Chairman Cardin and Senator Wicker Colloquy on Russia

Chairman Cardin and Senator Wicker Colloquy on Russia

Hon.
Benjamin L. Cardin & Hon. Roger F. Wicker
United States
Senate
111th Congress Congress
Second Session Session
Monday, June 21, 2010

Mr. WICKER. Mr. President, I am appreciative that I am able to join today with my friend and colleague, Senator Cardin. I appreciate his joining me today to discuss an issue of great concern to both of us and to human rights advocates around the world. That is the ongoing trial in Russia of Mikhail Khodorkovsky and his business partner Platon Lebedev. In June of last year, Senator Cardin joined me in introducing a resolution urging the Senate to recognize that Khodorkovsky and Lebedev have been denied basic due process rights under international law for political reasons. It is particularly appropriate, I think, that Senator Cardin and I be talking about this this afternoon because in a matter of days, Russian President Medvedev will be coming to the United States and meeting with President Obama. I think this would be a very appropriate topic for the President of the United States to bring up to the President of the Russian Federation. 

I can think of no greater statement that the Russian President could make on behalf of the rule of law and a movement back toward human rights in Russia than to end the show trial of these two individuals and dismiss the false charges against them. 

Since his conviction, Khodorkovsky has spent his time either in a Siberian prison camp or a Moscow jail cell. Currently, he spends his days sitting in a glass cage enduring a daily farce of a trial that could send him back to Siberia for more than 20 years. Amazingly, Mikhail Khodorkovsky remains unbroken. 

I think it appropriate that President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton have committed to resetting relations with the country. I support them in this worthwhile goal. Clearly, our foreign relations can always stand to be improved. I support strengthening our relations, particularly with Russia. However, this strengthening must not be at the expense of progress on the issue of the rule of law and an independent judiciary. The United States cannot publicly extol the virtues of rule of law and an independent judiciary and at the same time turn a blind eye to what has happened to Khodorkovsky and Lebedev. 

I urge President Obama and Secretary Clinton to put the release of these two men high on the agenda as we continue to engage with Russia, and high on the agenda for President Medvedev's upcoming meeting here in Washington, DC. 

Mr. CARDIN. Mr. President, I thank Senator Wicker for taking this time for this colloquy. He has been a real champion on human rights issues and on bringing out the importance for Russia to move forward on a path of democracy and respect for human rights. He has done that as a Senator from Mississippi. He has done that as a very active member of the Helsinki Commission. I have the honor of chairing the Helsinki Commission, which I think is best known because of its fight on behalf of human rights for the people, particularly in those countries that were behind the Iron Curtain—particularly before the fall of the Soviet Union, where we were regularly being the voices for those who could not have their voices heard otherwise because of the oppressive policies of the former Soviet Union. 

So in the 1990s, there was great euphoria that at the end of the Cold War, the reforms that were talked about in Russia—indeed, the privatization of many of its industries—would at last bring the types of rights to the people of Russia that they so needed. But, unfortunately, there was a mixed message, and in the 1990s, I think contrary to Western popular opinion at the time, Russia did not move forward as aggressively as we wanted with freedom and democracy. 

It is interesting that Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who was part of the Communist elite, led the country into privatization in the right way. He took a company, Yukos Oil Company, and truly made it transparent and truly developed a model of corporate governance that was unheard of at the time in the former Soviet Union and unheard of in the Russian Federation, and he used that as a poster child to try to help the people of Russia. He started making contributions to the general welfare of the country, which is what we would like to see from the business and corporate community. He did that to help his own people. But he ran into trouble in the midst of the shadowy and violent Russian market, and his problems were encouraged many times by the same people who we thought were leading the reform within the Russian Federation. 

By 1998, with the collapse of the ruble, the people of Russia were disillusioned; they found their prosperity was only temporary. The cost of imports was going up. The spirit of nationalism, this nationalistic obsession, became much more prominent within the Russian Federation, and the move toward privatization lost a lot of its luster. 

The rise of Mr. Putin to power also established what was known as vertical power, and independent companies were inconsistent with that model he was developing to try to keep control of his own country. Therefore, what he did under this new rubric was to encourage nationalization spirit, to the detriment of independent companies and to the detriment of the development of opposition opportunity, democracy, and personal freedom. We started to see the decline of the open and free and independent media. 

All of this came about, and a highly successful and independent company such as Yukos under the leadership of Mikhail Khodorkovsky was inconsistent with what Mr. Putin was trying to do in Russia. As a result, there was a demise of the company, and the trials ensued. My friend Senator Wicker talked about what happened in the trial. It was a miscarriage of justice. It was wrong. We have expressed our views on it. And it is still continuing to this day. I thank Senator Wicker for continuing to bring this to the Members' attention and I hope to the people of Russia so they will understand there is still time to correct this miscarriage of justice. 

Mr. WICKER. I thank my colleague. 

I will go on to point out that things started coming to a head when Mr. Khodorkovsky started speaking out against the Russian Government, led by President Putin, and his company that he headed, Yukos, came into the sights of the Russian Federation. 

Mr. Khodorkovsky visited the United States less than a week before his arrest. He was in Washington speaking to Congressman Tom Lantos, the late Tom Lantos, a venerated human rights advocate from the House of Representatives, who had seen violations of human rights in his own rights. Mr. Khodorkovsky told Congressman Lantos that he had committed no crimes but he would not be driven into exile. He said: "I would prefer to be a political prisoner rather than a political immigrant." And, of course, a political prisoner is what he is now. 

Shortly after his arrest, government officials accused Yukos Oil of failing to pay more than $300 billion in taxes. At the time, Yukos was Russia's largest taxpayer. Yet they were singled out for tax evasion. And PricewaterhouseCoopers had recently audited the books of Yukos, and the government tax office had approved the 2002 to 2003 tax returns just months before this trumped-up case was filed. 

The Russian Government took over Yukos, auctioned it off, and essentially renationalized the company, costing American stockholders $7 billion and stockholders all around the country who had believed Russia was liberalizing and becoming part of the market society. A Swiss court has ruled the auction illegal. A Dutch court has ruled the auction illegal. But even more so, they tried these two gentlemen and placed them in prison. Mr. Khodorkovsky apparently had the mistaken impression that he was entitled to freedom of speech, and we discovered that in Russia, at the time of the trial and even today, he was not entitled, in the opinion of the government, to his freedom of speech. 

A recent foreign policy magazine called Khodorkovsky the "most prominent prisoner" in Vladimir Putin's Russia and a symbol of the peril of challenging the Kremlin, which is what Mr. Khodorkovsky did. 

I would quote a few paragraphs from a recent AP story by Gary Peach about the testimony of a former Prime Minister who actually served during the Putin years: 

A former Russian prime minister turned fierce Kremlin critic came to the defense of an imprisoned tycoon on Monday— 

This is a May 24 article— 

-- telling a Moscow court that prosecutors' new charges of massive crude oil embezzlement are absurd. 

What we now find is that when Mr. Khodorkovsky is about to be released from his first sentence, new charges have arisen all of a sudden. After years and years of imprisonment in Siberia, new charges have arisen. 

Mikhail Kasyanov, who headed the government in 2000-2004, told the court that the accusations against Khodorkovsky, a former billionaire now serving an eight-year sentence in prison, had no basis in reality. 

This is a former Prime Minister of the Russian Federation. 

Prosecutors claim that Khodorkovsky, along with his business partner [who is also in prison] embezzled some 350 million tons—or $25 billion worth—of crude oil while they headed the Yukos Oil Company. 

That's all the oil Yukos produced over six years, from 1998 to 2003. I consider the accusation absurd. 

He said that while Prime Minister, he received regular reports about Russia's oil companies and that Yukos consistently paid its taxes. Kasyanov, who served as Prime Minister during most of President Putin's first term, said that both the current trial and the previous one, which ended with a conviction, were politically motivated. So I would say this is indeed a damning accusation of the current trial going on, even as we speak, in Moscow. 

Mr. CARDIN. Senator Wicker has pointed out in I think real detail how the dismantling of the Yukos Oil Company was done illegally under any international law; it was returning to the Soviet days rather than moving forward with democratic reform. As Senator Wicker has pointed out, the personal attack on its founders—imprisoning them on charges that were inconsistent with the direction of the country after the fall of the Soviet Union—was another miscarriage of justice, and it is certainly totally inconsistent with the statements made after the fall of the Soviet Union. 

The early Putin years were clearly a return to nationalism in Russia and against what was perceived at that time by the popular Western view that Russia was on a path toward democracy. It just did not happen. And it is clearly a theft of a company's assets by the government and persecution, not prosecution, of the individuals who led the company toward privatization, which was a clear message given by the leaders after the fall of the Soviet Union. 

This cannot be just left alone. I understand the individuals involved may have been part of the elite at one time within the former Soviet Union. I understand, in fact, there may have been mixed messages when you have a country that is going through a transition. But clearly what was done here was a violation of their commitments under the Helsinki Commission, under the Helsinki Final Act. It was a violation of Russia's statements about allowing democracy and democratic institutions. It was a violation of Russia's commitments to allow a free market to develop within their own country. All of that was violated by the manner in which they handled Mr. Khodorkovsky as well as his codefendant and the company itself. And it is something we need to continue to point out should never have happened. 

The real tragedy here is that this is an ongoing matter. As Senator Wicker pointed out, there is now, we believe, an effort to try him on additional charges even though he has suffered so much. And it is a matter that—particularly with the Russian leadership visiting the United States, with direct meetings between our leaders, between Russia and the United States—I hope can get some attention and a chance for the Russian Federation to correct a miscarriage of justice. 

Mr. WICKER. Indeed, the second show trial of Mr. Khodorkovsky has entered its second year. We have celebrated the anniversary of the second trial. 

I ask unanimous consent to have printed in the Record an editorial by the Washington Post dated June 9, 2010, at this point. 

There being no objection, the material was ordered to be printed in the Record, as follows: 

[From the Washington Post, June 9, 2010] 

Show Trial: Should Ties to Russia Be Linked to Its Record on Rights? 

Russia's government has calculated that it needs better relations with the West to attract more foreign investment and modern technology, according to a paper by its foreign ministry that leaked to the press last month. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has recently made conciliatory gestures to Poland, while President Dmitry Medvedev sealed a nuclear arms treaty with President Obama. At the United Nations, Russia has agreed to join Western powers in supporting new sanctions against Iran. 

Moscow's new friendliness, however, hasn't led to any change in its repressive domestic policies. The foreign ministry paper says Russia needs to show itself as a democracy with a market economy to gain Western favor. But Mr. Putin and Mr. Medvedev have yet to take steps in that direction. There have been no arrests in the more than a dozen outstanding cases of murdered journalists and human rights advocates; a former KGB operative accused by Scotland Yard of assassinating a dissident in London still sits in the Russian parliament. 

Perhaps most significantly, the Russian leadership is allowing the trial of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a former oil executive who has become the country's best-known political prisoner, to go forward even though it has become a showcase for the regime's cynicism, corruption and disregard for the rule of law. Mr. Khodorkovsky, who angered Mr. Putin by funding opposition political parties, was arrested in 2003 and convicted on charges of tax evasion. His Yukos oil company, then Russia's largest, was broken up and handed over to state-controlled firms. 

A second trial of Mr. Khodorkovsky is nearing its completion in Moscow, nearly a year after it began. Its purpose is transparent: to prevent the prisoner's release when his first sentence expires next year. The new charges are, as Mr. Putin's own former prime minister testified last week, absurd: Mr. Khodorkovsky and an associate, Platon Lebedev, are now accused of embezzling Yukos's oil production, a crime that, had it occurred, would have made their previously alleged crime of tax evasion impossible. 

Mr. Khodorkovsky, who acquired his oil empire in the rough and tumble of Russia's transition from communism, is no saint, but neither is he his country's Al Capone, as Mr. Putin has claimed. In fact, he is looking more and more like the prisoners of conscience who have haunted previous Kremlin regimes. In the past several years he has written numerous articles critiquing Russia's corruption and lack of democracy, including one on our op-ed page last month. 

Mr. Obama raised the case of Mr. Khodorkovsky last year, and the State Department's most recent human rights report said the trial "raised concerns about due process and the rule of law." But the administration has not let this obvious instance of persecution, or Mr. Putin's overall failure to ease domestic repression, get in the way of its "reset" of relations with Moscow. If the United States and leading European governments would make clear that improvements in human rights are necessary for Moscow to win trade and other economic concessions, there is a chance Mr. Putin would respond. If he does not, Western governments at least would have a clearer understanding of where better relations stand on the list of his true priorities. 

Mr. WICKER. The editorial points out that Russia's Government is trying to think of ways to attract more foreign investment, and it juxtaposes this desire for more Western openness and investment with the Khodorkovsky matter and says that this trial has become a showcase for the Russian regime's cynicism, corruption, and disregard for the rule of law. 

It goes on to say: The new charges are, as Mr. Putin's own Prime Minister testified last week, absurd. Mr. Khodorkovsky and his associate, Platon Lebedev, are now accused of embezzling Yukos Oil's production—a crime that, had it occurred, would have made their previously alleged crime of tax evasion impossible.

So the cynicism of these charges is that they are inconsistent with each other. Yet, in its brazenness, the Russian Federation Government and its prosecutors proceed with these charges. 

The article goes on to say: Mr. Khodorkovsky is looking more and more like a prisoner of conscience who haunted the previous criminal regime. 

It says: 

Mr. Obama raised the case of Mr. Khodorkovsky last year, and the State Department's most recent human rights report said the trial "raised concerns about due process and the rule of law." 

I will say they raised concerns. 

Let me say in conclusion of my portion—and then I will allow my good friend from Maryland to close—this prosecution and violation of human rights and the rule of law of Lebedev and Khodorkovsky has brought the censure of the European Court of Human Rights that ruled that Mr. Khodorkovsky's rights were violated. A Swiss court has condemned the action of the Russian Federation and ruled it illegal. A Dutch court has said it is illegal. It has been denounced by such publications as Foreign Policy magazine, the Washington Post, a former Prime Minister who actually served under Mr. Putin. It has been denounced in actions and votes by the European Parliament, by other national parliaments, by numerous human rights groups, and by the U.S. State Department. 

I submit, for those within the sound of my voice—and I believe there are people on different continents listening to the sound of our voices today—it is time for the Russian President to step forward and put an end to this farce, admit that this trial has no merit in law, and it is time for prosecutors in Moscow to cease and desist on this show trial and begin to repair the reputation of the Russian Federation when it comes to human rights and the rule of law. 

Mr. CARDIN. Mr. President, I thank Senator Wicker for bringing out the details of this matter. It has clearly been recognized and condemned by the international community as against international law. It is clearly against the commitments Russia had made when the Soviet Union fell. It is clearly of interest to all of the countries of the world. Originally, when Yukos oil was taken over, investors outside of Russia also lost money. So there has been an illegal taking of assets of a private company which have affected investors throughout the world, including in the United States. It has been offensive to all of us to see imprisoned two individuals who never should have been tried and certainly should not be in prison today. All that is offensive to all of us. But I would think it is most offensive to the Russian people. 

The Russian people believed their leaders, when the Soviet Union collapsed, that there would be respect for the rule of law; that there would be an independent judiciary, and their citizens could get a fair trial. 

We all know—and the international community has already spoken about this—that Mikhail Khodorkovsky did not get a fair trial. So the commitment the Russian leaders made to its own people of an independent and fair judiciary has not been adhered to. This is not an isolated example within Russia. We know investigative reporters routinely are arrested, sometimes arrested with violence against them. We know opposition parties have virtually no chance to participate in an open system, denying the people a real democracy. But here with justice, Russia has a chance to do so. 

I find it remarkable that Mr. Khodorkovsky's spirits are still strong, as Senator Wicker pointed out. Let me read a recent quote from Mr. Khodorkovsky himself, who is in prison: 

“You know, I really do love my country, my Moscow. It seems like one huge apathetic and indifferent anthill, but it's got so much soul. . . . You know, inside I was sure about the people, and they turned out to be even better than I'd thought.”

I think Senator Wicker and I both believe in the Russian people. We believe in the future of Russia. But the future of Russia must be a nation that embraces its commitments under the Helsinki Final Act. It has to be a country that shows compassion for its citizens and shows justice. Russia can do that today by doing what is right for Mr. Khodorkovsky and his codefendant: release them from prison, respect the private rights and human rights of its citizens, and Russia then will be a nation that will truly live up to its commitment to its people to respect human rights and democratic principles. 

Again, I thank Senator Wicker for bringing this matter to the attention of our colleagues. It is a matter that can be dealt with, that should be dealt with, and we hope Russia will show justice in the way it handles this matter. 

Mr. WICKER. I thank my colleague and yield the floor. 
 

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Newly filed U.S. federal disclosure forms show that Abdullah hired a law firm and a crisis management public relations company after learning that his use of shell companies to purchase luxury properties costing more than $106 million was about to become public. The moves reflect apparent concern about the potential fallout both in Washington and in Jordan, where there has been scant coverage of the Pandora stories and at least one news outlet said it was contacted by the Jordanian intelligence service and told to take down an article about the Abdullah revelations. The forms were filed by DLA Piper, a law firm hired by Abdullah, to comply with laws requiring U.S. firms to disclose when they have been hired to represent a foreign government. A letter attached to the filing shows that the DLA Piper was hired at an hourly rate of $1,335 to represent Abdullah “related to potential defamation and other legal remedies associated with inquiries and/or articles concerning His Majesty.” A lawyer for DLA Piper did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The firm was quoted in The Post as well as news stories saying that Abdullah had not misused aid money and that his use of offshore companies was driven by security concerns. A second federal filing shows that Abdullah and DLA Piper also hired Stripe Theory, an Atlanta-based consulting and public relations firm that describes itself online as a provider of strategic marketing advice “when your brand is on the line.” Craig Kronenberger, listed on the letter as an executive at Stripe Theory, did not respond to an email sent to his company address requesting comment.​​ On Sunday, The Post and the ICIJ broke the story about Abdullah’s property purchases in the United States. All told, 150 media partners contributed to the Pandora Papers, which revealed the financial secrets of 35 current and former world leaders and more than 330 politicians and public officials with assets around the world, including in the United States. “If we are serious about fighting dictatorship, we need U.S. professionals to do the most basic due diligence — no American should be accepting money from Chinese Communist Party operatives, Iranian mullahs, Russian oligarchs or others,” Wilson said. “The Enablers Act is a critical national security measure.”

  • Chairman Cardin on Impact of Pandora Papers

    “This unprecedented investigation should further drive the need for transparency and delving deeper into such international transactions.” WASHINGTON—Following the release of the Pandora Papers, Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), author of the Sergei Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act and the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act, issued the following statement: “The Pandora Papers are a wake-up call for anyone who cares about the future of democracy. The sheer scale of questionable financial flows entering the United States from abroad is astonishing and warrants further review. Kleptocrats from dictatorships and struggling democracies have stolen untold sums and potentially have laundered them through our country and those of our allies. “Such activity poses a direct threat to U.S. national security by hollowing out the rule of law abroad and threatening to do the same at home. It is more important than ever that we increase transparency of such transactions, purge dirty money from our system, and ensure that the United States of America denies kleptocrats safe haven. Our nation must continue to stand with the victims of kleptocracy. This means tackling the problem of the enablers of kleptocracy.” The Pandora Papers represent the largest investigation ever into the true workings of the offshore economy. They reveal how “the United States, in particular, has become an increasingly attractive destination for hidden wealth.” These investigations on the hidden wealth of foreign dictators, their associates, and other corrupt officials include documents from 206 U.S. trusts in 15 states and Washington, D.C., and 22 U.S. trustee companies. South Dakota, in particular, was singled out for criticism. Lawyers also have been central to creating the offshore system, which is behind the ability to transfer illicit wealth anonymously and easily. Three hundred politicians and public officials from more than 90 countries and territories are identified in the Pandora Papers. Two members of Putin’s inner circle and individuals listed on the Navalny 35 list of human rights abusers and kleptocrats, Konstantin Ernst and Gennady Timchenko, used offshore companies and enablers to engage in a $230 million sweetheart real estate deal, and received hundreds of millions of dollars in suspicious “loans,” respectively. Azerbaijan’s kleptocratic ruling family, the Aliyevs, used offshore companies and enablers to obtain $700 million worth of real estate in London. Chinese Communist Party politician Feng Qiya used an offshore company and enablers to trade U.S. stocks with $2 million worth of illicit funds. The Helsinki Commission recently held a public briefing on the enablers of kleptocracy, examining how they put U.S. national security at risk and how they could effectively be regulated.

  • Helsinki Commission Regrets Closure of OSCE Observer Mission at Russian Checkpoints Gukovo and Donetsk

    WASHINGTON—In light of yesterday’s termination of the activities of the OSCE Observer Mission at the Russian Checkpoints Gukovo and Donetsk on the Russian-Ukrainian border, Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), Ranking Member Sen. Roger Wicker (MS), and Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) issued the following joint statement: “By forcing the closure of the OSCE Observer Mission on Ukraine’s border, despite clear and continued support from other OSCE States for the mission, the Kremlin is once again trying to blind the international community to the reality of its aggression against Ukraine.  The mission regularly observed and reported suspicious movements at the border. “Rather than blocking OSCE instruments, Russia needs to cease its war against Ukraine, including reversing its illegal occupation of Crimea.”    The OSCE Observer Mission at the Russian Checkpoints Gukovo and Donetsk was intended to build confidence through increased transparency by observing and reporting on the situation at the international border between Ukraine and Russia. Russia had previously imposed severe restrictions on the observer mission, including limiting movement and prohibiting the use of binoculars or cameras.  Despite these limitations, the mission reported on the movements of more than 24 million people since beginning operations in 2014. It observed more than 100 Russian convoys, along with individuals in military apparel and thousands of other vehicles, crossing the uncontrolled border.

  • Helsinki Commission Leadership Condemns Russian Obstruction of OSCE Human Rights Work

    WASHINGTON—In response to Russian intransigence blocking the annual OSCE Human Dimension Implementation Meeting (HDIM), Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), Ranking Member Sen. Roger Wicker (MS), and Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) issued the following joint statement: “We are extremely disappointed that the HDIM failed to start this week as planned, due solely to Russian intransigence blocking the meeting. The Kremlin has reached a new low in its efforts to undermine the OSCE’s work to promote human rights and democracy. “Russia clearly fears criticism of its worsening human rights record and fraudulent elections from the OSCE, other OSCE participating States, and civil society. The HDIM, through its thorough review of states’ human rights records and its inclusion of civil society, is a crown jewel of the OSCE’s human rights work. “We urge Russia to change its position and we expect the HDIM to be held in accordance with the agreement adopted in Helsinki in 1992 by the heads of state of all OSCE participating States—including Russia—that established the HDIM. For our part, we will continue to speak out when we see human rights violations, including in the Russian Federation.” The OSCE Human Dimension Implementation Meeting is the region’s largest annual human rights conference, and typically brings togethers hundreds of government and nongovernmental representatives, international experts, and human rights activists for two weeks to engage in a comprehensive review of the participating States’ compliance with their human rights and democracy-related commitments. The meeting is held in Warsaw, Poland, where the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights is headquartered.

  • Helsinki Commission Digital Digest September 2021

  • Enabling Kleptocracy

    Modern dictatorship relies on access to the West. Lawyers, lobbyists, accountants, real estate professionals, consultants, and others help kleptocrats launder their money and reputations—and exert undue influence in democracies—in exchange for dirty money. Without the energetic assistance of these gatekeepers, kleptocrats could not move their money to western democracies and would be forced to live under the repressive systems they have created. This public briefing brought together four experts on the enabling industry to discuss the various types of enablers, how they compromise democracy, and how they can best be regulated, with an emphasis on potential legislative responses. Modern dictatorship relies on access to the West. Lawyers, lobbyists, accountants, real estate professionals, consultants, and others help kleptocrats launder their money and reputations—and exert undue influence in democracies—in exchange for dirty money. Without the energetic assistance of these gatekeepers, kleptocrats could not move their money to western democracies and would be forced to live under the repressive systems they have created. At this briefing, four experts on the enabling industry came together to discuss the various types of enablers, how they compromise democracy, and how they can best be regulated, with an emphasis on potential legislative responses. Helsinki Commission Senior Policy Advisor Paul Massaro opened the briefing by explaining that currently only banks are required to do due diligence on the source of funds; no other industries are similarly regulated, which allows them to accept and launder dirty money with impunity. Massaro explained that actions in the 116th Congress abolished anonymous shell companies and made it harder to launder money; now, it is necessary that we curb the enablers. Lakshmi Kumar, policy director at Global Financial Integrity, focused on the real estate market. According to a recent GFI report, more than $2 billion of laundered money flows through the real estate market each year, with 80 percent from foreign sources spread across more than 26 countries. The majority comes from high net worth and politically connected individuals who rely on an “arsenal” of enablers to help guide them through the process of laundering money. These enablers include lawyers, real estate agents, real estate developers, and investment advisors who generally are either directly complicit or willfully blind. “The absence of rules and regulations around these enablers is what creates this environment,” Kumar said. Journalist Casey Michel highlighted the case study of Teodorin Obiang, the son of Equatorial Guinea’s authoritarian leader, who came to the United States to launder millions of dollars in illicit funds. An American lawyer, Michael Berger, helped him circumvent U.S. anti-money laundering efforts. Josh Rudolph, malign finance fellow at the German Marshall Fund, presented several policy options for tackling money laundering in the United States and highlighted three sectors of focus for the U.S. Treasury Department’s efforts: investment fund advisors, real estate professionals, and the art industry. He offered a blueprint for the Biden administration to counter such enablers by requiring legal professionals, company formation agents, accountants, and covert PR and marketing firms to comply with anti-money laundering rules, as well as by repealing exemptions for real estate professionals, sellers of yachts and planes, as well as crypto and other currency businesses. Transparency International’s Co-Founder Frank Vogl discussed the transactional nature of U.S. and Western foreign policy. Vogl explained that major banks found to launder money in the U.S. most often receive small fines, settle out of court, and go without the punishment of any executives in the matter. Money laundering fines have simply become the cost of doing business. Vogl also expressed the need to investigate legal finance, specifically the bond market, which allows millions to flow to authoritarian regimes. He also argued that more money should flow towards enforcing existing laws, rather than just passing new laws. Asked how money laundering and kleptocracy hurt Americans in a tangible way, Kumar responded that the rental and lease market in the U.S. is impacted negatively by kleptocrat real estate purchases. Michel added that oligarchs’ investments into the Rust Belt and other economically depressed areas in the U.S. were purely to hide money from international investigators and have led to the implosion of the broader economic base in the region. On the question of how to keep anti-money laundering efforts bipartisan, Vogl and Rudolph agreed that the problem is bipartisan at heart and should be viewed as the national security threat that it is. Finally, asked if the world bank, IMF, and other international financial institutions enable kleptocracy, Frank Vogl answered in the affirmative and called for higher transparency among international financial institutions to effectively tackle money laundering and kleptocracy.

  • The Russian election was supposed to shore up Putin’s legitimacy. It achieved the opposite.

    Electoral precinct 40, located in a charming historic area a few minutes’ walking distance from the Kremlin, is among the few in Moscow that can be trusted to count votes honestly. Ever since I first voted here at the age of 18, the official tallies have always reflected the actual votes cast. In Moscow’s 2013 mayoral election, the candidate who won the precinct was anticorruption campaigner and opposition activist Alexei Navalny. Local Muscovite pride may be one factor in this honesty; the presence of independent electoral commission members in the precinct may be another. So when I came to vote here on Sunday, and then stayed overnight to observe the count, I was certain that I would get a glimpse of the real sentiments of Russian voters. To be clear: It wasn’t an honest election. Opponents of the Kremlin, including all Navalny supporters, had been preemptively disqualified from the ballot through various bans imposed by the regime. But I did expect to see an honest count of the votes that were cast. I was proven right. The official vote tally from Precinct #40 showed the three top spots on the party list ballot divided among the Communists, Vladimir Putin’s United Russia and the liberal Yabloko party, the only genuine opposition group allowed to take part in this election. (Their shares were 27, 20 and 19 percent, respectively.) The Communist vote, usually low in Moscow, was boosted this time by support from the Navalny team, which urged voters to pick any candidates on the ballot who don’t represent United Russia — a tactic, known as “Smart Voting,” that aims to demonstrate how minimal support for the ruling party really is. On the single-member ballot (where voters choose among individual candidates rather than parties), Yabloko’s Sergei Mitrokhin won handily with 35 percent; the pro-regime candidate eked out just 14 percent. The overall official results announced next morning — both for Moscow and for Russia as a whole — might as well have come from a different country. The authorities solemnly announced that United Russia had retained its two-thirds supermajority in parliament — even though most polls (including those from government pollsters) showed support for the party in the high 20s. The rest of the seats will be filled by officially approved “opposition” parties that always end up supporting Putin’s most important initiatives. Predictably, not a single genuine opposition candidate — among the few allowed on the ballot in the first place — was actually allowed to win. This time around — in addition to traditional rigging methods such as organized voting by state employees and military conscripts, “carousel” multiple voting, and plain ballot-stuffing — the regime deployed a rather specific brand of electronic voting. When used in genuine democracies, electronic voting usually produces an outcome almost immediately. But in this election, tabulating the results took hours longer than counting traditional paper ballots — and the final result flipped at least eight Moscow districts from the opposition to United Russia. “The story with electronic voting fraud … reminds me of the switched urine samples at the 2014 Sochi Olympics,” noted political analyst Maria Snegovaya. “It was done clumsily and crudely — and by the same people, the FSB [Federal Security Service]. It seems this is the only way they can work.” In contrast to 2011, when a patently fraudulent parliamentary election brought tens of thousands of people into the streets, this time no major protests followed. Indeed, none were expected. Navalny’s arrest, and an unprecedented crackdown on opposition supporters earlier this year — with 11,000 detentions and more than 100 criminal cases against participants of pro-democracy rallies — has left Russian civil society subdued and demoralized. But this silence is deceptive. The respite for the regime will almost certainly prove to be only temporary. Recent protests and public opinion trends point to an unmistakable rise in general fatigue with one-man rule that is now stretching into its third decade. Major political change in Russia is notoriously difficult to predict — suffice it to mention the (unpredicted) political upheavals of 1905, 1917 or 1991 — but it seems likely that brewing anti-regime sentiment will burst out into the open in the spring of 2024 if Putin attempts to remain in power, in violation of the constitutional term limit he unlawfully overturned last year. It is an incontrovertible logic of history that in countries where governments cannot be changed at the ballot box, they are often changed on the streets. Russia has seen this herself, as have other countries in our post-Soviet neighborhood. It is no news to anyone that there are no real elections in Putin’s Russia. Yet international reaction to last weekend’s sham vote has been strong on both sides of the Atlantic. Lawmakers in the U.S. Congress and in the European Parliament have stated that it “severely weakens the legitimacy” of Putin’s rule. Whatever remains of that legitimacy will be finally shed in the event of Putin’s illegal prolongation of his mandate beyond 2024. European Union lawmakers have already hinted at a formal nonrecognition of any such action in the new strategy toward Russia adopted earlier this month. The year 2024 will be an important test — both for Russian society’s tolerance to autocratic rule, and for the West’s adherence to the rule of law not just in words but in practice. It’s now time to start preparing for that moment.

  • Helsinki Commission Briefing to Examine How Western Enablers Support Kleptocrats

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following online briefing: ENABLING KLEPTOCRACY Wednesday, September 29, 2021 1:00 p.m. Register: https://bit.ly/3kwlHbz Modern dictatorship relies on access to the West. Lawyers, lobbyists, accountants, real estate professionals, consultants, and others help kleptocrats launder their money and reputations—and exert undue influence in democracies—in exchange for dirty money. Without the energetic assistance of these gatekeepers, kleptocrats could not move their money to western democracies and would be forced to live under the repressive systems they have created. This public briefing will bring together four experts on the enabling industry. They will discuss the various types of enablers, how they compromise democracy, and how they can best be regulated, with an emphasis on potential legislative responses. The following panelists are scheduled to participate: Lakshmi Kumar, Policy Director, Global Financial Integrity; Author, Acres of Money Laundering: Why U.S. Real Estate is a Kleptocrat’s Dream Casey Michel, Journalist; Author, American Kleptocracy: How the U.S. Created the World's Greatest Money Laundering Scheme in History Josh Rudolph, German Marshall Fund, Malign Finance Fellow; Author, Regulating the Enablers: How the U.S. Treasury Should Prioritize Imposing Rules on Professionals Who Endanger National Security by Handling Dirty Money Frank Vogl, Co-Founder, Transparency International, Partnership for Transparency Fund; Author, The Enablers – How the West Supports Kleptocrats and Corruption - Endangering Our Democracy  

  • Helsinki Commission Leaders Blast So-Called Election Results in Russia

    WASHINGTON—Following the sham State Duma elections in Russia, Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), and Ranking Members Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) and Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) issued the following statements: “From barring opposition candidates to stuffing ballot boxes and manipulating vote totals, there is ample evidence that these parliamentary elections may be the most blatantly fraudulent of them all. The Kremlin once again has demonstrated its utter disregard for the norms and values it purports to respect,” said Chairman Cardin. “Contrary to their international obligations, Russian authorities inexcusably restricted the number of international observers to the point that the OSCE was unable to monitor this election according to its long-established methods. Compounded with the fact that no election is free or fair if the principal opposition figures are kept off the ballot, as in this case, these elections will provide not a shred of legitimacy to those who take their seats in the Duma.” “Citizens cannot freely choose who represents them when opposition candidates are banned from running, poll workers stuff ballot boxes, and last-minute electronic ‘vote counting’ pushes Kremlin-preferred candidates over the top,” said Co-Chairman Cohen. “With each election, fewer and fewer opportunities remain for dissent in Russia, demonstrating Putin’s growing insecurity about his ability to stay in power unassisted.” “Moscow’s intimidation of local workers and businesses has left U.S. companies tainted for doing business in Russia,” said Sen. Wicker. “The moral cost of doing business in Russia increases with every day that Putin and his cronies bully their opponents into submission to maintain political power.” “Despite the lack of international observers, independent observers in-country bravely documented violations exposing the Kremlin’s machinations and the illegitimacy of this weekend’s election,” said Rep. Wilson. “The people of Russia deserve a vote that counts and a government that doesn’t stack the deck in its own favor.” The State Duma elections took place from September 17 – 19, 2021. Ahead of the election, many critics of the Kremlin were barred from running; in June 2021, a Moscow court ruling banned Alexei Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation and associated organizations as “extremist” groups. As voting took place, photos and videos from live-stream camera feeds captured violations including officials stuffing ballot boxes and people being given multiple ballots. At the end of the vote count in Moscow, non-United Russia candidates who had been consistently leading lost at the last minute after thousands of “delayed” electronic ballots changed the results. On September 17, under threat of criminal prosecution of its staff in Russia, Google removed the Smart Vote app, a tool created by Navalny’s team to help voters identify candidates with the best chance to defeat a United Russia party candidate. Google also blocked access to two documents on Google Docs that included lists of Smart Vote endorsements on the grounds that the documents were “illegal” in Russia. Apple removed the Smart Vote app in Russia as well, claiming it had to follow Russian laws about “illegal” content. On September 18, at the Russian government’s request, YouTube blocked a video that included names of recommended candidates for Navalny’s Smart Vote initiative. The OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights and the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly chose not to observe the Russian elections due to severe restrictions Moscow placed on the number of international observers that would have left the OSCE unable to conduct a complete observation consistent with its usual methodology and standards.

  • Congress takes aim at kleptocracy

    A bipartisan group of lawmakers is gearing up to make 2021 the year Congress has the bipartisan support necessary to pass sweeping legislation to fight kleptocracy. On Sept. 10, Reps. Steve Cohen, the U.S. Helsinki Commission cochair, and the committee’s ranking member, Joe Wilson, introduced the Counter-Kleptocracy Act. The legislation consolidates seven bipartisan bills that aim to tackle corruption and illicit financial flows, all of which lawmakers introduced in the past year. The Counter-Kleptocracy Act now has 17 bipartisan cosponsors. It includes legislation enabling the administration to name and shame kleptocrats banned from the U.S. and creates a public website documenting the amount of money stolen by corrupt officials in each country, among other initiatives. The game plan is to leverage the bipartisan support for the bills in the House and Senate, and to include the bills in the National Defense Authorization Act this year or next. Several of the measures have already been added to the most recent version of the House bill. Three decades after the end of the Cold War, many lawmakers in Washington recognize that, rather than adopting democratic norms and practices, corrupt officials and kleptocrats from abroad have influenced the U.S. political system and undermined national security by funneling money stolen from their own citizens into the U.S. With this in mind, fighting kleptocracy is becoming one of the standout issues that Republican and Democratic lawmakers agree about tackling. “We’ve never had more momentum on this than we have now,” said Paul Massaro, a senior policy adviser at the U.S. Helsinki Commission, who has been advocating for anti-corruption efforts in Congress for a decade. “If you told national security experts in 2014 or 2015 that corruption is a national security threat, you would get blank looks. Now Congress and the president are calling it a national security threat.” The Biden administration released a memorandum establishing the fight against corruption as a core national security interest in June. Members of Congress say they wholeheartedly agree with that assessment. “From my experience as a former CIA case officer and from my work on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, it is very clear that corruption at home and abroad is a national security threat,” said Rep. Abigail Spanberger, one of the bill’s cosponsors. Rep. Katie Porter, another cosponsor, added that anti-corruption efforts at home can help advance U.S. interests abroad. “Americans know that corruption makes government less representative, less transparent, and less responsive to people’s needs. That’s true everywhere there is government corruption, including in many countries where it poses a threat to our foreign policy and national security goals,” Porter said. Experts say former President Trump’s administration played a crucial role in highlighting the dangers of kleptocracy and raising awareness about corruption. “I think one of the reasons that we’ve seen enormous momentum in Washington is that the U.S. had a very unique experience over the past several years with a president who was so saturated in and benefited significantly from these types of pro-kleptocracy or kleptocratic services,” said Casey Michel, an adjunct fellow at the Hudson Institute's Kleptocracy Initiative and author of the book American Kleptocracy. “Trump was one of the first global leaders to emerge from one of these pro-kleptocracy industries. That is, the American luxury-real-estate industry and its marriage with anonymous shell companies,” Michel added. What’s more, it’s becoming apparent that global kleptocracy affects the lives of the people that Congress members represent. When Ukrainian oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky laundered millions of dollars through real estate in Cleveland, for example, it stymied economic growth in the area, Michel says. “They used all of this looted wealth and bought up commercial real estate, factories, and manufacturing plants that were really the life blood of these small communities, and they left these buildings to rot,” Michel said. “So instead of being a revitalization campaign and bringing jobs back, they are just dead weight.” Meanwhile, the rise of illiberalism and anti-democratic regimes from Hungary to Venezuela has also played a role in calling attention to illicit financial flows, lawmakers argue. “With authoritarianism on a troubling rise around the globe, the United States must do everything humanly possible to root out foreign corruption and kleptocracy—which is the preferred fuel of a tyrant’s rise to, and hold on, power,” said Rep. Emanuel Cleaver. “The Counter-Kleptocracy Act is critical to America’s national security and the defense of democracy-loving nations across the world,” Cleaver added. Sen. Marco Rubio, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, also introduced bills included in the Counter-Kleptocracy Act because of concern for rising authoritarianism. “As corrupt regimes worldwide seek to undermine the rule of law, the Justice for Victims of Kleptocracy Act of 2021 represents a step in the right direction in order to hold kleptocrats accountable,” Rubio said, referring to a bill that would create a public Justice Department website documenting the amount of money stolen by corrupt officials in each country and recovered by the U.S. In general, U.S. counter kleptocracy initiatives fall into three categories. Some work to push dirty money out of the U.S. financial system by enforcing beneficial ownership transparency or requiring lawyers, lobbyists, accountants, real estate agents, and other gatekeepers to verify the source of their clients’ income. Advocates say more efforts are needed on this front, including legislation imposing gatekeeper requirements. Other efforts aim to bolster the rule of law and tackle corruption abroad by abolishing tax havens and making it more difficult for corrupt individuals to use anonymous shell companies based in foreign jurisdictions. Another category of anti-corruption efforts, led in large part by the Justice Department and the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, include dismantling kleptocratic networks by issuing sanctions, visa bans, or indictments. The legislation in the Counter-Kleptocracy Act focuses largely on these latter efforts. For example, the Foreign Corruption Accountability Act authorizes visa bans on foreign nationals who use state power to engage in acts of corruption and the Revealing and Explaining Visa Exclusions for Accountability and Legitimacy Act enables the executive branch to reveal the names of human-rights abusers and kleptocrats banned from the U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin, who introduced two of the initiatives in the Counter-Kleptocracy Act, noted that the bills have support in the Senate. “I am proud that two of my initiatives, the Combating Global Corruption Act and the Transnational Repression Accountability and Prevention Act, have been included in the Counter-Kleptocracy Act. A third, the Countering Russian and Other Overseas Kleptocracy Act, is also moving in the House. All three bills have momentum in the Senate as well,” Cardin said. “By passing these pieces of legislation, we create the tools and authorities necessary to confront modern dictatorship.” Cohen, who introduced the package, also said he’s counting on his colleagues to back the initiative. “All seven of these bills are bipartisan and they are good bills,” Cohen said. “I don’t know of a single member of Congress who publicly supports corruption or kleptocracy. Does that mean there won’t be pushback? Maybe not. I have been surprised before. But I hope that my colleagues in Congress will recognize how important this bill is and lend their support.”

  • Co-Chairman Cohen, Ranking Member Wilson Introduce Counter-Kleptocracy Act

    WASHINGTON—Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09) and Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) today introduced the Counter-Kleptocracy Act. The legislation consolidates seven bipartisan counter-kleptocracy bills led by members of the Helsinki Commission and the Caucus against Foreign Corruption and Kleptocracy during the 117th Congress. “Kleptocracy threatens national security and human rights. It underpins every global challenge we face today. From climate change and COVID to organized crime and human trafficking, corruption either causes or exacerbates the problem. The United States should do all it can in facing down kleptocratic regimes.  I am happy to support President Biden’s proclamation that countering corruption is a ‘core U.S. national security interest’ by sponsoring the Counter-Kleptocracy Act,” said Co-Chairman Cohen. “Corruption is the lifeblood of dictators and the authoritarian system they seek to export. Foreign corruption is seeping into democratic systems, undermining them from within, and it is high time we treat corruption like the pressing national security threat that it is. The Counter-Kleptocracy Act—which includes seven bipartisan bills and represents the efforts of a large group of bipartisan and bicameral members—will finally provide the authorities and transparency we need to counter this threat,” said Rep. Wilson. The Counter-Kleptocracy Act includes the following counter-kleptocracy bills: Revealing and Explaining Visa Exclusions for Accountability and Legitimacy (REVEAL) Act (H.R. 4557, S. 2392), introduced by Co-Chairman Cohen & Rep. Steve Chabot (OH-01), and Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) and Commissioner Sen. Marco Rubio (FL)—Enables the executive branch to reveal the names of human rights abusers and kleptocrats banned under Immigration and Nationality Act section 212(a)(3)(c) for “potentially serious adverse foreign policy consequences,” a major provision for banning bad actors. Transnational Repression Accountability and Prevention (TRAP) Act (H.R. 4806, S. 2010), introduced by Co-Chairman Cohen and Rep. Wilson, and Helsinki Commission Ranking Member Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) and Chairman Cardin—Establishes priorities of U.S. engagement at INTERPOL, identifies areas for improvement in the U.S. government’s response to INTERPOL abuse, and protects the U.S. judicial system from abusive INTERPOL notices. Combating Global Corruption Act (H.R. 4322, S. 14), introduced by Rep. Tom Malinowski (NJ-07) and Rep. María Elvira Salazar (FL-27), and Chairman Cardin and Sen. Todd Young (IN)—Creates a country-by-country tiered reporting requirement based on compliance with anti-corruption norms and commitments. Leaders of those countries in the lowest tier will be considered for Global Magnitsky sanctions. Foreign Corruption Accountability Act (H.R. 3887), introduced by Rep. John Curtis (UT-03) and Rep. Malinowski—Authorizes visa bans on foreign persons who use state power to engage in acts of corruption against any private persons and publicly names them. Foreign Extortion Prevention Act (H.R. 4737), introduced by Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (TX-18) and Rep. Curtis—Criminalizes bribery demands by foreign officials. Golden Visa Accountability Act (H.R. 4142), introduced by Rep. Adam Kinzinger (IL-16) and Rep. Malinowski—Creates a U.S.-led database to prevent the abuse of investor visas allowing foreign corrupt officials to move around the world freely and covertly and enjoy ill-gotten gains. Justice for Victims of Kleptocracy Act (H.R. 3781, S. 2010), introduced by Rep. Malinowski and Rep. Curtis, and Helsinki Commissioners Sen. Richard Blumenthal (CT) and Sen. Rubio—Creates a public Department of Justice website documenting the amount of money “stolen from the people” by corrupt officials in each country and “recovered by the United States.” Helsinki Commissioners Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (PA-01), Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, II (MO-05), Rep. Richard Hudson (NC-08), Rep. Marc Veasey (TX-33), Rep. Ruben Gallego (AZ-07), and Rep. Gwen Moore (WI-04) are original cosponsors of the legislation, along with Rep. Malinowski, Rep. Curtis, Rep. Jackson Lee, Rep. Salazar, Rep. Marcy Kaptur (OH-09), Rep. French Hill (AR-02), Rep. Katie Porter (CA-45), Rep. Anthony Gonzalez (OH-16), Rep. Abigail Spanberger (VA-07), and Rep. Dean Phillips (MN-03). The Counter-Kleptocracy Act has been endorsed by the following organizations: Academics Stand Against Poverty, Accountability Lab, Africa Faith and Justice Network, Anti-Corruption Data Collective, the Anti-Corruption Foundation (founded by Alexey Navalny), Centre for the Study of Corruption – University of Sussex, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), Crude Accountability, EG Justice, Estonian American National Council, Financial Accountability and Corporate Transparency (FACT) Coalition, Free Russia Foundation, Freedom House, Global Financial Integrity, Human, Rights First, Integrity Initiatives International, International Coalition Against Illicit Economies (ICAIE), Joint Baltic American National Committee, Jubilee USA Network, Never Again Coalition, Open Contracting Partnership, Oxfam America, Public Citizen, Repatriation Group International, The ONE Campaign, The Sentry, Transparency International USA, Ukrainian Congress Committee of America, and UNISHKA Research Service.

  • Cardin, Shaheen, Johnson, and Portman Issue Joint Statement on 30th Anniversary of Ukraine Independence

    WASHINGTON–Ahead of today's 30th anniversary of Ukraine’s independence, Helsinki Commission Chair Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) yesterday issued the following joint statement with fellow Senate Foreign Relations Committee members Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (NH), Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations (SFRC) Europe and Regional Security Cooperation Subcommittee and a member of the Helsinki Commission; Sen. Ron Johnson (WI); and Sen. Rob Portman (OH): “This is an important milestone for Ukraine, marking three decades since an independent Ukraine rose from the ashes of the Soviet Union’s collapse. Over the years, Ukraine has faced immense challenges in its effort to build a more prosperous future for its people, from rooting out corruption to defending its territorial integrity against an increasingly aggressive Russia. Despite these struggles, the progress made in Ukraine on urgent governance reforms are undeniable, and we, a bipartisan group of lawmakers in the U.S. Senate, congratulate our partners for staying the course. “The U.S. stands in solidarity with Ukraine as it continues to build a democratic, accountable government that is responsive to the needs of its people. We join the rest of free world in rejecting Russia's territorial claim on Crimea and condemning their ongoing assault on Ukraine's territorial integrity in the Donbas region.  We are encouraged by President Zelenskyy’s commitment to continue pro-democratic measures that will empower Ukraine and facilitate its entry to NATO and the EU, which is in the best interests of Ukraine, our transatlantic community and U.S. national security. As Ukraine celebrates 30 years of independence, the U.S. reaffirms its support for our partners’ determination to ensure a free, democratic future for all its citizens.”

  • The Passing of Sergei Kovalev

    Mr. COHEN. Madam Speaker, I rise today as the Co-Chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (the Helsinki Commission) to remember the great Russian human rights activist Sergei Kovalev and to include in the Record an opinion column by Vladimir Kara-Murza from Wednesday's Washington Post. MOSCOW--"Our opposition was not political; it was moral incompatibility with the regime,'' Sergei Kovalev, a leading figure in the Soviet dissident movement, explained in an interview for a documentary I made in the early 2000s. "At some point you realize that it is shameful to remain silent.'' Last week, Kovalev died in his sleep at the age of 91. His funeral on Friday was attended by thousands of Muscovites who filed past his casket at the Sakharov Center, an institution named for his friend and mentor, Andrei Sakharov, and designated by Vladimir Putin's government as a ``foreign agent.'' Several Western countries sent their diplomats to pay respects. No Russian government official attended. Perhaps it was better this way. I doubt Kovalev would have appreciated hypocritical gestures of condolence from a regime led by a KGB officer who has brought back many of the authoritarian practices Kovalev spent his life fighting. Like many in the Soviet dissident movement, Kovalev joined the human rights struggle from the academic world. A successful biophysicist and head of a laboratory section at Moscow State University, he had a PhD and more than 60 research papers to his name. But he could not remain silent in the face of a resurgent totalitarianism of the Brezhnev era that saw both domestic repression and aggressive posturing abroad. For Kovalev, the defining moments were the show trial of writers Andrei Sinyavsky and Yuli Daniel and the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, both in the second half of the 1960s. His activism brought his scientific career to an end, of course. From then on, Kovalev dedicated his life to documenting, publicizing and confronting abuses committed by his government against his fellow citizens. A founding member of the Initiative Group for the Defense of Human Rights in the USSR--the first human rights group in the country--and the Moscow chapter of Amnesty International, Kovalev served as the editor of the Chronicle of Current Events, the samizdat news bulletin that reported on human rights violations throughout the Soviet Union. During Kovalev's subsequent trial on charges of "anti-Soviet agitation,'' the KGB tried to prove the slanderous nature of the Chronicle's reporting--but ended up confirming its accuracy. Not that it changed the outcome: Kovalev was sentenced to seven years of imprisonment followed by three years in internal exile. His trial was held behind closed doors with a preselected "audience.'' Sakharov tried, unsuccessfully, to enter the courtroom and ended up standing outside the door throughout the trial. At the very same time, in Oslo, Sakharov's wife, Elena Bonner, was accepting his Nobel Peace Prize, which he dedicated to "all prisoners of conscience in the Soviet Union and in other Eastern European countries''--including Kovalev, whom he mentioned by name. The collapse of communist regimes in Eastern Europe saw many former dissidents go into politics to help steer their countries toward democracy. Poland's Lech Walesa and Czechoslovakia's Vaclav Havel were only the best-known examples. In Russia, to its chagrin, this was more the exception than the norm--but Sergei Kovalev was among those exceptions. Four times he was elected to the Russian parliament. He was also Russia's first human rights ombudsman, co-wrote the human rights clauses in the constitution and served as Russia's representative on the U.N. Human Rights Commission and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. Throughout it all, he stayed true to the principles that had defined his dissident period. He sought to make politics moral and never compromised his conscience. With the start of Russia's military campaign in Chechnya, he tried to use his position to prevent bloodshed--including by personally leading negotiations that saved the lives of more than 1,500 hostages during a terrorist siege in the summer of 1995. But while President Boris Yeltsin had genuine respect for Kovalev, he chose advice from elsewhere. When it became clear that the war would not stop, Kovalev resigned his official positions and sent Yeltsin a sharply worded open letter. The president responded personally, thanking Kovalev for his service and expressing sympathy for his motivation. This was a different Russia. Kovalev spent the last part of his life as he did the first: in opposition to a regime increasingly intolerant of domestic dissent and increasingly aggressive toward others. While Russia still had a real parliament, Kovalev remained a member--voting against Putin's confirmation as prime minister in 1999 and warning of a coming "authoritarian police state led by . . . the well-preserved Soviet security services'' in early 2000. That was a time when many in Russia and in the West were still harboring illusions about Putin. When legal opposition politics became all but impossible, Kovalev returned to being what he knew best, a dissident. His last public appearance, earlier this year, was at a virtual event commemorating Sakharov's centennial. Kovalev described himself as an idealist--an indispensable quality in a seemingly hopeless struggle against a ruthless authoritarian system. The main lesson from Kovalev and his fellow dissidents was that one can choose not to remain silent even in the most difficult circumstances. And that, in the end, the struggle might not be as hopeless as it seems.

  • Cohen, Wilson, Whitehouse, and Wicker Introduce GOLD Act

    WASHINGTON—Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09) and Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02), along with Helsinki Commissioner Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (RI) and Helsinki Commission Ranking Member Sen. Roger Wicker (MS), this week introduced the Guaranteeing Oversight and Litigation on Doping (GOLD) Act in the House of Representatives and the Senate. The bills would enable doping fraud—a violation of the Rodchenkov Anti-Doping Act—to also activate charges under the U.S. criminal anti-money laundering and racketeering statutes. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (TX-18) and Rep. Michael Burgess (TX-26), sponsors of the Rodchenkov Act, also are among the original co-sponsors of the GOLD Act in the House of Representatives. The introductions follow comments from athletes expressing concern that this year’s Olympic Games—like many in the past—already have been marred by doping.   “Some of our athletes at the Olympic Games in Tokyo suspect that there has been performance-enhancing doping going on. One nation with a history of doping was disqualified from participating under its own flag because of past violations. We need better enforcement of anti-doping rules to make sure the Olympics are clean and that athletes are winning based on their own capabilities and training,” said Co-Chairman Cohen. “It is outrageous that clean athletes must continue to face doped athletes in international competition, but it isn’t surprising. No serious deterrent currently exists to stop the networks that engage in doping fraud, so doping continues unabated and remains a powerful asymmetric tool for authoritarian states like Russia to undermine the rule of law. Enforcement of the Rodchenkov Anti-Doping Act would put an end to this,” said Rep. Wilson. “The Olympics inspire us with remarkable feats of athleticism and a shared commitment to fair play. But doping schemes undermine the spirit of the games, and help kleptocrats like Putin burnish their image on the world stage.  That's why we need to extend the reach of the Rodchenkov Act, which I helped pass into law to tackle international doping. The GOLD Act will help law enforcement use our new anti-doping law to protect the integrity of international sport,”  said Sen. Whitehouse. “The United States needs to be ready to address doping fraud. Athletes have already expressed concern about possible doping at the Tokyo Olympics, and next year’s Beijing Olympics are not likely to be better given the corrupt nature of the Chinese Communist Party,” Sen. Wicker said. “The GOLD Act would pick up where the Rodchenkov Act left off, expanding the reach of the law by acknowledging that doping never happens in a vacuum. The corrupt officials and human rights abusers who engage in doping fraud also engage in money laundering, drug trafficking, computer hacking, racketeering, and more.” “The Rodchenkov Anti-Doping Act will finally hold Russia and other authoritarian actors to account for their state-run fraud. We should also closely examine the administrators and officials of the International Olympic Committee, World Anti-Doping Agency, and the various international sport federations, some of whom have allegedly enabled or engaged in doping fraud. The GOLD Act will make the Rodchenkov Act even broader and more powerful, and I look forward to the first indictment,” said Rep. Jackson Lee. “This week, Americans and the world are watching as Olympic athletes, who spent countless hours preparing, compete on the biggest world stage. It is critical that we do all we can to ensure they know that their effort is not tainted by someone working to rig the system. Being the largest sovereign contributor to the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), the United States must make certain that WADA is enforcing the rules and regulations in international competitions. The GOLD Act will strengthen the Rodchenkov Anti-Doping Act, and provide assurance to American competitors that their competition is clean and fair and that defrauded athletes may receive justice,” said Rep. Burgess. Helsinki Commissioner Rep. Richard Hudson (NC-08) and Rep. Tom Malinowski (NJ-07) also are original cosponsors of the GOLD Act. In December 2020, the Rodchenkov Anti-Doping Act became law. This groundbreaking extraterritorial criminal authority redefined doping as fraud and enables U.S. law enforcement to pursue corrupt administrators, officials, doctors, coaches, and other structural perpetrators of doping anywhere in the world. On July 21, the Helsinki Commission held a hearing on enforcement of the Rodchenkov Act at the Tokyo Olympics.

  • Helsinki Commission Summer 2021 Digital Digest

  • Co-Chairman Cohen, Ranking Member Wilson Introduce TRAP Act In House

    WASHINGTON—Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09) and Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) yesterday introduced the Transnational Repression Accountability and Prevention (TRAP) Act in the U.S. House of Representatives. The legislation makes fighting abuse of INTERPOL a key goal of the United States at the organization, mandates that the United States examine its own strategy to fight INTERPOL abuse, and protects the U.S. judicial system from authoritarian abuse. The legislation was introduced by Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) and Ranking Member Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) in the Senate in May 2021. “Using the legal system and INTERPOL to harass political opponents is becoming far too common,” said Co-Chairman Cohen. “Russia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Turkey frequently issue meritless INTERPOL requests that violate key provisions of INTERPOL’s constitution, subjecting international travelers to unnecessary inconvenience. The TRAP Act cracks down on the misuse of these tools to prevent autocrats from harassing their own citizens overseas.” “Dictators are increasingly pursuing political opponents and dissidents across borders. Through surveillance, harassment, and even assassination, these autocrats are attempting to build a world safe for authoritarianism—where speaking out against brutal regimes might destroy your life,” said Rep. Wilson. “It is imperative that we fight back. INTERPOL abuse is one of the worst forms of this transnational repression and I am pleased to introduce the TRAP Act with other Helsinki Commission leaders to curb it.” The Helsinki Commission regularly receives credible reports from political dissidents, human rights defenders, and members of the business community who are the subject of politically-motivated INTERPOL Notices and Diffusions requested by autocratic regimes. These mechanisms, which function effectively as extradition requests, can be based on trumped-up criminal charges and are used to detain, harass, or otherwise persecute individuals for their activism or refusal to acquiesce to corrupt schemes. Russia is among the world’s most prolific abusers of INTERPOL’s Notice and Diffusion mechanisms. Other participating States of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE)—principally Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Turkey—and other authoritarian states, such as China, also reportedly target political opponents with INTERPOL requests that violate key provisions of INTERPOL’s Constitution, which obligate the organization to uphold international human rights standards and strictly avoid involvement in politically-motivated charges. One notable example of autocratic leaders using this power to harass their political enemies occurred in Rwanda. Paul Rusesabagina, a staunch critic of the Rwandan government, was arrested while traveling through Dubai after Rwanda asked INTERPOL to issue a Red Notice. Rusesabagina was then returned to Rwanda on false terrorism charges. Turkey’s government also has abused INTERPOL to target Enes Kanter, an NBA basketball player, who lives in the United States. Kanter is an outspoken member of a religious group that largely opposes the Turkish President. Original co-sponsors of the bipartisan bill include Helsinki Commissioners Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, II (MO-05), Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (PA-01), Rep. Ruben Gallego (AZ-07), Rep. Richard Hudson (NC-08), Rep. Gwen Moore (WI-04), and Rep. Marc Veasey (TX-33). Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (TX-18), Rep. Tom Malinowski (NJ-07), and Rep. Peter Meijer (MI-03) also are original co-sponsors. 

  • OSCE SHDM on Digital Technology and Human Rights

    OSCE Conference on Risks and Opportunities Posed by Digital Technologies On July 12 and 13, 2021, the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) held the third Supplementary Human Dimension Meeting (SHDM) of the year, titled "Digital Technologies and Human Rights - Opportunities and Challenges." The virtual conference included representatives from 45 OSCE participating States; a dozen OSCE missions and institutions, including the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly; more than 140 academic, national, and non-governmental human rights institutions; and international organizations like the Council of Europe, European Union, and the United Nations. Digital technologies affect human rights, gender equality, and the rule of law, and in her opening remarks, Swedish Foreign Ministry Director-General for Political Affairs Elinor Hammarskjöld stressed the nexus between digital technologies and Swedish OSCE Chairpersonship-in-Office (CiO) priorities. The COVID-19 pandemic underscored how the digital divide disproportionately affects women and girls, she explained, and stressed the threat that widespread use of digital technologies can pose to fundamental freedoms if used indiscriminately by authorities. Panelists highlighted opportunities for digital technologies to benefit societies and human rights defenders, as well as dangers they can pose to human rights. Maia Rusakova, associate professor of sociology at St. Petersburg State University, warned that data collection technologies have facilitated online recruitment by human traffickers. However, facial recognition, artificial intelligence, and tracking blockchain financial transactions and social media activity could play a role in combatting the digital threats of human trafficking.  Susie Alegre, an associate at the human rights NGO Doughty Street Chambers, highlighted how cutting-edge data collection can raise awareness of threats to human rights, support investigations, facilitate positive social change, and support human rights defenders. Examples include Data 4 Black Lives, eyeWitness to Atrocities, Forensic Architecture, and Bellingcat. Elif Kuskonmaz, a lecturer at the University of Portsmouth, cautioned that misuse of facial recognition technology could pose threats to peaceful assembly and freedom of speech, and that it could be exploited to wrongfully detain citizens. To prevent such abuse, she recommended that participating States adopt adequate legal frameworks concerning the collection, use, storage, and sharing of personal data. She urged all participating States to review the Council of Europe's Convention 108+, which addresses personal data collection in a national security context. Other panelists explored the capacity of artificial intelligence systems to reinforce existing structural inequalities through algorithms and the subsequent human rights implications. Civil Society Concerns about Government Use—or Abuse—of Digital Technology Civil society participants shared human rights concerns related to governmental use of digital technologies. Many urged the OSCE to call out repressive behavior and help participating States establish adequate legal protections against misuse. Several urged the United States and the European Union to target sanctions against the worst offenders. Many participants also took the opportunity to raise human rights concerns directly with government officials, and alleged misuse of data collected by government agencies to persecute human rights defenders, social activists, and their families.  For example, civil society activists from Kazakhstan accused the government of conducting digital surveillance and censorship on NGOs and activists, and they complained that mandatory “security certificates” allow the government to monitor and block use of non-government-controlled social media sites such as Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram. Other NGOs raised concerns about Spain's treatment of protesters in Catalonia, Greece's treatment of Turks in Western Thrace, and Russia’s occupation of Ukraine, including Crimea. A German NGO called for the abolition of facial recognition technology due to its use by law enforcement to profile specific ethnic groups and minorities, including Roma and Sinti.  Civil society participants also expressed concerns over participating States’ use of digital technology to target dissent by deploying spyware against individuals, spreading misleading government-sponsored content, and silencing protest groups and democratic movements. Several NGOs argued that their governments exploited conditions imposed by the pandemic to use surveillance camera footage, geolocation data, and contact tracing as part of a domestic surveillance campaign to discourage public political dissent. Participants highlighted how technology has been used to spread racist messaging, including the racist abuse of English football players following the recent Union of European Football Associations Euro 2020 matches. Many voiced their dismay that social media companies do not hold accountable individuals who spread racist content. Participants recommended that social media companies implement more robust algorithms to detect racist remarks.  Participating States Respond Several participating States addressed the use of technology. The European Union recognized the importance of addressing human rights abuses that arise from the misuse of digital technologies. Turkey responded by touting its 2016 law on data protection and emphasizing its multiculturalism. The Holy See responded that it is necessary to improve education in proper use and effects of technology. The Holy See also called for international regulations to guarantee the protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the right to private personal electronic communication.

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