Do Registration Requirements Thwart Religious Freedom?

Do Registration Requirements Thwart Religious Freedom?

Hon.
Christopher H. Smith
United States
House of Representatives
107th Congress Congress
First Session Session
Tuesday, December 18, 2001

Mr. Speaker, the “Helsinki” Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe recently convened a briefing which examined the policies of various governments which require registration of religious groups and the effect of such policies on the freedom of religious belief and practice. There was evidence that such requirements can be, and often are, a threat to religious freedom among countries in the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). As Co-Chairman of the Helsinki Commission, mandated to monitor and encourage compliance with the Helsinki Final Act and other OSCE commitments, I have become alarmed over the past decade by the creation of new laws and regulations in some OSCE countries that serve as a roadblock to the free exercise of religious belief. These actions have not been limited to emerging democracies, but include Western European countries such as Austria.

Many of these laws are crafted with the intent to repress religious communities deemed nefarious and dangerous to public safety. One cannot deny that certain groups have hidden behind the veil of religion in perpetrating monstrous and perfidious acts. The September 11th tragedies have been a grim reminder of that. Yet, while history does hold examples of religion employed as a tool for evil, these are exceptions and not the rule. In our own country, during the Civil Rights Movement, religious communities were the driving force in the effort to overturn the immoral “separate but equal” laws and provide legal protections. If strict religious registration laws had existed in this country, government officials could have clamped down on this just movement, possibly delaying long overdue reform.

While OSCE commitments do not forbid basic registration of religious groups, governments often use the pretext of “state security” to quell groups espousing views contrary to the ruling powers’ party line. Registration laws are often designed on the premise that minority faiths are inimical to governmental goals. Proponents of more strenuous provisions cite crimes committed by individuals in justifying stringent registration requirements against religious groups, ignoring the fact that criminal laws should be adequate to combat criminal activity. In other situations, some governments have crafted special church-state agreements, or concordats, which exclusively give one religious group powers and rights not available to other communities. By creating tiers or hierarchies, governments run the risk of dispersing privileges and authority in an inequitable fashion, ensuring that other religious groups will never exist on a level playing field, if at all. In a worst case scenario, by officially recognizing “traditional” or “historic” communities, governments can reflect an ambivalence towards minority religious groups. Such ambivalence can, in turn, create an atmosphere in which hostility or violence is perpetrated with impunity. The persistent brutality against Jehovah’s Witnesses and evangelical groups in Georgia is an example of State authorities’ failure to bring to justice the perpetrators of such violence.

Mr. Speaker, religious registration laws do not operate in a vacuum; other rights, such as freedom of association or freedom of speech, are often enveloped by these provisions. Clamping down on a group’s ability to exist not only contravenes numerous, long-standing OSCE commitments, but can effectively remove from society forces that operate for the general welfare. The recent liquidation of the Salvation Army in Moscow is a lucent example. Who will suffer most? The poor and hungry, who now benefit from the Salvation Army’s ministries of mercy.

Each OSCE participating State has committed to full compliance with the provisions enumerated in the various Helsinki documents. The Bush Administration’s commitment to religious freedom has been clearly articulated. In a March 9, 2001 letter, Dr. Condoleezza Rice, National Security Advisor, wrote: “President Bush is deeply committed to promoting the right of individuals around the world to practice freely their religious beliefs.” She also expressed her concern about religious discrimination. In a separate letter on March 30th of this year, Vice President Dick Cheney echoed this commitment when he referred to the promotion of religious freedom as “a defining element of the American character.” He went on to declare the Bush Administration’s commitment “to advancing the protection of individual religious freedom as an integral part of our foreign policy agenda.”

Since the war on terrorism was declared, the President has made clear the distinction between acts of terrorism and religious practice. In his address to the country, Mr. Bush stated: “The enemy of America is not our many Muslim friends....... Our enemy is a radical network of terrorists and every government that supports them.” He further stated, “The terrorists are traitors to their own faith, trying, in effect, to hijack Islam itself.” Accordingly, I believe this administration will not stray from supporting religious freedom during this challenging time.

Out of concern about recent developments and trends in the OSCE region, the Helsinki Commission conducted this briefing to discuss registration roadblocks affecting religious freedom. I was pleased by the panel of experts and practitioners assembled who were kind enough to travel from Europe to share their thoughts and insights, including Dr. Sophie van Bijsterveld, a professor of law in The Netherlands and current Co-Chair of the OSCE Advisory Panel of Experts on Freedom of Religion or Belief, Dr. Gerhard Robbers, a member of the OSCE Advisory Panel of Experts and professor of law in Germany; Mr. Vassilios Tsirbas, interim executive director and senior legal counsel for the European Centre for Law and Justice in Strasbourg; and Col. Kenneth Baillie, commanding officer for the Salvation Army in Eastern Europe. Dr. van Bijsterveld made the point that “the assessment of registration from the point of view of religious liberty depends entirely on the function that registration fulfills in the legal system, and the consequences that are attached to registration.” She continued: “A requirement of registration of religious groups as a pre-condition for the lawful exercise of religious freedom is worrisome in the light of international human rights standards. [Needing the government’s] permission for a person to exercise his religion in community with others is, indeed, problematic in the light of internationally acknowledged religious liberty standards. Religious liberty should not be made dependent on a prior government clearance. This touches the very essence of religious liberty.”

Dr. Robbers noted that registration of religious communities is often a requirement but “it need not be a roadblock to religious freedom. In fact, it can free the way to more positive religious freedom if correctly performed.” If utilized, “registration and registration procedures must meet certain standards. Registration must be based on equal treatment of all religious communities....... [and] the process of registration must follow due process of law.” He further noted that “religious activity in and as community, must be possible even without being registered as religious community.” He made clear that the minimum number of members required for registration need not be too many and there should be no minimum period of existence before registration is allowed.

The third panelist, Mr. Tsirbas, opined, “Within this proliferation of the field of human rights, the Helsinki Final Act is a more than promising note. The commitment to respect human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief for all, without distinction as to race, sex, language or religion, basically summarizes the ..... protection of international and domestic legal documents. Religious liberty stands out as one of those sine qua non conditions for an atmosphere of respect for the rights of individuals or whole communities.” Mr. Tsirbas also stated, “If the protection of the individual is considered the cornerstone of our modern legal system, religious freedom should be considered the cornerstone of all other rights. The right itself is one of the most recent to be recognized and protected, yet it embraces and reflects the inevitable outworking through the course of time of the fundamental truths of belief in the worth of a person.”

Lastly, Col. Kenneth Baillie, spokesman for the Salvation Army in Eastern Europe, outlined the experience of registering his organization in Moscow. “In Russia, as of February this year, we are registered nationwide as a centralized religious organization, [however] the city of Moscow is another story. We have been registered as a religious group in Moscow since 1992. In response to the 1997 law, like everyone else, we applied for re-registration , thinking that it would be merely pro forma. Our application documents were submitted, and a staff person in the city Ministry of Justice said everything was in order, we would have our signed and stamped registration in two days. “Two days later,” Col. Baillie continued, “the same staffer called to say, in a sheepish voice, ‘There’s a problem.’ Well, it is now three years later, and there is still a problem. Someone took an ideological decision to deny us, that is absolutely clear to me, and three years of meetings and documents and media statements and legal briefs are all window-dressing. Behind it all is an arbitrary, discriminatory, and secret decision, and to this day I do not know who made the decision, or why.” Based on the difficult experience of trying to register in Moscow and the Salvation Army’s subsequent “liquidation” by a Moscow court, Col. Baillie offered some observations. He noted how “the law’s ambiguity gives public officials the power to invent arbitrary constructions of the law.” Col. Baillie concluded by stating, “We will not give up,” but added he is “understandably skeptical about religious registration law, and particularly the will to uphold what the law says in regard to religious freedom.”

Mr. Speaker, this Helsinki Commission briefing offered a clear picture of how the law and practice affecting, registration of religious groups have become critical aspects in the defense of the right to freedom of conscience, religion or belief. No doubt registration requirements can serve as a roadblock which is detrimental to religious freedom. The Commission will continue to monitor this trend among the region’s governments which are instituting more stringent registration requirements and will encourage full compliance with the Helsinki commitments to ensure the protection of this fundamental right.

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Hungary.  This decision followed a 2014 finding by the Court that Hungary's 2011 law on religion violated the rights to freedom of association and freedom of religion.  In light of the failure of Hungary to end continuing violations, the April judgment awarded the Evangelical Fellowship €3 million in damages.  Religious Discrimination after the 2011 Law The case has its origins in changes made to Hungary’s religion law, which establishes a framework for the registration, or official recognition, of churches.  The law was rushed through parliament in June 2011 in a midnight parliamentary session as part of a massive three-year wave of 700 new laws, a new constitution, and five amendments to the Constitution passed between 2010 and 2013.  The “church law,” as it is known, came into force in 2012 and stripped legal recognition from over 300 previously recognized faiths; only 14 faiths retained their status under the new law.  The law gives the exclusive authority to the elected politicians in the Hungarian parliament to determine what constitutes a church, based on a parliamentary review of a religious community’s faith and rites; bylaws and internal rules; and elected or appointed administrative and representative bodies. The parliament then makes its decision according to a two-thirds vote.  Churches recognized by the parliament are granted a range of financial benefits and other privileges, including the ability to minister to co-religionists in public institutions such as schools, prisons and the military; unregistered faiths are denied these benefits.   Religions that lose their state recognition may have their assets confiscated by the state.  Hungarian Ombudsman Mate Szabo criticized the law when it was adopted and the Constitutional Court has twice struck down parts of the new religion law.  Parliament changed the law to allow unrecognized groups to identify as “churches” (translation:  “you can call yourself whatever you want”), but refused to alter the discriminatory framework that excludes unregistered faiths from the benefit of official status (translation:  “you’ll still have second-class status”).  In other words, there was no meaningful legislative change to address the law’s shortcomings.   The Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship, joined by several smaller groups, including Mennonites, two small reformed Jewish congregations, and a Buddhist congregation, brought the case that was decided by the European Court in 2014.  The European Court held that the “church law” is “inconsistent with the State’s duty of neutrality in religious matters that religious groups had to apply to Parliament to obtain re-registration as churches and that they were treated differently from incorporated churches with regard to material benefits without any objective grounds.”  Damages were awarded to the other religious communities in 2016, but the Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship continued to seek damages in light of continuing violations. In its April 2017 decision, the court awarded €3 million to the Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship.  The damages for discriminatory treatment included the loss of personal income tax donations and the corresponding supplementary State subsidy; the loss of State subsidies intended to support the applicant’s social and educational institutions; the loss of subsidies for religious teaching; and the loss of salary supplements paid to the staff employed by church institutions providing public-interest services. Unfortunately, the Court does not have the authority to compel Hungary to change its religion law and it is up to the Hungarian parliament to take the measures to comply with the ruling.  (The Court may award damages again – and again – in the case of continuing violations.) De-registered churches may be able to get a judgment for damages in Strasbourg, but only Budapest can provide a legal remedy.  The government may be trying to squeeze the Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship out of existence by depriving them of the benefits extended to other faiths and forcing them to devote resources to constantly litigate and re-litigate the same violations.  Smaller churches de-registered after 2011 have already largely been shuttered.  About the Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship The Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship broke from the Hungarian Methodist Church in the mid-1970s over the issue of collaboration with the communist regime. As a faith that would not bend to the communist regime, the Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship was subsequently forced underground and persecuted for engaging in charitable work with the poor at a time when the communist regime was loath to admit that poverty was a serious problem.  After the fall of the communist regime, in 1991 the Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship was officially recognized until stripped of this status under the 2011 law.  The Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship is known for its charitable and humanitarian work, particularly with Romani communities, and runs schools, homeless shelters, and soup kitchens. However, becausethe Hungarian tax authority has refused to issue a tax number to deregistered churches such as the Evangelical Fellowship, it is impossible for them to be designated them as recipients of a 1 percent charitable donation on tax forms.   Related Issues In 2017, the Hungarian Government has also proposed a Russian-style “foreign agents” law, which is currently scheduled for a vote by parliament, possibly on June 13. In recognition of criticism that, among the draft law’s many problems, it would stigmatize groups that receive foreign funding – including support from co-religionists in other countries – the current draft was altered to include a carve-out exception for religious organizations and sports.  If adopted, the law may spur the adoption of copycat laws in the region that might not have the same carve-outs for religious groups.  During a press conference in April, Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s chief of staff Janos Lazar suggested that Hungarian groups that receive foreign funding should be designated with a star.  He later apologized.

  • Responding to Hate

    In the past year alone, places of worship in Christchurch, Colombo, Pittsburgh, and Poway were targets of hate-based violence, resulting in the tragic loss of more than 300 lives.  Effectively countering hate crimes requires a comprehensive effort bringing together government institutions, criminal justice systems, civil society actors, and international organizations.  Religious actors and interfaith institutions play an important role in promoting safe and inclusive societies and reducing violence, hostility, and discrimination. The U.S. Helsinki Commission convened a hearing on Tuesday, July 16, 2019 that examined the role of religious actors in responding to hate domestically in the United States and throughout the OSCE region. The hearing, titled “Responding to Hate: The Role of Religious Actors,” focused on how faith-based institutions can promote safe and inclusive societies and reduce violence, hostility, and discrimination. Helsinki Commissioner Rep. Gwen Moore (WI-04) chaired the hearing and was joined by other commissioners including OSCE PA Special Representative on Anti-Semitism, Racism, and Intolerance and Helsinki Commission Ranking Member Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), Rep. Richard Hudson (NC-08), Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (TX-18), Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (PA-01), and Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09). Rep. Moore opened the hearing by stating, “All of us have something to gain from those who look different, pray differently, and may come from a different place. And we must not wait until tragedy strikes, again and again and again, to learn the value of mutual respect. We must seize every opportunity to denounce hate-motivated violence, and in doing so we protect the value of freedom of expression, the hallmark of democracy.” She also paid homage to six Sikh worshippers killed near her district in Oak Creek, Wisconsin seven years ago. In his opening remarks, Sen. Cardin recounted his side event at the 28th Annual Session of the OSCE PA earlier in July, titled, “Countering Hate: Lessons from the Past, Leadership for the Future,” where he called on parliamentarians to act now to prevent a repeat of the past where bigotry and violence resulted in the deaths of millions under Nazi rule. Witnesses at the hearing described how religious actors and interfaith institutions can work together to further human rights and protections for all, domestically and throughout the OSCE region. Witnesses also shared strategies to prevent and respond to hate, ignorance, and violence targeting our societies, including places of worship. Father James Martin shared a video testimony about his response to the Pulse nightclub shooting, which at the time was the largest mass shooting in U.S. history, taking 49 lives. He noted that the LGBT community received an outpouring of love and support the in the aftermath of the tragedy, with the notable exception of the Catholic church. Father Martin said, “Why am I bringing this up? Because when it comes to the role that religious actors and organizations can play in combatting hate crimes, the most effective thing they can do is to get their own houses of worship in order. Racism, sexism, and homophobia still exist in many Christian denominations – my own included.” He ended his testimony by underlining that “the most important thing that religious actors and organizations can do to combat hate crimes is not only to fight the hatred on the outside, but on the inside as well.” Imam Gamal Fouda also testified by video and remarked on New Zealand’s response to the tragic shooting that targeted and killed Muslims at the Al Noor Mosque and Linwood Islamic Centre in Christchurch, where he is the imam. “New Zealand set a good example to the whole world for how to look after your people, how to actually support all your people. And we all stand together against hate, hate speech, and hate crimes,” he said. He said the power of New Zealand was demonstrated in the wake of the Christchurch shooting and called for more education on the strength of diverse and inclusive societies. “We have to stand together looking at the diversity in our communities as something that is strengthening our community,” he said. “It is the secret of the power of our community to see different colors and different languages.” Rabbi Jeffrey Myers, victim, witness, and survivor of the 2018 attack on the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, PA—the worst attack on a synagogue in the history of the United States—stated, “The metaphor of America as a melting pot, is a beautiful image, but sadly, it is not true, [because …we] do not know our neighbors. We live in silos, with no bridges connecting them. Many choose to live in their own private silos, not wanting ‘others’ to enter their silo.” He believes that the key to addressing hate—what he referred to as the “H-word”— is to learn to build bridges. “Some people just don’t know how to build a bridge. This is where religious leaders like me make a difference…I’m a bridge builder. When the Muslim community extended an olive branch to me, I responded by offering an olive tree,” he said. Reverend Aaron Jenkins testified on the power of developing partnerships and relationships across different sectors of society to adequately tackle the issue of hate and hate crimes wherever they occur. He remarked, “Any plan to address hate must engage faith actors within and across their faith traditions in respectful and meaningful ways. We cannot wait until the next hate crime happens.” He stated that partnerships, resources, and relationships were needed to address the problem. Radia Bakkouch spoke about the situation in France and Coexister’s “belief in the concept of ‘faith for good’ and the practice of interfaith cooperation in empowering young people to address violence and exclusion.” She stressed the importance of defending pluralistic societies and highlighted the importance of building coalitions to address the rise in hate-based violence taking place in France and elsewhere in Europe. Usra Ghazi detailed federal hate crimes statistics, highlighting that hate crimes historically and consistently are underreported. This, she said, is partly due to a lack of a standardized reporting processes and “strained relationships between bigotry-impacted communities and law enforcement entities.” Ghazi shared that many members of the Muslim, Arab, and Sikh communities affected by anti-Muslim discrimination, hate, and violence in the United States have opted to keep low profiles rather than report these events. She stressed, “Due to the rise of hate crimes and hate speech against Muslim and Sikh Americans, these communities by necessity have had to organize outreach efforts to humanize themselves while raising cultural and religious literacy among their neighbors and governments.” Ghazi also shared positive examples of how discriminated communities are building their civic health, getting more involved in elections, and running for office at record rates. “We now have Muslim and Sikh mayors of American cities, as well as officials from these faiths in a range of governmental positions. These efforts help to ensure that our cities, counties and states are truly representative of the rich diversity of American communities.” Alina Bricman’s video testimony concluded the hearing. She presented an overview of the first-ever report of Young Jewish Europeans: perceptions and experiences of antisemitism, released July 4, 2019. Findings included that “44 percent of young Jewish Europeans have faced anti-Semitic harassment, that’s almost 1 in 2 Jews; […] and 25 percent identified as too scared to display Jewish-affiliated ornaments or accessories.” To address the problem, Bricman recommended investing in education (such as anti-racist and anti-bias training) that emphasizes the importance and strength of diversity and diverse communities, supporting civil society, and depoliticizing anti-Semitism and racism by having leaders engage responsibly in the public arena where it is not viewed as a left or right issue.

  • Truth, Reconciliation, and Healing Focus of Upcoming Helsinki Commission Briefing

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following briefing: TRUTH, RECONCILIATION, & HEALING Toward a Unified Future Thursday, July 18, 2019 10:00 a.m – 12:00 p.m. Rayburn House Office Building Room 2167 Live Webcast: www.facebook.com/HelsinkiCommission Today, many countries seek to address historic wrongs, heal wounds, bridge divisions, and build a shared future. Truth and reconciliation efforts to encourage restitution, reparations, and restorative justice have been called for in many places, including the United States, Western Europe, Canada, and the Balkans, while Holocaust survivors and other victims of Nazi persecution continue to seek justice worldwide. For example, in June, Amsterdam city councilors voted to apologize for the city’s role in the transatlantic slave trade. In April, Belgium’s Prime Minister Charles Michel apologized for the kidnapping of thousands of children born to mixed-race couples during its colonial rule in several African countries. In 2015, Sweden published a historic white paper on abuses and rights violations against Roma in the 20th century. A decade ago, Canada established a reconciliation process in response to the Indian Residential School legacy, which forced First Nation children to attend government-funded boarding schools. At this briefing, panelists will review lessons learned and discuss ways to heal and reunify societies divided by war, genocide, hierarchal systems of human value, and other tragedies stemming from extreme nationalism, racism, anti-Semitism, and other forms of ethnic and religious discrimination. Speakers will address official government apologies, truth and reconciliation processes, restitution, reparations, and other policy prescriptions that have been used or are currently being considered to address historic wrongs and unify citizens in countries across Europe and North America. The following speakers are scheduled to participate: Dr. Gail C. Christopher, Founder, Ntianu Center; Chair, Board of the Trust for America’s Health Ambassador Stuart Eizenstat, Author, “Imperfect Justice: Looted Assets, Slave Labor,” and “The Unfinished Business of World War II;” Senior Counsel, Covington The Hon. Tracy Tansia Bibo, former City Councilor, Liedekerke, Belgium Councilor Don Ceder, Municipal Councilor, City of Amsterdam, the Netherlands The Hon. Soraya Post, former Member of the European Parliament, Sweden Dr. Diane Orentlicher, Professor of International Law, American University; former Special Advisor to the High Commissioner on National Minorities of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe; Author, “Some Kind of Justice: The ICTY's Impact in Bosnia and Serbia”

  • Helsinki Commission Hearing to Examine Role of Religious Actors in Responding to Hate

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following hearing: RESPONDING TO HATE The Role of Religious Actors Tuesday, July 16, 2019 11:00 a.m. – 1:00 p.m. Rayburn House Office Building Room 2200 Live Webcast: www.youtube.com/HelsinkiCommission In the past year alone, places of worship in Christchurch, Colombo, Pittsburgh, and Poway were targets of hate-based violence, resulting in the tragic loss of more than 300 lives.  Effectively countering hate crimes requires a comprehensive effort bringing together government institutions, criminal justice systems, civil society actors, and international organizations.  Religious actors and interfaith institutions play an important role in promoting safe and inclusive societies and reducing violence, hostility, and discrimination. Witnesses will describe how religious actors and interfaith institutions can work together to further human rights and protections for all in the OSCE region, and share strategies to prevent and respond to hate crimes and violence targeting our societies in public places, including places of worship and social institutions. The following witnesses are scheduled to participate: Rabbi Hazzan Jeffrey Myers, Rabbi and Cantor, Tree of Life Synagogue, Pittsburgh, PA Father James Martin, Editor at Large, America Media, New York, NY Imam Gamal Fouda, Imam, Al Noor Mosque, Christchurch, New Zealand Radia Bakkouch, President, Coexister, Paris, France Alina Bricman, Elected President, European Union of Jewish Students, Brussels, Belgium Usra Ghazi, Director of Policy and Programs, America Indivisible; Mayor’s Interfaith Council, Washington, DC Reverend Aaron Jenkins, Vice President of Policy and Advocacy, The Expectations Project (TEP), Washington, DC Additional witnesses may be added.

  • Delegation Led by Co-Chairman Wicker Demonstrates U.S. Commitment to Countering Kremlin Aggression and Preserving Stability in Europe

    WASHINGTON—From July 4 to July 8, Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) led the largest bipartisan, bicameral U.S. delegation in history to the 2019 OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA) Annual Session in Luxembourg. The participation of 19 members of Congress showed the deep U.S. commitment to European security and to countering Kremlin aggression and anti-democratic trends across the 57-country OSCE region. “The size of our delegation for this Parliamentary Assembly is a clear demonstration of the importance that the Americans place on this institution and its mission,” said Sen. Wicker ahead of the official opening of the event, which brought together approximately 300 parliamentarians from North America, Europe, and Central Asia. Sen. Wicker, who also serves as a vice-president of the OSCE PA, was joined in Luxembourg by House Majority Leader and former Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Steny Hoyer (MD-05); Helsinki Commissioners Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), Rep. Robert Aderholt (AL-04), Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), Rep. Richard Hudson (NC-08), and Rep. Gwen Moore (WI-04). Other participants included Sen. John Cornyn (TX), Sen. Rick Scott (FL), Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04), Rep. Tom Cole (OK-04), Rep. Val Demings (FL-10), Rep. Jeff Duncan (SC-03), Rep. Garret Graves (LA-06), Rep. Tom Graves (GA-14), Rep. Andy Harris (MD-01), Rep. Billy Long (MO-07), Rep. Gregory Meeks (NY-05), and Rep. Lee Zeldin (NY-01). In the opening plenary, Rep. Hoyer, a founder of the OSCE PA, reminded the delegates of the OSCE’s commitment to human rights, fundamental freedoms, and democratic governance. Rep. Moore then spearheaded the passage of a resolution on protecting and engaging civil society that was originally introduced by Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20). The assembly also adopted a second U.S. initiative on educating children to avoid human trafficking introduced by Rep. Smith, who serves as OSCE PA Special Representative on Human Trafficking Issues. Fourteen of the 16 amendments proposed by the U.S. delegation were adopted, including those holding the Kremlin accountable for the collapse of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty; criticizing Moscow for abusing INTERPOL diffusions to harass Kremlin critics abroad; expressing concern about the overreliance of European countries on Russia for energy supplies; and seeking to protect those who report hate crimes from retaliation.  During the annual session, Sen. Wicker and Rep. Smith co-hosted a presentation to raise awareness and encourage reporting of efforts to entice children into being trafficked. Sen. Cardin, who serves as the OSCE PA Special Representative on Anti-Semitism, Racism and Intolerance, hosted a discussion on best practices to combat hate in society. Prior to attending the annual session, Co-Chairman Wicker convened the first-ever Helsinki Commission hearing held outside of the United States. In Gdansk, Poland, senior U.S. civilian and military leaders briefed members of Congress on their approaches to enhancing security in the region. High-level defense officials from Lithuania, Poland, Finland, Sweden, and Estonia also provided regional perspectives on the evolving security environment in and around the Baltic Sea. Hearing participants included Lt. Gen. Stephen M. Twitty, Deputy Commander, United States European Command; Douglas D. Jones, Deputy Permanent Representative, United States Mission to NATO; Raimundas Karoblis, Minister of National Defense, Republic of Lithuania; Maj. Gen, Krzysztof Król, Deputy Chief of the General Staff of the Polish Armed Forces; Janne Kuusela, Director-General, Defense Policy Department, Ministry of Defense of the Republic of Finland; Jan-Olof Lind, State Secretary to the Minister for Defense, the Kingdom of Sweden; and Kristjan Prikk, Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Defense, the Republic of Estonia. The hearing underscored America’s commitment to security in the Baltic Sea region and its unwavering support for U.S. friends and allies.

  • Countering Hate: Lessons from the Past, Leadership for the Future

    Today at the 28th Annual Session of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly in Luxembourg, Helsinki Commission Ranking Member Sen. Ben Cardin hosted a U.S. side event in his capacity as OSCE PA Special Representative on Anti-Semitism, Racism and Intolerance. The event, “Countering Hate: Lessons from the Past, Leadership for the Future,” called for parliamentarians from across the 57 OSCE participating States to adopt an action plan to counter bias and discrimination and foster inclusion.  Several members of the U.S. delegation—along with U.S. Ambassador to the OSCE James Gilmore and U.S. Ambassador to Luxembourg Randy Evans—attended the event, where speakers included Dr. Rebecca Erbelding of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and OSCE parliamentarians Michael Link (Germany), Nahima Lanjri (Belgium), and Lord Alf Dubs (United Kingdom). “We are here today to exchange information on what we are doing in our home countries to address the problem and how we might be able to develop a plan of action to work better together to address the rise in hate-based incidents we have been witnessing across the OSCE region and beyond from Pittsburgh and Poway to Christchurch,” said Sen. Cardin. “It is not only the most vulnerable in our societies whom are in danger when we fail to act, but the very foundations of our democracies.” Dr. Rebecca Erbelding of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum shared a cautionary tale, reminding the audience, “The Holocaust did not appear out of nowhere [and] the Nazi Party was in power in Germany for eight years before mass killing began.”  Warning signs in the past were ignored, she stated.  “A rise of populist leaders, of simple solutions, of demonizing minorities, of propagandizing hate, of neglecting or ignoring refugee protections, of isolationism, of appeasement—these factors, when taken together, have led to genocide in the past, and not just in Europe. We must [..] work together to prevent genocide in the future.”  OSCE parliamentarian and former director of the OSCE Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) Michael Link stressed the need for action, saying that we are witnessing these first alarming signs of hate, but have a choice in whether we will repeat the past. He lauded the success of and need to continue the OSCE’s Words Into Action project funded by the German government to increase education on addressing anti-Semitism, security protections for the Jewish community, and build diverse coalitions across communities against hate. He cautioned that Romani populations should also not be forgotten in the efforts to address the problem. OSCE parliamentarian Nahima Lanjri described rampant discrimination in Belgium’s employment sector and its negative impact on the labor market. Citing the need for increased tools to fight all forms of discrimination that have the negative affect of repressing talents needed for societies to flourish, she called for more disparities data and initiatives that address economic and other forms of discrimination and bias. Lord Dubs, a British parliamentarian who was born in Prague in what was then Czechoslovakia, was one of 669 Jewish children saved by English stockbroker Nicholas Winton, and others, from the Nazis on the Kindertransport.  He shared a recent hate post he had received online and stressed the need to address increasing hate in our societies through education, legislation against hate speech and discrimination, and by shifting public opinion that denigrates communities instead of building them up. U.S. House Majority Leader Rep. Steny Hoyer cited the anti-discrimination work of Brian Stevenson and stressed that difference does not make one “less than." Parliamentarian Hedy Fry of Canada noted rising hate crimes in her country amid numerous initiatives addressing disparities and inclusion. U.S. Rep. Gregory Meeks highlighted the importance of Jewish and African-American coalitions in the civil rights movement. Stating that no group should have to fight for their rights alone if we truly espouse democratic values, he said, we all should be joining the Roma in their human rights struggle.  U.S. Rep. Val Demings called for the conversation to also include LGBT+ communities, recalling the tragic mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub in her Orlando, Florida district.  The sessions concluded with Special Representative Cardin calling for an OSCE Action Plan to address bias and discrimination and foster inclusion and OSCE/ODIHR Advisor Dermana Seta providing an overview of tools currently offered by the OSCE to assist governments in addressing hate crimes and discrimination. 

  • Leading through Change

    From June 23-29, 2019, 29 young leaders from across Europe and the United States participated in the eighth annual Transatlantic Inclusion Leaders Network (TILN) workshop held in Brussels, Belgium.  Hosted by the German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF) in partnership with the U.S. Helsinki Commission, U.S. State Department, and other stakeholders, TILN brought leaders together to learn from one another, expand their leadership skills, and offer a more inclusive vision for the world. As part of the workshop, TILN leaders joined the German Marshall Fund’s Brussels Forum Young Professionals Summit and engaged with senior U.S. and European officials on issues ranging from BREXIT and trade to migration. As elected officials and civil society leaders under the age of 35, TILN participants focused on tools to strengthen democratic practices in the lead up to elections in Europe and the United States.  Ensuring respect and protections for rights across political, cultural, religious, and other differences was a central aspect of discussions.  Participants also highlighted the need for increased strategies to address barriers to political participation, including increasing hate speech and physical threats directed towards elected officials and candidates.  The importance of inclusive intergenerational workforces and leadership was also raised as a key aspect to ensure economic stability on both sides of the Atlantic and strengthen transatlantic ties.      Following the workshop, TILN alumni convened workshops in the Netherlands, Germany, and Italy. The Transatlantic Inclusion Leaders Network (TILN) “inspires, informs, and connects diverse young leaders to excel in elected office and other leadership roles, advance inclusive policies, and engage with transatlantic policymakers.” Participants are from diverse U.S. and European communities, including the Balkans, with a proven commitment to advancing diversity and inclusion best practices in their policymaking and society. For more information, please see the Transatlantic Inclusion Leaders Network 2019 Workshop Report.

  • The Helsinki Process: A Four Decade Overview

    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.

  • Co-Chairman Wicker on Release of 2018 Report on International Religious Freedom

    WASHINGTON—Following the release of the 2018 Report on International Religious Freedom by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback, a former chairman of the Helsinki Commission, Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) issued the following statement: “This report shows that some of the worst government violators of religious freedom in the world continue to be in Eurasia, including Russia, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan. I am concerned that these OSCE participating States have not made any progress in implementing their commitments to ensure freedom of religion. “One exception where the situation has improved is Uzbekistan. I hope the final version of the country’s new religion law will demonstrate the commitment of President Mirziyoyev and his government to advancing religious freedom reforms. I would not want a situation in which the new law retains the most problematic elements of current law. That would put Uzbekistan at risk of remaining on the Special Watch List or even once again being designated as a Country of Particular Concern. “The Government of Uzbekistan must also keep its promise to formally work with international experts, including the OSCE Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, to ensure its religion law complies with Uzbekistan’s international commitments.” In October 2018, Co-Chairman Wicker urged the Government of Uzbekistan to formally request that the OSCE Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights conduct a legal review of Uzbekistan’s draft religion law. He repeated the call during a December 2018 Helsinki Commission hearing with Ambassador Brownback. Following last year’s International Religious Freedom Report, Secretary of State Pompeo designated OSCE participating States Tajikistan and Turkmenistan as Countries of Particular Concern. Turkmenistan has been designated as a CPC since 2014 and Tajikistan since 2016. Pompeo further designated Uzbekistan and Russia for the Special Watch List, for continuing religious freedom violations. For Uzbekistan, the designation upgrades the country’s ranking in recognition of progress made under the regime of President Mirzoyoyev. Uzbekistan was a CPC from 2006 to 2017. Russia was designated for the Special Watch List for the first time. As OSCE participating States, these countries repeatedly have committed themselves to respecting religious freedom. The annual State Department International Religious Freedom Report details religious freedom in every country. The report includes government policies violating religious belief and practices of individuals and religious groups, and U.S. policies to promote religious freedom around the world. Following the release of the annual report, the Secretary of State has 90 days to submit updated designations for the Countries of Particular Concern and the Special Watch List.

  • 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.

  • Chairman Hastings on Release of 2018 Report on International Religious Freedom

    WASHINGTON—Following the release of the 2018 Report on International Religious Freedom by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback, a former chairman of the Helsinki Commission, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) issued the following statement: “The Helsinki Commission welcomes the release of the annual International Religious Freedom Report. Robust reporting on the full range of human rights—including respect for religious liberties—is critical to the preservation of democratic institutions. “The report details a number of continuing concerns in countries including Hungary and Turkey. In Hungary, government officials have engaged in anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic rhetoric and publicly venerated World War II-era anti-Semites and Hitler allies. Amendments to Hungary's controversial 2011 religion law came into effect in April, but it is not yet clear if the new and more complicated law will end discrimination against the Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship and other faiths. In Turkey, long-standing concerns persist about respect for the rights of Alevis and non-Muslim minorities to freely manage their religious activities and internal affairs. “These violations of religious freedom are extremely troubling, especially since Hungary and Turkey—like all participating States of the OSCE—have committed to protecting freedom of religion or belief and preventing intolerance and discrimination based on religious grounds.” The annual State Department International Religious Freedom Report details religious freedom in every country. The report includes government policies violating religious belief and practices of individuals and religious groups, and U.S. policies to promote religious freedom around the world.

  • Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe and OSCE Commitments Regarding Freedom of Religion or Belief

    The 57 participating States of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe have repeatedly committed to recognizing and respecting freedom of religion or belief. The 35 participating States of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe–the forerunner of the OSCE–signed the Helsinki Final Act of 1975, which included: “The participating States will recognize and respect the freedom of the individual to profess and practice, alone or in community with others, religion or belief acting in accordance with the dictates of his own conscience.” The OSCE’s Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights has staff dedicated to freedom of religion or belief, led by a senior advisor. ODIHR legal reviews to help participating States comply with their OSCE commitments have included existing law and draft legislation on freedom of religion or belief. ODIHR only conducts such reviews after receiving a formal invitation from a participating State. A panel of OSCE/ODIHR experts on freedom of religion or belief assists OSCE/ODIHR, and the ODIHR director appoints the panel’s 14 members every three years. This compilation, developed by Helsinki Commission staff, covers CSCE/OSCE commitments on freedom of religion or belief in 16 documents from the Final Act to the OSCE Ministerial Council in 2015. It includes the document title, excerpted text, and links to the original document. Participating States have also made commitments relating to discrimination or hate crimes base on religion or belief. Some examples are in “OSCE Human Dimension Commitments: Thematic Compilation.” This Helsinki Commission compilation only includes commitments on freedom of religion or belief. The Commission will update the compilation when new commitments on freedom of religion or belief are made.

  • 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.”

  • Russia's Counterproductive Counterterrorism

    Russia’s counterterrorism approach, which is problematic in both conception and execution, makes Moscow an ill-suited partner with the United States in this field, experts told the U.S. Helsinki Commission at a hearing on June 12, 2019.  The hearing closely examined the development, history, and repercussions of the Kremlin’s approach to counterterrorism under Vladimir Putin, including Moscow’s attempts to present itself as a regional and global leader on this issue.  Witnesses included Dr. Michael Carpenter, Senior Director of the Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement at the University of Pennsylvania and former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense; Rachel Denber, Deputy Director, Europe and Center Asia Division, Human Rights Watch; and Dr. Mariya Y. Omelicheva, Professor of Strategy at the United States National War College of the National Defense University.  In his opening statement, Rep. Richard Hudson (NC-08), who chaired the hearing, noted concerns expressed by many, including the U.S. Director of National Intelligence, about Russia’s attempts to assume the mantle of leadership in the counterterrorism sphere, through efforts that include placing Russian nationals in senior counterterrorism positions in international organizations.  Rep. Hudson further expressed concern regarding overly broad use of “terrorism” and “extremism” labels by the Kremlin and authoritarian regimes across Central Asia, in contravention of their commitments to human rights Rep. Hudson was joined by other Helsinki Commissioners. Sen. Cory Gardner (CO) underscored the inherently destabilizing nature of Russia’s counterterrorism policies and practices and recalled legislation he has introduced that would require the Department of State to formally determine whether Russia should be designated a state sponsor of terrorism.  Rep. Robert Aderholt (AL-04) raised questions regarding Russia’s role in the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight 17 over eastern Ukraine and whether such an action amounts to state-sponsored terrorism, as well as the impact of Russia’s counterterrorism policies on its Muslim population.  Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (PA-01) drew upon his experience in the Federal Bureau of Investigation to highlight the challenges of sharing investigative techniques and best practices for fighting terrorism with Russia, as opposed to other countries in the region.  Dr. Omelicheva discussed how the Kremlin has increasingly prioritized fighting terrorism, both as a policy and as a political theme. She described how punitive measures, rather than a focus on socioeconomic improvement to address root causes of radicalization, have long been a preferred method of Russia’s military and security services for addressing terrorism.  She also noted that some Central Asian states have copied the Kremlin’s heavy-handed methods.    Ms. Denber noted the broad criminal code Russian authorities inappropriately apply—under the guise of fighting terrorism—to persecute people “inconvenient” to the Kremlin.  She discussed in detail other domestic applications of Russia’s counterterrorism criminal laws, including monitoring and storing of Russian citizens’ internet metadata, as well as labeling groups like Jehovah’s Witnesses as extremist organizations.  Russia’s counterterrorism policies may well have alienated segments of Russia’s Muslim population and led individuals to join extremist organizations such as the Islamic State and Hizb ut-Tahrir, Ms. Denber stated.       Dr. Carpenter asserted that active U.S.-Russia counterterrorism cooperation runs counter to U.S. interests and values—highlighting Russia’s penchant for claiming to be fighting extremism while actually punishing dissidents, notably individuals in Crimea critical of the ongoing occupation of the peninsula.  “A single mother was recently imprisoned on extremism charges because she had posted comments critical of Russia’s annexation of Crimea on her social media feed,” he said.    Dr. Carpenter’s experience in government led him to conclude, “Russia approaches counterterrorism from the position of counterintelligence;” when Russia cooperates, it is with the aim of eliciting information rather than pursuing common solutions. Using Syria as an example, he emphasized how Russian leadership does not think in win-win terms when it comes to counterterrorism, even when the U.S. does.  “Moscow will be happy, of course, to host dozens of international conferences, and will periodically suggest that a solution is within reach.  But at the end of the day, its interests are best served when Iran, Hezbollah and Assad are in power to make mischief in the region, because that’s when Russia’s influence with the Europeans, with Israel, and the Gulf States is at its peak,” he said.  Dr. Omelicheva added to these comments with an overview of lessons the Russian government has learned in past failed counterterrorism operations, including the Dubrovka Theater hostage crisis of 2002 and Beslan school siege of 2004.     “The key lesson that the government learned was that they have to have sufficient force to secure the perimeter of the counterterrorism operation, that they need to be able to constrain the freedom of movement, the freedom of mass media, and other types of freedom.” 

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