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OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media Harlem Desir to Appear at Helsinki Commission Hearing

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following hearing:

STATE OF MEDIA FREEDOM IN THE OSCE REGION

Thursday, July 25, 2019
3:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m.
Capitol Visitor Center
Room HVC-210

Live Webcast: www.youtube.com/HelsinkiCommission

Journalists working in the 57 participating States of the Organization for Security and Cooperation (OSCE) are facing increased risks to their lives and safety. According to a new report released the Office of the Representative for Freedom of the Media, in the first six months of 2019, two journalists have been killed and an additional 92 attacks and threats—including one bombing, three shootings, and seven arson attacks—have targeted members of the media.

In his first appearance before Congress, OSCE Representative for Freedom of the Media Harlem Desir will assess the fragile state of media freedom within the OSCE region. Mr. Desir also will address the number of imprisoned media professionals as well as the violence, threats, and intimidation directed toward female journalists. The hearing will explore the threat posed by disinformation and online content designed to provoke violence and hate. 

Following the hearing, at 5:00 p.m. in Room HVC-200, the Helsinki Commission will host a viewing of the documentary, “A Dark Place,” which details the online harassment of female journalists working in the OSCE region.

Media contact: 
Name: 
Stacy Hope
Email: 
csce[dot]press[at]mail[dot]house[dot]gov
Phone: 
202.225.1901
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  • Report on Azerbaijan's Presidential Election

    On October 11, 1998, Azerbaijan held presidential elections. The contest pitted incumbent President Heydar Aliev, the former Communist Party leader who returned to power in 1993, against moderate opposition leader Etibar Mamedov, political maverick Nizami Suleimanov, and three other candidates with little recognition or following. While no one seriously expected Aliev to lose, the opposition candidates were hoping for a second round. Five leading opposition politicians—Abulfaz Elchibey, Isa Gambar, Rasul Guliev, Ilyas Ismailov and Lala Shovket—boycotted the vote, unwilling to legitimize by their participation an election they believed would be unfair. Negotiations that took place in August between the government and the boycotting opposition over the most controversial aspect of the election—the composition of the Central Election Commission—proved unsuccessful, with the authorities rejecting the opposition’s demand for equal representation on the CEC. The five leaders, joined by numerous other parties and groups in the Movement for Electoral Reform and Democratic Elections, urged voters not to go to the polls. The authorities minimized the boycott’s significance, arguing that the opposition leaders knew they had no chance in a fair election and therefore preferred to claim fraud and not participate. Beginning August 15, the boycotting parties organized a series of rallies and demonstrations to pressure the government and call for fair elections. These were the first mass street actions in Azerbaijan in years. The authorities refused to let the opposition hold a demonstration in Freedom Square, in the center of Baku, offering alternative venues instead. On September 12, protesters clashed with police, resulting in arrests and injuries. Afterwards, authorities and opposition tried to reach agreement on the demonstrators’ route, and most pre-election rallies, some of which drew big crowds, were largely peaceful. The increasingly tense relations between the government and boycotting opposition parties were one factor in the OSCE/ODIHR’s appraisal of the election.  In ODIHR’s view, these failings outweighed the positive aspects of the election, such as the election law, which all sides acknowledged as acceptable, the freedom for candidates to speak openly on television, the abolition of censorship and provisions for domestic observers. The OSCE/ODIHR assessment was that the election fell short of meeting international norms. With the OSCE assessment placing in question the official results, the CEC’s failure to publish election protocols until long after the stipulated time period heightens doubts about President Aliev’s standing. The election was largely a referendum on his five-year presidency. Since his return to power in 1993, he has not solved the major problems besetting the country. The NagornoKarabakh conflict remains unsettled; Azerbaijani territory is still under Armenian occupation and no refugees have returned to their homes. Living standards for the great majority of the population have declined precipitously, though it is widely known that a tiny stratum of corrupt officials and businessmen have become rich. Moreover, the predominance of people from Nakhichevan - Aliev’s home region - in positions of power exacerbates general discontent.

  • Concerning Properties Wrongfully Expropriated by Formerly Totalitarian Governments

    Mr. Speaker, I thank the gentleman from New York (Mr. Gilman), the chairman of the Committee on International Relations, and the ranking member of my subcommittee, the gentleman from California (Mr. Lantos), for working with me and with my friend and colleague, the gentleman from Indiana (Mr. Hamilton) to help bring this resolution to the floor. Mr. Speaker, House Resolution 562 addresses the difficult subject of claims arising from uncompensated property confiscation by totalitarian regimes in Central and Eastern Europe. House Resolution 562 stemmed from a Helsinki Commission hearing that I held in 1996 that examined the efforts underway to restore plundered properties in Central and Eastern Europe. One of the witnesses at that hearing explained that under the international law and practice, the U.S. government is only able to seek compensation from foreign governments on behalf of property claimants who were American citizens at the time that their property was taken. In contrast, claimants who were not American citizens when their property was taken have at their disposal only the domestic law of their former country, even if they later became naturalized American citizens. Mr. Speaker, this resolution urges countries to pass laws that will commit their governments to return plundered properties to their rightful owners, or, when actual return of property is not possible, to provide prompt, just, and effective compensation. This compensation language derives from the Bonn agreement on the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe in which the participating states, including those in Central and Eastern Europe, recognized the `right to prompt compensation in the event private property is taken for public use.' This resolution also urges countries that have adopted restitution and compensation laws to implement those laws effectively and expeditiously. By adopting this resolution, Mr. Speaker, the Congress will lend its voice and persuasive power to that of the Council of Europe and the European Parliament, which have both passed strongly-worded and similarly-worded resolutions calling on the countries of Central and Eastern Europe to adopt legislation for the restitution of plundered properties. I hope this will have the full support of the body. Mr. Speaker, I thank the Chairman of the International Relations Committee, Mr. Gilman, and the Ranking Member of my Subcommittee, Representative Tom Lantos, for working with me to bring this resolution to the floor. Similar legislation was introduced in the 104th Congress, reintroduced in this Congress, and offered as an amendment to the foreign relations authorization bill which has not been passed by the Congress. H. Res. 562 is co-sponsored by my colleagues Mr. Gilman, Mr. Lantos, Mr. Hyde, Mr. Rohrabacher, and Mr. Fox, and by my fellow members of the Helsinki Commission: Mr. Christensen, Mr. Hoyer, Mr. Salmon, and Mr. Markey. Mr. Speaker, H. Res. 562 addresses the difficult subject of claims arising from uncompensated property confiscations by totalitarian regimes in Central and Eastern Europe. Throughout much of this century, individuals and religious communities in Central and Eastern Europe saw their private property plundered by totalitarian regimes. In particular, Communist regimes expropriated real property, personal property, financial property, business property, and religious property in fulfillment of a main tenet of communism: the abolition of private property. Moreover, Communist-era expropriations often compounded Fascist-era wrongs. The restitution of property in Central and Eastern Europe today has a multitude of possible effects: restitution will demonstrate a commitment to the rule of law, will advance these countries in the establishment of free market economies, will encourage foreign investment, will help the newly-democratic regimes distance themselves from their totalitarian predecessors, and will provide a measure of justice to the victims of fascism and communism. H. Res. 562 stemmed from a 1996 Helsinki Commission hearing that examined the efforts underway to restore plundered properties in Central and Eastern Europe. Our witnesses at that hearing, Stuart Eizenstat, then the Under Secretary of Commerce for International Trade and the U.S. Special Envoy for Property Claims in Central and Eastern Europe, and Delissa Ridgway, the then-Chairwoman of the Foreign Claims Settlement Commission, explained that under international law and practice, the United States Government is only able to seek compensation from foreign governments on behalf of property claimants who were American citizens at the time their property was taken. Under one common scenario, the United States obtains payment of such claims by having the Secretary of State, on behalf of the President, negotiate a government-to-government settlement agreement that settles a block of claims by American citizens against the foreign government in exchange for a lump-sum payment from the foreign government to the United States. Before or after such a settlement is reached, the Foreign Claims Settlement Commission (FCSC), an independent, quasi-judicial Federal agency within the Department of Justice, determines the validity and valuation of property claims of U.S. nationals against that foreign government. The FCSC informs the Secretary of the Treasury of the results of the FCSC's adjudications and the Secretary of the Treasury then distributes funds from the lump-sum settlement on a pro rata basis to the U.S. nationals that obtained awards from the FCSC. In contrast, claimants who were not American citizens when their property was taken have at their disposal only the domestic law of their former country, even if they later became naturalized American citizens. Considering these realities, Congress has a role in helping enable these dispossessed property owners to file claims in their former homelands with a real possibility of achieving a just resolution. Since that 1996 hearing, the Helsinki Commission has actively encouraged the governments in Central and Eastern Europe to adopt nondiscriminatory property restitution laws and has sought to intervene on behalf of several claimants whose rights under existing restitution and compensation laws are not being respected. While some progress has been made, the Helsinki Commission nonetheless continues to receive hundreds of letters from American and foreign citizens with unresolved property claims in Central and Eastern Europe. The writers plead for help from the Helsinki Commission and from Congress. Many have been struggling for seven or eight years to regain possession of their family properties. Many are elderly and are losing hope that they will ever recover their property. The issues addressed by this resolution are timely and, Mr. Speaker, they demand our attention. Some countries in the region have not yet adopted restitution or compensation laws. In those that have, certain requirements imposed on claimants involve so many conditions and qualifications that something just short of a miracle seems necessary for the return of any property. In Communist countries, expropriated properties were often given to Communist party officials or collaborators. In many cases, these former officials still live in the properties. Regrettably, a number of the democratic governments now in place are stalling and delaying the return of those properties to their rightful owners. Worse yet, some governments are offering meager compensation to the rightful owners and then allegedly reselling the properties for a profit that the State then pockets. The resolution urges countries to pass laws that will commit their governments to return plundered properties to their rightful owners or, when actual return of property is not possible, to provide `prompt, just and effective compensation.' This compensation language derives from the Bonn Document of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (now the Organization on Security and Cooperation in Europe) in which the participating States, including those in Central and Eastern Europe, recognized the `right to prompt compensation in the event private property is taken for public use.' The resolution also urges countries that have adopted restitution or compensation laws to implement those laws effectively. Several examples help illustrate the state of affairs in Central and Eastern Europe with respect to property restitution. The Helsinki Commission staff met recently with a group known as the Committee for Private Property that has collected information from more than fifteen hundred people with outstanding restitution claims in Romania. Most of these claimants are American citizens, hundreds of whom filed legal claims in Romania and followed the proper judicial process to obtain decrees reinstating their property titles. After obtaining what they believed to be final and irrevocable decrees, the property owners began paying taxes on their properties or, in at least one case, thousands of dollars due on an old mortgage, only to have the Romanian Special Prosecutor appeal the cases to the Supreme Court and win reversals of the judicial decisions. On the other hand, some positive advancements have been made in regard to communal property restitution in Romania. In April 1997, the Romanian Government adopted a resolution restoring Jewish community ownership rights over six buildings, including the National Jewish Theater, and issued a May 1997 decree that established a committee with joint government and community participation to review communal property claims. This past June, the Romanian Government pledged to return an additional seventeen buildings to several minority ethnic communities. These efforts are positive steps forward in the restitution of more than three thousand communal properties, such as orphanages, cultural centers, apartment buildings, ethnic community centers, and houses of worship, lost by religious and minority communities under communism. Regrettably, however, legislation to return properties to the Greek Catholic Church was blocked in Romania's parliament last year and has yet to be enacted. Another group, American Owners of Property in Slovenia, has also contacted the Commission about property claims. This group estimates that at least 500 emigres from the former Yugoslavia are now American citizens with property claims in Slovenia. Despite clear mandates in Slovenia's restitution and compensation law requiring action on filed claims within one year, government officials have not implemented the law; the vast majority of claims remain pending without resolution seven years after the law was passed and five years after the filing deadline. Of the approximately 40,000 applications filed by the 1993 deadline, only 35 percent of the individual claims filed had been resolved by the end of 1997; sixty-five percent of the claims had received no action or only dilatory action. The Slovenian Government has not shown the political will to return property and has failed to take the administrative measures needed to implement the legislation. Moreover, it is of particular concern that this past September, the Slovenian parliament adopted amendments to its restitution law that contain numerous provisions that may further restrict the ability of victims of the Communist regime to regain ownership and access to their properties. Similarly, in Lithuania, despite enactment of a restitution and compensation law, Lithuanian Government officials also appear disinclined to return properties. Property claimants there encounter a variety of roadblocks to restitution, including citizenship requirements, unreasonable bureaucratic delays, and the sudden, suspicious inclusion of claimed properties on an official `Register of Immovable Cultural Properties' as the basis for non-restitution. In one case, Mr. Vytautas Sliupas, an American with dual Lithuanian citizenship, has struggled for seven years to regain ownership and possession of inherited property in Palanga, Lithuania. One building is controlled by the Ministry of Culture and Education and is reportedly used by the National Museum of Lithuania primarily as a vacation site for Museum personnel. The second property is controlled by the City of Palanga and is rented to a commercial entity. These properties belong to Mr. Sliupas' family and were nationalized, without compensation, by the Communist regime. In 1993, the Minister of Culture and Education issued an official letter stating that the Ministry agreed to return the first property to Mr. Sliupas. In 1997, the City of Palanga passed a resolution to return the second property to Mr. Sliupas. Nonetheless, the groups occupying the properties have failed to comply with the orders to vacate. Mr. Sliupas has sought unsuccessfully to obtain the assistance of various government entities, including the courts, in enforcing his right to regain possession of these properties. The Lithuanian Government recently informed the Helsinki Commission that the property has been placed on the Register of Immovable Cultural Properties and, therefore, cannot be restituted to Mr. Sliupas. In Croatia, the Czech Republic, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, and other countries, the existing restitution and compensation laws only allow people who are currently residents or citizens of the country to apply for restitution. The Czech Republic's citizenship requirement discriminates almost exclusively against individuals who lost their Czech citizenship because they chose the United States as their refuge from communism; as many as 8,000-10,000 Czech-Americans are precluded from even applying for restitution or compensation because of this requirement. Citizenship and residency requirements have been found to violate the nondiscrimination clause of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, an international agreement that these countries have voluntarily signed onto, and yet the countries mentioned have been unwilling to eliminate the restrictions. The resolution calls on these countries to remove citizenship or residency requirements from their restitution and compensation laws. Mr. Speaker, the examples given only begin to show the obstacles faced by property claimants in formerly totalitarian countries. This past August, Stuart Eizenstat, now the Under Secretary of State or Economic, Business and Agricultural Affairs and the U.S. Special Envoy for Property Claims in Central and Eastern Europe, testified before the International Relations Committee about the need for Congress to pass a resolution that encourages Central and East European countries to return wrongfully expropriated property. While that hearing focused on Holocaust-era assets, in reality many Holocaust victims who suffered the loss of their property at the hands of the Nazis were victimized again by Communist regimes. I comment Under Secretary Eizenstat for his tireless efforts on behalf of Holocaust victims and I hope that the United States Government will make property restitution and compensation a priority in Central and Eastern Europe, as it has done in Cuba, Nicaragua and other countries.

  • The Status of Human Rights in Russia

    This briefing addressed the recent changes in the Russian government and what they might portend for human Rights in Russia. Specifically, economic troubles that led to the emergence of extremist politics and subsequent human rights abuses were the main topic of discussion. Witnesses testifying at the briefing – including Rachel Denber, Deputy Director of the Europe and Central Asia Division of Human Rights Watch; Mark Levin, Executive Director of the National Conference on Soviet Jewry; and Lauren Homer, President of Law and Liberty Trust – evaluated the status of human rights abuse in Russia resulting from a mix of repression, corruption, inertia, and neglect. Freedom of speech, freedom of information, and freedom of religion were especially emphasized as aspects of human rights that Russia needs to improve in the future

  • Report on Parliamentary and Municipal Elections in Montenegro

    On May 31, 1998, Montenegro held elections for the 78 seats in the republic’s parliament as well as for seats in the local councils of its 21 municipalities. These elections took place in a political environment marked by tension between Montenegro and Serbia, the only two of the six former Yugoslav republics which have established a new federal relationship. At issue was whether the Serbia-dominated federation created in 1992 and controlled by the authoritarian Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic would permit Montenegro to develop economically and politically on its own and, if not, whether Montenegro would make its own move toward outright independence. Milosevic seems unwilling to concede Montenegro’s de jure autonomy within the federation and would likely resort to some use of force to maintain control over what is, in fact, Serbia’s only access to the sea. Moreover, Montenegro’s relationship with Serbia is a divisive issue internally, pitting those ethnic Montenegrins with pro-Serb inclinations, especially in the north, against those who stress the republic’s distinctness from Serbia and are supported in their position by the sizable Bosniac (Muslim) and Albanian communities. Those favoring a close relationship with Serbia rallied around former Montenegrin President and current Yugoslav Prime Minister Momir Bulatovic, while those advocating a more independent course strongly supported the current President, Milo Djukanovic. Both came to power under the auspices of the former Communist party, now called the Democratic Party of Socialists, but Djukanovic was able to wrestle control of the party and oust his one-time mentor Bulatovic in presidential elections in 1997. Differences have been so strong in Montenegro in support of one or the other since that time that many predicted the parliamentary elections would be accompanied by civil violence. The elections were carried out in a relatively free and fair manner. The campaign period was marked by openness to differing points of view and a growing independent media. The results of the elections were clearer than anticipated, with the election coalition surrounding Djukanovic’s Democratic Party of Socialists winning 42 of the 78 seats compared to Bulatovic’s Socialist People’s Party, which won 29 seats.

  • Report on Elections in Bosnia-Herzegovina

    On September 12 and 13, 1998, elections were held in Bosnia-Herzegovina for offices ranging from the collective state presidency to several local counsils. These elections were the latest in what have been an angoign series of elections since the Dayton Agreement ended the Bosnian conflict in December 1995. Like those in 1996 and 1997, these elections were also administered by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) through a Provisional Election Council (PEC). Continuous elections, if held in as free and fair a manner as possible, have been viewed by the international community as a means to bring stability and recovery to a country divided by extreme nationalist political leaders, particularly among the Serb population, many of whom remain in positions of power or influence. There were few of disruptions during the two days of voting. Unfortunately, in what were otherwise well administered elections, there were major, albeit unintentional, flaws in the OSCE-prepared voter registration lists, preventing or making it difficult for many citizens to vote and encouraging local suspicions of international manipulation. Nevertheless, international observers deployed by the OSCE concluded that the will of the people was generally reflected in the results. These results did not bring any major change in Bosnia's political leadership, which remains largely in the handes of political parties representing the three major ethnic groups - the Bosniacs, Serbs, and Croats. They did, however, continue the trend of previous elections in bringing greater diversity to Bosnian politics. Among the Bosniac population in the Bosnian Federation, the opposition which promoted a multi-ethnic Bosnian society did make some gains, while among Bosnian Croats there was an advance in the simple fact that some serious alternatives existed. In Republika Srpska, however, nationalist sentiment showed a resiliency which the international community found disappointing given the major effort over the past year to promote political moderation. This was especially reflected in the defeat of the incumbent President of Republika Srpska, Biljana Plavsic. Overall, the 1998 elections may represent one small but definite step toward eventual political reunification of Bosnia's two entities and social reintegration after the devastating conflict. On the other hand, such incremental change may be insufficient to counter the solidification of the country's division. It is uncertain whether time is working for, or against, Bosnia's future as state. The elections have made certain, however, that structural change in the electoral and even the political process - promoting a social consensus across ethnic lines - is now needed. Within the next year, the international community must work to see if the Bosnian people themselves are prepared for such a step.   

  • Deteriorating Religious Liberty in Europe

    Senior Advisor to the Commission, E. Wayne Merry, chaired this briefing which was part of a series by the Commission on the subject of religious liberties within the OSCE region. This series was prompted by a perceived developing problem of restrictions on religious liberties in several participating states to the OSCE. At the time, the Commission was devoting most of its attention to the countries that that traditionally had a much more tolerant view toward religious minorities, such as those in Western and Central Europe. Participants in this briefing included Francesca Binda, Karen Gainer, and Paul Rowland, all with the National Democratic Institute (NDI) and International Republican Institute (IRI) personnel Eric Jowett and Kent Patton.

  • Deterioration of Religious Liberty in Europe

    This briefing addressed the persisting question of problems of religious liberty and the patterns of discrimination against religious minorities and other belief groups that had developed in a number of countries in the OSCE region in the aftermath of the Cold War. Efforts of improving religious liberty in former communist countries were discussed, as well as the need for spending time and attention on countries farther west, like France, Belgium, and Austria, in which concern for religious minorities was also expressed. Witnesses testifying at the briefing – including Willy Fautre, Director of Human Rights without Frontiers and James McCabe, Assistant General Counsel of Watchtower Bible and Tract Society – examined the multi-tiered system that European countries employ regarding religion, and the different statuses and treatment of citizens based on where their religion falls within this system. The issues faced by minority religious associations, like being targeted by fiscal services, were also topics of discussion.

  • Romani Human Rights in Europe

    Commission Co-Chairman Christopher H. Smith presided over this hearing that discussed the rights of the Romani population in Europe. While ostensibly of Central and Eastern European descent, Romani, or Roma, individuals have existed in almost every European state. The Roma consist of a dispersed minority that, at the time of this hearing, was the fastest growing European population, numbering between 8 million and 10 million people. Unfortunately, their numbers did not protect the Roma from being the only population whose situation had actually worsened since the fall of Communism. From the first signs of anti-Romani discrimination in Romania to the dissolution of the Czechoslovak Federation in January of 1994, the reasons to justify holding this hearing to discuss the plight of the Romani were many. At this hearing, besides Commissioner Chris Smith, were Commission Chairman Steny Hoyer, and witnesses James Goldston of the European Roma Rights Center, Livia Plaks of the Project on Ethnic Relations, and Drs. David Crowe and Ian Hancock, professors at Elon and the University of Texas-Austin, respectively.

  • Report on Moldova's Parliamentary Elections

    On March 22, 1998, Moldova held its second multi-party elections to the 101-member parliament since achieving independence in August 1991. The Communist Party, which had been under legal prohibition until 1994, won just over 30 percent of the vote, translating into 40 seats out of 101. The results were a rejection by the voters of the previously powerful Agrarian Democrats, who did not cross the 4 percent threshold required for entry as a party into the new parliament. The election law required that a party/bloc or individual candidate garner 4% of the votes cast before being eligible for a seat in Parliament. Other big losers were the protocommunist Socialist-Unity bloc, which had taken second place in the 1994 parliamentary elections. There were no significant irregularities or major election law violations observed by Commission staff or reported by other Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe Parliamentary Assembly (OSCEPA) observers. A major exception to the OSCEPA judgment was the situation in Transdniestria “where neither candidates nor voters had even close to adequate conditions for exercising their civil rights.” The new Moldovan parliament opened its session on April 21, 1998.  Deputies are elected for a four year term.  

  • Belarus Opposition Leaders

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  • Report on Armenia's Presidential Election

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  • Pluralism and Tolerance in Croatia

    This briefing moderated by Commission Policy Advisor Robert Hand focused on the many developments in Croatia at the time, including the issue of human rights- an area that Croatia needed to improve upon.  Likewise, in order to be fully embraced by the European community, as Hand said, the country needed to democratize. At that point in time, the country of Croatia stood at a crossroads. In January 1998, Croatia resumed control over eastern Slavonia, its last enclave occupied by Serb militants since the fall of 1991. Before resumption of Croatian control, the area was under U.N. administration the two years before. As sovereignty was reached on the entire state territory, priorities began to shift and the Croatian government came under strong internal and external pressure to allow acceleration of democratic development.

  • Repression and Violence in Kosovo and Hearing on Kosovo: The Humanitarian Perspective

    This hearing, chaired by Commissioner Alfonse D’Amato, discussed the dire circumstances in Kosovo, specifically Serbian repression of the Kosovar Albanian majority population. In this hearing, D’Amato called for the U.S. to step up and prevent another outbreak of ethnic cleansing and achieve a peaceful resolution to the crisis. More specifically, to facilitate a lasting peace, the Commissioner called on U.S. leadership to make Slobodan Milosevic believe that the world would not stand by while the atrocities in Kosovo and Serbia continued. In addition, any settlement reached between Milosevic and the Kosovo Albanian leadership, D’Amato, continued, must be respected and protect the human rights of all individuals in Kosovo, without preconditions. Witnesses in this hearing discussed these human rights violations and the predicament of the Kosovar Albanians.

  • Report on Ukraine's Parliamentary Election

    Ukraine’s March 1998 parliamentary elections resulted in a parliament similar in composition to the previous parliament, albeit with a somewhat more Communist tilt. The left constituted about 40 percent of parliament’s membership, with the remainder a mix of centrists, independents and national democrats. The new parliament included many new faces - only 141 deputies from the old parliament were in the new one. The parliamentary elections were held under a new election law which replaced the majoritarian system, introducing a mixed electoral system where half of the 450 deputies are elected from single-mandate districts and half from national party lists. While there were violations, transgressions and irregularities during the campaign and voting, Ukrainian voters generally were able to express their political will freely, and the results of the elections do appear to reflect the will of the electorate. The elections were conducted under a generally adequate legal and administrative framework, but the late passage of laws and regulations relating to the election–as well as late decisions regarding the Crimean Tatars—led to confusion and uncertainty about the electoral process. The campaign was generally peaceful in most of the country. However, it was marred by some tension, including incidents of violence, especially in Odesa and Crimea. The failure to allow non-citizen Crimean Tatar returnees the opportunity to vote, in contrast to arrangements that allowed them to vote in the 1994 elections, also tainted the elections. The state apparatus did not always display neutrality, and there were instances of harassment and pressure on opposition media.

  • Status of the Russian Religious Law

    Congressman Chris Smith and other lawmakers criticized the Russian Federation law on freedom of conscience and religious organizations signed by Boris Yeltsin for the threats it posed to religious liberty for minority religious faith. The scope of the law, including the terms of its formal implementations regulations and its actual implementation on the ground were topics of discussions. Those who testified at the briefing provided their insights on this law, its status at the time, and their perspective of developments in Russia in light of the law. Dr. James Billington, a distinguished author and Russian scholar, spoke to the decline in the standard of living and social services that the Russian people had suffered in the post-Soviet era. Another witness, Dr. Anatoly Pchelintsev, Director of the Christian Legal Center of the Institute on Religion and Law in Moscow, attributed the existence of the law to the tide of nationalist and Communist movements that were on the rise in Russia.

  • Bosnia

    During this briefing, Robert Hand, policy advisor at the Commission, led a discussion regarding Bosnia and its different regions. He spoke of the situation in Bosnia in 1998 and the power of ethnically-based political parties, retained through nationalism, corruption, and control of the media. Reconstruction in Bosnia has slow and challenging due to poor economic conditions and the continued displacement of certain populations. The witnesses - Luke Zahner, Candace Lekic, Jessica White, Roland de Rosier, Kathryn Bomberger, Brian Marshall - have served in regions all over Bosnia and gave valuable input on the differences between regions and their rehabilitations processes after the Dayton Accords. They also spoke of the influence of Republica Srpska and the Bosnian Federation on said regions.  Paying attention to these differences, they state, is important in that the United States wants to support only those that successfully implement the Dayton Accords.

  • Status of Religious Liberty for Minority Faiths in Europe and the OSCE

    The purpose of this hearing, which the Hon. Christopher H. Smith chaired, was to discuss the reality of disturbing undercurrents of subtle, but growing, discrimination and harassment of minority religious believers, as opposed to discussing the widespread documentation of torture and persecution of practitioners of minority faiths. In a number of European countries, government authorities had seemed to work on restricting the freedoms of conscience and speech in much of their governments’ actions. For example, in Russia, on September 26, 1997, President Boris Yeltsin signed the law called “On Freedom of Conscience and on Religious Associations,” which blatantly violated agreements of the OSCE which the former U.S.S.R. helped to initiate. Through use of witnesses, then, attendees of this hearing, namely commissioners, gained a deeper understanding of the religious liberty violations within OSCE member countries and insight into how to best influence governments to adhere more closely to internationally accepted human rights standards.

  • OSCE Human Dimension Implementation Meeting

    The purpose of this briefing, which Helsinki Commission Chief of Staff Michael Hathaway presided over, was to provide information to the public about the U.S.’s approach to the OSCE Human Dimension Implementation Meeting, as well as to hear from two highly respected non-governmental organizations regarding issues that they believed should have been taken up in Warsaw. At the point of the briefing, already established issues at Warsaw included freedom of religion, media, association on assembly, the prevention of torture, international humanitarian law, tolerance and non-discrimination, national minorities, and the plight of the Roma. The aim in mind was to encourage improved implementation of human dimension obligations by OSCE member states. Participants in this hearing included State Department Secretary Rudolph Perina, and Holly Cartner and Adrian Karatnycky with Human Rights Watch and Freedom House, respectively.

  • What's Next, Mr. Prime Minister? Democracy Hangs in the Balance in Slovakia on Constitution's Fifth Birthday

    Mr. President, 5 years ago, the speaker of the Slovak Parliament, Ivan Gasparovic, described his country's new constitution as `an expression of centuries-old emancipation efforts of the Slovak people to have a sovereign state of their own.' He also spoke of its `supreme binding force.' Since then, the people who present themselves as the guardians of Slovakia's statehood have undermined Slovakia's constitution. This is what they have done. This May, the Ministry of Interior ignored the Constitutional Court's ruling and altered an important referendum on NATO and on the direct election of the President, effectively denying the people of Slovakia their constitutionally guaranteed right to register their views through a referendum. Defending its actions, members of the Prime Minister's party insisted that they acted in conformity with the constitution--as they interpreted it--and that they were justified in placing their views ahead of the ruling of the highest court in the land. The actions of the ruling coalition in the case of Frantisek Gaulieder makes clear that the Meciar government has a profound and fundamental disregard for the constitution of Slovakia. Then there is the case of Frantisek Gaulieder. Frantisek Gaulieder is a member of the Slovak Parliament who was removed from office because he renounced his membership in Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar's party, the Movement for a Democratic Slovakia. On July 25, the Constitutional Court confirmed that the ruling coalition's action which deprived Gaulieder of his seat was unconstitutional and violated Gaulieder's rights. But members of the Prime Minister's coalition again claimed that they, and not the Constitutional Court, have the right to determine what the constitution means, and have declined to act to restore Gaulieder to his seat in Parliament. In short, the `supreme binding force' that Ivan Gasparovic spoke of 5 years ago no longer flows from the constitution, but from the will of Vladimir Meciar. When there are differences of opinion as to what a constitution means, whether those differences arise between branches of government or between the government and its citizens, in a state operating under the rule of law, it is the job of a constitutional court to interpret what the constitution means, not the Prime Minister or Parliament. Although this principle is taken for granted in many parts of Europe, and was established early in American history by the famous Supreme Court case of Marbury versus Madison, it has apparently not yet been accepted in Slovakia. Mr. President, the Slovak Democratic Coalition has moved, four times, to convene a special session of the Parliament in order to implement the decision of the Constitutional Court and restore Frantisek Gaulieder to his seat. Four times, however, Prime Minister Meciar's coalition has boycotted their own Parliament rather than face the following dilemma: restore Gaulieder to his seat--consistent with the Constitutional Court's decision--and risk the chance that others will follow Gaulieder's example and defect from the Prime Minister's party, or vote down the Slovak Democratic Coalition's proposal to restore Gaulieder to his seat and confirm that whatever form of government exists in Slovakia, it is not constitutional democracy, at least not as we understand it. Sooner or later, the Slovak Parliament will reconvene. When it acts, or fails to act, on the Gaulieder question, we will know whether Slovakia is committed to becoming a functioning constitutional democracy. If it is not, what it will become is an isolated State under constant international pressure and scrutiny, cut off from a promising and prosperous future by the arrogance and greed of its own leaders. As Vladimir Meciar is asked in his weekly news show, what next, Mr. Prime Minister?

  • The Meaning of Yeltsin's Veto of Russia's Law on Religion

    This briefing provided an analysis of the events surrounding President Yeltsin's veto of the proposed law on religious organizations in Russia which would have effectively banned the activities of certain religious minority groups including Protestants and Catholics. The bill passed emphatically in both houses of the Russian Parliament, mounting great domestic pressure on the President to approve it. Larry Uzzell of the Keston Institute credits the blocking of the bill to international pressure from both the US and the EU, which were vocal in their opposition. Congress sent several letters to Mr. Yeltsin, including one which was signed by 160 senators and members of the House of Representatives. The discussion in the question and answer period centered around more concrete measures taken by the US Congress to persuade Yeltsin to veto the bill, including economic incentives tied to foreign aid and trade.

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