Title

U.S. Helsinki Commission Criticizes Attack on Civil Society in Azerbaijan

Tuesday, May 06, 2014

WASHINGTON—In response to today’s sentencing of eight youth activists associated with NIDA in Azerbaijan, and the detention of leading journalists and human rights advocates, the leadership of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (U.S. Helsinki Commission) today called on the Government of Azerbaijan to respect the rule of law and its human rights commitments.

Regarding the trial of the NIDA activists, Senator Ben Cardin (MD), Chairman of the U.S. Helsinki Commission, stated: “The entirety of the legal proceedings against these young men is troubling not only for the lack of coherence in the government’s case, but also because there are credible allegations that the arrests and the subsequent charges are politically motivated and aimed at silencing criticism of the government. I am extremely concerned at the imposition of these lengthy sentences and am anxious for the health and well-being of these young men who are on hunger strike. I call on the Government of Azerbaijan to review the cases for prosecutorial misconduct and ensure that the rule of law and justice is carried out in these cases.”

The Co-Chairman of the U.S. Helsinki Commission, Representative Chris Smith (NJ-04), expressed his concern about the arrest of journalist Rauf Mirqadirov on charges of spying for Armenia, as well as the detention and investigation of Leyla Yunus and her husband, Arif Yunus. “These detentions follow a string of guilty verdicts in similar cases against critics of the government. This is a troubling pattern. I urge the government of Azerbaijan, a member of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, to review these proceedings with a view toward releasing the eight activists – and to recommit itself to the rule of law. The OSCE has many times demonstrated the validity of its founding idea – that respect for human rights fosters stability and security.”

The young men, Shahin Novruzlu, Mammad Azizov, Bakhtiyar Guliyev, Rashad Hasanov, Uzeyir Mammadli, Rashadat Akhundov, Zaur Gurbanlı and Ilkin Rustamzada were sentenced today to prison terms ranging from six to 8 years on charges related to weapons and drug possession, charges that are widely believed to be fabricated as a means to intimidate and silence them. All eight activists have been in pre-trial detention for over one year and started a hunger strike in protest of their detention and the charges brought against them.

Rauf Mirqadirov is a well-respected journalist who writes critically of many governments, including Azerbaijan. He was arrested after being deported from Turkey to Azerbaijan, and has since been charged by the Government of Azerbaijan with espionage. Leyla Yunus is the founder and director of the Peace and Democracy Institute and long-time human rights advocate who has been vocal about promoting people-to-people ties with Armenia.

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Vollebaek condemned the19th century-style politicization of national minority issues in the region and the violation of international borders. At the time of the crisis, he had cautioned against the practice of “conferring citizenship en masse to residents of other States” (a reference to Russian actions in South Ossetia) and warned that “the presence of one's citizens or ‘ethnic kin’ abroad must not be used as a justification for undermining the sovereignty and territorial integrity of other States.” Sadly, that sound advice went unobserved in Georgia, but it is still applicable elsewhere in the OSCE region.(5) The statement delivered by France on behalf of the countries of the European Union failed to address the conflict. During the plenary, only Norway and Switzerland joined the United States in raising humanitarian concerns stemming from the conflict. In reply, the head of the Russian delegation delivered a tough statement which sidestepped humanitarian concerns, declaring that discussion of Georgia’s territorial integrity was now “irrelevant.” He called on participating States to adopt a pragmatic approach and urged acknowledgment of the creation of the new sovereign states of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, terming their independence “irreversible” and “irrevocable.” Perhaps more surprising than this Russian bluster was the failure of any major NGO, including those who had been active in the conflict zone collecting information and working on humanitarian relief, to take advantage of the opportunity to raise the issue of South Ossetia during the opening plenary. As the HDIM moved into its working sessions, which cover the principal OSCE human dimension commitments, coverage of the conflict fared better. The Representative on Freedom of the Media remarked, in opening the session on free speech and freedom of the media that, for the first time in some years, two OSCE participating States were at war. During that session, he and other speakers called on the Russian Federation to permit independent media access to occupied areas to investigate the charges and counter-charges of genocide and ethnic cleansing. The tolerance discussion included calls by several delegations for Russia to cooperate and respond favorably to the HCNM’s request for access to South Ossetia to investigate the human rights situation in that part of Georgia. Disappointingly, during the session devoted to humanitarian commitments, several statements, including those of the ODHIR moderator and EU spokesperson, focused narrowly on labor conditions and migration, and failed to raise concerns regarding refugees and displaced persons, normally a major focus of this agenda item and obviously relevant to the Georgia crisis. Nevertheless, the session developed into one of the more animated at the HDIM. The Georgian delegation, which had been silent up to that point, spoke out against Russian aggression and alleged numerous human rights abuses. It expressed gratitude to the European Union for sending monitors to the conflict zone and urged the EU to pressure Russia to fully implement the Six-Point Ceasefire agreement negotiated by French President Sarkozy. The United States joined several delegations and NGOs calling on all parties to the conflict to observe their international obligations to protect refugees and create conditions for their security and safe voluntary return. In a pattern observed throughout the meeting, the Russian delegation did not respond to Georgian charges. It left it to an NGO, “Ossetia Accuses,” to make Russia’s case that Georgia had committed genocide against the people of South Ossetia. A common theme among many interventions was a call for an independent investigation of the causes of the conflict and a better monitoring of the plight of refugees, but to date Russian and South Ossetian authorities have denied both peacekeeping monitors and international journalists access to the region from elsewhere in Georgia. A joint assessment mission of experts from ODIHR and the HCNM, undertaken in mid-October, were initially denied access to South Ossetia, with limited access to Abkhazia granted to some team members. Eventually, several experts did gain access to the conflict zone in South Ossetia, though to accomplish this they had to travel from the north via the Russian Federation. One can only speculate why Georgia received such limited treatment at this HDIM. The crisis in the south Caucasus had dominated OSCE discussions at the Permanent Council in Vienna for weeks preceding the HDIM. Some participants may have feared that addressing it in Warsaw might have crowded out the broader human rights agenda. Others may have felt that, in the absence of a clear picture of the circumstances surrounding the conflict and with so many unanswered questions, it was best not to be too critical or too accusatory of either party. The EU (and particularly the French) were, at the time of the HDIM, in the process of negotiating the deployment of European observers to the conflict zone, and may have feared that criticism of Russia at this forum would have only complicated the task. In fact, the EU’s only oblique reference to Georgia was made at HDIM’s penultimate working session (a discussion which focused on human dimension “project activity”) in connection with the work of High Commissioner for National Minorities. (One observer of this session remarked that there seemed to be a greater stomach for dinging the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights for shortcomings in its work than for criticizing Russia for invading a neighboring OSCE participating State.) Finally, other participants, particularly NGOs, seemed more inclined to view human rights narrowly in terms of how governments treat their own citizens and not in terms of how the failure to respect key principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity are invariably accompanied by gross violations of human rights and can produce humanitarian disasters. Amid simmering tensions between Russia and Georgia which could erupt into renewed fighting, and completion of a report requested by the Finnish Chairmanship in time for the OSCE’s Ministerial in Helsinki in early December, Ministers will have to grapple with the impact of the south Caucasus conflict and what role the OSCE will have. 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    This briefing featured Edward Lucas, Central and Eastern Europe correspondent and former Moscow bureau chief for The Economist. During this briefing, Lucas shared his thoughts on current political events in Russia including the upcoming Presidential elections and Moscow’s relations with the international community during President Putin’s era and beyond. Several developments in Russia were highlighted, including the increasing tensions between Russia and the West in light of Kosovo’s declaration of independence from Serbia. The perspective provided by Lucas during this hearing emphasized the both positives and negatives of these developments, and of Russia’s relationship with other countries like the United States.

  • Human Rights, Civil Society, and Democratic Governance in Russia: Current Situation and Prospects for the Future

    This hearing, chaired by Helsinki Commission Chairman Hon. Sam Brownback and Ranking Member the Hon. Benjamin Cardin, focused on the tumoltuous developement of human right in Russia. For the past few years, a series of events in Russia has given cause for concern about the fate of human rights, civil society, and democratic governance in that country. Of particular concern is the recent promulgation of a law establishing greater governmental control over NGOs and an attempt by the Russian secret services to link prominent Russian NGOs with foreign intelligence services. Newsweek International wrote in its February 6, 2006 issue: “The Russian secret service is acting more and more like the old KGB.” At the same time, the Russian Federation accedes this year to the chairmanship of the Group of Eight Industrialized Nations (G-8), and will chair the Council of Europe Committee of Ministers beginning in May 2006.  

  • Freedom of the Media in the OSCE Region Part 2

    Freedom of media is one of the cornerstones of democracy, and recognized as such under international human rights law and in numerous OSCE commitments.  Moreover, a free and independent media is not only an essential tool for holding governments accountable; the media can serve as an agent of change when it shines a light into the darkest crevices of the world (examining environmental degradation, corporate or government corruption, trafficking in children, and healthcare crises in the world's most vulnerable countries, etc.) Freedom of the media is closely connected to the broader right to freedom of speech and expression and other issues including public access to information and the conditions necessary for free and fair elections.  The hearing will attempt to illustrate the degree in which freedom of the media is obstructed in the greater OSCE region.

  • The Future Belarus: Democracy or Dictatorship?

    This briefing, on the prospects for democratic change in Belarus, a country located in the heart of Europe, but which had the unfortunate distinction of having one of the worst human rights and democracy records in the European part of the OSCE region, was held by Hon. Alcee L. Hastings, Chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe. He was join by a delgation of courageous leaders of Belarus' democratic opposition and leading human rights and democracy activists: Aliaksandr Milinkevich, Anatoliy Lebedko, Sergey Kalyakin, Anatoliy Levkovich, and Dmitriy Fedaruk. The witnesses were commended for their courage to testify at the briefing and applauded for their commitment to the struggle for democracy, freedom, and human rights, even under very trying circumstances.

  • Combating Hate Crimes and Discrimination in the OSCE

    Congressman Alcee L. Hastings (D-FL), Chairman of the CSCE, held a briefing on hate crimes and discrimination in the OSCE region.  Joining Chairman Hastings at the dais were Helsinki Commissioners Senator Gordon Smith (R-OR) and Congresswoman Hilda Solis (D-CA).  The briefing focused on intolerance and discrimination within the 56 countries that make up the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).  Congressman Hastings emphasized the discrimination against the Roma and other minorities of Turkish, African, and south Asian descent when they attempt to apply for jobs, find housing, and get an education The panel of speakers – Dr. Dou Dou Diene, United Nations Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia, and related intolerance; Dr. Tiffany Lightbourn, Department of Homeland Security, Science & Technology Directorate; and Mr. Micah H. Naftalin and Mr. Nickolai Butkevich, UCSJ: Union of Councils for Soviet Jews – spoke of the rising popularity of right-wing extremist party, who espouse vicious anti-Semitic slogans and appeal to a 19th century form of European ethnic identity.  In addition, Urs Ziswiler, the Ambassador of Switzerland, attended the briefing and commented on the rise in xenophobic views in Switzerland.  

  • Twenty-First Century Security in the OSCE Region

    This hearing examined U.S. missile defense and disagreements on unresolved conflicts with the Russian Federation, which affect several Eastern European and Caucasian countries. In particular, witnesses discussed the ramifications of Russia’s announcement to withdraw from the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe Treaty (CFE). In addition, the hearing addressed the movement of weapons of mass destruction by non-state actors and terrorist organizations.

  • Russia: Advancing in the War against Cancer, Retreating on Democratic Governance

    By Marlene Kaufmann General Counsel The first Russian Forum on Health or Tobacco convened in Moscow May 28-29, 2007, under the auspices of the State Duma and in collaboration with a broad array of international organizations including the World Health Organization (WHO) and the International Union Against Cancer (UICC). United States support and participation was provided by the National Cancer Institute (NCI), the American Cancer Society, the American Russian Cancer Alliance (ARCA) and the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids, as well as Johns Hopkins University and the University of Maryland School of Law. Russia has the third highest per capita cigarette consumption in the world and some 375,000 Russians die every year from smoking-related diseases. Low cigarette taxes – which contribute to a selling price of approximately 50 cents per pack in Russia, as opposed to $5.00 in EU countries – combined with weak tobacco control legislation contribute to a growing burden on Russia’s health care system. One of the primary aims of the Forum was to educate the public, particularly young people, about the dangers and long-term effects of the use of tobacco products. The driving force in organizing this first ever forum on tobacco control is Dr. Nikolay F. Gerasimenko, Deputy Chairman of the Health Care Committee of the State Duma, who worked with the leadership of the renown N.N. Blokhin Russian Cancer Research Center and the Russian Research Institute of Pulmonology to bring the conference to fruition. The morning plenary of the Forum was chaired by Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov who expressed his strong support for the work of the Forum and efforts to curb tobacco-related diseases. Speaker Gryzlov was joined by Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzkhov, United States Ambassador William Burns and an array of celebrities from the Russian music and film industries as well as national sports figures in an appeal to the public, especially young people, to quit tobacco. House Majority Leader Congressman Steny H. Hoyer also addressed the forum through a pre-recorded video presentation. Congressman Hoyer has supported the work of NCI and the American Russian Cancer Alliance (ARCA) in combating tobacco-related cancers, as well as ARCA’s cutting edge research in curing solid tumors. The Forum was well attended and well covered by Russian national media and its impact was immediate. During the conference the State Duma gave tentative approval to legislation aimed at restricting smoking in public places such as restaurants and waiting lounges in train stations and airports. A Russian Anti-Tobacco League was created to consolidate the efforts of anti-tobacco forces in the Russian Federation, and in July the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced that Russia will join the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control. Bending Swords In To Plowshares One of the sponsors of the anti-tobacco forum, the American Russian Cancer Alliance (ARCA), represents a unique partnership between scientists in the Russian Federation and their counterparts in the United States. The primary focus of ARCA activities is the use of isotopes derived from Russian nuclear weapons stockpiles in cancer detection, diagnosis and treatment. The Russian partners in the Alliance include the N.N. Blokhin Russian Cancer Research center in Moscow and the Russian Research Center at the Kurchatov Institute. On the U.S. side, the Alliance partners are the Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia and the University of Maryland Greenebaum Cancer Center in Baltimore. In addition to these partners, ARCA has developed relationships with a number of other hospitals and research institutions in Russia and the U.S. Each member of the Alliance brings unique strengths and talents to what is a true intellectual and scientific partnership. These scientific strengths have been coupled with a strong commitment on the part of the two nations to work together on the peaceful use of nuclear technology. In conjunction with the Moscow Forum on Tobacco or Health, ARCA and NCI representatives met with senior members of the Russian Academy of Sciences to discuss possible joint nanohybrid studies dedicated to scientific projects and clinical trials to develop new methods of diagnosis and treatment for a broad range of cancers. The collaborative research projects that are being conducted as part of the ARCA partnership involving the use of Russian radioisotopes are yielding extremely promising results. Although these isotopes were created for more sinister purposes, they are now being utilized in research aimed at reducing the burden of cancer in both the U.S. and the Russian Federation – demonstrating that those who once were enemies can now work together for the common good. It is the hope of all associated with the ARCA effort that the collaboration can continue and that the Russian isotopes produced for weapons of mass destruction can be converted to instruments of mass benefit. Whither Democracy? Unfortunately, prospects for advancement in other areas of Russian society are not so bright. It is certainly true that, in Moscow at least, business is booming -- attributable in large part to growing energy revenues. New commercial construction and infrastructure projects abound, the retail sector is flourishing, and there is a rising middle class. These apparently liberalizing economic trends are, however, not accompanied by liberalizing democratic trends, in fact, quite the opposite. Many respected civil society and non-governmental organizations whose goal is to promote civic and political engagement and enhance democratic development and the rule of law have been harassed and intimidated by the tax police and other government entities. Some, like Open Russia, have been forced to shut down for alleged violations of finance controls. The three national TV networks are essentially controlled by the Kremlin and much of the print media is controlled by one or another level of government or business interests sympathetic to the government. The Committee to Protect Journalists reports that since the year 2000, fourteen journalists have been murdered in the Russian Federation in retaliation for their professional activities, making Russia the third most dangerous country for journalists (after Iraq and Algeria). None of these killings have been solved, although authorities claim progress in some cases. Among the victims was renowned investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya, murdered gangland-style in Moscow in November 2006. Commission Chairman Congressman Alcee L. Hastings and Co-Chairman Senator Benjamin L. Cardin wrote to President Vladimir Putin in June expressing serious concern about the lack of media freedom in Russia. On August 2, 2007 the Commission convened a hearing on “Freedom of the Media in the OSCE Region,” with a particular focus on developments in Russia, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan and Turkey. The rule of law is under assault in Russia as well. Recently the Prosecutor General in Moscow filed a request with the Moscow Bar Association to disbar Karinna Moskalenko, one of Russia’s most distinguished human rights lawyers. Moskalenko is a member of the International Commission of Jurists and through her Center for International Protection in Moscow has represented, among many others, the family of murdered journalist Anna Politkovskaya, imprisoned Russian oil executive Mikhail Khodorkovsky and political activist Gary Kasparov. In addition to the courts of the Russian Federation, Ms. Moskalenko pursues the interests of her clients before the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in Strasbourg, where she has had many successes – apparently sparking the Kremlin’s ire and, according to some observers, generating the pending disbarment procedure. Commission Chairman Hastings and Ranking Member Congressman Christopher H. Smith joined other members of the Congressional Human Rights Caucus in a May 24, 2007 letter to President Putin urging withdrawal of the disbarment request. Sadly, many observers of civil society and those in the NGO community in Russia see little hope of positive change in this situation in the near term notwithstanding upcoming Russian parliamentary and presidential elections scheduled for December 2007 and March 2008 respectively. The good news is, it does not appear that those who support democratic development in Russia are throwing up their arms in defeat. Rather, they remain steadfast and appear to be girding themselves for the long haul.

  • Activists Present Mixed Assessment of Protection and Promotion of Human Rights in OSCE Region

    By Ronald McNamara, International Policy Director Nearly a hundred human rights advocates representing dozens of NGOs and national human rights institutions gathered in Vienna, July 12-13, 2007, for the Supplementary Human Dimension Meeting on Protection and Promotion of Human Rights convened by the 56-nation Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Discussions were organized around three main topics: the role of national courts in promoting and protecting human rights; the role of civil society in addressing human rights violations; and, the role of national human rights institutions in promoting and protecting human rights. Rooted in the fundamental right of individuals to know and act upon their rights, much of the discussion focused on the legal framework, access to effective remedies when violations occur, and the role of civil society and non-governmental organizations in fostering the protection and promotion of human rights. A recurring critical question throughout the meeting was whether courts, the judiciary, and national human rights institutions are truly independent. Keynote remarks by Professor Vojin Dimitrijevic, Director of the Belgrade Center for Human Rights, revolved around institutional concerns, including the limited development of structures to address human rights violations, significant backlogs in the processing of human rights cases, and inadequate training of jurists and others. He suggested that universities could do much to address the current shortcomings of existing mechanisms. The Director of the OSCE Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, Ambassador Christian Strohal, referred to a related resolution adopted by the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly at its Annual Session held the prior week in Kyiv. A long-time rights advocate, he stressed the importance of prevention of violations, while underscoring the need for effective remedies when rights are violated. Professor Emmanuel Decaux opened the session of national courts by underscoring the fundamental importance of effective remedies and transparency in judicial proceedings. He pointed to the critical need for independent judges as well as protection and preservation of rights amid a heightened focus on counterterrorism. Legal advocates from Georgia and Azerbaijan addressed practical concerns such as transparency in judicial appointments, disciplinary actions against judges, public confidence in the courts, limits on televised coverage of courtroom proceedings, financial independence of the judiciary and combating corruption. Karinna Moskalenko, a leading human rights lawyer from the Russian Federation subjected to intense pressure because of her advocacy, including cases relating to Chechnya, noted the large number of cases from Russia being taken up in Strasbourg at the European Court of Human Rights. Nearly 30,000 complaints from individuals in Russia were submitted to the court between 1998 and 2006. Concern was also raised over the situation in Uzbekistan, where authorities frequently resort to use of Article 165 of the criminal code on extortion to imprison human rights defenders, including 10 members of the Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan. An activist from Kazakhstan said that it simply made no sense to speak of judicial independence in his country. Similarly, an NGO representative from Belarus asserted that whatever independence the judiciary had previously has evaporated under the regime. Others from Ukraine and Georgia bemoaned the slow pace of judicial reforms in their countries. Several speakers noted the failure of governments to change their laws or procedures following repeated judgments against them by the European Court of Human Rights. According to one, the budget of the Russian Federation now includes a line item specifically to cover fines stemming from rulings of the court, while the underlying deficiencies go unchanged. Liubov Vinogradova of the Russian Research Center for Human Rights opened the session devoted to human rights defenders, underscoring the difficult and often dangerous environment for activists in the post-Soviet space. She also pointed to attempts by government to manipulate NGOs, create GONGOs (government non-governmental organizations), and erect potemkin umbrella organizations or councils. Vinogradova cited the urgent need for meaningful judicial reform in her country. She decried efforts by some in Moscow to impede access by plaintiffs from Russia to the court in Strasbourg. She read off a lengthy list of areas where Russia’s 2,000 registered human rights NGOs are making a difference. Among the challenges are limited resources, harassment by the authorities and an often hostile media with close ties to the government. Vinogradova was skeptical about the intent of President Putin’s decree offering funds to NGOs in Russia, suggesting that it could represent an attempt at “managed NGOs.” Several subsequent speakers noted the particular difficulty encountered by those active in the defense of political rights, especially the tendency of the authorities to construe such work as party politics. A number referred to various forms of harassment by the authorities. Activists from Belarus talked about the deteriorating situation they face in a country where human rights defenders are viewed with deep suspicion by the authorities and most are forced to work underground due to a refusal by officials to issue formal registration. Some observed that obstructive methods employed in one country of the Commonwealth of Independent States often are adopted elsewhere, in what one speaker termed the “Putinization” of the former Soviet space. The case of Russian advocate Mikhail Trepashkin was cited as an illustration of what can happen when a lawyer gets involved in a case viewed as sensitive to the authorities. Trepashkin was arrested in 2003, days before a trial was to open relating to an apartment bombing in Moscow in 1999 that then became the basis for the Kremlin’s renewed military campaign in Chechnya. The lawyer was initially detained and charged with illegal possession of weapons, then convicted by a closed military court to four years imprisonment for disclosing state secrets. Other speakers urged the participating States to strengthen OSCE commitments on human rights defenders. The Vienna-based International Helsinki Federation echoed this call, noting the precarious position of activities in many OSCE countries. The IHF recommended focusing on the safety of human rights defenders in the face of harassment and threats and called for the November Madrid OSCE Ministerial Council to approve related language. Irish Human Rights Commission President Dr. Maurice Manning introduced the final session devoted to national human rights institutions. He provided an overview, stressing the importance of the independence of such bodies and adherence to the “Paris Principles.” Manning urged that these institutions be focused and avoid interference from government and non-governmental organizations alike. He suggested that they could play a number of useful purposes such as reviewing pending laws and regulations, assess compliance with standards in individual cases, and help identify systemic areas of concern. He concluded by suggesting that national institutions were ideally situated to serve as a bridge between civil society and the state. The UN Economic and Social Council, beginning in 1960, encouraged the establishment of institutions as a means of encouraging and assisting states with implementation of international human rights commitments. In 1978, the UN issued a series of guidelines on the function and structure of institutions, falling into two main categories: human rights commissions and ombudsman offices. In the early 1990s work was completed on the Paris Principles, addressing the competence and responsibilities of national institutions as well as composition and guarantees of independence and pluralism, and methods of operation. The International Coordinating Committee of National Institutions for the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights oversees accreditation of such bodies based on compliance with the Paris Principles. As of March 2007, 17 national institutions in the OSCE region were deemed fully compliant, five were not fully compliant, and two were non-compliant. Accredited institutions are found in Albania, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Luxembourg, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, and the United Kingdom. Several representatives of ombudsman offices described their activities, including establishment of national hotlines to receive human rights complaints, as well as working relations with courts and prosecutors. The discussions became more animated with exchanges between NGO participants and regime surrogates, notably regarding human rights in Belarus and Kazakhstan. The International Helsinki Federation expressed concern over a number of troubling trends faced by institutions, particularly targeted harassment stemming from their advocacy as well as legal and fiscal barriers to their work. The IHF representative made several concrete recommendations for OSCE, including strengthening relevant commitments, considering establishment of a special representative of the OSCE Chairman in Office on human rights defenders, and enhancing networks between civil society, national institutions and OSCE. The delegation of the Russian Federation used the closing session of the SHDM to renew its objections to allowing the Russian-Chechen Friendship Society to register for the meeting, notwithstanding the fact that the group did not actually attend. While the SHDM was informative and perhaps useful in terms of networking among those attending, the meeting underscored the clear divide between civil society representatives who advocate for human rights and the governments which perceive such work as a threat and thus try to thwart it. Though several heads of delegation from the Permanent Council made cameo appearances at the opening of the meeting, attendance by government delegates was sparse, particularly from countries which limit NGO activities. On the other hand, the theme of the meeting was particularly relevant in light of moves by several participating States, especially Belarus, Russia, Kazakhstan and other CIS countries to control civil society. Not surprisingly, these delegations are working actively behind the scenes to limit OSCE focus on human rights, particularly questions relating to freedom of association and assembly, bedrock commitments for civil society. A disturbing trend is the increasing tendency of several of these participating States to assert “interference in internal affairs” -- a standard ploy during Soviet times – when their rights violations are raised. While in Vienna, it became apparent that efforts are underway to limit NGO participation in OSCE meetings and to find an alternative to the annual Human Dimension Implementation Meeting, the singularly most important opportunity for civil society to engage the participating States and the OSCE. The failure of the Ljubljana and Brussels OSCE Ministerials to adopt proposed texts acknowledging the contribution of civil society and human rights defenders to the Helsinki process – drawn from existing OSCE commitments – clearly illustrates the backsliding of those States that refused to join consensus. Ironically, some participants in the SHDM proposed strengthening commitments on human rights defenders, when the reality is that a number of countries – Russia, Turkmenistan and Belarus among them – would be hard-pressed to agree today to provisions of the Copenhagen Document dating back to 1990! It is incumbent upon those OSCE countries that value the human dimension to resist the push to water down existing commitments or move the discussion of their implementation behind closed doors.

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