Title

Russia and Central Asia: the Growing Policy Challenges for the International Community

Hon.
Alcee L. Hasitngs
Washignton, DC
United States
Monday, March 12, 2007

Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies

Distinguished Speakers and Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen,

I would like to thank Freedom House for inviting me to speak at this important event. Freedom House has well earned its reputation as one of the foremost democracy-promoting organizations in the world. Moreover, Nations in Transit – whose 2007 edition this conference is launching – has become an indispensable source of information, measuring the advance of democratization around the globe. Thanks also to SAIS for co-hosting and my congratulations to you on the success of your Russia and Eurasian Studies Program.

As Paula said, I Chair the Helsinki Commission, which Congress created in 1976 to monitor and promote implementation of the Helsinki Final Act in all the participating States. Moreover, I have recently completed two years as president of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly – the only American to ever hold that post. In that capacity, I visited 31 OSCE states, including Russia and all the Central Asian countries. In my travels and in Washington, I have met with presidents and foreign ministers, with parliamentarians, opposition leaders and dissenters, and with journalists and human rights activists.

In these remarks, I would like to give you my assessment of where I see democratic governance and human rights trending in the region, more than 15 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

But first, I want to state that we need to take back the moral high-ground that we once stood on. This starts by holding ourselves accountable when human rights issues arise here at home. Not that we have anything to be afraid of. But we must take away the credibility of those who would accuse us of double standards. As Chairman of the Helsinki Commission, this will be one of my priorities.

Let me now talk about Russia. You are all surely familiar with President Putin’s speech in Munich last month, and how pundits have characterized U.S.-Russian relations these days. It’s a bad sign when our Secretary of Defense has to note that “one Cold War was enough.” Actually, one Cold War was more than enough.

Now, I understand that Russians remember the 1990s very differently than we do. Despite what many viewed from abroad as a “springtime” of freedom for Russia and the territory of the former Soviet Union, many citizens of Russia remember the nineties as a period of tremendous economic dislocation, rampant crime, chaos at home, and humiliation abroad. The relative order and, at least, superficial international respect that President Vladimir Putin brought to Russia has been welcomed by a majority of the Russian population and seems to be strongly supported by the younger generation. From our point of view, this runs somewhat counter to the assumption that the post-communist generation would yearn for still greater freedom and be less pugnacious. It is necessary that we find a way to come to grips with these divergent views of the recent past as we look to the future.

So it’s understandable that today, Russians proudly proclaim that “Russia is back.” This is certainly true, and in no small measure due to high energy prices. Nor is it surprising that a great country with vast human and material resources should rebound from even the disruptions of the last 20 years. What troubles me and many others is what kind of Russia has returned to a leading role on the world stage.

Russian officials maintain that their democracy is developing in its own way and in accordance with its own traditions. They accuse the United States of unilateralism in foreign affairs and of seeking to impose the American form of democratic governance on Russia and the rest of the world and hypocritically meddling in the affairs of others.

To be sure, our attempts to spread the undeniable benefits of the American experience have not always been distinguished by cultural sensitivity. But I get nervous when I hear the phrase “according to our own traditions and national mentality.” No rational person expects Ivan Ivanov to be a carbon copy of John Johnson. However, there are certain basic shared assumptions about what democratic governance entails: freedom of religion; freedom of speech; freedom of assembly; rule of law; a reasonable distribution of power between the branches of government; an independent judiciary; etc. I would also note that reference to one’s “traditions” as a method of denying rights to others is not solely a Russian phenomenon.

There’s little doubt that under President Putin – who is undeniably popular – some people have begun to live better materially. Many Russians are proud of their president, of his sober, disciplined approach to government and his determination to restore Russia’s greatness. But in Russia – and Central Asia – we have witnessed the emergence of super-presidencies, which have overwhelmed the legislative and the judicial branches.

For instance, in successfully recentralizing power in the Kremlin, President Putin has turned the Duma into a virtual rubber stamp. True, the Duma was quite complicit in this. And I am aware that American history has also produced “honeymoons” between popular chief executives and a congressional majority representing the same political party. We’ve just finished a six year version right here in Washington. But I hope my colleagues in the Russian Duma would agree that a vital element of representative government is a legislature that acts as a check on executive power.

As for judicial independence – a critical component of checks and balances – when was the last time a court in Russia ruled contrary to government wishes in a politically sensitive case in which the Kremlin or the security forces – some would say they are synonymous – have an interest?

Especially alarming is the contraction of freedom of the media. The Kremlin now controls all major TV stations, which parrot the official perspective. As for newspapers, though less popular as a source of information, journalism has become a very dangerous profession. In fact, according to the International News Safety Institute, Russia is the second most dangerous country for journalists in the world – the first is Iraq. Just last week, yet another investigative journalist died under suspicious circumstances. There is a long list of such crimes, which have largely gone unsolved. Obviously, the Fourth Estate is being told to shut its mouth, if it wants to keep its head.

Furthermore, I am troubled by the government’s attempts to rein in civil society, at least those elements that the Kremlin views as threatening. Many of you may have read about the judge who recently fined members of a local human rights group for meeting in a school with foreign visitors without notifying the authorities – a mentality that smacks frighteningly of the Soviet era.

Russian officials often get irritated when they hear the terms “managed democracy” or “sham democracy.” But I see in Russia a system that attempts to carefully control politics, in which the public has been removed from the political process while the state’s well-connected individuals have taken charge of the country’s most profitable giant companies. And it is hard for me to see how or when this system will open up again.

One way the system could open up is through legitimate presidential elections in 2008, when President Putin is expected to retire. But to judge by the current difficulties reported by “outsiders” testing the waters in Russia, there is no reason to expect that opposition candidates can count on an equal playing field.

The rise of “illiberal democracy” at home is also reflected in Russia’s behavior abroad. For example, Moscow’s unrelenting pressure on Georgia and Moldova has tarnished Russia’s reputation as a conscientious upholder of international law. Especially worrying for Europe are possible interruptions in oil and gas supplies, as has happened during Russia’s disputes with its neighbors. Not surprisingly, Washington and other capitals – even Minsk – are wondering whether Russia can be a reliable supplier of the energy on which our economies depend.

Of course, Russia should be able to enjoy the benefits of its energy resources, which account for fully one-quarter of its GDP. But what will benefit Russia, as well as transit and consumer countries, would be more transparency and predictability in energy supply. Think of Russia moving toward a Canadian or Norwegian model instead of an OPEC model.

This would entail the promotion of free-market policies in the energy sector. It would mean the protection of property rights, which ensure fair competition, backed up by a commitment to the rule of law that give these rights some meaning. Such transparency and predictability will help ensure that Russia can rationally exploit its resources and that consuming countries can sleep easy – and warm – at night. And Russia’s leaders must understand that other states have become hypersensitive to the possibility that the Kremlin will exploit its control of hydrocarbons for political gain and draw the appropriate conclusions. Yet I often wonder if they do. Sometimes it seems that oil has simply gone to people’s heads in Moscow.

As a senior member of the Intelligence Committee, I am well aware of the gravity of the terrorist threat facing this country as well as Russia. I understand the need for us to work together to confront this danger to the whole world. But the legitimate struggle against terrorism cannot be an excuse for gross violations of international humanitarian law and norms – Chechnya comes to mind in this context.

Before moving on to Central Asia, I would just emphasize my sincere belief that we best advance our interests with Russia in an atmosphere of mutual respect and not of mutual recrimination. Knee-jerk Russia bashing may be emotionally satisfying for some and may help bolster budgets for others, but it does little to promote our goals and, in fact, closes many doors for dialogue and understanding. On the other hand, being best friends should not be the measure of successful bilateral relations. We need to focus our efforts more on bolstering Russia’s nascent democratic institutions rather than on the rapidly changing faces of the Russian elite.

I would also add that I support granting Permanent Normal Trade Relations to Russia. Russia has complied with our law. We spend millions of dollars promoting rule of law abroad, but we seem unable or too preoccupied to comply with our own legislation and retire this Cold War relic.

Let me now turn to Central Asia. Over the last 15 years, we have seen the rise of the familiar “super-president,” the controlled parliament, the supine judiciary and the media under pressure, while the families and cronies of rulers prosper. In Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, no political opposition has been permitted. Turkmenistan – which is still a one-party state today – has been one of the most repressive countries in the world, virtually a post-Soviet North Korea, with a similar cult of personality.

In Kazakhstan and Tajikistan, opposition is tolerated but tightly controlled; there is very little opposition representation in their parliaments. Only Kyrgyzstan has bucked the Central Asian trend to some degree. Former President Akaev did not control the political arena as his counterparts did and civil society was much stronger than elsewhere in the region. So it was not surprising that if an opposition-led protest movement in the region had any chance of toppling a government, it would be in Kyrgyzstan.

All this was true even before the 2003 Rose Revolution in Georgia. But that historic event, followed by Ukraine’s Orange Revolution and the March 2005 Tulip Revolution in Kyrgyzstan, upset the rulers of most former Soviet states. Central Asian leaders, especially Uzbekistan’s President Karimov, have moved to preempt similar uprisings in their countries by undercutting opposition activists, NGOs – including foreign ones, like Freedom House and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty – and human rights groups.

In this campaign they have received backing from Moscow, which has warned of sinister U.S. plots of regime change. Indeed, Moscow unfortunately seems to see democratization as a key weapon in a zero-sum competition for influence with the United States. Russia viewed the revolutions in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan not only as unwelcome achievements of democracy but as a new, historic Western “incursion” into its own sphere of influence. Its apparent strategy is to build alliances with repressive rulers, while dismissing Western disapproval of their authoritarianism as geo-politically motivated. In fact, an anti-revolutionary alliance of states has emerged, embracing most post-Soviet republics and China as well.

And these efforts have borne fruit – since Kyrgyzstan, the wave has receded, at least for now.

This situation puts U.S. policymakers in a tough spot. Even before September 11, Washington had struggled to find ways to move Central Asian rulers towards more political openness. But they had already concluded that even if relations with the Americans were not very close, the U.S. interest in security, energy and providing a strategic alternative to Russia meant that Washington might criticize flawed elections or human rights problems but would not level serious sanctions or cut off ties.

After September 11, the countries of Central Asia saw the opportunity for closer relations with the United States, which was happy to accommodate them in the name of fighting terrorism. An agreement on strategic cooperation was struck with Uzbekistan. We opened military bases there and in Kyrgyzstan. The Tajiks and even Turkmenistan cooperated in overflights and assistance corridors to Afghanistan.

Today, economic concerns have come to equal security priorities: with the price of a barrel of oil down to about $60 from a high in the mid-70s and Kazakhstan’s oil and Turkmenistan’s gas beckoning, how do we influence Central Asia’s leaders to liberalize their political systems? It doesn’t look like they want to and they seem to think they don’t have to.

There are no easy answers to this question. Obviously, we cannot compel them to democratize or observe their human rights commitments. We have 150,000 troops in Iraq but we can’t ensure basic order, much less build a democratic state there at this time. Even in the 1990s, when Russia was much weaker and poorer than it is today, our leverage was limited. Today, I have the sense that our criticism has the opposite effect on Russian officials.

The countries of Central Asia don’t have issues of superpower rivalry with the United States, and they do want to have good relations with us, which facilitates dialogue with them about democratization and human rights. Still, those in power want to remain there – it is their highest priority and they will resist systemic reforms that could threaten their position.

You might infer from this overview that I am a pessimist. Not at all. No black man who grew up during the halcyon days of the segregated south and became a judge and then a Congressman while a black woman from the segregated south is Secretary of State can be a pessimist. But I have become more realistic and pragmatic. Let me share with you some conclusions I have drawn.

First, democratic transformations take much longer than we would like. The experience of the former Soviet Union proves that the collapse of communism is necessary but not sufficient. We should understand we are in this for the long haul.

Second, repressive leaders often maintain that their people are not ready for democracy. I think, however, that publics are much more ready than governments. People in Russia and Central Asia, who have experienced or witnessed enough disruption for several lifetimes, understandably value stability and predictability. But that does not mean they do not want the basic gifts of democracy and human rights. Everyone wants a say in his or her own government and to be treated with respect. When circumstances permit, those desires, I believe, will come to the fore.

Third, we in the West saw the so-called color revolutions as a glorious exercise in popular sovereignty, as people peacefully went to the streets to oust corrupt, unresponsive regimes. But we sometimes forget that revolutions are evidence of failed politics. They reflect a crisis in the relations between state and society when people have no satisfactory methods of influencing policy or seeking redress of grievances, such as recourse to the courts for the impartial administration of justice. So while I welcome the Rose, Orange, and Tulip revolutions, I regret their necessity. Slow, steady progress towards democratic governance would be better for all concerned. It is this goal we should work for, through the building of institutions that promote the rule of law and civil society.

Fourth, in the absence of established institutions, the ruler’s character remains critical in such highly personalized political systems. It was clear, for example, that while President Niyazov lived, there was no chance of reform in Turkmenistan. The notion may not be popular among some scholars today, but his long reign clearly demonstrates the power of individuals to shape history, certainly for ill and I hope, for good.

Fifth, succession can spark unexpected events and accelerate or slow down institution-building. I suspect the death of President Niyazov in December has got the other Central Asian leaders thinking. They are not young men and they have some serious inheritance issues to consider. Nowhere has there been established any tested method for peacefully transferring power at the top. In Kyrgyzstan, a head of state has been removed, but presidential succession has come to be associated with street politics as much as constitutional requirements. In the other countries…well, we will have to see. But barring dramatic headlines, the first important such decision will come in Uzbekistan. President Karimov’s term runs out this year. He will have to decide whether to step down or resort to some ploy to remain in office. I believe that if he chooses the latter course, he will damage his reputation still further and make instability more likely.

Whatever happens, however, I strongly believe that all of Central Asia will be watching how President Putin handles his own succession problem. If he steps down, some may be more inclined to follow his example.

Sixth, we must not turn our backs on the region and its people. I know Uzbekistan is a repressive state and I share the widespread revulsion at the slaughter in Andijon, but does it help us not to be engaged with President Karimov? Have we gained anything by these frozen relations – quite apart from the loss of our base at K-2, has democracy advanced in Uzbekistan while we criticize him from afar?

At the same time, Tashkent must understand we cannot turn a blind eye to atrocities. I have supported the European Union’s serious effort to restore ties with Uzbekistan based on human rights progress, but I would welcome a good faith gesture from Tashkent. For example, Umida Niyazova, a human rights activist who used to work for Freedom House and Human Rights Watch, is in jail. I call on President Karimov to release her immediately.

As for Turkmenistan, President Niyazov’s death offers no guarantees of liberalization. But at least there is reason now to hope for a more rational leadership that will focus on the public good, not the president’s ego.

I see mixed messages coming out of Ashgabat. On the one hand, the new president has pledged to broaden internet access and has restored the tenth grade and physical education to the school curriculum. That doesn’t sound like much but when you start from such a low base, it can seem like a huge improvement. I expect that gradually, the more bizarre aspects of President Niyazov’s misrule will disappear. But I hope to see much more – the release of people jailed on political grounds and the beginnings of political pluralism. I expect to travel to Ashgabat to discuss with the new Turkmen leaders the prospects for systemic democratization. We need to engage with them in a process of consultation and give and take.

Let me conclude by mentioning a few things we should not do, starting with not shooting ourselves in the foot. I have in mind the Voice of America. As many of you probably know, the American Administration has called for major cuts in VOA broadcasting, including closing down the Uzbek and Georgian Services and ending radio programs while retaining television transmission in Russian and Ukrainian. This, ladies and gentlemen, seems to me to be the height of folly. As I have argued here, the democratic transition in the former Soviet Union is far from secure. VOA broadcasts are one of the most effective, biggest-bang-for-the-buck tools in our arsenal to propagate democratic ideals.

And in this connection, I want to associate myself with remarks made on Thursday by my good friend Tom Lantos, Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, in a hearing on U.S. assistance. Like him, I simply cannot comprehend why we should now cut our funding for democracy promotion – especially to the tune of 40 percent. He called for more aid to NGOs that try, under ever worsening conditions, to promote freedom in Russia. I am in full solidarity with him and together with likeminded Members of Congress, we hope to roll back the VOA cuts and increase assistance for democracy promotion.

The same applies to funding for the OSCE, which the budgeters also want to slash. Please be assured that I will fight this.

Paula, I’ve gone on for quite some time. I hope I haven’t overstayed my welcome. Thank you once again for inviting me. Let me end here and I look forward to hearing from the other speakers.

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

  • Wicker and Cardin Commend United Kingdom Magnitsky Sanctions on Russian and Saudi Officials

    WASHINGTON—Following the recent designations under the United Kingdom’s Magnitsky sanctions framework of Russian and Saudi officials responsible for the deaths of Sergei Magnitsky and Jamal Khashoggi, Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) and Ranking Member Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) released the following statement: “We are encouraged to see the United Kingdom applying its first-ever independent Magnitsky sanctions. These sanctions demonstrate that following Brexit, the UK remains committed to fighting human rights abuse and kleptocracy. “We hope the UK will continue to apply Magnitsky sanctions as needed and develop additional anti-corruption policies to stem the flow of illicit wealth into the country. We also encourage the European Union to move forward on plans to develop its own Magnitsky sanctions. Consequences for bad acts are most effective when imposed in concert.” The UK passed its Magnitsky sanctions law in 2018. That same year, Russia attempted to assassinate Sergei Skripal, a former Russian double agent who spied for the UK, in Salisbury, England. UK Magnitsky sanctions freeze the assets of designees and prevent them from entering the country, and are expected to be a powerful deterrent for kleptocrats, given the propensity of corrupt officials to steal and launder money into London as well as send their children to British boarding schools. In December 2019, EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell announced that the EU would start preparatory work for the equivalent of a Magnitsky sanctions mechanism. However, no further progress has been reported. In May 2020, Co-Chairman Wicker and Sen. Cardin urged U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to ask High Representative Borrell to expedite the adoption of EU sanctions on human rights abusers and include provisions for sanctioning corruption.

  • Human Rights at Home: Implications for U.S. Leadership

    Recent developments in the United States—including George Floyd’s tragic death at the hands of police and subsequent protests—have put U.S. human rights commitments to the test in the eyes of the world. On July 2, 2020, the Helsinki Commission held a hearing on “Human Rights at Home:  Implications for U.S. Leadership.” The online hearing was held in compliance with H.Res.965, which provides for official remote proceedings during the COVID-19 pandemic. Commissioner Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (MO-05), who chaired the hearing, observed, “The United States has long been a champion of human rights and democracy in our foreign policy.  Many of the OSCE’s groundbreaking commitments were actually spearheaded by the United States, including those relating to anti-Semitism, freedom of religion, free elections, and the rule of law, to name only a few…Today, we look inward as we examine the Black Lives Matter protests and related domestic compliance issues in the context of our OSCE human dimensions commitments and implications for U.S. foreign policy.” Witnesses included Nkechi Taifa, Founding Principal & CEO of The Taifa Group, LLC, Convener of the Justice Roundtable, and Senior Fellow, Center for Justice, Columbia University; the Honorable Malcolm Momodou Jallow, Member of Parliament (Sweden) and General Rapporteur on Combating Racism and Intolerance, Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE); and Ambassador (ret.) Ian Kelly, former U.S. Permanent Representative to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).  “It’s not a moment.  It’s a movement.” Witnesses emphasized that George Floyd’s death has created a movement, not just a moment, in efforts to address systemic racism, police violence, and secure justice. Nkechi Taifa called on the United States to implement fully international human rights commitments and obligations, without legal barriers. She observed that the world is at the midpoint of the United Nations International Decade for People of African Descent and concluded, “What we are witnessing today is the unprecedented possibility for change.” Malcolm Momodou Jallow observed that structural, institutional, and systemic racism— including racist violence—is not confined to the United States, but is also present in Europe.  The European project includes an antidiscrimination, antiracist dimension, with a fundamental commitment to reflect the lessons of the Holocaust and eradicate past European divisions through respect for the human rights of all. Failure to do so affects entire communities, thereby eroding social cohesion, trust in public authority, the rule of law and ultimately democracy.  Mr. Jallow also drew attention to the European Parliament’s resolution, adopted on Juneteenth (June 19), on the anti-racism protests following George Floyd’s death.  The resolution also recalled Europe’s colonial past and its role in the transatlantic slave trade; draws on the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights’ annual hate crimes report; and calls for closer cooperation between the European Commission and the OSCE.  “The OSCE should rise to that occasion.” Ambassador Ian Kelly stated that security among states depends on respect for human rights within states. Actions clearing peaceful protesters, at the expense of their basic rights, cost the United States moral authority to call other countries to account.  Ambassador Kelly credited the OSCE for its work to shine a light on the problems of intolerance but asserted more could and should be done in the OSCE context to expose abuses against people of color in the OSCE region.  By signing the Helsinki Final Act, the United States committed to respecting human rights and protect democracy, even under the most challenging circumstances. A willingness to respond to the human rights concerns that other countries raise with the United States in the Helsinki context has been instrumental in validating the promotion of human rights and democracy advocacy as a goal of U.S. foreign policy. The Helsinki Commission has addressed the implementation of OSCE commitments in the United States in various ways, including hearings, reports, and legislation. The video of the murder of George Floyd and the ensuing protests received wall-to-wall coverage throughout most of the OSCE participating States. Journalists from at least eight OSCE participating States—Canada, Finland, France, Germany, Russia, Sweden, Switzerland, and Turkey—suffered violence while trying to report on demonstrations. George Floyd’s death in police custody prompted demonstrations in nearly all western OSCE participating States, including more than 25 of the 30 NATO member states, supporting the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement and protesting systemic racism. In some Central European countries, the death of George Floyd has been compared to police brutality against Roma. In other countries, demonstrators have called for changes to their own national policing practices, the removal of symbols of their colonial past, and other policy changes. There have been no BLM sympathy demonstrations in Russia, where assembly (even protests by single picketers or dolls dressed as protesters) remains highly controlled. Heads of OSCE institutions, including the Director of the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights and the Representative on Freedom of the Media, have expressed concern about the actions of police, restrictions on freedom of assembly, and restrictions on press freedom. The OSCE Parliamentary Assembly President George Tsereteli, expressed similar concerns in a press statement on June 1. On June 8, 38 NGOs from the Civic Solidarity Platform, a decentralized advocacy network of independent civic groups from across the OSCE region, issued a rare joint statement of concern regarding “the United States government’s response to widespread peaceful protests against police violence.” Related Information Witness Biographies Human Rights at Home Safe, Inclusive, and Equitable Societies Briefing: 8:46 (George Floyd) Press Release: Hastings: To Promote Human Rights Abroad, We Must Fiercely Protect Them at Home Press Release: OSCE Media Freedom Representative concerned about violence against journalists covering protests in USA, calls for protection of journalists Press Release: Statement of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly President on the policing of protests in the United States Civic Solidarity Platform Statement: U.S. racism and police violence and the human dimension heritage of the OSCE Rep. Jim McGovern: To Regain Our Credibility on Human Rights, America Must Start At Home

  • Hastings and Wicker Denounce Fraudulent Vote in Russia

    WASHINGTON—Following this week’s manipulated vote to amend Russia’s constitution to further weaken the separation of powers, strengthen the presidency, and allow President Vladimir Putin to remain in office until 2036, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) and Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) issued the following joint statement: “As we have seen time and again in Putin’s Russia, the outcome of this vote was decided long before the ballots were tallied. “Thanks to a fraudulent plebiscite ‘legitimizing’ the rubber stamp of Russia’s parliament, the Russian people—along with those living under Russian occupation—will remain under the thumb of an increasingly powerful Putin who could rule until he is in his eighties. “State-sponsored fraud, coercion, and obfuscation make it impossible to know the true will of the Russian people, who deserve a responsive, democratic government in line with Russia’s OSCE commitments.” From June 25 to July 1, 2020, citizens of Russia and residents of illegally-occupied Crimea and Russia-backed separatist regions of the Donbas could vote either for or against a package of more than 200 amendments to Russia’s constitution. Because the vote was not technically classified as a referendum, regulations and procedures that would usually apply—including a required minimum voter turnout level—were disregarded. Russia’s Central Election Commission released preliminary results showing overwhelming support for the amendments hours before the last polls closed, which under normal circumstances would be illegal. The potential for voter fraud was increased by the Russian Government’s decision to spread the voting over the span of a week and introduce electronic voting in some areas, ostensibly to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Independent journalists have received credible reports of people being paid to create multiple false profiles to vote online, employees being coerced into voting by their superiors, and the use of online tools to track voter participation. Individuals documented ballot-stuffing and other irregularities at polling places.  The package of amendments was approved overwhelmingly and with little discussion by President Putin and both chambers of the Russian parliament on March 11, 2020, then rapidly cleared by the regional parliaments and the Constitutional Court. It required a nationwide vote to come into force. Vladimir Putin has ruled Russia either as president or prime minister for 20 years. He can now pursue two more six-year terms after his current term expires in 2024.

  • Co-Chairman Wicker Urges Swiss Government to Restore Confidence in Integrity of Magnitsky Investigation

    WASHINGTON—In a letter to Swiss Ambassador Jacques Pitteloud released today, Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) urged the Government of Switzerland to take the necessary steps to restore confidence in the integrity of the Magnitsky investigation and ensure its timely resolution. The letter reads in part: “Sergei Magnitsky’s story has become emblematic of the struggle of many Russians to fight the corruption of their own government at great risk to themselves. While I have been dispirited by the brutality shown the Russian journalists and civil society activists who carry on Magnitsky’s legacy of bravely telling the truth, I am also heartened by the tenacity of these individuals. They depend on countries like ours to hold their oppressors to account. “Given all that is at stake, I was surprised to learn that a Swiss Federal Police officer, Vincenz Schnell, went on a bear-hunting trip with Russian prosecutors paid for by Russian oligarchs. Though he has now been found guilty of accepting this and other gifts from Russia, the Magnitsky case has lingered for years and will be nearing its end when the statute of limitations expires in 2023.” Schnell’s former boss and top Swiss law enforcement official, Federal Prosecutor Michael Lauber, currently is facing impeachment proceedings following allegations of mishandling high-profile corruption and money laundering cases. For example, Lauber was forced to recuse himself from a U.S.-led investigation of corruption within FIFA, soccer’s international governing body, after it was discovered he was meeting with FIFA’s president. Russian officials were among the targets of this investigation for bribes paid to secure the World Cup. The full text of the letter can be found below: Dear Ambassador Pitteloud, I was troubled to learn that the most senior Russia specialist in Swiss law enforcement with responsibility for investigating the Magnitsky case was caught accepting gifts from Russian officials. The reports indicate that these gifts were meant to stymie the swift administration of justice in this case. As a member of the Helsinki Commission, I have followed this case from its inception. Sergei Magnitsky’s story has become emblematic of the struggle of many Russians to fight the corruption of their own government at great risk to themselves. While I have been dispirited by the brutality shown the Russian journalists and civil society activists who carry on Magnitsky’s legacy of bravely telling the truth, I am also heartened by the tenacity of these individuals. They depend on countries like ours to hold their oppressors to account. Given all that is at stake, I was surprised to learn that a Swiss Federal Police officer, Vincenz Schnell, went on a bear-hunting trip with Russian prosecutors paid for by Russian oligarchs. Though he has now been found guilty of accepting this and other gifts from Russia, the Magnitsky case has lingered for years and will be nearing its end when the statute of limitations expires in 2023. The last Swiss actions that I am aware of in the Magnitsky case were the 2011 freezing of $11 million against Olga and Vladlen Stepanov and the 2012 freezing of $8 million against Prevezon. In the United States, we have added the Stepanovs to the Magnitsky sanctions list, where their assets are frozen and visas cancelled for their role in the Magnitsky case. U.S. law enforcement also prosecuted Prevezon for using proceeds from the Magnitsky case to purchase New York real estate and Prevezon has now paid a $6 million settlement to our government. My Senate colleagues and I are committed to seeing justice done in the Magnitsky case and preventing Russian kleptocrats from reaping the proceeds of corruption. I hope to hear from you as to what steps your government has taken and will take in the future to restore confidence in the integrity of this investigation and ensure its timely resolution. Sincerely, Roger F. Wicker Co-Chairman

  • Helsinki Commission Hearing to Examine Human Rights At Home

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following online hearing: HUMAN RIGHTS AT HOME Implications for U.S. Leadership Thursday, July 2, 2020 11:00 a.m. Watch Live: www.youtube.com/HelsinkiCommission By signing the Helsinki Final Act, the United States committed to respecting human rights and the rule of law, even under the most challenging circumstances. Recent developments in the United States—including George Floyd’s tragic death at the hands of police and subsequent protests—have put U.S. human rights commitments to the test in the eyes of the world. During this online hearing, witnesses will discuss these events, the U.S. response, and the resulting implications for U.S. leadership in foreign policy. Witnesses scheduled to participate include: Ambassador (ret.) Ian Kelly, former U.S. Permanent Representative to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Malcolm Momodou Jallow, Member of Parliament (Sweden) and General Rapporteur on Combating Racism and Intolerance, Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) Nkechi Taifa, Founding Principal & CEO, The Taifa Group, LLC; Convener, Justice Roundtable; and Senior Fellow, Center for Justice, Columbia University

  • Hastings: To Promote Human Rights Abroad, We Must Fiercely Protect Them at Home

    WASHINGTON—Ahead of a 57-nation OSCE meeting on freedom of expression, media, and information, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) released the following statement: “In the United States, we have witnessed a devastating series of attacks by authorities against journalists covering the nationwide protests calling for racial justice following the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. In many cases, reporters have been injured, harassed, or arrested even after explicitly identifying themselves as members of the press. “If the United States wants to remain a credible voice in the promotion of human rights abroad, we must fiercely protect them at home. This Supplementary Human Dimension Meeting on the critical topic of freedom of expression, media, and information represents an important opportunity to take an honest and critical look at America’s own record in recent weeks on protecting journalists and safeguarding press freedom.” According to the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, as of June 15, there have been more than 430 reported press freedom violations since the beginning of the national Black Lives Matter protests on May 26. This includes at least 59 arrests; 268 assaults (including the use of tear gas, pepper spray, and rubber bullets and projectiles); and 57 cases of equipment/newsroom damage. OSCE Supplementary Human Dimension Meetings (SHDM) are convened three times annually on topics chosen by the OSCE Chairperson-in-Office. The first SHDM organized by the Albanian chairmanship,  “Addressing All Forms of Intolerance and Discrimination,” took place May 25-26, 2020. The June meeting on freedom of expression, media and information includes participation by non-governmental civil society organizations, the U.S. Helsinki Commission, and representatives from OSCE participating States.

  • Chairman Hastings Demands Release of Paul Whelan

    WASHINGTON—Following the sentencing of U.S. citizen Paul Whelan to 16 years in a maximum-security prison by a Russian court, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) issued the following statement: “In clear violation of Russia’s OSCE commitments, Paul Whelan was denied his right to due process. His long and harsh pre-trial detention, and the secretive nature of Paul’s trial and the spurious ‘evidence’ against him, show that Russia’s authorities are not concerned about justice. This is nothing more than a politically-motivated stunt that has inflicted serious damage on an American citizen. Paul Whelan must be released.” Paul Whelan was arrested in Moscow in December 2018, where he planned to attend a wedding. FSB agents broke into his hotel room and found a flash drive that Whelan’s Russian friend had told him contained photos from a recent trip.  Authorities claimed that the flash drive contained classified information. Whelan has been detained in Moscow’s Lefortovo prison, unable to contact his family and friends, alleging abuse from guards, and suffering from health problems.

  • OSCE Supplementary Human Dimension Meeting Examines Intolerance and Discrimination during Pandemic

    On May 25-26, 2020, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) held the year’s first Supplementary Human Dimension Meeting (SHDIM).  The event, which attracted more than 950 participants from 57 countries, focused on addressing intolerance and discrimination and was the OSCE’s first public event hosted in an entirely virtual format. During the event, representatives of governments, civil society, and OSCE institutions discussed the importance of immediate, robust, and coordinated responses to acts of scapegoating, racism, xenophobia, and anti-Semitism, especially during times of crisis. Participants underscored the need to reject hate speech both online and off, and shared best practices to prevent its escalation into violence. Recommendations centered on the shared goals of building inclusive and resilient societies that guarantee human rights for all. In her closing remarks, Shannon Simrell, the U.S. Helsinki Commission Representative to the U.S. Mission to the OSCE in Vienna, highlighted recent commission engagement on combating intolerance and discrimination. Under the leadership of Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20), the Helsinki Commission's ongoing commitment to building safe, equitable, and inclusive societies has been embodied by “On the Road to Inclusion,” a new interethnic, multicultural, inter-religious, and intergenerational initiative designed to build broad-based coalitions and crafts durable solutions, based on respect and meaningful engagement of all members of society.  In addition, Helsinki Commission Ranking Member Senator Ben Cardin (MD), who also serves as the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly Special Representative for Anti-Semitism, Racism, and Intolerance, has directed funding to support OSCE’s comprehensive and multi-year Words into Action project, which develops inclusion handbooks for governments and communities.  The second Supplementary Human Dimension Meeting of 2020, scheduled for June 22-23, will focus on freedom of expression, press freedom, and access to information.  Closing Remarks by Shannon Simrell, U.S. Helsinki Commission Representative to the U.S. Mission to the OSCE On behalf of the U.S. Helsinki Commission, I wish to congratulate the Chair in Office for organizing this historic event, thank the speakers for sharing your expertise, and recognize my colleagues and civil society representatives for your thoughtful engagement on these issues. In the past two days, we have heard not only about the importance of immediate and definitive responses to acts of hate and intolerance, but also the importance of a comprehensive and long-term approach to dismantle the social, economic, legislative, and technological roots of discrimination.  Crises such as the COVID-19 pandemic lay bare the significant work that still needs to be done across the OSCE region to address prejudice, racism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, and all forms of discrimination.  Helsinki commitments must be equally realized by everyone among us. Without exception. To ODIHR colleagues, thank you for your comprehensive approach to addressing hate crimes and intolerance while recognizing also the specific and varied challenges faced by various vulnerable groups, including Roma/Sinti, people of African descent, disabled, youth, women, and migrants and refugees.  In support of ODIHR’s vital role, I note that U.S. Senator Ben Cardin, in addition to his role as OSCEPA Special Representative for Anti-Semitism, Racism, and Intolerance, is proud to have directed funding to support phase two of the Words into Action project.  In addition, the Commission's commitment to building safe, equitable, and inclusive societies is further underscored by an initiative under the leadership of U.S. Helsinki Chairman Alcee Hastings, called “On the Road to Inclusion.”  This interethnic, multicultural, inter-religious, and intergenerational initiative builds broad-based coalitions and crafts durable solutions, based on respect and meaningful engagement of all members of society. I look forward to future events where we can continue not only our exploration of the hurdles, but an update on ways we are working to guarantee human rights for all.

  • Helsinki Commission Chairman Condemns Reported U.S. Withdrawal from Open Skies Treaty, Calls For New START Extension

    WASHINGTON—Following reports that the Trump administration has notified other governments of its intent to withdraw from the Treaty on Open Skies, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) issued the following statement: “The Open Skies Treaty has underpinned transatlantic security for decades, and has always enjoyed bipartisan support precisely because of its contributions to our security and that of our allies and partners,” said Chairman Hastings. “The Trump administration’s ideological opposition to arms control agreements has undercut transparency and predictability in Europe at a time when U.S. leadership is needed most.  “The timing of this ill-advised decision so close to our elections is distasteful. The United States withdrawing from the Open Skies Treaty can only benefit Putin’s continuing campaign of aggression against Russia’s neighbors. I urge the administration to reconsider and instead work with Congress to double down on supporting our allies and partners in Europe, and particularly working to secure the prompt extension of the New START Treaty.” The Open Skies Treaty is designed to increase transparency, build confidence, and encourage cooperation among the United States, Russia, and 32 other participating states (including much of Europe as well as partners like Ukraine and Georgia), by permitting unarmed observation aircraft to fly over their entire territory to observe military forces and activities. The United States has conducted nearly three times as many flights over Russia as Russia has over the United States under the Treaty. The United States has also used the Treaty to support partners by conducting flights over hotspots such as the Ukraine-Russian border. The New START Treaty between the United States and Russia limits each side’s intercontinental ballistic missile launchers, nuclear-capable heavy bombers, and deployed nuclear warheads, and includes a substantial verification regime to ensure the sides comply with the Treaty’s terms. New START is due to expire in February 2021, unless both parties agree to extend it for no more than five years. 

  • Disinformation, COVID-19, and the Electoral Process

    Listen to audio of the briefing on Facebook.  Free and fair elections are one of the most fundamental measures of a democratic society. During the 2016 presidential elections, many Americans became aware for the first time that disinformation can be easily coupled with technology by state and nonstate actors to disrupt and muddy the information space in the months, weeks, and days leading up to an election.  The use of disinformation to influence elections has since become a pervasive and persistent threat in all 57 OSCE participating States, one which many still struggle to adequately address. With presidential, parliamentary, or local elections scheduled in 15 OSCE participating States before the end of 2020, the stakes could not be higher. The COVID-19 pandemic has added another level of complexity, as Russia, China, and Iran are all attempting to use the crisis to drive a wedge between the United States and Europe. Governments in the region are struggling to respond, with some enacting measures that further restrict the free flow of information and threaten press freedom. This briefing featured three expert panelists who each examined the implications of this emerging threat to the electoral process and explored opportunities for nations, state and local governments, the private sector, and civil society to collaborate to identify and mitigate disinformation’s corrosive effects.  Some of the more urgent concerns they noted were the increased politicization of the information space and the rise of nonstate actors.  Heather Conley, Senior Vice President for Europe, Eurasia, and the Arctic at the Center for Strategic International Studies, noted, “Russia does not create the weaknesses; they simply exploit them.  And this is where I think it’s very important to understand that in the U.S. system they’re exploiting, obviously, our partisanship.  So we are offering them the weakness, and then they use it wherever they can.” Nina Jankowicz, Disinformation Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center Science and Technology Information Program and author of the upcoming book How to Lose the Information War, said the goal is often simply to bombard the information space with so much conflicting information, the voter loses interest: “They want people to consume less news and to feel like participation at all stages of the process is futile, whether that means communicating with our elected representatives, participated in civil society, or even the act of voting itself.” She added that partisanship cannot be permitted to frame the response to disinformation. “Disinformation is not a partisan issue,” she said.  “If we’re to make any progress in protecting our democracies, we need to not only clearly recognize the threat that disinformation poses but reject its tactics whole cloth.  Any government that uses disinformation cannot hope to fight it.” Chatham House’s Sophia Ignatidou called for a US-EU approach to combatting disinformation that was rooted in international human rights. She noted, “The reason for doing that is that international human rights law is suitable to deal with an issue that doesn’t respect any physical boundaries.  And it can provide a more holistic view of the issue of disinformation which we are lacking sometimes.” Ignatidou also challenged one of the primary arguments that some of the big tech companies use to push back against regulation – freedom of expression – as misleading, because “the problem with disinformation is dissemination patterns and scale, not content, per se.  And freedom of speech does not equate [with] freedom of reach.” Other questions centered on the importance of OSCE election monitoring missions paying more attention to how disinformation impacts the atmosphere surrounding an election in the months leading up to it.  The discussion ended on a positive note as all three panelists, when asked to cite examples of successful efforts to mitigate disinformation, spoke about the importance of using trusted, credible voices at the grass-roots level and of building resilience among voters in a nonpartisan fashion.  Related Information Panelist Biographies Podcast: Helsinki on the Hill | Defending against Disinformation A Global Pandemic: Disinformation Hearing: The Scourge of Russian Disinformation Briefing: Lies, Bots, and Social Media

  • Co-Chairman Wicker Commends Decision by Belarus to Refuse Extradition of Jehovah’s Witness to Russia

    WASHINGTON—Following the April decision by the Prosecutor General of Belarus to reject the Government of Russia’s request to extradite a Russian national to face criminal charges for being a Jehovah’s Witness, Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) issued the following statement: “I commend the government of President Alexander Lukashenko for releasing Nikolai Makhalichev and rejecting the Kremlin’s request to extradite him. If forced to return to Russia, Mr. Makhalichev would face detention, a criminal trial, certain conviction, and imprisonment—merely for practicing his sincerely-held religious beliefs. “In keeping with Belarus’ OSCE commitments and other international obligations, Belarusian authorities should continue to resist the extradition of Mr. Makhalichev to Russia, allow him to move freely, and respect his human rights and fundamental freedoms, regardless of whether the Government of Belarus grants him refugee status or another country gives him legal protection.” Background Amendments in 2006 to Russia’s Federal Law on Countering Extremist Activity criminalized a wide range of religious activities as “extremist,” without precisely defining extremism or requiring that such activities have a violent element. The Russian Government invoked the law as it began relentlessly targeting Jehovah’s Witnesses, a peaceful faith community, with investigations, raids, arrests, detention, trials, the closure of local congregations, website and literature bans, and more. In July 2017, the Supreme Court of Russia upheld an earlier ruling in favor of the Ministry of Justice that Jehovah’s Witnesses are an “extremist” group, criminalizing and effectively banning their activities, and ordering their property to be seized and liquidated. Since then, Russian authorities have conducted criminal investigations into at least 333 Jehovah’s Witnesses, including Makhalichev; courts have convicted at least 32 of them. The authorities have engaged in raids, detentions, house arrests, travel restrictions, property confiscations, and even torture. In February 2020, Belarusian police detained Makhalichev, citing the criminal charges against him in Russia. He then applied for refugee status in Belarus. The Russian Prosecutor General’s Office formally requested extradition in March. The Belarusian Ministry of Interior is currently adjudicating Makhalichev's refugee application. In September 2019, the Helsinki Commission held a hearing highlighting how the Kremlin and other autocratic governments engage in transnational repression against people they perceive as hostile to them: using tools such as INTERPOL to request arrest and extradition, and sometimes even surveilling, abducting, and assassinating targeted persons on foreign soil. Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L Hastings (FL-20), Co-Chairman Wicker, Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02), and Ranking Member Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) introduced the Transnational Repression Accountability and Prevention (TRAP) Act to combat such threats. Like all participating States of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Russia and Belarus have repeatedly committed themselves to recognizing, respecting, and protecting freedom of religion or belief. In December 2019, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo redesignated Russia for the Special Watch List of countries that have committed severe violations of religious freedom, per the Frank R. Wolf International Religious Freedom Act. Since 2017, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom has recommended designating Russia as a Country of Particular Concern under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998. Belarusian law authorizes the government to grant refugee status to a foreigner if he or she has a “well-founded fears of being persecuted in the country of his/her citizenship for the reason… of…religion,” and prohibits the government from expelling the applicant to that country, even if the government denies, revokes, or otherwise removes their refugee status. The law also requires the government to give foreigners requesting refugee status or related legal protection access to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees.

  • Hastings and Wicker Call for Release of Kyrgyz Activist Azimjan Askarov

    WASHINGTON—In response to the May 13 decision of the Supreme Court of Kyrgyzstan to uphold the life sentence of Kyrgyz human rights defender Azimjan Askarov, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) and Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) issued the following statement: “We are extremely disappointed by the decision of Kyrgyzstan’s Supreme Court to reject the appeal of human rights activist Azimjan Askarov. This continues the travesty of justice that has left Mr. Askarov languishing in prison for more than a decade and demonstrates the serious shortcomings of Kyrgyzstan’s court system. We call on President Jeenbekov to release Mr. Askarov immediately, even on humanitarian grounds because of his poor health.” Azimjan Askarov was charged with incitement in relation to the murder of a policeman in 2010 during the ethnic violence in southern Kyrgyzstan that left hundreds of mainly ethnic Uzbeks dead. Although they were the vast majority of victims, ethnic Uzbeks, including Mr. Askarov, also were the majority of those accused of fomenting the violence. Prior to 2010, Mr. Askarov had worked to uncover police corruption and abuse in the community, and his arrest may have been retaliation. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) monitored his trials in 2010 and 2011 and documented “serious violations of fair trial standards…the failure of the authorities to adequately address the intimidation of defense witnesses and lawyers, to consider exculpatory evidence, and to effectively follow-up on visible signs of torture.” In 2016, the United Nations Human Rights Committee found that Kyrgyzstan had violated its international commitments and that Mr. Askarov had “been arbitrarily detained, held in inhumane conditions, tortured and mistreated, and prevented from adequately preparing his trial defense.” Mr. Askarov’s family have reported that his health continues to decline; they also are concerned about the possibility of his contracting COVID-19 in prison.

  • Helsinki Commission Briefing to Examine Corrosive Impact of Disinformation on the Electoral Process

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following briefing: DISINFORMATION, COVID-19, AND THE ELECTORAL PROCESS Thursday, May 21, 2020 10:30 a.m. – 11:30 a.m. Register to attend. Free and fair elections are one of the most fundamental measures of a democratic society. During the 2016 presidential elections, many Americans became aware for the first time that disinformation can be easily coupled with technology by state and nonstate actors to disrupt and muddy the information space in the months, weeks, and days leading up to an election.  The use of disinformation to influence elections has since become a pervasive and persistent threat in all 57 OSCE participating States, one which many countries still struggle to adequately address. With presidential, parliamentary, or local elections scheduled in 15 OSCE participating States before the end of the year, the stakes cannot be higher. The COVID-19 pandemic has added another level of complexity, as Russia, China, and Iran are all attempting to use the crisis to drive a wedge between the United States and Europe. Governments in the region are struggling to respond, with some enacting measures that further restrict the free flow of information and threaten press freedom. This briefing will examine the implications of this emerging threat to the electoral process and explore opportunities for nations, state and local governments, the private sector, and civil society to collaborate to identify and mitigate disinformation’s corrosive effects. Expert panelists scheduled to participate include: Heather Conley, Senior Vice President for Europe, Eurasia, and the Arctic, The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) Nina Jankowicz, Disinformation Fellow, Woodrow Wilson Center Science and Technology Information Program; author of “How to Lose the Information War” Sophia Ignatidou, Academy Associate, International Security Programme, Chatham House

  • World Press Freedom Day in the OSCE Region

    Madam Speaker, I rise today to emphasize the urgency of global press freedom, particularly across the 57-nation region of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). Earlier this week, we celebrated World Press Freedom Day, a day originally proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly in December 1993 to celebrate the fundamental principle of a free and independent press. On this day and beyond, we honor journalists and media professionals for their tireless service in reporting the truth, sometimes at the risk of their own personal safety. World Press Freedom Day serves as an important reminder to governments around the world to respect their country’s commitment to press freedom. The U.S. Helsinki Commission, of which I am Chairman, is charged with monitoring compliance with human rights and security commitments in the OSCE region. Freedom of the press is a foundational commitment to human rights and democracy. Unfortunately, however, some leaders view the media as a threat and seek to silence individuals and outlets through financial, legal, and physical means. What these leaders truly fear is that journalists will expose corruption, human rights violations, abuses of power, and other undemocratic behavior. According to the latest reports from the Committee to Protect Journalists, 250 journalists are imprisoned worldwide for their work, 64 journalists are missing, and 1,369 journalists have been killed since 1992. Additionally, Reporters Without Borders' 2020 World Press Freedom Index found that global press freedom has deteriorated by 12 percent since 2013. Madam Speaker, I also rise to applaud the undaunted service of the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, Harlem Désir. His leadership as an independent monitor for these issues among OSCE participating States has offered candid review of our collective challenges, while demonstrating the importance of OSCE institutions.  Mr. Désir’s team has provided impeccable service to help nations implement their international commitments to this end through country visits and legislative review, as well as hosting expert conferences.  I encourage my colleagues to closely follow his work and to learn more about his mandate by reviewing the proceedings of the U.S. Helsinki Commission hearing I chaired with Mr. Désir on July 25, 2019 addressing “State of Media Freedom in the OSCE Region.” Madam Speaker, amid this global pandemic, it is more important than ever that journalists and media professionals are able to work freely and without retribution. Unfortunately, too many journalists remain in jail throughout the OSCE region, while states like Russia, Azerbaijan, and Hungary criminalize providing essential information and transparency about the COVID-19 pandemic. Independent media continues to be assaulted under the pretense of punishing allegedly false, misleading, or unofficial information. This is unacceptable. Earlier in April, I released statements expressing concern with the latest attacks on press freedom in Russia and the unchecked power granted to Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán amid the coronavirus pandemic. During these trying times, strong journalism and access to accurate, unbiased information are essential tools for countering the spread of the disease. I ask my colleagues to join me in urging states to recognize the indispensable role of the media during this time and to reverse policies that in any way discourage freedom of expression.

  • Human Rights and Democracy in a Time of Pandemic

    The outbreak of the novel coronavirus pandemic has prompted governments around the world to take extraordinary measures in the interest of public health and safety. As of early April, nearly two-thirds of the 57 participating States of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe had declared “states of emergency” or invoked similar legal measures in response to the crisis. Often such measures have enabled governments to enact large-scale social distancing policies and suspend economic activity to save lives and preserve the capacity of national public health infrastructure to respond to the spread of infections. At the same time, human rights organizations and civil society activists have expressed concern regarding the breadth of some emergency measures and recalled the long history of government abuse of emergency powers to trample civil liberties. Exactly three decades ago, OSCE participating States unanimously endorsed a set of basic principles governing the imposition of states of emergency, including the protection of fundamental freedoms in such times of crisis. In 1990 in Copenhagen, OSCE countries affirmed that states of emergency must be enacted by public law and that any curtailment of human rights and civil liberties must be “limited to the extent strictly required by the exigencies of the situation.” According to the Copenhagen Document, emergency measures furthermore should never discriminate based on certain group characteristics or be used to justify torture. Building on these commitments a year later in Moscow, participating States underscored that states of emergency should not “subvert the democratic constitutional order, nor aim at the destruction of internationally recognized human rights and fundamental freedoms.” The Moscow Document stresses the role of legislatures in imposing and lifting such declarations, the preservation of the rule of law, and the value of guaranteeing “freedom of expression and freedom of information…with a view to enabling public discussion on the observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms as well as on the lifting of the state of public emergency.” In some corners of the OSCE region, however, national authorities are violating these and other OSCE commitments in the name of combatting coronavirus. While many extraordinary responses are justified in the face of this crisis, government overreach threatens the well-being of democracy and the resilience of society at a critical time. Download the full report to learn more.

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