The Ongoing Importance of the Work of the U.S. Helsinki Commission

The Ongoing Importance of the Work of the U.S. Helsinki Commission

Representative Alcee L. Hastings
Washington, DC
United States
House of Representatives
117th Congress
First Session
Congressional Record, Vol. 167
No. 49
Tuesday, March 16, 2021

Madam Speaker, I rise today to discuss the work of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission and its continued importance in addressing challenges in our country and abroad. For over four decades, the Helsinki Commission has championed human rights, democracy, and comprehensive security across the 57 North American, European, and Central Asian countries that make up the region of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). As Chair of the Helsinki Commission during the 116th Congress, I worked with my House and Senate colleagues to continue the Commission's longstanding efforts to monitor participating States compliance with the Helsinki Accords.

The importance of election observation in our country and abroad, restorative justice, the safety of journalists, and the global impact of George Floyd's tragic death on racial justice efforts were just some of the issues the Commission addressed last Congress, in addition to our continued focus on Russia, Ukraine, the Balkans and continued democratic development in the region.

As we continue our work of the 117th Congress, I invite you to review the report: "Retrospective On The 116th Congress'' at https://www.csce.gov/international-impact/retrospective-116th-congress and http://www.csce.gov/sites/helsinkicommission.house.gov/files/116th%20Congress%20Report%20Final.pdf.

This report summarizes the Commission's activities, as well as recommendations critical for the continued promotion of democracy and U.S. national security.

Madam Speaker, I look forward to continuing this critically important work during the 117th Congress.

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  • Referendum in the Soviet Union

    Mikhail Gorbachev's March 17, 1991 referendum on maintaining the USSR as a "renewed federation" was the first in Soviet, or Russian, history. As the following report makes clear, the referendum was not merely an exercise in public opinion polling or a guide to policymakers. It was intended to give Gorbachev a popular mandate for pressuring the newly elected legislatures of the Baltic States and Soviet republics seeking independence or greater sovereignty. In this light, the referendum amounted to an attempt to use democratic methods to undermine the results of democracy. Its other purposes aside, however, Gorbachev's referendum does represent an aspect of the democratization of Soviet politics that has taken place since 1985. The Helsinki Commission has carefully tracked this process through public hearings and extensive staff reports on perestroika and on the Baltic States. In 1990, in accordance with its mandate to monitor and promote compliance with the provisions of the Helsinki Final Act and subsequent CSCE documents, the Commission sent staffers to observe parliamentary elections in the Baltic States and the Soviet republics. A compendium of their reports was published in December 1990. This year, Commission staffers monitored the March 3 "counter-referendums" on independence held in Latvia and Estonia, at the invitation of their parliaments and governments. The Commission also sent staffers to observe the conduct of the voting on March 17 in Latvia, Russia, Ukraine and Kazakhstan, and on March 31 observed Georgia's plebiscite on independence. The following report reflects their on-site observations, supplemented by subsequent published reportage about the referendum, and contains as well an analysis· of the referendum's implications. In retrospect, perhaps the most striking thing about the referendum is how little notice the Soviet and international media now pay to an event depicted as "historic." To some extent, the fast pace of change in Soviet politics precludes lingering on last month's news. But the lack of attention also reflects the referendum's minimal impact: as a stategem, it was flawed; as policy, it was irrelevant, since the jurisdictional disputes in the USSR between center and republics had already gone too far for mere strategems to be effective. In fact, the failure of the March referendum to deliver what its initiators sought was its greatest contribution to Soviet politics, since it helped produce the "April Pact" between Gorbachev and leaders of nine republics. That agreement, if followed through sincerely, promises to be a watershed in the decentralization and democratization of the Soviet Union, and may prove genuinely "historic."

  • The USSR In Crisis: State of the Union

    This hearing centered the economic and political crisis in the Soviet Union. The Commissioners praised the diligent work of Gorbachev by positively changing the human rights dimension in Eastern Europe. From multi-party participation to higher freedoms of speech and assembly, the Soviet Union has pivoted to international standard of human rights. Despite the reforms made towards the advancement of human rights the economic situation has never been so pronounced in recent memory. The economic challenges facing the people of the Soviet Union is affecting the political atmosphere in very concerning way- increased powers to the KGB and arms deals that violate past international treaties. The hearing reviewed whether the economic crisis is causing the Soviet state to use military methods to save the Soviet power.

  • Soviet Crackdown in the Baltic States

    This hearing, which Steny H. Hoyer presided over, came at a time during which the United States’ time was occupied elsewhere in the world (i.e. the Middle East). Therefore, the running time of this hearing was expected to be an hour, with a more in-depth hearing to follow later on. In any case, attendees discussed, from the view of the U.S., anyway, that the Baltic States (i.e. Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania) had all been illegally absorbed into what was then the Soviet Union. Likewise, the Baltic States had raised the issue that enforcement of conscription laws of the Soviet Union in these countries is in and of itself legal within the framework of the Geneva Convention. The consensus of the hearing was that the attempt by Moscow to crush democracy in the Baltic States must be met by the U.S. with the same resolve that the U.S. took in meeting similar attempts in other parts of the world, including collaboration with other countries.

  • Supreme Soviet Elections in Azerbaijan

    After long delays and one official postponement, the elections to the Azerbaijani Supreme Soviet finally went off as planned on September 30. The late date of the Azerbaijani election reflects the region-wide instability in Transcaucasia: voters in Armenia chose their legislature only on May 20 and Georgia's elections (the last ones scheduled) took place on October 28, having been postponed from March. Nevertheless, the atmosphere in Azerbaijan was peculiarly charged, even by today's Soviet standards. Azerbaijan was the only Soviet republic to hold its Supreme Soviet elections with its capital city, Baku, and other regions, such as the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast (NKAO), in a state of emergency. This dubious distinction indicates the level of unresolved tensions in Azerbaijan as well as the determination of the central authorities in Moscow, abetted by the Communist Party of Azerbaijan (CPA), to keep tight reins on this strategically and economically vital republic. 

  • Copenhagen Meeting on the Human Dimension

    This Hearing was convened by Chairman Dennis DeConcini and Co-Chairman Steny H. Hoyer to address the Human Dimension of the of the Helsinki Final Act. In attendance were Ambassador Max Kampelmann, Head of the U.S. Delegation to the Copenhagen CSCE Conference on the Human Dimension, Prof. Thomas Buergenthal, public member of the U.S. Delegation, and Prof. Hurst Hannum, public member of the U.S. Delegation. Those in attendence discussed the state of human rights in the OSCE region and various humanitarian causes that should be emphasized in the coming sessions.

  • Elections in the Czech and Slovak Federal Republic

    This report is based on the findings of a staff delegation of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe to the Czech and Slovak Federal Republic from 6-11 June 1990. The staff met with representatives of several political parties and movements, as well as of the Electoral Commission. It also observed the voting and some aspects of the counting of ballots. The Commission wishes to thank the National Democratic and National Republican Institutes for International Affairs for allowing the staff delegation to be included in the activities of their international election observer mission to the Czech and Slovak Federal Republic.

  • Parliamentary Elections in Bulgaria

    Bulgaria's first free and contested elections in over 40 years were held on June 10 and 17, 1990 to choose representatives to its new parliament. Although they were marred by instances of irregularities and intimidation, the Bulgarian parties have accepted the results of the elections. In the words of one opposition leader, the elections were "free and democratic, but not completely fair." Based on Commission staff election-day visits to over 30 polling places, the election process appeared to be calm, orderly and, considering the relatively brief period of time in which Bulgarians had to prepare for the elections, fairly well organized and efficient. Election procedures were consistent among precincts and problems appeared to be resolved quickly. This was consistent with the observations of other international observers. Representatives of different parties and independent observers monitored the majority of polling stations, thus helping to ensure the integrity of the voting process. Nevertheless, the elections were marred by numerous reports of irregularities and violations during the campaigning and in the elections themselves. The most serious problem appeared to be that of widespread intimidation of opposition supporters and especially voters.

  • Parliamentary and Presidential Elections in Romania

    Romania's first free elections in over 40 years were marred by a variety of irregularities, from the campaign through the course of the elections themselves, which cast significant doubt on their fairness. The Front for National Salvation (FSN), which took over power in Romania following the December revolution, won the elections with an overwhelming margin. FSN Presidential candidate Ion Iliescu won 85.07 percent of the votes, while the FSN gained 66.31 of the votes for the Chamber of Deputies and 67.01 percent for the Senate. The contestants to the election were competing on an uneven field, with unequal accessboth to resources and to the most far-reaching mass medium, television. FSN candidates enjoyed decided advantages in these areas. Inconsistent and faulty application of electoral procedures on election day, together with the absense in some polling places of opposition party representatives, likewise shifted the advantage to the Front.

  • Soviet Involvement in Afghanistan

    The purpose of this hearing, which Sen. Dennis DeConcini and Rep. Steny Hoyer presided over, was to examine what was happening in Afghanistan at the time, specifically in relation to the U.S.S.R. At the time of this hearing, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan had ceased, and Moscow had expended financial, military, and human resources that had cost the country dearly, towards a war that had grown to be overwhelmingly with the Soviet populace, no less. Likewise, the Soviet conflict with Afghanistan had serious repercussions for the Soviet economy, which was why it was surprising that, even after the war, the U.S.S.R. had continued to spend significant capital to prop up the government in Kabul. Another issue was where U.S. aid was going and whether or not it was being properly spent.

  • The Supreme Soviet Elections in Estonia

    The March 18 elections to the Estonian Supreme Soviet were the first since 1940 in which many political groups and parties freely took part. The crucial issue in the election, in which everyone took for granted the participation of non-communist parties, was Estonian independence; the crucial question was whether pro-independence forces would win the two-thirds majority needed to amend the constitution and declare independence. Like the surrounding society, opinions on independence tended to divide along national lines: Estonians have generally backed "independence," through they differed about its meaning, while Russians have generally favored Estonia's remaining within the Soviet Union. The campaign and the results of the March 18 Supreme Soviet elections also broadly reflected this alignment of nationality and politics.

  • Parliamentary Elections in the Republic of Hungary

    After reading through Hungary's complex electoral law this winter, a Hungarian scholar concluded that if he did not yet fully comprehend the mechanics of Hungary's leap to democracy, at least he understood why it had to have been a Hungarian who invented the Rubik's cube. The law was a product of Hungary's first democratic exercise, the roundtable among the ruling Socialist Party, its allied social organizations, and the major opposition parties which together mapped out the transition to a multi-party system. It represented the first of many compromises Hungarian political leaders have made and will continue to make in the transition to democracy. Common wisdom holds that unlike the situation in other countries in the region, Hungary's reform was masterminded by the ruling Socialist Party. Yet the issues at stake in this election underlined the essential role of the opposition in the 1970s and 1980s in setting the agenda for Hungary's journey to democracy. If massive street demonstrations did not force the ruling party to bend, unrelenting discussion of Hungary's future among the Democratic Opposition, and its sustained impact on public opinion, did. During the past two years, reform-oriented Socialist Party leaders have hustled to get to the right side of the issues, and they have consequently found themselves playing the incongruous role of morticians for the ruling party they helped to nurture. One of the most remarkable transformations to be witnessed in Hungary over the past year was the new political engagement of people who had associated politics with dirty business all their lives. Candidates who entered the campaign with some ambivalence about the corrupting power of politics quickly shifted their attitudes. Voters who had been forced to participate in electoral charades in the past, or subjected as one Free Democratic representative put it, "to a life of unrelenting Communist Party campaigning," felt that their vote could make a difference this time. Yet some voters who had been forced to participate in electoral charades in the past, or subjected as one Free Democratic representative put it, "to a life of unrelenting Communist Party campaigning," felt that their vote could make a difference this time. Yet some voters objected bitterly to the divisive nature of the campaign, which they attributed to the "arrogance" of the vying parties. At a time when the country needed to pull together, they felt, the parties were tearing communities apart in the run-up to elections. Yet by the time election day arrived, the parties were pulling together after all. The major parties participated in orchestrating the country's transition with the current government. Rival party representatives staffed local electoral commissions, and worked together elbow-to-elbow to inform voters of procedures and collect and count the votes. The bitterness and personal acrimony between leaders of Hungary's two leading opposition parties, the Hungarian Democratic Forum and Alliance of Free Democrats, melted away -- at least for election day melted away -- at least for election day.

  • April and May 1990 Elections in Slovenia and Croatia

    This report is based on the findings of two Helsinki Commission delegations to Yugoslavia. First, Commission Chairman Dennis DeConcini led a congressional delegation to Ljubljana, Slovenia, from April 7-8, 1990. The delegation observed the voting at polling stations in Ljubljana as well as in nearby villages on April 8, and met with the President of Slovenia, the President of the Slovenian Assembly, the Slovenian Republic Election Commission, and representatives of the LCS-Party of Democratic Renewal, DEMOS­ United Opposition, and the Progressive People's Party of the Center. A staff delegation then traveled to Zagreb, Croatia, from April 20-23, 1990. It observed the voting and some counting of ballots at polling stations in Zagreb and surrounding towns and villages on April 22, as well as voting in Krsko, Slovenia, for the run-off elections in that republic. The delegation also observed voting and the counting of ballots at work places on April 23, and met with the Croatian Republic Election Commission, the Committee for Information, and representatives of the Croatian Democratic Union and the Democratic Union of Albanians in Croatia. During the course of both visits, the delegations also had numerous informal meetings with Communist, opposition and independent candidates. Other sources include the Croatian and Slovenian press, Tanjug news agency and Radio Free Europe reports. The U.S. Consulate in Zagreb and U.S. Embassy in Belgrade both provided considerable assistance in arranging the congressional and staff delegation visits, which was greatly appreciated. In April and May 1990, the republics of Slovenia and Croatia in the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia held the first genuinely free elections in that country since World War II. In both cases, a large number of alternative parties fielded candidates, and the local Communist Parties lost control of both republic governments. The Slovenian and Croatian elections took place during a time of major political and economic problems within Yugoslavia, as well as ethnic strife. Beyond the creation of multi-party, democratic political systems in Slovenia and Croatia, the election debate in these two northern republics focused on their respective futures in the Yugoslav federation, with consideration being given to the formation of a confederation and, sometime in the future, perhaps even independence.

  • Elections in the German Democratic Republic

    The unexpected landslide victory of the East Christian Democratic Union (CDU), a reformed ally of the former Communist regime, indicates the strong East German desire for rapid unification. The CDU and its conservative Alliance for Germany coalition won almost 50 percent of the vote. This was the first free, multiparty election in the GDR. All parties agreed that there had been no government interference with the campaign. There were no charges of fraud and both the GDR Electoral Commssion and foreign observers testified to the fairness of the election. The Alliance for Germany has moved quickly to form a coalition government with the 2/3 majority needed to change the Constitution in order to proceed with unification. They have invited the centrist Alliance of Free Democrats, and the Social Democratic Part (SPD) to join them. The FDP has agreed while the SDP is negotiating with the CDD. Among SPD demands are that a future government should immediately recognize the current border with Poland, reaffirm existing ownership rights in the GDR, and promote social welfare and worker participation in corporate decisions.  However, the legacy of 40 years of totalitarian rule is dogging the new government as accusations surface that many of the new legislators collaborated with the secret police (STASI) in the past. Although the GDR cast an unequivocal vote for democracy, unification, and a market economy, the ambiguities of the past may make it difficult for the new leadership to deal with the challenges of the present.

  • Status Report on Soviet Jewry

    This hearing, which Representative Steny H. Hoyer presided over, was a portion of multiple hearings held on March 7, 1990, when attendees looked at the dramatic consequences of the Soviet government’s decision to relax its emigration policies, in addition to the impact of Glasnost on Jewish life in what was then the U.S.S.R. This new decision, the emigration policy of which was expected to soon be codified by the Supreme Soviet soon after the hearing took place, had negative and positive implications. While a record number of Jewish individuals were allowed to leave the U.S.S.R., Soviet citizens still needed explicit permission to leave the country. In spite of these reforms, though, there were still at least 100 refusenik cases, not to mention fear of an active anti-Semitic movement in the country.

  • The Supreme Soviet Elections in Lithuania

    This report is based on the findings of a Helsinki Commission staff delegation to Vilnius, Lithuania, from February 21 through February 26, 1990 to observe the political processes taking shape around the February 24 elections to the Lithuanian Supreme Soviet. The delegation interview representatives of the Communist Party, the Lithuanian Reform Movement Sajudis, the Lithuanian Democratic, Christian Democratic, Social Democratic and Green Parties, Yedinstvo, the Union of Poles in Lithuania, and various other organizations and minority groups. Officials from district and republic-level electoral commissions, as well as candidates, their supporters, and the voters at the polls, were also interviewed.

  • Revolt Against the Silence - The State of Human Rights in Romania: An Update

    Patterns of repression in Romania remain sadly the same year after year. The Romanian regime has kept up pressure on members of religious and national minorities, as well as on all who have sought to express themselves freely. It has harassed and punished would-be emigrants by removing them from jobs and housing. It has exiled writers, philosophers and former leaders. It has jailed those who have sought the means to worship freely, and used psychiatric incarceration to punish free expression. The regime has steadily curtailed the opportunities for members of ethnic minorities to maintain and cultivate their cultural heritage, cutting minority-language instruction and publishing to a minimum. Minority cultural and family ties have also been strictly limited. The regime has used violence and threats of violence to discourage citizens from seeking to exercise their rights. Many Romanian dissidents inside and outside the country have received black-bordered death threats, widely believed to be a favorite calling-card of Romania's notorious Securitate (secret police). Increasingly, the regime's persecution has touched all Romanian citizens, who suffer from severe, state-imposed food shortages and the threat of displacement through the sjstematizare, or systematization, program. Despite the Romanian Government's March announcement, with great fanfare, that it had repaid the country's foreign debt, there is no sign that the regime will reorder its fiscal priorities in favor of consumption. Rationing continues unabated, while construction of new industrial projects seems to be moving forward with redoubled speed.

  • THE NEW AND IMPROVED SUPREME SOVIET AND THE INSTITUTIONALIZATION OF HUMAN RIGHTS REFORM

    The hearing looked into the role of the Supreme Soviet in promulgating and institutionalizing human rights in the Soviet Union. Our Soviet guest today was Mr. Fyodor Burlatskiy who gave testimony alongside Louise Shelley, consultant to the Helsinki Watch on issues of Soviet law. This briefing was a follow-up to talks in Moscow in November of 1988.

  • Paris Human Dimension Meeting: Human Rights in the Helsinki Process

    This hearing, chaired by Commissioner Steny Hoyer, took place after the first meeting of three 4-week meetings of the Conference of the Human Dimension. These meetings were a function of the Conference on the Security and Cooperation in Europe the first of which took place on June 23, with the 35 member states of the OSCE in attendance. On the U.S.’s part, the goal was to seek greater implementation of the human rights and human contacts provisions of the Helsinki Accords. The atendees discussed the Vienna Concluding Document of January 1989, continued Soviet and East European violations of the rights of national minorities and religious believers and restrictions on the rights of free assembly, association, expression, and noncompliance with human contacts provisions, and fostering greater respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms.

  • A Changing Soviet Society

    This hearing addressed Soviet nationalism and the Baltic States’ argument for self-determination. The April attack by armed troops on peaceful demonstrations in Georgia was provided as an example of how dangerous official Soviet reaction to popular protests can be. The need for the Kremlin to learn tolerant methods of dealing with dissent was emphasized. Witnesses testifying at this hearing addressed the changes occurring in the U.S.S.R and called for a set of criteria by which Soviet progress or lack thereof could be assessed. The impact of these changes on the human rights arena, including the right to due process, was also a topic of discussion.

  • The London Information Forum of the CSCE - Compilation of Speeches

    The London Information Forum was the first non-military follow-up activity to be held within the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe following the conclusion of the Vienna CSCE Review Meeting. The forum's aims, as mandated by the Vienna document, included examination of the circulation of, access to and exchange of information; cooperation in the field of information; and the improvement of working conditions for journalists. The London Information Forum addressed fundamental human rights questions: the right to free expression and free choice of information sources. At issue were not only new initiatives in the exchange of information, but also improved compliance with existing CSCE commitments.

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