Attacks on Places of Worship in the Balkans

Attacks on Places of Worship in the Balkans

Hon.
Christopher H. Smith
United States
House of Representatives
107th Congress Congress
First Session Session
Wednesday, May 16, 2001

Mr. Speaker, news reports from Bosnia and Kosovo earlier this month give reason to despair. First, in Bosnia-Herzegovina, about 30 people were injured and property was damaged during riots in the "Republika Srpska'' cities of Trebinje on May 5 and Banja Luka on May 7. Islamic leaders, Bosnian officials and representatives of the international community were attacked during ceremonies to lay the first stones of mosques being rebuilt where mosques destroyed by Serb militants in 1993 once stood.

We remember well, hundreds of mosques were destroyed during the war as part of the genocidal campaign of ethnic cleansing. The apparent purpose was to erase the cultural vestiges of the Bosniac population which was terrorized and forced to flee. It was not uncommon for the local ethnic Serbs subsequently to deny a mosque had ever existed, once the rubble had been cleared away. The famous Ferhadija mosque in Banja Luka built in 1583 was blown to bits on May 7, 1993. The ceremony exactly eight years later was the culmination of persistent efforts, including the Helsinki Commission which I co-chair, to get Republika Srpska leaders to permit the reconstruction of destroyed mosques, which they finally did this year.

The riots last week demonstrate the continued intolerance in the region. Moreover, while Bosnian Serb officials have officially condemned the incidents, there are indications that both the Trebinje and Banja Luka events were orchestrated and perhaps linked. In Trebinje, the police force seemed simply to be not adequate. In Banja Luka, though, some believe that the police forces may have been involved in plans to disrupt the ceremonies. Radovan Karadzic, the wartime Bosnian Serb leader who has been indicted for genocide but remains at large, is alleged to have been responsible. Meanwhile, in Kosovo on May 6, local Albanians threw stones breaking windows and the doors of the Serbian Orthodox Church of St. Dimitrije in the village of Susica. Damage was done inside, and some cash offering was stolen. This was only the most recent in a wave of attack since the end of the conflict in Kosovo in 1999 in which about one hundred Orthodox churches have been damaged or destroyed. Many of these incidents have been documented by Serbian Orthodox Bishop Artemije in testimony before the Helsinki Commission.

Mr. Speaker, there are signs that in Kosovo, too, these attacks are not spontaneous acts of intolerance. Unfortunately, it seems that an environment has been created in which such acts of violence are not discouraged, let alone thwarted. Mr. Speaker, attacks on places of worship are reprehensible, no matter what the faith, no matter what the ethnicity of the worshipers. These sites are sacred to believers, and important as cultural symbols even to many who are not. Orchestrated or spontaneous, these attacks must be stopped. The international presence, including peacekeeping forces, local law enforcement, political leaders, and religious figures across faiths must be part of the solution, not the problem.

I was particularly disappointed with the response of Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica, who, while criticizing those who engaged in violence, sought to place some of the blame on those working to rebuild the mosques in Republika Srpska. He was quoted as saying that some churches and mosques should not be rebuilt because they might provoke such incidents. Blaming the victim, sadly, has become a norm in the minds of too many who could and should, instead, be champions of justice. In conclusion, Mr. Speaker, let us remember that freedom of thought, religion and belief is a fundamental human right, and attacks on religious sites are attacks on that right, attacks that must be wholeheartedly condemned and hopefully prevented from happening again.

 

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Some of these challenges are blatant, others concealed; some of them follow traditional methods to silence free speech and critical voices, some use new technologies to suppress and restrict the free flow of information and media pluralism; and far too many result in physical harassment and deadly violence against journalists.  Today, I would like to draw your attention to the constant struggle of so many institutions and NGOs around the world, including your Commission and my Institution, to combat and ultimately stop violence against journalists. I would also like to address several other challenges that I want to place in the center of my professional activities, each of which I intend to improve by relentlessly using the public voice I am now given at the OSCE.  Let me first start with violence against journalists.  Ever since it was created in 1997, my Office has been raising attention to the alarming increase of violent attacks against journalists. Not only is the high number of violent attacks against journalists a cause for concern. Equally alarming is the authorities' far too-prevalent willingness to classify many of the murders as unrelated to the journalists' professional activities. We also see that more and more often critical speech is being punished with questionable charges brought against the journalists.  Impunity of perpetrators and the responsible authorities' passivity in investigating and failing to publicly condemn these murders breeds further violence. There are numerous cases that need to be raised over and over again. We need to continue to loudly repeat the names of these courageous individuals who lost their lives for the words they have written. I am sorry for all those whom I will not mention today; but the names that follow are on the list that I call ``the Hall of Shame'' of those governments that still have not brought to justice the perpetrators of the horrifying murders that happened in their countries.  The most recent murder of a journalist in the OSCE area is the one of the Kyrgyz opposition journalist Gennady Pavlyuk (Bely Parokhod), who was killed in Kazakhstan in December last year. It gives me hope that the new Interim Government of Kyrgyzstan has announced to save no efforts to bring the perpetrators to justice, as well as those involved in the 2007 murder of Alisher Saipov (Siyosat).  The Russian Federation remains the OSCE participating State where most members of the media are killed. Paul Klebnikov (Forbes, Russia), Anna Politkovskaya (Novaya Gazeta), Anastasia Baburova (Novaya Gazeta), are the most reported about, but let us also remember Magomed Yevloyev (Ingushetiya), Ivan Safronov (Kommersant), Yury Shchekochikhin (Novaya Gazeta), Igor Domnikov (Novaya Gazeta), Vladislav Listyev (ORT), Dmitry Kholodov (Moskovsky Komsomolets) and many others.  We also should not forget the brutal murders of the following journalists, some remain unresolved today:  Hrant Dink (Agos) Armenian Turkish journalist was shot in 2007 in Turkey.  Elmar Huseynov (Monitor) was murdered in 2005 in Azerbaijan.  Georgy Gongadze (Ukrainskaya Pravda) was killed in 2000 in Ukraine.  In Serbia, Slavko Curuvija (Dnevni Telegrat) was murdered in 1999, and Milan Pantic (Vecernje Novosti) was killed in 2001.  In Montenegro, Dusko Jovanovic (Dan), was shot dead in 2004.  In Croatia, Ivo Pukanic (Nacional) and his marketing director, Niko Franjic, were killed by a car bomb in 2008.  Violence against journalists equals violence against society and democracy, and it should be met with harsh condemnation and prosecution of the perpetrators. There can be no improvement without an overhaul of the very apparatus of prosecution and law enforcement, starting from the very top of the Government pyramid.  There is no true press freedom as long as journalists have to fear for their lives while performing their work. The OSCE commitments oblige all participating States to provide safety to these journalists, and I will do my best to pursue this goal with the mandate I am given and with all professional tools at my disposal.  We also observe another very worrying trend; more and more often the imprisonment of critical journalists based on political motivations including fabricated charges. Let me mention some cases:  In Azerbaijan, the prominent editor-in-chief of the now-closed independent Russian-language weekly, Realny Azerbaijan, and Azeri-language daily, Gundalik Azarbaycan, Eynulla Fatullayev was sentenced in 2007 to a cumulative eight-and-a-half years in prison on charges on defamation, incitement of ethnic hatred, terrorism and tax evasion. The European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) found Azerbaijan in violation of Article 10 and Article 6, paragraphs 1 and 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights, so there is only one possible outcome--Fatullayev should be immediately released.  In Kazakhstan, Ramazan Yesergepov, the editor of Alma-Ata Info, is serving a three-year prison term on charges of disclosing state secrets.  Emin Milli and Adnan Hajizade, bloggers from Azerbaijan, are serving two and a half years and two years in prison respectively since July 2009 on charges of hooliganism and infliction of light bodily injuries.  In Uzbekistan, two independent journalists, Dilmurod Saiid (a freelancer) and Solijon Abdurahmanov (Uznews), are currently serving long jail sentences (twelve-and-a-half-years and ten years) on charges of extortion and drug possession.  I will continue to raise my voice and demand the immediate release of media workers imprisoned for their critical work.  I join Chairman Cardin for commending independent journalists in the Helsinki Commission's recent statement on World Press Freedom Day. These professionals pursue truth wherever it may lead them, often at great personal risk. They indeed play a crucial and indispensable role in advancing democracy and human rights. By highlighting these murder and imprisonment cases, by no means do I intend to neglect other forms of harassment or intimidation that also have a threatening effect on journalists. Let me just recall that, with the heightened security concerns in the last decade, police and prosecutors have increasingly raided editorial offices, journalists' homes, or seized their equipment to find leaks that were perceived as security threats. Suppression and restriction of Internet Freedom  Turning to the problems facing Internet freedom, we can see that new media have changed the communications and education landscape in an even more dramatic manner than did the broadcast media in the last half century. Under my mandate, the challenge has remained the same: how to safeguard or enhance pluralism and the free flow of information, both classical Helsinki obligations within the OSCE.  It was in 1998 that I read the words of Vinton G. Cerf in his article called ``Truth and the Internet''. It perfectly summarizes the nature of the Internet and the ways it can create freedom.  Dr. Cerf calls the Internet one of the most powerful agents of freedom: It exposes truth to those who wish to see it. But he also warns us that the power of the Internet is like a two-edged sword: it can also deliver misinformation and uncorroborated opinion with equal ease. The thoughtful and the thoughtless co-exist side by side in the Internet's electronic universe. What is to be done, asks Cerf.  His answer is to apply critical thinking. Consider the Internet as an opportunity to educate us all. We truly must think about what we see and hear, and we must evaluate and select. We must choose our guides. Furthermore, we must also teach our children to think more deeply about what they see and hear. That, more than any electronic filter, he says, will build a foundation upon which truth can stand.  Today, this foundation upon which truth could indeed so firmly stand is under continuous pressure by governments. As soon as governments realized that the Internet challenges secrecy and censorship, corruption, inefficiency and bad governing, they started imposing controls on it. In many countries and in many ways the effects are visible and they indeed threaten the potential for information to circulate freely.  The digital age offers the promise of a truly democratic culture of participation and interactivity. Realizing that promise is the challenge of our times. In the age of the borderless Internet, the protection of the right to freedom of expression ``regardless of frontiers'' takes on a new and more powerful meaning.  In an age of rapid technological change and convergence, archaic governmental controls over the media are increasingly unjust, indefensible and ultimately unsustainable. Despite progress, many challenges remain, including the lack of or poor quality of national legislation relating to freedom of information, a low level of implementation in many OSCE member states and existing political resistance.  The importance of providing free access for all people anywhere in the world cannot be raised often enough in the public arena, and cannot be discussed often enough among stakeholders: civil society, media, as well as local and international authorities.  Freedom of speech is more than a choice about which media products to consume.  Media freedom and freedom of speech in the digital age also mean giving everyone--not just a small number of people who own the dominant modes of mass communication, but ordinary people, too--an opportunity to use these new technologies to participate, interact, build, route around and talk about whatever they wish--be it politics, public issues or popular culture. The Internet fundamentally affects how we live. It offers extraordinary opportunities for us to learn, trade, connect, create and also to safeguard human rights and strengthen democratic values. It allows us to hear each other, see each other and speak to each other. It can connect isolated people and help them through their personal problems.  These rights, possibilities and ideals are at the heart of the Helsinki Process and the OSCE principles and commitments that we share. We must find the best ways to spread access to the Internet, so that the whole world can benefit from what it can offer, rather than increasing the existing gaps between those who have access to information and those who do not. And to those governments who fear and distrust the openness brought along by the Internet, let me emphasize over and over again:  The way a society uses the new communications technologies and how it responds to economic, political and cultural globalization will determine the very future of that society. Restrict access to information, and your chances to develop will become restricted. Open up the channels of free communication, and your society will find ways to prosper.  I was delighted to hear Secretary of State Clinton speak about a basic freedom in her January speech on Internet freedom in the ``Newseum''. This freedom is the freedom to connect. Secretary Clinton rightly calls this freedom the freedom of assembly in cyber space. It allows us to come together online, and shape our society in fundamental ways. Fame or money is no longer a requisite to immensely affect our world.  My office is rapidly developing a comprehensive strategy to identify the main problems related to Internet regulation in the 56 countries of the OSCE, and ways to address these issues. I will count on the support of the Helsinki Commission to advance the universal values that this strategy will attempt to extend to those countries where these values are still being questioned.  Let me also mention the importance to protect the freedom of other new technologies.  Only two weeks ago, my Office organized the 12th Central Asia Media Conference in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, where media professionals from all five Central Asian countries adopted a declaration on access to information and new technologies. This document calls on OSCE governments to facilitate the freer and wider dissemination of information, including through modern information and communication technologies, so as to ensure wide access of the public to governmental information.  It also reiterates that new technologies strengthen democracy by ensuring easy access to information, and calls upon state institutions with legislative competencies to refrain from adopting new legislation that would restrict the free flow of information. And only this spring my Office published a guide to the digital switchover, to assist the many OSCE countries where the switch from analogue to digital will take place in the next five years. The aim of the guide is to help plan the digitalization process, and help ensure that it positively affects media freedom, as well as the choice and quality available to the audience.  Besides advocating the importance of good digitalization strategies, I will also use all available fora to raise attention to the alarming lack of broadcast pluralism, especially television broadcast pluralism, in many OSCE countries. As television is the main source of information in many OSCE regions, we must ensure that the laws allow for diverse, high-quality programs and objective news to easily reach every one of us. Only well-informed citizens can make good choices and further democratic values. Whether we talk about Internet regulation, inventive ways to switch to digital while preserving the dominance of a few selected broadcasters, attempts to limit access to information or broadcast pluralism, we must keep one thing in mind: No matter what governments do, in the long run, their attempts to regulate is a lost battle.  People always find ways to obtain the rights that are denied to them. History has shown this over and over again. In the short run, however, it is very clear that I will intervene with governments which try to restrict the free flow of information. Defamation  Similar to fighting violence against journalists, my Office has been campaigning since its establishment in 1997 to decriminalize defamation and libel in the entire OSCE region.  Unfortunately, in most countries, defamation is still punishable by imprisonment, which threatens the existence of critical speech in the media. This is so despite the consistent rulings of the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, stating that imprisonment for speech offences, especially when committed by criticizing public figures, is a disproportionate punishment.  Let us again remind ourselves of the journalists and bloggers I have mentioned above when discussing violence against journalists. They are currently in prison because their writing was considered defamatory. Their fate reminds us all of the importance of the right to freely speak our mind.  This problem needs urgent reform not only in the new, but also in the old democracies of the OSCE. Although the obsolete criminal provisions have not been used in Western Europe for decades, their ``chilling effect'' remained.  Furthermore, the mere existence of these provisions has served as a justification for other states that are unwilling to stop the criminalization of journalistic errors, and instead leave these offenses solely to the civil-law domain.  Currently, defamation is a criminal offence in all but ten OSCE countries--my home country Bosnia and Herzegovina, Cyprus, Estonia, Georgia, Ireland, Moldova, Romania, Ukraine, the United Kingdom and the United States.  Last year, three OSCE countries decriminalized defamation, which I consider to be an enormous success: Ireland, Romania and the United Kingdom; the last being the first among the Western European participating States to officially decriminalize defamation.  Some other countries, such as Armenia, are currently reforming their defamation provisions, and I hope that I can soon welcome the next country that carries out this important and very long overdue reform.   Concluding remarks  Dear Chairmen,  Dear Commissioners,  Ladies and Gentlemen,  The above problematic areas--violence against journalists, restrictions of new media including the Internet, lack of pluralism and resistance to decriminalize defamation--are among the most urgent media freedom problems that need our attention and concentrated efforts today. However, we will also not forget about the many other fields where there is plenty of room to improve. Of course, I will not miss the excellent opportunity that we are here together today to raise your attention to the topic that my distinguished predecessor, Miklos Haraszti, has already raised with you: the establishment and the adoption of a federal shield law in the United States.  As you know, my Office has been a dedicated promoter of the federal shield law for many years. If passed, the Free Flow of Information Act would provide a stronger protection to journalists; it could ensure that imprisonments such as that of Judith Miller in 2005, and Josh Wolf in 2006, could never again take place and hinder investigative journalism. But the passage of such legislation would resonate far further than within the borders of the United States of America. It could send a very much needed signal and set a precedent to all the countries where protection of sources is still opposed by the government and is still not more than a dream for journalists.  I respectfully ask all of you, distinguished Commissioners, to continue and even increase your efforts to enable that the Free Flow of Information Act soon becomes the latest protector of media freedom in the United States.  And of course I cannot close my speech without mentioning my home country, Bosnia and Herzegovina. As you know, not only Bosnia and Herzegovina, but also most of the emerging democracies in the Balkans enjoy modern and forward-looking media legislation. We can openly say that they almost have it all when it comes to an advanced legal and regulatory framework enabling free expression to thrive. But it is not that simple. I use this moment to pose several questions: if there are good laws, then why do we still face severe problems in relation to media freedom, why do we stagnate and sometimes even move backward? Where does the problem lie? And, more importantly, how can we solve it and move ahead?  What Bosnia and Herzegovina shows us is that good laws in themselves are not enough. Without their good implementation, they are only documents filled with unrealized potential. In countries that struggle with similar problems, we must stress over and over again: without the full implementation of valid legislation, without genuine political will, without a comprehensive understanding of the media's role in a functioning democracy, without the creation of a safe environment for journalists to do their work, and without true commitment by all actors, these countries risk falling far behind international standards.  Apart from unmet expectations and disillusioned citizens, we all know that the consequences of politicized and misused media could be very serious. In conclusion, let me assure you, dear Commissioners, that I will not hesitate to openly and vigorously remind any country of their responsibilities toward implementing the OSCE commitments to the freedom of the media.  I am also asking you to use this opportunity today and send a clear message to the governments of all OSCE countries to do their utmost to fully implement their media legislation safeguarding freedom of expression. The governments have the power to create an environment in which media can perform their unique role free of pressures and threats. Without this, no democracy can flourish.  Thank you for your attention.

  • Mitigating Inter-Ethnic Conflict in the OSCE Region

    This hearing, presided over by Sen. Benjamin Cardin, discussed the Helsinki Process’s role in mitigating inter-ethnic conflict in the OSCE region. The hearing discussed the situation in Kyrgyzstan, ethnic conflicts in the Caucasus, the still-lingering effects of the 1944 mass deportation of Crimean minorities, and ethnic cleansing in Bosnia. Witnesses at the hearing included Heidi Tagliavani, Ambassador and Under Secretary of State for Switzerland and head of the European Union investigation of the 2008 Russia-Georgia conflict; Peter Semneby, Special Representative for the South Caucasus for the European Union; and Mr. Soren Jessen-Petersen, former Special Representative for Kosovo for the United Nations.

  • Embassy Row: Swiss "Intolerance"

    The leaders of a congressional human rights panel criticized Swiss voters for approving a resolution to ban the further construction of mosque minarets and warned that the prohibition violates European religious freedom standards. "If this ban on religious expression is allowed to stand, Switzerland will clearly be out of step with its OSCE commitments of freedom of religion and belief," Rep. Alcee L. Hastings said this week, referring to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. The 56-nation OSCE is a major human rights alliance throughout Europe and Eurasia. Mr. Hastings, Florida Democrat, is the co-chairman of the congressional Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe. "I hope the Swiss courts will overturn this referendum and that the Swiss government will double its efforts to implement anti-discrimination laws and have an open and honest dialogue about religious and ethnic tolerance," Mr. Hastings added. Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin, the commission chairman, expressed worries that the referendum will send the message that Swiss are an intolerant people. "The Swiss vote to ban minarets is worrying for a number of reasons, including the fact that the Swiss people have seen fit to limit the religious practice of one particular group," the Maryland Democrat said. "I trust the Swiss government will work swiftly to be sure that the Swiss are not viewed as an intolerant people." Swiss citizens endorsed the referendum Sunday with 57.5 percent of the vote. The referendum bans the further construction of minarets, the mosque towers used to broadcast daily calls to prayer, but it does not restrict the construction of further mosques. In Switzerland, Ulrich Schuler, the architect of the referendum endorsed by the Swiss People's Party, told reporters that the ban was necessary because minarets are symbols of radical Islamic demands to impose Muslim laws in the majority Christian country.

  • The Western Balkans: Policy Responses to Today's Challenges

    This hearing reviewed the Vice President Biden’s meeting in Sarajevo and the Congressional delegation to Bosnia to speak about democratization process in the Balkan states. The Commissioners mentioned the need for governing bodies and systems that include every voice, particularly the ethnic communities in each country. These issues have correlated to potential instability in Bosnia resulting from the gridlock in government there.   The democratization and integration efforts, in relation to the Balkan joining closer to the greater European community and NATO, were touched upon to see the progress made.  The witness discussed examples of initiatives that moved the Balkans towards the goal of international standard of governance, for example the Model Court Initiative in Bosnia, which has helped to institute European standards in 33 local courts, upgrade court infrastructure and improve customer service.

  • Scars of 1974 Invasion Abound as Leaders Seek to Reunite Cyprus

    By Ronald J. McNamara, Policy Advisor Cyprus’ unique location at the cultural crossroads of the eastern Mediterranean and important trade routes between Europe and the Middle East and beyond has shaped the island nation’s rich history. I recently returned to Cyprus to assess developments as the 35th commemoration of the Turkish invasion approaches and a significant portion of the country remains under occupation. Virtually every conversation during my visit, whether with officials or private citizens, touched on some aspect of the ongoing occupation of the country, the legacy of the 1974 invasion, or the prospects for a resolution of “the Cyprus issue.” In a country with slightly less than a million people covering an area slightly more than half the size of Connecticut, one is hard-pressed to find a Greek Cypriot or Turkish Cypriot family that has not been affected in one way or another by the conflict and its lingering impact. While the Cyprus conflict predated the 1975 signing of the Helsinki Final Act, many of the principles found in that historic document have particular applicability to the situation in Cyprus, including: territorial integrity of states; peaceful settlement of disputes; respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief; and fulfillment in good faith of obligations under international law. Cyprus and Turkey were both original signatories to the Final Act. Traveling to the remote Karpas peninsula, in northeastern Cyprus, I was able to speak with an elderly pensioner in Rizokarpaso, a town where thousands of Greek Cypriots once thrived.Today they number scarcely more than 200, the largest concentration of Greek Cypriots in the Turkish occupied north. A short distance from the main square, featuring a large statue of modern Turkey’s founder Kemal Atatürk on horseback, the gentleman described his existence amid a burgeoning population of newcomers from mainland Turkey. He explained that as elderly Greek Cypriots pass away in the area, their homes are occupied, often by “settlers.” The aged man, deeply rooted in the town, showed a fierce determination to remain despite the hardships, making clear that he would not be complicit with the effective cleansing of Greek Cypriots from the region. Within minutes after we sat down at a nearby cafe, a couple of young men sat conspicuously nearby, within easy listening distance from us, an action that seemed designed to intimidate. The man pointed to a building across the street that serves as the school for the small number of Greek Cypriot children a short distance from the Orthodox Church, mainly used for funerals conducted by the lone cleric permitted to conduct such services in the region. According to the May 15 “Report of the Secretary-General on the United Nations operation in Cyprus,” humanitarian assistance was provided to 367 Greek Cypriots and 133 Maronites living in the northern part of the island. While numerous mixed towns and villages existed throughout the country prior to 1974, today, the town of Pyla, partly located in the UN-monitored buffer zone, is the sole surviving bi-communal village, with around 500 Turkish Cypriots and 1,500 Greek-Cypriots. While local leaders from the communities described a generally harmonious and cooperative atmosphere, the reality is that interaction between the two remains limited, with separate schools, sports teams, municipal budgets, and police forces, among others. Many of the people I met touched in one way or another on the ongoing talks between Cypriot President Demetris Christofias and the Turkish Cypriot leader, Mehmet Talat. In his February 28, 2008 inauguration, Christofias reiterated the requirements for a negotiated resolution of the Cyprus conflict and reunification of the country as a federal bi-zonal, bi-communal, with a single sovereignty, international personality and citizenship. Christofias and Talat have repeatedly reaffirmed their commitment to such a formula based on UN Security Council resolutions dating back to the 1970s. The current talks, initiated by Christofias shortly after his 2008 election, focus on six main chapters, or themes, with corresponding working groups: governance and power sharing, European Union matters, security and guarantees, territory, property, and economic matters. Technical committees have also been established to consider crime, economic and commercial matters, cultural heritage, crisis management, humanitarian matters, health, and environmental matters. While formally conducted under the auspices of the UN, the talks are mainly being conducted directly between Christofias and Talat, with teams of experts focused on specific aspects of each topic. A meeting with George Iacovou, President Christofias’ top aide on the current direct talks, helped put the negotiations in context against the backdrop of prior efforts to reunite the country, including the Annan plan, which the Greek Cypriots overwhelmingly rejected in a 2004 referendum. Officials, including government spokesman Stefanos Stefanou repeatedly emphasized that negotiations on a resolution of the conflict be by the Cypriots, for the Cypriots. That said, such an outcome depends in large measure on Turkey playing a constructive role as the leaders of the two communities seek to hammer out a comprehensive agreement. Briefings by Foreign Minister Markos Kyprianou and other senior officials focused largely on the international dimension of the Cyprus issue. Central to the discussions was Turkey’s longstanding aspiration to join the European Union. Accession talks with Turkey began in October 2005. In July of that year, the EU welcomed the country’s decision to sign a protocol adapting the Ankara Agreement to expand the existing customs union between Turkey and the EU to include all member states, including Cyprus. Simultaneously to the signing, Ankara issued a unilateral declaration, noting that its signature did not amount to recognition of the Republic of Cyprus. In response, the EU issued its own declaration on September 21, 2005 making clear that “this declaration by Turkey is unilateral, does not form part of the Protocol and has no legal effect on Turkey’s obligations under the Protocol.” Despite signing the adapted agreement, Turkish ports remain closed to Cypriot ships and airplanes. Cypriot government officials suggested that the status quo has cost the island nation millions in lost business. EU foreign ministers meeting in Brussels on December 11, 2006 partially froze membership talks with Turkey over the impasse, suspending eight of the 35 chapters on the agenda of the accession negotiations, a step endorsed by the European Council on December 15. The Turkey 2008 Progress Report issued by the EU Commission reiterated the call for Turkey “to remove all remaining restrictions on the free movement of goods, including restrictions on means of transport regarding Cyprus.” Turkey's accession to the EU would also require Ankara to work toward recognizing the Republic of Cyprus, including establishment of diplomatic relations. The next periodic report on Turkey’s implementation of the Ankara Protocol is expected later this year. While Cyprus supports Turkey’s aspirations to join the EU, the passage of time has brought potential opposition to the surface, notably from France and Germany. Property Property, another chapter heading under active discussion, has enormous implications. According to government officials, the vast majority of properties in the occupied north were owned by Greek Cypriots. Upholding the property rights of the owners as they were prior to the invasion remains a major priority for the government, with restitution the preferred end result. Considerable real estate development in the north and the continued occupancy of their homes by strangers, has led many Greek Cypriot property owners to file cases with the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) claiming their property rights were violated. In the case of Loizidou v. Turkey, the court held that “denial of access to property in northern Cyprus was imputable to Turkey” and awarded damages, finding that the applicant had “effectively lost all control over, as well as all possibilities to use and enjoy, her property.” More recently, a judgment issued by the European Court of Justice (ECJ) in the case of Meletis Apostolides v. David Charles Orams and Linda Elizabeth Orams could have a chilling effect on foreigners purchasing property in the occupied territory. The ECJ affirmed that courts in other EU countries must recognize and enforce Cypriot court judgments. Cyprus joined the EU in 2004. Since the partial lifting, in 2003, of restrictions imposed by authorities in the north on freedom of movement, Greek Cypriots for the first time in large numbers have been able to cross into the northern part of the country – visiting their homes and villages many had not seen since 1974. Increased movement in both directions followed, with over 15 million incident-free crossings. A Greek Cypriot shared his experience of visiting his home for the first time since being forced to flee during the invasion. He discovered that a Turkish Cypriot family was living in the house. To his surprise, the father had meticulously collected and stored all of the owner’s family photos and presented him with the box at that first visit. Similarly, the occupant had placed crosses and other religious articles in the attic for safekeeping. A Turkish Cypriot expressed relief at the fact that some Greek Cypriot friends from his home village were living in his house and maintaining his lands in the southwestern part of the country. Unfortunately, these stories appear to be the exception rather than the rule. Missing Persons Of the many painful consequences of the 1974 invasion, perhaps none is as heartrending as that of missing persons. According to The Committee on Missing Persons, a total of 1493 Greek Cypriots, including five Americans, were officially reported missing in the aftermath of the conflict. Five hundred and two Turkish Cypriots had already been missing, mainly victims of inter-communal violence that erupted in the early 1960s. The remains of one of the Americans, Andrew Kassapis, were eventually recovered and returned. The cases of the other four remain open. The Committee on Missing Persons in Cyprus, established in 1981, facilitates the exhuming, indentifying and returning of remains of missing persons. The CMP mandate is limited in that it does not extend to Turkey. The Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot communities each have one member on the committee. A third member is selected by the International Committee of the Red Cross and appointed by the UN Secretary-General. While in Nicosia, I had an opportunity to be briefed separately by Elias Georgiades, the Greek Cypriot representative and Christophe Girod, the UN representative. Operating on the basis of consensus, the committee does not attempt to establish the cause of death or attribute responsibility for the death of missing persons. Since becoming operational in 2006, an anthropological laboratory has analyzed the remains of several hundred individuals. According to the committee, remains of 530 individuals have been exhumed from more than 273 burial sites throughout the country. Of remains examined at the forensic facility, the youngest individual was 10 months old and the oldest 86 years old. Walking though the lab I noted that most of the remains under examination had visible signs of gun wounds to the head. The remains of over 160 individuals have been returned to family members as a result of the bi-communal field teams and forensic work undertaken at the lab. The U.S. contributed funds for a family viewing facility which opened in 2008. Land Mines A briefing at the Mine Action Center in Cyprus provided insight into another legacy of the 1974 conflict, the presence of thousands of anti-personnel and anti-tank mines. Established in 2004, the center has assisted in planning, coordinating and monitoring of demining operations, including land surveys as well as the actual clearance and disposal of mines. While thousands of landmines have been cleared to date, thousands more remain. The center’s goal is a mine-free buffer zone by the end of 2010. In addition to efforts undertaken within the framework of the UN, Cyprus’ National Guard has worked to clear anti-personnel mines. Of the 101 known or suspected minefields in the country about half are in the UN monitored buffer zone, with most of the remainder nearby. Briefers underscored the continued threat posed by minefields adjacent to the buffer zone, recounting incidents of migrants trying to cross from the northern part of the country to the government-controlled south finding themselves surrounded by mines. Farmers on either side of the buffer zone are also at risk as they seek to cultivate the arable farming lands bordering the area. The experts described the clearing operations involved in the opening of the Ledras Street pedestrian crossing point in the middle of the Cypriot capital, Nicosia, in April 2008. The Mine Action Center is assisting in clearing operations paving the way for the opening of additional crossing points. In late June, President Christofias and Mr. Talat reached agreement on the opening of the Limnitis crossing point with access to and from Kokkina in the remote northwest, offering an opportunity for development and integration by Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots. The United Nations has maintained an operational force on Cyprus since the establishment of the United Nations Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus (UNFICYP) in March 1964, following the outbreak of intercommunal violence. The force, one of the longest existing UN peacekeeping missions, consists of 858 troops, 68 police, and 160 civilians. UNFICYP is responsible for maintaining the status quo along the de facto ceasefire lines of the Cyprus National Guard, to the south, and Turkish and Turkish Cypriot forces to the north and a buffer zone between the two. The buffer zone stretches 111 miles from east to west, with 214 square miles of land between the lines, constituting about three percent of the country’s territory. The distance of separation varies from barely more than an arm’s span in some places to about four miles. Numerous villages, including Pyla, mentioned above, are located in partially or entirely in the buffer zone. The once bustling seaside city of Famagusta along the east coast remains deserted, a veritable ghost town, as it has since the mainly Greek Cypriot population was forced to flee during the second phase of the Turkish invasion in August 1974. A center for commerce and tourism, the city and surrounding region was the second largest in the country prior to the evacuation. It is home to nearly half of the people uprooted by the conflict. Standing on the beachhead just north of the city in the Turkish-controlled area the unpopulated city stretched as far down the coast as I could see. Abandoned hotels and high-rise apartment buildings rise from the sandy shore standing as a collection of steel skeletal frames liberated of their contents by plunder and the passage of time since their occupants were forced to flee. Religious Cultural Heritage The ancient Roman city of Salamis, located a short distance from Famagusta on the east coast, was the arrival point for St. Paul on his first missionary journey, accompanied by St. Barnabas, a native son of that city. Paul eventually made his way to Paphos, on the opposite side of the island, where his preaching led to the conversion of the Roman Proconsul, making Cyprus the first country governed by a Christian. A short distance from Salamis is the village of Enkomi, where according to tradition, Barnabas’ remains were buried following his martyrdom. Among minorities throughout the country recognized by the 1960 constitution are: Maronite Christians number approximately 5,000; Armenians 2,500; and Latins (Catholics) 1,000. The overwhelming majority of Cypriots are Orthodox, with Muslims comprising the next largest faith community. His Beatitude Chrysostomos II has served as Archbishop of New Justiniana and All Cyprus since November 2006. During our meeting he underscored the long history of harmony among faith communities in Cyprus. The archbishop voiced particular concern for those displaced by the 1974 invasion and stressed the importance of upholding human rights, including the rights of individuals to return to their homes. He contrasted the efforts taken by the authorities with the support of the Church to preserve mosques in the government-controlled area with the destruction of religious cultural heritage, including churches, monasteries and chapels in the north. Archbishop Chrysostomos II, who was joined by the Bishop of Karpasia, described the challenges faced by clergy seeking to travel to the occupied north, including those seeking to participate in religious services. The rare Orthodox services that are allowed to be conducted in the north are mainly for feast days of several saints, notably St. Mamas and St. Barnabas. Even such exceptional occasions have occasionally been marred by security forces preventing worshipers from crossing into the area. The Archbishop said that the Church would soon file a formal case with the European Court of Human Rights regarding its religious sites and other property in the occupied north. In the aftermath of Turkey’s 1974 military invasion and ongoing occupation of the northern part of Cyprus, a precious piece of the country’s cultural heritage is at risk of collapse – Orthodox churches, chapels and monasteries as well as those of other Christian communities. According to Archbishop Chrysostomos II, over 500 religious sites in the area have been seriously damaged or destroyed. During my travels throughout the region, I visited a score of churches – each in various stages of deterioration, all plundered. In Lapithos, in the Keryneia region, the Agia Anastasia complex is now a tourist resort. I found the Monastery of Ayios Panteleemon, in Myrtou, reduced to little more than a pigeon coup, with bird droppings everywhere – a scene I encountered repeatedly. In each church visited the interiors were stripped of religious objects, including altars, iconostasis, icons, and fonts. In some, it was clear how frescos had been chiseled out of walls and ceilings. It was a surprise to see a single bell still hanging in one of the many bell towers I saw. The main church in Rizokarpaso and a few elsewhere in the Karpas region were noteworthy for the fact that they even had doors; most others I visited did not. One of the countryside churches I visited was being used for storage, with heavy farm equipment in the yard and plastic crates and large tractor ties filling the interior space. In Keryneia, I found that a small chapel in the port was being used by the authorities as a tourist information center and snack bar. According to Church sources, others have been converted into stables, shops, and night clubs. In the village of Kythrea, a small Catholic chapel was reduced to a shell with no roof. Most of the main church had been converted into a mosque, along with a couple of others in the town, but for some reason a quarter of the structure remained in ruins. Another church, Agios Andronikos, located nearby was heavily damaged, with the rubble of the collapsed roof strewn about the interior space, with traces of frescoes still visible on the exposed walls. In the village of Stylloi, in the Famagusta region, the Profitis Ilias Church yard also serves as a cemetery. There I found desecrated ruins of graves with all of the crosses broken off of their bases and smashed. A shed in the corner of the yard was stacked with broken crosses and headstones. Another cemetery a short distance away was similarly in shambles. An adjacent Muslim cemetery was in meticulous condition. The U.S. Agency for International Development has supported a number of restoration projects in the occupied north, including work at the Agios Mamas Church in Morfou, operated mainly as an icon museum. In Keryneia, the prominent belfry of the Archangelos Mikhael Church disguises the fact that the once venerated site has likewise been converted into an icon museum. Such collections reportedly contain a small fraction of the thousands of icons, sacred vessels, vestments, manuscripts, frescos, and mosaics looted from churches, chapels and monasteries in the north. Many stolen icons and other antiquities are placed on the auction block for sale on the international market, some making their way into U.S. collections. The Byzantine Museum, in Nicosia, featured an exhibit: “Hostages in Germany: The Plundered Ecclesiastical Treasures of the Turkish-occupied Cyprus.” In a recent case, two icons from the early 1600s taken from a church in the northern village of Trikomo, were seized in Zurich by Swiss police. In stark contrast to the situation in the occupied area, in Nicosia I visited the Ömerge Mosque housed in the 13th century Church of St. Mary built by the Augustinian religious order. The recently refurbished mosque is a functioning place of worship. A short distance away in the old walled city is Bayraktar Mosque. When I visited the site there were large pallets of stone to be used to renovate the plaza in the mosque complex. Another example is the Mosque of Umm Haram, or Hala Sultan Tekke, a mosque and prominent Muslim shrine, located in Larnaca, southeast of the capital. According to Cyprus government sources, scores of other mosques and other Islamic places of worship are maintained in the south. A visitor to Cyprus need not look far to discover the scars left by the artificial division of the country following the 1974 invasion and ongoing occupation. Since my earlier trip to that island nation eleven years ago, there has been progress on some fronts, most noticeably in terms of freedom of movement since the partial lifting, in 2003, of restrictions imposed by authorities in the north. According to officials, the majority of Turkish Cypriots hold Cyprus-issued EU passports, affording them free movement throughout the EU area, employment opportunities in member countries and other benefits. In addition, thousands of Turkish Cypriots cross into the south daily for work. Other steps have come about as a direct result of the talks between the leaders of the two communities initiated last year. It remains to be seen, however, if the current negotiations will produce a comprehensive and durable resolution to the challenges in Cyprus. Beyond practical steps to ease the day-to-day lives of Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots, key principles such as sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity as well as respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms are also at stake, with implications for conflicts elsewhere. Numerous earlier diplomatic initiatives were launched, but in the end failed. A particular challenge remains the thorny issues of the tens of thousands of Turkish troops and settlers from mainland Turkey still in Cyprus today, outnumbering Turkish Cypriots. Other factors, especially Turkey’s stated desire to join the EU, should not be discounted and could prove decisive to the ultimate success or failure of the current process. Meanwhile, Christofias and Talat and their teams grapple with an array of tough issues as they seek to overcome the legacy of the past 35 years and build a brighter future for all Cypriots.

  • Commission Plays Leading Role at Parliamentary Assembly in Lithuania

    By Robert A. Hand, Policy Advisor A bipartisan U.S. delegation traveled to Vilnius, Lithuania June 29 for the 18th Annual Session of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA). The delegation participated fully in the activity of the Assembly’s Standing Committee, the plenary sessions and the Assembly’s three General Committees. Helsinki Commission Chairman Senator Benjamin L. Cardin led the delegation, which included the following commissioners: Co-Chairman Congressman Alcee L. Hastings, Ranking Minority Member Chris Smith, and Senator Roger Wicker, Representatives Louise McIntosh Slaughter, Mike McIntyre, G.K. Butterfield and Robert B. Aderholt. Senate Assistant Majority Leader Dick Durbin, Senator George Voinovich and Representatives Lloyd Doggett, Madeleine Z. Bordallo and Gwen Moore also joined the delegation. Background of the OSCE PA The Parliamentary Assembly was created within the framework of the OSCE as an independent, consultative body consisting of more than 300 parliamentarians from each of the 56 countries, which stretch from the United States and Canada throughout Europe, the Caucasus and Central Asia. The Annual Sessions are the chief venue for debating international issues and voting on a declaration addressing human rights, democratic development, rule of law, economic, environmental and security concerns among the participating States and the international community. The United States delegation is allotted 17 seats in the Assembly. Robust Congressional participation has been a hallmark of the Parliamentary Assembly since its inception nearly 20 years ago, ensuring U.S. interests are raised and discussed. 18th Annual Session This year’s Annual Session, hosted by the Parliament (Seimas) of Lithuania from June 29 to July 3, brought together more than 500 participants from 50 of the 56 OSCE participating States under the theme: “The OSCE: Addressing New Security Challenges.” The Standing Committee -- the Assembly’s leadership body (composed of Heads of Delegations from the participating States and the elected officers) -- met prior to the Annual Session. Senator Cardin, as Head of Delegation and an OSCE PA Vice President, represented the United States. Chaired by the OSCE PA President, Portuguese parliamentarian João Soares, the committee heard reports from the Assembly’s Treasurer, German parliamentarian Hans Reidel, and from the Assembly’s Secretary General, R. Spencer Oliver of the United States. The Assembly continues to operate well within its overall budget guidelines and to receive positive assessments from auditors on financial management. The committee unanimously approved the proposed budget for 2009-2010. The Standing Committee also approved several changes in the OSCE PA’s Rules of Procedure, especially related to gender balance and the holding of elections for officers, as well as 24 Supplementary Items or resolutions for consideration in plenary or committee sessions. The committee brought up as an urgent matter a resolution regarding the detention of Iranian citizens employed by the British Embassy in Tehran. Senator Cardin spoke in support of the resolution. With the Standing Committee’s business concluded, Assembly President Soares opened the Inaugural Plenary Session, stressing in his opening remarks the need for OSCE reform. The first session concluded with a discussion of gender issues led by Swedish parliamentarian Tone Tingsgaard that included comments from Rep. Gwen Moore. A Special Plenary Session the next day was scheduled to accommodate the OSCE Chair-in-Office, Greek Foreign Minister Dora Bakoyannis, who had just presided over an informal meeting of OSCE foreign ministers in Corfu, Greece, to launch a new, high-level dialogue on European security. Senator Cardin attended the Corfu meeting as a representative of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly. Following her speech, Bakoyannis engaged in a dialogue with parliamentarians on a number of OSCE issues. Lithuanian Foreign Minister Vygaudas Usackas also addressed the special session. Lithuania will chair the OSCE in 2011. U.S. Member Involvement The U.S. delegation actively participated in the work of the Assembly’s three General Committees – the first committee for Political Affairs and Security; the second for Economic Affairs, Science, Technology and the Environment; and the third on Democracy, Human Rights and Humanitarian Questions. Each committee considered its own draft resolution, prepared by an elected Rapporteur, as well as 23 of the 25 Supplementary Items. Two Supplementary Items, including one by President Soares on Strengthening the OSCE, were considered in plenary session. Representatives Chris Smith, Mike McIntyre, and Gwen Moore each proposed resolutions that were adopted dealing with freedom of expression on the Internet, international cooperation in Afghanistan, and prevention of maternal mortality respectively. Members of the U.S. delegation were also instrumental in garnering support for Supplementary Items introduced by others, co-sponsoring eight resolutions introduced by delegations of other countries. The U.S. delegation was responsible for 26 amendments to either the committee draft resolutions or various Supplementary Items. Chairman Cardin proposed climate-related amendments to a resolution on energy security and suggested the OSCE initiate work with Pakistan in the resolution on Afghanistan. Co-Chairman Hastings worked on numerous human rights and tolerance issues. Other amendments were sponsored by: Sen. Durbin on improving international access to clean water; Sen. Voinovich on combating anti-Semitism; Sen. Wicker on preserving cultural heritage; Rep. Smith on preventing the abuse of children; and Rep. Butterfield on responding to climate change. Bilateral Meetings The U.S. delegation also engaged in a variety of activities associated with the Annual Session, holding bilateral meetings with the delegations of Russia and Georgia focusing on their respective internal political developments and the tension in the Caucasus since Russia invaded Georgia last August and then sought to legitimize breakaway regions. Separate meetings were also held with Lithuanian President Valdas Adamkus and other Lithuanian leaders, at which the delegation pressed for new laws to resolve outstanding claims of property seized during the Nazi and Communist eras. The delegation also presented President Adamkus a letter from President Barack Obama on the occasion of the 1000th anniversary of the first written reference to Lithuania. Members of the U.S. delegation attended a working lunch to discuss gender issues, hosted by Swedish parliamentarian Tingsgaard. A variety of social events, including a reception hosted by the British delegation at their embassy, afforded numerous informal opportunities to discuss issues of common concern. U.S. Leadership As a demonstration of active U.S. engagement, a Member of the U.S. Congress has always held some elected or appointed leadership role in the OSCE PA. The Vilnius Annual Session has allowed this to continue at least through July 2012. Chairman Cardin was reelected to a three-year term as one of nine Vice Presidents, a very welcome development given his long record of OSCE engagement going back to his years in the House of Representatives. Rep. Aderholt, who has attended every OSCE PA Annual Session since 2002 and often visits European countries to press human rights issues, was elected Vice Chair of the third General Committee, which handles democracy and human rights. President Soares was reelected for a second term and selected Rep. Smith to serve as a Special Representative on Human Trafficking and asked Co-Chairman Hastings to continue serving as Special Representative on Mediterranean Affairs. An unfortunate development in the election of new officers is the absence of a representative of the Russian Federation. Because the United States government may disagree so substantively with current Kremlin policies, the U.S. government has always felt it critical to welcome Russian engagement in the OSCE PA. It was, therefore, a disappointment that the head of the Russian Federation delegation, Alexander Kozlovsky, reversed course and decided not to run for a Vice Presidency seat and more disappointing that a political bloc at the OSCE PA defeated Russian incumbent Natalia Karpovich as rapporteur of the Third Committee. Karpovich had been accommodating of U.S. human rights initiatives in her draft resolution. Vilnius Declaration Participants at the closing plenary session adopted the final Vilnius Declaration -- a lengthy document which reflects the initiatives and input of the U.S. delegation. Among other things, the declaration calls for strengthening the OSCE in order to enhance its legitimacy and political relevance; addresses conventional arms control, disarmament and other security-related issues of current concern in Europe; calls for greater cooperation in the energy sector and better protection of the environment; and stresses the continued importance of democratic development and respect for human rights, especially as they relate to tolerance in society and freedom of expression. The most contentious part of the declaration related to the promotion of human rights and civil liberties twenty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, which included language noting the 70th anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. While some of the language may have been provocative, strong Russian objections to the entire text appeared to be motivated by a desire to defend a Stalinist past and minimize its crimes. The Russian delegation’s effort to block passage of this resolution reflects a similar sentiment in Moscow that recently led to the creation of a widely-criticized commission "for counteracting attempts to falsify history to the detriment of Russia's interests." As a July 9 column for The Economist noted about recent Russian efforts to excuse Stalinism, the “debate in Vilnius makes it a bit harder to maintain that stance.” Some of Russia’s traditional friends and allies in the OSCE PA were noticeably absent from the debate. The Balkans While the Congressional delegation’s work focused heavily on representing the United States at the OSCE PA, the trip afforded an opportunity to advance U.S. interests elsewhere in Europe. While Co-Chairman Hastings traveled to Albania to observe that country’s first parliamentary elections since becoming a NATO member earlier this year, the rest of the delegation visited Bosnia-Herzegovina. Bosnia-Herzegovina is still recovering from the conflict in the 1990s and the associated horrors of the Srebrenica genocide and massive ethnic cleansing. The reverberations of the conflict continue to hinder prospects for European and Euro-Atlantic integration. The United States was instrumental in bringing the Bosnian conflict to an end in 1995, especially with the negotiation of the Dayton Agreement, and the United States has invested considerable financial, diplomatic and military resources in the post-conflict period. The visit came one month after Vice President Joe Biden visited Sarajevo with a message of renewed U.S. engagement in the Balkans. While meetings with Bosnian political leaders revealed little willingness to work constructively toward constitutional reform needed for an effective central government, a meeting with English-speaking university students revealed a refreshing desire to overcome ethnic divisions and move the country forward. Belarus Given its proximity to Vilnius, members of the Congressional delegation visited Minsk, the capital of Belarus, to press for greater democracy and respect for human rights in that country. Belarus has remained a repressive state over the years even as its European neighbors have transitioned from being former Soviet or Warsaw Pact states to EU and NATO members or aspirants. Following a delegation meeting with President Alexander Lukashenka, Belarusian authorities released imprisoned American Emanuel Zeltzer, who was convicted of espionage in a closed trial and had numerous health concerns. The delegation also urged for greater progress in meeting the conditions in the Belarus Democracy Act passed by the U.S. Congress in 2004 and reauthorized in 2006. A meeting with political activists provided useful information on the situation for political opposition, non-governmental organizations and independent media. Finally, the delegation pressed Belarus’ officials to allow for an increased U.S. diplomatic presence in the country. In response to expanding U.S. sanctions, Minsk kicked out 30 diplomats last year, including the U.S. ambassador, leaving a staff of five at the U.S. Embassy. During the course of the Vilnius Annual Session, Senator Voinovich also broke away for a brief visit to Riga, Latvia. That visit was among the highest level visits from a U.S. official in three years, and was important for our relations with this NATO ally, which has deployed troops with Americans in Afghanistan without caveat and recently suffered losses which easily impact such a small country. U.S. interests abroad are advanced through active congressional participation in the OSCE PA. The 19th Annual Session of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly will be held early next July in Oslo, Norway.

  • Cyprus’ Religious Cultural Heritage in Peril

    This briefing, moderated by Ronald J. McNamara, International Policy Director of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, was part and parcel of the CSCE’s ongoing efforts to assess implementation of OSCE commitments by participating states. Likewise, member states of the OSCE had acknowledged the important contribution of religious faiths, institutions, and organizations to cultural heritage and committed themselves “to cooperate closely with such groups regarding the preservation of the cultural heritage, paying due attention to monuments and objects of religious origin whose original communities no longer use them or no longer exist in the particular region.” The latter portion of this quote was particularly applicable to the situation in northern Cyprus, whose circumstances vastly differed from southern Cyprus. More specifically, in the latter, scores of mosques and other Islamic places of worship had been maintained by the Cypriot Government. Because the government was lacking in this respect in the northern part of the country, this hindered the north’s preservation of religious cultural heritage. Consequently, attention was focused on the scope of the damage and destruction to Cyprus’ rich religious cultural heritage in the north of the country.

  • Helsinki Commission Condemns Murder of Russian Human Rights Activist Natalya Estemirova

    Senator Benjamin L. Cardin (D-MD), Chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (U.S. Helsinki Commission), Co-Chairman Congressman Alcee L. Hastings (D-FL) and Ranking Republican Members Senator Sam Brownback (R-KS) and Congressman Chris Smith (R-NJ) issued the following statements today upon learning of the killing of Russian human rights activist Natalya Estemirova. “I am saddened and outraged by the kidnapping and killing of Natalya Estemirova, one of the region’s great defenders of human rights. The reports of her abduction in Chechnya and subsequent shooting in the North Caucasus republic of Ingushetia remind us of the urgent need to address human rights concerns throughout Russia. President Medvedev’s condemnation of this murder and his pledge to ‘take all necessary measures’ to solve the crime are welcomed, but his words must translate into a prompt and complete criminal investigation by federal authorities that brings those responsible to justice,” said Chairman Cardin. “I agree with what President Obama recently said in Moscow that history has shown ‘governments which serve their own people survive and thrive; governments which serve their own power do not.’ Murder and intimidation of activists and journalists is both a serious violation of human rights and an affront to any democracy.” “In 2006, Ms. Estemirova met with the staff of the Helsinki Commission as part of our work to shine a light on the abuses in Chechnya. Lawlessness and violence too often define the lives of journalists and activists who are simply pushing the cause of freedom.” said Co-Chairman Hastings. “Ms. Estemirova led a courageous life of denouncing corruption, calling for a fair judicial system, and standing up for human rights. While her killers may have ended her life, they will never silence the voice she brought to these issues.” “President Medvedev has talked about the legal nihilism rampant in his country and has made positive gestures in the direction of reform, yet these killings continue. It is time to see real action and real reform regarding the rule of law and respect for human rights in Russia. The death of Natalya Estemirova must not be in vain,” said Senator Brownback. “Natalya Estemirova gave her life and now her death in the service to the cause of human suffering and justice,” said Congressman Smith, who authored a resolution that passed the House in 2007 to address the large number of unsolved murders of investigative journalists in Russia. “Being a human rights activist or an independent journalist in Russia has become among the most dangerous professions in the world. The Russian government needs to create an environment in which the flagrant slaughter of human rights activists is unacceptable.” The Helsinki Commission has held many hearings and briefings on Russia’s human rights record, including one recently focusing on the North Caucasus.

  • The Medvedev Thaw: Is It Real? Will It Last?

    This hearing discussed U.S. foreign policy towards Russia, focusing on how to improve relations while taking Russia’s compliance with human rights seriously.   The witnesses and Commissioners discussed the implications of Dmitri Medvedev becoming president and Vladimir Putin retaining power as Prime Minister.

  • The Western Balkans: Challenges for U.S. and European Engagement

    This hearing discussed the recent progress of the seven countries of the Western Balkans with regards to internal stability, democratic development, minority rights, anti-corruption efforts, and the rule of law. The witnesses evaluated each country’s progress and that of the region as a whole. In addition, the hearing also focused on the on the election process in each country and whether they had met the OSCE standards for elections.

  • Human Rights in Afghanistan

    Janice Helwig, policy advisor at the Commission, examined the current state of human rights in Afghanistan, a Partner for Cooperation of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).  While some progress has been made, rule of law and protection of human rights remains fragile. Witnesses Sima Samar and Scott Worden highlighted the harassment, intimidation, and violence human rights defenders and civil society leaders face while women and girls continue to be threatened and even attacked as they try to go to work or school.  They discuss the limited, if any, freedom of speech or belief reflected by the killings of journalists and the imposing of the death penalty on those who seek to convert from Islam to Christianity. 

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