Concerning Properties Wrongfully Expropriated by Formerly Totalitarian Governments

Concerning Properties Wrongfully Expropriated by Formerly Totalitarian Governments

Hon.
Christopher H. Smith
United States
House of Representatives
105th Congress Congress
First Session Session
Tuesday, October 13, 1998

Mr. Speaker, I thank the gentleman from New York (Mr. Gilman), the chairman of the Committee on International Relations, and the ranking member of my subcommittee, the gentleman from California (Mr. Lantos), for working with me and with my friend and colleague, the gentleman from Indiana (Mr. Hamilton) to help bring this resolution to the floor. Mr. Speaker, House Resolution 562 addresses the difficult subject of claims arising from uncompensated property confiscation by totalitarian regimes in Central and Eastern Europe.

House Resolution 562 stemmed from a Helsinki Commission hearing that I held in 1996 that examined the efforts underway to restore plundered properties in Central and Eastern Europe. One of the witnesses at that hearing explained that under the international law and practice, the U.S. government is only able to seek compensation from foreign governments on behalf of property claimants who were American citizens at the time that their property was taken. In contrast, claimants who were not American citizens when their property was taken have at their disposal only the domestic law of their former country, even if they later became naturalized American citizens. Mr. Speaker, this resolution urges countries to pass laws that will commit their governments to return plundered properties to their rightful owners, or, when actual return of property is not possible, to provide prompt, just, and effective compensation. This compensation language derives from the Bonn agreement on the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe in which the participating states, including those in Central and Eastern Europe, recognized the `right to prompt compensation in the event private property is taken for public use.'

This resolution also urges countries that have adopted restitution and compensation laws to implement those laws effectively and expeditiously. By adopting this resolution, Mr. Speaker, the Congress will lend its voice and persuasive power to that of the Council of Europe and the European Parliament, which have both passed strongly-worded and similarly-worded resolutions calling on the countries of Central and Eastern Europe to adopt legislation for the restitution of plundered properties. I hope this will have the full support of the body.

Mr. Speaker, I thank the Chairman of the International Relations Committee, Mr. Gilman, and the Ranking Member of my Subcommittee, Representative Tom Lantos, for working with me to bring this resolution to the floor. Similar legislation was introduced in the 104th Congress, reintroduced in this Congress, and offered as an amendment to the foreign relations authorization bill which has not been passed by the Congress. H. Res. 562 is co-sponsored by my colleagues Mr. Gilman, Mr. Lantos, Mr. Hyde, Mr. Rohrabacher, and Mr. Fox, and by my fellow members of the Helsinki Commission: Mr. Christensen, Mr. Hoyer, Mr. Salmon, and Mr. Markey.

Mr. Speaker, H. Res. 562 addresses the difficult subject of claims arising from uncompensated property confiscations by totalitarian regimes in Central and Eastern Europe. Throughout much of this century, individuals and religious communities in Central and Eastern Europe saw their private property plundered by totalitarian regimes. In particular, Communist regimes expropriated real property, personal property, financial property, business property, and religious property in fulfillment of a main tenet of communism: the abolition of private property. Moreover, Communist-era expropriations often compounded Fascist-era wrongs.

The restitution of property in Central and Eastern Europe today has a multitude of possible effects: restitution will demonstrate a commitment to the rule of law, will advance these countries in the establishment of free market economies, will encourage foreign investment, will help the newly-democratic regimes distance themselves from their totalitarian predecessors, and will provide a measure of justice to the victims of fascism and communism.

H. Res. 562 stemmed from a 1996 Helsinki Commission hearing that examined the efforts underway to restore plundered properties in Central and Eastern Europe. Our witnesses at that hearing, Stuart Eizenstat, then the Under Secretary of Commerce for International Trade and the U.S. Special Envoy for Property Claims in Central and Eastern Europe, and Delissa Ridgway, the then-Chairwoman of the Foreign Claims Settlement Commission, explained that under international law and practice, the United States Government is only able to seek compensation from foreign governments on behalf of property claimants who were American citizens at the time their property was taken.

Under one common scenario, the United States obtains payment of such claims by having the Secretary of State, on behalf of the President, negotiate a government-to-government settlement agreement that settles a block of claims by American citizens against the foreign government in exchange for a lump-sum payment from the foreign government to the United States. Before or after such a settlement is reached, the Foreign Claims Settlement Commission (FCSC), an independent, quasi-judicial Federal agency within the Department of Justice, determines the validity and valuation of property claims of U.S. nationals against that foreign government. The FCSC informs the Secretary of the Treasury of the results of the FCSC's adjudications and the Secretary of the Treasury then distributes funds from the lump-sum settlement on a pro rata basis to the U.S. nationals that obtained awards from the FCSC. In contrast, claimants who were not American citizens when their property was taken have at their disposal only the domestic law of their former country, even if they later became naturalized American citizens. Considering these realities, Congress has a role in helping enable these dispossessed property owners to file claims in their former homelands with a real possibility of achieving a just resolution.

Since that 1996 hearing, the Helsinki Commission has actively encouraged the governments in Central and Eastern Europe to adopt nondiscriminatory property restitution laws and has sought to intervene on behalf of several claimants whose rights under existing restitution and compensation laws are not being respected. While some progress has been made, the Helsinki Commission nonetheless continues to receive hundreds of letters from American and foreign citizens with unresolved property claims in Central and Eastern Europe. The writers plead for help from the Helsinki Commission and from Congress. Many have been struggling for seven or eight years to regain possession of their family properties. Many are elderly and are losing hope that they will ever recover their property.

The issues addressed by this resolution are timely and, Mr. Speaker, they demand our attention. Some countries in the region have not yet adopted restitution or compensation laws. In those that have, certain requirements imposed on claimants involve so many conditions and qualifications that something just short of a miracle seems necessary for the return of any property. In Communist countries, expropriated properties were often given to Communist party officials or collaborators. In many cases, these former officials still live in the properties. Regrettably, a number of the democratic governments now in place are stalling and delaying the return of those properties to their rightful owners. Worse yet, some governments are offering meager compensation to the rightful owners and then allegedly reselling the properties for a profit that the State then pockets.

The resolution urges countries to pass laws that will commit their governments to return plundered properties to their rightful owners or, when actual return of property is not possible, to provide `prompt, just and effective compensation.' This compensation language derives from the Bonn Document of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (now the Organization on Security and Cooperation in Europe) in which the participating States, including those in Central and Eastern Europe, recognized the `right to prompt compensation in the event private property is taken for public use.'

The resolution also urges countries that have adopted restitution or compensation laws to implement those laws effectively. Several examples help illustrate the state of affairs in Central and Eastern Europe with respect to property restitution. The Helsinki Commission staff met recently with a group known as the Committee for Private Property that has collected information from more than fifteen hundred people with outstanding restitution claims in Romania. Most of these claimants are American citizens, hundreds of whom filed legal claims in Romania and followed the proper judicial process to obtain decrees reinstating their property titles. After obtaining what they believed to be final and irrevocable decrees, the property owners began paying taxes on their properties or, in at least one case, thousands of dollars due on an old mortgage, only to have the Romanian Special Prosecutor appeal the cases to the Supreme Court and win reversals of the judicial decisions.

On the other hand, some positive advancements have been made in regard to communal property restitution in Romania. In April 1997, the Romanian Government adopted a resolution restoring Jewish community ownership rights over six buildings, including the National Jewish Theater, and issued a May 1997 decree that established a committee with joint government and community participation to review communal property claims. This past June, the Romanian Government pledged to return an additional seventeen buildings to several minority ethnic communities. These efforts are positive steps forward in the restitution of more than three thousand communal properties, such as orphanages, cultural centers, apartment buildings, ethnic community centers, and houses of worship, lost by religious and minority communities under communism. Regrettably, however, legislation to return properties to the Greek Catholic Church was blocked in Romania's parliament last year and has yet to be enacted.

Another group, American Owners of Property in Slovenia, has also contacted the Commission about property claims. This group estimates that at least 500 emigres from the former Yugoslavia are now American citizens with property claims in Slovenia. Despite clear mandates in Slovenia's restitution and compensation law requiring action on filed claims within one year, government officials have not implemented the law; the vast majority of claims remain pending without resolution seven years after the law was passed and five years after the filing deadline. Of the approximately 40,000 applications filed by the 1993 deadline, only 35 percent of the individual claims filed had been resolved by the end of 1997; sixty-five percent of the claims had received no action or only dilatory action. The Slovenian Government has not shown the political will to return property and has failed to take the administrative measures needed to implement the legislation. Moreover, it is of particular concern that this past September, the Slovenian parliament adopted amendments to its restitution law that contain numerous provisions that may further restrict the ability of victims of the Communist regime to regain ownership and access to their properties.

Similarly, in Lithuania, despite enactment of a restitution and compensation law, Lithuanian Government officials also appear disinclined to return properties. Property claimants there encounter a variety of roadblocks to restitution, including citizenship requirements, unreasonable bureaucratic delays, and the sudden, suspicious inclusion of claimed properties on an official `Register of Immovable Cultural Properties' as the basis for non-restitution. In one case, Mr. Vytautas Sliupas, an American with dual Lithuanian citizenship, has struggled for seven years to regain ownership and possession of inherited property in Palanga, Lithuania. One building is controlled by the Ministry of Culture and Education and is reportedly used by the National Museum of Lithuania primarily as a vacation site for Museum personnel. The second property is controlled by the City of Palanga and is rented to a commercial entity. These properties belong to Mr. Sliupas' family and were nationalized, without compensation, by the Communist regime. In 1993, the Minister of Culture and Education issued an official letter stating that the Ministry agreed to return the first property to Mr. Sliupas. In 1997, the City of Palanga passed a resolution to return the second property to Mr. Sliupas. Nonetheless, the groups occupying the properties have failed to comply with the orders to vacate. Mr. Sliupas has sought unsuccessfully to obtain the assistance of various government entities, including the courts, in enforcing his right to regain possession of these properties. The Lithuanian Government recently informed the Helsinki Commission that the property has been placed on the Register of Immovable Cultural Properties and, therefore, cannot be restituted to Mr. Sliupas.

In Croatia, the Czech Republic, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, and other countries, the existing restitution and compensation laws only allow people who are currently residents or citizens of the country to apply for restitution. The Czech Republic's citizenship requirement discriminates almost exclusively against individuals who lost their Czech citizenship because they chose the United States as their refuge from communism; as many as 8,000-10,000 Czech-Americans are precluded from even applying for restitution or compensation because of this requirement. Citizenship and residency requirements have been found to violate the nondiscrimination clause of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, an international agreement that these countries have voluntarily signed onto, and yet the countries mentioned have been unwilling to eliminate the restrictions.

The resolution calls on these countries to remove citizenship or residency requirements from their restitution and compensation laws. Mr. Speaker, the examples given only begin to show the obstacles faced by property claimants in formerly totalitarian countries. This past August, Stuart Eizenstat, now the Under Secretary of State or Economic, Business and Agricultural Affairs and the U.S. Special Envoy for Property Claims in Central and Eastern Europe, testified before the International Relations Committee about the need for Congress to pass a resolution that encourages Central and East European countries to return wrongfully expropriated property. While that hearing focused on Holocaust-era assets, in reality many Holocaust victims who suffered the loss of their property at the hands of the Nazis were victimized again by Communist regimes. I comment Under Secretary Eizenstat for his tireless efforts on behalf of Holocaust victims and I hope that the United States Government will make property restitution and compensation a priority in Central and Eastern Europe, as it has done in Cuba, Nicaragua and other countries.

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    In August 1975, the heads of state or government of 35 countries – the Soviet Union and all of Europe except Albania, plus the United States and Canada – held a historic summit in Helsinki, Finland, where they signed the Final Act of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe. This document is known as the Helsinki Final Act or the Helsinki Accords. The Conference, known as the CSCE, continued with follow-up meetings and is today institutionalized as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, or OSCE, based in Vienna, Austria. Learn more about the signature of the Helsinki Final Act; the role that the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe played during the Cold War; how the Helsinki Process successfully adapted to the post-Cold War environment of the 1990s; and how today's OSCE can and does contribute to regional security, now and in the future.

  • Helsinki Commission Convenes Historic Field Hearing in Poland to Examine Regional Security Concerns

    WASHINGTON—For the first time in its 43-year history, the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the U.S. Helsinki Commission, will convene outside of the United States for a field hearing to underscore America’s commitment to security in the Baltic Sea region and its unwavering support for U.S. friends and allies. At this historic hearing, held less than 80 miles from Russia’s border, senior U.S. civilian and military leaders will outline America’s collaborative approach to enhancing security in the region. High-level officials from states including Lithuania, Poland, Finland, Sweden, and Estonia will provide regional perspectives on the evolving security environment in and around the Baltic Sea. BALTIC SEA REGIONAL SECURITY A Field Hearing of the U.S. Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe Tuesday, July 2, 2019 3:00 p.m. CET The Artus Court Gdańsk, Poland Watch Live: www.youtube.com/HelsinkiCommission Panel I: Mr. Douglas D. Jones, Deputy Permanent Representative, United States Mission to NATO Lt. Gen. Stephen M. Twitty, Deputy Commander, United States European Command Panel II: Minister Raimundas Karoblis, Minister of National Defense, Ministry of National Defense of the Republic of Lithuania Major General Krzysztof Król, Deputy Chief of the General Staff of the Polish Armed Forces, Republic of Poland Director-General Janne Kuusela, Director-General, Defense Policy Department, Ministry of Defense of the Republic of Finland State Secretary Jan-Olof Lind, State Secretary to the Minister for Defense, Ministry of Defense of the Kingdom of Sweden Permanent Secretary Kristjan Prikk, Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Defense, Ministry of Defense of the Republic of Estonia Other panelists may be added. Against the backdrop of the location of the first battle of World War II, panelists will discuss regional maritime threats—including Kremlin aggression—and possible responses; the current effectiveness of NATO’s deterrent posture in the Baltics; the transatlantic security architecture; and hybrid and emerging threats. Members of the media must register in advance at https://form.jotform.com/91692541401958 to attend this hearing. Preregistration closes at noon CET on Friday, June 28, 2019.

  • Partially Protected?

    The U.S. Helsinki Commission convened an expert briefing on the background, implementation, and legal and political implications of temporary protection for people in the United States and Europe who come from countries of conflict or natural disaster but not qualify for asylum. The discussion explored whether some European Union countries are choosing temporary protection even when asylum claims are credible. Alex T. Johnson, Chief of Staff for the Helsinki Commission, said in his opening remarks, “Chairman Hastings sees [protected status] as a priority, particularly in the United States and in the OSCE region because of the erosion of human rights and democratic institutions that we are seeing now. It’s particularly urgent as we look at our own domestic compliance with commitments in the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and how we partner with countries who are also exploring issues related to granted protected status for vulnerable communities in their midst.” Johnson also noted Chairman Hasting’s introduction of H.Con.Res. 5, which expresses support for Haitians residing in the United States with Temporary Protected Status (TPS). In the discussion that followed, Jill Wilson of the Congressional Research Service provided context on TPS and its implementation in the U.S. Wilson reported, “Ten countries are currently covered by TPS, benefitting some 400,000 individuals in the United States. The Trump administration has announced terminations for six of these ten countries on the grounds that the conditions on which the original designations were based no longer exist. These terminations are currently on hold pending court action.”  Recent efforts by members of the 115th and 116th Congress saw a greater number and variety of TPS-related bills that seek either to expand or restrict TPS and shift the decision-making power from the Secretary of Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to the U.S. Congress. Currently, the Secretary of the DHS, in consultation with other key government offices namely the U.S. State Department, has the power to designate a country for temporary protection in periods of six, twelve, or eighteen months based on three categories: armed conflict, natural disaster, or extraordinary circumstances that prevent the safe return of a country’s nationals. Marleine Bastien of the Family Action Network Movement shared her expertise on the current political and economic situation in Haiti, following the catastrophic earthquake in 2010 and subsequent natural disasters that resulted in major public health emergencies, about 300,000 displaced people, and severely damaged infrastructure. Despite these continuing poor conditions, Haiti’s TPS status is subject to termination. Bastien remarked, “We hope that Congress will take a close look at what’s going on in Haiti today…The conditions in Haiti continue to deteriorate. Haiti still qualifies for temporary protected status… TPS is still applicable, not only for the countries that qualify now, but for the countries in the future which may experience natural and political disasters.” Without its TPS re-instated, she said, Haiti does not have the capacity to resettle and support the 58,000 Haitians currently living in the U.S. Sui Chung, an attorney with the Immigration Law and Litigation Group in Miami, Florida, and Chair of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Committee of the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA) stated that unless legislation like the American Dream and Promise Act, H.R. 6 is passed, TPS recipients remain at risk of being detained or deported. Chung remarked, “Although the federal courts have enjoined the termination of TPS for some countries, these court orders are temporary. If a higher court rules unfavorably, those with TPS would be vulnerable to losing authorization to work and reside in the U.S., and they would be subject to deportation.” Chung stated that 94 percent of individuals under TPS are employed, generating about $5.5 billion in federal, state, and local taxes, with roughly $25 billion spending power. According to Chung, losing this population could cripple the U.S. economy and harm communities.  Catherine Woollard, Secretary General of the European Council on Refugees and Exiles, described Europe’s decision-making process for protection status as an inconsistent and unfair “asylum lottery” She argued that the lack of fairness and uniformity in granting TPS originates from the selection process, where the decision to grant protection status is left solely to the discretion of the twenty-eight European Union Member States rather than a universal eligibility process. Woollard noted, “Our analysis shows that these different protection statuses have a wide variation when it comes to the rights attached. Key rights that are of interest and necessity for people who are seeking protection vary. If you have refugee status, your residence rights are for a longer duration. For subsidiary protection, less time is granted for residential rights. In some cases, there are very stark differences.”

  • STANDARD FOR JUSTICE: JUNE 10, 2010

    By Annie Lentz, Kampelman Fellow On June 10, 2010, seven senior Bosnian Serb officials were convicted of war crimes by the United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY). This was the largest trial to date held before the ICTY, which uncovered an organized and strategic attack against civilians and UN-protected safe areas in 1995 during the conflict in the Balkans. Bosnian Serb political and military leaders Radovan Karadžić and Ratko Mladic were later convicted of orchestrating the criminal plan. The trial began on August 21, 2006 and continued for 425 days until concluding on September 15, 2009. The inquiry featured testimony from 315 witnesses, with 5,383 exhibits of evidence totaling 87,392 pages. U.S. Helsinki Commission leaders expressed their support for the convictions handed down by the Tribunal, serving justice to those involved in the genocide of about 8,000 ethnic Bosniak men and boys residing in Srebrenica, an enclave  in Bosnia and Herzegovina which fell despite U.N. protection. Then-Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin said, “The ethnic cleansing that occurred in Bosnia was orchestrated by individuals who are now finally facing justice for their crimes. Others awaiting trial or who believe they may have escaped prosecution should take this as a sign that they too will answer for their crimes against humanity.” “The wheels of justice may not always turn as fast as victims’ families would like, but the convictions of Vujadin Popovic and Ljubisa Beara show the strength of the International War Crimes Tribunal to hold people to account,” said then-Co-Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings. Following calls from Helsinki Commission leadership and other human rights advocates, the ICTY was established in reaction to the atrocities committed during the decade of conflicts in the former Yugoslavia. It was the first international attempt to hold political leaders accountable for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide since the Nuremburg and Tokyo trials following World War II, and it established that the massacre committed in Srebrenica in July 1995 constituted genocide. Other crimes committed in Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Kosovo included mass ethnic cleansing campaigns in which millions were displaced, thousands of women and girls were raped, and many others were detained and tortured.  The death toll in Bosnia and Herzegovina alone is believed to have exceeded 100,000 individuals.  The ICTY concluded its work in 2017, having indicted 161 individuals in connection to crimes during the conflicts in the Balkans while setting global precedents regarding cases of genocide, crimes against humanity, violations of the laws or customs of war, and grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions. Ninety offenders were sentenced to serve prison time in 14 European states. The Tribunal also set the standard for how such atrocities should be handled to achieve international justice. In December 2017, the Helsinki Commission organized a public briefing to assess the accomplishments of the tribunal and ongoing efforts to pursue justice for atrocities in the Western Balkans.    

  • Helsinki Commission Briefing to Explore Non-Asylum Protections in United States And Europe

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following briefing: PARTIALLY PROTECTED? Non-Asylum Protection in the United States and the European Union Friday, June 14, 2019 2:00 p.m. Rayburn House Office Building Room 2237 Live Webcast: www.facebook.com/HelsinkiCommission The United States and the European Union give legal protection to some people who flee armed conflict or natural disaster, but do not qualify as refugees. In the United States, the Secretary of Homeland Security designates countries of origin for “Temporary Protected Status” (TPS), enabling their nationals to legally remain in the United States and work until and unless the Secretary terminates the designation. Approximately 417,000 individuals from 10 countries currently have TPS, living in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and U.S. commonwealths and territories. In 2018, more than 100,300 people were granted similar non-asylum protection, on an individual basis, across the 28 countries of the European Union. Since 2017, the United States has extended TPS for Somalia, South Sudan, Syria, and Yemen, and announced terminations for El Salvador, Haiti, Honduras, Nepal, Nicaragua, and Sudan. Lawsuits have challenged the terminations. To date, Members of Congress have introduced at least 10 TPS-focused bills in the 116th Congress. This briefing will explore the background and implementation of non-asylum protection in the United States and Europe—including whether some European Union Member States are according this protection even when asylum claims are credible—legislative and legal responses, and implications for policy, law, and protection. The following panelists are scheduled to participate: Marleine Bastien, Executive Director, Family Action Network Movement Sui Chung, Attorney at Law, Immigration Law and Litigation Group, and Chair, Immigration and Customs Enforcement Committee, American Immigration Lawyers Association Jill H. Wilson, Analyst in Immigration Policy, Congressional Research Service Catherine Woollard, Secretary General, European Council on Refugees and Exiles Additional panelists may be added.

  • Helsinki Commission Chairman Condemns Mob Attacks on Roma in Europe

    WASHINGTON—Following reports of a mob attack against the Roma community and a police station in Gabrovo, Bulgaria, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) today issued the following statement: “I am very disturbed by the increasing frequency of mob attacks on Roma in Europe—most recently in Bulgaria, but also in Italy, France, and the Czech Republic. Governments must do more to counter the corrosive effects of hate-mongering and protect their most vulnerable communities from bias-motivated crimes. “The violence in Bulgaria is particularly concerning. As they say in the horror movies, ‘the call is coming from inside your house.’ An attack on a government institution like a police station is an attack on democracy itself.” Reports indicate that earlier this week, an anti-Roma group attacked the police station in Gabrovo when officers refused to turn over three Roma to the mob following an altercation at a local shop. Some Romaní homes were subsequently destroyed. The attack comes on the heels of recent anti-Roma rhetoric at the highest levels of the Government of Bulgaria. In February, Bulgarian Defense Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Krasimir Karakachanov proposed offering free abortions to limit the Roma birthrate. In early April, a mob attacked 70 Roma, including children, in a suburb of Rome, Italy. Prosecutors have opened an investigation into the attack.  Similar attacks on Roma in the town of Dvorec in the Czech Republic forced a Romani family to leave the area. Three Romani children were subsequently attacked in the Czech village of Lipník nad Bečvou. In France in late March, false kidnapping accusations against Roma circulated on social media were associated with gang attacks on Roma in France. Local police issued statements to quell the disinformation. 

  • Slovakia's Chairmanship of the OSCE

    In 2019, Slovakia holds the chairmanship of the world’s largest regional security organization: the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which brings together 57 countries from North America, Europe and Central Asia. At the Helsinki Commission’s first hearing in the 116th Congress held on April 3, 2019, Slovakia’s Minister of Foreign and European Affairs, Miroslav Lajčák, was invited to discuss the chairmanship’s priorities for the OSCE in 2019 and its plans for progress. Minister Lajčák was received by Helsinki Commission Chairman Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20), along with Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker, Ranking House Member Rep. Joe Wilson, and Commissioners Sen. Cory Gardner, Rep. Gwen Moore, and Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick. Chairman Hastings encouraged Minister Lajčák to meet with civil society during his country visits as Chair-in-Office, including in the United States.  Co-Chairman Wicker observed, “[a]t a time when civil society is under threat in so many countries, we look to you, as the Chair, to ensure that people’s voices are heard in the OSCE.” Minister Lajčák stated that “resolving conflicts and mitigating their impact on people” in countries suffering from “economic instability, political instability, [and] human rights violations” is a priority for Slovakia’s Chairmanship. He focused on Ukraine due to the severity of the country’s conflicts, while also acknowledging those in other areas of the OSCE region such as Transnistria, Georgia, and Nagorno-Karabakh, for which Co-Chairman Wicker emphasized the need for the OSCE to “strengthen the process of democratic reform, fight against corruption, and fight against regional instability.” The minister emphasized that his goal will be to focus on a list of nine concrete measures that would “bring about small, but concrete, results and improvement [in Ukraine] for the people on the ground,” such as humanitarian demining and repairing civilian infrastructure. He asserted that repairing Stanytsoa Lukanska, a bridge which serves as a key piece of transportation infrastructure in the Luhansk area, is the most important of these measures. The minister also emphasized the need to ensure a safer future, especially for young people, by countering cyberterrorism and its (mis)use in organized crime and human trafficking. He emphasized the importance of educating youth in matters related to cybersecurity, including emerging threats such as cyberterrorism. To that end, Slovakia’s chairmanship will use its convening authority “to call attention to new trends and explore potential collaborative impact.” Chairman Hastings optimistically remarked that “young people know a hell of a lot more about [cyber security and technology] than we do” and Commissioner Moore commended Mr. Lajčák for focusing on the youth – “it is a quintessential strategy for preventing chaos.” Finally, the Slovak Chair-in-Office focused on multilateralism, considered by Minister Lajčák as a “fundamental problem-solving and war-preventing” tool both in and outside of the OSCE. Furthermore, Minister Lajčák emphasized the importance of “working together on multilateral platforms [which] is inevitable if we want to safeguard peace and prosperity to our people,” calling the OSCE “the platform to do just that.” He affirmed this priority of co-operation between OSCE participating States in response to a concern raised by Commissioner Moore regarding certain participating State’s “violations [of all] the Helsinki principles” which would undermine multilateralism within the OSCE: “We have to […] look eye-to-eye and talk about issues […] that is what makes the OSCE unique.” Throughout the hearing, the Chair-in-Office stressed an intent to counter terrorism in his priorities. Part of the minister’s first conference to encourage youth education involved “promoting tolerance and non-discrimination, and the best practices in combating modern-day anti-Semitism,” to stem terrorism. Furthermore, a second conference, held a week before the hearing, “focused on preventing and countering terrorism as well as violent extremism and radicalization that lead to terrorism.” The minister asserted that “terrorism and violent extremism pose as grave a threat as ever” and that “we, at the OSCE, need to continue updating and adapting our toolbox” to be prepared for the future. Despite specific victories, such as the recent destruction of the remaining Daesh strongholds, the minister advised that “this is not a time to get comfortable,” and that “we need to address the root causes [of terrorism] and stay one step ahead.” The OSCE Chair-in-Office also addressed regional challenges including Russia’s continued aggression in Ukraine; protracted conflicts in Transnistria, Georgia, and Nagorno-Karabakh; increasing instability in the Western Balkans; and Turkey’s campaign to stifle dissent in every sector. Many countries are struggling—or failing—to live up to their OSCE commitments in the areas of human rights, democracy, and the rule of law, and vulnerable communities are targets of discrimination and violence. However, Chairman Hastings is optimistic about the capability of the OSCE to advance the rule of law, human rights, and non-discrimination its participating States. Minister Lajčák expressed confidence that providing concrete measures to improve the daily lives of those living in conflict, educating youth, and encouraging multilateral engagement on their behalf will lead to positive developments throughout the OSCE region.

  • Slovakian Minister of Foreign Affairs to Appear at Helsinki Commission Hearing

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following hearing: SLOVAKIA’S CHAIRMANSHIP OF THE OSCE Priorities and Challenges Wednesday, April 3, 2019 3:30 p.m. Senate Visitor Center Room 201-00 Live Webcast: www.youtube.com/HelsinkiCommission In 2019, Slovakia holds the chairmanship of the world’s largest regional security organization: the 57-nation Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which stretches from North America through Europe, Central Asia, and Mongolia. Regional challenges include Russia’s continued aggression in Ukraine; protracted conflicts in Transnistria, Georgia, and Nagorno-Karabakh; increasing instability in the Western Balkans; and Turkey’s campaign to stifle dissent in every sector. Many countries are struggling—or failing—to live up to their OSCE commitments in the areas of human rights, democracy, and the rule of law, and vulnerable communities are targets of discrimination and violence. At the same time, recent developments in Armenia and Central Asia hold some of the best hopes for positive change in the region. At his first congressional hearing, Slovakia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Miroslav Lajcak, will discuss the chairmanship’s priorities for the OSCE in 2019 and its plans for progress.

  • Slovak Chairmanship Convenes Conference on Anti-Semitism

    By Dr. Mischa Thompson, senior policy advisor and Erika Schlager, counsel for international law From February 5-6, 2019, Slovakia, the 2019 OSCE Chair-in-Office, convened government officials and civil society representatives in Bratislava to discuss best practices to combat anti-Semitism in the OSCE region. The event followed the 2018 Italian Chairmanship’s conference in Rome and took place shortly after International Holocaust Remembrance Day (January 27). The OSCE Chair-in-Office, Slovak Foreign Minister Miroslav Lajcik, opened the meeting, which was Slovakia’s first event of the year. Senator Ben Cardin, who serves as the OSCE Special Representative on Anti-Semitism, Racism, and Intolerance, participated by video and shared his most recent report prepared for the OSCE PA. U.S. Ambassador to Slovakia Adam Sterling represented the United States at the conference opening.     We are witnessing today a growth in anti-Semitic and xenophobic rhetoric across Europe and North America, not just on the fringes, but by political leaders who are fostering a permissive environment of hate.  Today’s conference is a timely call to action… As leaders, I ask that you join me today in working across the OSCE community to ensure that all people in our borders are able to live and worship in safety and dignity.  I also call on you to act by adopting a Plan of Action to Address Violence and Discrimination across the OSCE region so that we can win this fight. Sen. Ben Cardin, OSCE PA Special Representative   On the opening day of the conference, the White House announced the appointment of Elan S. Carr as the United States Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism. Many members of the Helsinki Commission, including Chairman Alcee L. Hastings, had urged the president to fill this Congressionally mandated position. As part of his first official trip, Carr participated in the Bratislava conference, where he met with representatives of civil society in his new capacity and held consultations with OSCE officials. Conference Follows Deadliest Anti-Semitic Attack in U.S. History For a second year in a row, an OSCE conference on anti-Semitism convened in the months following a deadly attack, fueled by anti-Semitism and extremism, in the United States. Just as the August 2017 events in Charlottesville were present in the minds of those gathering in Rome in January 2018, the memory of Jewish worshippers massacred at the Tree of Life Synagogue on October 27, 2018, where 11 people were murdered and several others wounded, underpinned every moment of the Bratislava conference. A January 29, 2019, indictment of the alleged shooter specifically asserts that he “willfully caused bodily injury to 11 deceased and 2 surviving victims because of their actual and perceived religion.” The charges illustrate the relationship between “ordinary” criminal acts such as murder, targeting individuals because of their identity, and other criminal violations of civil rights (in this case, obstruction of the free exercise of religious beliefs).   “Last October, in the deadliest anti-Semitic attack in U.S. history, a gunman killed eleven Jews as they gathered for services at a synagogue in Pittsburgh. As the White House stated: ‘This atrocity was  chilling act of mass murder. It was an act of hatred. Above all, it was an act of evil. … We all have a duty to confront anti-Semitism in all its forms everywhere and anywhere it appears.’” U.S. Ambassador Adam Sterling   Government Officials Pledge to Continue OSCE Efforts The first day of the conference featured OSCE Secretary General Thomas Greminger, OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) Director Ingiborg Gisladottir, World Jewish Congress CEO Robert Singer, and President of the Central Union of Jewish Religious Communities in Slovakia Igor Rintel. Rabbi Andrew Baker, the Chair-in-Office’s Personal Representative on Combating Anti-Semitism, reviewed progress that had been made in combating anti-Semitism over the past 15 years. Nevertheless, he observed that recent surveys indicate “[s]ignificant numbers of Jews have witnessed or experienced anti-Semitic attacks. Over a third are reluctant to wear anything in public that would identify them as being Jewish. A similar percentage will even avoid attending Jewish events for fear of an anti-Semitic encounter.” While asserting that, “[w]e can claim credit that through these years the OSCE has been in the forefront of the struggle,” he also observed that the “general climate has worsened, with growing racist and populist movements, a coarsening of public discourse in the easy ability of social media to amplify anti-Semitism and other forms of intolerance.” Government representatives reflected on the problem of anti-Semitism in their own countries, with some presenting rather favorable pictures. Many speakers during the conference noted the importance the definition of anti-Semitism by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (adopted in May 2016); several government officials reported how their countries are implementing the definition in practice. Four other panels focused on security of Jewish communities and individuals; the role of education in addressing anti-Semitism and promoting Holocaust remembrance initiatives; the role of media and social media; and the role of civil society and coalition building to address anti-Semitism and all forms of intolerance and discrimination.  Dr. Mischa E. Thompson, Helsinki Commission Senior Policy Advisor, speaking at the conference on media and social media. Christina Finch, the head of Head of ODIHR’s Tolerance and Non-Discrimination Department, reported on the completion of ODIHR’s unprecedented multi-year project, “Turning Words into to Action to Address Anti-Semitism.”  Grounded in the 2014 Basel Ministerial Declaration and funded by the German government, the project focused on security, education, and coalition building.  She outlined additional steps ODIHR is taking to help participating States implement the Security Guide developed as part of the “Words Into Action” project and the upcoming roll-out of an on-line Hate Incident Reporting Platform.  Hungary in Focus During the conference, remarks by Austrian Foreign Minister Karin Kneissl and Hungarian State Secretary Szabolc Takacs were notable for their broad negative portrayals of Muslims, refugees, and migrants as a source of anti-Semitism. One civil society speaker subsequently noted, “It gave me great unease that at a conference on anti-Semitism, far-right backed politicians are able to have a stage, to have a platform, to put forward highly Islamophobic content.  It gave me great unease that speakers from countries that have a terrible record with their Jewish communities, where Jewish communities face some of the most complicated struggles today, are able to say ‘everything is okay in my country.’  I was very happy that . . . our panel called out Hungary as a place where we have seen recently a lot of conspiracy theories, a lot of this very tactical rhetoric that without being blatantly anti-Semitic still manages to put anti-Semitic messages out there.” State Secretary Takacs also warned of the threat from extremist parties such as Jobbik, Hungary’s own far-right party. In fact, Hungary’s ruling party, Fidesz, generally has remained silent in the face of anti-Semitic and anti-Roma messages from Jobbik, implemented parts of Jobbik’s political program (including the adoption of the 2017 anti-NGO law), and amplified Fidesz’s own most notorious anti-Semitic and anti-Roma propagandist.  

  • Chairman Hastings Marks One-Year Anniversary of Jan Kuciak’s Murder

    WASHINGTON—On the one-year anniversary of the murder of Slovak investigative journalist Jan Kuciak and his fiancée, Martina Kusnirova, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) issued the following statement: “I support and applaud the people of Slovakia who have courageously demonstrated their unwavering support for democracy in the aftermath of this terrible double murder. They have been a stirring example to those citizens across the OSCE region who are fighting to protect a free and independent press. “Whenever journalists are murdered or attacked, there must be a credible investigation and meaningful accountability.  The ability of journalists to report the news is nothing less than the right of every person to know the facts and make informed decisions about the issues affecting their lives.” On February 21, 2018, 27-year-old Jan Kuciak and his fiancée, Martina Kusnirova, were shot to death in Kuciak’s apartment.  The murder shocked the country and sparked the largest public protests since the 1989 Velvet Revolution. The wave of demonstrations eventually led the Prime Minister, Minister of Interior, and other senior officials to resign.  Four people have been arrested in direct connection with the case and the investigation is ongoing.  In 2017 and 2018, several other journalists investigating public corruption in Europe and Eurasia were murdered for their work. In a May 2018 briefing, the Helsinki Commission examined the assassinations of investigative journalists throughout Europe and Eurasia—including Kuciak and Daphne Caruana Galizia of Malta—why they are targeted, and how future murders can be prevented. At the most recent OSCE Ministerial Council meeting, in December 2018, the participating States expressed particular concern about the climate of impunity that prevails when violent attacks committed against journalists remain unpunished.   

  • Lies, Bots, and Social Media

    From the latest revelations about Facebook to ongoing concerns over the integrity of online information, the U.S. public has never been more vulnerable or exposed to computational propaganda: the threat posed by sophisticated botnets able to post, comment on, and influence social media and other web outlets to generate a desired outcome or simply sow distrust and disorder.  What can be done to confront and defeat these malevolent actors before they dominate civil discourse on the Internet? One possibility is the use of algorithmic signal reading which displays for users the geographic origin of a given post. Another answer may lie in improving how websites like Facebook curate their content, so the user can make more informed choices.  At this Helsinki Commission briefing, distinguished experts examined the implications of computational propaganda on national and international politics and explored options available to Congress and the private sector to confront and negate its pernicious influence.

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