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House Majority Leader, Helsinki Commissioners Decry Efforts to Shutter Community Center in Hungary

Monday, August 19, 2019

WASHINGTON—Following renewed efforts by authorities in Hungary to shutter the Aurora Community Center in Budapest, House Majority Leader Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (MD-05), Helsinki Commission Ranking Member Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), and Helsinki Commissioner Rep. Gwen Moore (WI-04) issued the following statements:

“During my visit to Budapest earlier this summer, I saw firsthand the important resources Aurora provides to the community,” said Majority Leader Hoyer. “The latest attempt by Hungarian authorities to shut down Aurora speaks volumes about the country’s shrinking space for civil society. On the thinnest of pretexts, the rule of law in Hungary is being hijacked to serve one party's political interests.”

“Aurora nurtures a vibrant community of civil society groups and has become a symbol of independent organizations in Hungary,” said Sen. Cardin, who also serves as the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (PA) Special Representative on Anti-Semitism, Racism, and Intolerance. “Unfortunately, such activism is viewed as a threat by those in power, who—through constant legal harassment—are attempting to permanently close Aurora’s doors. Aurora and organizations like it should be protected, not targeted.”

“In a time when those who spew hate and divisiveness seem to be ascendant, initiatives like Aurora that build inclusive societies and strengthen democracy are needed more than ever,” said Rep. Moore. “I was honored to visit the center and meet with its president, Adam Schonberger, with my colleagues earlier this year.”

Majority Leader Hoyer, Sen. Cardin, and Rep. Moore visited the Aurora Community Center in Budapest in July, en route to the 2019 OSCE PA Annual Session in Luxembourg.

Marom, a Hungarian Jewish association, established and runs Aurora Community Center, an umbrella organization that provides office space to other small civil society groups in Budapest, including the Roma Press Center, migrant aid, and Pride Parade organizers. Over the past two years, Hungarian authorities repeatedly have accused Marom of administrative violations ranging from mismatched dates on official documents to, most recently, lacking an appropriate agreement with the center’s landlord.

Under the Orbán government, the conditions for independent nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in Hungary have deteriorated. In 2014, armed police carried out raids on 13 civil society organizations, seizing computers and documents for alleged financial misconduct. No charges were ever brought against the NGOs. 

In 2017, Hungary adopted a Russian-style "foreign agent" law which, according to the U.S. Department of State, “unfairly burdens a targeted group of Hungarian civil society organizations, many of which focus on fighting corruption and protecting human rights and civil liberties.”

In 2018, Hungary passed a law establishing a 25 percent tax on organizations which engage in “propaganda activity that portrays immigration in a positive light.” It is a tax on government-disfavored speech.  Hungary also adopted amendments to its "law on aiding illegal migration" that makes handing out know-your-rights leaflets punishable by up to one year in prison. 

Hungary will hold municipal elections on October 13.

Media contact: 
Name: 
Stacy Hope
Email: 
csce[dot]press[at]mail[dot]house[dot]gov
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  • Helsinki Commission Examines Plight of Internally Displaced Persons

    By Knox Thames CSCE Counsel The United States Helsinki Commission held a hearing June 10, 2003, focusing on the plight of an estimated three million internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the Caucasus region and southeastern Anatolia. The region has become a temporary dwelling place to the single largest body of displaced persons in the region covered by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). Testifying at the hearing were Dr. Francis Deng, United Nations Secretary General's Representative on Internally Displaced Persons; Ms. Roberta Cohen, Co-Director of the Brookings-SAIS Project on Internal Displacement; Dr. Maureen Lynch, Director of Research for Refugees International; and Mr. Jonathan Sugden, Researcher in the Europe and Central Asia Division at Human Rights Watch. Mr. Gabriel Trujillo, Mission Head for Doctors Without Borders of the Russian Federation was scheduled to testify, but encountered unexpected delays in Moscow. Mr. Nicolas de Torrente, Executive Director of Doctors Without Borders, U.S.A. graciously delivered Mr. Trujillo's opening statement. Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-NJ) opened the hearing, describing how protracted conflicts in Georgia, Azerbaijan, Armenia and the North Caucasus of the Russian Federation have diminished the prospects of displaced persons safely returning home. He noted that few individuals have been allowed to return to southeastern Turkey, despite the lifting of the last state of emergency in late 2002. "We must address this problem now as thousands and thousands of individuals are suffering," said Smith. "More must be done to find just, realistic and durable solutions." Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-CO) stated in written remarks, "As an American Indian, I am particularly sensitive to the plight of men, women and children who have been uprooted from their homes. Whether due to conflict, natural disaster or other causes, the displaced cling to the hope they will one day be able to return home." Campbell added that with millions waiting to return, "it is the responsibility of individual participating States and the international community to meet the needs of these individuals while working to create the conditions necessary for their return in safety and dignity." Ranking Member Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-MD) emphasized the need for the hearing to both ascertain the precise situation of IDPs in the region and to bring greater attention to their needs. He expressed hope that the hearing would provide information and ideas on how the State Department and the U.S. Congress could play a role in assisting the internally displaced. Commissioner Rep. Joseph R. Pitts (R-PA) called the condition of IDPs in the region "urgent," as they suffer not only from a lack of food, medical aid, and education, but also from the inability to return home. "Some fear government action against them. Others fear rebel action. Others fear both," Pitts noted. Dr. Deng is the author of the UN Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement which recognized international norms for the rights of the displaced and the corresponding duties of states in protecting those rights. He provided an overview of the situation in the region, characterizing IDPs as having the same needs as refugees, "but worse." Since IDPs do not leave their country, they remain more or less within the conflict zone, faced with the same threats that caused their flight. While their home governments bear primary responsibility for their safety and security, Deng noted in many cases IDPs become in effect political hostages. By not resettling the displaced and allowing free integration, the government uses them as bargaining chips in the political conflict. When the government fails to act, the displaced often fall into a "vacuum of responsibility," Deng observed, noting that the world cannot sit and watch and do nothing. Ms. Cohen offered a series of recommendations for the OSCE on issues pertaining to IDPs. "The OSCE, more than most regional organizations, has tremendous potential for dealing with the problem of internal displacement in the European region," stated Cohen. "It also has the responsibility to do so." Although recognizing that in recent years the OSCE has expanded its involvement with problems of internal displacement, Cohen noted that these steps have been largely ad hoc and too small. She recommended that the OSCE systematically integrate internal displacement into its activities, particularly within the Caucasus region and southeastern Anatolia, using the UN Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement as a framework. Cohen specifically urged OSCE bodies to ensure the right of IDPs to vote. In addition, Cohen identified the OSCE/ODIHR migration unit as the potential focal point for activities within the organization and contended that, if these recommendations are carried out, it would positively impact the situation in the Caucasus and Turkey. Russian Federation Gabriel Trujillo's prepared statement outlined the results of a Doctors Without Borders' survey conducted in February 2003 that polled over 16,000 displaced Chechens housed in camps in neighboring Ingushetia. When questioned about returning to Chechnya, an overwhelming majority of respondents said they were too afraid for their safety to return. Notably, individuals interviewed did not consider the availability of humanitarian aid available in Ingushetia as a reason to stay. The ongoing violence has kept UNHCR from certifying Chechnya as a safe return destination. International aid agencies, including Doctors Without Borders, are choosing to limit or suspend their operations out of concern for the safety of aid workers. Mr. de Torrente pointed to recent abductions, including Doctors Without Borders volunteer Arjan Erkel still missing from nearby Daghestan after ten months, as exemplifying the security situation in the region. "If present security conditions in Chechnya and the neighboring republics are not adequate for humanitarian workers to carry out assistance activities," asked de Torrente, "why would they be considered adequate for civilian Chechens to return and resume their normal lives?" Despite this lack of security, the UN estimates that more than 38,000 IDPs from Ingushetia returned to Chechnya last year. Respondents to the survey said people are left with little choice. They report that officials have threatened to cut off assistance in Ingushetia and block future aid in Chechnya for those refusing to leave immediately. Also, Russian troops reportedly are stationed near IDP camps and authorities limit assistance from international agencies, all to pressure IDPs to return to Chechnya. De Torrente concluded, "The results of the survey are a clear indication that the basic rights of displaced people to seek safe refuge, to be protected and assisted properly in a time of conflict, and only to return home voluntarily as guaranteed by international humanitarian law are not being respected." Turkey Mr. Sugden described the situation in southeastern Turkey, where approximately 400,000 to one million people, mostly of Kurdish heritage, fled their villages during the conflict with the PKK. Relative peace returned to the region by 2001, yet the majority of Turkey's displaced have been unable to return home. Sugden noted that often local authorities will not permit villages to be re-inhabited, while in other cases the gendarmes or village guards block resettlement, often by threat or use of violence. While the Government of Turkey has policies and programs aimed at returning the displaced to their homes, Sugden asserted, they have "consistently been underfunded and ill-conceived, falling far short of established international standards." Because of this, the international community has been reluctant to get involved. "Instead of helping villagers to get international assistance, the government, with its flawed plans, is actually standing in their path," he remarked. Sugden noted that the implementation of a fair and effective return program for the displaced populations in Turkey would also serve the country's goal of EU membership. He urged the Helsinki Commission to use its leverage in encouraging Turkey "as a matter of urgent priority" to convene a planning forum with the goal of creating a return program meeting international standards. Azerbaijan and Georgia Dr. Lynch estimated that in the South Caucasus there are currently some 250,000 displaced individuals from the Abkhazia and South Ossetia conflicts in Georgia and over 572,000 displaced from the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict in Azerbaijan. Although political solutions would provide the best opportunity for these groups to return home, the frozen nature of the conflicts makes that a remote possibility. In addition, Lynch asserted that the Georgian and Azeri Governments have failed to provide alternative integration opportunities, thereby maintaining the displaced as "political pawns." In Azerbaijan, only about ten percent of IDPs live in camps. The rest have settled in abandoned hotels, railway cars, or underground dugouts, all of which represent serious health hazards from air and water quality to the risk of structural collapse. The lucky few provided with government-funded housing find themselves located far from jobs and on unirrigated land unsuitable for farming. Nevertheless, Dr. Lynch maintains that Azerbaijan is full of potential; it is an oil-rich country with a highly literate population. "The answer to Azerbaijan's trouble is not found only in resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict," he asserted, "Azerbaijan must protect itself from corruption and use all of its resources to look to the future." In Georgia, the living conditions for IDPs are just as harsh, but with the added difficulty of only sporadic food aid. There is also a severe lack of even basic healthcare accessible to IDPs and virtually no psychosocial assistance. What healthcare is available is often too expensive for the displaced, resulting in many IDPs dying from curable ailments. Dr. Lynch declared that both Azerbaijan and Georgia must develop long-term solutions for their displaced populations, but they must also allow relief aid to arrive unhindered. In particular, Georgia must lift the import tax it imposed on humanitarian goods, which is currently blocking effective aid distribution, and both countries must work to create economic opportunities for IDPs. She further urged governments to be transparent in their plans, thereby encouraging continued participation of the international community. The United States Helsinki Commission, an independent federal agency, by law monitors and encourages progress in implementing provisions of the Helsinki Accords. The Commission, created in 1976, is composed of nine Senators, nine Representatives and one official each from the Departments of State, Defense and Commerce.

  • Continuous Religious Freedom Concerns in Armenia

    Mr. Speaker, I rise in my capacity as Chairman of the Helsinki Commission to voice concern over Armenia's refusal to register select religious groups and the continuing harassment of certain religious communities, actions which violate Armenia's commitments to religious freedom as a participating State in the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). Honoring the commitments enshrined in the Helsinki Final Act and subsequent OSCE documents would ensure Armenia upholds the freedom of the individual to profess and practice religion or belief, alone or in community with others.   With respect to registration, Armenian law requires all religious communities and organizations, other than the Armenian Apostolic Church, to register with the government. Obtaining registration is critical if a religious community wants to carry out basic functions, like renting property, publishing newspapers or magazines, broadcasting programs on television or radio, or officially sponsoring the visas of co-religionists or visitors.   To acquire registration, a petitioning religious organization must obtain an “expert opinion” from the government, in which four questions from Article 14 of the Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organizations Act must be affirmatively answered: (1) Is the religion based on a historically canonized holy book? (2) Does its faith belong to a system of modern worldwide religious church communities? (3) Is it of a purely spiritual orientation, not created for the pursuit of material goals? (4) Does it have at least 200 believing members, not including minors? A negative finding by the government on any of the four questions will terminate the registration application.   This type of approval system is extremely problematic, as it places the government in the role of determining what is or is not a religion, allowing it to make highly subjective decisions. For example, the government refuses to recognize the Jehovah's Witnesses as an official religion, despite having more than 6,000 Armenian members. Other small groups, including approximately 50 Baptist communities, are unable to pass the numerical threshold, so are not qualified to apply for registration. As a result these groups are indiscriminately denied basic rights enjoyed by those which have the government's stamp of approval.   Last September, Prime Minister Andranik Markarian reportedly stated that the Armenian Government must curb the activities of minority religious communities, even if these actions violate Council of Europe obligations. Mr. Speaker, considering this type of bias, I urge the Government of Armenia to revamp the registration process to prevent arbitrary or politicized decisions. Abolishing the registration requirement and ensuring any system facilitates, rather than hampers, the free exercise of religious freedom for individuals and communities, by methodically granting legal status to groups which seek registration would help bring Armenian policy into conformity with OSCE commitments.   Even more alarming is the Armenian Government's continued imprisonment of conscientious objectors, particularly from the Jehovah's Witnesses faith. According to the State Department's 2002 Anual Report on International Religious Freedom for Armenia, military and civilian security officials subject Jehovah's Witnesses who refuse to serve in the military to harsh treatment, because their refusal is seen as a threat to Armenia's survival. One particular example is the case of Araik Bedjanyan, sentenced on July 2nd to 1½ years in a labor camp for refusing military service. Mr. Bedjanyan was sentenced under Article 75 of the criminal code, for “evasion of active military service.” There are currently 24 Jehovah's Witnesses serving sentences for being conscientious objectors on religious grounds. Suren Hakopyan and Artur Torosyan, whom police arrested in Yerevan on July 3, are currently awaiting trial along with six others for their refusal to serve in the military. Seven more Jehovah's Witnesses are reportedly under house arrest for the same “crime.” Despite Article 75 being replaced by Article 327 in the new criminal code, the amendment only reduces the potential sentence from three years to two.   One of the conditions for Armenia's admission to the Council of Europe in January 2001 involved the adoption of a law on alternative military service conforming to European standards within three years. However, while drafts continue to circulate, no laws have been passed that provide for alternative civilian service outside the framework of the army. In the meantime, conscientious objectors continue to receive harsh sentences. Should the Armenian Parliament pass such a law, the service length should not be punitive in nature, but rather be comparable to military service requirements.   As Chairman of the Helsinki Commission, I urge the Armenian Government to abide by its OSCE commitments regarding religious freedom. Armenia should overhaul its registration scheme, dropping the registration requirement, and liberalize its system for bestowing legal personality to religious communities and organizations. Furthermore, all Jehovah's Witnesses currently imprisoned for “evasion of military service” should be unconditionally freed, and a law in line with Council of Europe standards for alternative military service should be passed as soon as possible.

  • Displaced Persons Facing Serious Obstacles in Russia

    Mr. Speaker, today I want to bring to the attention of colleagues two situations concerning internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the Russian Federation. I recently chaired a Helsinki Commission hearing to assess the plight of IDPs, including those in the Caucasus region.   The first involves IDPs from Chechnya who, according to reliable sources, continue to be pressured by Russian authorities to return to the war-torn capital city of Grozny, despite continuing violence there and a lack of many basic services. According to the State Department's Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2002, approximately 140,000 persons remained internally displaced within Chechnya, with 110,000 more displaced in the neighboring republic of Ingushetia. Despite international attention, including a letter initiated last fall by the Helsinki Commission, which I chair, the Russian Government continues to pressure IDPs to return, and in some cases limits the ability of NGOs to provide assistance.   My concern for the safety of Chechen IDPs is well founded, as authorities in the past year closed three IDP camps, two near the village of Znamenskoye in northern Chechnya and the Aki-Yurt camp in Ingushetia, effectively forcing the residents back to Grozny. Reports of violence and human rights violations by both Russian military units and Chechen rebels in Chechnya are disturbing. The ongoing chaos in that war-torn region has kept UNHCR from certifying Chechnya as a safe return destination, which is supported by the fact that many international aid agencies have limited or suspended their operations out of concern for the safety of aid workers.   Despite this lack of security, the United Nations estimates that more than 38,000 IDPs from Ingushetia returned to Chechnya last year, with many complaining of government coercion. While no camp has been closed since December 2002, Doctors Without Borders reports that government officials threaten to cut off assistance in Ingushetia and block future aid in Chechnya for those refusing to leave immediately. The stationing of Russian troops near IDP camps and the limiting of assistance from international agencies to camp residents represent pressure tactics to “encourage” the return of IDPs to Chechnya.   Clearly, the Russian Government is not respecting the fundamental right of individuals to seek safe refuge. As a participating State of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the Russian Federation has committed to facilitate sustainable solutions to the plight of IDPs and the voluntary return of such individuals in dignity and safety. I urge President Putin to intervene to ensure that Russian policy and practice are consistent with these OSCE commitments and that no IDPs be effectively forced to return to their homes in Chechnya until the conditions have been created for their return. To do otherwise would place the lives of tens of thousands of innocent Russian citizens at risk.   The second situation I want to briefly highlight concerns the plight of Meskhetian Turks in the Krasnodar Krai region of the Russian Federation. Also known as Ahiska Turks or Meskhetians, Meskhetian Turks were forced to relocate twice within the past 50 years, first from Soviet Georgia in November 1944 to the Soviet Socialist Republic of Uzbekistan. In 1989, approximately 90,000 Meskhetian Turks fled ethnic conflicts in Uzbekistan to all parts of the Soviet Union, with the largest concentration today found in Krasnodar Krai. Numbering approximately 13,000, these displaced individuals find themselves in a virtual no man's land, denied citizenship and permanent residency permits, as well as many other fundamental rights.   Due to loopholes in the Russian citizenship law and the improper application of this law by Krasnodar Krai authorities, Meskhetian Turks must register as “guests” every 45 days, may not legally register the purchase of a house or car, and their marriages and deaths are not officially recorded. Most are denied education above high school, as well. The Krasnodar regional legislature enacted a series of laws in 2002 in an attempt to pressure the Meskhetian Turks to leave. Corresponding with the expiration of the temporary registration held by most Krasnodar Meskhetian Turks, the laws reportedly cancelled leases on land or denied lease renewals for the 2002 crop season. Furthermore, chauvinistic local authorities have not intervened to prevent local Cossack paramilitary units from repeatedly victimizing Krasnodar Meskhetian Turks through public harassment, robbery, and vandalism. In late May, a mob of around 50 people attacked Meskhetian Turks and other non-Russian-looking individuals in two villages, injuring 30 people and hospitalizing six.   By not granting citizenship or providing permanent residency status, current Russian policy enables the discriminatory practices subjugating the rights of Meskhetian Turks in Krasnodar Krai to continue. Mr. Speaker, President Putin cited the problems of citizenship and stateless persons in his annual State of the Federation address earlier this year. The Russian President pointed out the complexities and uncertainties faced by stateless persons in Russia. I urge him and Members of the State Duma to rectify the status of Meskhetian Turks and other stateless persons. Meanwhile, the Kremlin should intervene to ensure that Krasnodar Krai officials desist in their discriminatory treatment of the Meskhetian Turks until their status is normalized, as well as guarantee the prosecution of violent criminals.  

  • Certification of Assistance to Serbia

    Mr. Speaker, the U.S. Department of State last week made its determination to certify compliance by the Government of Serbia and Montenegro with the terms of section 578 of the Consolidated Appropriations Resolution (P.L. 108-7). This section conditions certain bilateral assistance to Serbia on progress in three areas, although by far the most critical being cooperation with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.   I agree with the Department’s assessment that progress has been made, especially since March. In particular, I welcomed action earlier this month by the Serbian authorities to apprehend Veselin Svjilancanin, indicted by the Tribunal for the 1991 massacre near Vukovar in Croatia. Although there was resistance, this action was a success and signaled what is perhaps a new determination by Belgrade to transfer all remaining indictees. Having been in Vukovar, along with my good friend and colleague Mr. Wolf, just before the city fell to Serb forces, I am glad to see all three indicted by the Tribunal for this crime will be tried in The Hague.   Nevertheless, Mr. Speaker, I am concerned that the Department’s determination was the wrong one to make. While progress has been made, it remains insufficient. Still at large and believed to have been in Serbia are several other persons, including Ratko Mladic and others, Ljubisa Beara, Vujadin Popovic, Ljubomir Borovcanin, Vinko Pandurevic and Drago Nikolic, indicted by the Tribunal for their connection to the1995 Srebrenica massacre in which thousands of innocent people were executed.   I am concerned, deeply concerned, that these individuals will continue to evade justice while officials in Belgrade may get the impression they have done enough. Clearly, they have not. Mr. Speaker, I would urge Serbian authorities to take the action necessary to remove "cooperation with the Tribunal" as an outstanding issue in our bilateral relationship. In doing so, they will also continue to help Serbia emerge from Slobodan Milosevic’s legacy of nationalist hatred.   In the meantime, Mr. Speaker, I also urge the State Department to use remaining levers to encourage not just better, but full, cooperation with the Tribunal, which Secretary Powell had assured Mr. Cardin and myself in correspondence was a position we all shared. The crimes which occurred were too severe and too horrendous to allow those responsible to escape justice.

  • Repression Spreading in Belarus

    Mr. Speaker, Europe's last dictator, Belarus' Alyaksandr Lukashenka, appears determined to ignore the voices of the people of Belarus calling for basic respect for human rights and democratic principles a decade after that country gained its independence and joined the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).   As Chairman of the Helsinki Commission, I am disturbed by recent developments which demonstrate the growing repression in Belarus. There have been further restrictions imposed on the independent media, with the recent suspension of independent newspapers Navinki and Ekho. Just a few days ago, the publication Predprinimatelskaya Gazeta was suspended for three months. The offices of the trade union paper Solidarnost have been sealed by the authorities. Still other publications have received warnings that could lead to their closure. These actions were preceded by the three-month suspension of two prominent independent newspapers--Belaruskaya Delovaya Gazeta and BDG--For Internal Use Only.   The Lukashenka regime is also targeting schools. The National Humanities Lyceum, a highly respected high school promoting study of the Belarusian language and culture, is under fire, with its acting head to be replaced by a reportedly non-Belarusian-speaking official. Why? Because professors at the school support democracy and the Belarusian language and culture which ironically is anathema to the Belarusian strongman. Mr. Speaker, what kind of leader actively suppresses his nation's language and culture?   Moreover, a new crackdown on Pentecostal home meetings in western Belarus is underway, with fines being handed down on church members who permit their homes to be used for prayer meetings--a result of last year's restrictive religion law.   Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are also facing increasing scrutiny, often for truly spurious reasons such as minor mistakes in registration documents. Several, including Ratusha, Varuta and the Youth Christian Social Union, are under threat of liquidation. Just a few days ago, the Homel regional court ordered the closure of the area's largest NGO, Civic Initiatives. The intensified campaign against NGOs and the independent media are widely regarded among domestic and international observers as a concerted attack on active and independent civil society structures.   Repressive actions against individuals continue as well. Recently, 18-year-old ZUBR activist Tatiana Elovaya was sentenced to 10 days imprisonment for manifesting her support in an April 3 demonstration outside the U.S. Embassy for the campaign to liberate Iraq. Several others, including 19-year-old Lyubov Kuchinskaya had served 10-day sentences earlier. Unfortunately, these are just some recent examples of a longstanding pattern of the Lukashenka regime's flouting of its OSCE commitments and continued disregard for the four OSCE criteria set forth three years ago by the Parliamentary Troika for Belarus.   Despite steps by the OSCE community, including the re-opening of the OSCE Office in Miensk (albeit under a more limited mandate), the seating of the National Assembly and the lifting of a visa ban, not only have reciprocal steps not been taken by the Belarusian authorities but the situation has indeed deteriorated further.   Earlier this year, I introduced H.R. 854, the Belarus Democracy Act, designed to assist the people of Belarus in regaining their freedom and enable them to join the European community of democracies. Key provisions of this Act also have been incorporated into the Foreign Relations Reauthorization bill. Mr. Speaker, the Lukashenka regime's continuing suppression of the longsuffering Belarusian people underscores the need for the Belarus Democracy Act and other efforts--including within the OSCE--to restore respect for human rights and institutions of democratic governance.

  • Democracy, Human Rights and Justice in Serbia Today

    Donald Kursch, Senior Advisor at the US Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, moderated this briefing that discussed, among other things, the trajectory of democratic institutions in Serbia. This briefing was held in the wake of the assassination of Serbian Prime Minister Djindjic, after which the authorities in Belgrade undertook tough measures to crack down on the criminal elements that had continued to be a barrier to Serbia and Montenegro’s full integration into the Euro-Atlantic community’s institutions. More restrictive measures against crime in Serbia and Montenegro had underscored the progress already made by democratic forces in overcoming the estrangement between the two countries and the West.

  • Human Rights in Chechnya Focus of Helsinki Commission Briefing

    By John Finerty, CSCE Staff Advisor The United States Helsinki Commission held a briefing April 24, 2003 on the critical human rights and humanitarian situation in war-torn Chechnya, Russian Federation. The panelists of the briefing were Eliza Moussaeva, Director of the Ingushetia office of the Memorial Human Rights Center, and Bela Tsugaeva, Information Manager of World Vision, Ingushetia. The Commission guests were accompanied by Maureen Greenwood, Advocacy Director for Europe and Eurasia, Amnesty International, USA. Helsinki Commission Deputy Chief of Staff Ron McNamara opened the briefing. “Despite concerted efforts by the Russian leadership to portray the situation in Chechnya as approaching normal, the pattern of clear, gross and uncorrected violations of OSCE commitments by Russian forces continues,” McNamara said. “From reports of credible and courageous human rights activists such as our panelists, it is clear that the most egregious violations of international humanitarian law anywhere in the OSCE region are occurring in Chechnya today.” Ms. Moussaeva said that, as of late, Russian forces no longer conduct sweep operations (“zachistki”) in search of rebels, but now rely on night raids by masked personnel. In the three months from January to March, there were 119 abductions by federal forces engaged in such operations, according to Moussaeva, who added that during the same period last year, there were 82 abductions marking an increase in such activity by Federation forces. This shift in tactics has made it more difficult for families to trace their abducted relatives, whereas previously relatives generally knew which units had conducted the sweeps. Now, units and identities of the raiders are unknown, as well as the location of detainees. Officially, 2,800 persons are missing. Memorial believes the actual number to be significantly higher. Mass graves are a common find. In January, one mass grave was found in which the exact number of corpses could not be ascertained, because the bodies had been blown up by grenades to hide traces of torture and abuse. Authorities claim these individuals were abducted by Chechen rebel forces; yet some family members, who were able to identify their relatives by the clothing on the bodies, say that these individuals were actually taken by federal forces. According to Moussaeva, Moscow’s highly-touted March 23rd constitutional referendum has not marked an improvement in Chechen life on the ground. On one single day after the referendum, Memorial received reports of several cases of individuals abducted by federal forces. On the same day, a bus exploded, killing nine. Ms. Moussaeva asked, “So we have the question, why did we need that referendum if it didn’t change the situation for the better, if it didn’t bring us stability?” Regarding an OSCE presence in Chechnya, Moussaeva said, “We hope that they would have the opportunity to open in Chechnya again, and it will be a great help for us. The OSCE had a very positive experience and a good image after the first war.” Ms. Tsugaeva spoke about the situation for internally displaced persons (IDPs). According to information compiled by the Danish Refugee Council, there are some 92,000 IDPs in the neighboring republic of Ingushetia, which has a population of only 350,000. Fifteen thousand of the IDPs live in five large tent camps, 27,000 in other structures such as industrial plants or farms, and 50,000 in private accommodations, for which most have to pay rent. Most individuals lack basic necessities and have been asked by Ingushetia to leave, yet they have nowhere to go. Refugees in this region have also been subjected to efforts by federal officials to drive them away. Seventy percent of aid comes mainly from international NGOs, and the remainder from the UN. Bread distribution to these people is vital but irregular. Most international NGOs have been unable to open offices in Chechnya due to the security situation, meaning only the most needy, such as children and the elderly, can be provided for. Many land mines scattered throughout parts of the country formerly occupied by military forces are an additional cause for concern. According to official statistics, there were over 5,000 victims of landmine explosions in 2002. Despite the work of international NGOs such as the Handicap International Organization, most of these victims do not have access to adequate medical care and are in one way or another incapacitated for life. Ms. Moussaeva stated that an office established by the Putin government to monitor the human rights situation in Chechnya was ineffectual and merely for show. Of more than 29,000 complaints of harassment by federal forces filed by individuals, only 550 had been investigated. Ms. Greenwood commended the Helsinki Commission for its letter to Secretary of State Colin Powell urging the U.S. delegation at the United Nations Commission on Human Rights in Geneva to push for a strong resolution to the conflict in Geneva. The recently concluded 58th Meeting of the UN Commission on Human Rights failed by a vote of 15-21 to adopt a U.S.-supported resolution expressing “deep concern” about reported human rights violations in Chechnya. “Amnesty would like to thank co-signers Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell, Representative Christopher Smith, Senator Gordon Smith, Representative Steny Hoyer, Representative Robert Aderholt and Representative Ben Cardin,” Greenwood said. Furthermore, Greenwood expressed Amnesty International’s concern regarding the targeting of civilians on both sides of the conflict. Chechen rebel forces have engaged in abductions, hostage taking, and assassinations. Russians have used tactics such as extra-judicial executions, rape, and torture. Amnesty International profiles a few prominent cases, but these represent hundreds of other cases of human rights abuses. Ms. Greenwood presented Amnesty International’s recommendations for the United States Government, including: pressuring the Russian Government not to close tent camps for IDPs; encouraging the US Government to maintain funding levels of the Freedom Support Act for pro-human rights and democracy NGOs in the Russian Federation; demanding access to Chechnya for international journalists and observers; and, supporting the establishment of a human rights tribunal in the Council of Europe. Amnesty International’s recommendations for the Russian Government included providing accountability for previous abuses and ending violations of human rights law. Finally, Amnesty International called upon Chechen rebels to abide by international law, and stop the kidnaping and killings. The United States Helsinki Commission, an independent federal agency, by law monitors and encourages progress in implementing provisions of the Helsinki Accords. The Commission, created in 1976, is composed of nine Senators, nine Representatives and one official each from the Departments of State, Defense and Commerce. United States Helsinki Commission intern Sean Callagy contributed to this article.

  • The Critical Human Rights and Humanitarian Situation in Chechnya

    This briefing followed a defeat, by a vote of 15-21 at the 59th Session of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights in Geneva, of a U.S.–supported resolution expressing “deep concern” about reported human rights violation in Chechnya.  The developments in Chechnya since the outbreak of the war in 1994 were briefly surveyed, while the focus of discussion was largely on the human dimension of the situation and the dangers faced by average Chechen civilians. Witnesses testifying at the hearing – including Eliza Moussaeva, Director of the Ingushetia Office of the Memorial Human Rights Center; Bela Tsugaeva, Information Manager of World Vision; and Maureen Greenwood, Advocacy Director for the Europe and Eurasia division of Amnesty International – addressed the dismal state of human rights in Chechnya and the issue of international assistance, which was less effective than it could have been due to government accountability issues. The lack of infrastructure and security guarantees was additional topics of discussion.

  • President Shevardnadze’s Statement Welcomed, but Action also Needed

    Today I want to acknowledge and welcome the March 14th statement of the President of Georgia, Eduard Shevardnadze, pledging his commitment to religious freedom for all Georgians and promising the punishment of individuals complicit in mob attacks on religious minorities. (I am submitting the statement for the RECORD below.) President Shevardnadze made this pledge during an ecumenical service in Tbilisi’s Evangelist-Baptist Cathedral Church, attended by leaders of the Georgian Orthodox, Armenian Apostolic, Roman Catholic, Lutheran and Baptist churches and many individuals from the diplomatic community. The U.S. Ambassador to Georgia, Richard Miles, also attended and addressed the gathering. Reportedly, so many people came that hundreds had to listen via loudspeakers in the churchyard.   The service was initially planned for late January, but defrocked priest Basil Mkalavishvili and his crowd of thugs assaulted worshipers and clergy an hour before it was scheduled to begin -- as they have been doing with impunity since 1999. Individuals were beaten as they tried to leave, with rocks and stones being reportedly thrown. While President Shevardnadze quickly condemned that attack, ordering the Interior Minister, the Prosecutor General, State Chancellery Head, and the Security Council Secretary to investigate and punish the perpetrators, no arrests or prosecutions followed.   Despite Georgia’s appalling record on religious tolerance for the last few years, I hope President Shevardnadze’s speech at the Baptist church signals a new determination to arrest and aggressively prosecute the mob leaders and their henchmen. He promised that “as the President of Georgia and a believer, I shall not restrict myself only to a mere expression of resentment. I do promise that the President and the Authorities of Georgia will do their utmost to grant every person freedom of expression of faith.” Driving home the point further, Mr. Shevardnadze declared, “the state will exert its pressure on whoever comes in defiance of this principle. You may stand assured that the aggressors will be brought to justice.”   As Co-Chairman of the U.S. Helsinki Commission, over the past three years I have watched with increasing alarm the escalation of mob violence. On September 24th I chaired a Commission hearing focused on this disturbing pattern. The Jehovah’s Witnesses have borne the brunt of attacks, along with Baptists, Pentecostals, Adventists and Catholics. Most disheartening has been the government's indifference; victims throughout the country have filed approximately 800 criminal complaints, without one criminal conviction.   Despite a series of statements by President Shevardnadze, Georgia's Minister of Interior and Prosecutor General appear unwilling to effectively enforce the rule of law, refusing to arrest mob leaders like Mkalavishvili and Paata Bluashvili and not attempting serious prosecutions. For example, the trial of Mkalavishvili has dragged on for more than a year, without a single piece of evidence considered yet. I would hope the provision of adequate and visible security, which took months to organize, will continue and that the prosecutor will begin his case shortly. Also, the inauguration of trial proceedings against Bluashvili in Rustavi is positive; I trust the delays and shenanigans seen in Mkalavishvili’s trial will not be repeated there. I also urge the Government of Georgia to arrest and detain Mkalavishvili, Bluashvili and other indicted persons who continue to perpetrate violent criminal acts against religious minorities.   Undoubtedly, President Shevardnadze’s presence at the March 14th service and his statement illustrate his personal commitment to religious tolerance and basic law and order. Yet, while I appreciate his gesture, it is time for real action. If the attacks are allowed to continue, it will only become more difficult to rein in this mob violence. If presidential orders are repeatedly ignored, it will only further weaken the government’s ability to enforce the rule of law. And, of course, we must not forget the plight of minority religious communities that continue to live in a state of siege, without any real protection from their government. Ironically, it appears that minorities’ religious communities are freer to profess and practice their faith in regions of Georgia not under the control of President Shevardnadze’s government.   In closing, I urge President Shevardnadze to fulfill his most recent commitment to punish the aggressors, thereby restoring Georgia’s international reputation and upholding its international commitments as a participating State in the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. I and other Members of Congress are acutely interested in seeing whether the Government of Georgia will actually arrest the perpetrators of violence and vigorously prosecute them.   Speech of the President of Georgia, Eduard Shevardnadze, at the Evangelist-Baptist Cathedral Church   “Representatives of all Religions and Nations have to Raise Prayers for Peace Together” Tbilisi, Georgia March 14, 2003   My dear friends, Christians, Dear Ambassadors!   I am here to give utterance to my contentment and admiration, which derives from seeing you, all Christians, or, to be more precise, representatives of all Christian folds, assembled here, under the same roof of this temple, in the capital of Georgia famed as the Virgin’s lot.   I am happy to be a witness to this occurrence. I am happy because you are together, because we are together. But all of us have our own faith.   I am an Orthodox believer, but we are all Christians. It is what we should always bear in mind and keep intact this wholeness and unity.   Georgia is one of those countries on the planet whose roots go back the farthest in history. Tolerance has become particularly entrenched in its history and nature since the days we embraced Christianity.   Christ granted that we be together. And more than this: Georgia is a multinational country, where Muslims and followers of other confessions have dwelt along with Christians in the course of centuries.   We live presently in a world of stark contradictions. It remains anybody’s guess when a bomb may blast. You probably understand what I mean. Therefore, we should pray for peace, and these prayers should be raised by all of us: Christians, Muslims, representatives of every religion, confession and nation.   But prayers alone will not keep us together. We have also to struggle, in order that, through our benevolence, faith, love and respect to one another, we may put up resistance to the eradicating processes of which I already made a mention.   As was customary with my great ancestors, I go to an Orthodox church. But nor do I keep distance from synagogues, mosques or churches of different Christian confessions.   I feel respect for all who have confident belief in kindness and its victory.   I am happy to see, along with Georgian citizens, the attendance of the distinguished ambassadors and diplomats accredited in Georgia, who have come this evening to share our happiness.   I cannot but express a deep sense of regret, even resentment at the gross infringement of our unity, mutual respect and freedom of faith by some of the aggressors.   As the President of Georgia and a believer, I shall not restrict myself only to a mere expression of resentment. I do promise that the President and the Authorities of Georgia will do their utmost to grant every person freedom of expression of faith.   The state will exert its pressure on whoever comes in defiance of this principle. You may stand assured that the aggressors will be brought to justice.   I would like to greet you once more and wish you happiness and advancement of goals. So as with Georgia, a multinational country of various religious confessions, my wishes are for joy, happiness and prosperity.

  • The Referendum in Chechnya

    Mr. Speaker, last Sunday, while the world's eyes were focused on the momentous events taking place in Iraq, a constitutional referendum was held in the war-torn region of Chechnya. The referendum was held as part of the Russian Government's attempt to “normalize” the situation in that tortured part of Russia's North Caucasus.   For the last ten years, Chechnya has been the scene of a bloody war between armed Chechen rebels and Russian military forces. Hostilities were precipitated in late 1994 when, in the wake of Chechnya's attempt to secede from the Russian Federation, Russian military forces launched a full-scale assault on the Chechen capital of Grozny. There was a restive peace from 1996 until the summer of 1999, when the armed clashes erupted anew. The roots of this conflict go back to Tsarist conquests in the 19th century and Stalin's brutal deportation of the Chechen people to Central Asia during World War II. Unfortunately, certain radical Islamic militant elements linked to international terrorism have become involved on the Chechen side, though the State Department has stressed that not all Chechens are terrorists.   Despite Moscow's repeated claims that heavy-handed Russian tactics in Chechnya are part of the war against global terrorism, the situation is far more complex. Many Chechens have taken up arms against what they believe is a repressive colonial power and wish to see Chechnya as an independent state that will be able to make the critical choice regarding the future of its people. As is so frequently the case, the civilian population has suffered terribly from the war. While both sides are guilty of violations of international humanitarian law, the Russian military and special operations units have been responsible for numerous and well-documented instances of gratuitous, brutal and mass violence against the civilian population.   During my years in the leadership of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, the Commission has conducted eight hearings and briefings on Chechnya. Witnesses, including a nurse who was present in a Chechen town where some of the worst atrocities by Russian forces took place, have described the appalling fate of the civilian population.   According to the U.S. State Department's Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2001, “The indiscriminate use of force by government troops in the Chechen conflict resulted in widespread civilian casualties and the displacement of hundreds of thousands of persons, the majority of whom sought refuge in the neighboring republic of Ingushetia. Attempts by government forces to regain control over Chechnya were accompanied by the indiscriminate use of air power and artillery. There were numerous reports of attacks by government forces on civilian targets, including the bombing of schools and residential areas.” The report continues: “Command and control among military and special police units often appeared to be weak, and a climate of lawlessness, corruption, and impunity flourished, which fostered individual acts by government forces of violence and looting against civilians.” Among the examples of such lawlessness and impunity in the Country Reports were “...reports of mass graves and 'dumping grounds' for victims allegedly executed by Russian forces in Chechnya” and “cleansing” operations directed against guerrillas but resulting in deaths and the disappearance of non-combatants.   The State Department points out that Chechen forces also committed serious abuses: “According to unconfirmed reports, rebels killed civilians who would not assist them, used civilians as human shields, forced civilians to build fortifications, and prevented refugees from fleeing Chechnya. In several cases, elderly Russian civilians were killed for no apparent reason other than their ethnicity.”   Against this unsettling backdrop, with an estimated 100,000 internally displaced persons living in refugee camps in neighboring Ingushetia, and under the guns of approximately 80,000 Russian soldiers in Chechnya, the Chechen people have reportedly voted overwhelmingly for the proposed new constitution. Nevertheless, it is difficult to believe that a genuine assessment of the public will would have been determined under such circumstances. I would ask the same question I asked in a Helsinki Commission press release over a month ago: “Are we supposed to believe that this referendum will stabilize Chechnya while armed conflict between the Russian military and Chechen fighters continue to produce death and destruction?'”   The well-respected Russian human rights group, Memorial, has charged that Chechens were pressured to vote with the threat of losing their pensions or humanitarian aid. A joint assessment mission of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the Council of Europe stated that “no group has been able to campaign officially against the referendum in the mass media or distribute literature arguing against the referendum,” although some opposition opinions were voiced in the media. Incidentally, in the concluding communique of the 1999 Istanbul OSCE Summit, the Russian Government agreed that all sides should seek a political solution to the conflict, and avail themselves of the assistance of the OSCE. This commitment was seriously undermined when the Russian government evicted the OSCE Assistance Mission to Chechnya at the end of last year.   Mr. Speaker, the Bush Administration has stated that “...we hope [the referendum] can be the basis for a political solution to that tragic conflict.” I find that rather optimistic. The Russian Government might better instruct its military to stop terrorizing the civilian population, prosecute human rights violators and rebuild Chechnya. Then perhaps it would not have to hold referenda in Chechnya under armed guard.

  • Mourning the Assassination of Serbian Prime Minister Djindjic

    Mr. Speaker, I want to join the gentleman from California (Mr. Dreier) in his comments about Mr. Djindjic, the Prime Minister of Serbia. Serbia in the 1990s, like Iraq has gone through, was under the heel of a despot who was vicious and who in my opinion was a war criminal. When the United States acted to displace the Milosevic regime and ultimately Milosevic was voted out of office because we went into Kosovo, it was Mr. Djindjic who showed the courage and the moral commitment to ensure that Mr. Milosevic would be transferred to The Hague to answer for his crimes. That trial currently is going on. It is going on because Mr. Djindjic had the courage to facilitate the transfer out of Serbia to The Hague of the alleged war criminal Slobodan Milosevic.   He has now been assassinated. We do not know yet who the perpetrator of that assassination is. Suffice it to say, we have lost someone whose courage and commitment to freedom and human rights was an important aspect for his country and for the international community. We are a lesser international community for his loss.

  • In Memory of Zoran Djindjic

    Mr. Speaker, we learned today of the assassination in Belgrade of the Prime Minister of Serbia, Zoran Djindjic.   This is a true tragedy, not only for family and friends of Mr. Djindjic but for all the people of Serbia and, indeed, for all who struggle for human rights and democratic development.   Zoran Djindjic became a leader during difficult times in his country. He chose to stand in opposition to Slobodan Milosevic and his regime. That certainly was not the easiest course, and it took courage. Zoran Djindjic also had determination and, after repeated setbacks and obstacles, he played a key role in ousting Milosevic from power in 2000. He subsequently became, as Prime Minister of Serbia, a force for reform, recognizing that Serbia needed to cast off not only the yoke of Milosevic's rule but also Milosevic's legacy of nationalist hatred, organized crime, corruption and greed. Transferring Milosevic to The Hague in 2001 to face charges for war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide perhaps best symbolized Djlndjic's continued courage and determination to conquer the sinister forces which seized his country.   Zoran Djindjic was still battling resistance to reform in Serbia when his life was taken by the vicious act of cold-blooded assassins.   These will undoubtedly be turbulent times for Belgrade, for Serbia, and for Montenegro which is just embarking on a new relationship with Serbia. This tragedy may have reverberations throughout the region, particularly in Bosnia and in Kosovo.   It is my hope and prayer, Mr. Speaker, that the people of Serbia will respond to this crime with a loud and united cry: ``Enough is enough.'' In the past, they have seen the lives of journalist Slavko Curuvija and politician Ivan Stambolic snuffed out for their advocacy of a civilized Serbia, in which human rights and the rule of law are respected.   Similarly Djindjic, too, was advocating such noble objectives. The very decent people of Serbia deserve a society which respects human rights and upholds the rule of law. That is what the leaders of Serbia must now provide without further hesitation or delay. I take heart in knowing that Djindjic had many colleagues who shared his vision of a reformed Serbia.   My deepest condolences go to the family of Zoran Djindjic. I hope that the incredible grief they must now feel will be tempered by the pride they should feel in his accomplishments and service to his country.

  • Assassination of Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic

    Mr. Speaker, I rise today with a heavy heart to condemn in the strongest possible terms the assassination of Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic. As a Member of Congress, I express my condolences to the government of Serbia and Montenegro and to the family of the late Prime Minister. Mr. Djindjic was one of the driving forces behind the extradition of Slobodan Milosevic to the Hague for war crimes, and also favored increased political and economic cooperation with the West. Mr. Speaker, I think it is our responsibility to encourage the government of Serbia and Montenegro to hold all of those responsible for the assassination accountable and to continue their work for economic reform and full cooperation with the War Crimes Tribunal, including the turning over of those indictees who still remain at large and cooperation on the witnesses and the information that is needed. Again, Mr. Speaker, we offer our condolences to the family.

  • Disturbing Developments in the Republic of Georgia

    Mr. President, as cochairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, I am concerned by a myriad of problems that plague the nation of Georgia a decade after restoration of its independence and nearly eleven years after it joined the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, OSCE. Among these pressing concerns that I would like to bring to the attention of my colleagues is the ongoing violence against non-Orthodox religious groups, as well as allegations of torture perpetrated by Georgian security officials.   Concerning religious freedom, the situation in Georgia is one of the worst in the entire 55-nation region constituting the OSCE. Georgia is the only OSCE country where mobs are allowed to attack, violently and repeatedly, minority religious groups with complete impunity. Most recently, on January 24th, worshipers and clergy were assaulted and beaten in a mob attack on the Central Baptist Church in Tbilisi, where an ecumenical service was to have taken place. While police did eventually intervene, no arrests were made, and the planned ecumenical service between Baptists, Armenian Apostolic Church, Catholics and Lutherans was canceled. While I am pleased President Shevardnadze did issue a decree calling for a full investigation, to date no action by police or the Prosecutor General has taken place.   During the past three years of escalating mob violence, the Jehovah's Witnesses have experienced the majority of attacks, along with Baptists, Pentecostals, and Catholics. Sadly, victims from throughout the country have filed approximately 800 criminal complaints, and not one of these has resulted in a criminal conviction. The mob attacks are usually led by either Vasili Mkalavishvili, a defrocked Georgian Orthodox priest, or Paata Bluashvili, the leader of the Orthodox ``Jvari'' Union. Often the police and media are tipped off in advance of an attack--probably so that the media can arrive early and the police can show up late. The brazen leaders of these attacks have even given television interviews while mob brutality continues in the background.   In response to this ongoing campaign of violence against members of minority faiths, the leadership of the Helsinki Commission and other members of the Senate and House have been in correspondence with President Shevardnadze on numerous occasions. Congressional dismay over this ongoing issue was also reflected in language included in the omnibus appropriations bill underscoring concern over the Georgian Government's apparent resistance to prosecuting and jailing the perpetrators of these mob attacks. Despite assurances, Georgian officials have neither quelled this violence nor taken effective measures against the perpetrators of these assaults. Ironically, it appears that minority religious communities may be freer in parts of Georgia outside of Tbilisi's control than those under the central authorities.   The conference report language should send a strong message to President Shevardnadze and other Georgian leaders. They must understand the Congress's deep and abiding interest in this matter and our desire to see those responsible for the violence put in jail.   I also must express my concern regarding the widespread, indeed routine, use of torture in the Republic of Georgia. While law enforcement remains virtually nonexistent when it comes to protecting religious minorities from violent attacks, the use of torture by police remains a commonplace tool for extracting confessions and obtaining convictions in other areas. A government commission has also acknowledged that the scale of corruption in law enforcement has seriously eroded public confidence in Georgia's system of justice and the rule of law.   At one point, a few years ago, there appeared to be real political will to address this problem. Sadly, increased protections for detainees, adopted to facilitate Georgia's accession to the Council of Europe, were quickly reversed by the parliament once Georgia's admission was complete. Moreover, I am particularly concerned by remarks made by Minister of Interior Koba Narchemashvili in November. In a move calculated to look tough on crime following a notorious murder, he called for seizing control of pre-trial detention facilities from the authority of the Ministry of Justice. This would move Georgia in exactly the wrong direction. Reform must continue on two levels; continuing to move Georgia's legal standards into compliance with international norms, and improving actual implementation by law enforcement officers.   I want to see a prosperous, democratic, and independent Georgia, but these facts are deeply disturbing and disappointing. The Government of Georgia's failure to effectively address these concerns through decisive action will only further erode confidence here in Washington as well as with the people of Georgia.

  • OSCE Parliamentarians Vow to Confront Anti-Semitism

    By Donald Kursch, Senior Advisor American and German delegates to the Winter Session of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA) recently hosted a special forum in Vienna during which more than 75 parliamentarians from 17 countries expressed their support for efforts to combat anti-Semitism in the OSCE region. The forum was organized by the cooperative efforts of United States Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman and Chairman of the US Delegation to the OSCE PA Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-NJ) and German Bundestag Member Dr. Gert Weisskirchen. Helsinki Commission Members Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-MD), Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-MD) and Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (D-FL), as delegates to the Parliamentary Assembly, actively participated in the discussions. The forum also included parliamentarians from Bulgaria, Canada, the Czech Republic, Finland, France, Hungary, Italy, the Netherlands, Romania, Russia, Serbia and Montenegro, Sweden, Turkey and the United Kingdom. OSCE PA President Bruce George and Secretary General Jan Kubis also attended the meeting. Participants expressed their readiness to support the Parliamentary Assembly’s Berlin Declaration of July 2002 denouncing anti-Semitic violence and agreed that a pro-active approach by parliaments and governments are essential to counter anti-Semitism throughout the 55-nation OSCE region. That measure, based on a draft introduced by the U.S. delegation, was unanimously adopted in Berlin. Dr. Weisskirchen and Rep. Smith obtained substantial support for the German-U.S. joint action plan of December 2002 to combat anti-Semitism which encourages “all OSCE countries to enact appropriate criminal legislation to punish anti-Semitic acts and ensure that such laws are vigorously enforced.” The action plan also addresses the need for renewed educational efforts to counter anti-Semitic attitudes and stereotypes, and the proliferation of anti-Semitic and neo-Nazi material via the Internet. Dr. Weisskirchen opened the Vienna meeting by recalling Germany’s experience and stressed the importance of preventive action. He said that anti-Semitism is a virus that may appear small in the beginning but can quickly gain momentum, poison the body of state institutions and destroy democracy itself. Co-Chairman Smith cited the need for collective action and referred to a resolution he and Commissioner Cardin introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives to combat anti-Semitism that places particular emphasis on law enforcement and education. Mr. Michel Voisin, head of France’s delegation to the Parliamentary Assembly, described a new law passed unanimously by both houses of the French Parliament that doubles penalties for anti-Semitic and racist violence. He cited the law as an example of decisive action parliaments can take. Voisin noted that prior to the approval of this law on February 3, 2003, anti-Semitic and racist motives were not taken into account when punishing perpetrators of violence. According to Voisin, France is vigorously tackling the problem posed by proliferation of anti-Semitic and neo-Nazi material over the Internet and stressed that providers who knowingly promulgate such material will be held responsible. Austrian journalist and human rights activist, Marta Halpert, addressed the gathering as an expert witness. Citing the Austrian experience, she underscored how political populism was breaking old taboos in many European countries. Populists sought to fill gaps in the political spectrum by appealing to frustrated voters seeking simple solutions to complex problems, according to Halpert. Halpert said politicians such as Jörg Haider in Austria and Jürgen Möllemann in Germany used language to encourage those in the electorate who assert that “the Jews encourage anti-Semitism themselves.” She noted how Haider’s high profile has enabled individuals with extremist views to “enter the mainstream” and cited the example of an Austrian neo-Nazi who writes a regular column for a high circulation national newspaper. Halpert stressed the importance of politicians in all parties to vigorously denounce those who use xenophobia and anti-Semitism to appeal to the base fears of the electorate. Parliamentarians from several other OSCE participating States, including Canada, the Czech Republic, Italy, Sweden and Denmark, expressed their support for the joint German-American efforts. Canadian Senator Jerry Grafstein, OSCE PA Treasurer ,strongly endorsed the German-American initiative and praised the OSCE for leading international institutions in combatting anti-Semitism. He reminded his colleagues that “silence is acquiescence” and stressed that all parliamentary bodies of the OSCE participating States should take a strong, public stance condemning anti-Semitism in all its forms. Members of the Canadian, French, German, Italian and Swedish delegations signed formal statements of solidarity with the German-American initiative. Canadian MP and Third Committee Vice-Chair Sven Robinson said the fight against anti-Semitism attracts support across party lines in his country where efforts are underway to formulate a stronger response to those responsible for hate crimes. Czech MP and head of delegation Petr Sulak expressed solidarity with the initiative and recalled the immense suffering that anti-Semitism had brought to his country and elsewhere in central Europe. In his country alone, more than 300,000 had perished in the Holocaust. Italian Senator Luigi Compagna and MP Marcello Pacini highlighted proposals introduced into Italian legislative bodies to condemn anti-Semitism. According to Compagna and Pacini, such proposals are unprecedented. Various speakers raised the need to counter the proliferation of racist and anti-Semitic material through the Internet and endorsed the French delegation’s call for restrictions. Canadian MP Clifford Lincoln asserted that Internet service providers had to assume a greater sense of responsibility and questioned why measures to accomplish this would be a restriction on freedom of speech. Germany’s head of delegation, Bundestag Member Rita Süssmuth, said that speech should not be permitted to “ignore the dignity of others.” Rep. Cardin noted the need to trace material transmitted by the Internet more easily, but noted the delicacy involved in finding ways to do this that respect the right of freedom of expression. Rep. Cardin also congratulated the French on the passage of their new law and particularly endorsed its emphasis on motivation for a criminal act. This distinction was of great importance. He added that we also needed to increase the capability of schools and teachers to instruct the next generation to be fair minded and tolerant. Echoing this sentiment, Mr. Smith pointed out that youth are not inherently inclined to hate, but needed to be “taught by their seniors to hate.” He advocated that more resources should be devoted to promoting Holocaust awareness. Danish MP Kamal Qureshi also recommended better education and training for police, who needed to learn how to distinguish between anti-Semitic and racist motivated crime and common criminal acts. U.S. Helsinki Commission and OSCE PA Vice President Rep. Alcee Hastings suggested the OSCE consider granting a special award to individuals who had done the most in the region to combat anti-Semitism. U.S. Ambassador to the OSCE, Stephan Minikes, spoke of plans by OSCE Chairman-in-Office, Netherlands Foreign Minister Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, to hold a special conference on anti-Semitism. The date for such an OSCE conference has not been announced, but officials anticipate the two-day Vienna meeting will precede the Parliamentary Assembly’s July 2003 Annual Session to be held in Rotterdam. Topics will likely include the role of governments in monitoring anti-Semitism, appropriate legislation, education, law enforcement training and the role of civic leaders and NGOs in combatting anti-Semitism. Russian Duma member, Elena Mizulina, noted that some progress has been made in her country. She hailed a new law condemning racism and extremism as a “milestone,” and praised the efforts of President Vladimir Putin in supporting the legislation. However, according to Mizulina, much work remains. Mizulina said that anti-Semitic attitudes in Russia are much too common among the general population as well as elected officials. She said such attitudes are particularly common in Russia’s provinces where even certain state governors were still not embarrassed to express anti-Semitic views openly. Mizulina said that representatives from Russia and other CIS countries need to speak out more forcefully to condemn anti-Semitism and racism. She added that the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly has not done enough and strongly endorsed the notion that anti-Semitism be considered as a separate agenda item at the Rotterdam meeting. Delegates also welcomed the decision by the OSCE Chairman-in-Office, Dutch Foreign Minister Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, to convene a special OSCE meeting on xenophobia and anti-Semitism in the coming months. At the same time, they agreed that the Parliamentary Assembly needs to remain actively involved and that continuing the fight against anti-Semitism must be a high priority item at the Assembly’s Annual Session. The United States Helsinki Commission, an independent federal agency, by law monitors and encourages progress in implementing provisions of the Helsinki Accords. The Commission, created in 1976, is composed of nine Senators, nine Representatives and one official each from the Departments of State, Defense and Commerce.

  • Introduction of Belarus Democracy Act 2003

    Mr. Speaker, today I am introducing the Belarus Democracy Act of 2003, which is intended to help promote democratic development, human rights and the rule of law in the Republic of Belarus , as well as encourage the consolidation and strengthening of Belarus' sovereignty and independence. I am joined by Congressmen HOYER, HOEFFEL and Congresswoman Slaughter, as original cosponsors.   When measured against other European countries, the state of human rights in Belarus is abysmal--it has the worst record of any European state.   Through an illegitimate 1996 referendum, Alexander Lukashenka usurped power, while suppressing the duly-elected legislature and the judiciary. His regime has repeatedly violated basic freedoms of speech, expression, assembly, association and religion. The democratic opposition, nongovernmental organizations and independent media have all faced harassment. Just within the last few months, we have seen a number of events reflecting the negative trend line: the passage of a repressive law on religion which bans religious activity by groups not registered with the government and forbids most religious meetings on private property; the bulldozing of a newly-built church; the incarceration of leading independent journalists; and the continued harassment, as well as physical attacks on the political opposition, independent media and non-governmental organizations--in short, anyone who, through their promotion of democracy , would stand in the way of the Belarusian dictator. Moreover, we have seen no progress on the investigation of the disappearances of political opponents--perhaps not surprisingly, as credible evidence points at the involvement of the Lukashenka regime in their murders. Furthermore, growing evidence also indicates Belarus has been supplying military training and weapons to Iraq, in violation of UN sanctions.   Despite efforts by the U.S. Government, non-govermental organizations, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and other European organizations, the regime of Alexander Lukashenka continues its hold onto power with impunity and to the detriment of the Belarusian people.   One of the primary purposes of this bill is to demonstrate U.S. support for those struggling to promote democracy and respect for human rights in Belarus despite the formidable pressures they face from the anti-democratic regime. The bill authorizes increases in assistance for democracy building activities such as support for non-governmental organizations, independent media including radio and television broadcasting to Belarus , and international exchanges. The bill also encourages free and fair parliamentary elections, conducted in a manner consistent with international standards--in sharp contrast to recent parliamentary and presidential elections in Belarus which flaunted democratic standards. As a result of these elections, Belarus has the distinction of lacking legitimate presidential [Page: E242] GPO's PDF and parliamentary leadership, which contributes to that country's self-imposed isolation.   In addition, this bill would impose sanctions against the Lukashenka regime, and deny highranking officials of the regime entry into the United States. Strategic exports to the Belarusian Government would be prohibited, as well as U.S. Government financing, except for humanitarian goods and agricultural or medical products. The U.S. Executive Directors of the international financial institutions would be encouraged to vote against financial assistance to the Government of Belarus except for loans and assistance that serve humanitarian needs.   The bill would require reports from the President concerning the sale or delivery of weapons or weapons-related technologies from Belarus to rogue states.   Mr. Speaker, finally, it is my hope that this bill would help put an end to the pattern of clear, gross and uncorrected violations of OSCE commitments by the Lukashenka regime and will serve as a catalyst to facilitate Belaras' integration into democratic Europe in which democratic principles and human rights are respected and the rule of law is paramount. The Belarusian people deserve our support as they work to overcome the legacy of the past and develop a genuinely independent, democratic country based on the rule of law and democratic institutions.

  • Condemning Anti-Semitism

    Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to introduce, along with my colleagues Rep. Cardin, Rep. Wolf, Rep. Hoyer, Rep. Lantos, Rep. Wamp, Rep. Slaughter, Rep. Aderholt and Rep. Hastings, this resolution expressing the sense of the Congress that the sharp escalation of anti-Semitism, including violence, throughout the region of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) is of serious concern to the U.S. Congress and the American people. We should make a concerted effort in our respective countries to end this disturbing trend.   Anti-Semitism is a disease that has bedeviled previous generations of Jews throughout the centuries and formed a black spot on human history. As the 20th century witnessed the nadir of extreme violence against the Jewish community and their institutions, we must take extraordinary steps to ensure this plague does not infect the 21st century to contaminate future generations. Yet our work is cut out for us, as this past year Europe witnessed a profound increase in vandalism against Jewish cemeteries, synagogues and cultural property, as well as mob assaults, fire bombings and gunfire. This year already a Jewish rabbi was stabbed twice in his Paris synagogue by an assailant. Thankfully, he was released from the hospital the same day. Certainly our own country is not immune, as acts of vandalism and violence continue to sporadically occur. As these incidents made graphically clear, silence is not an option when we are witnesses to insensitivity and violence.   The Helsinki Commission, which I co-chair and on which Mr. Cardin serves has taken the lead in voicing concern and working for real change. On May 22, 2002, the Commission held a hearing to raise specific attention to the growing problem of anti-Semitic violence in the OSCE region. From that hearing a number of initiatives emerged. At the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly Annual Session in Berlin last July, I introduced and successfully secured unanimous approval of a resolution denouncing anti-Semitism and calling for all OSCE governments to do more. Mr. Speaker, for the record, I submit the text of the OSCE PA resolution.   In addition, the U.S. delegation co-sponsored an unprecedented special session with the German delegation to further discuss the alarming trend with our fellow parliamentarians. In December, the Commission co-hosted here in Washington a parliamentary forum on anti-Semitism with German parliamentarians, also attended by a prominent member of the Senate of Canada, Jerry Grafstein. At the conclusion of this event, myself and the German co-chair, Gert Weisskirchen, signed a letter of intent highlighting specific areas for further work and pledging to enlist the support of other parliamentarians from OSCE participating States. I have submitted a copy of the letter of intent, for the record.   Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to introduce this resolution, and I am eager for the House to go on record in support, making sure both the Congress and our government are doing everything possible to see an end to this scourge. I am especially pleased that the resolution calls for all OSCE participating States to ensure effective law enforcement and prosecution of individuals perpetrating anti-Semitic violence, as well as urging the parliaments of all participating States to take concrete legislative action at the national level. In sum, I look forward to working with my colleagues to continue our steadfast efforts to see an end to anti-Semitic violence.

  • Hearing Surveys Human Rights in Republic of Georgia

    By H. Knox Thames CSCE Counsel The Helsinki Commission held a hearing September 24, 2002 on developments in the Republic of Georgia, with particular focus on the recent violent attacks against selected minority religious communities, as well as the threat of Russian aggression against that Caucasus nation. Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-NJ) chaired the hearing that examined Georgia’s prospects for democratization, its security situation, and how Washington can best promote the complementary goals of advancing democracy, human rights and economic liberty while leading the battle against international terrorism. The hearing opened with a gripping video documenting mob violence against Jehovah’s Witnesses and the failure of Georgian police to quell such attacks. Georgia, which became an OSCE participating State in 1992, was seemingly headed toward domestic stability and democratic governance in the mid-1990s, but recent trends have been disappointing. The official results of elections have not inspired confidence, undermining the public’s faith in democracy and the right of the people to choose their government. While civil society has grown substantially, independent media and non-governmental organizations remain at risk. The savage attack on the human rights organization, Liberty Institute, like the campaign of violence against Jehovah’s Witnesses and other minority faiths, as well as efforts to silence Rustavi-2 Television, testify to the lingering influence of forces bent on preventing Georgia from consolidating democracy, human rights and the rule of law. Meanwhile, Georgia has been under intensifying pressure from Russia, with Moscow accusing Georgia of failing to cooperate in the war on terrorism. Russian planes have invaded Georgian airspace and bombed the territory, killing Georgian citizens. Russian officials increasingly threaten to launch unilateral military actions within Georgia against Chechen rebels. Russian President Vladimir Putin recently asked the United Nations to support his country’s threats to launch military strikes inside Georgia. Moscow’s threats place at risk Georgia’s sovereignty and stability, moving Washington to consider how best to help Georgia defend itself and maintain control of its territory, while moving decisively against criminal elements and terrorists. This is a very complicated situation because much of the assistance from the United States is contingent upon Georgia’s compliance to stop religious violence within its borders. Co-Chairman Smith opened the hearing by acknowledging Georgia’s progress since the last hearing in 1995, but was quick to point out salient shortcomings. Mr. Smith voiced several concerns pertaining to Georgia’s internal problems. Special attention was paid to the inaction of the Georgian Government in regard to the mob attacks on minority faiths. “I am especially concerned and appalled by the ongoing religious violence in Georgia. Since 1999, there has been a campaign of assaults against members of minority faiths – especially Jehovah’s Witnesses – which Georgian authorities has tolerated,” Smith commented, “there can be no excuse for state toleration of such barbarity. It must end, and it must end now.” Not only was Mr. Smith concerned about the violence, but he also was concerned with the future of Georgia - U.S. relations because of the “rampant corruption,” unsatisfactory rate of democratization, and lack of compliance with OSCE standards. Mr. B. Lynn Pascoe, Deputy Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs, voiced concern about the violence in the Pankisi Gorge and the Russian pressure on Georgia to eradicate the Chechen terrorist threat. Turning to trends in the areas of democracy and human rights, Pascoe noted, “We have stressed to President Shevardnadze and his government again and again that poor records on human rights and freedom of religion not only undermine Georgia's efforts at economic and democratic reform, but will also negatively affect our assistance if such problems are not addressed.” He further explained efforts in the Georgia Train and Equip Program (GTEP) to help Georgia in the war on terrorism, but suggested that U.S. assistance would diminish if Georgia does not act on the concerns voiced in the hearing. Georgian Ambassador Levan Mikeladze expressed his remorse for the mob attacks. He reassured the Commission that Georgia fully recognizes the problems in religious persecution and legal and practical actions are being taken to ensure there will be no more violent attacks: “We are hopeful that after all these assignments are executed, we will be in a position to say religion-based intolerance in Georgia has no future and manifestations of religiously motivated violence no longer occur.” Georgia’s security was a pressing issue for Ambassador Mikeladze given intrusions and aggression by the Russian Federation. He encouraged the United States to continue the GTEP and continue the strong rapport between the two nations. Co-Chairman Smith and Commissioner Joseph R. Pitts (R-PA) were not satisfied with Ambassador Mikeladze’s explanation and expressed concern regarding the lack of action on the part of the Georgian Government to bring the perpetrators of attacks against minority faiths to justice. Smith issued a strong call to action, explaining the injurious nature to Georgia-U.S. relations of Georgia’s failure to actively stop the mob attacks. Bishop Malkhaz Songulashvili of the Baptist Union of Georgia set forth a long list of why and how such violence and hatred could be permitted in a democratic state. In attempting to give an explanation as to why such events have occurred in Georgia, the Bishop observed, “We gained independence but we still have not reached freedom. Old values have gone. New values have not come yet.” Songulashvili remarked, “It is not an absence of religious legislation which causes religious violence and persecution but rather absence of culture, justice and general law.” Despite all the grievances noted, Bishop Songulasvili remained hopeful that there would be progress. He offered four “targets” as a solution for the current religious violence: “Family, Mass Media, School and Teaching Institutions, and Religious Congregations.” He concluded, “Our optimism for the better future should not be overshadowed by the turmoil of the present time.” Mr. Gennadi Gudadze, a Jehovah’s Witness from Tbilisi, testified to the brutality experienced by the Jehovah’s Witnesses in Georgia, including himself. He noted that “since then [October 1999], there have been 133 separate incidents involving either mob attacks, individual attacks or destruction of property.” Gudadze also pointed out that minimal action has been taken by the authorities against the criminals. He called for a three-pronged solution: apply the law, arrest the perpetrators, and remove the corrupt officials. Dr. Gia Nodia, Director of the Institute for Peace, Development, and Democracy, discussed the interrelationship between security on human rights. Dr. Nodia was very concerned with the possibility that the religious violence might evolve into political violence, hence impinging on the democratic process, causing much more turmoil within Georgia. Professor Stephen Jones of Mount Holyoke College gave a dismal summary of the current state of affairs in Georgia. He asserted that the government is failing its citizens and its current stability is based on the “thinnest of ice.” Professor Jones highlighted three main reasons for these failures: lack of economic security in Georgia; lack of proper institutions to carry out governmental and economic functions (i.e. Georgia’s current economy has shrunk 67% and industry is working at 20% of its capacity. Between 1997-2000, expenditure on defense decreased from $51.9 million to $13.6 million, education from $35.6 to $13.9 million, agriculture forestry and fishing from $13.4 to $7.2 million); and lack of political and public support for reform. Jones’ recommendation called for increased western aid, but the burden of progress lays heaviest on Georgia itself. The hearing concluded with a strong statement from Co-Chairman Smith urging the Government of Georgia to work quickly and effectively to eradicate its corruption and religious violence. He concluded his statement with these words, “Our only hope here is to try to promote human rights, democracy, and to protect the sovereignty of Georgia . . . from any forays by Russia.” An un-official transcript of the hearing and written statements submitted by Members and witnesses are located on the Helsinki Commission’s web site. The United States Helsinki Commission, an independent federal agency, by law monitors and encourages progress in implementing provisions of the Helsinki Accords. The Commission, created in 1976, is composed of nine Senators, nine Representatives and one official each from the Departments of State, Defense and Commerce.

  • Democracy and Human Rights Trends in Eurasia and East Europe: A Decade of Membership in the Organization

    The ten-year anniversary of the collapse of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), an original signatory to the 1975 Helsinki Final Act, fell in 2001. The following year marked another milestone, perhaps less widely noted: the passage of a decade since the entry of the Eurasian and East European States into the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which embraces all of Europe, the former Soviet Union, the United States and Canada. Membership in the organization is predicated on the acceptance of certain bedrock principles of democracy, a wide array of human rights commitments and modern norms of statecraft, including respect for the rule of law and promotion of civil society. This report conducts a review of Eastern European and Eurasian countries' records on these commitments over the course of the decade following the Soviet Union's collapse.

  • Democracy and Human Rights Trends in Eurasia and East Europe: A Decade of Membership in the Organization

    The ten-year anniversary of the collapse of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), an original signatory to the 1975 Helsinki Final Act, fell in 2001. The following year marked another milestone, perhaps less widely noticed: the passage of a decade since the entry of the Eurasian and East European States into the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE)*, which embraces all of Europe, the former Soviet Union, the United States and Canada. Membership in the now 55-nation organization is predicated on the acceptance of certain bedrock principles of democracy, a wide array of human rights commitments and modern norms of statecraft, including respect for the rule of law and promotion of civil society. Each of the OSCE participating States, including those examined in this report, has committed to “build, consolidate and strengthen democracy as the only system of government of our nations.” Similarly, the participating States have declared that “human rights and fundamental freedoms are the birthright of all human beings, are inalienable and are guaranteed by law. Their protection and promotion is the first responsibility of government. Respect for them is an essential safeguard against an over-mighty State.” In a step designed to preserve the unity of the Helsinki process, each new participating State submitted a letter accepting in their entirety all commitments and responsibilities contained in the Helsinki Final Act, and all subsequent documents adopted prior to their membership (see Appendix I). To underscore this continuity, the leaders of each of the countries signed the actual original Final Act document (see Appendix II).

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