Flawed Elections in Belarus

Flawed Elections in Belarus

Hon.
Christopher H. Smith
United States
House of Representatives
106th Congress Congress
Second Session Session
Thursday, October 12, 2000

Mr. Speaker, this Sunday, October 15th, Belarus will hold parliamentary elections. Based on the run-up to the elections, the possibility of free and fair elections simply does not exist. Belarusian strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka, who illegally extended his own term in office, is once again attempting to dupe the international community into believing that there are viable electoral processes in today's Belarus. The reality is different.

The Lukashenka regime has not met any of the four conditions that the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe setback last spring, namely, a democratic election law; an end to human rights abuses; access by the opposition to the state media; and genuine powers granted to the parliament. As a result, on August 30, the OSCE and other institutions decided not to send a full-fledged international observation team to Belarus. This decision could have been revisited if the situation in Belarus had improved. However, since August 30, the Lukashenka regime has denied registration to many opposition candidates on highly questionable grounds; detained, fined, or beaten over 100 individuals advocating a boycott of the elections; burglarized the headquarters of an opposition party; and confiscated 100,000 copies of an independent newspaper. My friend, opposition leader Anatoly Lebedka was physically assaulted during a commemoration of the one-year anniversary of the disappearance of opposition leader Viktor Gonchar and his associate Anatoly Krasovsky. I might add that another leader of the opposition, former Interior Minister Yuri Zakharenka, remains missing after having disappeared 17 months ago, and two leading opposition members, Andrei Klimov and Vladimir Koudinov, remain imprisoned on politically motivated charges.

Mr. Speaker, governmental interference in the election process appears to be rampant. There are reports that regional and local government executive committees have been threatened to ensure that government supported candidates will be elected. The registration process also showed strong signs of arbitrariness, with the rejection of a large percentage of candidates, especially opposition candidates. According to today's Radio Free Europe-Radio Liberty East-Central Europe Report, Belarusian authorities, in an attempt to counter the opposition's call for an election boycott, have begun urging early voting and even threatening reprisals if voters fail to go to the polls. Furthermore, in Brest, the government-controlled local press is publishing election materials devoted solely to one candidate.

All of these and other incidents, Mr. Speaker, have contributed to an atmosphere highly obtrusive to free and fair elections. Given the pre-election atmosphere, the international community will be hard-pressed to recognize the new parliament, which succeeds the old, Lukashenka hand-picked parliament that was not recognized by the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly and much of the international community. Moreover, the current election environment does not in any way inspire confidence that the presidential elections scheduled for next year will be democratic. Mr. Lukashenka would do well to keep in mind that, with the fall of Slobodan Milosevic, he becomes increasingly isolated as Europe's sole remaining dictator.

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  • Putin's War on Truth

    Since his full-scale military attack on Ukraine began on February 24, Russian dictator Vladimir Putin has cracked down severely on Russia’s information landscape. In addition to blocking access to almost all social media outlets and international news sites and criminalizing speech that does not conform to the Kremlin narrative, Putin has deliberately and forcefully spread propaganda about the war and the Ukrainian state and people.  By depriving the Russian people of access to credible information and controlling state-run media, Putin aims to drum up domestic support for his war of pure aggression on the peaceful, democratic citizens of Ukraine. At a hearing on March 29, 2022, the U.S. Helsinki Commission heard from three expert witnesses who discussed Putin’s propaganda tools and narratives and offered recommendations for the United States to help ensure that the people of Russia are not cut off from the truth. Parliamentarians from the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (PA) also attended, including President of the OSCE PA Margareta Cederfelt (Sweden), and OSCE PA Vice Presidents Pascal Allizard (France) and Irene Charalambides (Cyprus). Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), who presided over the hearing, compared Putin’s current propaganda and censorship campaigns and practices to the Stalin era and called out claims that Russia is trying to “denazify” Ukraine. “Putin is building a new iron curtain and attempts to justify his indefensible war and continued attacks against the Ukrainian people,” he said. Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) described recent and upcoming hearings, emphasizing the Helsinki Commission’s focus on the war in Ukraine. He stated, “There’s no higher priority that we have right now than to deal with what Russia has done in violating every single principle of the Helsinki Final Act – every single principle.” Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) praised the unified bipartisan stance that Republicans and Democrats have taken in response to Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and highlighted the dire consequences ordinary Russians have faced in speaking out against Putin or the war. “I am particularly grateful to the brave Russians… armed only with truth who have spoken out at great risk to their personal safety,” he said. Senator Richard Blumenthal (CT) remarked on the intrinsic connection between the war in Ukraine and the war on truth in Russia, emphasizing that as the West fortifies Ukrainian freedom-fighters with arms and equipment, we must also fortify the efforts of truth-tellers. Fatima Tlis, a journalist with Voice of America, described contemporary Russian propaganda as a combination of old techniques and new technology, comparing disinformation deployed by the Kremlin to a soap opera—intriguing and engaging to the audience. Tlis emphasized that full force propaganda has been deployed against the Russian people for decades and it will require an intelligent strategy to counteract it. She recommended utilizing humor, referencing a satirical TV show that Putin shut down shortly after coming to power. “He’s afraid of being laughed at because, you know, the great czar cannot be laughed at,” she observed. “He loses his power. People are not afraid of him anymore if they can laugh at him.” Peter Pomerantsev, a senior fellow at the SNF Agora Institute at Johns Hopkins University, described the need for a coordinated, three-pronged response to Russian propaganda by government entities, tech companies, and media. While Russia is the most pressing challenge, Pomerantsev pointed out that China, Saudi Arabia, and other countries are also engaging in these practices. He called for comprehensive action to combat the Russian disinformation complex and said, “Where they have troll farms, we will have online town halls.  Where they use disinformation to manipulate people, we will use communication to engage with them as citizens.” Vladimir Kara-Murza, Russian journalist, author, and former host at Echo of Moscow Radio, spoke to the comprehensive program of disinformation that Putin has installed in Russia from his first days in office, and highlighted the difficulties independent media outlets in Russia face, including being forced to cease operations. He also recalled the Soviet-era example of using radio broadcasts to combat a new information Iron Curtain. “Nothing beats totalitarian propaganda better than the truth,” he said. Members brought a number of concerns and questions to witnesses, ranging from how to support Russian dissidents, to which techniques would be the most effective in distributing accurate information to Russian citizens. Related Information Witness Biographies Vladimir Kara-Murza: "Why the West should help Russians learn the truth about Putin’s war in Ukraine"

  • Helsinki Commission to Hold Hearing on Russian Propaganda and Censorship

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following hearing: PUTIN'S WAR ON TRUTH Propaganda and Censorship in Russia Tuesday, March 29, 2022 2:00 p.m. Rayburn House Office Building Room 2172 Watch live: www.youtube.com/HelsinkiCommission Since his full-scale military attack on Ukraine began on February 24, Russian dictator Vladimir Putin has cracked down severely on Russia’s information landscape. In addition to blocking access to almost all social media outlets and international news sites and criminalizing speech that does not conform to the Kremlin narrative, Putin has deliberately and forcefully spread propaganda about the war and the Ukrainian state and people.  By depriving the Russian people of access to credible information and controlling state-run media, Putin aims to drum up domestic support for his war of pure aggression on the peaceful, democratic citizens of Ukraine. Witnesses will examine Putin’s propaganda tools and narratives as well as the rapidly shrinking options for Russians to access credible information, and will recommend options for the United States to help ensure that the people of Russia are not cut off from the truth. The following witnesses are scheduled to testify: Fatima Tlis, Journalist, Voice of America Peter Pomerantsev, Senior Fellow, Agora Institute, Johns Hopkins University Vladimir Kara-Murza, Russian journalist and author, former host at Echo of Moscow radio  

  • Containing Russia

    Russian dictator Vladimir Putin’s war on the Ukrainian people is an urgent threat to European security and global peace. Should his destructive gambit succeed in Ukraine, Russia will have dramatically expanded its de-facto border with NATO—including through a soft annexation of Belarus—as well as its ability to destabilize the democracies of Central and Western Europe.  Russian military success would threaten to draw a new iron curtain across Europe, dividing those protected by NATO’s security guarantees from those left exposed to Russian predation. This division could lead to significant remilitarization, a reappearance of Cold War tensions, and a reversion to historic cycles of European conflict. Beyond Europe, revisionist powers would be emboldened, and the United States and its Allies would be less able to deter them.  On March 23, 2022, the Helsinki Commission heard testimony from a panel of witnesses who recommended ways to deter Russian dictator Vladimir Putin’s from further escalating his unprovoked attack on Ukraine. Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) opened the hearing by denouncing Mr. Putin as a war criminal, calling for accountability for the heinous war crimes currently being committed in Ukraine. He lauded the heroism of the Ukrainian people and recognized Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky as a champion of democracy. “They’re an inspiration to all of us,” he stated. “President Zelensky [is] there fighting for the sovereignty of Ukraine, but he’s also fighting for the sovereignty of the free world.” Ranking Member Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) welcomed the assistance the United States already has provided, while simultaneously calling for greater action. “I call on the President today, the Secretary of State, and the White House to unleash the full package of sanctions that are available to them,” he said, “and to enhance the weaponry that we have already made available to our friends in Ukraine.” Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09) and Sen. Richard Blumenthal (CT) pledged  to support Ukraine and called for the facilitation of additional weaponry to the Ukrainian army and implementation of stronger economic sanctions of Russian oligarchs and their enablers. Before the witnesses testified, Ukrainian Ambassador to the United States Oksana Markarova addressed the commission, denouncing the Russian invasion of Ukraine as a violation of international law and a greater threat to the democratic world. “So what is happening in Ukraine is not only about Ukraine,” she asserted. “The very foundation of the world rule-based order, as we all knew and respected it after World War II, has been under attack today.” General Phillip Breedlove, former commander of U.S. European Command and NATO’s former Supreme Allied Commander Europe, testified that the Western response to Russia’s invasion has been almost entirely limited to economic measures, with no formidable action taken thus far in the diplomatic, informational, or military sphere. He supported the implementation of humanitarian corridors and humanitarian airlifts, both protected by NATO-enforced humanitarian no-fly zones. “We have allowed Mr. Putin to accomplish both the goals of deterring us and gaining initiative,” he stated. “I’m advocating that we and our Western partners reevaluate our strategic approach: Mr. Putin should be deterred, vice we in the West[HS1] . This requires moving away from a passive deterrent posture to affecting a more active deterrence.” Dr. Michael Kimmage, fellow at the German Marshall Fund and Department Chair at Catholic University of America, warned of historical precedents regarding containment of the Soviet Union, and how it applies contemporarily to Russia’s war in Ukraine. “Policy success should be measured not against maximalist dreams in which Putin, and with him Russian military power, exit the scene. Russian power is here to stay. Policy success should be measured against the much more achievable goal of containing this very power,” he said. Dr. Miriam Lanskoy, senior director for Russia and Eurasia at the National Endowment of Democracy, warned of the dangers of potentially isolating the Russian public from the global internet and media. She advocated for engaging with Russian citizens, while simultaneously opposing the Russian government. “Distinguish between Putin’s regime and its various enablers and the Russian people, preserve support and amplify the voices of Russian democrats now fleeing the country and those who remain inside,” she recommended. Related Information Witness Biographies

  • Options to Contain Russia to Be Explored at Helsinki Commission Hearing

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following hearing: CONTAINING RUSSIA Opposing Russian Imperialism in Ukraine and Beyond Wednesday, March 23, 2022 2:30 p.m. Dirksen Senate Office Building Room 562 Watch live: www.youtube.com/HelsinkiCommission Russian dictator Vladimir Putin’s war on the Ukrainian people is an urgent threat to European security and global peace. Should his destructive gambit succeed in Ukraine, Russia will have dramatically expanded its de-facto border with NATO—including through a soft annexation of Belarus—as well as its ability to destabilize the democracies of Central and Western Europe.  Russian military success would threaten to draw a new iron curtain across Europe, dividing those protected by NATO’s security guarantees from those left exposed to Russian predation. This division could lead to significant remilitarization, a reappearance of Cold War tensions, and a reversion to historic cycles of European conflict. Beyond Europe, revisionist powers would be emboldened, and the United States and its Allies would be less able to deter them.  At this hearing, military experts and strategic thinkers will explore options for curtailing Moscow’s ability to wage war on Ukraine and neighboring states, especially those outside the protective umbrella of NATO. The hearing will begin with brief remarks by Ukrainian Ambassador to the U.S. Oksana Markarova. The following witnesses also are scheduled to testify: General (Ret.) Philip Breedlove, NATO’s Former Supreme Allied Commander Europe; Distinguished Professor of the Practice and CETS Senior Fellow, Georgia Tech  Dr. Michael Kimmage, Former Policy Planning Staff, U.S, Department of State; Professor of History, The Catholic University of America; Fellow, German Marshall Fund of the United States  Dr. Miriam Lanskoy, Senior Director for Russia and Eurasia, National Endowment for Democracy   

  • "Game-Changer"

    Russian dictator Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has destroyed the international framework that has kept the peace in Europe since 1945, at a time when Baltic states Lithuania, Estonia, and Latvia already faced complex and evolving security challenges. Beyond Putin’s existential threats, the Baltic states now must deal with a Belarus that has become little more than a staging area for Moscow to wage war on its peaceful neighbors. China’s economic and diplomatic pressures also continue to weigh heavily. Yet these three relatively small countries nevertheless are demonstrating courageous, principled, and effective leadership on the international stage. On March 17, 2022, the Helsinki Commission heard from the chairs of the foreign affairs committees of the national parliaments of Lithuania, Estonia, and Latvia. The three witnesses offered views on opportunities to address the deteriorating security situation in Europe, including and especially through partnership with the United States. Ranking Member Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) opened the hearing by acknowledging the vulnerable position the Baltic States are in as they face security challenges from Russia, Belarus, and China. He also praised the economic, military, and moral support the Baltic States have provided to Ukraine. “Once again, in this crisis the three Baltic countries are punching above their weight,” he said. “And I have every expectation they will continue to do so.” Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09) emphasized the longstanding bonds between the Baltic countries and the United States, particularly throughout the era of Soviet occupation. “I suspect if the three Baltic countries were not members of NATO, you might have already met Vladimir Putin’s armies… we want to assure you that we are with you.” Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) underscored the deep and bipartisan commitment of the United States to Article 5 of NATO. “We stand with you on your sovereignty and will be there to protect the sovereignty of your countries against any attempt by Russia to interfere with that,” he said. Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) expressed appreciation for the commitment Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia have shown to promoting independence and freedom in Europe, and to their NATO membership. “The Baltic allies have been on the forefront of trying to stop the advance by Putin,” he said. He also praised the support the Baltic states are providing to Belarussian dissidents, activists, and opposition politicians. Commissioner Rep. Ruben Gallego (AZ-07) stressed the importance of the current moment for Baltic security and highlighted the Baltic Security Initiative, which bolsters the defense capabilities of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania in areas including air defense, maritime situational awareness, ammunition, C4ISR, and anti-tank capabilities. He said, “If we draw any lessons from the ongoing war in Ukraine, it’s that we need to ensure our allies and our partners are too prickly for any adversary or competitor to swallow.” Laima Andrikiene, Chair of the Foreign Relations Committee of the Seimas of Lithuania, testified that the global democratic order has been ravaged and called on the United States to position permanent combat forces in Lithuania in order to build credible defense against Russian military threats. She also urged international allies not to forget the threat China poses. “The case of Lithuania is a test for the entire democratic world of our ability to withstand economic coercion and to deter China from using coercion as a regular foreign policy tool to advance its goals,” she said. Marko Mihkelson, Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Riigikogu of Estonia, warned of the brutality and ruthlessness of the Russian war machine, referencing his prior career as a journalist, when he reported on the Chechen War. “Russia’s blatant aggression and military invasion in Ukraine has caused a fundamental shift in the European security architecture and threatens the peace and stability of democratic nations, not only in Europe but worldwide,” he said. “The future of our common security will be decided in Ukraine.” Rihards Kols, Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Saeima of Latvia, described the hybrid warfare tactics Russia is employing and the importance of supporting a well-educated and informed society in order to counter hybrid threats. Kols advocated for decisive action against Putin and warned against hesitance. He said, “Nothing is more provocative to a dictator than the weakness of free nations.” Members asked the three witnesses a range of questions on how best to defeat Russia’s aggression against Ukraine and deter further aggression by Putin’s regime against the Baltic states and elsewhere. Related Information Witness Biographies Press Release: Co-Chairman Cohen Leads Bipartisan Congressional Delegation to Defend Democracy and Ukrainian Sovereignty at OSCE PA Winter Meeting; Delegation Also Travels to Lithuania to Support Crucial NATO Ally.  Field Hearing: Baltic Sea Regional Security

  • Co-Chairman Cohen Disturbed by Suspension of RFE/RL Operations in Russia

    WASHINGTON—Following the suspension of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) operations in Russia after a years-long pressure campaign on the outlet by Russian authorities and an escalating crackdown on all forms of independent media, Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09) issued the following statement: “I am disturbed by the suspension of RFE/RL’s operations in Russia, which has had a physical presence there since 1991 and has been a trusted news source for the Russian people since 1953. The Kremlin’s outrageous financial and legal attacks on RFE/RL are simply tactics to silence reporting that does not conform to Vladimir Putin’s narrative, and I applaud RFE/RL’s refusal to label its content as coming from a ‘foreign agent.’ “Putin’s absolute destruction of independent media in Russia is rooted in the repression of the Soviet era. The recent legislation that subjects journalists to a 15-year prison sentence for deviating from Kremlin lies about the Russian invasion of Ukraine is part of Putin’s effort to create a totalitarian state. He does not want the Russian people to see the truth about the war on the people of Ukraine, a war of his own choice that is inflicting terror on a peaceful neighbor.” RFE/RL has been the target of financial and legal attacks in Russia, including fines resulting in more than $13.4 million for its refusal to submit to labeling its content. In addition, 18 RFE/RL journalists have been individually designated as “foreign agents.” Since his full-scale military attack on Ukraine, which began on February 24, Putin has escalated his attacks on independent media, including passing harmful legislation criminalizing content about the war on Ukraine; blocking international news sites such as Meduza, BBC, and Deutsche Welle; and forcing the shutdown of independent Russian media outlets such as TV Rain and Echo of Moscow.

  • At OSCE PA Winter Meeting, U.S. Legislators Unite with International Counterparts to Condemn Putin’s Invasion of Ukraine

    By Ryn Hintz, Max Kampelman Fellow From February 20 – 26, 2022, Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09) led a bipartisan Congressional delegation to the Winter Meeting of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA) in Vienna, where he served as the Head of the U.S. Delegation. Other participating Helsinki Commissioners included Ranking House Commissioner Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02), and Commissioners Rep. Robert Aderholt (AL-04), Rep. Richard Hudson (NC-08), and Rep. Marc Veasey (TX-33). They were joined on the delegation by Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (TX-18). Ranking Senate Commissioner Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) and Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04) participated remotely as members of the U.S. Delegation. The OSCE PA, consisting of 323 legislators from the 57 countries of the OSCE, has been particularly useful in defending democracy and promoting security in the face of numerous threats and challenges across the OSCE region.  The Winter Meeting, held in a hybrid format due to ongoing but easing COVID restrictions, allows parliamentarians an opportunity to engage OSCE officials and diplomatic representatives, as well as to initiate work for the coming year.  Prior to the Winter Meeting, the delegation visited Lithuania to demonstrate the strong U.S. support for this close NATO ally, which not only faces security threats on its borders but also provides refuge to independent voices from Russia and Belarus. OSCE PA Winter Meeting The 2022 Winter Meeting coincided with Russian dictator Vladimir Putin’s large-scale invasion of neighboring Ukraine, a horrific escalation of a conflict that began with Russia’s illegal occupation of the Crimean Peninsula in 2014 and ongoing aggression in the eastern portion of Ukraine. Ahead of the Winter Meeting, the OSCE PA Secretary General Roberto Montella and members of OSCE PA leadership (including Sen. Wicker as a Vice President and Rep. Hudson as Chair of the Committee on Political Affairs and Security) met in an emergency session and issued a statement condemning the Kremlin invasion as a “clear and gross violation of the most basic norms of international law as well as OSCE principles and commitments.” The group also issued a subsequent statement standing “in solidarity with the people of Ukraine and its elected government” and noting the “extraordinary courage” exhibited by “civilians, the armed forces and national leaders, including President Volodymyr Zelensky.” Statements condemning Vladimir Putin for the deliberate assault of Russian forces on Ukraine dominated the formal sessions of the meeting, despite an agenda originally designed to consider ongoing OSCE PA work on a wide range of issues. Co-Chairman Cohen spoke for the United States, decrying Putin’s claim that the Ukrainian government is led and run by Nazis. In a poignant end to the Standing Committee’s second session, the Ukrainian Head of Delegation, Mykyta Poturaiev, reported on violence in his neighborhood of Kyiv and bid farewell as he sought to return to his family in Ukraine. The 2022 Polish Chair-in-Office of the OSCE for 2022 outlined Poland’s priorities in an utterly transformed era in European security. During the general debate, nominally on the topic of “security guarantees and the indivisibility of security in Europe,” delegations resumed their near-universal condemnation of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. Rep. Hudson opened the meeting of the Committee on Political Affairs and Security by denouncing the invasion of one participating State by another, in total opposition of Helsinki principles. He also underlined the committee’s particular relevance in the context of the security crisis precipitated by Russia, a view reinforced by a panel of senior OSCE officials present as guest speakers.  Finally, Rep. Hudson moderated a debate on “heightened tensions in the OSCE area and the need for inter-parliamentary dialogue.” The debate focused heavily on the attack on Ukraine, with Sen.Wicker remotely joining those in Vienna condemning Russia’s outrageous behavior, and Rep. Jackson Lee forcefully urging members to recall the role of the Belarusian government in the events leading to the invasion. In the economic and environmental affairs committee, Rep. Smith spoke alongside OSCE official Valiant Richey about their efforts as special representatives on human trafficking issues of the Parliamentary Assembly and the OSCE, respectively. They specifically discussed supply chains as they relate to human trafficking matters. Representative Wilson spoke for the United States in the subsequent debate. In the committee dealing with democracy and human rights, Rep. Wilson condemned Russian human-rights violations in occupied Ukraine and in Russia itself, as well as ongoing repression in Belarus. Rep. Aderholt defended free media in his statement to the committee following presentations by recent Nobel laureate and Novaya Gazeta editor Dmitriy Muratov and OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media Teresa Ribeiro. On the margins of the Winter Meeting, the U.S. delegation gathered key parliamentarians from a range of participating States over dinner, fostering an opportunity for frank and candid exchanges of views on important topics confronting the OSCE. The event emphasized the depth of the U.S. commitment to European security, going beyond diplomatic representatives to include elected Members of Congress. The delegation also was briefed by diplomats representing the United States in the OSCE, including Ambassador Michael Carpenter, and held bilateral meetings with the heads of the Azerbaijani and Mongolian OSCE PA Delegations. Visiting Lithuania The delegation’s presence in Europe also afforded an opportunity to visit Lithuania to underscore U.S. support for a crucial NATO ally at a time of deep concern caused by Russian aggression. In Vilnius, the delegation met with Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda, Prime Minister Ingrida Simonyte, Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis, and senior members of the Lithuanian Parliament (Seimas) to discuss the Russian assault on Ukraine, the deterioration of regional security, and Lithuania’s values-based foreign policy, including relations with China. Officials emphasized to the delegation the game-changing nature of recent developments, especially the total capitulation of the Lukashenko regime in Belarus to Moscow. These actions resulted in a dramatically more challenging situation on Lithuania’s border, leaving the country essentially no warning should Putin choose to act against the Baltic states.  The delegation also visited the Pabrade Training Area, a Lithuanian initiative which provides facilities for U.S. and Allied military activities in the region. Members also met with Belarusians and Russians who had fled to Lithuania to avoid persecution, including Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya and other opposition leaders, civil society organizations, and the media.

  • ‘Long Live President Volodymyr Zelensky’

    Mr. Speaker, on Friday, I was grateful, as the ranking member of the U.S. delegation to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, to address the Parliamentary Assembly in Vienna, Austria. Our delegation was ably led by Co-Chair Steve Cohen. The bipartisan United States delegation of Democrats and Republicans being transatlantic, with our valued European and Indo-Pacific allies, have been united about the Putin war of mass murder in Ukraine, violating the principles of the Helsinki Final Act. Here, we want to emphasize the devastating human cost of the Putin war against the families of Ukraine, isolating Russia and Belarus from the modern world. I was grateful over the years to have visited Russia a number of times where I was so impressed by the talented citizens. Today, they are being betrayed by Putin in his obsession for oil, money, and power. Two months ago, I visited Kyiv and it is horrifying to know of the attacks. Sadly, in Belarus, dictator Lukashenko has become a puppet facilitating the Putin war. It is inspiring that the legal President of Belarus, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, would have her first loyalty to the people of Belarus, not the war criminal, Putin. In conclusion, God bless Ukraine. God save Ukraine. Long live President Volodymyr Zelensky.

  • Helsinki Commission Digital Digest February 2022

  • Co-Chairman Cohen Leads Bipartisan Congressional Delegation to Defend Democracy and Ukrainian Sovereignty at OSCE PA Winter Meeting

    WASHINGTON—Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09) last week led a bipartisan Congressional delegation to the Winter Meeting of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (PA) in Vienna, Austria, which focused almost exclusively on responding to the full-scale Russian assault on Ukraine.  A sizable and active U.S. presence at the hybrid event helped generate nearly united condemnation of the Kremlin attack and provided assurance of the U.S. commitment to European security during a time of great uncertainty. “Our bipartisan delegation actively and adamantly defended Ukraine’s rights as a sovereign nation in the face of unchecked Russian aggression,” said Co-Chairman Cohen. “The European security architecture that has supported peace and prosperity on the continent and around the world for decades must not be allowed to crumble at the whim of a dictator with grandiose aspirations of returning to some imagined past glory. It is long past time that democratic nations—including all other OSCE participating States—unite to firmly put Putin back where he belongs: isolated and outside the bounds of international society.” Other members of Congress traveling to Vienna included Helsinki Commission Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02), Commissioners Rep. Robert Aderholt (AL-04), Rep. Richard Hudson (NC-08), and Rep. Marc Veasey (TX-33), as well as Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (TX-18). Remote participants in the Winter Meeting included Ranking Member Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) and Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04). Although the meeting included a wide range of OSCE issues of concern, Russia’s brazen invasion of Ukraine dominated all discussion.  “Fundamental underpinnings of our security order, including commitments to respect other countries’ territorial integrity, sovereignty, and choices of security alliances, are at this moment being breached, flagrantly and deliberately, by one of our participating States, which is—as we speak—conducting an unprovoked invasion of another participating State,” said Rep. Hudson, who chairs the OSCE PA General Committee on Political Affairs and Security. “If Vladimir Putin succeeds in Ukraine, he will not stop there—just as he did not stop with Transnistria, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Crimea, and the Donbass. How can any of us realistically believe he will stop with Ukraine?” asked Sen. Wicker, who serves as a vice-president of the OSCE PA. “According to Putin’s twisted rationale, every former republic of the USSR is at risk. NATO is at risk. Every member of the peace-loving international community is at risk of being swept up into this conflict.” Members of the U.S. delegation directly challenged the egregious assertions of the few Russian delegates who attempted to justify their country’s naked aggression. Other issues raised by the U.S. delegation included human rights violations within Russia, as well as in Belarus and in areas of Ukraine under illegal occupation; ongoing concerns regarding human trafficking; and the assault on free media throughout the OSCE region.  Ahead of the Winter Meeting, members of the in-person delegation traveled to Lithuania to underscore U.S. support for a crucial NATO Ally at a time of deep concern caused by Russian aggression. In Vilnius, they met with Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda, Prime Minister Ingrida Simonyte, Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis, and senior members of the Lithuanian Parliament (Seimas) to discuss the Russian assault on Ukraine, the deterioration of regional security, and Lithuania’s values-based foreign policy, including relations with China. The delegation also visited the Pabrade Training Area for briefings on U.S. and Allied military activities conducted in the region, and met with Belarusians and Russians who have fled to Lithuania to avoid persecution, including Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya and other opposition leaders, members of the business community, civil society organizations, and the media.

  • Conflict of Interest?

    Turkey is at a crossroads. Even as the Turkish Government insists that it remains committed to its NATO partners and to future EU integration, its actions—both foreign and domestic—call those promises into question. Turkey has been a steadfast supporter of Ukraine and Turkish officials have announced plans to normalize relations with Armenia and moved to restore ties with several Middle Eastern countries, including Egypt and Israel. At the same time, the government has reiterated its commitment to the use of Russian military equipment, eroding relations with the United States and other members of NATO. Despite being a founding member of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Turkey is struggling to live up to the principles of respect for fundamental freedoms outlined in the Helsinki Final Act.  A record number of Turkish journalists are behind bars. The failure of the Turkish government to comply with a ruling of the European Court for Human Rights on the case of Osman Kavala paved the way for the country’s potential expulsion from the Council of Europe, and thousands of others arrested following the attempted 2016 coup also languish in prison on dubious charges.  The briefing, held on February 16, 2022, investigated the intersection of Turkey’s OSCE and NATO commitments related to human rights and security, and its domestic policies that fail to hold true to these principles. Panelists also explored practical policy recommendations to help Turkey overcome this disconnect. During the briefing, attendees heard from Dr. Soner Cagaptay, Director of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute for the Near East, and Deniz Yuksel, Turkey Advocacy Specialist with Amnesty International. The briefing was moderated by Helsinki Commission Senior Policy Advisor Bakhti Nishanov. Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09) opened the briefing by remarking on the importance of Turkey and his personal history with Turkey.  He also emphasized that human rights abuses in Turkey have long been a subject of concern, particularly those brought about by President Erdogan’s empire-building attempts. “We need to do what we can to see that the whole world is fair for citizens to express themselves, for press to express themselves, and for people to get information, without which we will not have independent democracies,” he said. Mr. Nishanov explained in opening remarks that Turkey’s position is complex and multi-faceted—while Turkey has been making efforts to normalize relationships with Armenia, Israel, and Egypt as well as bearing a large refugee burden, recent years have been challenging as Turkey experienced economic pain, inflation, and governance issues. Additionally, Turkey’s record of human rights abuses, anti-immigrant sentiments, and other obstacles cast a pall on recent progress, and bring into question the future of Turkey’s democratic development. Dr. Soner Cagaptay spoke about President Erdogan’s declining domestic popularity and the looming threat of economic hardship in Turkey. He also remarked on President Erdogan’s attempts to restore ties with Turkey’s Gulf neighbors, as well as with the United States and Europe. Dr. Cagaptay asserted that as tensions heightened between Russia and Ukraine, Turkey would adopt a neutral public-facing identity, but support Kyiv militarily. While Russia and Turkey are often compared, he pointed out that Turkey has measures of democracy that Russia does not. “The lesson of Turkey under Erdogan is that it takes a long time to kill [democracy]. Turkish democracy is resilient, it is not dead,” he said. Deniz Yuksel spoke to Turkey’s human rights crisis and the dangers opposition politicians, journalists, and citizens face. Reports of torture and detention are common, and those calling out such abuses face persecution themselves. She recommended that U.S. officials raise human rights concerns in every engagement with Turkey. She emphasized, “From the record-breaking imprisonment of journalists to the persecution of LGBTI people, an ongoing crisis of gender-based violence, and the unlawful deportation of refugees, the failures of Turkey’s judicial system cut across societal lines and undermine the human rights of all.” During the question-and-answer segment of the briefing, panelists addressed a range of questions including how specific ethnic minorities are treated in Turkey, how human rights abuses may affect Turkey’s relationship with the United States, and what challenges will arise alongside Turkey’s 2023 elections. Related Information Panelist Biographies Will Turkey Help Washington If Russia Invades Ukraine? | The Washington Institute Human Rights in Turkey | Amnesty International – USA: Turkey Regional Action Network  Turkey’s Careful and Risky Fence-Sitting between Ukraine and Russia | Foreign Policy Research Institute 

  • Helsinki Commission Briefing to Examine Intersection Between Foreign Policy and Human Rights in Turkey

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following online briefing: CONFLICT OF INTEREST? Foreign Policy and Human Rights in Turkey Wednesday, February 16, 2022 11:00 a.m. Register: https://bit.ly/3Je5Ck4 Turkey is at a crossroads. Even as the Turkish Government insists that it remains committed to its NATO partners and to future EU integration, its actions—both foreign and domestic—call those promises into question. Turkey has been a steadfast supporter of Ukraine and Turkish officials have announced plans to normalize relations with Armenia and moved to restore ties with several Middle Eastern countries, including Egypt and Israel. At the same time, the government has reiterated its commitment to the use of Russian military equipment, eroding relations with the United States and other members of NATO. Despite being a founding member of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Turkey is struggling to live up to the principles of respect for fundamental freedoms outlined in the Helsinki Final Act.  A record number of Turkish journalists are behind bars. The failure of the Turkish government to comply with a ruling of the European Court for Human Rights on the case of Osman Kavala paved the way for the country’s potential expulsion from the Council of Europe, and thousands of others arrested following the attempted 2016 coup also languish in prison on dubious charges.   The briefing will investigate the intersection of Turkey’s OSCE and NATO commitments related to human rights and security, and its domestic policies that fail to hold true to these principles. Panelists also will explore practical policy recommendations to help Turkey overcome this disconnect. The following panelists are scheduled to participate: Soner Cagaptay, Director, Turkish Research Program, Washington Institute for the Near East Deniz Yuksel, Turkey Advocacy Specialist, Amnesty International  

  • Helsinki Commission Digital Digest November 2021

  • Helsinki Commission Supports Invocation of OSCE’s Vienna Mechanism in the Face of Sustained Human Rights Crisis in Belarus

    WASHINGTON—Following the invocation of the OSCE’s Vienna Mechanism to address the mounting human rights crisis in Belarus, Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), Ranking Member Sen. Roger Wicker (MS), and Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) issued the following joint statement: “One year after the release of a comprehensive, unbiased, and damning report detailing human rights abuses by the Lukashenko regime, Lukashenko has not simply failed to act on the report’s recommendations—he has intensified his brutal crackdown on those in Belarus who continue to fight for their fundamental freedoms. “Among its other commitments as an OSCE participating State, Belarus is bound to respect human rights and hold free and fair elections. By invoking the Vienna Mechanism, the United States and 34 other countries demand that the authorities in Belarus finally address the violations raised in the 2020 report and inform the international community about the steps the Lukashenko regime is taking to investigate those serious allegations. Ensuring human rights violators are held to account is of importance to us all.” In September 2020, 17 OSCE participating States, including the United States, invoked the OSCE’s Moscow Mechanism to investigate credible accounts of widespread human rights violations perpetrated in the aftermath of Belarus’ fraudulent August 2020 elections. The Moscow Mechanism allows a group of OSCE participating States to appoint independent experts to investigate a particularly serious threat to the fulfillment of human rights commitments in a participating State. On November 5, 2020, the Moscow Mechanism report substantiated numerous allegations of torture and repression and included recommendations and advice for the Government of Belarus, the OSCE, and the international community. Lukashenko’s government failed to cooperate with the investigation. On November 4, 2021, as a follow-up to the 2020 report, 35 OSCE participating States posed detailed questions to the Lukashenko regime via OSCE’s Vienna Mechanism, which obliges participating States to respond to formal requests for information from other States about serious human rights concerns. The commission convened a hearing on human rights in Belarus on September 21, 2021.

  • HELSINKI COMMISSIONERS JOIN OSCE PA MEETING ON AFGHANISTAN, DEBATE POLICY RESPONSES

    On November 4, 2021, more than 40 members of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (PA) met remotely to discuss the current security challenges posed by developments in Afghanistan and the future of OSCE engagement with Afghanistan under the Taliban’s rule. Since 2003, Afghanistan has been an OSCE Partner for Cooperation and shares a border with several OSCE countries. The debate, which was attended by seven members of the Helsinki Commission, took place as part of the OSCE PA’s annual Autumn Meeting. Each year, the Autumn Meeting focuses on debating one or more currently relevant issues confronting the OSCE region.  This year’s Autumn Meeting was originally planned to be in Dublin, Ireland, but a resurging COVID-19 pandemic forced the OSCE PA to rely on emergency procedures that allow for statutory meetings to be conducted remotely. OSCE PA Leaders Outline Challenges Posed by Afghanistan OSCE PA President Margaret Cederfelt opened the debate with an overview of the challenges presented by the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan. While three OSCE countries—Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Tajikistan—share a border with Afghanistan, developments there also have serious implications for the rest of the OSCE participating States. The worsening humanitarian crisis, the Taliban’s historical connections to terrorism, the negative economic fallout, the potential impact on neighboring countries, and deteriorating human rights, particularly for women and girls, were all of concern. “Those who will suffer most from this is, of course, the ordinary people,” President Cederfelt emphasized, while highlighting the impending economic turmoil Afghanistan faces. “It is essential that human security is protected by safeguarding the fundamental rights of all Afghans.” President Cederfelt also underscored the need for international cooperation while addressing this situation, given its global security implications. The three leaders of the PA General Committees highlighted aspects of the crisis related to their specific mandates. Helsinki Commissioner Rep. Richard Hudson, who chairs the General Committee on Political Affairs and Security, noted, “Perhaps most alarming is the return of an international terrorist threat from Afghanistan. He also highlighted the production and trade of narcotics and illegal drugs backed by the Taliban as a serious challenge with global implications, thanks to major trafficking routes. “The security situation in Afghanistan is intrinsically linked with that of the OSCE region as a whole—but it will first and most immediately affect Afghanistan’s neighbors in Central Asia,” he said. “We must all be especially concerned about threats to the three OSCE participating States that have borders with Afghanistan: Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. This is perhaps the area in which our organization can have the greatest and most immediate impact." The other two general committee chairs shared their concerns as well. Pere Joan Pons of Spain, who chairs the General Committee on Economia Affairs, Science, Technology, and Environment, highlighted Afghanistan’s current economic and environmental challenges, especially given the country’s vulnerability in the face of climate change. Sereine Mauborgne of France, who chairs the General Committee on Democracy, Human Rights, and Humanitarian Questions, discussed the serious human rights violations faced by women, girls, and other vulnerable populations. In addition, many Afghans face urgent or extreme food and security issues; the Taliban lacks the capability to provide either for the Afghan people. Director of the OSCE Conflict Prevention Center Tuula Yrjölä discussed Afghanistan’s relationship to the OSCE as a Partner for Cooperation and the potential role of the OSCE role in addressing the situation. She concluded that Afghanistan’s partnership status in the OSCE was based on shared values; its future may be in question under a Taliban government. Helsinki Commissioners Participate in the General Debate Following the introductory remarks, six members of the Helsinki Commission—including all four senior commission leaders—took the floor to voice their concerns and engage with other parliamentarians. Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin, who also serves as the Head of the U.S. Delegation and the OSCE PA Special Representative on Anti-Semitism, Racism, and Intolerance, expressed disappointment at how quickly the democratic government and institutions in Afghanistan deteriorated, despite years of investment and support. “One of the prime reasons was corruption,” explained Chairman Cardin. The rights of women and girls and ensuring humanitarian assistance reaches populations in need were two areas that he insisted be of focus as international efforts move forward. Media freedom was of particular concern for Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen. “Lower-level Taliban forces threaten and harass journalists,” he stated. “RFE/RL has reported that over the past weeks, its remaining journalists have been questioned by armed Taliban and door-to-door searched have been conducted looking for journalists affiliated with the United States.” Media freedom is among the fundamental freedoms the OSCE seeks to protect, and Co-Chairman Cohen insisted the Taliban must be held responsible for violating these rights. Helsinki Commission Ranking Member Sen. Roger Wicker, who also serves as an OSCE PA Vice President, shared legislation he is sponsoring in Congress that seeks to strengthen the American response to Afghanistan and reiterated the dangers that religious and ethnic minorities in Afghanistan currently face. Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson highlighted the dangers of terrorism and the oppressive rule of the Taliban. “It cannot be business as usual with the Taliban,” he stated.  “Together, we must use our leverage to prevent Afghanistan from again becoming a terrorist haven devoid of human rights.” Chairman Cardin, Sen. Wicker, and Rep. Wilson all expressed concern over Afghanistan’s status as an OSCE Partner for Cooperation. “Before we recognize any representative of Afghanistan in our assembly, we should make sure that they will adhere to the principles of the Helsinki Final Act,” Chairman Cardin stated. Rep. Wilson argued that Afghanistan’s partner status should be reconsidered, and Sen. Wicker also emphasized the importance of the values shared by OSCE participating States and Partners for Cooperation. “I would hope that it is our position going forward that the Taliban-led government in Afghanistan not be recognized as an OSCE Partner for Cooperation,” Sen. Wicker said. Helsinki Commissioner Rep. Gwen Moore focused on the dangers for women and girls and the human rights violations they face. Despite advances made in women’s rights in Afghanistan during the past two decades, the return of Taliban rule has brought a resurgence of violence and restrictions, endangering the lives of women throughout the country. Many have fled Afghanistan, fearing for their safety, while others have remained to fight for their country. While Rep. Moore strongly advocated for supporting resettlement efforts, she also emphasized that resettlement was a last resort. “We must continue to press for the protection of these women in their own country,” she said. Ms. Moore also proposed that the OSCE PA create and maintain a project to monitor and support Afghanistan’s female parliamentarians. Helsinki Commissioner Rep. Ruben Gallego stressed the importance of aiding Afghans still in Afghanistan. “We must find ways to support Afghans in-country who are bravely calling for progress, and we must stand up for the human rights of those who suffer at the hands of the Taliban,” he said. Rep. Gallego further argued that the international community must do more than simply aid in the evacuation of those fleeing the Taliban’s rule. “We must also ensure that those who have been evacuated have long-term support in the resettlement process. The United States must do its part in accepting the bulk of Afghan refugees, and I have personally pushed in Congress to provide Afghans with the long-term resources they need to settle into a new life,” he stated, and asked all the participating parliamentarians to urge their countries to do the same. OSCE Efforts Moving Forward Throughout the debate, which highlighted various vulnerable populations and severe security threats that must be addressed in the future, one recurring theme was the need for international cooperation. While President Cederfelt began the meeting by observing that it will be impossible to know the future, Rep. Gallego expressed one certainty. “The end of America’s military commitment in Afghanistan does not mean we will turn a blind eye to Afghanistan’s people or the security of the region,” he said.

  • Upholding OSCE Commitments in Hungary and Poland

    Political leaders in Hungary and Poland—U.S. allies and members of the European Union—have for the past decade pursued policies that undermine democracy and the rule of law. In Hungary, the Fidesz government has weakened the country’s democratic institutions, especially the free media and independent judiciary. Instead of strengthening the transatlantic bond, Viktor Orbán has sought closer ties with Russia and China. In Poland, the ruling coalition has taken steps to compromise judicial independence and limit free expression. In this hearing, witnesses examined the erosion of democratic norms in Hungary and Poland and discussed the implications for U.S. foreign policy. Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) began the hearing by addressing the need to help safeguard the freedoms that both Poland and Hungary have fought so hard for, and that form the basis of the OSCE. He then addressed the downward trajectory of democracies in both countries, emphasizing Hungary as a particular concern. In his opening remarks, Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09) emphasized the importance of democracy to all freedom loving people, and that while both Poland and Hungary are critical allies to the United States, the erosion of democratic norms in both countries is of serious concern. Co-Chairman Cohen highlighted the use of xenophobic, antisemitic and Islamophobic rhetoric as a mechanism to maintain political power in Hungary, and the collapse of the judicial system in Poland as examples of de-democratization in both countries. He concluded by stating that the United States should expect better of their allies and of members of the European Union. Zselyke Csaky, Research Director, Europe & Eurasia at Freedom House, testified about the key differences between Poland and Hungary and their decline as democracies. She first noted that while Poland remains a democracy and Hungary is now reclassified as a hybrid regime, the democratic decline of Poland is occurring at a faster rate than that of Hungary. She suggested that state capture of the media, judiciary, civic sector, and elections play a key role in the democratic backsliding of both countries. Ms. Csaky then concluded that while any decisions on the governments of Hungary and Poland will be determined by their respective electorates, the United States should uphold strategic, long term commitments supporting the EU, and help to strengthen the civic and media sectors. In his testimony, Dalibor Rohac, Senior Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, expressed his concern over the authoritarian nature of the Hungarian and Polish governments. In particular, he called attention to the de-facto end of constitutional review, limited access to diverse media, and extraordinary rise in corruption in Hungary. Mr. Rohac closed by stressing the need for support from the United States to be bipartisan and narrow in focus. Heather Conley, Senior Vice President for Europe, Eurasia, and the Arctic at CSIS and incoming President at the German Marshall Fund, began her testimony by maintaining that while democracy in Poland and Hungary are examples of foreign policy accomplishments, both Poland and Hungary should be held accountable for their governments’ behavior in undermining democracy at home and abroad.  Ms. Conley emphasized Hungary’s growing relationship with China, and the need to determine if Hungary is at the level of commitment too maintain the secrecy of a NATO member. She recommended that the United States remain engaged in its investment in both countries but do so through bipartisan and firm policy. Following the conclusion of the witness statements, Chairman Cardin acknowledged that Poland and Hungary are two separate countries with different priorities but addressed what the two have in common. While Poland and Hungary are different cases, he noted, there is a need to address disturbing trends in countries with which the United States has deep ties. “We have to look for way to strengthen the values that make our relationship so important,” he said. “I think America can play an important role here, and that Congress can play an important role.” Related Information Witness Biographies

  • Fighting Impunity for Crimes Against Journalists

    By Arwen Struthers, Max Kampelman Fellow​ In 2013, the United Nations General Assembly declared November 2 International Day to End Impunity for Crimes Against Journalists to commemorate the lives of Claude Verlon and Ghislaine Dupont, two journalists who were kidnapped and killed in a targeted attack on that day. Since their deaths, their killers have walked free with complete impunity; there is no justice in sight. Unfortunately, cases where authorities respond to crimes against journalists with impunity for the perpetrators rather than justice for the victims are not outliers. The Committee to Protect Journalists reports that “in over eight out of 10 cases where a journalist has been targeted for murder, their killers go free.” Impunity often extends beyond cases where journalists are murdered to failure to conduct a proper investigation into other crimes against journalists, such as threats and non-fatal attacks. Complete impunity is not uncommon and presents one of the greatest challenges for media freedom advocates and democratic states around the world today. Freedom of expression and free press are core democratic principles that protect individual liberties, promote discussion in public squares, and contribute to the spread of information. The harmful, cyclical nature of impunity endangers states and individuals as it impedes upon media freedom, violates human rights, and threatens democratic values. Natalya Estemirova Natalya Estemirova was a Russian investigative journalist and a leading defender of human rights in Chechnya for nearly two decades. Despite threats from local authorities, she dedicated her life to calling out injustice. She regularly reported on abuses and violations committed by authorities at the national and local level, and her work was published by sources like Novaya Gazeta and Kavkazsky Uzel. In 2006, she met with the Helsinki Commission to share her findings on human rights violations. On July 15, 2009, Natalya Estemirova was abducted and murdered. Over 12 years later, little has been done to bring her killers to justice. On August 31, 2021, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the Russian government failed to properly investigate her murder. There has been no conviction and those involved in the murder of Natalya Estemirova continue to walk free. The Dangers of Impunity Across the globe, impunity jeopardizes journalists and the media environments in which they operate. It is both a symptom of broader systemic problems in states, as well as an environmental contributing factor which encourages further crimes against journalists. In an October 2021 Helsinki Commission hearing on media freedom in the OSCE region, OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media Teresa Ribeiro explained that examining individual cases of crimes against journalists and addressing each as it arises is not enough. To best tackle the problems created by violations of media freedom and attacks on journalists, human rights advocates must examine the broader picture. When discussing cases of crimes against journalists, Ribeiro said, “All combined, they all create a landscape, an atmosphere, that silence[s] all the critical voices.”  Crimes against journalists are often efforts to censor journalists who are bringing attention to injustice and corruption. By examining the broader picture rather each individual crime against the press, deeply rooted issues – such as government corruption and authoritarianism - will be exposed. To protect journalists in the future, these issues must be addressed first. At the same hearing, Robert Mahoney, the Deputy Executive Director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, explained that the failure to administer justice not only creates a landscape where there are fewer voices expressing themselves, but also encourages more crimes against journalists in the future. “Impunity will only send a message that journalists’ lives are cheap and that those – whether it’s criminal gangs or whether it’s governments – that want to silence them can, for a few thousand dollars, hire an assassin and get rid of the problem,” he said. Impunity demonstrates to other journalists they may be freely targeted by those they criticize without any protection from the law. It creates a painful choice: are they bullied into silence or do they risk their lives? Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow One of the most important tools that can be used to help end impunity is multilateral, multi-level pressure. When international organizations and their members, such as the OSCE and its participating States, put pressure on those countries where authorities fail to adequately respond to crimes against journalists, they begin to break the dangerous cycle. Failing to call out impunity as injustice further feeds the emboldening cycle of impunity, but consistent pressure from outside forces can help that cycle crack. Domestic pressure also can have an impact. In February 2018, investigative journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancée Martina Kušnírová were killed in a targeted attack in Slovakia. In response, the people of Slovakia took to the streets in protest of his death, resulting in the resignation of several top government officials. A Slovakian Supreme Court decision in June 2021 overturned the acquittal of two suspects, ruling that the lower court did not properly examine the evidence. The government’s response to the protests and pressure from the international community—its willingness to continue to prosecute those involved in the murders—demonstrates that external pressure works in putting a stop to impunity. In this case, there is hope that justice is on the horizon. When local communities, countries, and multilateral organizations all maintain pressure upon individual countries for their human rights and media freedom failures, governments who enable or are responsible for crimes against journalists begin to feel the heat. 2021 Nobel Peace Prize winner Dmitry Muratov, the editor-in-chief of Novaya Gazeta, dedicated his award to his slain colleagues, including Natalya Estemirova. In a 2009 Helsinki Commission briefing, Muratov said, “In any encounter with representatives of the Russian political establishment and government, please, bring up this meeting. Please ask these uncomfortable questions.” Joining forces with other defenders of media freedom and human rights and calling attention in public spaces to the failings of countries is one way to effectively combat impunity and protect journalists. On International Day to End Impunity for Crimes Against Journalists, supporters of media freedom should affirm their commitment to protecting the media and fighting against impunity crimes against journalists. To ensure that the work done by journalists around the world – the work done by Natalya Estemirova and others like her – will not be silenced, governments must lend their support and protection.

  • Helsinki Commission Digital Digest October 2021

  • Helsinki Commission to Hold Hearing on Upholding OSCE Commitments in Hungary and Poland

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following hearing: UPHOLDING OSCE COMMITMENTS IN HUNGARY AND POLAND Wednesday, November 3, 2021 2:30 p.m. Dirksen Senate Office Building Room 419 Watch live: www.youtube.com/HelsinkiCommission Political leaders in Hungary and Poland—U.S. allies and members of the European Union—have for the past decade pursued policies that undermine democracy and the rule of law. In Hungary, the Fidesz government has weakened the country’s democratic institutions, especially the free media and independent judiciary. Instead of strengthening the transatlantic bond, Viktor Orbán has sought closer ties with Russia and China. In Poland, the ruling coalition has taken steps to compromise judicial independence and limit free expression. Witnesses will examine the erosion of democratic norms in Hungary and Poland and discuss the implications for U.S. foreign policy. The following witnesses are scheduled to testify: Heather A. Conley, Senior Vice President for Europe, Eurasia, and the Arctic, Center for Strategic and International Studies Zselyke Csaky, Research Director, Europe & Eurasia, Freedom House Dalibor Rohac, Senior Fellow, American Enterprise Institute  

  • In Pursuit of Truth

    A free press is the lifeblood of democracy; without independent media, democracy is doomed, economies suffer, and peace is imperiled. In many of the 57 participating States of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), autocrats exploit financial and legal means, alongside physical violence, to intimidate and silence independent media. Journalists and their associates are attacked both online and offline; jailed on phony charges; and even killed for the secrets they expose. Leaders undermine public trust in the press to hide their misdeeds. Disinformation—particularly lies related to the COVID-19 pandemic—continues to pollute the information landscape. In her first appearance before Congress, OSCE Representative for Freedom of the Media Teresa Ribeiro assessed the state of media freedom across the OSCE region. Other expert witnesses discussed recent attacks on journalists and media outlets, the motivations that lead authorities to try and silence the press, global disinformation networks, and more. Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) opened the hearing by stating that media freedom is the bedrock of the democratic process, making it possible for citizens to make informed decisions on their political reality. He also addressed COVID-19 and disinformation, citing the need to safeguard fundamental freedom of expression while performing the vital task of reporting the truth. Chairman Cardin cited a Freedom House report showing a decline in democracy in some countries, often overlapping with a decline in media freedom, and expressed a concern over the silencing of media in Azerbaijan, Belarus, Hungary, Turkey, and Russia to name a few. As a co-sponsor of the Global Press Freedom Act, Senator Cardin expressed his wish for the U.S. to become more involved in press freedom across the globe. The OSCE Representative on the Freedom of the Media (RFOM), Teresa Ribeiro, thanked the Helsinki Commission for the strong support for the RFOM as an institution and media freedom and expression. Ribeiro seconded Chairman Cardin’s statement that free and independent media is a core pillar of democracy, adding that media is more than just a provider of daily news. Ribeiro addressed the steady decline of media freedom all over the OSCE region and decline in trust in the media. “We live in a time where accusing media outlets and individual journalists of false news has become the norm,” she said. Key issues, according to Ribeiro, include rising violence against journalists, abuse of the legal system to silence their work, restrictions imposed by authoritarian governments on the media, declining trust in the media, as well as the power of social media companies and their ability to shape the media landscape. Ribeiro argued that governments have a positive obligation to protect both the freedom of expression and a free press that delivers truthful information to citizens. In her opinion, the best way to fight disinformation is not through restrictive laws, but rather by promoting independent journalists. Robert Mahoney, the deputy executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), reported on his organizations efforts to track media freedom across the OSCE region. He stated that journalists and media have come under attack in almost all OSCE countries. Some of these attacks are by private citizens, but most attacks on press freedom are carried out by governments such as those in Hungry, Poland, Tajikistan, Serbia, Turkmenistan, Belarus, or Russia. Specifically, Mahoney mentioned the number of journalists behind bars in Turkey and the use of foreign agent laws in Russia to sideline media. He also expressed concern over the targeted murders of journalists in the OSCE in countries including Ukraine, Slovakia, and Malta. Mahoney recommended fully implementing the 2018 OSCE ministerial council agreement on the freedom of the media, supporting the RFOM mandate and urging the mandate holder to challenge those countries with the worst press freedom records, implement the policies outlined in the 2020 resource guide by the RFOM on the safety of female journalists online, and considering the use of targeted sanctions to gold governments within the OSCE region accountable for their violations of press freedoms. Jamie Fly, President of Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty, gave an update on his organizations efforts to provide news and media to 27 countries across Eurasia. Much of his testimony was focused on Russia and Belarus, where the gravest violations of press freedom occur. In Russia, foreign agent laws are increasingly being used to violate the freedom of the press and fines connected to these laws (such as $4.4 million owed by RFE/RL to Russia) are used to pressure news outlets financially. Fly believes the Kremlin is seeking absolute control over the information space in advance of the end of President Vladimir Putin’s current term in 2024. In Belarus, RFE/RL officers were raided, and equipment was confiscated. Meanwhile, many journalists threatened by the new government in Afghanistan are still hoping to evacuate and require outside support. Fly called for more advocacy for journalists in critical regions, funding for unbiased media to counter the large sums of money authoritarian governments spend on their biased media outlets, as well as pressure on those governments which jail journalists. Peter Pomerantsev, Director of the Arena Program and Senior Visiting Fellow at Johns Hopkins University, testified that the principles we use to defend journalists are being weaponized to attack journalists in other countries. He argued that the crushing of media voices happens not only through censorship, but also through the flood of disinformation. These mass inauthentic campaigns take away the fundamental right to receive information and know its origins, Pomerantsev said, and argued that the best way to counter such disinformation is through better transparency on the origins of content encountered online. Helsinki Commissioner Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (NH) asked the witnesses about steps the United States could take to counter disinformation and misinformation, especially strategies that have been found to be successful in Europe. Ribeiro answered that media literacy and better training for journalists to become fact checkers are key. Additionally, building back trust between the media and the public is vital, and the local level is the best way to do so. Mahoney agreed, stating that local news is generally trusted more than the news at a national level, but the decline in local news outlets in the U.S. has pushed people towards getting news from social media. Acknowledging various levels of media freedom across the OSCE, Chairman Cardin asked what best practices are to protect the freedom of the media. Ribeiro replied that different tools need to be used in different countries. Some countries have strong rule of law, yet still have issues with media freedom. In her capacity as RFOM, her tools include voice, advocacy, and assisting participating states to improve media freedom. Chairman Cardin also asked what should be done to protect journalists against indiscriminate arrests, detentions, and physical violence. Mahoney answered that the number one focus must be on bringing those who murder journalists to justice. Too often the murderers go free, sending the signal to others that journalists can be silenced this way. Next, to pressure governments that imprison journalists, including calling them out at conferences on the international stage. Lastly, the OSCE and EU must lift their standards and prevent capture of the media by the state. Chairman Cardin thanked Mahoney for his comments and added that the Helsinki Commission and the U.S. Congress is happy to help, but needs specifics like names and stories, not numbers, to advocate for journalists across the world. Asked about where the United States needs to concentrate its priorities regarding RFE/RL in the OSCE region, Jamie Fly noted the importance of social media in reaching audiences, and therefore the power social media companies have over RFE/RL. Social media algorithms dictate which content users see, and often authoritarian regimes intervene and pressure social media companies to remove content critical of them because of supposed terms-of-service violations, as was the case with Navalny’s election app in Russia. Fly affirmed the need for pressure and targeted sanctions on regimes violating press freedom, as well as support for journalist who cannot work safely in their home countries. Pomerantsev expanded on the issues of social media algorithms, explaining that understanding why an algorithm promotes some content over another is key to slowing disinformation. He emphasized that transparency, not regulation of content, is the best way to do so. Helsinki Commission Ranking Member Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) addressed the rising violence against journalists worldwide, including 29 killings in 2021, and increased imprisonment of journalists. Calling out Turkey, a NATO ally, for severe transgressions, Sen. Wicker asked if there is hope for improvement. Mahoney responded by saying the decline of press freedoms in Turkey has been happening for 20 years, but the coup attempt in 2016 worsened it. In his opinion, the OSCE and EU have been unsuccessful in attempting to bring change to media conditions in Turkey and must be more forceful in their critique of Erdogan and his regime. Chair Cardin closed the hearing by stating, “This commission stands ready to work with you to protect individual journalists as well as to put a spotlight on counties which are violating the freedom of the media.” Related Information Witness Biographies  

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