Elections in Azerbaijan

Elections in Azerbaijan

Hon.
Christopher H. Smith
United States
106th Congress Congress
Second Session Session
Friday, December 08, 2000

Mr. Speaker, on November 5, parliamentary elections were held in Azerbaijan. In anticipation of those elections, the Helsinki Commission, which I chair, held hearings in May, at which representatives of the government and opposition leaders testified. While the former pledged that Baku would conduct a democratic contest, in accordance with OSCE standards, the latter warned that Azerbaijan's past record of holding seriously flawed elections required the strictest vigilance from the international community and pressure from Western capitals and the Council of Europe, to which Azerbaijan has applied for membership. Subsequently, I introduced a resolution, H. Con. Res. 382, which called on the Government of Azerbaijan to hold free and fair elections and to accept the recommended amendments by the OSCE's Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) to the law on elections.

 

From the start, there was pressure to withdraw the resolution from the Azerbaijani government and others. They argued that President Aliev had made, or would make, the necessary changes to ensure that the election met international standards, claiming to render the resolution either irrelevant or out of date. That pressure intensified as the election drew near; in fact, the resolution never came to a vote before Congress went out of session in early November.

 

It is worth recalling this brief history in light of what actually happened during Azerbaijan's pre-election period and on November 5. With respect to the election law, one of ODIHR's concerns was ultimately addressed by a decision of Azerbaijan's constitutional court, but on other important issues, Baku rejected any concessions and refused to incorporate ODIHR's suggested changes. From the beginning, therefore, the election could not have met OSCE standards, as ODIHR made plain in several statements. During the registration period, the Central Election Commission (CEC) rejected several leading opposition parties. Claiming that government experts could tell which signatures were forged, fraudulent or otherwise invalid merely on the basis of a visual examination, the CEC maintained the Musavat and the Azerbaijan Democratic Party had failed to get 50,000 valid signatures. The same thing happened to Musavat in the 1995 parliamentary election. At that time, the OSCE/UN observation mission emphasized the need to amend or get rid of this obviously flawed method of determining the validity of signatures, but Azerbaijan's authorities did not heed that advice. The exclusion of leading opposition parties drew strong criticism, both inside and outside the country, including the OSCE and the U.S. Government.

 

In early October, in apparent reaction to international concern, President Aliev “appealed” to the CEC to find some way of registering excluded opposition parties. Some CEC members objected, arguing there was no constitutional basis for such a presidential appeal or a changed CEC ruling, but the Commission moved to include opposition parties. Though their participation certainly broadened the choice available to voters, the manner of their inclusion demonstrated conclusively that President Aliev controlled the entire election process. ODIHR welcomed the decision by the CEC and urged a reconsideration of the exclusion of over 400 individual candidates, about half of those who tried to run in single-mandate districts. But the CEC did not do so, and only in very few cases were previously excluded candidates allowed to run. As 100 of parliament's 125 seats were determined in single mandate districts, where local authorities exercise considerable power, the rejection of over 400 candidates signaled the government's determination to decide the outcome of the vote.

 

Though coverage of the campaign on state media favored the ruling party, opposition leaders were able to address voters on television. They used the opportunity, which they had not enjoyed for years, to criticize President Aliev and offer an alternative vision of governing the country. Their equal access to the media marked progress with respect to previous elections, as noted in the ODIHR's election report.

 

However, this voting and vote count on election day itself, according to the ODIHR's election, would be bad enough, considering that the election was the fourth since 1995 that failed to meet OSCE standards, even if some progress was registered in opposition participation and representation in the CEC. Much more interesting and disturbing, however, were the words used in a post-election press conference by two key international observers: Gerard Stoudman, the Director of ODIHR, who generally employs measured, diplomatic language, said he had not expected to witness “a crash course in various types of manipulation,” and actually used the phrase “primitive falsification” to describe what he had seen. Andreas Gross, the head of the observer delegation of the Council of Europe, an organization to which Azerbaijan has applied for membership and which is not particularly known for hard-hitting assessments of election shenanigans, amplified: “Despite the positive changes observed in Azerbaijan in recent years, the scale of the infringements doesn't fit into any framework. We've never seen anything like it.”

 

Mr. Speaker, in the context of international election observation, such a brutally candid assessment is simply stunning. As far as I know, representatives of ODIHR or the Council of Europe have never expressed themselves in such terms about an election that they decided to monitor. One senses that the harshness of their judgment is related to their disappointment: Azerbaijan's authorities had promised to conduct free and fair elections and had long negotiated with the ODIHR and the Council of Europe about the legal framework and administrative modalities but, in the end, held an election that can only be described as an embarrassment to all concerned. According to Azerbaijan's CEC, in the party list voting, only four parties passed the six-percent threshold for parliamentary representation: President Aliev's governing party, the New Azerbaijan Party; the Communist Party; and two opposition parties, the Popular Front (Reformers) and Civil Solidarity. Other important opposition parties allegedly failed to break the barrier and apart from a few single mandate seats won no representation in parliament. In the aftermath of the election and the assessments of the OSCE/ODIHR and the Council of Europe, the international legitimacy of Azerbaijan's legislature is severely undermined. Within Azerbaijan, the ramifications are no better.

 

All the leading opposition parties have accused the authorities of massive vote fraud, denounced the election results, and have refused to take the few seats in parliament they were given. Though some governing party representatives have claimed that opposition representation is not necessary for the parliament to function normally, others, perhaps including President Aliev, understand that a parliament without opposition members is ruinous for Azerbaijan's image. New elections are slated in 11 districts, and perhaps President Aliev is hoping to tempt some opposition parties to abandon their boycott by offering a few more seats. Whether opposition parties, which are bitterly divided, will participate or eventually agree to take up their deputies' mandates remains to be seen. What is clearer from the conduct of the election and its outcome is that President Aliev, who is preparing the succession of his son as Azerbaijan's next president, was determined to keep opposition leaders out of parliament and ensure that the body as a whole is supportive of his heir. If the only way to guarantee the desired outcome was wholesale vote fraud, so be it.

 

Prognoses of possible accommodation with the opposition, or possibly even some power sharing arrangements, to facilitate a smooth and peaceful transfer of power, have proved unfounded. Indeed, President Aliev reportedly has told the new UK Ambassador to Baku that Azerbaijan does not need to join the Council of Europe, indicating that he is not prepared to make any concessions when it comes to maintaining his grip on power and passing it on to his chosen heir, whatever the international community thinks. Even more worrisome is that by depriving the opposition of the possibility to contend for power through parliamentary means, Aliev has seriously reduced the chances of a “soft landing” in Azerbaijan. When he eventually leaves the scene, anything could happen. This is not only a frightening prospect for the citizens of Azerbaijan, its neighbors and hopes for resolving regional disputes, especially the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, it is a scenario that should alarm policymakers in Washington as well.

 

Mr. Speaker, it is not my intention to say “I told you so” to those colleagues who argued against my resolution. I would much have preferred to make a statement congratulating Azerbaijan on having held exemplary elections and making substantial steps towards democratization. Alas, I cannot do so, which should sadden and concern all of us. But I fear the consequences will be far more serious for the citizens of Azerbaijan.

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    OSCE PA Webinar: Respecting Human Rights And Maintaining Democratic Control During States of Emergency Thank you, Mr. President Tsereteli and Secretary General Montella, for organizing this dialogue.  Director Gisladottir and Mr. Abramowitz, thank you for the work each of you is doing to shine a light on the human rights and democracy implications of emergency measures introduced in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as the implications of other government actions taken during this public health crisis that may threaten the health of our democracies. As parliamentarians, we have a responsibility to ensure that the measures we introduce and which our governments implement are consistent with OSCE standards on human rights and democracy, including the 1991 Moscow Document’s commitments regarding states of emergency. Those actions must be necessary, proportional, transparent, and temporary. Emergency provisions which restrict freedom of speech or freedom of the media are especially concerning and may actually undermine our efforts to address this health emergency. We need to ensure that journalists, medical professionals, scientists and others can provide the public with information we need to battle covid.  Muzzling independent voices undermines public confidence in government at a time when that confidence and public cooperation is critical to the success of the safety measures we need.  And yes, sometimes this means governments are going to hear they they’re not getting it right and sometimes governments will need to make course corrections. But there’s a big difference between addressing bad news and suppressing bad news.  A robust civil society is a critical partner to each of our governments and will strengthen our resilience.  Unfortunately, just this virus exploits vulnerabilities of pre-existing conditions, some governments may exploit the human rights limitations already in place before this pandemic, including laws or practices that unduly restrict civil society, or limit the freedoms of expression, association, or assembly. President Tseretelli, your appointment of a Special Representative on Civil Society last August could not have come at a more important time.  I hope members of this assembly will advance efforts to protect the core fundamental freedoms that are essential for civil society voices to be heard and support the work of my colleague, Special Representative Pia Kauma. We also need to ensure that civil society voices continue to be heard within the OSCE.  As we look ahead to how the participating States organize human dimension activities this year, and particularly the annual Human Dimension Implementation Meeting, it is critical that we preserve the access and openness that have made the OSCE such an important forum for human right defenders.  Whether OSCE meetings are in person or online, those standards of access should be preserved. Finally, democratic institutions, including as the rule of law, the independence of the judiciary, and free elections, must be preserved even during states of emergency.  I think this is really one of the most important contributions of the 1991 Moscow Document — it speaks to these exact points: “A state of public emergency may not be used to subvert the democratic constitutional order.” “The participating States will endeavor to ensure that the normal functioning of the legislative bodies will be guaranteed to the highest possible extent during a state of public emergency.”  “The participating States will endeavor to ensure that the legal guarantees necessary to uphold the rule of law will remain in force during a state of public emergency.”  We may need to make changes in how our courts hear cases or the mechanics of our elections.  But a health emergency does not diminish our commitment to ensure the integrity of our democratic institutions. The United States will proceed with our elections in a manner that ensures the public’s safety and respects the rights of voters, and consistent with our OSCE commitments.  Thank you.

  • Chairman Hastings and Co-Chairman Wicker Commemorate World Press Freedom Day

    WASHINGTON—Ahead of World Press Freedom Day on May 3, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) and Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) issued the following statements: "Given these uncertain and unprecedented times, it is more important than ever that journalists and media professionals are able to work freely and without retribution," said Chairman Hastings. "Unfortunately, journalists remain in jail throughout the OSCE region, while states like Russia, Azerbaijan, and Hungary criminalize providing essential information and transparency about the COVID-19 pandemic. Independent media continues to be assaulted under the pretense of punishing allegedly 'false,' 'misleading,' or unofficial information. This is unacceptable." Read Chairman Hastings' full Congressional Record statement. “Journalists across the globe risk their safety, and some even their lives, to report the truth," said Co-Chairman Wicker. "On World Press Freedom Day, we honor a freedom that is a cornerstone of democracy and should always be protected in any healthy society. During this pandemic, good journalism and unflinching investigative reporting are essential as we work to mitigate the effects of the coronavirus and get our economies started again. Now more than ever, I urge all OSCE states to uphold this fundamental freedom." According to the latest reports from the Committee to Protect Journalists, 250 journalists are imprisoned worldwide for their work, 64 journalists are missing, and 1,369 journalists have been killed since 1992. Additionally, Reporters Without Borders' 2020 World Press Freedom Index found that global press freedom has deteriorated by 12 percent since 2013. Ahead of World Press Freedom Day, OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media Harlem Désir, along with the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Opinion and Expression and the Organization of American States Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression, issued a joint declaration on freedom of expression and elections in the digital age, particularly noting challenges to press freedom during the COVID-19 pandemic. On April 17, Chairman Hastings and Co-Chairman Wicker released a statement expressing concern with the latest attacks on press freedom in Russia amid the coronavirus pandemic, including death threats to Russian journalist Yelena Milashina by Chechnya’s leader Ramzan Kadyrov. Earlier in April, Chairman Hastings also denounced the unchecked power granted to Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban following his request to rule by decree in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

  • Chairman Hastings Denounces Unchecked Power Granted To Hungary’s Prime Minister Orban

    WASHINGTON—Following the Hungarian Parliament’s decision on Monday to accept Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s request for unlimited power to rule by decree in response to the coronavirus pandemic, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) issued the following statement: “Prime Minister Orban has taken gross advantage of the fear and uncertainty brought on by a global pandemic to secure the power to rule by decree in perpetuity. Instead of focusing on the well-being of Hungarian citizens likely to suffer from the coronavirus, he has chosen to prioritize preserving his parliamentary majority and permanently consolidating his control of the Hungarian Government.  “At both the global and national levels, defeating the coronavirus will require extraordinary social solidarity, not unchecked executive power.  The further concentration of powers in Hungary will only pave the way for the further concentration of corruption.” Among other provisions, the new law allows for up to a five-year prison sentence for spreading false or distorted information regarding the fight against the coronavirus, which could be used against journalists reporting on the state of Hungary’s hospitals or health care delivery.  The law also suspends elections.  Hungary has recently completed a cycle of elections (parliamentary, European Parliament, and municipal) with no other major elections scheduled until 2022. In the meantime, by-elections and referenda are prohibited.  The law, which lacks a sunset clause, may only be repealed by a two-thirds vote of parliament, or terminated by the Prime Minister himself. In 1991, Hungary—along with all other OSCE participating States—adopted the Moscow Document in the aftermath of a coup attempt in Russia. The agreement includes specific provisions on states of emergency.  In particular, the OSCE participating States agreed to “in conformity with international standards regarding the freedom of expression, take no measures aimed at barring journalists from the legitimate exercise of their profession other than those strictly required by the exigencies of the situation.”   On March 30, OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) Director Ingibjörg Sólrún Gísladóttir warned that emergency legislation being adopted by governments across the OSCE region, including Hungary, must include a time limit and guarantee parliamentary oversight. Since 2010, Viktor Orban has systematically dismantled a system of checks and balances, facilitating the consolidation of control by the Fidesz government. In April 2019, the Helsinki Commission hosted a briefing to explore developments in Hungary, including issues related to the rule of law and corruption.  

  • E.U. Tries Gentle Diplomacy to Counter Hungary’s Crackdown on Democracy

    European leaders were reluctant to pick a fight with Prime Minister Viktor Orban a day after he secured powers to rule by decree indefinitely. BRUSSELS — The European Union’s written response to Hungary’s effective suspension of democracy omitted one important word: Hungary. A day after the Hungarian Parliament passed sweeping emergency measures allowing the far-right populist leader Viktor Orban to rule by decree indefinitely, ostensibly as part of the country’s response to the coronavirus, the European Commission on Tuesday reminded its members to respect rights. But it was a muted first response from the one institution that can take on Mr. Orban, and it appeared aimed at balancing the political imperative of cooperation in the era of the coronavirus with the risk of emboldening him. “It’s of utmost importance that emergency measures are not at the expense of our fundamental principles and values,” Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, said in a statement that made no mention of Mr. Orban or Hungary. The European Commission is the European Union’s executive branch, and it often describes itself as “the guardian of the treaty” that created the bloc of 27 democracies. But Mr. Orban has long been in an open struggle with parts of that treaty. He has said frankly that he does not believe in liberal democracy — which the European Commission says is fundamental to the European Union’s values. The severe measures adopted Monday in Budapest may dramatically ratchet up the confrontation between the Orban government and European Union institutions in Brussels. Hungary’s new legislation suspends elections and also allows the prime minister to suspend existing laws and rule by decree. One vaguely worded section also says that people found to be spreading “falsehoods” or “distorted truths” that obstruct the authorities from protecting the public may be punished with prison sentences of up to five years. That new tool that may allow Mr. Orban to further curb the press freedoms long in his cross hairs. To be sure, in the face of the epidemic, European countries have all to lesser or greater extent adopted emergency measures curbing liberties, including measures that require citizens to register any movement and observe curfews. But Hungary’s new rules are the most far reaching. And rights experts, political analysts and academics say that, given Mr. Orban’s track record and espousal of “illiberal democracy,” the measures he says he is taking to fight the virus could become fixtures in Hungarian public life, used to crack down on opposition well after the threat of the virus passes. European Union officials believe that the statement issued Tuesday, which came from Ms. von der Leyen personally, sent a clear message to Mr. Orban — even without naming him. European Commission lawyers are now closely watching how he enforces Hungary’s new measures, the officials said. But they said that now — as Europe battles to stem the spread of the virus and mitigate its catastrophic economic damage, and with many nations suspending some liberties — was not the moment to pick a fight with just one member. That measured approach surprised some observers, despite the fact that the commission often takes a conciliatory stance toward wayward members in a bid to entice them to reform voluntarily. (That has never worked with Hungary.) “It is bizarre,” Daniel Freund, a member of the European Parliament who belongs to the German Greens political party, said of Ms. von der Leyen’s statement. “The decision that the Hungarian Parliament took yesterday is a watershed moment,” Mr. Freund said. “Now you have to do something, or we really lose democracies.” Mr. Freund and other members of the European Parliament believe that even before the European Commission opens a formal investigation into Hungary’s new law, which would take months, it should use existing rules to put pressure on Mr. Orban. “If we end up after the crisis with a virus well fought but democracy lost in several member states, that’s an unacceptable situation,” Mr. Freund said. Daniel Kelemen, a professor European Union politics and law at Rutgers University, said the epidemic could prove an opportunity for the Hungarian leader. “Throughout his consolidation of power, Orban has counted on the European Union to be distracted with other crises,” he said. “But now,” Mr. Kelemen said, “the scale of this crisis does call for consolidation of power for the executive, so it gives him more effective cover for this next stage of escalation.” Mr. Orban’s hold on power was unparalleled by European Union standards well before Monday’s vote authorizing him to rule by decree. In practical terms, Mr. Orban and his allies already controlled the legislative and executives branches of government, and had stacked the Constitutional Court. With Mr. Orban’s parliamentary opposition unable to slow his political machine, the European Union has shown itself to be the only entity capable of curbing his power, but the results have been mixed. Lengthy and cumbersome European Union legal proceedings could not stop Mr. Orban and his allies from taking over the Hungarian media landscape, weakening the independence of the judiciary, levying a special tax on nongovernmental organizations receiving foreign funding, or ejecting the Central European University from the country. In the end it may be Mr. Orban’s love for European financial aid, not freedoms, that acts as a brake on his government. “Aware that the European Union is watching, Orban is likely to tread modestly at first,” said Mujtaba Rahman, the head of Europe at Eurasia Group consultancy. “He will not wish to put at risk the €5.6 billion windfall granted to Hungary by the European Parliament last week as its portion in the union’s efforts to battle the coronavirus." President Trump has warmly embraced Mr. Orban. Mr. Trump’s ambassador in Hungary has spoken glowingly about Mr. Orban’s grip on power and said that Mr. Trump would love to have the powers of his Hungarian counterpart. But Mr. Orban’s autocratic tendencies have long alarmed others in Washington, particularly lawmakers who serve on the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, known as the Helsinki Commission. A congressional delegation visited Hungary last year to investigate democratic backsliding.

  • Helsinki Commission Leaders Commend Political Compromise in Georgia

    WASHINGTON—After a March 8 announcement that Georgia’s political leadership reached a deal paving the way for the adoption of compromise electoral reforms ahead of the October 2020 parliamentary election, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) and Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) released the following statements: “Debate and compromise, two hallmarks of democracy, have rebuilt hope that Georgia’s leaders can bridge divisions and meet the demands of the people for accountability in electoral processes and outcomes,” Chairman Hastings said. “Having led an international election observation mission to Georgia, I commend the hard work it took to reach this agreement and the role of international ambassadors, particularly U.S. Ambassador Kelly Degnan, in facilitating it. As the agreement’s implementation proceeds, I hope to see prioritization of the parties’ joint commitment to address perceptions of politically-motivated criminal charges in recent months.” During the January 2008 presidential election in Georgia, Chairman Hastings served as head of the OSCE PA election observation mission and was appointed by the OSCE Chairman-in-Office as the Special Coordinator leading all OSCE short-term observers. “As a longtime champion of the United States’ strategic partnership with Georgia, I am glad to see Georgia’s political leaders take the path of dialogue to resolve this months-long crisis,” said Co-Chairman Wicker. “The coming months should serve as an opportunity for the Georgian people to regain confidence in the ability of their democratic institutions to represent their voices and render independent justice.” In December 2019, Co-Chairman Wicker sent a letter to Georgian Prime Minister Giorgi Gakharia urging the ruling Georgian Dream party to address growing public discontent with preparations for the 2020 national election and a string of decisions that undermined public confidence in the rule of law. Since November, Georgia has been embroiled in a political crisis sparked by the surprise defeat in parliament of constitutional amendments that would have transitioned the country to a fully proportional electoral system for 2020 parliamentary elections. In response to a political crisis last summer, Georgian Dream Party Chairman Bidzina Ivanishvili pledged his party would pass the amendments, which enjoyed broad support from Georgian political factions and international democracy advocates. Despite this pledge, a group of Georgian Dream parliamentarians voted last month to scuttle the proposal, prompting angry reactions across the Georgian political spectrum. This political controversy coincided with criminal prosecutions against several prominent opposition figures that created the appearance of selective enforcement of the law. Georgian Dream parliamentarians also disregarded an opposition boycott last week to approve 14 justices to lifetime appointments on the Supreme Court despite serious questions about some of their legal qualifications. 

  • Chairman Hastings on Anniversaries of Sumgait Pogrom and Khojaly Massacre

    WASHINGTON—Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) yesterday issued a floor statement on the anniversaries of the Sumgait Pogrom and the Khojaly Massacre, two pivotal tragedies in the in the decades-long conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the territory of Nagorno Karabakh. The statement reads in part: “Although separated by four years and 200 miles, the Sumgait Pogrom in 1988 and Khojaly Massacre in 1992 both demonstrated the heinous potential of interethnic hatreds to tear apart communities and trample human dignity. The commemoration of these horrific events is an opportunity to reflect on the innocent lives lost in this ongoing conflict as well as a chance to affirm the need for urgent steps to heal these wounds and sue for peace once and for all… “I strongly encourage the political leadership in Yerevan and Baku to use these solemn commemorations of Sumgait and Khojaly this week to turn a new page in this terrible conflict. The most fitting way to honor the lives of those lost would be through words of reconciliation and steps toward peace. Together, the peoples of Armenia and Azerbaijan can ensure such atrocities are never be repeated and that future generations will know a life of secure and prosperous coexistence.” Download the full statement.  

  • Human Rights and Democracy

    For nearly three decades, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) has been at the forefront of efforts to promote human rights and democracy throughout the 57-nation OSCE region. Although best known for international election observation, ODIHR has also been instrumental in countering various forms of intolerance, helping governments combat human trafficking, protecting human rights defenders, and implementing OSCE commitments to fundamental freedoms. The U.S. Helsinki Commission convened the hearing to demonstrate bipartisan support for ODIHR, to reinforce the U.S.’s support related OSCE initiatives, and to hear about the ongoing work of ODIHR.  Commission Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) chaired the hearing and was joined by Commissioners Rep. Robert Aderholt (AL-04), Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), Rep. Gwen Moore (WI-04), and Rep. Marc Veasey (TX-33). Rep. Wilson’s opening remarks highlighted the historic achievements of ODIHR, which include assisting countries to “transition from communism to democracy,” supporting “civil society participation in OSCE events,” and facilitating “strong cooperation with the Parliamentary Assembly.”  In her first appearance before Congress, ODIHR Director Ambassador Ingibjörg Sólrún Gísladóttir addressed multiple challenges that have impeded the effectiveness of ODIHR activities. She then outlined ODIHR’s role in offering proactive solutions.  In particular, Ambassador Gísladóttir stressed the importance of dialogue and asserted that democracy is about “respect and trust, an acceptance of differing opinions, an exchange of views, and the willingness to share power and seek compromise.” She concluded on an optimistic note, emphasizing unity within the OSCE and its “commitment to democracy and to the wellbeing of its people.” Although conscious of ODIHR’s efforts, commissioners voiced concerns that some OSCE participating States are not complying with their commitments to uphold basic human rights standards. Commissioners specifically acknowledged restrictions on religious freedom in Russia, poor conditions for activists and journalists, and rising anti-Semitism and discrimination against the Roma people across the region. This hearing continued the Helsinki Commission practice of regularly engaging with senior OSCE officials.The Commission typically holds hearing with the foreign minister of the country holding the rotating chairmanship of the OSCE. The Commission has also held hearings with previous ODIHR directors as well as the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media.

  • Election Observation 101

    On January 22, 2020, Helsinki Commissioner Rep. Mark Veasey (TX-33) moderated a roundtable at the Texas A&M School of Law titled “Election Observation 101: Strengthening Democracies Old and New in the 21st Century.”  Rep. Veasey—who also is a co-chair of the Congressional Voting Rights Caucus and a former member of the Elections Committee in the Texas House of Representatives—and expert panelists discussed the importance of election observation missions across the OSCE region. Rep. Veasey was joined at the roundtable by veteran election observer Lindsay Lloyd, director of the human freedom initiative at the George W. Bush Institute; Amanda Schnetzer, chief operating officer of Pointe Bello; and Helsinki Commission Chief of Staff Alex T. Johnson.  Law school dean Robert Ahdieh offered a warm welcome and reflected on his fondest memories of the Helsinki Commission as a young man living in Moscow, Russia. Rep. Veasey then set the stage with the 30-year celebration of the 1990 Copenhagen Document which established the international standards for “free and fair elections”, while Mr. Lloyd explained the dynamics of how teams are assembled. Mr. Johnson further clarified the role of observers as strict watchers or objective examiners, and never interventionists, and Ms. Schnetzer shared how her experience observing elections in Tunisia forever shaped her passion for civic engagement and democratic values.  “[In 2011], the people of Tunisia were voting... To see the looks on the faces of women, grandparents coming to poles for the first time, casting a vote, and bringing a grandchild in tow, to say ‘I have waited all my life to do this’ was simply inspirational,” Ms. Schnetzer said. “I saw the stark comparison in the United States because few get excited on the first day they get to vote… I wish that we could find a way to positively spark that enthusiasm here [in the U.S.].” Looking ahead to the U.S. elections in November 2020, all panelists agreed that more could be done to inform the American public about foreign observers and the benefits of international election observation. Election observers from both the OSCE Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights and the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly are expected to be invited by the United States Government to observe the 2020 elections. The OSCE was first invited to observe U.S. elections by the Bush Administration in 2002 and has been invited to observe every midterm and general election since (2004, 2006, 2008, 2010, 2012, 2014, 2016, and 2018) by the administration in office. However, the decentralized nature of the U.S. electoral system means some states prohibit or greatly restrict foreign observers. A few states explicitly permit foreign observation, or at least a sufficiently public observation to include those from other countries.

  • Director of OSCE Office For Democratic Institutions and Human Rights to Testify at Helsinki Commission Hearing

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following hearing: HUMAN RIGHTS AND DEMOCRACY Obstacles and Opportunities in the OSCE Region Wednesday, January 29, 2020 10:00 a.m. Longworth House Office Building Room 1334 Live Webcast: www.youtube.com/HelsinkiCommission For nearly three decades, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) has been at the forefront of efforts to promote human rights and democracy throughout the 57-nation OSCE region. In her first appearance before Congress, ODIHR Director Ambassador Ingibjörg Sólrún Gísladóttir will discuss the organization’s flagship work in international election observation; countering anti-Semitism and other forms of intolerance; and helping governments to combat human trafficking, protect human rights defenders, and better implement their commitments to fundamental freedoms including assembly and religion. The OSCE, the world’s largest regional security body, is based on a comprehensive concept of security that recognizes that respect for human rights and functioning democratic institutions underpin regional peace and security. ODIHR provides support, assistance, and expertise to participating States and civil society to promote democracy, rule of law, human rights, and tolerance and non-discrimination. ODIHR observes elections at the invitation of participating States, reviews legislation, and advises governments on how to develop and sustain democratic institutions. The office also works closely with the OSCE’s field operations and organizes Europe’s largest annual human rights meeting, bringing together annually hundreds of government officials, international experts, civil society representatives and human rights activists.  

  • First Person: Nothing Unusual

    By Rachel Bauman, Policy Advisor Election day began like every November day in Belarus: black. Without the time change that makes a late-autumn morning in DC bearable, darkness enveloped Belarus until almost 9:00 a.m. We would be rising much earlier than that to observe the opening of the polls for the November 17 parliamentary election. This was my second election observation, after the first round of the Ukrainian presidential election in March 2019. That election was widely considered free and fair—a great achievement for a new democracy plagued by a Soviet legacy. In Belarus, the last election generally considered free and fair was the 1994 election of President Alexander Lukashenko, who remains in power, with essentially complete control over the government, 25 years later.   Most Belarus-watchers suspected that much of the number-fudging was done before the arrival of election day observers. Early voting took place throughout the week before election day, providing an opportunity to inflate turnout numbers. Multiple opposition candidates could not even make it on the ballot due to selectively-imposed restrictions and technicalities applied to stamp out the competition well before voting took place. Neither I nor the other members of my election observation team (two diplomats already in Minsk: one from the U.S. Embassy, and one from the Swedish Embassy), expected many surprises from the conduct and outcome of the elections. The day started smoothly enough, with a standard, albeit sparsely attended, opening. As we moved on to other polling stations throughout the day, the conditions were mainly the same: observers registered with the chair of the election commission for that precinct and were seated at a table specifically for observers, both national and international. Sign directing voters to polling sites in Belarus. Because the vast majority of OSCE PA observers remained in the Minsk region, and we had traveled a few hours northeast to Vitebsk, we came across only Belarusian observers, whether from trade unions, political parties, or other groups. The observer tables were far enough away from the action that in most cases we could not see much of the voter sign-in and identification check process. When we asked to see the voter lists, we were denied in multiple instances. This was startling for me; in Ukraine, we wandered freely throughout polling stations and had access to everything. Nevertheless, the mood was festive and the people friendly. Music—from disco to Soviet favorites to patriotic tunes—played in the background at several polling places. We received candies in one location and a proud explanation of the region’s main industry in another. A few photos were taken with us, and at one polling place a neighboring observer remarked how interested she was that I had come all the way from the United States just for the election in Belarus! Despite the fun and frivolity, it became clear to us by the end of the day that, though we had seen no gross violations in conduct, the whole process lacked the transparency I had witnessed in Ukraine, or that should be expected in any OSCE country committed to democratic norms.   Nowhere was this more apparent than during the count. As usual, we were confined to the observers’ table just far enough from where the action was taking place to limit real observation. The mobile voting, early voting, and election day ballots were collected and counted in one pile, silently. Because we could not fully see or hear the count, there was no way of knowing whether it was accurate, even though the precinct chairwoman came over occasionally to riffle through the marked ballots for us. By only 9:15 p.m.—the polls had closed at 8—the count was finished and a winner declared. Votes being counted at a polling site. Our next step was to follow our companions from the polling station to the District Election Commission, where they would deliver the results protocol and election materials. After watching a few deliveries from around the area and encountering many familiar faces from earlier in the day, we decided to head back to the hotel, arriving at a remarkably early 10:30 p.m. Though it was still a long and exhausting day, many such elections, including the one I’d observed in Ukraine, had counts lasting long into the night. The next morning’s results were both surprising and unsurprising. It was no great shock to see that the reported turnout was over 77 percent—suspiciously high for elections to a body with no real power. According to the Statement of Preliminary Findings and Conclusions, the OSCE International Election Observation Mission noted that early voting turnout in particular (35.77 percent) seemed inflated compared to the reports of observers. More disturbingly, not a single opposition candidate was elected (there had been two in the previous parliament). That Lukashenko would not permit even a semblance of pluralism calls into question the seriousness of his seeming attempts to court the West when faced with a revanchist and controlling Russia—a topic which the U.S. Helsinki Commission explored in a hearing held shortly after the election. Observers would be wise to watch the trajectory of the country as Lukashenko navigates his tricky relationships with the West and Russia. Ultimately, stability—in large part the stability of his own job—will be first in his mind as the 2020 Belarusian presidential election swiftly approaches. A major political upheaval is not likely in the cards. When my colleague stationed in Grodna asked a young independent observer if he’d seen anything interesting or unusual during election day, the observer responded, “Unusual? No. Nothing unusual. This is Belarus. There has been nothing unusual for 25 years.”

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