involved.” “Lukashenko has already rigged elections, restricted freedoms, and repressed thousands of Belarusians. He has stooped to a new and alarming low by using military aircraft to force down a civilian airliner,” said Sen. Wicker. “He will only continue escalating his attempts to retain power unless he faces real consequences for his actions. We should develop a full-spectrum strategy against transnational repression to deter such brazen actions by dictators.” “The shocking abduction of Raman Pratasevich demonstrates that Alexander Lukashenko will do almost anything to silence perceived opposition,” said Rep. Wilson. “We demand that Lukashenko release all political prisoners without exception, and end his attacks against journalists, civil society, and all Belarusians peacefully exercising their rights.” “Holding civilian passengers hostage by creating a false threat and forcing a plane to land is an act of state terrorism,” said Rep. Hudson. “Unfortunately, we now have proof that Lukashenko’s dictatorship is a grave threat not only to Belarusians, but to the rest of the world. His regime should be treated as the rogue state that it is.” On May 23, a Ryanair plane flying from Athens to Vilnius carrying over 120 passengers was notified of a bomb threat, met by a Belarusian military jet, and forced to land in Minsk. The bomb threat was false, and upon landing, Belarusian authorities detained journalist Raman Pratasevich and Sofia Sapega, a Russian citizen studying in law at the European Humanities University, which was forced out of Belarus in 2004 and has relocated to Vilnius. Each could face up to 15 years in prison. Pratasevich, who had been living abroad for his safety since 2019, is a co-founder of the NEXTA Live Telegram channel, which has extensively covered this past year’s protests in Belarus and serves as a coordination hub for opposition activity. Belarusian authorities declared NEXTA an “extremist” outlet in October 2020. On May 24, video footage of Pratasevich appeared on Telegram, in which he states that his health is fine, the authorities have treated him lawfully, and that he is cooperating with them in their investigation. The Belarusian KGB is known for producing such videos of forced confessions. Lukashenko has crushed independent media and jailed journalists, activists, and political opponents in unprecedented numbers since Belarus’ falsified presidential elections in August 2020.

  • Preventing Mass Atrocities

    The mass atrocities and genocides committed in twentieth-century Europe spurred a worldwide consensus that there is a responsibility among states to both prevent and punish such heinous acts. The U.S. Helsinki Commission convened its first hearing of the 117th Congress on May 13, 2021 to examine the interests of the United States in taking an active role in preventing mass killings, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide; review warning signs that indicate risks for atrocities; and discuss the challenges of building and sustaining alliances among states in support of atrocities prevention. Presiding over the hearing, Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) emphasized the international consensus behind the legal obligation to prevent and punish mass atrocity crimes—large-scale and deliberate acts on civilians that constitute acts of genocide, crimes against humanity, ethnic cleansing, and war crimes—and the responsibility of the United States to recognize and act on early warning signs. Witnesses included Timothy Snyder, the Richard C. Levin Professor of History at Yale University and a permanent fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna, and Naomi Kikoler, the director of the Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. Snyder offered four recommendations to shape prevention-based policies against mass atrocities. First, foreign correspondents should be present abroad to provide reliable information, as widespread disinformation campaigns often take place before mass atrocities. Second, policymakers should aim to stem panic and assure that citizens can attain necessary resources—at the beginning of a mass atrocity, there is often a sense of scarcity and urgency. Third, prevention policies should focus on strengthening governments and civil society, as mass atrocities often occur in weak states. Fourth, the United States must embody human rights; in recent history, the weaponization of history has increased the risk of mass atrocities. Once states resort to military force to stop mass atrocities, Snyder noted, it is already too late. Therefore, prevention is key. Kikoler testified that mass atrocities are preventable, and effective action based on early warning signs can track, disrupt, and prevent such crimes. Kikoler pointed to troubling signs in the OSCE region, including hate speech targeting ethnic and religious minorities, existing armed conflict, and the rise of authoritarian governance. She also differentiated between upstream risks and imminent warning signs. Kikoler also explained that atrocity prevention is in the best interest of the United States, as mass atrocities can have a devastating destabilizing effect on entire regions. She noted that although the U.S. leads the world in developing tools for atrocity prevention, these tools can still be improved. Discussing the importance of holding those responsible for atrocities accountable, Snyder explained that accountability should extend beyond prosecution to include reputational and financial costs. Kikoler stressed the need to identify gaps in the atrocity prevention architecture, including those in domestic legislation criminalizing the commission of crimes against humanity. Chairman Cardin asked the witnesses for suggestions on improving implementation of the Elie Wiesel Genocide and Atrocities Prevention Act and for suggestions for legislative change. Kikoler recommended that when the next report is released, Congress should convene a hearing and ask the Department of State to review prevention strategies established to address the risks articulated for given states in the report. In addition, she proposed an annual briefing by the intelligence community to Congress on countries that may be at risk of genocide, and expanded atrocity prevention training for Foreign Service Offices in countries deemed at-risk. With support from Kikoler, Snyder suggested an award from American journalists who report on genocide and genocide prevention, or a fellowship providing funding to young Americans interested in reporting on countries at risk. Both witnesses drew attention to the courageous examples of Gareth Jones and Jan Karski, who reported on the Soviet-made famine in Ukraine and the Holocaust, respectively. To conclude the hearing, Chairman Cardin discussed the importance of learning from accurate history, understanding the role of non-governmental organizations in providing information on local communities, and correctly identifying the victim. He also reiterated the responsibility of policymakers to make atrocity prevention a priority in U.S. foreign policy. Related Information Witness Biographies Press Release: Senate Passes Cardin, Young Bipartisan Bill to Bolster U.S. Leadership in Genocide and Atrocity Prevention

  • Wicker, Cardin Reintroduce Bill to Fight INTERPOL Abuse

    WASHINGTON—Helsinki Commission Ranking Member Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) and Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) today reintroduced the Transnational Repression Accountability and Prevention (TRAP) Act to counter the politically-motivated abuse of INTERPOL by authoritarian regimes. The bill would establish U.S. priorities for responding to INTERPOL abuse and promoting reform within INTERPOL, improve the U.S. response to fraudulent use of INTERPOL mechanisms, and protect the U.S. justice system from INTERPOL abuse. “Autocratic states like Russia and China for years have abused Red Notices from INTERPOL to punish their political enemies,” Sen. Wicker said. “The United States and other democracies should not have to remain complicit in this global assault on the rule of law. The TRAP Act would push for due process at INTERPOL and codify regulations that prevent American law enforcement from doing the dirty work of repressive autocrats.” “Autocrats increasingly seek to silence opposition beyond their borders—and INTERPOL has become one of their primary tools to harass and silence independent voices,” said Chairman Cardin. “The United States must ensure that dissidents and whistleblowers seeking refuge in the U.S. are beyond the reach of the authoritarian regimes that seek to punish them, even within the United States. The TRAP Act would be a major step forward in countering such authoritarian transnational repression.” The Helsinki Commission regularly receives credible reports from political dissidents, human rights defenders, and members of the business community who are the subject of politically-motivated INTERPOL Notices and Diffusions requested by autocratic regimes. These mechanisms, which function effectively as extradition requests, can be based on trumped-up criminal charges and used to detain, harass, or otherwise persecute individuals for their activism or refusal to acquiesce to corrupt schemes. Russia is among the world’s most prolific abusers of INTERPOL’s Notice and Diffusion mechanisms. Other participating States of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE)—principally Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Turkey—and other authoritarian states, such as China, also reportedly target political opponents with INTERPOL requests that violate key provisions of INTERPOL’s Constitution, which obligate the organization to uphold international human rights standards and strictly avoid involvement in politically-motivated charges. Original cosponsors of the legislation include Helsinki Commission members Sen. Thom Tillis (NC), Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (RI), and Sen. Marco Rubio (FL). Sen. Ed Markey (MA), Sen. Mike Rounds (ND), and Sen. Chris Van Hollen (MD) also are original cosponsors.

  • Helsinki Commission Hearing to Examine Prevention of Mass Atrocities

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following online hearing: PREVENTING MASS ATROCITIES Thursday, May 13, 2021 9:30 a.m. Watch Live: www.youtube.com/HelsinkiCommission The mass atrocities and genocides committed in twentieth-century Europe spurred a worldwide consensus that there is a responsibility among states to both prevent and punish such heinous acts. At this online hearing, witnesses will discuss why it is in the best interests of the United States to take an active role in preventing mass killings, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide; warning signs that indicate risks for atrocities; and the challenges of building and sustaining alliances among states in support of atrocities prevention. The following witnesses are scheduled to testify: Professor Timothy Snyder, Richard C. Levin Professor of History, Yale University Naomi Kikoler, Director, Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

  • Helsinki Commission Leaders Mark World Press Freedom Day

    WASHINGTON—On World Press Freedom Day, Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) and commission leaders Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) and Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) issued the following statements: “Press freedom is at the core of a healthy democracy,” said Chairman Cardin. “Over the last year, we have witnessed a sharp decline in access to information globally, and a rise in cases of violence against journalists. Some OSCE participating States have even used the COVID-19 pandemic as grounds to justify unnecessary restrictions on the press. Independent, professional journalism grounded in truth and transparency is the best antidote to the poison of disinformation and misinformation that plagues the OSCE region, during this global emergency and at all times.” “Strong democracies encourage a free press—one that informs the public, welcomes diverse voices, and holds leaders accountable,” said Sen. Wicker. “Unfortunately, in many nations autocrats abuse political, economic, and legal measures to intimidate, jail, and bankrupt members of the media who oppose them. On World Press Freedom Day, I commend the courageous journalists who work despite these threats.” “In the absence of press freedom, citizens are denied access to information and prevented from meaningful engagement in their communities,” said Rep. Wilson. “In some participating States, we continue to see violent attacks, arbitrary arrests, legal harassment, and other attacks against the legitimate work of journalists. These attempts to close off the information pipeline only highlight the weakness of such regimes, not their strength.” In its 2021 World Press Freedom Index, Reporters without Borders found that journalism is totally blocked, seriously impeded, or constrained in 73 percent of the countries evaluated. The data also reflect a dramatic deterioration in people's access to information and an increase in obstacles to news coverage. According to the study, Turkmenistan (at 178 of 180), Azerbaijan (at 167), Tajikistan (at 162), Belarus (at 158), Uzbekistan (at 157), Kazakhstan (at 155), Turkey (at 153), and Russia (at 150), rank the lowest in press freedom in the OSCE region. On April 30, Chairman Cardin and Helsinki Commissioner Sen. Marco Rubio (FL) reintroduced the World Press Freedom Protection and Reciprocity Act, which seeks to protect and promote worldwide press freedom and enhance reciprocity for U.S. news and media outlets. Earlier in April, Helsinki Commission leaders called on Belarusian authorities to release journalists and political prisoners. In 2020, the U.S. Helsinki Commission held a hearing to examine the troubling trend of violence against journalists, and review implementation of international press freedom commitments undertaken by the United States. In 2019, the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media testified before the U.S. Helsinki Commission on the state of media freedom in the OSCE region.

  • Helsinki Commission Digital Digest: April 2021

  • Helsinki Commission Leaders Troubled by Kyrgyzstan’s New Constitution

    WASHINGTON—Following the adoption of a new constitution in Kyrgyzstan on April 11, U.S. Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) and commission leaders Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) and Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) issued the following joint statement: “We are concerned that this new constitution will move Kyrgyzstan—long considered among the most democratic countries in Central Asia—toward authoritarian rule by concentrating power in the hands of the president, reducing the role of parliament, and minimizing checks and balances. “Vague provisions prioritizing the ‘moral and ethical values and public conscience of the people of the Kyrgyz Republic’ could be used to restrict human rights, including freedom of expression. We urge the Government of Kyrgyzstan to ensure that the country’s independent media and civil society can exercise their human rights and fundamental freedoms without interference.” The new constitution was approved via referendum, although voter turnout was low at just over 30 percent. President Sadyr Japarov, who took office after being freed from prison during unrest that followed a popular revolt sparked by fraudulent parliamentary elections last October, promoted the constitution’s stronger presidential role. Prior to the referendum, the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) and the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission jointly evaluated the draft constitution and concluded that the process adopting it did not follow the rule of law and took place with minimal public consultation or parliamentary debate, and that it raised “grave concerns over the lack of respect for the principles of the rule of law, separation of powers, and inherent lack of checks and balances.”

  • Russian Whistleblower Dr. Rodchenkov Discusses Rodchenkov Anti-Doping Act’s Impact as Tool against Corruption at Upcoming Tokyo Olympics

    WASHINGTON—Dr. Grigory Rodchenkov, the former head of Moscow’s anti-doping laboratory who blew the whistle on Russia’s state-sponsored doping scheme, spoke out for the first time about the impact of the Rodchenkov Anti-Doping Act (RADA) during the latest episode of Helsinki on the Hill, the Helsinki Commission’s monthly podcast. Dr. Rochenkov called into the interview on a secure line from an undisclosed location to protect his safety and well-being. He discussed the blatant corruption that exists within the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), the International Olympic Committee (IOC), and the larger world of international sport. “Immediately and now, [the Rodchenkov Act] is a game changer… those people who were part of [the] conspiracy, they will tighten their security because of fear,” said Dr. Rodchenkov.  “I know people who are core of the doping system...they are very clever.  They are very good.  Now they have some sort of Damocles sword above their heads.  It’s absolutely different feelings and style of life.  You were untouchable and not vulnerable before.  Now you are [the] victim.” The upcoming Tokyo Olympics, slated to take place in late July after a one-year postponement, will be the first international athletic event since the passage of the Rodchenkov Anti-Doping Act (H.R. 835) last December, which established criminal penalties on individuals involved in doping fraud conspiracies affecting major international competition. The law empowers the U.S. Department of Justice for the first time to investigate and prosecute these rogue agents who engage in doping fraud, provide restitution to victims, and protect whistleblowers from retaliation. Passage of the bipartisan legislation was spearheaded by then-Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) 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. Dr. Rodchenkov emphasized the role of whistleblowers in exposing those complicit to the system, since by criminalizing sports doping as corruption, whistleblowers are now protected under U.S. witness protection laws. “Whistleblowers are of the paramount activity for the future fight against doping,” he said. Sen. Whitehouse has lauded Dr. Rodchenkov’s own courage as a whistleblower. “Thanks to Dr. Rodchenkov, we have a clear understanding of how Russia weaponized doping fraud as a tool of foreign policy.  After his visit to the Helsinki Commission three years ago, we decided to take action against the brazen corruption of Russia and other authoritarian states,” Sen. Whitehouse said.  “The new law bearing Dr. Rodchenkov’s name is an important tool for cracking down on global corruption in international sports and addressing the economic, security, and human rights issues caused by these crimes.” In 2018, Dr. Rodchenkov met with Helsinki Commissioners Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), Sen. Cory Gardner (CO), and Rep. Jackson Lee to discuss the threat posed by Russia to the United States, corruption in international sports bodies, and how the United States could contribute to the international effort to counter doping fraud.

  • Co-Chairman Wicker on Secretary of State’s New Designations under International Religious Freedom Act

    WASHINGTON—Following U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s December 7 designations for Countries of Particular Concern (CPC) and the Special Watch List for the worst religious freedom violations, Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) issued the following statement: “Secretary Pompeo rightfully redesignated Tajikistan and Turkmenistan as Countries of Particular Concern. These governments continue to arrest, detain, and torture people for their faith, despite repeated CPC redesignations. It is time for the president to take actions required by the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, which include sanctions against foreign government officials who have committed or are responsible for severe and egregious religious freedom violations. “Russia’s continued presence on the Special Watch List underscores the need for the Senate to pass the Ukraine Religious Freedom Support Act. The Kremlin brutally persecutes religious communities in the parts of Ukraine it illegally occupies or otherwise controls by force. This legislation would ensure the president has the authority necessary to hold Russian government officials accountable for their brutality in Ukraine. “Under the leadership of President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, Uzbekistan commendably has released religious prisoners, registered more religious organizations, and maintained the ban on police raids against religious communities. However, it is essential that reforms continue. Uzbekistan should work with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and Council of Europe’s Venice Commission on its draft religion law to ensure that the final version complies with Uzbekistan’s OSCE commitments and international obligations.” As participating States of the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Russia, and Uzbekistan have repeatedly made commitments to recognize, respect, and protect religious freedom. Even though Turkmenistan has been a CPC since 2014 and Tajikistan since 2016, presidents have always waived taking the presidential actions against them required by the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998. Russia has been on the Special Watch List since 2018. In November 2020, the House of Representatives unanimously passed the Ukraine Religious Freedom Support Act (H.R. 5408) introduced by Helsinki Commissioners Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) and Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, II (MO-05). The Senate companion (S. 3064), introduced by Sen. Wicker and cosponsored by Helsinki Commissioner Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (NH), also awaits Senate action. Under binding international humanitarian law, like the Geneva Conventions, the Russian Government is responsible for religious freedom violations in Ukrainian territory it occupies or controls through armed groups it commands. The Ukraine Religious Freedom Support Act would authorize the president to consider Russia’s worst religious freedom violations in Ukrainian territory—not just violations in Russia—when determining whether to designate Russia as a CPC. Uzbekistan was a CPC from 2006 to 2017 and on the Special Watch List from 2018 to 2019. Sen. Wicker has repeatedly urged Uzbekistan to request a review of its draft religion law by the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institution for Human Rights. Sen. Wicker made the requests in a 2018 letter to Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Kamilov, during a 2018 Helsinki Commission hearing, and in a 2019 public statement. A recent joint review by ODIHR and the Venice Commission review concluded that although “the Draft Law brings some improvements compared to the existing legislation…the Draft Law also maintains major restrictions and suffers from deficiencies that are incompatible with international human rights standards.” The review included recommendations to make the law compliant.

  • Helsinki Commission Digital Digest: November 2020

  • 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.

  • Helsinki Commission Digital Digest: October 2020

  • 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.

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