Title

Remarks at the OSCE High-Level Conference on Combating Discrimination and Promoting Mutual Respect and Understanding

Hon.
Alcee L. Hastings
Bucharest
Romania
Thursday, June 07, 2007

I am privileged to address you today as the representative of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly to the Bucharest Conference, an outgrowth of the work begun by the Assembly in 2002 in response to an alarming spike in anti-Semitic incidents and related violence. Indeed, the Assembly’s timely initiative has led to a sustained focus, by parliamentarians and diplomats alike, on combating this and other forms of intolerance, including racism as well as discrimination against individuals because of their religion.

The reality is that none of our societies is immune from the ignorance, indifference or outright hatred that fosters discrimination, intolerance, and ultimately destruction of every sort. Faced with such social afflictions, each of us has a choice whether to remain complacent, some might say complicit, or to take action. The choice is there for each of us to make.

It would be foolhardy for any of us to suggest that he or she could single-handedly wipeout these virulent viruses that plague society. But the enormity of the challenge should not deter us from taking action within our own spheres of influence no matter how limited they might seem. From our home, school or workplace to the football stadium, town hall square or pages of our local newspaper, each of us can make a difference.

As elected officials, we must recognize our unique responsibility – our obligation -- to combat intolerance and discrimination as well as to promote mutual respect and understanding. First we have a duty to use the public platform entrusted to us to speak out when manifestations of hate occur. As Elie Wiesel has rightly observed, “neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”

Additionally, we can and must work to help our governments and people come to terms with the historical truths of our collective past. Perpetuating myth as history only serves to impede this vital and healthy process. Access to accurate information, including archival materials, is particularly relevant in this regard as well as the textbooks used to educate our young people. Education – whether at the dinning room table or the formal lecture hall – is a powerful instrument for overcoming the legacy of the past, promoting social justice in the present, and building a brighter future. As government officials we have a duty to ensure adequate resources for such programs, including Holocaust education. Government alone cannot accomplish all that needs to be done. To be successful, we must reach out in partnership to civil society.

Finally, as legislators, parliamentarians are uniquely positioned to shape laws that help define the limits of conduct in society. At times a daunting task, we face the challenge of ensuring appropriate protection of the targets of hate while preserving fundamental freedoms and human rights. While we may differ on approaches, one thing that we can all agree on is that there can be no neutrality or silence when violence is used against an individual or group.

I have traveled across the breadth of the OSCE region and beyond in connection with my work with the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly. Having just been in the Middle East, I am mindful of the unique role the Mediterranean Partners could play in promoting mutual respect and understanding. During the course of my travels I have made it a point to be in contact with a wide spectrum of society, from the displaced Roma forced to live on the extreme margins and members of minority faith communities denied the right to freely profess and practice their faith to ethnic and racial minorities constantly living in fear for their safety. In each instance, they simply seek the dignity that should be accorded to every human being.

Far too often there is a fixation on differences that blinds us to our common humanity.

In closing, I would note that this year marks the bicentennial of the 1807 Abolition of the Slave Trade Act, which banned the slave trade in the British Empire. The words of a courageous abolitionist in the House of Commons, William Wilberforce, should serve as an inspiration to all of us that we must take a stand no matter the seemingly insurmountable odds against success. “So enormous, so dreadful, so irremediable did the [slave] trade’s wickedness appear that my own mind was completely made up for abolition. Let the consequences be what they would: I from this time determined that I would never rest until I had effected its abolition.”

May we display such determination and dedication in our common efforts to combat anti-Semitism and other forms of intolerance and discrimination and work energetically to promote mutual respect and understanding. You and I can make a difference, if we care to. Your presence here in Bucharest is a good starting point. Thank you.

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I also express our resolve to eliminate such extremists and to work with the international community so there is no refuge anywhere in the world--anywhere in the civilized world--for such extremists. Then I would hope we would all recognize and speak out for Israel's right, indeed its obligation, to defend its people from such brutal attacks. The Baltimore Sun said this morning in its editorial there could be no excuse, no explanation, no reason or even plausible justification for the horrific attack on a Jerusalem synagogue Tuesday that left four Rabbis and an Israeli police officer dead. I know we all believe in that statement. There is no justification for such actions. Yet Hamas--and again I would quote from the Sun paper--"Hamas, the militant [extremist] group that controls Gaza, hailed the attack in the synagogue as a blow against Israel's occupation. ..... '' This just points out the difference between Hamas and Israel. I have been on the floor many times talking about Israel's legitimate right to defend itself and Hamas's desire to put innocent people in harm's way. It is our responsibility to speak out. If this event would have happened in the United States, I think we all know what the reaction would have been. So our resolve goes out to the people of Israel that we will stand by them and that we stand by their right to defend themselves. This is in the backdrop of a rise of anti-Semitism. We have seen these violent attacks in Brussels and Toulouse earlier this year, a brutal slaying in Antwerp, Jewish schools and community centers and synagogues being targets of attacks, extremist parties gaining political support espousing anti-Semitism. We saw that in Hungary and other countries. I want to mention once again the role this Congress plays in the Helsinki Commission. I have the honor of being the Chair of the Helsinki Commission during this Congress, and the Helsinki Commission implements the commitments we made almost 40 years ago--the Helsinki Final Act; the core principles of human rights and tolerance. Our bedrock principle is that in order to have a stable country you have to have a commitment to basic human rights, and it is not just your obligation but every country that is part of Helsinki, including the United States, that has the right to challenge any other country in its compliance with those basic human rights. We have made progress. Ten years ago I was privileged to be part of the U.S. delegation in the Berlin conference. The Berlin conference was established to deal with the rise of anti-Semitism, and an action agenda came out of that conference 10 years ago. It put responsibility on us--political leaders--to speak out against anti-Semitic activities in our own country or anywhere in the world. It set up an action plan to deal with educating, and particularly dealing with Holocaust education, to deal with the Holocaust deniers. It dealt with police training because we understand a lot of criminal activities are hate crimes and the police need to be able to identify when hate crimes are taking place in their own community. We decided to share best practices by providing technical help to countries to do better, and we established a special representative to deal with anti-Semitism. Rabbi Baker is currently that special representative. But we went further than that, we expanded it to all forms of intolerance--not just anti-Semitism but xenophobia, anti-Muslim activities--because we recognized that the same people who are extremists and who deny individuals because of their anti-Semitic acts would do the same against Muslims, would do the same against any people because of their race or ethnic background. I was very pleased to see commemorated the 10th anniversary of the Berlin conference. There was a reconvening in Berlin--Berlin plus 10. Ambassador Powers, our Ambassador to the United Nations, led the U.S. delegation. She did a great job. I want to acknowledge that Wade Henderson, representing the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, also participated because there is unity here. It is not just the anti-Semitic activities, it is the intolerance we have seen grow too much in our world community today. The concluding document said we need to increase our political and financial support for civil societies, and I agree with that. Transparency and supporting the NGOs, supporting civil societies, is critically important. The bottom line is we must work together to root out all forms of anti-Semitism and all forms of intolerance. Let us work together to make all our communities safer by embracing diversity and recognizing basic human rights. 

  • Persistent Anti-Semitism in OSCE Region Threatens Security and Stability, Says U.S. Helsinki Commission

    WASHINGTON—Ten years after the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) adopted the Berlin Declaration on Anti-Semitism, which outlined concrete measures to fight anti-Semitism in the OSCE region, leaders from the United States joined their counterparts from other OSCE participating States at an anniversary conference to discuss challenges posed by contemporary anti-Semitism. High-level government representatives and political leaders at last week’s event in Berlin highlighted their concerns about persistent anti-Semitism in the OSCE region, noting that it poses an ongoing threat to security and stability in the area. Participating States were encouraged to intensify efforts to counter anti-Semitic acts and hate crimes. “Ten years ago, the United States, Canada, and countries from across Europe held a critical meeting in Berlin to fight a surge in anti-Semitism,” said U.S. Senator Ben Cardin (MD), Chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the U.S. Helsinki Commission.  “I wish I could say this were purely a commemorative meeting to acknowledge what was achieved in the last 10 years, but facts dictate this must be a working meeting focused on resurgent anti-Semitism. First and foremost, this means addressing the rise in violent attacks like those we have witnessed in Brussels and Toulouse… I am also concerned about overly restrictive laws or regulations that may make it more difficult for Jews and Muslims to practice their faiths, including those relating to circumcision, ritual slaughter, and religious attire. We must break this cycle so that another decade is not lost to hate and instability.” Representative Chris Smith (NJ-04), Co-Chairman of the Helsinki Commission, was Chairman of the Commission at the time of the original Berlin meeting in 2004 and spearheaded the movement that led to the original Conference, where the OSCE became the first intergovernmental organization to adopt such meaningful commitments against anti-Semitism. “Over the past 10 years we’ve made progress in getting the OSCE and its member states to recognize their responsibility to fight the terrible social evil of anti-Semitism,” said Co-Chairman Smith, who met with European officials and activists on the topic of increasing anti-Semitism in Europe in advance of the conference. “Now we’re going to hold their feet to the fire on their commitments.”

  • Helsinki Commission to Hold Hearing on Combating Corruption

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the U.S. Helsinki Commission, today announced the following hearing: “Combating Corruption in the OSCE Region: The Link between Security and Good Governance” Wednesday, November 19, 2014 10:00AM U.S. Capitol Visitor Center Room SVC 203-202 Combating corruption is increasingly recognized as the critical factor in ensuring long-term security, because corruption creates fertile ground for social upheaval and instability. The change in government in Ukraine earlier this year is a prime example of how corruption can fuel legitimate popular discontent. Although the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has created new tools to address corruption, tackling the problem requires more than raising awareness and sharing best practices. In many OSCE participating States, systemic issues including lack of media freedom, lack of political will, and lack of an independent judiciary contribute substantially to persistent high-level and low-level corruption. The hearing will draw attention to the work of the OSCE in combating corruption in all 57 participating States, with a particular emphasis on the need to build effective institutions and the important role played by civil society in combatting corruption. The following witnesses are scheduled to testify: Halil Yurdakul Yigitgüden, Coordinator for Economic and Environmental Affairs, OSCE Khadija Ismayilova, Host of "Isden Sonra" ("After Work"), RFE/RL Azerbaijani Service Shaazka Beyerle, Visiting Scholar at the Center for Transatlantic Relations, School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University, and Senior Advisor with the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict Anders Åslund, Senior Fellow, Peterson Institute for International Economics

  • Annual OSCE Human Rights Meeting Dominated by Russia and Ukraine

    Representatives of governments and civil society from OSCE participating States met in Warsaw, Poland, from September 22 to October 3, 2014 for the annual Human Dimension Implementation Meeting (HDIM).  The meeting was organized by the OSCE office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) under the leadership of its newly-appointed Director Michael Link. This year’s annual OSCE human dimension implementation meeting drew 1,225 participants from 53 countries, including 700 NGOs.  There were an unprecedented 82 side events on specific countries or issues.  The session on tolerance and nondiscrimination was the most oversubscribed of the three-hour sessions with 85 people vying for the speaker’s list. Other specific topics for HDIM sessions included violence against women, rights of migrants and right of national minorities. In this issue: About the U.S. HDIM Delegation Russia Takes Propaganda Campaign to Warsaw OSCE Ambassadors Visit Auschwitz Civil Society Speaks Up

  • U.S. Helsinki Commission Welcomes Candidacies of Germany, Austria for Future OSCE Chairs

    WASHINGTON—On November 4, Germany formally announced its candidacy for the 2016 chairmanship of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), followed by Austria, which announced its candidacy for the 2017 chairmanship. In response, U.S. Senator Ben Cardin (MD), Chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe and Representative Chris Smith (NJ-04), Co-Chairman of the Commission, issued the following joint statement: “We welcome the initiative demonstrated by the German and Austrian governments during a pivotal moment in the history of the OSCE. The leadership of these nations, which have been committed to the Helsinki Process from the very beginning, will be vital. We thank them in advance for their willingness to lead and for their drive to advance the cause of human rights, democracy, and international cooperation among our participating States.” The OSCE Chairmanship rotates annually among the 57 participating States, and is decided by consensus. The post of the Chairperson-in-Office (CiO) is held by the Foreign Minister of the participating State selected to hold the Chairmanship. The CiO is assisted by the previous and succeeding Chairpersons; the three of them together are known as the Troika, which ensures continuity and consistency in the OSCE’s work. Switzerland currently holds the OSCE Chairmanship, and Serbia will assume the OSCE Chairmanship in January 2015.

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