Belarus Democracy Reauthorization Act of 2006

Belarus Democracy Reauthorization Act of 2006

Hon.
Christopher H. Smith
United States
House of Representatives
109th Congress Congress
Second Session Session
Thursday, December 07, 2006

Mr. Speaker, I strongly urge passage of H.R. 5948, the Belarus Democracy Reauthorization Act of 2006, to provide sustained support for the promotion of democracy, human rights and the rule of law in the Republic of Belarus, as well as encourage the consolidation and strengthening of Belarus' sovereignty and independence. Mr. Speaker, I especially thank you for your commitment to bring this legislation before this Congress. Your deep personal interest in the cause of freedom in Belarus, as demonstrated by your recent meetings in Vilnius with the leaders of the democratic opposition, has been particularly appreciated by those struggling for the rule of law and basic human freedoms. This legislation enjoys bipartisan support, and I want to recognize and thank the tremendous collaboration of Rep. Tom Lantos, an original cosponsor of this bill. 

As one who has followed developments in Belarus over many years through my work on the Helsinki Commission, I remain deeply concerned that the Belarusian people continue to be subjected to the arbitrary and self-serving whims of a corrupt and anti-democratic regime headed by Aleksandr Lukashenka. Since the blatantly fraudulent March 19 presidential elections, which the OSCE condemned as having failed to meet international democratic standards, the pattern of repression and gross violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms. While those who would dare oppose the regime are especially targeted, the reality is that all in Belarus outside Lukashenka’s inner circle pay a price.

Recent news regarding Lukashenka’s regime

Last week in Riga, President Bush pledged to help the people of Belarus in the face of the "cruel regime" led by President Lukashenka. "The existence of such oppression in our midst offends the conscience of Europe and the conscience of America," Bush said, adding that "we have a message for the people of Belarus: the vision of a Europe whole, free and at peace includes you, and we stand with you in your struggle for freedom." Mr. Speaker, this legislation would be a concrete expression of Congress’ commitment to the Belarusian people and would show that we stand as one in supporting freedom for Belarus.

Just within the last few months, we have witnessed a series of patently political trials designed to further stifle peaceful, democratic opposition. In October, 60-year-old human rights activist Katerina Sadouskaya was sentenced to two years in a penal colony. Her “crime”? “Insulting the honor and dignity of the Belarusian leader.” Mr. Speaker, if this isn’t reminiscent of the Soviet Union, I don’t know what is. And just a few weeks ago, in a closed trial, Belarusian youth activist Zmitser Dashkevich received a one-and-a-half year sentence for “activities on behalf of an unregistered organization.” 

A report mandated by the Belarus Democracy Act and finally issued this past March reveals Lukashenka’s links with rogue regimes such as Iran, Sudan and Syria, and his cronies’ corrupt activities. According to an October 9, 2006, International Herald Tribune op-ed: “Alarmingly, over the last six years, Belarus has intensified its illegal arms shipment activities to the point of becoming the leading supplier of lethal military equipment to Islamic state sponsors of terrorism.”

I guess we shouldn’t be all that surprised that in July, Lukashenka warmly welcomed to Minsk Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez. In keeping with their bent, both pledged cooperation and denounced the West. More recently, Belarusian Foreign Minister Martynov traveled to Iran where President Ahmadinejad pledged further cooperation in the energy and defense industries. Not long ago, a member of Belarus’ bogus parliament asserted on state-controlled radio that Belarus has the right to develop its own nuclear weapons. Mr. Speaker and Colleagues, Belarus is truly an anomaly in Europe, swimming against the rising tide of greater freedom, democracy and economic prosperity. 

The Legislation 

Three years ago, I introduced the Belarus Democracy Act which passed the House and Senate with overwhelming bipartisan support and was signed into law by President Bush in October 2004. At that time, the situation in Belarus with respect to democracy and human rights was already abysmal. The need for a sustained U.S. commitment to foster democracy and respect for human rights and to sanction Aleksandr Lukashenka and his cronies is clear from the intensified anti-democratic policies pursued by the current leadership in Minsk. Mr. Speaker, I am pleased that countries throughout Europe have joined in a truly trans-Atlantic effort to bring the promise of freedom to the beleaguered people of Belarus. Prompt passage of the Belarus Democracy Reauthorization Act of 2006 will help maintain this momentum aimed at upholding the democratic aspirations of the Belarusian people. With the continuing decline on the ground in Belarus since the fraudulent March elections, this bill is needed now more than ever. 

This reauthorization bill demonstrates the sustained U.S. support for Belarus’ independence. We seek to encourage those struggling for democracy and respect for human rights in the face of the formidable pressures and personal risks from the anti-democratic regime. The bill authorizes such sums as may be necessary in assistance for each of fiscal years 2007 and 2008 for democracy-building activities such as support for non-governmental organizations, including youth groups, independent trade unions and entrepreneurs, human rights defenders, independent media, democratic political parties, and international exchanges. 

The bill further authorizes monies for both radio and television broadcasting to the people of Belarus. While I am encouraged by the recent U.S. and EU initiatives with respect to radio broadcasting, much more needs to be done to penetrate Lukashenka’s stifling information blockade. Mr. Speaker, I hope that the Administration will make this a priority. 

In addition, H.R. 5948 calls for selective sanctions against the Lukashenka regime, and the denial of entry into the United States for senior officials of the regime – as well as those engaged in human rights and electoral abuses. In this context, I welcome the punitive sanctions imposed by both the Administration and the EU which are targeted against officials – including judges and prosecutors – involved in electoral fraud and other human rights abuses. 

The bill expresses the sense of the Congress that strategic exports to the Government of Belarus should be prohibited, except for those intended for democracy building or humanitarian purposes, as well as U.S. Government financing and other foreign assistance. Of course, we would not want the exports to affect humanitarian goods and agricultural or medical products. The U.S. Executive Directors of the international financial institutions are encouraged to vote against financial assistance to the Government of Belarus except for loans and assistance that serve humanitarian needs. Furthermore, we would encourage the blocking of the assets (in the United States) of members of the Belarus Government as well as the senior leadership and their surrogates. To this end, I welcome the Treasury Department’s April 10 advisory to U.S. financial institutions to guard against potential money laundering by Lukashenka and his cronies and strongly applaud President Bush’s June 19 “Executive Order Blocking Property of Certain Persons Undermining Democratic Processes or Institutions in Belarus.” 

Mr. Speaker, I want to make it crystal clear that these sanctions are aimed not at the people of Belarus, but at a regime that displays contempt for the dignity and rights of its citizens even as the corrupt leadership moves to further enrich itself at the expense of all Belarusians. 

Ongoing Anti-Democratic Behavior

To chronicle the full litany of repression over the course of Lukashenka’s 12-year misrule would go well beyond the bounds of time available here. Let me cite several more recent illustrations of anti-democratic behavior which testify to the true nature of the regime. 

Belarus’ March 19 presidential elections can only be described as a farce, and were met with condemnation by the United States, the OSCE, the European Union and others. The Lukashenka regime’s wholesale arrests of more than one thousand opposition activists and dozens of Belarusian and foreign journalists, before and after the elections, and violent suppression of peaceful post-election protests underscore the contempt of the Belarusian authorities toward their countrymen. 

Illegitimate parliamentary elections in 2004 and the recently held presidential “elections” in Belarus brazenly flaunted democratic standards. As a result of these elections, Belarus has the distinction of lacking legitimate presidential and parliamentary leadership, which contributes to that country's self-imposed isolation. Albeit safely ensconced in power, Lukashenka has not let up on the democratic opposition. Almost daily repressions constitute a profound abuse of power by a regime that has blatantly manipulated the system to remain in power. 

In the last few months, the regime continues to show its true colors, punishing those who would dare to challenge the tin-pot dictator. Former presidential candidate Aleksandr Kozulin was sentenced to a politically-motivated five-and-one-half-years’ term of imprisonment for alleged “hooliganism” and disturbing the peace. His health is precarious as he is now well into his second month of a hunger strike. 

In early August, authorities sentenced four activists of the non-partisan domestic election monitoring initiative “Partnerstva”. In a patent attempt to discourage domestic observation of the fraudulent March 19 presidential elections, the four had been kept in custody since February 21. Two were released, having served their six month sentences. Two others, Tsimafei Dranchuk and Mikalay Astreyka, received stiffer sentences, although Astreyka has been released from a medium security colony and is now in “correctional labor”. Other political prisoners, including Artur Finkevich, Mikalay Autukhovich, Andrey Klimau, Ivan Kruk, Yury Lyavonau, Mikalay Razumau, Pavel Sevyarynets, Mikalay Statkevich also continue to have their freedom denied, languishing in prison or in so-called correctional labor camps. 

Administrative detentions of ten or fifteen days against democratic opposition activists are almost a daily occurrence. Moreover, the Lukashenka regime continued to stifle religious expression. It refuses to register churches, temporarily detains pastors, threatens to expel foreign clergy, and refuses religious groups the use of premises to hold services. Despite the repressions, Protestant and Catholic congregations have increasingly become more active in their pursuit of religious freedom. I am also concerned about the recent explosion at a Holocaust memorial in western Belarus, the sixth act of vandalism against the monument in 14 years. Unfortunately, the local authorities have reportedly refused to open a criminal investigation. Lukashenka’s minions have closed down independent think tanks, further tightened the noose around what remains of the independent media, suspended the activities of a political party, shut down the prominent literary journal Arche, and evicted the Union of Belarusian Writers from its headquarters. Of course, Lukashenka’s pattern of contempt for human rights is nothing new – it has merely intensified with the passage of time. 

Moreover, we have seen no progress on the investigation of the disappearances of political opponents – perhaps not surprisingly, as credible evidence points at the involvement of the Lukashenka regime in their murders. 

Mr. Speaker, it is my hope that the Belarus Democracy Reauthorization Act of 2006 will help end to the pattern of violations of OSCE human rights and democracy commitments by the Lukashenka regime and loosen its unhealthy monopoly on political and economic power. I hope our efforts here today will facilitate independent Belarus’ integration into democratic Europe in which the principles of democracy, human rights and the rule of law are respected. The beleaguered Belarusian people have suffered so much over the course of the last century and deserve better than to live under a regime frighteningly reminiscent of the Soviet Union. The struggle of the people of Belarus for dignity and freedom deserves our unyielding and consistent support. 

This legislation is important and timely because Belarus, which now borders on NATO and the EU, continues to have the worst human rights and democracy record of any European state – bar none.

Leadership: 
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Sincerely, Alcee L. Hastings Chairman

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  • 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.

  • 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 Urges Belarus to Allow Real Political Competition in Upcoming Elections

    WASHINGTON—In light of the recent crackdown on protesters and arrests of prominent presidential candidates leading up to the August 9 elections in Belarus, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) released the following statement: “Every OSCE participating State, including Belarus, commits to holding free and fair elections. Belarusian authorities have made this impossible by arresting and intimidating presidential candidates, journalists, and activists in the early stages of campaigning. There can be no free choice when the system is rigged in favor of the incumbent. I call on President Lukashenko to order the release of those who have been detained for political reasons and allow real political competition in Belarus.” Belarusian presidential candidate and popular YouTube personality Sergei Tikhanovsky was arrested in early June. His wife, who has decided to run in his place, has received numerous threats. Another presidential candidate and former head of Belgazprombank Viktor Babaryko was also detained, along with his son, after authorities raided the bank’s offices. Journalists, members of civil society, and others have been arrested during rallies and peaceful protests against Lukashenko’s regime. An estimated 140 people across Belarus were detained on June 19 alone, the last day for presidential candidates to collect signatures to get on the ballot. According to international observers, Belarus has not had free and fair national elections since Lukashenko’s election in 1994.

  • Hastings Urges Belarus to Allow Real Political Competition in Upcoming Elections

    WASHINGTON—In light of the recent crackdown on protesters and arrests of prominent presidential candidates leading up to the August 9 elections in Belarus, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) released the following statement: “Every OSCE participating State, including Belarus, commits to holding free and fair elections. Belarusian authorities have made this impossible by arresting and intimidating presidential candidates, journalists, and activists in the early stages of campaigning. There can be no free choice when the system is rigged in favor of the incumbent. I call on President Lukashenko to order the release of those who have been detained for political reasons and allow real political competition in Belarus.” Belarusian presidential candidate and popular YouTube personality Sergei Tikhanovsky was arrested in early June. His wife, who has decided to run in his place, has received numerous threats. Another presidential candidate and former head of Belgazprombank Viktor Babaryko was also detained, along with his son, after authorities raided the bank’s offices. Journalists, members of civil society, and others have been arrested during rallies and peaceful protests against Lukashenko’s regime. An estimated 140 people across Belarus were detained on June 19 alone, the last day for presidential candidates to collect signatures to get on the ballot. According to international observers, Belarus has not had free and fair national elections since Lukashenko’s election in 1994.

  • 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.

  • 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

  • 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

  • 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.

  • Hastings and Wicker Troubled By Mounting Harassment of Opposition Members, Activists, and Journalists by Government of Azerbaijan

    WASHINGTON—In response to the Government of Azerbaijan’s mounting harassment of Azerbaijani opposition members, activists, and journalists, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) and Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) issued the following statement: “During this pandemic, public health precautions do not excuse politically-motivated repression. We are deeply troubled by reports that the Government of Azerbaijan is further squeezing its people’s access to free expression, media, and information through arrests, fines, harassment, and possibly torture. Authorities should cease exploiting this global crisis to limit the speech of members of the Popular Front Party of Azerbaijan and other activists and reporters.” In recent weeks, Azerbaijani authorities have detained, questioned, jailed, fined, and, in one case possibly tortured opposition members and journalists affiliated with the country’s main opposition party, the Popular Front Party of Azerbaijan (PFPA), and opposition-aligned media outlet Azadliq. Since the global spread of the novel coronavirus, the Azerbaijani Government has intermittently cut off internet and phone access to PFPA Chair Ali Karimli, preventing him from communicating with the outside world, including conducting interviews with media. Last week, a coalition of opposition parties accused the government of torturing PFPA activist Niyameddin Ahmedov while in custody. Other PFPA affiliated activists and writers, including Aqil Humbatov, Faiq Amirli, and Saadat Jahangir, have been detained for allegedly violating quarantine rules after speaking or reporting critically about the government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.

  • Wicker and Cardin Urge Pompeo to Work with EU High Representative to Advance EU Magnitsky Sanctions

    WASHINGTON—In a letter released today, Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) and Ranking Member Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) urged U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to ask the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Josep Borell, to expedite the adoption of EU sanctions on human rights abusers, include provisions for sanctioning corruption, and ensure that the EU sanctions regime bears Sergei Magnitsky’s name. The letter reads in part: “In this time of global crisis, dictators and kleptocrats are only increasing their bad actions, making it more important than ever that the EU move quickly to make the EU Magnitsky Act a reality... “It has become clear that corruption and human rights abuse are inextricably linked. The lack of provisions to sanction corruption would weaken the comprehensive Magnitsky approach. It would also lead to difficulties synchronizing U.S. and EU sanctions by enabling corrupt officials barred from the United States to continue operating in the EU, thus diminishing our deterrent and increasing Europe’s vulnerability to exploitation... “It was Sergei Magnitsky who started this very effort to end impunity for human rights abusers and corrupt officials. Omitting the name of Magnitsky, who was jailed, tortured, beaten, murdered, and posthumously convicted, would indicate a lack of resolve to stand up to brutal regimes around the world.” The U.S. Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act, which authorizes the President to impose economic sanctions and deny entry into the United States to any foreign person he identifies as engaging in human rights abuse or corruption, has been an important asset in the U.S. diplomatic toolkit. In December 2019, High Representative Borrell announced that all Member States unanimously agreed to start preparatory work for an equivalent of Global Magnitsky, adding that such a framework would be “a tangible step reaffirming the European Union’s global lead on human rights.” The Baltic States, Canada, and the UK already have adopted similar legislation. However, the current proposal for an EU Magnitsky Act does not include sanctions for officials involved in corruption, nor does it include any reference to Sergei Magnitsky by name. The full text of the letter can be found below: Dear Mr. Secretary, As the original sponsors of the Magnitsky Act, we aim to increase the impact of the legislation worldwide by encouraging our allies to join us in sanctioning bad actors. At the moment, the European Union (EU) has agreed in principle to adopt their own sanctions similar to those provided by the Global Magnitsky Act, but certain issues remain. Therefore, we ask that you work with Josep Borrell, High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, to ensure the EU adopts and implements the most thorough and effective sanctions package possible. Our first concern is that the EU seems to have stalled in putting together the details of their Magnitsky sanctions regime because of the global health crisis. In December, High Representative Borrell announced that there was political agreement to move forward on a Magnitsky-like piece of legislation, which his team would begin drafting. Since then, we fear this work has been sidelined. In this time of global crisis, dictators and kleptocrats are only increasing their bad actions, making it more important than ever that the EU move quickly to make the EU Magnitsky Act a reality. Our second concern is that the proposal for an EU Magnitsky Act does not include sanctions for officials involved in corruption. It has become clear that corruption and human rights abuse are inextricably linked. The lack of provisions to sanction corruption would weaken the comprehensive Magnitsky approach. It would also lead to difficulties synchronizing U.S. and EU sanctions by enabling corrupt officials barred from the United States to continue operating in the EU, thus diminishing our deterrent and increasing Europe’s vulnerability to exploitation. Finally, we are concerned that the EU is not planning to include Magnitsky’s name on the sanctions regime. It was Sergei Magnitsky who stood up to a ruthless, violent, and corrupt state and demanded fairness and accountability for his fellow citizens. And it was Sergei Magnitsky who started this very effort to end impunity for human rights abusers and corrupt officials. Omitting the name of Magnitsky, who was jailed, tortured, beaten, murdered, and posthumously convicted, would indicate a lack of resolve to stand up to brutal regimes around the world. Therefore, we request that you ask the High Representative Borrell to expedite the adoption of their sanctions, include provisions for sanctioning corruption, and ensure that the EU sanctions regime bears Sergei Magnitsky’s name. It is important that we do not let our guard down and continue our global leadership in this important area. Sincerely, Benjamin L. Cardin                                                       Roger F. Wicker Ranking Member                                                          Co-Chairman

  • Respecting Human Rights and Maintaining Democratic Control during States of Emergency

    Statement at the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly Webinar: Respecting Human Rights and Maintaining Democratic Control during States of Emergency President Tsereteli, Secretary General Montella, it is good hear from you.  I am pleased to see that this Assembly has found ways to communicate, cooperate and collaborate — in spite of the distances that keep us apart, and as an expression of our shared commitments to our roles as legislators. At last year’s annual session, I was the lead sponsor of a supplementary item on “the role of civil society — individuals and non-governmental organizations — in realizing the aims and aspirations of the OSCE.”  The resolution we adopted in Luxembourg acknowledges the critical role civil society plays in enhancing security and cooperation across all OSCE dimensions. I appreciate President Tsereteli appointing our colleague, the Honorable Pia Kauma, as the Assembly’s Special Representative to be an advocate for civil society engagement and she has done a great job so far. I am sorry, but not surprised that some governments have taken the need for emergency measures as an opportunity for repressive measures. Hungary is the only OSCE participating State that does not have a sunset clause for the expiration of its emergency measures, or requiring parliamentary approval for an extension.  Parliamentary oversight is absolutely essential, especially when governments seek to exercise extraordinary powers. I believe we must also pay particular attention to those measures that relate to freedoms of assembly, association, and expression.  I am also troubled by the heavy-handed disciplinary and punitive approach utilized in some areas, which exacerbates existing discriminatory and unconstitutional policing.  I want to thank you, Director Gisladottir, for your attention to this and speaking out against the hate crimes and scapegoating of minorities, refugees and migrants. In the next legislation that will come before the U.S. Congress, I will support provisions to address hate crimes and other forms of discrimination in our societies recently highlighted by the pandemic. The February 25 profiling murder of Ahmaud Aubrey by his neighbors in the state of Georgia demonstrates the urgency of our fight for equity and justice for all beyond our current crisis. But I would like to pause here for a moment, to reflect on violations of fundamental freedoms that some governments had already imposed even before now.  If a law or practice violated OSCE human rights and democracy norms before the pandemic, circumstances now will surely not cure that violation. Threats against journalists, restrictions on academic freedom, imprisoning people for their political views, and impeding or even criminalizing NGOs’ access to and communication within and outside their own countries — all of that is still inconsistent with OSCE commitments, and the pandemic does not change that.  Principle VII of the Helsinki Final Act still holds: individuals still have the right to know and act upon their rights. I therefore add my voice to the international calls from OSCE institutional bodies and others around the world for the release of all prisoners of conscience given this pandemic. Prison populations are particularly susceptible to community spread. To address dangerous overcrowding, governments should work first and foremost to release those imprisoned for exercising their internationally recognized rights or those wrongly imprisoned contrary to international commitments.  I regret Turkey's decision in particular to approve a plan to release 90,000 prisoners that excluded relief for any of the thousands of political prisoners, including opposition politicians, civil society activists, employees of U.S. diplomatic missions, and many more. Which brings me back to the important work of Special Representative Kauma.  Civil society is not a luxury, it is essential.  If anything, it becomes even more important during an emergency when governments may legitimately exercise powers, but those powers may not be unlimited, unchecked, or unending.  A vibrant civil society plays a critical role in holding governments to account, particularly at times of great social stress.  Those human rights groups, the parent-teacher organizations, book clubs, or food banks— all enrich our societies. Colleagues, this pandemic has upended elections across the OSCE region.  According to the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly’s factsheet, forty OSCE participating States — including my own — have elections scheduled for this year. As we all rise to meet the challenge of conducting elections safely, we must maintain transparency regarding the entire electoral process, especially any changes to the timing of elections, methods of voting, or measures that impact campaigning.  The United States is already debating these issues in preparation for November. Even in a pandemic, international and domestic election observation remains vital.  We must find a solution to ensure that they are engaged and included even now. 

  • Helsinki Commission Leaders Appalled by Latest Attacks on Press Freedom in Russia

    WASHINGTON—Following recent threats to the life of Russian journalist Yelena Milashina by Chechnya’s leader Ramzan Kadyrov and the forced removal of her Novaya Gazeta article on the coronavirus response in Chechnya by Russia’s media regulatory agency, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) and Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) released the following statements: “I am appalled—though not surprised—that the Government of Russia is using a global pandemic to restrict media freedom at a time when access to accurate information is vital,” Chairman Hastings said. “Yelena Milashina does not deserve death threats for simply doing her job. I condemn these attacks; Novaya Gazeta must be able to operate freely to provide truthful and timely information to the Russian people.” “Independent journalists need to be protected so they can continue to do the important work of keeping the public informed, especially in times of crisis,” said Co-Chairman Wicker. “Chechen strongman Kadyrov has a history of support for lawlessness and extrajudicial killings, and his threats should be taken seriously. A government that fails to protect journalists like Yelena Milashina will also contribute to a culture where other citizens are afraid to speak out.” After the passage of an April 1 law criminalizing “misinformation” regarding the coronavirus, the Government of Russia has begun to target news agencies and individuals who have criticized the government’s response to the pandemic. RFE/RL’s reporting on Russia’s handling of the coronavirus has been targeted for review in the State Duma, and the apartment of an activist in St. Petersburg was searched and her electronics seized for calling attention to insufficient local quarantine conditions on social media. Journalist Yelena Milashina has received previous death threats from Ramzan Kadyrov for her reporting on Chechnya. In February 2020 she was attacked by unknown assailants in Grozny, Chechnya’s capital. She received an International Women of Courage Award from the U.S. State Department in 2013 and appeared at Helsinki Commission events on Russia’s North Caucasus in 2009 and 2010.  

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