Title

Helsinki Commission Chairman Delivers Remarks on Belarus, Ukraine Elections

Chair, U.S. Helsinki Commission
Rep. Christopher H. Smith
Washington, DC
United States
Tuesday, September 28, 2004

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Conference on the Implications of the East European Elections:
Ukraine and Belarus

The Heritage Foundation

Thank you for inviting me to participate in your important and timely session.

Both Ukraine and Belarus face important elections in the coming month.  Both are societies burdened by the Soviet communist legacy of the past.  Both were “Captive Nations” and both, albeit to varying degrees,  are vulnerable to Russia’s political and economic influence, especially  as all too many among the Russian political elite have not yet reconciled themselves to the loss of empire.  Both now border on NATO and the EU.   Both face serious challenges to democracy and Euro-Atlantic integration. There are many other similarities.  There are also important distinctions.

Belarus is ruled by a dictator who controls the levers of power and increasingly all facets ofBelarusian society.  Given the level of control and repression, there are few counterweights to Lukashenka’s rule.  The parliament, the National Assembly lacks real powers and Members have little power to be independent of Lukashenka’s strong-arm tactics.  Civil society, including NGOs and independent media, is under a tight lid.  Fundamentally flawed elections have left that country lacking a legitimate president and legislature.

Ukraine, for all of the backsliding, scandals, and problems with respect to human rights, democracy and the rule of law, has institutions that act at least somewhat as a check on the powers-that-be, despite the ruling regime’s attempts to control and, in some instances, stifle genuine democratic development and civil society.  Civil society is tolerated to a greater extent than in Belarus, and independent media, while under severe pressure, is more widespread.  There are competing centers of power and many diverse economic, political and social interests in Ukraine. 

In the case of Ukraine, despite the progress in many areas since independence, there have been significant problems with respect to implementation of OSCE human dimension commitments, including in the areas of media freedoms, freedom of association and assembly, corruption, the rule of law and elections.  The largest faction in the Rada is that of democratic opposition and presidential candidate Viktor Yushchenko’s Our Ukraine.  The pro-presidential parliamentary majority has disintegrated, with the defection earlier this month of the party led by Rada Speaker Lytvyn.  Genuine political competition exists, and, of course, there is competition among the oligarchs. 

In Belarus, there is only one oligarch.  Although the Kuchma regime might be tempted, thus far, they have not been able to act with the same degree of impunity that Lukashenka exhibits.

International attention is rightly now focused on ensuring free, fair, open and transparent presidential elections on October 31 with a second round likely in late November.  These elections are critically important to the future of Ukraine, yet we see on a daily basis an election campaign that calls into question Ukraine’s commitment to OSCE principles.  Without exaggeration, Ukraine is facing a critical presidential election – a choice not only between Euro-Atlantic integration versus reintegration into the former Soviet Eurasian space, but a choice between further development toward a European-style democracy, such as in Poland or Hungary,  versus the increasingly authoritarian system that prevails in Russia today.

Many analysts and organizations, including the Helsinki Commission, have chronicled the numerous election campaign violations taking place inUkraine.  We continue to maintain our strong interest and concern.  Along with Chairman Henry Hyde, I joined him in introducing H.Con.Res. 415, calling on the Government of Ukraine to ensure a democratic, transparent, and fair election process for the presidential campaign.  We make clear the expectation that Ukrainian authorities should – consistent with their own laws and international agreements – ensure an election process that enables all of the candidates to compete on a level playing field.   We urge the Ukrainian Government to guarantee freedom of association and assembly, ensure full transparency of the election process, free access for Ukrainian and international election observers, and unimpeded access by all candidates to the media on a non-discriminatory basis.

Unfortunately, the pre-election environment in Ukraine gives great cause for concern.  Ukrainian voters clearly are not receiving balanced and objective information about all the candidates in the race, independent media providing Ukrainians with objective information about the campaign – including channel 5 – is being shut down in the regions, and journalists who don’t follow the infamous secret instructions from the presidential administration, or temnyky, are harassed and even fired.  Ukraine’s state-owned television channels are blatantly anti-Yushchenko. 

Given the stakes in these elections, we should not be surprised that the ruling regime has launched an all-out campaign against the free media and against the opposition, the most recent of numerous examples being the highly suspicious poisoning of Victor Yushchenko.  To its credit, the Rada last week overwhelmingly approved a resolution creating a special commission to investigate this alleged assassination attempt.  We will be eager to see if the investigation will get underway.  Four years have passed since the killing of independent journalist Georgi Gongadze, and the case remains unresolved.  As you know, Gongadze was bravely exposing high-level corruption in Ukraine.

The Rada has also created an ad-hoc committee to monitor the upcoming election.  Prime Minister Yanukovych, the presidential candidate of the ruling regime, instead of welcoming this move, called the Rada move “disloyal”.  This speaks volumes.  

The independence exhibited by the Rada in Ukraine would be unthinkable in Belarus.  There, serious and persistent violations have been committed in most human dimension areas, including freedom of speech, association and assembly, media freedoms, religious liberties, elections and the rule of law.  Thanks to Lukashenka’s iron rule, Belarus has the worst human rights record in Europe today, although Russia under the increasingly authoritarian rule of President Putin appears to be catching up, and, perhaps, even emulating Mr. Lukashenka. 

Regrettably, the Belarusian authorities have disregarded the four democratic benchmarks established by the OSCE in 2000 – ending repressions and the climate of fear, permitting a functioning independent media, ensuring transparency of the elections process, and strengthening the functions of parliament. Lukashenka has flaunted shamelessly his 1999 Istanbul OSCE Summit declaration commitments for a political dialogue, with OSCE participation which stressed the necessity of removing "all remaining obstacles in Belarus to this dialogue by respecting the principles of the rule of law and the freedom of the media.” Lukashenka has pointedly ignored this commitment and the situation with respect to the rule of law and media freedoms has only continued its steady deterioration. 

At the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly meeting in Bucharest in 2000, I offered language to continue to deny the seating of the illegitimate Lukashenka parliament.  We won.  I continued to fight this battle until 2003, when the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly abandoned this position and seated the Members of the National Assembly.  Since that time, I’ve continued to be an outspoken critic of the dismal human rights record of the Lukashenka regime.

Parliamentary elections are scheduled in Belarus for October 17, and they now have an added dimension, with Lukashenka’s September 7 announcement of a referendum that would pave the way to extend his rule beyond 2006, when his ten-year tenure is due to expire, to potentially join the ranks of “presidents for life,” like President Niyazov in Turkmenistan and others in Central Asia.   The fact that, according to the Belarusian electoral code, a referendum cannot contain any questions related to presidential elections will certainly not deter him.  Interestingly, opinion polls suggest that most Belarusians are against extending Lukashenka’s rule, and the threshold for passage of the referendum is high, as at least 50 percent of all eligible voters – and not merely those casting ballots – have to vote “yes” for the referendum to pass.  We will see how they manipulate that one.

Nevertheless, to say that the deck is stacked in favor of Lukashenka is an understatement.   The Belarusian Government has almost total control over the electoral process and considerable experience in conducting elections that, to put it mildly, do not meet international democratic standards.  For example, opposition parties have been allocated a mere two percent of seats on the district election commissions, and an appalling 0.2 percent of the 7,000 precinct commissions.  One-third of the candidates proposed by Belarusian opposition parties were reportedly denied registration.

Ladies and gentlemen, to their credit, Belarus’ repressed and embattled opposition and NGOs have not yet given up.  We need to continue to support these brave men and women and all those struggling for democracy and human rights in Belarus.  I am the sponsor of the BelarusDemocracy Act, which is waiting for consideration by the full House.  The BDA is intended to promote democracy, human rights and rule of law inBelarus, including assistance for democracy building activities such as support for NGOs, independent media, international exchanges and international broadcasting. 

We want to stand firmly on the side of those who long for freedom.  As President Bush noted at Madison Square Garden earlier this month [on September 2], “The story of America is the story of expanding liberty:  an ever-widening circle, constantly growing to reach further and include more. Our nation’s founding commitment is still our deepest commitment:  In our world, and here at home, we will extend the frontiers of freedom.”

We are eager to have governments and parliaments in both countries with whom we can join forces to combat the scourges of our day, such as human trafficking, HIV/AIDS which has reportedly infected one percent of Ukraine’s population, or corruption and cooperation on movement towards common security and Euro-Atlantic integration.  We know that hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian and Belarusian women and children have been trafficked mostly to Europe and the Middle East over the course of the last decade.  The problem is especially acute in Ukraine – one of the largest source countries in Europe.  Ukraine is also a major transit country.  Both Ukraine and Belarus have been designated in the most recent State Department report as Tier II countries (there are three tiers), meaning that these governments do not yet fully comply with minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking, but is making significant efforts to do so. 

As the lead author of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act and its reauthorization which became law in 2003, I am pleased that our government, the OSCE and other international organizations and NGOs are devoting resources to combat this modern day slavery, but much more remains to be done.

For both Ukraine and Belarus, the best guarantee for their survival as independent countries is the full establishment of democracy, human rights and the rule of law, including, very importantly, democratic elections.  In short, the best guarantee is their implementation of commitments both nations freely undertook when they joined the OSCE.  Standing in solidarity with the courageous pro-democracy in both countries and with the people of Belarusand Ukraine, we must continue to encourage compliance with these commitments.

END REMARKS

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    Today, Helsinki Commissioners Steve Cohen, Joe Wilson, Marc Veasey,  Richard Hudson, Ruben Gallego and Brian Fitzpatrick along with Representatives Ted Lieu, Maria Salazar and Marcy Kaptur, re-introduced the Holding Accountable Russian Mercenaries (HARM) Act in the House of Representatives, bipartisan legislation that would require the Secretary of State to designate the Russian-based mercenary Wagner Group as a foreign terrorist organization (FTO).  The Commission applauds this vital piece of legislation to hold Wagner accountable for the terror it inflicts in Ukraine and elsewhere.  For more information click here.   The HARM Act was first introduced in the last Congress by Helsinki Commission Chair Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) and Ranking Member Roger Wicker (MI), along with companion legislation in the House of Representatives led by Reps. Steve Cohen and Joe Wilson, Richard Hudson, and Marc Veasey.

  • Bipartisan reps introduce bill to designate Russia’s Wagner Group as foreign terrorists

    A bipartisan group of House lawmakers introduced legislation on Wednesday to designate Russian mercenary company Wagner Group as a foreign terrorist organization (FTO). The Holding Accountable Russian Mercenaries (HARM) Act, sponsored by nine members of the lower chamber, would require the State Department to designate the Wagner Group an FTO within 90 days of becoming law. The lawmakers cited the paramilitary company’s history of human rights violations in Africa and ongoing deployment of private soldiers in Ukraine to fight with Russia, adding that the Wagner Group has received weapons from North Korea, a U.S.-designated state sponsor of terrorism. “Where the Wagner Group operates, atrocities follow,” said Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) in a statement. “The HARM Act will identify Putin’s private mercenary group as a Foreign Terrorist Organization and let the world know that its activities are both malign and illegal.” The Biden administration designated the Wagner Group as a transnational criminal organization last week and announced countries and entities supporting it would run afoul of the U.S. government. But an FTO designation would authorize the U.S. to slap criminal penalties on entities supporting Wagner Group, according to the lawmakers sponsoring the HARM Act. Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) said in a statement the Biden administration’s designation “does not go far enough” against Wagner, adding it should use the FTO label to “expose them in their true state as a murderous, criminal enterprise.” “The Wagner Group has been engaging in nefarious atrocities around the globe, all at the behest of war criminal Putin and his cronies,” Wilson said. Legislation to designate the Wagner Group an FTO was also introduced last year in both the House and Senate. There was a standoff between the Biden administration and some U.S. lawmakers last year over designating Russia as a state sponsor of terrorism. The administration said the designation, which comes with a raft of restrictions and penalties, could do more harm than good for Ukraine. Yevgeny Prigozhin, a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, formed the Wagner Group in 2014. The mercenary outfit has since meddled in conflicts across the world, from Africa to Syria and now Ukraine, where Wagner forces are fighting alongside Russian soldiers in the eastern Donetsk region. DOJ disrupts global ransomware gangTop FDA safety official resigns In November, the European Parliament passed a resolution urging the European Council to adopt a measure that would place Wagner Group on an EU terrorist list. Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.), who is vying for a Senate seat in 2024, also sponsored the HARM Act and called for “rebuking mercenary terrorist organizations like the Wagner Group.” “While Ukrainians stand up for freedom and democracy, the Wagner Group stands with authoritarian regimes like Russia,” Gallego said in a statement. “Declaring them a Foreign Terrorist Organization is a commonsense step to hold them accountable for their atrocities in Ukraine and across the globe.”

  • Standing with Russia, or staying silent, protects genocide

    This month, in a unanimous vote, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee passed Senate Resolution 713, which correctly identifies and designates Russian atrocities in Ukraine as genocide. Led by Ranking Member Sen. Jim Risch (R-Idaho) and Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), the resolution looks poised to pass the Senate, sending a clear message to the world where the United States stands during this moment of supreme moral urgency. This resolution, and its companion in the House, brings clarity and attention to Russia’s genocide in Ukraine. Every day seems to bring fresh, compounding evidence of Russia’s genocidal intent and patterns of action — mass graves and torture chambers that seem to pockmark every liberated territory; homes, schools, hospitals and kindergartens repeatedly and deliberately targeted by Russian firepower; civilians, including children and infants, kidnapped and herded into Russian so-called “filtration” concentration camps, where they are sorted for either Russification or the gulag or worse; and flagrant attacks against refugee and humanitarian convoys.  If you care to look, these images repeat themselves throughout Ukraine, and it is as safe a bet as any that newly liberated areas will bear the blistering scars of this genocide. Sure enough, mass graves and torture chambers have been identified in recently liberated Mykolaiv and Kherson, including an archipelago of torture sites specifically for children. This is the apogee of depravity. The physical evidence is shocking enough, but the Russian government’s very public embrace of a campaign of terror and genocide is incredible to behold. The summer before the invasion, Russian dictator Vladimir Putin penned, by his own hand, a 7,000-word ahistorical screed denying the existence of Ukraine as a state and a nation, highlighting his eliminationist agenda for all the world to see. And even since then, Russian government figures at every level have repeated this noxious and ridiculous denial of Ukrainian nationality, deliberately dehumanizing and mass violence-encouraging rhetoric about “denazification,” and outright, even gleeful, calls for mass killing and destruction. The official state mouthpiece, RIA Novosti, even published in April a detailed plan laying out the intended destruction of the Ukrainian nation. What is striking about this genocide is perhaps the clarity and openness by which it has been prosecuted. And the pattern of action is startlingly predictable; not just in Ukraine, but also in Russia’s past colonial wars in Syria, Georgia and Chechnya, where ethnic cleansing, deliberate and widespread targeting of civilians, torture and rape were employed widely and purposefully as rote tools of Russian warfare. So, what can we do about it? For one, we can and should give Ukraine every tool that it needs to win its war against Russia’s genocidal war of imperial conquest. The faster Russia loses — and lose it must — the faster its genocidal program is halted. But also crucially, Congress, the U.S. government, and the world must be willing to call this genocide for what it is. In June, our co-chairman, Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.), and Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) introduced House Resolution 1205, which later would be introduced in the Senate as S. Res.713. Both resolutions draw on the definition of genocide in the 1948 United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide, to which the U.S. and Russia are both parties and which is codified in U.S. law.  The bill text illustrates how, as is well documented, Russia’s actions in Ukraine exhibits both genocidal intent and pattern of action along all of the Convention’s five acts in Article 2: (a) Killing members of the group; (b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; (c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; (d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; and (e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group. Only one must be in evidence for genocide to exist. But what can a nonbinding resolution do? In this case, speaking out is more than some mere symbol. Ukraine’s war for its homeland is being won not because of Ukrainian material superiority, but because of the justness of its cause and the morale of its people. For the United States to officially recognize the extent of Russia’s horrors is tremendously meaningful to Ukraine and Ukrainians who still, despite their victories, endure the unendurable. Around the world, such a designation also demonstrates that we do not tolerate such heinous crimes. Calling out Russia’s genocide demonstrates the gravity of the stakes not only for Ukraine and Europe, but for global peace and stability. It can marshal further support for Kyiv, help sap Moscow’s fraying relationships, and further isolate this repugnant, totalitarian regime in the Kremlin. If you stand with Russia, or stand silent, you protect genocide. And here at home, these bipartisan, bicameral resolutions can help signal to the American people the true stakes in Ukraine. That Europe’s security, and the principles that undergird it, is a bulwark for freedom around the world and under great threat by a regime that purposefully and unflinchingly engages in genocide for its own imperial, corrupt ends. It is important to emphasize, too, that the 1948 Genocide Convention is about not only punishing genocide, but preventing it, and if we are to be true to our collective commitment to “never again,” we must act now. Of course, the ongoing legal investigations remain important and authoritative. But in the interest of prevention, a political declaration and congressional action is not only justifiable but essential. Congress, particularly Reps. Cohen and Wilson in the House, and Sens. Risch and Cardin in the Senate, should be applauded for their leadership. And the Senate, particularly Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), should be credited for bringing this resolution to fruition. Hopefully the House will do the same, in this Congress or the next, inspire the whole world to speak out as well — just as we were inspired by similar legislative actions in Ukraine, Poland, the Baltic states, the Czech Republic, Canada and Ireland.  Michael Hikari Cecire is a senior policy adviser at the U.S. Helsinki Commission. Follow him on Twitter @mhikaric. https://thehill.com/opinion/national-security/3780873-standing-with-russia-or-staying-silent-protects-genocide/

  • Saving Ukraine's Children

    Ukraine’s children are suffering serious injury and trauma due to Russia’s genocidal war on Ukraine. Almost two-thirds of the country’s children have been displaced. Thousands have been injured and, although UNICEF has said more than 1,000 children have been killed, that number is likely much higher as there is no reliable way to verify how many civilians have been killed in the most decimated areas of Ukraine, like Mariupol, where, for example, Russian forces bombed a theater housing hundreds of civilians despite clear markings that children were present. And in addition to its immediate danger, the effects of war on children could have lasting consequences. Many Ukrainian children have witnessed unimaginable violence, including the murders of their own parents or family members. They have had to endure the stress of almost constant bombardment, in fear for their safety. Others have experienced hunger, cold, and weeks spent hiding in wet, frigid basements without daylight or fresh air and without sanitation or healthcare. Disruptions to education may never be fully recovered. Ukrainian children are also being forcibly taken to Russia and put up for adoption into Russian families in an apparent effort to assimilate them, a practice that genocide scholar Timothy Snyder has said could be considered genocide under the 1948 Genocide Convention. The U.S. State Department has said Russian authorities have deliberately separated Ukrainian children from their parents during so-called “filtration” procedures and abducted others from orphanages before putting them up for adoption inside Russia and estimated that the number may be as high as 260,000. Unaccompanied minors are also vulnerable to falling prey to human trafficking.

  • Ukrainian official rips Russia for ‘kidnapping’ more than 13,000 children

    A Ukrainian official slammed Russia for “kidnapping” more than 13,000 Ukrainian children amid its invasion of the country “under the guise of an alleged evacuation,” during a hearing held by the U.S. Helsinki Commission on Wednesday.  Nikolay Kuleba, the commissioner for children’s rights in the Ukrainian president’s office and co-founder of the Alliance for Ukraine Without Orphans, said Russia has deported 13,124 children during the war, citing a government portal.  He also noted that Russian state media had reported a “horrifying number of 712,000 deported Ukranian children.”  “The occupiers are kidnapping Ukrainian children to the Russian Federation,” he told lawmakers, accusing Russia of facilitating the deportations by simplifying their adoption process and bribing Russian citizens to adopt displaced Ukrainian children.   “To encourage ordinary Russian to adopt forcibly removed children they offer a one-time payment of maternity capital and state aide,” Kuleba said, adding adoptive parents were paid $300 per year for each child, and about $2,000 a year for children with disabilities. He also noted the Ukrainian children were not being deported into border territories but to areas of Russia further away from the border.   “The Russian authorities made a conscious decision to resettle deported children into the territories thousands of kilometers away from Ukraine,” he said.    Kuleba also claimed that Russian adopters were allowed to change an adopted Ukrainian child’s name and date of birth. “This means that it will be very difficult for us to personally find and identify our children in the future,” he said.   Kuleba said that there were several reasons Russia was stealing Ukrainian children, including making up for the demographic losses caused by Russian casualties in the invasion. He also said the Kremlin was pushing propaganda that Russians are saving the children from Ukrainian Nazis.   James Gordon, founder of The Center for Mind-Body Medicine, told the commission that roughly 60 percent of Ukrainian children had been displaced from their homes since the conflict with Russia began, and that these children were highly distressed.  “Every child in Ukraine and all Ukrainian children who have left, are experiencing some level of distress,” Gordon said.  In addition to kidnapping, Kuleba said he had recently received reports from the Ukrainian Parliament’s Commissioner for Human Rights that Russians were torturing Ukranian children, “and have even set up separate torture chambers for this.” The Hill reached out to the Russian Embassy for a response to Kuleba’s claims.

  • No Safe Haven: Launching the US-Europe Coalition on Russia Sanctions

    Since February 24, 2022, Western countries have imposed sanctions against Russian officials, businessmen, and public figures who support Russian aggression against Ukraine by financial or political means. Personal sanctions have been effective in creating tension between Putin’s proponents and continuing to help Ukraine fight for its independence. The biggest issue of personal sanctions policy is desynchronization among the countries imposing them. For example, when the United States enacts sanctions against politicians, public officials, and businessmen who support Russia’s war, the European Union and the United Kingdom do not. A similar dysfunction occurs when the European Union and Great Britain enforce sanctions on individuals without equal participation from the United States. The unity of the West in imposing sanctions on those driving Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine is essential for Ukrainian victory. This public briefing united seven legislators from the United States, Ukraine, United Kingdom, Lithuania, Estonia, and Poland. The panelists will announce the creation of the US-Europe Coalition on Russia Sanctions, which will synchronize the sanctions policy between the European Union, Ukraine, and the USA.

  • Helsinki Commission Announces Briefing on US-Europe Coalition for Russia Sanctions

    WASHINGTON—At a virtual kickoff event on December 13, Co-Chairman Cohen and Ranking Member Wilson launched the US-Europe Coalition on Russia Sanctions.   NO SAFE HAVEN Launching the US-Europe Coalition on Russia Sanctions   Tuesday, December 13, 2022 8:30 a.m. EST   Since February 24, 2022, Western countries have imposed sanctions against Russian officials, businessmen, and public figures who support Russian aggression against Ukraine by financial or political means. Personal sanctions have been effective in creating tension between Putin’s proponents and continuing to help Ukraine fight for its independence. The biggest issue of personal sanctions policy is desynchronization among the countries imposing them. For example, when the United States enacts sanctions against politicians, public officials, and businessmen who support Russia’s war, the European Union and the United Kingdom do not. A similar dysfunction occurs when the European Union and Great Britain enforce sanctions on individuals without equal participation from the United States. The unity of the West in imposing sanctions on those driving Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine is essential for Ukrainian victory. This public briefing will unite seven legislators from the United States, Ukraine, United Kingdom, Lithuania, Estonia, and Poland. The panelists will announce the creation of the US-Europe Coalition on Russia Sanctions, which will synchronize the sanctions policy between the European Union, Ukraine, and the USA. The following panelists are scheduled to participate:   Representative Steve Cohen — Member of Congress, Co-Chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, United States Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson — Member of Congress, Commissioner of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, United States Member of Parliament Oleksii Goncharenko — Chairman of the Ukrainian parliament caucuses "For free Caucasus" and "For democratic Belarus", Ukraine Member of Parliament Dr. Robert Seely, MBE — British Conservative Party politician who has served as the Member of Parliament (MP) for the Isle of Wight since June 2017. Member of Parliament Eerik Kross — head of the Estonian delegation in PACE, Estonia Member of the EU Parliament Petras Austrevicius — serves on the Committee on Foreign Affairs, Lithuania Member of the Sejm Arkadius Mularczyk — Secretary of State for European Affairs, Leader of the Polish delegation to the Council of Europe, Poland    

  • OSCE’s 2022 Ministerial Council in Lodz: Russia Isolated as States Demand Accountability and Reaffirm Commitments

    By Janice Helwig, Senior Policy Advisor, Demitra Pappas, Senior Advisor Department of State, Shannon Simrell, Representative of the Helsinki Commission to the U.S. Mission to OSCE   Foreign Ministers and senior officials from the 57 participating States and 11 Asian and Mediterranean partners of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) convened the OSCE Ministerial Council in Lodz, Poland on December 1-2. While the OSCE Ministerial is held annually, this year’s meeting was atypical, due to its taking place amid the greatest crisis in European security since World War II, namely Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. States Accuse Russia and Belarus of Violating Principles, Stand with Ukraine Polish-Chairman-in-Office, Foreign Minister Zbigniew Rau in his opening remarks pointedly blamed Russia for destroying the security order and attempting to undermine the Organization. Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February, abetted by Belarus, violated each of the politico-military, democratic, human rights, and economic and environmental commitments enshrined in the 1975 Helsinki Final Act, an agreement that underpinned European security for nearly 50 years. Most fundamentally, the Lodz Ministerial underscored participating States’ desire to return to the founding principles of the OSCE - the Helsinki Final Act – and to call out Russia’s violation of each. Participating State after participating State took the floor to reaffirm their OSCE commitments and to call Russia to account.  Russia was entirely isolated, with only Belarus attempting, pathetically, to deflect blame on others for “corroding” the spirit of Helsinki. At each instance, participating States overwhelmingly reaffirmed their support for OSCE principles and denounced Russia’s war of aggression on Ukraine, declared solidarity with Ukraine, and demanded accountability for war crimes, the crime of aggression, and violations of international humanitarian law. Participating States also voiced strong support for the work of the OSCE’s autonomous institutions, including the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights and the Representative of the Freedom of the Media in particular, whose mandates and funding are often in Russia’s crosshairs. Many participating States also noted the importance of the three “Moscow Mechanism” reports issued this past year to document Russia’s violations of international humanitarian law in Ukraine and its repression of human rights at home. A joint statement delivered by Finland on behalf of 42 other participating States condemned Russia’s atrocities in Ukraine and called for perpetrators to be held accountable. OSCE Parliamentary Assembly President Margareta Cederfelt advocated establishing a high-level body to assess reparations from Russia. Two other aspects of the Ministerial were unique. Absent were the annual negotiations among participating States on decisions designed to enhance existing commitments on cooperative security, which the Polish Chair assessed as unfeasible due to Russian intransigence. Also absent was Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov, against whom Poland took a principled stand to exclude from attending. OSCE Continued Work in 2022, Despite Russia’s Objections States also used their interventions to welcome OSCE’s development of new approaches in 2022 with regard to sustaining its human rights work and presence in Ukraine to overcome Russia’s attempts to undermine the Organization.  In the years leading up to the Ministerial, Russia had increased its abuse of OSCE’s consensus-decision making to block the Organization’s budget, to close OSCE’s three field missions in Ukraine, and to prevent the convening of OSCE’s signature, annual human rights conference, the Human Dimension Implementation Meeting (HDIM). Yet despite its concerted efforts, Russia failed to block OSCE’s human rights work or eradicate its work in Ukraine. “On the contrary,” as U.S. delegation head, Undersecretary of State Victoria Nuland observed in Lodz, the OSCE “has said no to Moscow’s efforts to divide it, to paralyze it, to destroy it.” Nuland added, the Organization has emerged “even stronger, more flexible, more resilient” under Poland’s stewardship and that of Secretary General Helga Maria Schmid.   After Russia blocked the HDIM, the Polish Chairmanship convened the Warsaw Human Dimension Conference (WHDC) in September, conducting a full review of human rights commitments with the participation of more than one thousand governmental and civil society representatives in attendance. In November, the Secretariat stood up a donor-funded “Support Programme Ukraine” which reestablished an OSCE presence in the country. These are examples of how the OSCE has continued to promote Helsinki principles and deliver programming in spite of Russia’s attempts to undermine it. Side Events, Civil Society Parallel Conference Seek to Close Russia’s “Accountability Gap” A range of side events amplified concerns of participating States and civil society regarding the terrible human toll of Russia’s war and the need for accountability. The first side event explored the increased risk of human trafficking among Ukrainian citizens fleeing the conflict and the illegal abduction and forced adoption of Ukrainian children in Russia. The establishment of a Group of Friends on Children in Armed Conflict was also announced. A side event moderated by Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba outlined various means to hold Russia accountable for atrocities committed in Ukraine, including providing support to the Ukrainian Prosecutor General’s Office and to the International Criminal Court through the collection evidence of crimes and aiding in investigations. Minister Kuleba strongly advocated for the establishment of a Special Tribunal to prosecute Russia’s crime of aggression and received broad support. An event featuring Belarusian opposition leader, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya and other activists drew renewed attention to the plight of thousands of political prisoners in Belarus and called for the invocation of another Moscow Mechanism report to document ongoing human rights violations by the government of Belarus. Civic Solidarity Platform (CSP), a regional association of human rights civil society organizations, hosted its annual Parallel Civil Society Conference on November 30 which likewise called on participating States to ensure accountability for perpetrators of war crimes and other atrocities in Ukraine.  In response to CSP’s long-standing call for closer collaboration between the OSCE and civil society, North Macedonia, which assumes the Chairmanship of OSCE in 2023, committed to appoint a Special Representative on Civil Society Organizations. Looking Ahead to 2023: North Macedonia Despite Russia’s isolation, its war against Ukraine continues even as Poland plans to pass the leadership of the Organization to North Macedonia as of January 1, 2023. As the incoming Chairman-in-Office, Foreign Minister Bujar Osmani pledged that North Macedonia’s tenure “will be guided by strict observance of OSCE principles and commitments.” He further stressed the cooperative nature of regional security, noting, “Safeguarding OSCE values and respect for international law must be a shared priority. This is of utmost importance. Rebuilding trust and engaging in meaningful dialogue presupposes full compliance with the agreed OSCE commitments and principles. We all have to be accountable for our actions. This is the formula for the way forward.”     

  • Helsinki Commission Announces Hearing on Crowdsourcing Victory for Ukraine

      WATCH LIVE                                                                                                                                  CROWDSOURCING VICTORY Inside the Civil Society Campaign to Improve the Lethality and Survivability of the Ukrainian Military   Wednesday, December 7, 2022 2:30 p.m. Dirksen Senate Office Building Room 562 A unique aspect of Ukraine’s decentralized defense has been the rise of civil society organizations marshalling grassroots support for the Ukrainian war effort and humanitarian response. Unlike the USO or care packages Americans send our overseas troops, NGOs are effectively serving as the quartermaster for Ukraine’s troops, supplying tactical gear such as commercial drones, night and thermal vision optics, encrypted radios, and body armor. In many cases, these organizations have supplied this war-winning gear in greater volumes than Ukraine’s government itself, freeing agencies like the Ministry of Defense to focus on securing advanced weapons systems from Western suppliers. These civil society organizations exemplify the total mobilization of Ukrainian society at levels that have only been seen in the West during the Second World War. The hearing will examine logistical and regulatory challenges that often stymie efforts to surge needed gear to the front and will identify policy options for Washington and Brussels to declutter and harmonize an export framework that was never intended for a massive land war in Europe. It will also seek to answer the question of why frontline units with advanced Western weaponry still lack battlefield essentials such as combat optics, secure communications, and vehicles needed to transport casualties from the red zone to hospitals in the rear. The following witnesses are scheduled to testify: Dora Chomiak, President of U.S.-based NGO Razom for Ukraine Taras Chmut, Director of the Ukraine-based foundation Come Back Alive Serhiy Prytula, Founder and Chairman of the Ukraine-based Prytula Charity Foundation   Jonas Öhman, Founder and Head of the Lithuania-based NGO Blue/Yellow for Ukraine    

  • Crowdsourcing Victory

            A unique aspect of Ukraine’s decentralized defense has been the rise of civil society organizations marshalling grassroots support for the Ukrainian war effort and humanitarian response. Unlike the USO or care packages Americans send our overseas troops, NGOs are effectively serving as the quartermaster for Ukraine’s troops, supplying tactical gear such as commercial drones, night and thermal vision optics, encrypted radios, and body armor. In many cases, these organizations have supplied this war-winning gear in greater volumes than Ukraine’s government itself, freeing agencies like the Ministry of Defense to focus on securing advanced weapons systems from Western suppliers. These civil society organizations exemplify the total mobilization of Ukrainian society at levels that have only been seen in the West during the Second World War. In this hearing, a number of witnesses testified to the logistical and regulatory challenges that often stymie efforts to surge needed gear to the front. Testimony also answered the questions of why frontline units with advanced Western weaponry still lack battlefield essentials such as combat optics, secure communications, and vehicles needed to transport casualties from the red zone to hospitals in the rear. Dora Chomiak, President of U.S.-based NGO Razom for Ukraine, spoke about the dangerous conditions her organization’s truck drivers face when delivering much needed equipment and humanitarian assistance to the front lines. She also highlighted Razom’s successful projects, which include the Bohdan Radchenko Stipend for Veterans, a medical mission in Ukraine from September 16-24th, a toy drive for displaced orphans and families, and the “Razom with You” program that supports those in need of psychological help. Taras Chmut, Director of the Ukraine-based foundation Come Back Alive, discussed the need for the United States to remove Ukraine from the “Crime Control” column of the Commerce Control List. His organization is the first charity organization in Ukraine that received a license for the purchase and import of military and dual-purpose goods. In order to function efficiently, Chmut requests the United States to revise their export framework, which was never intended for a massive land war in Europe. Serhiy Prytula, Founder and Chairman of the Ukraine-based Prytula Charity Foundation, also spoke up to thank the United States for its continued support. The Prytula Foundation has raised more than $85 million for the Ukrainian army, and is a true representation of how military and civil society have cooperated against the brutal and unjustified actions of Russia. Prytula advocated next steps; specifically, investigating Russian war crimes, designating Russia as a state sponsor of terrorism, and removing Russia from the UN Security Council. Jonas Öhman, Founder and Head of the Lithuania-based NGO Blue/Yellow for Ukraine, discussed the critical role of civil society within the defenses of Ukraine. He encouraged Congress to pass relevant legislation regarding the import of dual-use items in order to create necessary opportunities for trusted civil society actors to become more efficient in joint defense efforts.

  • Helsinki Commission Announces Briefing on Russia's Infrastructure Terrorists

                 HELSINKI COMMISSION          COMMISSION BRIEFING NOTICE Members of the Commission and their staff are respectfully invited to attend the following Commission staff-led briefing: RUSSIA’S INFRASTRUCTURE TERRORISTS Thursday, December 8, 2022 3:30 p.m. Please Register Here Russia, in its brutal war against Ukrainians, has been ruthlessly and methodically targeting Ukraine’s critical infrastructure and other civilian objects, plunging millions of Ukrainians, including children and the elderly, into darkness and cold. Schools, hospitals, maternity wards, and kindergartens have not been able to function. And while there are no reliable estimates on the number of civilian deaths that may be attributed to this infrastructure terrorism, it’s clear Russia is targeting infrastructure to maximize pain to civilians and damage their property. As a prominent Russian propaganda channel sickeningly put it, “… it is difficult to believe in victory when funerals come to your own friends, and you yourself are without light, heat and water, going to bathroom in a bucket.”  Russia’s goal is to demoralize and terrorize Ukrainians which is a crime against humanity under international humanitarian law. Ukrainians have responded to this terror with heroic efforts to restore power grid, water, and heating to as many citizens as possible as fast as possible. However, Russia’s attacks continue and the Ukrainian grid teeters on the brink of failure under stresses no civilian power was ever designed to withstand. This briefing will examine the extent of damage to critical infrastructure, the toll in human suffering, and what the United States can do to help Ukrainians survive this cruel winter. The following panelist is scheduled to participate: The Honorable Oleksandra Azarkhina, Deputy Minister of Infrastructure of Ukraine

  • The Case for Getting Tough on Hungary

    Sixty-six years ago, ordinary Hungarians bravely stood up to Moscow’s empire of oppression. Yet, on its anniversary, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán took aim at Europe, a curious choice given Russia’s imperialist war against Ukraine right at Hungary’s doorstep. “Let’s not bother with those who shoot at Hungary from the shadows or from the heights of Brussels. They will end up where their predecessors did,” Orbán told crowds in Western Hungary last Sunday. Since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, European solidarity and the transatlantic alliance have been put to the ultimate test. Amid the horrors of Russia’s genocidal war, many nations have risen to the occasion. But Hungary’s Orbán has shown his stripes: He has openly aligned himself with Vladimir Putin, and his government has demonstrated itself as an unreliable partner to the West, even as it happily avails itself of the West’s military protection and economic might. In March, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky made a direct appeal to Orbán in front of European Union leaders, saying, “You hesitate whether to impose sanctions or not? You hesitate whether to let weapons through or not? And you hesitate whether to trade with Russia or not? It’s time to decide already.” Since then, Orbán has given Zelensky his answer: On every count, Hungary stands with Russia. A member of NATO since 1999, and the EU since 2004, Hungary has bitterly opposed stronger Western sanctions against Russia, strengthened energy ties with Russia, banned lethal aid from passing through its territory to Ukraine, and is dragging its feet on NATO expansion to Finland and Sweden — the only NATO ally aside from Turkey to do so. Even more glaringly, Orbán has publicly blamed the West for provoking Russia’s actions in Ukraine, an utterly indefensible position given the genocidal war Russia has waged without provocation. In a July 23 speech, Orbán told a Hungarian-minority audience in Romania that his Russian counterpart’s justification for the war in Ukraine “does make sense, and it is worth taking seriously.” In the same speech, he made abject claims that Ukraine cannot win the war; that NATO expansion is to blame for Russian aggression; that the United States is using energy as a foreign policy weapon; and that Russia will continue to push the front line as long as NATO countries supply heavy weapons to Ukraine. Hungary’s defense of Russia’s brutal repression abroad is a natural extension of its growing authoritarianism at home. Orbán has transformed Hungary into an illiberal autocracy. Fidesz, the country’s ruling party, has systematically eroded democratic freedoms in Hungary since it came to power in 2010. Orbán has manipulated election laws to benefit Fidesz, packed the Constitutional Court with cronies, and consolidated media control to amplify his party’s propaganda. Civil society is unable to function freely due to restrictive laws, and many individuals and groups are subject to smear campaigns. It’s time to get tough on Hungary.  Hungary has caused a fracture in NATO’s united front against Russia, which is a grave security and credibility risk for the organization. Hungary acts as Russia’s best advocate in Europe with impunity, which not only undermines transatlantic unity, but signals NATO weakness. As a result, members of the alliance should consider downgrading relations with Hungary, especially since NATO is founded on the principles of “democracy, individual liberty and the rule of law,” principles that Orbán has been intentionally eroding. Bilaterally, the United States cannot sit back silently while a NATO ally aligns itself with Putin’s Russia under thinly-veiled claims of “neutrality,” and simultaneously dismantles democracy domestically. It is important that the United States speaks with a united voice — Democrats and Republicans alike — to condemn Hungary’s allegiance to Russia. We should ramp up support for independent journalism and civil society in Hungary, as well as consider other tools to limit our economic investment and military partnership with Hungary if the government’s belligerence continues. The United States has leverage, and we should demand better from a NATO ally. Jordan Warlick is a policy adviser for the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (U.S. Helsinki Commission). Follow her on Twitter @jvcwarlick.

  • Helsinki Commission Briefing on Russia's Genocide in Ukraine

        Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Rep Steve Cohen joined a panel of four experts moderated by Helsinki Commission Senior Policy Advisor Michael Cecire to discuss Russia’s genocide in Ukraine. The four panelists included Dr. Timothy Snyder, Richard C. Levin Professor of History at Yale University; Ms. Maria Kurinna, Ukrainian human rights activist and international advocacy advisor at ZMINA; Dr. Eugene Finkel, Kenneth H. Keller Associate Professor of International Affairs at Johns Hopkins University; and Dr. Erin Rosenberg, Senior Legal Advisor, Mukwege Foundation; Visiting Scholar, Urban Morgan Institute for Human Rights. The panelists unanimously agreed that Russia's  invasion of Ukraine meets the definition of the term genocide as defined by the Genocide Convention. According to that definition, genocide occurs when any of the following acts are committed with the “intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial, or religious group as such”: Killing members of the group; Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; Imposing measures intended to prevent births withing the group; Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group According to Snyder, Russia is unambiguously committing the five types of crimes outlined in the Genocide Convention. However, Russia’s clear statements of genocidal intent in its public statements and the media make it a unique case from a historical perspective. Kurinna spoke to her family’s experience in Luhansk and underscored how Ukrainians are being targeted with death threats and torture for supporting the Ukrainian national identity. She emphasized the importance of identifying Russia’s actions as a genocide distinct from other violations of international law, such as war crimes and mass killings. She called on the US to lead other democracies in labelling Russia’s actions as a genocide. Finkel added that words matter, and the decision to label Russia’s actions in Ukraine as a genocide has political, legal, historical, and moral significance. He stated that we have a moral imperative to stop the genocide that is currently happening and decide whether we are serious about genocide happening “never again.” Rosenberg concluded the panel portion of the briefing with an analysis of the genocide from an international law perspective. She asserted that Russia’s actions do qualify as genocide under the genocide convention and that the Ukrainian nationality is a protected group. However, she added that genocidal intent must be tied to a desire to destroy the group physically or biologically, not just culturally. Further, Rosenberg delineated the unique roles of the US Congress and executive branch under the genocide convention and stressed that while the US must take action to declare Russia’s actions a genocide, it should not seek to reproduce judicial processes when doing so. During the Q&A, the panelists stressed the need to understand Russia’s genocide in Ukraine in a global context and described the precedents that action – or inaction – will set for international security in the decades to come.    

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