Podcast: Communities at Risk
Reports from nearly every corner of the OSCE region suggest that minority groups and vulnerable populations have been hit especially hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, and sometimes by the policies enacted by governments to address it. This extended episode of "Helsinki on the Hill" takes an in-depth look at the pandemic’s impact on minority groups and vulnerable populations, and the role of governments in addressing that impact. Margaret Huang, president and chief executive officer of the Southern Poverty Law Center, and Karen Taylor, chair of the European Network Against Racism, share insight about the reality on the ground for minority communities, including African Americans, who are suffering disproportionately from both the pandemic and systemic discrimination. Lamberto Zannier, OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities, joins the discussion to offer recommendations on meeting the needs of national minorities and marginalized communities in the new world of the COVID-19 pandemic. "Helsinki on the Hill" is series of conversations hosted by the U.S. Helsinki Commission on human rights and comprehensive security in Europe and beyond. The Helsinki Commission, formally known as the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, promotes human rights, military security, and economic cooperation in 57 countries in Europe, Eurasia, and North America. Transcript | Episode 11 | Communities at Risk: The Impact of COVID-19 on the OSCE’s Most Vulnerable Populations
Justice at Home
Promoting human rights, good governance, and anti-corruption abroad can only be possible if the United States lives up to its values at home. By signing the Helsinki Final Act, the United States committed to respecting human rights and fundamental freedoms, even under the most challenging circumstances. However, like other OSCE participating States, the United States sometimes struggles to foster racial and religious equity, counter hate and discrimination, defend fundamental freedoms, and hold those in positions of authority accountable for their actions. The Helsinki Commission works to ensure that U.S. practices align with the country’s international commitments and that the United States remains responsive to legitimate concerns raised in the OSCE context, including about the death penalty, use of force by law enforcement, racial and religious profiling, and other criminal justice practices; the conduct of elections; and the status and treatment of detainees at Guantanamo Bay and elsewhere.
Human rights within states are crucial to security among states. Prioritizing respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, defending the principles of liberty, and encouraging tolerance within societies must be at the forefront of America's foreign policy agenda. Peace, security, and prosperity cannot be sustained if national governments repress their citizens, stifle their media, or imprison members of the political opposition. Authoritarian regimes become increasingly unstable as citizens chafe under the bonds of persecution and violence, and pose a danger not only to their citizens, but also to neighboring nations. The Helsinki Commission strives to ensure that the protection of human rights and defense of democratic values are central to U.S. foreign policy; that they are applied consistently in U.S. relations with other countries; that violations of Helsinki provisions are given full consideration in U.S. policymaking; and that the United States holds those who repress their citizens accountable for their actions. This includes battling corruption; protecting the fundamental freedoms of all people, especially those who historically have been persecuted and marginalized; promoting the sustainable management of resources; and balancing national security interests with respect for human rights to achieve long-term positive outcomes rather than short-term gains.
Mr. Speaker, on May 8, the Senate gave its consent to protocols providing for the accession of seven new members to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. I have supported Slovakia's admission to NATO and am heartened that the post-1998 democratic and human rights progress in Slovakia made the Senate vote possible.
Slovak leaders continue to demonstrate in many concrete ways their commitment to the oftcited but not always visible "shared values" that are central to the trans-Atlantic community. I was moved to read that several Slovak leaders, including Speaker of the Parliament, Pavol Hrusovsky, with whom I met last year, Laszlo Nagy, Chairman of the Parliament's human rights committee, and the Foreign Ministry have spoken out so clearly and strongly on behalf of the Cuban dissidents victimized by Castro's recent sweeping crackdown on human rights activists.
At the same time, I have continuing concerns about the Slovak Government's ongoing investigation into allegations that Romani women were sterilized without proper informed consent.
Mr. Speaker, I know these allegations are of concern to many members of the Helsinki Commission, one of whom recently sponsored a Capitol Hill briefing concerning the sterilizations. I also discussed the issue with Slovak Ambassador Martin Butora and Deputy Minister Ivan Korcok in March. Eight Helsinki Commissioners joined me in writing to Prime Minister Dzurinda to express our concern, and U.S. Assistant Secretary for Human Rights, Democracy, and Labor, Lome Craner, commented on this abhorrent practice at his hearing on the State Department's annual human rights report.
I was encouraged by the Prime Minister's substantive and sympathetic response, and I commend his commitment to improve respect for the human rights of Slovakia's Romani minority.
At the same time, I am deeply troubled by one particular aspect of the government's response to the reports documenting that sterilizations occurred without proper informed consent.
Shortly after the release in January of a lengthy report on sterilization of Romani women, a spokesperson for the ministry responsible for human rights was quoted in The New York Times as saying: "If we confirm this information, we will expand our charges to the report's authors, that they knew about a crime for a year and did not report it to a prosecutor. And if we prove it is not true, they will be charged with spreading false information and damaging the good name of Slovakia."
In other words, if the government's investigation does not find evidence of coerced sterilization, they intend to make those who dared make the allegation pay a price. And if the government's investigation does confirm the allegation, they will still make those who made the allegation pay a price. I believe this is what is meant by the old expression, "Damned if you do, and damned if you don't." This is really an outrageous threat, and it's hard to believe that an official responsible for human rights would have made it.
Mr. Speaker, I had hoped that this was an unfortunate misstatement and not really reflective of the Slovak Government's policies. I had hoped that the fact that almost every newspaper article, from Los Angeles to Moscow, about coerced sterilization in Slovakia has mentioned this threat would lead the Slovak Government to issue some kind of clarification or retraction. Unfortunately, not only has there been no such clarification or retraction, but the threat has now been repeated--not once, but at least twice.
First, in mid-March, the Ministry of Health issued a report based on its own investigation into the allegations. (A separate government investigation continues.) Naming a particular Slovak human rights advocate by name, the ministry complained that she had refused to cooperate with police investigators and this could be considered covering up a crime. Essentially the same point was made by Slovakia's Ambassador to the OSCE in early April, ironically during a meeting on Romani human rights issues.
Mr. Speaker, these threats raise serious doubts about the breadth and depth of the Slovak Government's commitment to get at the truth in this disturbing matter. Can the Slovak Government really expect women who may have been sterilized without consent to come forward and cooperate with an investigation with a threat like this hanging over them? A few brave souls may, but I believe these threats have had a substantial chilling effect on the investigative process.
In fact, it is not unusual for those whose rights have been violated to confide their stories only upon condition of anonymity. And while I realize there has been a very serious effort in Slovakia to improve the professionalism of the police and to address past police abuses against Roma, I certainly can't blame Romani women if they are unwilling to pour their hearts out to their local constables. Simply put, the police have not yet earned that trust.
I hope the Slovak Government will set the record straight on this and remove any doubt that the days when human rights activists could be sent to jail for their reports is over. Doing so is critical for the credibility of the government's ongoing investigation.