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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  • Deterioration of Religious Liberty in Europe

    This briefing addressed the persisting question of problems of religious liberty and the patterns of discrimination against religious minorities and other belief groups that had developed in a number of countries in the OSCE region in the aftermath of the Cold War. Efforts of improving religious liberty in former communist countries were discussed, as well as the need for spending time and attention on countries farther west, like France, Belgium, and Austria, in which concern for religious minorities was also expressed. Witnesses testifying at the briefing – including Willy Fautre, Director of Human Rights without Frontiers and James McCabe, Assistant General Counsel of Watchtower Bible and Tract Society – examined the multi-tiered system that European countries employ regarding religion, and the different statuses and treatment of citizens based on where their religion falls within this system. The issues faced by minority religious associations, like being targeted by fiscal services, were also topics of discussion.

  • Report on Moldova's Parliamentary Elections

    On March 22, 1998, Moldova held its second multi-party elections to the 101-member parliament since achieving independence in August 1991. The Communist Party, which had been under legal prohibition until 1994, won just over 30 percent of the vote, translating into 40 seats out of 101. The results were a rejection by the voters of the previously powerful Agrarian Democrats, who did not cross the 4 percent threshold required for entry as a party into the new parliament. The election law required that a party/bloc or individual candidate garner 4% of the votes cast before being eligible for a seat in Parliament. Other big losers were the protocommunist Socialist-Unity bloc, which had taken second place in the 1994 parliamentary elections. There were no significant irregularities or major election law violations observed by Commission staff or reported by other Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe Parliamentary Assembly (OSCEPA) observers. A major exception to the OSCEPA judgment was the situation in Transdniestria “where neither candidates nor voters had even close to adequate conditions for exercising their civil rights.” The new Moldovan parliament opened its session on April 21, 1998.  Deputies are elected for a four year term.  

  • Report on Armenia's Presidential Election

    On March 30, 1998, Armenians went to the polls to choose a president in a runoff between Robert Kocharian—Armenia’s Prime Minister, Acting President and former President of Nagorno-Karabakh—and Karen Demirchian, former Communist Party leader of Armenia. The election followed first round voting on March 16, in which none of the 12 candidates managed to win the necessary 50 percent of the ballot. According to Armenia’s Central Election Commission, in the second round, Kocharian won 59.48 percent to Demirchian’s 40.52 percent, to become Armenia’s second president. Reported turnout was 68.14 percent. After two flawed elections in 1995 and 1996, the March 1998 vote offered Armenia, under different leadership,  an opportunity to redeem its image as a democratizing state. Most observers concurred that the campaign was better than in earlier elections: no candidate was excluded from the race, there were no serious impediments to campaigning, and the candidates received their allotted air time. But the preliminary statement of the OSCE/ ODIHR observation mission, issued after the first round, emphasized violations and warned that the recurrence of such problems during the second round might place the election’s legitimacy in doubt. The Council of Europe and the CIS Parliamentary Assembly, however, gave the March 16 voting good grades and openly disputed the assessment of the OSCE/ODIHR. Armenian-American groups accused the OSCE/ODIHR of anti-Armenian bias, reflecting a purported tendency to pressure Armenia into accepting the OSCE’s allegedly pro-Azerbaijani proposals on Nagorno-Karabakh. Helsinki Commission monitoring of both rounds yielded a mixed picture. The most serious problem observed during first-round voting was disorganization in small polling stations swamped by large numbers of voters, and the vote count went well in a precinct where numerous violations took place in 1996. But the vote count observed during the second round featured blatant fraud: the ballot box was tampered with during the vote; extra ballots were present in the box in large and obvious packets; the vote count made no effort to distinguish valid from improper votes; the precinct committee was in direct contact with Kocharian headquarters throughout the count; and the precinct protocols were falsified to make the numbers add up—in the direct view of the foreign observers. All the falsified votes were for Kocharian, who was openly supported by most members of the precinct committee. At least one fifth —and maybe as many as half— of the votes counted in this precinct were false. Subsequently, at the district election level, the box containing the ballots’ detachable “coupons” (a mechanism designed to prevent fraud) arrived over an hour late with the lid ripped open.  Based on these observations, and the accounts of many ODIHR observers at their debriefing, there is reason to harbor grave doubts about the reliability of the officially-reported results.  

  • Report on Ukraine's Parliamentary Election

    Ukraine’s March 1998 parliamentary elections resulted in a parliament similar in composition to the previous parliament, albeit with a somewhat more Communist tilt. The left constituted about 40 percent of parliament’s membership, with the remainder a mix of centrists, independents and national democrats. The new parliament included many new faces - only 141 deputies from the old parliament were in the new one. The parliamentary elections were held under a new election law which replaced the majoritarian system, introducing a mixed electoral system where half of the 450 deputies are elected from single-mandate districts and half from national party lists. While there were violations, transgressions and irregularities during the campaign and voting, Ukrainian voters generally were able to express their political will freely, and the results of the elections do appear to reflect the will of the electorate. The elections were conducted under a generally adequate legal and administrative framework, but the late passage of laws and regulations relating to the election–as well as late decisions regarding the Crimean Tatars—led to confusion and uncertainty about the electoral process. The campaign was generally peaceful in most of the country. However, it was marred by some tension, including incidents of violence, especially in Odesa and Crimea. The failure to allow non-citizen Crimean Tatar returnees the opportunity to vote, in contrast to arrangements that allowed them to vote in the 1994 elections, also tainted the elections. The state apparatus did not always display neutrality, and there were instances of harassment and pressure on opposition media.

  • Status of the Russian Religious Law

    Congressman Chris Smith and other lawmakers criticized the Russian Federation law on freedom of conscience and religious organizations signed by Boris Yeltsin for the threats it posed to religious liberty for minority religious faith. The scope of the law, including the terms of its formal implementations regulations and its actual implementation on the ground were topics of discussions. Those who testified at the briefing provided their insights on this law, its status at the time, and their perspective of developments in Russia in light of the law. Dr. James Billington, a distinguished author and Russian scholar, spoke to the decline in the standard of living and social services that the Russian people had suffered in the post-Soviet era. Another witness, Dr. Anatoly Pchelintsev, Director of the Christian Legal Center of the Institute on Religion and Law in Moscow, attributed the existence of the law to the tide of nationalist and Communist movements that were on the rise in Russia.

  • Status of Religious Liberty for Minority Faiths in Europe and the OSCE

    The purpose of this hearing, which the Hon. Christopher H. Smith chaired, was to discuss the reality of disturbing undercurrents of subtle, but growing, discrimination and harassment of minority religious believers, as opposed to discussing the widespread documentation of torture and persecution of practitioners of minority faiths. In a number of European countries, government authorities had seemed to work on restricting the freedoms of conscience and speech in much of their governments’ actions. For example, in Russia, on September 26, 1997, President Boris Yeltsin signed the law called “On Freedom of Conscience and on Religious Associations,” which blatantly violated agreements of the OSCE which the former U.S.S.R. helped to initiate. Through use of witnesses, then, attendees of this hearing, namely commissioners, gained a deeper understanding of the religious liberty violations within OSCE member countries and insight into how to best influence governments to adhere more closely to internationally accepted human rights standards.

  • OSCE Human Dimension Implementation Meeting

    The purpose of this briefing, which Helsinki Commission Chief of Staff Michael Hathaway presided over, was to provide information to the public about the U.S.’s approach to the OSCE Human Dimension Implementation Meeting, as well as to hear from two highly respected non-governmental organizations regarding issues that they believed should have been taken up in Warsaw. At the point of the briefing, already established issues at Warsaw included freedom of religion, media, association on assembly, the prevention of torture, international humanitarian law, tolerance and non-discrimination, national minorities, and the plight of the Roma. The aim in mind was to encourage improved implementation of human dimension obligations by OSCE member states. Participants in this hearing included State Department Secretary Rudolph Perina, and Holly Cartner and Adrian Karatnycky with Human Rights Watch and Freedom House, respectively.

  • The Meaning of Yeltsin's Veto of Russia's Law on Religion

    This briefing provided an analysis of the events surrounding President Yeltsin's veto of the proposed law on religious organizations in Russia which would have effectively banned the activities of certain religious minority groups including Protestants and Catholics. The bill passed emphatically in both houses of the Russian Parliament, mounting great domestic pressure on the President to approve it. Larry Uzzell of the Keston Institute credits the blocking of the bill to international pressure from both the US and the EU, which were vocal in their opposition. Congress sent several letters to Mr. Yeltsin, including one which was signed by 160 senators and members of the House of Representatives. The discussion in the question and answer period centered around more concrete measures taken by the US Congress to persuade Yeltsin to veto the bill, including economic incentives tied to foreign aid and trade.

  • Russia’s Religion Law

    This briefing addressed Congressional concerns about a draft law regarding religion that was making its way through the Duma. Given that this draft was vetoed by President Yeltsin, the Commission took special care to highlight this act standing for religious freedom and the efforts that were made to respect and adhere to the Russia’s international commitments. Larry Uzzell of the Keston Institute provided an analysis of the events surround President Yeltsin’s recent veto of the proposed law on religious organizations in Russia. The roles of domestic and international influences in this resulting veto were each evaluated. Trends of religious freedom in Russia were also examined in the context of how much progress the defeat of this law would actually make.

  • Report on Human Rights and the Process of NATO Enlargement

    The Commission held a series of three public hearings on “Human Rights and the Process of NATO Enlargement” in anticipation of the summit of Heads of State and Governments of Member States of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to be held in Madrid, Spain, on July 8 and 9, 1997. The emergence of new democracies in Central and Eastern Europe and the demise of the Warsaw Pact created a security vacuum in the territory between the current eastern frontier of NATO and the Russian border. The first attempt to address the new security realities in the region occurred at the end of 1991 with the establishment of NATO’s North Atlantic Cooperation Council (NACC) as a forum for the evolution of a new relationship based on constructive dialogue and cooperation. In early 1994, the Partnership for Peace (PfP) was launched with the aim of providing a practical program to transform the relationship between NATO and states participating in PfP, moving beyond dialogue and cooperation to forge a genuine security partnership. (All 27 states of the Partnership for Peace (PfP) are OSCE participating States.) Simultaneously, NATO began to consider the possibility of enlarging the Alliance. The result was the 1995 Study on NATO Enlargement which addressed practical steps and requirements candidates for membership would have to satisfy. In December 1996, NATO foreign ministers called for a NATO summit at which one or more countries that wanted to join NATO would be invited to begin accession negotiations. The U.S. Congress was instrumental in stimulating the debate through several legislative initiatives. The NATO Participation Act of 1994 (PL 103-447) provided a reasonable framework for addressing concerns about NATO enlargement, consistent with U.S. interests in ensuring stability in Europe. The law lists a variety of criteria, such as respect for democratic principles and human rights enshrined in the Helsinki Final Act, against which to evaluate the suitability of prospective candidates for NATO membership. The Act stipulates that participants in the PfP should be invited to become full NATO members if they... “remain committed to protecting the rights of all their citizens....” Under section 203, a program of assistance was established to provide designated emerging democracies with the tools necessary to facilitate their transition to full NATO membership. The NATO Enlargement Facilitation Act of 1996 (PL 104-208) included an unqualified statement that the protection and promotion of fundamental freedoms and human rights are integral aspects of genuine security. The law also makes clear that the human rights records of emerging democracies in Central and Eastern Europe interested in joining NATO should be evaluated in light of the obligations and commitments of these countries under the U.N. Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the Helsinki Final Act.  

  • Report on the April 1997 Parliamentary, County, and Municipal Elections in Croatia

    On April 13, 1997, Croatia held its fifth set of elections since political pluralism was introduced in the former Yugoslav republic in 1989, and the fourth since achieving independent statehood in 1991. These were the first elections, however, held throughout the entire country in 7 years, signaling Croatia’s normalization after years of conflict, displacement and uncertainty. Seats were contested for the upper chamber House of Counties of the parliament, or Sabor, and for municipal and county councils. The very holding of elections in Eastern Slavonia—the one region forcibly taken by Serb militants in 1991 and yet to be reintegrated into the country—produced positive signs for reintegration through peaceful means and without another tragic mass exodus of ethnic Serbs. The results countrywide set the stage for presidential elections later in the year, and indicate Croatia’s overall political trends as the country moves beyond the turmoil associated with Yugoslavia’s violent disintegration, including the massive displacement of the population as territory was taken in 1991 and then retaken in 1995. The turmoil served to narrow the country’s overall political spectrum with a nationalist tinge, and the ruling Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) has relied on this situation to enhance its power. The fundamental question now is whether the party will accept defeat at the ballot box if the support of the population shifts as priorities change. As with previous elections in Croatia, the degree to which these elections could be considered free and fair was limited by the clear bias of the state-run broadcast media in its news coverage and by the effect of regular attempts to limit the diversity of the print media. Some administrative decisions regarding the elections seemed to be designed to benefit the ruling party, although the nature of these elections precluded the blatant stretching of what is legally permissible which had been evident in earlier elections. One decision prevented a domestic, civic-oriented non-governmental organization (NGO) from observing the polling, even from outside the confines of the polling station. People were generally permitted to vote freely and privately throughout Croatia on election day, except in Eastern Slavonia. There, a surprisingly strong turnout combined with the inadequate delivery of ballots and documents to polling stations, among other problems, causing the voting to be extended for an extra day. While there were some improvements over prior elections, these elections fell short of Croatia’s potential, especially as the country should now move more rapidly toward democracy. As more critical elections approach, it remains unclear whether the Croatian authorities will permit elections that could be considered free and fair if the result threatens their rule. The HDZ did retain its comfortable majority in the House of Counties and won most of the county and town councils, but opposition coalitions won outright, or at least enough to challenge the HDZ, in some of the bigger cities. The results in Eastern Slavonia, meanwhile, produced victories for a Serb coalition in just over one third of the municipalities, with the HDZ taking the remainder, a fairly predictable result that advances the issue of the region’s reintegration into the rest of Croatia. Croatia’s willingness to reconcile with its Serb population and to respect the human rights of its members, however, remains an open question.    

  • The Present Situation in Albania

    This briefing, moderated by the Honorable Eliot Engel, Co-Chairman of the Albanian Issues Caucus, examined the international response to the crisis in Albania since the collapse of the pyramid schemes in the beginning of the year, which led to protests, rebellion, and political stalemate.  The need for free and fair elections was emphasized in light of a political impasse over the holding of elections in June. Witnesses testifying at the briefing – including Julius Varallyay, Principle Country Officer for East Central Europe for the World Bank, Stefano Stefanini from the Italian Embassy, and Avni Mustafaj, former Director of Open Society Foundation for Albania – discussed the previous efforts that had been made to encourage political reforms and steps that needed to be taken in the future. The need for a comprehensive donor assistance program to complement international assistance was specifically address, as was the political reform on which this program would depend.

  • The Current Situation in Croatia

    This briefing addressed the political situation in Croatia in the context of impending elections for offices at the municipal and county levels, as well as for seats in the Chamber of Counties of the Croatian Sabor, that would be an important step in the process of reintegrating Easter Slavonia. Some issues that had been noted during past election monitoring operations, such as problems with the development of the independent media, a lack of transparency in the electoral system, and a tendency for decisions to favor the ruling party, were discussed. Witnesses testifying at the briefing – including Jonas Rolett of the National Democratic Institute; Vesna Pusic, a professor for the University of Zagreb; Milbert Shin of Human Rights Watch; and Nenad Porges, Deputy Chief of Mission for the Croatian Embassy – evaluated the opportunity for improvement in the elections, and the role that nongovernmental organizations like NDI and Human Rights Watch would play in this process. Several tactics for improving the electoral process in Croatia, including strengthening political parties and providing neutral, accessible information, were topics of discussion.

  • The Future of Chechnya

    Former senatosr and commissionesr chaired this hearing, which focused on the efforts of the citizens in Chechnya to free themselves from Russian power. Russia’s “transgressions” against the Chechnyan populace entailed lack of recognition of international principles. More specifically, the 1994 OSCE Budapest Document, with which the Russians agreed, stipulates that each participating state will ensure that its armed forces are commanded in a way that is consistent with the provisions of international law. Moreover, even when force cannot be avoided, each state will ensure that its use must be commensurate with the needs.  At the time of this hearing, anywhere between 30,000 and 80,000 people had been killed because of the conflict in the territory, and tens of thousands of men, women, and children had been driven from their homes. In addition, there had been a cease-fire in Chechnya. However, the dangers had not recently ended.

  • Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE)

    This briefing focused on the topics of European security and NATO enlargement, specifically in terms of the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe. Elements of the treaty that remained especially important, including the goal of avoiding destabilizing concentrations of forces in Europe and the goal of creating greater transparency and promoting information exchange among governments in Europe, were discussed. Witnesses testifying at this briefing spoke to the need for amendments and changes to the CFE, but maintained the relevance of the treaty to international security. Different strategies for making these changes related to Russian pressure and NATO involvement were presented. 

  • Religious Freedom in Russia

    Helsinki Commission Staff Advisor John Finerty presented the question of the quality and depth of religious freedom in Russia currently, and allowed for an evaluation of the progress, or lack thereof, of religious liberty following the fall of the Soviet Union. Larry Uzzell, the Moscow representative of the Keston Institute of England, one of the oldest organizations specializing in religious life and religious freedom in Communist and former Communist countries, was asked to address the issue of religious freedom in Russia and had several key points to say on the matter. In his testimony, Mr. Uzzell emphasizes discrimination in the practice of registration in giving provincial governments the power to regulate all aspects of religious life, which is detrimental to religious liberty, and asserts that the prospects of religious freedom in Russia have suffered a setback in recent years.

  • Political Turmoil in Serbia

    In this hearing, Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04) discussed, with witnesses, the developments in Serbia and what opposition forces had to say about the future of the country. Witnesses present included Miodrag Perisic, co-founder and vice president of Serbia’s first political opposition party (the Democratic Party); Branislav Canak, the president of a confederation of independent trade unions that wanted to organize workers throughout Serbia (the Independents); Veran Matic, Editor-In-Chief of B92, Belgrade’s independent radio station; and Obrad Kesic, program specialist for the Professional Media Program at the International Research and Exchanges Board. More specifically, Smith and witnesses discussed popular unrest against Milosevic’s refusal to accept election results regarding the ruling Socialist Party and its allies, underscoring more general displeasure with the Serbian government’s track record regarding the economy, human rights, and a lack of confidence that Serbians’ children would have a democratic and prosperous future.  

  • U.S. Statements on the Human Dimension, 1996 OSCE Vienna Review Conference and Lisbon Summit

    This compendium of statements illustrates the U.S. perspective that one of the key and distinguishing features of the OSCE is the interlocking framework of critical, politically binding commitments which provide a common set of principles to which all participating States can aspire. The OSCE draws its real strength and practical flexibility from participating states' commitments to the values of the original Helsinki Act, rather than from a legalized, treaty-based institutional structure. A fundamental strength of the OSCE is the review process, which provides a regular opportunity to assess a participating states' efforts to further the realization of the Helsinki Accords within its own borders, and in its relations with other OSCE states. The OSCE is increasingly a pillar of European security. By facilitating honest implementation review the OSCE can strengthen security links based on common values.

  • The Current Situation in Belarus

    This briefing evaluated the signs of serious deterioration in the political and economic situation as growing authoritarianism and repression of human rights that had become the subject of increasing concern both within and outside Belarus. The violation of Belarus' freely undertaken commitments under the OSCE in regards to basic rights and freedoms, freedom of expression, assembly, and association was also addressed. Witnesses testifying at the briefing – including Zyanon Paznyak, Chairman of the Belarus Popular Front; Jack Segal, Director of Ukrainian, Belarusian, and Moldovan Affairs for the State Department; Jan Zaprudnik, Former Editor of Radio Liberty, Belarus; and Antti Korkeakivi, CIS Legal Advisor for the Lawyers’ Committee for Human Rights – examined the role of President Lukashenko in the formation of the lawless regime in Belarus. Numerous violations of human rights were cited by all witnesses, and the role of Russian support for these types of policies was also discussed.

  • Civil Implementation of the Dayton Peace Accords in Bosnia

    Robert Hand, staff advisor at the Commission, led the discussion as part of a series of briefings on the situation in Bosnia-Herzegovina. This briefing focused on Bosnia-Herzegovina’s September elections, for which the Commission sent six observers. Hand was joined by Ambassador Robert Frowick, who was part of the Provisional Election Commission that organized the September elections. Ambassador Frowick spoke of the new institutions and their newly elected officials, but also addressed the internal divisions and outside pressures he had to combat when organizing the elections.

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