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Rep. Smith Chairs Helsinki Commission Hearing on ISIS Recruitment of Foreign Fighters in Central Asia

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

WASHINGTON—At a hearing convened today by the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, Chairman Chris Smith (NJ-04) and other lawmakers examined why Central Asia has become an increasingly fertile source of foreign fighters for radical militant groups like ISIS, and explored how the United States can continue supporting efforts in Central Asia aimed at countering violent extremism and preventing the flow of foreign fighters to radical organizations.

“A year ago today, the city of Mosul fell to Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, during a wave of violence that swept brutally through Northern Iraq,” said Rep. Smith, who called today’s hearing. “Many of those who took part in the offensive were foreign fighters – in fact, the UN Security Council recently estimated that there are now at least 25,000 foreign terrorist fighters from more than 100 countries who have travelled internationally to join or fight for terrorist entities associated with ISIS and Al-Qaida.”

“According to the International Crisis Group, as many as 4,000 foreign fighters come from the five countries of central Asia. Just last week, we learned that the chief of Tajikistan’s counter-terrorism program – someone highly trained by our own government – abandoned his post to join ISIS,” he continued.

“What does this say about the current efforts to stop terror-minded men and women from volunteering and traveling to the Middle East?” Rep. Smith asked. “Clearly, our government – working with others and with organizations like the OSCE – must take stronger action to combat radicalization beyond our borders, as well as to ensure that returning foreign fighters do not bring jihad and murder back home.”

Witnesses testifying at the hearing focused on the risk factors for radicalization of Central Asian nationals, as well as efforts currently underway and additional recommendations on combating the recruitment of foreign terrorist fighters at the national and international levels.

“The nations of Central Asia, and the nations of the world, are waking up to the challenge of foreign terrorist fighters in Syria and Iraq,” said Daniel N. Rosenblum, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Central Asia. “The United States plans to continue to work with global institutions, regional groups, and national governments to confront the challenge of foreign fighters and reduce the threat to our partners, allies, and to our own country…the Department of State is eager to work closely with this Commission and others in Congress to address this generational challenge.”

Frank J. Cilluffo, director of the Center for Cyber and Homeland Security at the George Washington University, noted, “The ideology and narrative of violent Islamist extremist movements and groups continues to resonate with and successfully recruit individuals who are susceptible to such propaganda...Pushing back on this narrative in order to expose its inherent inconsistencies and falsehoods must therefore be a crucial plank in both national and transnational strategy.”

“We must maximize the intelligence that US officials and their counterparts in allied nations possess in order to best formulate and execute the measures that will keep foreign fighters’ plans left of boom,” Cilluffo continued. “The United States should work with the countries of Central Asia to assist them in building the capacities that are necessary for them to be their own best guardians. For instance, more could be done in the area of border security.”

Deputy Director of the International Crisis Group Jennifer Leonard said, “[Central Asian] governments must assess accurately the long-term danger jihadism poses to the region and take effective preventive action now…addressing multiple political and administrative failures, responding to an unmet demand for increased democratic space, revising discriminatory laws and policies, implementing outreach programs for men and women, creating jobs at home for disadvantaged youths, ensuring better coordination between security services, and police reform.”

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In his remarks, Deputy Secretary Biegun reaffirmed U.S. priorities for engagement at the OSCE, underscoring the commitment to European peace and security and highlighting key challenges facing the OSCE region including Russia’s continued aggression in eastern Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia, and the destabilizing effect of its flagrant violations of the OSCE’s foundational principles.  He called upon Belarus to hold accountable those responsible for its human rights violations and electoral crisis, urged Armenia and Azerbaijan to engage with the Minsk Group Co-Chairs to attain a lasting end to the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, and warned States against using COVID-19 as a pretext to restrict civil society, independent media, or public access to information. Finally, he expressed concern about the increasing number of political prisoners and the rise in cases of anti-Semitism, anti-Roma racism, and other forms of hatred and hate crimes in the OSCE region since the onset of the pandemic.  Consensus Achieved on Organizational Leadership, Preventing Torture, Countering Corruption, and More Despite the challenges inherent in virtual negotiations, consensus was achieved on 11 texts spanning all three OSCE dimensions of comprehensive security and supporting the organization’s internal governance. Ministers agreed on the appointment of the OSCE’s top four leaders: Helga Schmid (Germany) as Secretary General, Maria Teresa Ribiero (Portugal) as Representative on Freedom of the Media, Matteo Mecacci (Italy) as Director of the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), and Kairat Abdrakhmanov (Kazakhstan) as High Commissioner on National Minorities.  The decisions broke a months-long impasse after Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, Turkey, and others blocked the reappointment of the previous executives, leaving the organization leaderless since July. Participating States also reached consensus on several decisions that added to OSCE’s body of commitments. One such decision concerned the prevention and eradication of torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, building on existing OSCE commitments. A version of the text was originally proposed in 2014 by Switzerland during their 2014 Chairpersonship of the OSCE. The initiative reflected the country’s historic leadership in the area of international humanitarian law and profound concerns regarding torture in the context of counterterrorism efforts.  The proposal was reintroduced over successive Ministerial Councils before its adoption in 2020.  The widespread use of torture and other horrific abuse by Belarusian authorities, documented by the November 2020 report under the OSCE Moscow Mechanism, added urgency to this decision this year.  As adopted, the decision includes explicit references to enforced disappearances and to incommunicado detention. Participating States also adopted decisions on preventing and combating corruption; strengthening co-operation to counter transnational organized crime; deepening cooperation with OSCE’s Asian Partners;  supporting the Transdniestrian settlement process (also known in the OSCE as the “5+2” format, which brings together representatives of Moldova, Transdniestria, the OSCE, the Russian Federation, Ukraine, the European Union, and the United States); and selecting North Macedonia to chair the organization in 2023. Unfinished Business Unfortunately, participating States did not reach consensus on several other important drafts, including one co-sponsored by the United States and Belarus based on lessons learned during the COVID-19 pandemic that would have set out new commitments for participating States to effectively combat human trafficking during times of emergency. Other proposals, including texts to modernize the Vienna Document (a wide-ranging confidence- and security-building measure that includes provisions requiring notification of significant military activities, as well as an exchange of information about armed forces, military organization, and major weapon and equipment systems), enhance public-private partnerships to counter terrorism, and counter trafficking in natural resources were scuttled by Russian, Azerbaijani, and Armenian intransigence.  Some drafts which did not reach consensus among all 57 states were turned into statements issued and signed by those countries that had supported their adoption. The United States signed onto nine such statements to support the concept of women, peace and security outlined in UN Security Council Resolution 1325; modernization of the politico-military framework of the Vienna Document; and a number of statements related to the OSCE’s role in addressing regional challenges like ending the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, improving human rights compliance by Belarus, countering Russian aggression in Ukraine and the Republic of Georgia, and addressing challenges relating to the COVID-19 pandemic.   The Albanian Chairperson, together with the OSCE’s 2019 Slovak Chairperson, and the OSCE’s three incoming Chairpersons (the “Quint”) issued two joint statements, one expressing concern about the ongoing conflict in Ukraine and another reaffirming the principles enshrined the Helsinki Final Act and the Charter of Paris for a New Europe. Side events highlight continuing challenges The Ministerial Council’s four side events highlighted priority areas for participating States and for the Parliamentary Assembly. Due to the virtual format, events on the Belarus Moscow Mechanism report, human rights violations in Crimea, combatting human trafficking during the COVID-19 crisis, and the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly’s call for renewed political will to address contemporary challenges, attracted hundreds of participants. Deputy Assistant Secretary Kent closed the Moscow Mechanism side event by promising to maintain a focus on the situation in Belarus, to support efforts to hold authorities accountable for torture and other human rights violations, and to ensure the voice of the Belarusian people is heard in determining their country’s future. At a side event organized by the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly titled “A Call to Action: Reaffirming a Common Purpose,” Helsinki Commission Ranking Member Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) affirmed the strong bipartisan support in the United States for the OSCE, and recognized it as vital forum to promote security, defend human rights and encourage democratic development in all OSCE countries. He argued that greater political accountability rather than organizational reform would make the OSCE more relevant and effective in the years ahead. “It remains the responsibility of the participating States to hold each other to account. In the face of repression at home or aggression abroad, the OSCE will succeed as a multilateral forum as long as those who are true believers stand united in defending the ten Helsinki principles and forthrightly raise violations in this forum.” ​ Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), Ranking Member, U.S. Helsinki Commission, OSCE MC 2020 Side Event on “A Call to Action” Due to challenges related to convening during the COVID-19 pandemic, the NGO network Civic Solidarity Platform did not organize its annual Civil Society Conference, which had been held in conjunction with each OSCE Ministerial Council since its first convening during the 2010 OSCE Summit in Astana. Instead, the network organized a series of webinars in December to maintain focus on key issues of concern. 2021: OSCE’s Swedish Chairpersonship “Back to Basics” Looking ahead to its 2021 Chairpersonship, Swedish Foreign Minister Ann Linde said that Sweden will work to get “back to basics:” defending the European security order, contributing to resolving conflicts, and upholding the OSCE’s comprehensive concept of security with a special focus on human rights, democracy, and gender equality.

  • Helsinki Commission Digital Digest: December 2020

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

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

  • Remarks from Sen. Cardin Concerning Election Observation and Vienna Terrorist Attack

    Statement at the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly Meeting of the Standing Committee Mr. Secretary General on behalf of the U.S. Helsinki Commission, let me congratulate our president, our secretary general, and leadership of the OSCE parliamentary assembly. I know I am joined by Senator Roger Wicker, our vice president, and Congressman Richard Hudson the Chair of the First Committee in congratulating you on the manner of which you have adjusted to this pandemic, so that the Parliamentary Assembly can deal with the challenges of our time. Whether hot spots or dealing with the pandemic, I believe the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly has adjusted to this crisis and has been extremely relevant. So first, our congratulations to you for a job very well done. “A fundamental function of any democracy is ensuring that citizens are able to vote and know that their vote will be counted.” That was a quote from our former president Alcee Hastings. I send you greetings from Alcee, who is undergoing treatment and could not be on the call today. I know and I ask that we all keep him in our prayers, as he is dealing with his health concerns. I want to thank as the Secretary General has pointed out, those who have been involved in the election observation missions. It is not easy to cross the Atlantic and observe an election in the United States, and I thank you all for your participation in our election. I had the chance to address the parliamentarians through video when they were here, and we very much appreciate the fact that they really added to the importance of the observation role of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly. So, congratulations to all who participated. We are very proud of our democracy in the United States. We recognize that no democracy is perfect. We all need to be on a path towards improvement, and as the Special Representative on Anti-Semitism, Racism, and Intolerance of the Parliamentary Assembly, I am particularly sensitive to the use of racial and religious tropes to try and influence votes or when some try to disenfranchise those who are eligible to vote.  Areas in which we can use some improvement.  So, we obviously are monitoring such issues very closely in all of our participating States, including in the United States. I have introduced legislation to deal with some of these issues on disenfranchisement and to deal with other issues on intimidation. But I think we can all acknowledge that the overwhelming participation of Americans of all backgrounds in our election demonstrates the continued vibrancy of our democracy. And again, I thank you all for your observations and I can assure you that we are going to continue to try and improve in America and help all the states within the OSCE in their free and fair elections. I do want to acknowledge the horrendous terrorist attack and offer our condolences for what happened in Vienna - the home of the OSCE – on the street outside the synagogue that survived Kristallnacht. It is a particular concern that we all recognize that the victims came from various faiths and ethnicities. And it just recalls Mr. President, that in 2016 at our annual meeting, the United States offered a supplemental item - a call for OSCE action to address violence and discrimination - so that we deal with the concerns of what we see in healing and guarding against prejudice and discrimination. As your Special Representative charged with this function, I want to suggest that we revisit that resolution, and I particularly want to thank you for your support of the mission of special representation on behalf of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly through your actions and statements in the forums that have been held during this pandemic because you recognize the pandemic does add pressure to these types of issues. Thank you very much for your support. I am proud to represent the Parliamentary Assembly in this area.

  • Coronavirus in the OSCE Region

    By Emma Derr, Max Kampelman Fellow A novel coronavirus was first identified in Wuhan, China in December 2019. Termed COVID-19, the disease spread rapidly around the globe. As of October 2020, 1.18 million people have died from COVID-19, and over 227,000 of these deaths have occurred in the United States. COVID-19 is one of the most devastating public health crises since the Spanish Flu of 1918. From hospital beds to protective gear, governments across the world face significant challenges in combating its morbidity and death rates. In addition to the domestic coronavirus policies implemented at the national level, multilateral organizations such as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) have taken their own steps to curb the vast negative impacts of the novel coronavirus. Examples of Coronavirus Policy Responses across the OSCE Region Countries in the OSCE region have developed a wide variety of policies to combat the significant public health, political, and economic challenges caused by the coronavirus. As the number of cases has surged or declined in various countries, coronavirus restrictions are changing on a weekly basis. In most countries, policies exist at a national level, and many countries have also imposed regional restrictions. In the United States, state and local authorities impose their own restrictions. The varying responses of the United States, Sweden, France, and Turkmenistan illustrate the many coronavirus policy differences that exist in the OSCE region. The scientific publication “Our World in Data,” in collaboration with the University of Oxford, created a “Government Response Stringency Index” using nine response indicators, including school closures and travel bans. With 100 as the strictest ranking, the index currently ranks the United State at 62.5, France at 46.76, and Sweden at 37.04. Turkmenistan is not on the index. Government Response Stringency Index as of October 28, 2020. Graphic courtesy of Our World in Data.  United States In the United States, federal action largely has been confined to restrictions on international travel and immigration, with state governors enacting their own policies concerning closures and restrictions. State policies differ in scope and timeline but most center around issues such as face mask requirements, the number of people who can gather, health guidelines for business operations, social distancing measures, state travel restrictions and quarantine orders, restaurant and bar capacities, prohibitions on non-essential medical procedures, and in-person or online school decisions. Local officials, such as state health officers and mayors, have also imposed restrictions at the county or city level, sometimes in conflict with more or less stringent state-level guidance. State restrictions change rapidly, but the New York Times has created a map with up-to-date state data and policy actions. France The French government first locked down the country on March 17, requiring citizens to provide travel permits when leaving their homes. In May, France began to gradually reopen schools and public transport at the same time as other European countries, such as Belgium and Spain, eased restrictions. Masks are mandated on public transit and recommended when social distancing guidelines cannot be followed. According to France’s government website, as of October, local curfews were imposed in the Paris region, as well as eight other cities. These changes arrive amid a European “second wave,” which includes a spike in coronavirus cases in France. On October 29, another lockdown was announced and is expected to extend until December 1. All nonessential travel outside the home is strictly prohibited as it was with the first lockdown, but this time around, schools will remain open. Sweden In the spring of 2020, Sweden kept its borders open, and became one of the few OSCE participating States that did not go into lockdown. Instead, gatherings of over 50 people, sporting events, and visits to nursing homes were prohibited; bars, restaurants and schools remained open. The general advice issued by the Public Health Agency of Sweden reminds citizens to stay at home when experiencing symptoms, wash their hands regularly, and socially distance from one another. The agency does not recommend face masks in public spaces. Due to its high per capita death rate, Swedish health officials recently released national restrictions on nightclubs, as well as other regional measures. On October 26, new local guidelines were introduced in Uppsala and Malmo, where cases have been increasing. Residents were told to avoid public transport and to only socialize with people within their households. Turkmenistan Turkmenistan is the only OSCE participating State to deny that it has been affected by COVID-19. There is significant doubt both in the international community and among Turkmen NGOs that this is the case. There have been numerous deaths of high-level government officials and people in prisons reportedly due to “pneumonia.” Humanitarian concerns have been raised as patients with COVID-19 symptoms have been overwhelming hospitals. Although the World Health Organization visited the country and did not directly contradict the official narrative, following the visit, Turkmen authorities imposed “preventive” restrictions similar to those in other countries. The country has restricted travel and border crossings; closed restaurants, shopping malls, theaters, and parks; and mandated the use of masks and social distancing in public. OSCE Action The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) is the world’s largest regional security organization with 57 participating States. Leaders of OSCE institutions and offices have stated their continuing commitments to OSCE principles and stress the importance of unity and solidarity as its nations fight to control the pandemic.  “Now is the time for unity. The COVID-19 virus does not distinguish between peoples or countries; its threat is universal. This underscores that security is common, comprehensive and indivisible,” said the Chair of the OSCE Permanent Council Igli Hasani and his colleagues in a letter earlier this year. The OSCE seeks to provide leadership through guidelines and policy recommendations that address the challenges presented by the novel coronavirus. The organization has also been active in examining the economic, environmental, and security implications of the coronavirus across the OSCE region. “In today’s highly interconnected world, it is necessary to have strong solidarity and a cooperative approach at all levels: community, state, regional, and global,” stated Vuk Zugic, OSCE Coordinator of Economic and Environmental Activities. Minority Groups and Vulnerable Populations On the Helsinki on the Hill podcast “Communities at Risk,” Ambassador Lamberto Zannier, the former OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities and a current OSCE PA High-Level Expert, spoke about providing protection for the most vulnerable during this health crisis. “We felt that the issue of protecting the diversity of the society and ensuring that all social groups are included in the policies, and there is an equal treatment for all, was not at the forefront of the concerns of many governments,” he said. “We started to see problems of discrimination. We started to see problems with hate speech. We started seeing problems with access of some of the population to basic services.” In March, as OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities, Zannier released recommendations for short-term responses to COVID-19 to support social cohesion in OSCE states, and in April, the HCNM released a full set of policy recommendations that call on countries to take into account diversity when implementing state emergency measures, such as providing public services and media communications in minority languages. Voting and Elections The OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) is mandated to address issues related to democracy, human rights, and rule of law, including freedom of the press, freedom of movement, and democratic elections.  ODIHR released a report in October outlining best alternative voting practices in the context of COVID-19, focusing on secrecy, equality, and universality. Human Trafficking ODIHR also conducted an empirical survey of survivors of human trafficking and issued a report in June that examined the impact of COVID-19 on human trafficking trends and recommended how OSCE states could respond. According to OSCE PA Special Representative on Trafficking in Persons and former Helsinki Commission Chair Rep. Chris Smith, “The COVID-19 pandemic has increased the vulnerability of children to becoming victims of trafficking and sexual exploitation. Today, with most schools closed, children are spending more of their time online where they are vulnerable to being groomed by sexual predators and lured into trafficking situations. One way we can fight this and protect our children now is by education to keep them safe online and by developing age-appropriate training tools for children, parents and educators.” Parliamentary Diplomacy The OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA) has hosted several webinars focused on the effects of the coronavirus on human rights and democracy. The webinar titled “COVID’s impact on conflicts in the OSCE region” addressed obstacles to conflict resolution, humanitarian aid efforts, and implementation of the fundamental principles agreed to under the Helsinki Final Act. Helsinki Commissioner and Chair of the OSCE PA General Committee on Political Affairs and Security Rep. Richard Hudson attended the discussion and stated his concern over “the COVID-19 pandemic and its potential to further inflame existing conflicts in the OSCE area or potentially generate new ones.” He said it was important for the Parliamentary Assembly to stay informed on the OSCE’s role in the conflict cycle, specifically in Ukraine and Georgia. Other speakers emphasized his message and noted that people in conflict zones are on one of the most dangerous frontlines of the pandemic. In May, the OSCE PA hosted a webinar titled “Respecting Human Rights and Maintaining Democratic Control During States of Emergency.” In his comments, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) emphasized the importance of protecting fundamental freedoms. “I am sorry, but not surprised that some governments have taken the need for emergency measures as an opportunity for repressive measures,” he stated. “Hungary is the only OSCE participating State that does not have a sunset clause for the expiration of its emergency measures or requiring parliamentary approval for an extension.  Parliamentary oversight is absolutely essential, especially when governments seek to exercise extraordinary powers.” During the webinar, Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), Helsinki Commission Ranking Member and the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly Special Representative on Anti-Semitism, Racism, and Intolerance, also addressed concerning aspects of COVID-19 emergency responses. “Emergency provisions which restrict freedom of speech or freedom of the media are especially concerning and may actually undermine our efforts to address this health emergency. We need to ensure that journalists, medical professionals, scientists and others can provide the public with information we need to battle COVID,” he said. OSCE Field Missions OSCE field missions have been actively adapting to support host countries’ needs during this pandemic. Since April, several missions have helped to provide medical supplies and equipment to their host countries. The OSCE Presence in Albania, a field operation that cooperates with Albania’s Border and Migration Police, donated medical supplies to Albania’s Border Police in May. The team also visited border crossing points to assess existing protocols. The OSCE Programme Office in Dushanbe provided protective gear and sanitizing supplies to its partners in Tajikistan, and the OSCE mission to Montenegro delivered food and hygiene products to support the country’s Red Cross.  Handover of personal protective equipment to Regional Health Administration of Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region on July 25, 2020. (Photo courtesy of OSCE/Umed Qurbonov) The OSCE has also facilitated online medical trainings for border officials in Turkmenistan and donated IT equipment to the Canton 10 Ministry of Education to support Bosnia and Herzegovina. The Special Monitoring Mission in Ukraine has been impacted by the pandemic by restrictions on mission member movement, but the mission nevertheless continues to be a key international actor in the country, informing on developments in the conflict areas of Donetsk and Luhansk.

  • Helsinki Commission Digital Digest: October 2020

  • Hastings and Wicker Call for Free and Fair Elections, Anti-Corruption Action, and Protection of Human Rights in Kyrgyzstan

    WASHINGTON—In response to the tumultuous change of power in Kyrgyzstan, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) and Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) issued the following statement: “Kyrgyzstan should ensure that changes to its electoral system adhere to the rule of law, are transparent, and allow for input from civil society. Its citizens, many of whom took to the streets in protest over allegations of vote buying and corruption during the annulled October 4 parliamentary election, should have confidence that the system is fair and that new elections are conducted properly and reflect the will of the people. “For the country to move forward, authorities should seriously address endemic corruption and protect private businesses and foreign investment. We are also disturbed by reports of pressure and harassment directed toward political opposition, human rights activists, and journalists. We urge Kyrgyzstan to ensure that human rights are protected during this difficult time, including the rights of persons belonging to ethnic minorities. “We believe that the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe could play an instrumental role in assisting Kyrgyzstan with any electoral or constitutional changes, as well as preparations for and observation of new elections. It also could support the role of civil society and independent media. Kyrgyzstan should take full advantage of this possibility.” What started as a popular revolt by youth and opposition groups over fraudulent elections on October 4 and endemic corruption resulted in the resignation of President Jeenbekov and the installation of Sadyr Japarov as both Kyrgyzstan’s acting president and prime minister. OSCE election observers concluded that the October 4 parliamentary election “was competitive and candidates could, in general, conduct their activities freely” but “credible allegations of vote buying remain a serious concern” and “a number of controversial CEC decisions raised questions about its impartiality.” The country will hold both new parliamentary and new presidential elections. Presidential elections have been scheduled for January 10, but the timing for parliamentary elections remains unclear. Parliament has already made some changes to the electoral code and is discussing further reform. Japarov announced that he would step down as president in December to allow him to run for president and thereby get around a constitutional provision that bans the acting president from doing so.

  • Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama to Appear at Helsinki Commission Hearing

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following online hearing: ALBANIA’S CHAIRMANSHIP OF THE OSCE Responding to the Multiple Challenges of 2020 Thursday, September 17, 2020 1:00 p.m. Watch Live: www.youtube.com/HelsinkiCommission In 2020, Albania holds the chairmanship of the world’s largest regional security organization—the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE)—with a multi-dimensional mandate and a 57-country membership stretching from North America, across Europe, and to Central Asia and Mongolia. This year, the OSCE has faced the unprecedented challenge of a global pandemic and the clear urgency of action against racism, while maintaining its necessary focus on other longtime concerns often impacted by these developments.  These concerns include Russia’s continued aggression in Ukraine and threats to other nearby or neighboring countries; protracted conflicts in Transnistria, Georgia, and Nagorno-Karabakh; and political leaders in Belarus as well as in Russia, Azerbaijan, Turkey, and other OSCE countries seeking to undermine democratic institutions and stifle dissent in every sector.  Many countries are struggling—or failing—to live up to their OSCE commitments in the areas of human rights, democracy, and the rule of law. Vulnerable communities, including migrants, are targets of discrimination and violence.  Uncertainties in the Western Balkans and Central Asia remain.  The recent decision of some countries to block reappointments of senior officers at key OSCE institutions undermines the organization at a time when effective contributions to security and cooperation across the region are so deeply needed. The Helsinki Commission regularly holds a hearing allowing the annually rotating OSCE chairmanship to present its priorities for the year and to exchange views on current issues. Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama, who holds his country’s foreign affairs portfolio, will appear at this hearing to discuss the performance of the OSCE thus far in 2020 and to share his views in advance of the OSCE Ministerial Council meeting scheduled for early December.

  • The OSCE: A Bulwark Against Authoritarianism

    As we mark the 45th anniversary of the 1975 signing of the Helsinki Final Act, the founding document of today’s Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the ideals of democracy that had been advanced by that pact—freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and civil liberties—are under threat. In 1975, Soviet totalitarianism was the great threat to human rights and fundamental freedoms; today, authoritarianism poses a growing threat to human dignity and rights in the region. Authoritarianism is a fact of life in much of Eurasia, a reflection of the actual worldwide tension between countries defending universal human rights obligations and countries attempting to undermine trust in democratic institutions and promote an authoritarian model. This is true not only in repressive nations like Russia; even among some U.S. partner countries, there are warning signs. Some nations have also taken it upon themselves to block vital leadership roles in international institutions during a global pandemic unlike anything we have seen in a century. The ultimate outcome of this conflict is up to us. Liberty and human rights will prevail, but only if freedom-loving people everywhere join together to defend and preserve human rights and fundamental freedoms for all. Many international institutions dedicated to freedom and human rights were founded with U.S. support in the wake of World War II, in which more than a million U.S. citizens were either killed or wounded and trillions of dollars spent on the effort to defeat fascism. Democratic ideals are ingrained in the founding charters that established those organizations. For nearly 75 years, such institutions have consistently served as a bulwark against totalitarianism, communism, terrorism, and other forms of tyranny; limited conflict among nations; helped raise millions out of poverty; and spread democratic values throughout the world. The OSCE grew out of the Helsinki Final Act, a 1975 political agreement among the United States, Canada, the Soviet Union, and other European nations. Signed by both democratic and communist regimes, the Final Act acknowledged openly that respect for human rights within states is crucial to security among states, and that human rights concerns could legitimately be raised among signatories. Today, the OSCE is the world’s largest regional security organization, encompassing 57 countries in Europe, as well as the United States and Canada.  It includes Russia, Ukraine, and many other successors of the former Soviet Union, reaching as far east as Central Asia and Mongolia, and north beyond the Arctic Circle. The phrase “Vancouver to Vladivostok” accurately describes the organization’s reach. With its “comprehensive concept of security,” the OSCE addresses military security, economic and environmental cooperation, and human rights and takes steps to prevent, manage, and resolve conflict within and among its members. The OSCE also supports the democratic development of nations that gained or regained independence in the post-Cold War period and are still finding their footing, often torn between corruption and the promise of a democratic future. Thirteen OSCE field missions operate in member countries seeking assistance in developing their democratic institutions. The OSCE recognizes and supports the important role played by civil society and the media in holding governments to account for blatant human rights violations and abuses of power. Unprecedented Gap in OSCE Leadership OSCE institutions—including its assembly of national legislators—foster an essential defense against the spread of authoritarianism. However, despite its comprehensive vision, we are now faced with an unprecedented gap in leadership at the OSCE due to the block on the extension of mandates for four senior leaders, including the Secretary General. Each week, the OSCE Permanent Council—comprising ambassadors to the OSCE from each participating State—meets in Vienna, Austria. In this forum, the United States seeks to shine a light on contraventions of States’ OSCE tenets and violations of international law. The OSCE independent institutions, like the field missions, carry those messages forward.  In addition to the organization’s other work defending human rights and fundamental freedoms, its Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) manages the OSCE’s election observation missions, internationally recognized as the “gold standard” for their methodology. Other independent offices lead the OSCE’s work on Freedom of the Media and rights of national minorities. Unfortunately, in July, these vital institutions were deprived of strong and consistent leadership by countries—including Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, and Turkey—that seem intent on attempting to weaken the OSCE’s ability to hold countries accountable for their actions and undermining the principles of the Helsinki Final Act. The executive and legislative branches of the U.S. government are partners in bringing American leadership to support the OSCE’s work. Several times each year,  members of Congress—including lawmakers serving on the U.S. Helsinki Commission, which monitors implementation of the Helsinki Accords  —gather at meetings of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, where they secure political commitments and build mutually beneficial relationships among legislators from the OSCE’s participating States to help push back against anti-democratic actions by national governments. Unfortunately, several OSCE participating States—countries that have repeatedly committed to upholding the principles and values enshrined in the Helsinki Final Act— are exhibiting a troubling slide toward authoritarianism. The United States and our democratic allies have criticized efforts to restrict and persecute journalists, human rights defenders, civil society, members of the political opposition, and members of ethnic and religious minorities. We also have jointly criticized efforts to stifle media freedom and limit political pluralism in Russia, Belarus, Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan, as well as raised concerns about media consolidation in Hungary, and limitations on freedom of speech and freedom of the press elsewhere. Russia’s Destabilizing Actions No OSCE participating State bears more responsibility for fomenting mistrust, insecurity, corruption, and human rights violations and abuses in this region than the Russian Federation. Russia’s destabilizing actions contravene all 10 Helsinki Final Act principles, ranging from respect for human rights to the prohibition of military incursions into neighboring countries. Russia continues its aggressive actions in Ukraine, including its purported annexation of Crimea. The proxy forces Russia arms, trains, leads, and fights alongside in eastern Ukraine make it dangerous for the unarmed OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine to fulfill its Permanent Council-approved mandate to monitor the conflict. Russia uses its resources—economic, political, informational, and military—to defeat freedom and democracy. Russia does not rely on military force alone to threaten democratic governance; it also uses hybrid tactics daily, ranging from cyber intrusions to influence campaigns — aimed at undermining democratic elections. We hope that someday, authoritarian countries like Russia will start behaving again according to the rules of international law. Unfortunately, these countries currently reject the values of democracy, liberty, and human rights. The authoritarian regimes view democracy as an existential threat—hence the actions some of them have taken to restrict the OSCE’s ability to do its work.  The struggle today is between those who believe authoritarianism is the right way forward and those of us who still believe that Thomas Jefferson was right in his declaration that the desire for freedom exists within the heart of every human being. In a hyper-connected modern world in which disinformation becomes an ever more powerful weapon and the divisions within free societies are exploited by malign actors, U.S. membership in organizations like the OSCE emphasizes clearly, openly, and emphatically that America will not cede the field to the authoritarian regimes. We will not allow them to be the ones to dictate what is truth and what is fiction. Human Rights and Ideals Just as Valid in 2020 Through the OSCE, the United States directly confronts the deceit of Russia and other authoritarian powers. By raising our voices, through our participation and leadership, we reassure our friends that the United States stands with them and supports our shared values against the growing tide of autocracy. By raising our voices, we remind allies and adversaries alike that the United States remains engaged and committed to what is fair, what is right, and what is true. Together, our U.S. Mission to the OSCE and the U.S. Helsinki Commission remind allies and adversaries alike that America will not ignore regimes that are actively hostile to our values and see our liberty as an existential threat. We will always prioritize respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, defend the principles of liberty, and encourage tolerance within societies, because such efforts are vital to the promotion of democracy and to U.S. national security. We reject the authoritarian notion that our fundamental freedoms are a weakness. They are our greatest strength. The United States and other like-minded countries use the power of the OSCE to show that human rights and ideals are just as valid in 2020 as they were in 1975, when the Helsinki Accords were signed. These rights not only ensure the physical, economic, and mental wellbeing of all our populations, they make the countries’ governments stronger by building legitimacy in the eyes of their citizens. America’s unwavering support of these values through multilateral organizations like the OSCE remains vital. As noted in the Trump administration’s U.S. National Security Strategy, “Authoritarian actors have long recognized the power of multilateral bodies and have used them to advance their interests and limit the freedom of their own citizens.  If the United States cedes leadership of these bodies to adversaries, opportunities to shape developments that are positive for the United States will be lost.” The OSCE deserves to be recognized by the people of both the United States and our allies and partners as a valuable tool in the fight against autocracy. We must not abandon it by leaving its most important institutions without leadership beyond its 45th anniversary. Instead, through our efforts, and those of our allies and partners in the OSCE, we must continue to defend liberty and human rights in our region and provide a beacon of hope for citizens everywhere who aspire to a free and democratic future.

  • Hastings and Wicker Lament Death of Kyrgyz Activist Azimjan Askarov

    WASHINGTON—Following last weekend’s death of Kyrgyz human rights defender Azimjan Askarov in prison, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) and Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) issued the following statement: “We are deeply saddened by the tragic death of human rights activist Azimjan Askarov and extend our condolences to his family and friends. It is a travesty that Kyrgyz authorities never addressed Mr. Askarov’s credible allegations of torture or rectified the violations of fair trial standards, which were documented by the OSCE and others. Instead, the poor handling of his case demonstrated the shortcomings of the country’s judicial system and authorities’ ethnic nationalism. “Only weeks ago, we called on President Jeenbekov to release Mr. Askarov immediately because of his poor health. We will not forget Mr. Askarov or the injustices inflicted on him by the Kyrgyz authorities.” Activist Azimjan Askarov died on July 25, 2020, one day after being transferred to a prison hospital. He had suffered from poor health for years, but his heath reportedly had deteriorated in the past weeks. He was 69. Mr. Askarov was charged with incitement in relation to the murder of a policeman in 2010 during the ethnic violence in southern Kyrgyzstan that left hundreds of mainly ethnic Uzbeks dead. Although they were the vast majority of victims, ethnic Uzbeks, including Mr. Askarov, also were the majority of those accused of fomenting the violence. Prior to 2010, Mr. Askarov had worked to uncover police corruption and abuse in the community, and his arrest may have been retaliation. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) monitored his trials in 2010 and 2011 and documented “serious violations of fair trial standards…the failure of the authorities to adequately address the intimidation of defense witnesses and lawyers, to consider exculpatory evidence, and to effectively follow-up on visible signs of torture.” In 2016, the United Nations Human Rights Committee found that Kyrgyzstan had violated its international commitments and that Mr. Askarov had “been arbitrarily detained, held in inhumane conditions, tortured and mistreated, and prevented from adequately preparing his trial defense.”

  • Hastings: Petty Parochialism Denies OSCE Vital Leadership During Global Crisis

    WASHINGTON—Following yesterday’s failure of OSCE representatives to renew the mandates of four leadership positions—the OSCE Secretary General, the High Commissioner on National Minorities, the Representative on Freedom of the Media, and the Director of the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights—Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) issued the following statement: “We are in trouble when petty parochialism denies us vital leadership in the midst of a global crisis. Now more than ever, reliable multilateral institutions are needed to forge solutions during and after the current pandemic.  “Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, Turkey, and other OSCE participating States who have blocked consensus on extending dedicated public servants should be ashamed of themselves. History will show the folly of abandoning essential leadership for cooperation.” Negotiations to renew each mandate collapsed in part in response to the written objections of Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, and Turkey, and the subsequent withholding of consensus by other participating States. Even efforts to devise interim extensions failed, leaving vital OSCE leadership positions vacant during an unprecedented global crisis. The failure highlights the unwillingness of some OSCE participating States to live up to their stated commitments to democratic institutions, the rule of law, media pluralism, and free and fair elections. Leaving key leadership roles unfilled drastically weakens the OSCE’s ability to hold countries accountable for their actions and undermines the principles of the Helsinki Final Act.  The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) is the world’s largest regional security organization. It spans 57 participating States reaching from Vancouver to Vladivostok. The OSCE sets standards in fields including military security, economic and environmental cooperation, and human rights and humanitarian concerns. In addition, the OSCE undertakes a variety of initiatives designed to prevent, manage, and resolve conflict within and among the participating States.

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