Politically Motivated Arrests in Belarus

Politically Motivated Arrests in Belarus

Hon
Christopher H. Smith
United States
House of Representatives
106th Congress Congress
First Session Session
Tuesday, March 09, 1999

Mr. Speaker, I rise today to decry the growing litany of repressive measures undertaken by the Government of Belarus against the opposition, especially against members of the opposition's Central Electoral Commission (CEC). Earlier this year, the legitimate Belarusian parliament, the 13th Supreme Soviet, disbanded by president Alexander Lukashenka after the illegal constitutional referendum which extended his term of office by two years to 2001, set a date for the next presidential elections for May 16 and set up a Central Election Commission to conduct these elections.

 

According to the 1994 constitution, which most of the international community recognizes as legitimate, Lukashenka's term expires in July. Lukashenka has rejected calls for a presidential election and is clearly attempting to neutralize democratic opposition to his authoritarian rule. The most egregious crackdown in recent weeks was the sentencing of CEC chairman Viktor Hanchar, to 10 days “administrative detention.” Hanchar suffered some injuries when he was detained and treated roughly by police. He was not given access to his lawyer, Hari Pahanyayla, and his wife was not permitted to see him. A few days earlier, on February 25, fifteen members of the CEC were arrested by police in a café where they were meeting and discussing reports from local election commissions. Special police did not have a warrant and prevented the videotaping of the arrest by Russian television. Five-day detentions or heavy fines were meted out to several CEC members, including Boris Gyunter, Anatoly Gurinovich, Sergei Obodovsky, Iosif Naumchik, Algimantas Dzyarginchus, Alexander Koktysh, Nikolay Pohabov, Valery Sidorenko and Leonid Zakurdayev. Additionally, warnings have been issued to several members of regional opposition elections committees, such as Iosif Naumchik in Vitebsk and Sergei Abadowski in Mogilev. According to Radio Liberty, in Zhodzina, Miensk region, local authorities have begun intimidating people who joined or elected opposition regional election commissions. In Gomel, several opposition activists have been summoned and questioned about their role in the organization of the May presidential elections scheduled by the opposition. Police had seized leaflets about these elections at the office of the Gomel branch of the Belarusian Helsinki Committee.

 

The repression of the opposition's elections committees is part of a longstanding pattern of Lukashenka's assault on democratic institutions and his campaign to stifle dissent in Belarus. On February 14, 20 students were arrested by police in Miensk for violating street demonstration laws. Among them, Yevgeny Skochko was sentenced to 10 days in jail, Victor Antonov to 5 days in jail, and Kazimir Kuchun and Ilya Banel were fined. Other opposition activists in Gomel and Borisov have been tried for unsanctioned demonstrations over the last few months. Two young workers in Gomel, for instance, were sentenced to 3 days administrative detention for holding an unsanctioned march. According to Reuters, the men were returning from a disco late in the evening and waving banners, which they were bringing home to wash. Earlier in the month, on February 5, members of the human rights movement Charter '97 were attacked and beaten in Miensk by members of the fascist Russian National Unity party. Andrei Sannikov, the Charter's international coordinator and former deputy foreign minister of Belarus was beaten unconscious. According to the International League for Human Rights a few days later, President Lukashenka trivialized the incident on Belarusian television, saying: “They say that some fascists have appeared in Miensk and have beaten somebody up. Do you know who they have beaten? Other fascists.” On February 27, several thousand marchers participated in a peaceful anti-fascist demonstration in Miensk. Organizers of the demonstration, Ales Bilyatsky who was sentenced to 10 days administrative detention and Oleg Volchek who was given a stiff fine, were cited for committing administrative offenses.

 

In late January, Lukashenka signed a decree ordering political parties, public organizations and trade unions to re-register during the period February 1 and July 1. The re-registration process includes a variety of onerous stipulations which would have the effect of weakening the NGOs and political parties. On February 17, the Lukashenka-controlled State Press Committee threatened six independent newspapers with closure if they continued to publish information about the opposition's presidential election plans in May, charging them with “calling for the seizure of power in Belarus.” On March 2, police searched the offices of one of the six independent newspapers, “Pahonya” in Hrodno, confiscating political cartoons and letters from readers.

 

Clearly, political tensions are increasing in Belarus, and the divide between the authoritarian president and the democratic opposition is widening. Mr. Lukashenka and his minions should cease and desist their campaign to harass journalists, to drain and demoralize individuals and organizations in the opposition through administrative fines and detentions, and to forcefully squelch the right to the freedoms of expression and of assembly. Continued harassment of the opposition will only aggravate the current constitutional crisis in Belarus and most certainly will not serve to promote reconciliation between the government and opposition. Mr. Speaker, it is imperative that the international community continue to speak out on behalf of those whose rights are violated, and that we continue to support the restoration of democracy and rule of law in Belarus.

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The Helsinki Commission's welcoming statement issued on the day of my appointment is a clear manifestation of the strong support you continuously show toward the work of this unique Office, and I assure you, distinguished Commissioners, that this fact is very much appreciated.  It will be three months tomorrow since I took office as the new Representative on Freedom of the Media to the OSCE. Even though three months may sound short, it has proved more than enough to gain a deep insight, and unfortunately also voice concerns, about the decline of media freedom in many of the 56 countries that today constitute the OSCE.  Although the challenges and dangers that journalists face in our countries may differ from region to region, one sad fact holds true everywhere: The freedom to express ourselves is questioned and challenged from many sides. Some of these challenges are blatant, others concealed; some of them follow traditional methods to silence free speech and critical voices, some use new technologies to suppress and restrict the free flow of information and media pluralism; and far too many result in physical harassment and deadly violence against journalists.  Today, I would like to draw your attention to the constant struggle of so many institutions and NGOs around the world, including your Commission and my Institution, to combat and ultimately stop violence against journalists. I would also like to address several other challenges that I want to place in the center of my professional activities, each of which I intend to improve by relentlessly using the public voice I am now given at the OSCE.  Let me first start with violence against journalists.  Ever since it was created in 1997, my Office has been raising attention to the alarming increase of violent attacks against journalists. Not only is the high number of violent attacks against journalists a cause for concern. Equally alarming is the authorities' far too-prevalent willingness to classify many of the murders as unrelated to the journalists' professional activities. We also see that more and more often critical speech is being punished with questionable charges brought against the journalists.  Impunity of perpetrators and the responsible authorities' passivity in investigating and failing to publicly condemn these murders breeds further violence. There are numerous cases that need to be raised over and over again. We need to continue to loudly repeat the names of these courageous individuals who lost their lives for the words they have written. I am sorry for all those whom I will not mention today; but the names that follow are on the list that I call ``the Hall of Shame'' of those governments that still have not brought to justice the perpetrators of the horrifying murders that happened in their countries.  The most recent murder of a journalist in the OSCE area is the one of the Kyrgyz opposition journalist Gennady Pavlyuk (Bely Parokhod), who was killed in Kazakhstan in December last year. It gives me hope that the new Interim Government of Kyrgyzstan has announced to save no efforts to bring the perpetrators to justice, as well as those involved in the 2007 murder of Alisher Saipov (Siyosat).  The Russian Federation remains the OSCE participating State where most members of the media are killed. Paul Klebnikov (Forbes, Russia), Anna Politkovskaya (Novaya Gazeta), Anastasia Baburova (Novaya Gazeta), are the most reported about, but let us also remember Magomed Yevloyev (Ingushetiya), Ivan Safronov (Kommersant), Yury Shchekochikhin (Novaya Gazeta), Igor Domnikov (Novaya Gazeta), Vladislav Listyev (ORT), Dmitry Kholodov (Moskovsky Komsomolets) and many others.  We also should not forget the brutal murders of the following journalists, some remain unresolved today:  Hrant Dink (Agos) Armenian Turkish journalist was shot in 2007 in Turkey.  Elmar Huseynov (Monitor) was murdered in 2005 in Azerbaijan.  Georgy Gongadze (Ukrainskaya Pravda) was killed in 2000 in Ukraine.  In Serbia, Slavko Curuvija (Dnevni Telegrat) was murdered in 1999, and Milan Pantic (Vecernje Novosti) was killed in 2001.  In Montenegro, Dusko Jovanovic (Dan), was shot dead in 2004.  In Croatia, Ivo Pukanic (Nacional) and his marketing director, Niko Franjic, were killed by a car bomb in 2008.  Violence against journalists equals violence against society and democracy, and it should be met with harsh condemnation and prosecution of the perpetrators. There can be no improvement without an overhaul of the very apparatus of prosecution and law enforcement, starting from the very top of the Government pyramid.  There is no true press freedom as long as journalists have to fear for their lives while performing their work. The OSCE commitments oblige all participating States to provide safety to these journalists, and I will do my best to pursue this goal with the mandate I am given and with all professional tools at my disposal.  We also observe another very worrying trend; more and more often the imprisonment of critical journalists based on political motivations including fabricated charges. Let me mention some cases:  In Azerbaijan, the prominent editor-in-chief of the now-closed independent Russian-language weekly, Realny Azerbaijan, and Azeri-language daily, Gundalik Azarbaycan, Eynulla Fatullayev was sentenced in 2007 to a cumulative eight-and-a-half years in prison on charges on defamation, incitement of ethnic hatred, terrorism and tax evasion. The European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) found Azerbaijan in violation of Article 10 and Article 6, paragraphs 1 and 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights, so there is only one possible outcome--Fatullayev should be immediately released.  In Kazakhstan, Ramazan Yesergepov, the editor of Alma-Ata Info, is serving a three-year prison term on charges of disclosing state secrets.  Emin Milli and Adnan Hajizade, bloggers from Azerbaijan, are serving two and a half years and two years in prison respectively since July 2009 on charges of hooliganism and infliction of light bodily injuries.  In Uzbekistan, two independent journalists, Dilmurod Saiid (a freelancer) and Solijon Abdurahmanov (Uznews), are currently serving long jail sentences (twelve-and-a-half-years and ten years) on charges of extortion and drug possession.  I will continue to raise my voice and demand the immediate release of media workers imprisoned for their critical work.  I join Chairman Cardin for commending independent journalists in the Helsinki Commission's recent statement on World Press Freedom Day. These professionals pursue truth wherever it may lead them, often at great personal risk. They indeed play a crucial and indispensable role in advancing democracy and human rights. By highlighting these murder and imprisonment cases, by no means do I intend to neglect other forms of harassment or intimidation that also have a threatening effect on journalists. Let me just recall that, with the heightened security concerns in the last decade, police and prosecutors have increasingly raided editorial offices, journalists' homes, or seized their equipment to find leaks that were perceived as security threats. Suppression and restriction of Internet Freedom  Turning to the problems facing Internet freedom, we can see that new media have changed the communications and education landscape in an even more dramatic manner than did the broadcast media in the last half century. Under my mandate, the challenge has remained the same: how to safeguard or enhance pluralism and the free flow of information, both classical Helsinki obligations within the OSCE.  It was in 1998 that I read the words of Vinton G. Cerf in his article called ``Truth and the Internet''. It perfectly summarizes the nature of the Internet and the ways it can create freedom.  Dr. Cerf calls the Internet one of the most powerful agents of freedom: It exposes truth to those who wish to see it. But he also warns us that the power of the Internet is like a two-edged sword: it can also deliver misinformation and uncorroborated opinion with equal ease. The thoughtful and the thoughtless co-exist side by side in the Internet's electronic universe. What is to be done, asks Cerf.  His answer is to apply critical thinking. Consider the Internet as an opportunity to educate us all. We truly must think about what we see and hear, and we must evaluate and select. We must choose our guides. Furthermore, we must also teach our children to think more deeply about what they see and hear. That, more than any electronic filter, he says, will build a foundation upon which truth can stand.  Today, this foundation upon which truth could indeed so firmly stand is under continuous pressure by governments. As soon as governments realized that the Internet challenges secrecy and censorship, corruption, inefficiency and bad governing, they started imposing controls on it. In many countries and in many ways the effects are visible and they indeed threaten the potential for information to circulate freely.  The digital age offers the promise of a truly democratic culture of participation and interactivity. Realizing that promise is the challenge of our times. In the age of the borderless Internet, the protection of the right to freedom of expression ``regardless of frontiers'' takes on a new and more powerful meaning.  In an age of rapid technological change and convergence, archaic governmental controls over the media are increasingly unjust, indefensible and ultimately unsustainable. Despite progress, many challenges remain, including the lack of or poor quality of national legislation relating to freedom of information, a low level of implementation in many OSCE member states and existing political resistance.  The importance of providing free access for all people anywhere in the world cannot be raised often enough in the public arena, and cannot be discussed often enough among stakeholders: civil society, media, as well as local and international authorities.  Freedom of speech is more than a choice about which media products to consume.  Media freedom and freedom of speech in the digital age also mean giving everyone--not just a small number of people who own the dominant modes of mass communication, but ordinary people, too--an opportunity to use these new technologies to participate, interact, build, route around and talk about whatever they wish--be it politics, public issues or popular culture. The Internet fundamentally affects how we live. It offers extraordinary opportunities for us to learn, trade, connect, create and also to safeguard human rights and strengthen democratic values. It allows us to hear each other, see each other and speak to each other. It can connect isolated people and help them through their personal problems.  These rights, possibilities and ideals are at the heart of the Helsinki Process and the OSCE principles and commitments that we share. We must find the best ways to spread access to the Internet, so that the whole world can benefit from what it can offer, rather than increasing the existing gaps between those who have access to information and those who do not. And to those governments who fear and distrust the openness brought along by the Internet, let me emphasize over and over again:  The way a society uses the new communications technologies and how it responds to economic, political and cultural globalization will determine the very future of that society. Restrict access to information, and your chances to develop will become restricted. Open up the channels of free communication, and your society will find ways to prosper.  I was delighted to hear Secretary of State Clinton speak about a basic freedom in her January speech on Internet freedom in the ``Newseum''. This freedom is the freedom to connect. Secretary Clinton rightly calls this freedom the freedom of assembly in cyber space. It allows us to come together online, and shape our society in fundamental ways. Fame or money is no longer a requisite to immensely affect our world.  My office is rapidly developing a comprehensive strategy to identify the main problems related to Internet regulation in the 56 countries of the OSCE, and ways to address these issues. I will count on the support of the Helsinki Commission to advance the universal values that this strategy will attempt to extend to those countries where these values are still being questioned.  Let me also mention the importance to protect the freedom of other new technologies.  Only two weeks ago, my Office organized the 12th Central Asia Media Conference in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, where media professionals from all five Central Asian countries adopted a declaration on access to information and new technologies. This document calls on OSCE governments to facilitate the freer and wider dissemination of information, including through modern information and communication technologies, so as to ensure wide access of the public to governmental information.  It also reiterates that new technologies strengthen democracy by ensuring easy access to information, and calls upon state institutions with legislative competencies to refrain from adopting new legislation that would restrict the free flow of information. And only this spring my Office published a guide to the digital switchover, to assist the many OSCE countries where the switch from analogue to digital will take place in the next five years. The aim of the guide is to help plan the digitalization process, and help ensure that it positively affects media freedom, as well as the choice and quality available to the audience.  Besides advocating the importance of good digitalization strategies, I will also use all available fora to raise attention to the alarming lack of broadcast pluralism, especially television broadcast pluralism, in many OSCE countries. As television is the main source of information in many OSCE regions, we must ensure that the laws allow for diverse, high-quality programs and objective news to easily reach every one of us. Only well-informed citizens can make good choices and further democratic values. Whether we talk about Internet regulation, inventive ways to switch to digital while preserving the dominance of a few selected broadcasters, attempts to limit access to information or broadcast pluralism, we must keep one thing in mind: No matter what governments do, in the long run, their attempts to regulate is a lost battle.  People always find ways to obtain the rights that are denied to them. History has shown this over and over again. In the short run, however, it is very clear that I will intervene with governments which try to restrict the free flow of information. Defamation  Similar to fighting violence against journalists, my Office has been campaigning since its establishment in 1997 to decriminalize defamation and libel in the entire OSCE region.  Unfortunately, in most countries, defamation is still punishable by imprisonment, which threatens the existence of critical speech in the media. This is so despite the consistent rulings of the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, stating that imprisonment for speech offences, especially when committed by criticizing public figures, is a disproportionate punishment.  Let us again remind ourselves of the journalists and bloggers I have mentioned above when discussing violence against journalists. They are currently in prison because their writing was considered defamatory. Their fate reminds us all of the importance of the right to freely speak our mind.  This problem needs urgent reform not only in the new, but also in the old democracies of the OSCE. Although the obsolete criminal provisions have not been used in Western Europe for decades, their ``chilling effect'' remained.  Furthermore, the mere existence of these provisions has served as a justification for other states that are unwilling to stop the criminalization of journalistic errors, and instead leave these offenses solely to the civil-law domain.  Currently, defamation is a criminal offence in all but ten OSCE countries--my home country Bosnia and Herzegovina, Cyprus, Estonia, Georgia, Ireland, Moldova, Romania, Ukraine, the United Kingdom and the United States.  Last year, three OSCE countries decriminalized defamation, which I consider to be an enormous success: Ireland, Romania and the United Kingdom; the last being the first among the Western European participating States to officially decriminalize defamation.  Some other countries, such as Armenia, are currently reforming their defamation provisions, and I hope that I can soon welcome the next country that carries out this important and very long overdue reform.   Concluding remarks  Dear Chairmen,  Dear Commissioners,  Ladies and Gentlemen,  The above problematic areas--violence against journalists, restrictions of new media including the Internet, lack of pluralism and resistance to decriminalize defamation--are among the most urgent media freedom problems that need our attention and concentrated efforts today. However, we will also not forget about the many other fields where there is plenty of room to improve. Of course, I will not miss the excellent opportunity that we are here together today to raise your attention to the topic that my distinguished predecessor, Miklos Haraszti, has already raised with you: the establishment and the adoption of a federal shield law in the United States.  As you know, my Office has been a dedicated promoter of the federal shield law for many years. If passed, the Free Flow of Information Act would provide a stronger protection to journalists; it could ensure that imprisonments such as that of Judith Miller in 2005, and Josh Wolf in 2006, could never again take place and hinder investigative journalism. But the passage of such legislation would resonate far further than within the borders of the United States of America. It could send a very much needed signal and set a precedent to all the countries where protection of sources is still opposed by the government and is still not more than a dream for journalists.  I respectfully ask all of you, distinguished Commissioners, to continue and even increase your efforts to enable that the Free Flow of Information Act soon becomes the latest protector of media freedom in the United States.  And of course I cannot close my speech without mentioning my home country, Bosnia and Herzegovina. As you know, not only Bosnia and Herzegovina, but also most of the emerging democracies in the Balkans enjoy modern and forward-looking media legislation. We can openly say that they almost have it all when it comes to an advanced legal and regulatory framework enabling free expression to thrive. But it is not that simple. I use this moment to pose several questions: if there are good laws, then why do we still face severe problems in relation to media freedom, why do we stagnate and sometimes even move backward? Where does the problem lie? And, more importantly, how can we solve it and move ahead?  What Bosnia and Herzegovina shows us is that good laws in themselves are not enough. Without their good implementation, they are only documents filled with unrealized potential. In countries that struggle with similar problems, we must stress over and over again: without the full implementation of valid legislation, without genuine political will, without a comprehensive understanding of the media's role in a functioning democracy, without the creation of a safe environment for journalists to do their work, and without true commitment by all actors, these countries risk falling far behind international standards.  Apart from unmet expectations and disillusioned citizens, we all know that the consequences of politicized and misused media could be very serious. In conclusion, let me assure you, dear Commissioners, that I will not hesitate to openly and vigorously remind any country of their responsibilities toward implementing the OSCE commitments to the freedom of the media.  I am also asking you to use this opportunity today and send a clear message to the governments of all OSCE countries to do their utmost to fully implement their media legislation safeguarding freedom of expression. The governments have the power to create an environment in which media can perform their unique role free of pressures and threats. Without this, no democracy can flourish.  Thank you for your attention.

  • State Department Human Rights Reports

    Mr. President, this month's release of the State Department's annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices shows the value of consistently monitoring human rights around the globe. As Chairman of the U.S. Helsinki Commission charged with monitoring international human rights commitments in 56 countries from the U.S. and Canada to Europe and Central Asia, this annual report is a key tool that we, and others, use to track progress being made on universal freedoms. This year's reports have increased significance as 2010 is the 35th anniversary of the Helsinki Final Act and the 20th anniversary of historic international human rights agreements, the Copenhagen Document, and the Charter of Paris for a New Europe. In a year commemorating such landmark human rights documents, this month's State Department reports remind us that many of the commitments countries made in the past still have not been met with meaningful action today. In Belarus, where I visited last summer, the political space for opposition remains tightly controlled, independent media face continual harassment, and elections are a farce. The overall situation in Russia remains disturbing as well. There 2009 was a year again filled with mourning the very people who stood for freedom, be they journalists, human rights advocates or lawyers simply trying to present a case against corruption. The country's harassment of Jehovah's Witnesses and forceful break up of public demonstrations remain particularly concerning. I urge Kazakhstan, as the current chair of the OSCE, to lead by example through concrete actions, starting with the release of activist Yevgeny Zhovtis, whom staff from the Helsinki Commission visited this week in prison. Zhovtis at least deserves the same freedoms afforded other prisoners in his facility, including the right to work outside the facility during the day. In Kosovo, in addition to problems with human trafficking, official corruption and a lack of judicial due process, the State Department notes the lack of progress regarding displaced persons of all ethnicities, politically and ethnically motivated violence, and societal antipathy against Serbs and the Serbian Orthodox Church. The lack of progress regarding the country's international recognition, while unfortunate, does not absolve Kosovo authorities from their responsibility to ensure greater respect for human rights and adherence to the rule of law. Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy Human Rights and Labor Michael Posner, who serves as the State Department Commissioner on the U.S. Helsinki Commission, did a superb job of unveiling the report today with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. I was heartened to hear him specifically flag examples of 2009 human rights violations within the OSCE region that drew the attention of the Commission last year. The banning of construction of Muslim minarets in Switzerland, the pervasiveness of discrimination against Roma--Europe's largest ethnic minority, and the continued rise of anti-Semitism in Europe sadly still remain concerns this year.  While these country reports help to hold all governments--including our own--to account; and while much of their text shows the reality of a world troubled by violent conflicts and the mistreatment of our most vulnerable people; the State Department reports also show the positive that surrounds us. In this vein, Assistant Secretary Posner was right to mention the fairness of Ukraine's recent elections, for which my colleague Cochairman Hastings led the election observation mission. And the reports are eager to cite progress where appropriate.  But these reports affirm something else, and that is the strength of the legislative-executive branch cooperation when it comes to upholding universal standards. The Helsinki Commission is unique among all federal agencies for being comprised of Senate, House and executive branch commissioners, and Assistant Secretary Posner's activity with the Commission and the State Department's annual human rights reports mandated by Congress are but two examples of our two branches working together to keep a spotlight on human rights abuses.

  • U.S. Helsinki Group Slams Baku Court's Refusal of Bloggers' Appeal

    The U.S. Helsinki Commission has criticized a Baku court's rejection of appeals by two Azerbaijani bloggers against their prison sentences, RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service reports. Emin Milli was sentenced in November to 2 1/2 years in prison and Adnan Hajizade to two years on charges of hooliganism arising from what the commission chairmen said "appeared to be a crude, government-arranged incident at a restaurant" in July 2009. Both bloggers were well-known for their satirical comments on Azerbaijani government policy. The Baku court rejected their appeal on March 10. Both men, and a number of rights groups, have insisted the incident behind the jailing was a provocation and the motives connected to their very public criticism of the government. Senator Benjamin Cardin (Democrat, Maryland), the U.S. Helsinki Commission chairman, said the bloggers' case "is the latest in a long series of setbacks for independent journalism and civil society in Azerbaijan." Commission Co-Chair Congressman Alcee Hastings (Democrat, Florida), said it "illustrates the lack of independence of Azerbaijan's judicial system." Congressman Robert Aderholt (Republican, Alabama) said the bloggers' conviction "seems to indicate a determination to stifle dissent before the parliamentary election later this year." The U.S. Helsinki Commission wrote in December to Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev expressing concern about the convictions and calling for a fair appeal process. Azerbaijani authorities did not reply to that letter.

  • Helsinki Commission Applauds U.S. Human Rights Reports

    U.S. Senator Benjamin L. Cardin (D-MD), Chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation (U.S. Helsinki Commission) and Co-Chairman Congressman Alcee L. Hastings (D-FL) hailed today’s release of the State Department’s annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices as a key tool to monitor and track progress on universal freedoms. “The State Department reports on human rights provide a valuable reference point for assessing human rights trends in countries throughout the world, including those in the expansive OSCE region stretching from Vancouver to Vladivostok,” Chairman Cardin said. This year’s reports have increased significance as 2010 is the 35th anniversary of the Helsinki Final Act and the 20th anniversary of other international human rights agreements. “In a year commemorating landmark human rights documents of the Helsinki Final Act, the Copenhagen Document, and the Charter of Paris for a New Europe, today’s State Department reports remind us that many of the promises countries made in those historic documents still have not been met with meaningful action,” Co-Chairman Hastings said. “These reports on human rights around the world are a critical tool, and they’ll provide a fact-base to inform our foreign policy in the year ahead,” said Michael Posner, Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy Human Rights and Labor. Posner, who serves as the State Department Commissioner on the U.S. Helsinki Commission, unveiled the reports with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at a news conference this morning. As leaders of the U.S. Helsinki Commission, the Co-Chairmen have consistently voiced concerns about the pattern of rights violations cited in several of the OSCE participating States. “In Belarus, the political space for opposition remains tightly controlled and independent media face continual harassment,” said Cardin, who travelled to Minsk in July 2009. “The overall situation in Russia remains disturbing with the murder of a leading human right advocate, harassment of Jehovah’s Witnesses and forceful break up of public demonstrations. I urge Kazakhstan, as the current chair of the OSCE, to lead by example through concrete actions, starting with the release of activist Yevgeny Zhovtis.” The Co-Chairmen welcomed Assistant Secretary Posner to the Commission Feb. 25.Posner’s activity with the Commission and the State Department’s annual human rights reports mandated by Congress are examples of legislative-executive branch cooperation to keep a spotlight on human rights abuses.

  • Kazakhstan’s Leadership of the OSCE

    This hearing, presided over by Co-Chairman Alcee L. Hastings, was a largely positive affirmation concerning the strides that Kazakhstan had taken regarding human rights and democratization. The commissioners commended  Kazakhstan’s elimination of its nuclear program, which is rare for a country with an emerging economy and democracy. However, the Commissioners believed that further justification would be required for Kazakhstan's bid to host the 2010 OSCE Summit.

  • Twitter This

    The most interesting question President Obama fielded in China came over the Internet, via the U.S. Embassy, from a Chinese citizen who asked, "Do you know of the firewall? Should we be able to use Twitter freely?" In response, Mr. Obama, speaking at a town hall in Shanghai, did not directly address China's massive Internet censorship operation -- "the firewall" -- and he confessed that he does not use Twitter. But he said, "I'm a big supporter of not restricting Internet use, Internet access, other information technologies like Twitter." No doubt that's correct. And, just as likely, Mr. Obama is not aware that his State Department not only is doing next to nothing to support Internet freedom in countries such as China, but that it also has been slow-walking congressional initiatives to do so. For two years Congress has appropriated funds to support groups that are developing ways to circumvent the Chinese firewall and those erected in Iran, Burma, Cuba and other repressive countries. The most prominent of the groups, the Global Internet Freedom Consortium, says it has the capacity to host 1.5 million users daily. Its technology works: Shiyu Zhou, the deputy director of the consortium, testified to the U.S. Helsinki Commission last month that at the height of opposition protests on June 20, more than 1 million Iranians used the system. He said that with $30 million of additional funding, capacity could be increased to 50 million users a day, making it "prohibitively expensive for any repressive government to counter our efforts." A bipartisan coalition that includes Sens. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.) and Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) and Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) has been trying to channel the necessary funding. A total of $20 million has been included in the past two State Department budgets, and $30 million more is pending in the Senate's version of the 2010 budget. But State hasn't passed the money on to the firewall-busters. Instead it gave the lion's share of its 2008 appropriation to a group that specializes in conducting media studies and training journalists, and it has failed to distribute the 2009 funds, even though the fiscal year ended nearly three weeks ago. The department says it is increasing the staff dedicated to working on Internet freedom issues and that it is funding some "implementing partners" that it won't identify. Still, no money is going to the one organization with a proven record of overcoming firewalls. The group's advocates suspect that that's because the Global Internet Freedom Consortium is identified with China's banned Falun Gong movement -- and State is fearful of Beijing's reaction to any U.S. support for it. The Obama administration has already done plenty to appease the Chinese regime. The least it can do is act on the president's own words about the value of free information -- and help give Chinese their chance to Twitter.

  • Why Tyrants Like Twitter

    When hundreds of thousands of Iranians took to the streets this summer to protest election results, headlines around the world anointed it the "Twitter Revolution." Iranians by the thousands Tweeted, Facebooked, blogged, video streamed and posted on scores of Web sites to share the events with the rest of the world, thwarting government attempts to censor coverage of the post-election violence. Twitter in particular appeared so powerful that the U.S. State Department even asked the micro-blogging service to delay a scheduled network upgrade to ensure Tweeting Iranians wouldn't lose access. But while Twitter and its new media cousins have given millions of people around the world the unprecedented ability to speak out and quickly organize against repressive governments, some experts caution that social media doesn't only benefit the social activists. "I'm not sure we understand the implications of building public spheres," said Evgeny Morozov, Yahoo! Fellow at Georgetown University's E.A. Walsh School of Foreign Service. New Media Empowers All Forces In a U.S. Helsinki Commission hearing on new media in authoritarian regimes, Morozov last week warned that new media "will power all political forces, not just the forces we like." Despite efforts to encourage the growth of pro-democratic groups online, he said research into the blogospheres in Egypt, Palestine and Russia suggest that the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas and groups of Russian nationalists and fascists are among the most active users of blogs and social media. "Blind support for promoting blogging and social networking may have a lot of very unpleasant unexpected consequences," Morozov said. While it's true that governments may have lost some power to Internet-based modes of communication that empower many voices, he said authoritarian regimes have benefited from those same communication channels in other ways. "The Internet has made it much more effective and cheaper to spread propaganda," Morozov told ABCNews.com. New Media Can Give Appearance of Openness In Russia, the government befriends new media entrepreneurs who spin online conversation in the government's favor. The Chinese, Morozov said, have created a "50 cent party" composed of thousands of people across the country who get paid 50 cents for each comment they leave online. For some authoritarian governments, new media can be used to give the appearance of openness and legitimacy. In a piece written earlier this year for the human rights blog openDemocracy.org, Babak Rahimi, a professor of Iranian and Islamic Studies at the University of California, San Diego, wrote about the "politics of Facebook" in Iran. Part of the reason could be to encourage younger people to vote, thereby boosting electoral participation and signaling state legitimacy, Rahimi wrote. Another reason could be to identify dissenters. "By unblocking Facebook and creating a false sense of open and fair elections, the intelligence services are able to monitor the activities of dissidents who may feel more comfortable to express their views on Facebook," he wrote. But the primary reason, Rahimi continued, was so authorities could show off their strength as a legitimate power. "By conceding small amounts of liberty, the regime also hopes to gain approval for its 'progressive' nature," he said. Morozov said that new media has also made it easier for repressive regimes to identify dissenters. Instead of employing hundreds of people to read published material, rulers can automate the process with computers programmed to search for keywords. The Beijing-based TRS Information Technology, a search technology and text mining company, helps China control public opinion by using keywords to search for subversive content, the Financial Times reported earlier this year. A marketing manager for the company told the Financial Times that it was starting to sell services that allowed monitors to track comments and forecast public opinion. He also said police use the technology to focus attention on certain groups of people, such as university student forums. 'Cat and Mouse Thing' for Activists to Stay Ahead Though there are risks to opening up public spaces online, experts also say that with ongoing awareness of developments in new technology, progress is possible. During last week's Helsinki Commission hearing, Nathan Freitas, an adjunct professor with the Interactive Telecom Program at New York University and developer of technology for protests, said there are numerous stories of Chinese, Tibetan and other activists being monitored via Skype, Yahoo!, e-mail and other online tools. Still, he said that when activists protested for Tibetan independence during the 2008 Olympic games, China's efforts to block coverage didn't stop the protestors from broadcasting their activities. Digital video cameras, handheld computers and live streaming camera phones helped their protests succeed, Freitas said. "It's a cat and mouse thing, staying one step ahead," he told ABCNews.com. Activists need to stay on top of a government's technical capabilities as well as its overall priorities. And the best use of new media for activists changes from country to country. For example, given China's ambitious business aspirations, it can't block as much of the Internet as countries with more humble goals, Freitas said. But a government's grand plans can also provide exploitable opportunities. Although China may crack down on Skype, e-mail and other communication channels, because it wants to encourage small businesses, Freitas said devices like BlackBerries work well in China. "The irony of the world is that everyone wants a piece of the Internet commerce cookie? These countries are promoting the people getting computer science degrees, so you're seeing the rapid rise of intelligence and capabilities within the countries themselves," he said. "If you can find the loopholes that tie in technology with commerce, it's kind of a sweet spot."

  • Twitter Against Tyrants: New Media in Authoritarian Regimes

    Held after a year in which Twitter and Facebook catalyzed protest movements in Iran and Moldova and authoritarian regimes around the world unleashed new tools of Internet control, this briefing considered the ways in which new media and Internet communication technologies affect the balance of power between human rights activists and authoritarian governments. Panelists who spoke at this briefing focused on new media’s role in protests and elections, the ways in which it empowers civil society activists, and the darker side: how dictators use new technology to control and repress their citizens. The response of authoritarian regimes to the significant opportunities for advancing freedom through new media was addressed.  

  • Commission Plays Leading Role at Parliamentary Assembly in Lithuania

    By Robert A. Hand, Policy Advisor A bipartisan U.S. delegation traveled to Vilnius, Lithuania June 29 for the 18th Annual Session of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA). The delegation participated fully in the activity of the Assembly’s Standing Committee, the plenary sessions and the Assembly’s three General Committees. Helsinki Commission Chairman Senator Benjamin L. Cardin led the delegation, which included the following commissioners: Co-Chairman Congressman Alcee L. Hastings, Ranking Minority Member Chris Smith, and Senator Roger Wicker, Representatives Louise McIntosh Slaughter, Mike McIntyre, G.K. Butterfield and Robert B. Aderholt. Senate Assistant Majority Leader Dick Durbin, Senator George Voinovich and Representatives Lloyd Doggett, Madeleine Z. Bordallo and Gwen Moore also joined the delegation. Background of the OSCE PA The Parliamentary Assembly was created within the framework of the OSCE as an independent, consultative body consisting of more than 300 parliamentarians from each of the 56 countries, which stretch from the United States and Canada throughout Europe, the Caucasus and Central Asia. The Annual Sessions are the chief venue for debating international issues and voting on a declaration addressing human rights, democratic development, rule of law, economic, environmental and security concerns among the participating States and the international community. The United States delegation is allotted 17 seats in the Assembly. Robust Congressional participation has been a hallmark of the Parliamentary Assembly since its inception nearly 20 years ago, ensuring U.S. interests are raised and discussed. 18th Annual Session This year’s Annual Session, hosted by the Parliament (Seimas) of Lithuania from June 29 to July 3, brought together more than 500 participants from 50 of the 56 OSCE participating States under the theme: “The OSCE: Addressing New Security Challenges.” The Standing Committee -- the Assembly’s leadership body (composed of Heads of Delegations from the participating States and the elected officers) -- met prior to the Annual Session. Senator Cardin, as Head of Delegation and an OSCE PA Vice President, represented the United States. Chaired by the OSCE PA President, Portuguese parliamentarian João Soares, the committee heard reports from the Assembly’s Treasurer, German parliamentarian Hans Reidel, and from the Assembly’s Secretary General, R. Spencer Oliver of the United States. The Assembly continues to operate well within its overall budget guidelines and to receive positive assessments from auditors on financial management. The committee unanimously approved the proposed budget for 2009-2010. The Standing Committee also approved several changes in the OSCE PA’s Rules of Procedure, especially related to gender balance and the holding of elections for officers, as well as 24 Supplementary Items or resolutions for consideration in plenary or committee sessions. The committee brought up as an urgent matter a resolution regarding the detention of Iranian citizens employed by the British Embassy in Tehran. Senator Cardin spoke in support of the resolution. With the Standing Committee’s business concluded, Assembly President Soares opened the Inaugural Plenary Session, stressing in his opening remarks the need for OSCE reform. The first session concluded with a discussion of gender issues led by Swedish parliamentarian Tone Tingsgaard that included comments from Rep. Gwen Moore. A Special Plenary Session the next day was scheduled to accommodate the OSCE Chair-in-Office, Greek Foreign Minister Dora Bakoyannis, who had just presided over an informal meeting of OSCE foreign ministers in Corfu, Greece, to launch a new, high-level dialogue on European security. Senator Cardin attended the Corfu meeting as a representative of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly. Following her speech, Bakoyannis engaged in a dialogue with parliamentarians on a number of OSCE issues. Lithuanian Foreign Minister Vygaudas Usackas also addressed the special session. Lithuania will chair the OSCE in 2011. U.S. Member Involvement The U.S. delegation actively participated in the work of the Assembly’s three General Committees – the first committee for Political Affairs and Security; the second for Economic Affairs, Science, Technology and the Environment; and the third on Democracy, Human Rights and Humanitarian Questions. Each committee considered its own draft resolution, prepared by an elected Rapporteur, as well as 23 of the 25 Supplementary Items. Two Supplementary Items, including one by President Soares on Strengthening the OSCE, were considered in plenary session. Representatives Chris Smith, Mike McIntyre, and Gwen Moore each proposed resolutions that were adopted dealing with freedom of expression on the Internet, international cooperation in Afghanistan, and prevention of maternal mortality respectively. Members of the U.S. delegation were also instrumental in garnering support for Supplementary Items introduced by others, co-sponsoring eight resolutions introduced by delegations of other countries. The U.S. delegation was responsible for 26 amendments to either the committee draft resolutions or various Supplementary Items. Chairman Cardin proposed climate-related amendments to a resolution on energy security and suggested the OSCE initiate work with Pakistan in the resolution on Afghanistan. Co-Chairman Hastings worked on numerous human rights and tolerance issues. Other amendments were sponsored by: Sen. Durbin on improving international access to clean water; Sen. Voinovich on combating anti-Semitism; Sen. Wicker on preserving cultural heritage; Rep. Smith on preventing the abuse of children; and Rep. Butterfield on responding to climate change. Bilateral Meetings The U.S. delegation also engaged in a variety of activities associated with the Annual Session, holding bilateral meetings with the delegations of Russia and Georgia focusing on their respective internal political developments and the tension in the Caucasus since Russia invaded Georgia last August and then sought to legitimize breakaway regions. Separate meetings were also held with Lithuanian President Valdas Adamkus and other Lithuanian leaders, at which the delegation pressed for new laws to resolve outstanding claims of property seized during the Nazi and Communist eras. The delegation also presented President Adamkus a letter from President Barack Obama on the occasion of the 1000th anniversary of the first written reference to Lithuania. Members of the U.S. delegation attended a working lunch to discuss gender issues, hosted by Swedish parliamentarian Tingsgaard. A variety of social events, including a reception hosted by the British delegation at their embassy, afforded numerous informal opportunities to discuss issues of common concern. U.S. Leadership As a demonstration of active U.S. engagement, a Member of the U.S. Congress has always held some elected or appointed leadership role in the OSCE PA. The Vilnius Annual Session has allowed this to continue at least through July 2012. Chairman Cardin was reelected to a three-year term as one of nine Vice Presidents, a very welcome development given his long record of OSCE engagement going back to his years in the House of Representatives. Rep. Aderholt, who has attended every OSCE PA Annual Session since 2002 and often visits European countries to press human rights issues, was elected Vice Chair of the third General Committee, which handles democracy and human rights. President Soares was reelected for a second term and selected Rep. Smith to serve as a Special Representative on Human Trafficking and asked Co-Chairman Hastings to continue serving as Special Representative on Mediterranean Affairs. An unfortunate development in the election of new officers is the absence of a representative of the Russian Federation. Because the United States government may disagree so substantively with current Kremlin policies, the U.S. government has always felt it critical to welcome Russian engagement in the OSCE PA. It was, therefore, a disappointment that the head of the Russian Federation delegation, Alexander Kozlovsky, reversed course and decided not to run for a Vice Presidency seat and more disappointing that a political bloc at the OSCE PA defeated Russian incumbent Natalia Karpovich as rapporteur of the Third Committee. Karpovich had been accommodating of U.S. human rights initiatives in her draft resolution. Vilnius Declaration Participants at the closing plenary session adopted the final Vilnius Declaration -- a lengthy document which reflects the initiatives and input of the U.S. delegation. Among other things, the declaration calls for strengthening the OSCE in order to enhance its legitimacy and political relevance; addresses conventional arms control, disarmament and other security-related issues of current concern in Europe; calls for greater cooperation in the energy sector and better protection of the environment; and stresses the continued importance of democratic development and respect for human rights, especially as they relate to tolerance in society and freedom of expression. The most contentious part of the declaration related to the promotion of human rights and civil liberties twenty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, which included language noting the 70th anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. While some of the language may have been provocative, strong Russian objections to the entire text appeared to be motivated by a desire to defend a Stalinist past and minimize its crimes. The Russian delegation’s effort to block passage of this resolution reflects a similar sentiment in Moscow that recently led to the creation of a widely-criticized commission "for counteracting attempts to falsify history to the detriment of Russia's interests." As a July 9 column for The Economist noted about recent Russian efforts to excuse Stalinism, the “debate in Vilnius makes it a bit harder to maintain that stance.” Some of Russia’s traditional friends and allies in the OSCE PA were noticeably absent from the debate. The Balkans While the Congressional delegation’s work focused heavily on representing the United States at the OSCE PA, the trip afforded an opportunity to advance U.S. interests elsewhere in Europe. While Co-Chairman Hastings traveled to Albania to observe that country’s first parliamentary elections since becoming a NATO member earlier this year, the rest of the delegation visited Bosnia-Herzegovina. Bosnia-Herzegovina is still recovering from the conflict in the 1990s and the associated horrors of the Srebrenica genocide and massive ethnic cleansing. The reverberations of the conflict continue to hinder prospects for European and Euro-Atlantic integration. The United States was instrumental in bringing the Bosnian conflict to an end in 1995, especially with the negotiation of the Dayton Agreement, and the United States has invested considerable financial, diplomatic and military resources in the post-conflict period. The visit came one month after Vice President Joe Biden visited Sarajevo with a message of renewed U.S. engagement in the Balkans. While meetings with Bosnian political leaders revealed little willingness to work constructively toward constitutional reform needed for an effective central government, a meeting with English-speaking university students revealed a refreshing desire to overcome ethnic divisions and move the country forward. Belarus Given its proximity to Vilnius, members of the Congressional delegation visited Minsk, the capital of Belarus, to press for greater democracy and respect for human rights in that country. Belarus has remained a repressive state over the years even as its European neighbors have transitioned from being former Soviet or Warsaw Pact states to EU and NATO members or aspirants. Following a delegation meeting with President Alexander Lukashenka, Belarusian authorities released imprisoned American Emanuel Zeltzer, who was convicted of espionage in a closed trial and had numerous health concerns. The delegation also urged for greater progress in meeting the conditions in the Belarus Democracy Act passed by the U.S. Congress in 2004 and reauthorized in 2006. A meeting with political activists provided useful information on the situation for political opposition, non-governmental organizations and independent media. Finally, the delegation pressed Belarus’ officials to allow for an increased U.S. diplomatic presence in the country. In response to expanding U.S. sanctions, Minsk kicked out 30 diplomats last year, including the U.S. ambassador, leaving a staff of five at the U.S. Embassy. During the course of the Vilnius Annual Session, Senator Voinovich also broke away for a brief visit to Riga, Latvia. That visit was among the highest level visits from a U.S. official in three years, and was important for our relations with this NATO ally, which has deployed troops with Americans in Afghanistan without caveat and recently suffered losses which easily impact such a small country. U.S. interests abroad are advanced through active congressional participation in the OSCE PA. The 19th Annual Session of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly will be held early next July in Oslo, Norway.

  • The Iran Crisis and the OSCE Neighbors

    The Hon. Mike McIntyre presided over this hearing, with the then recent re-election of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in mind. With witnesses – Former Assistant Secretary of State David Kramer, senior fellow of the German Marshall Fund of the United States; Jennifer Windsor, executive director of Freedom House; and Stephen Blank, research professor of National Security Affairs at the Strategic Studies Institute of the U.S. Army War College – McIntyre discussed the enormous implications of the hardline president’s landslide re-election. Iran’s neighbors who belong to the OSCE, such as Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Krygyzstan, were keenly aware of Ahmadinejad’s glide to victory, with reactions ranging from curiosity to anxiety concerning how the Iranian public would react. The Iranian citizenry met Ahmadinejad with nonviolent, yet persecuted, protests in the streets, similar to other demonstrations of civil disobedience in Iran’s neighboring countries. So, the question then becomes what the effects of Ahmadinejad’s re-election are on post-Soviet states.

  • The Medvedev Thaw: Is It Real? Will It Last?

    This hearing discussed U.S. foreign policy towards Russia, focusing on how to improve relations while taking Russia’s compliance with human rights seriously.   The witnesses and Commissioners discussed the implications of Dmitri Medvedev becoming president and Vladimir Putin retaining power as Prime Minister.

  • Human Rights in Afghanistan

    Janice Helwig, policy advisor at the Commission, examined the current state of human rights in Afghanistan, a Partner for Cooperation of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).  While some progress has been made, rule of law and protection of human rights remains fragile. Witnesses Sima Samar and Scott Worden highlighted the harassment, intimidation, and violence human rights defenders and civil society leaders face while women and girls continue to be threatened and even attacked as they try to go to work or school.  They discuss the limited, if any, freedom of speech or belief reflected by the killings of journalists and the imposing of the death penalty on those who seek to convert from Islam to Christianity. 

  • Belarus Imprisonment

    Mr. President, as Chairman of the Helsinki Commission, I would like to bring to the attention of the Senate a situation which is literally a matter of life and death for an American citizen, Emanuel Zeltser, who has been imprisoned in Belarus since March 12, 2008. Mr. Zeltser is in desperate and immediate need of serious medical treatment--including a coronary bypass operation. The poor human rights record of President Lukashenka's regime is well known. No American--indeed no human being--should be subjected to the kind of treatment Mr. Zeltser has been forced to endure during his incarceration. Despite Mr. Zeltser's grave health condition--he suffers from heart disease, type 2 diabetes, severe arthritis, gout, and dangerously elevated blood pressure--Belarusian authorities have repeatedly refused to provide Mr. Zeltser with his prescribed medications. He was initially denied two independent medical evaluations and he has reported being physically assaulted and abused while incarcerated. Amnesty International has urged that Belarusian authorities no longer subject Mr. Zeltser to "further torture and other ill-treatment.'' Mr. Zeltser was convicted of "using false official documents'' and "attempted economic espionage'' in a closed judicial proceeding. The U.S. Embassy in Minsk criticized the proceedings, noting that it was denied the opportunity to observe the trial. The State Department has repeatedly called for Mr. Zeltser's release on humanitarian grounds. So have others in Congress, especially my colleague on the Helsinki Commission, cochairman Representative Alcee Hastings. But now the situation appears dire. Earlier this month, Mr. Zeltser was examined by an American doctor. It was only the second time an American physician has been permitted to see Mr. Zeltser. The doctor concluded that "there is a clear and high risk of sudden death from heart attack unless the patient is immediately transferred to a U.S. hospital with the proper equipment and facilities. ..... Refusal to transfer Mr. Zeltser to a U.S. hospital is equivalent to a death sentence.'' Specifically, Mr. Zeltser is in dire need of a coronary bypass procedure. The doctor also determined that because he had been denied prescribed diabetes medication, Mr. Zeltser's left foot may need to be amputated. In response to a press inquiry in December, the State Department called for "the Belarusian authorities to release Mr. Zeltser on humanitarian grounds before this situation takes an irrevocable turn.'' Based on the recent doctor's report it is apparent that such an irrevocable turn is imminent unless this American citizen can be brought home promptly for the medical treatment necessary to save his life. Belarus has taken some tentative steps to improve its notably poor human rights record, in particular the release of several political prisoners last August. However, Mr. Zeltser's continued, and potentially terminal, imprisonment threatens to override those initially encouraging signs. As such, I strongly urge the Belarusian authorities to release Emanuel Zeltser on humanitarian grounds so that he may obtain the immediate medical treatment his doctor has concluded is required if he is to live.

  • 2008 Human Dimension Implementation Meeting

    The OSCE’s 2008 Human Dimension Implementation Meeting offered an opportunity to review compliance on a full range of human rights and humanitarian commitments of the organization’s participating States. Tolerance issues featured prominently in the discussions, which included calls for sustained efforts to combat anti-Semitism and other forms of discrimination. A U.S. proposal for a high-level conference on tolerance issues in 2009, however, met with only tepid support. Core human rights issues, including freedom of speech and freedom of religion, continued to draw large numbers of speakers. Throughout the discussions, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) expressed concern about Kazakhstan’s failure to implement promised reforms and questioned its readiness to serve as OSCE Chair-in-Office in 2010. Greece, slated to assume the chairmanship in January, came under criticism for its treatment of ethnic minorities. As in the past, the United State faced criticism for retaining the death penalty and for its conduct in counter-terrorism operations. Belarusian elections, held on the eve of the HDIM, came in for a round of criticism, while Russia continued to advocate proposals on election observation that would significantly limit the OSCE’s independence in such activities. Finally, discussion of the Russia-Georgia conflict was conspicuous by its near absence, though related human rights and humanitarian concerns will likely receive more prominence in the lead up to and during the December OSCE Ministerial in Helsinki. Background From September 29 to October 10, 2008, the OSCE participating States met in Warsaw, Poland, for the annual(1) Human Dimension Implementation Meeting (HDIM). The HDIM is Europe’s largest human rights gathering, convened to discuss compliance by the participating States with the full range of human dimension commitments they have all adopted by consensus. The meeting was organized by the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), according to an agenda approved by consensus of all 56 participating States. The HDIM is the only multinational human rights meeting in Europe where representatives of NGOs and government representatives have equal access to the speakers list. Indeed, over half of the statements delivered at this year’s HDIM were made by NGO representatives. Such implementation review meetings are intended to serve as the participating States’ principal venue for public diplomacy and are important vehicles for identifying continued areas of poor human rights performance. Although the HDIM is not tasked with decision-making responsibilities, the meetings can provide impetus for further focus on particular human dimension concerns and help shape priorities for subsequent action. Coming in advance of ministerial meetings that are usually held in December, the HDIMs provide an additional opportunity for consultations among the participating States on human dimension issues that may be addressed by Ministers. (This year, for example, there were discussions on the margins regarding a possible Ministerial resolution on equal access to education for Roma and advancing work in the field of tolerance and non-discrimination, including the possibility of convening a related high-level meeting in 2009.) OSCE rules, adopted by consensus, allow NGOs to have access to human dimension meetings. However, this general rule does not apply to “persons and organizations which resort to the use of violence or publicly condone terrorism or the use of violence.”(2) There are no other grounds for exclusion. The decision as to whether or not a particular individual or NGO runs afoul of this rule is made by the Chairman-in-Office. In recent years, some governments have tried to limit or restrict NGO access at OSCE meetings in an effort to avoid scrutiny and criticism of their records. This year, in the run up to the HDIM, Turkmenistan held the draft agenda for the meeting hostage, refusing to give consensus as part of an effort to block the registration of Turkmenistan NGOs which have previously attended the implementation meetings and criticized Ashgabat. Turkmenistan officials finally relented and allowed the adoption of the HDIM agenda in late July, but did not participate in the Warsaw meeting. Along these lines, the Russian delegation walked out in protest when the NGO “Russian-Chechen Friendship Society” took the floor to speak during a session on freedom of the media. At the 2008 HDIM, senior Department of State participants included Ambassador W. Robert Pearson, Head of Delegation; Ambassador Julie Finley, Head of the U.S. Mission to the OSCE; Ambassador Karen Stewart, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor; and Mr. Bruce Turner, Acting Director, Office for European Security and Political Affairs. Mr. Will Inboden, advisor on religious freedom issues, and Mr. Nathan Mick, advisor on Roma issues, served as Public Members. Ms. Felice Gaer, Chair of the U.S. Commission on Religious Freedom, and Mr. Michael Cromartie, Vice Chair, also served as members of the delegation. Helsinki Commission Chief of Staff Fred L. Turner and Senior State Department Advisor Ambassador Clifford Bond also served as members of the U.S. Delegation, along with Helsinki Commission staff members Alex T. Johnson, Ronald J. McNamara, Winsome Packer, Erika B. Schlager, and Dr. Mischa E. Thompson. In comparison with previous HDIMs, the 2008 meeting was relatively subdued – perhaps surprisingly so given that, roughly eight weeks before its opening, Russian tanks had rolled onto Georgian territory. While the full scope of human rights abuses were not known by the time the meeting opened, human rights defenders had already documented serious rights violations, including the targeting of villages in South Ossetia inhabited by ethnic Georgians. Nevertheless, discussion of the Russian-Georgian conflict was largely conspicuous by its near absence. Highlights The annual HDIM agenda provides a soup-to-nuts review of the implementation of core human rights and fundamental freedoms (e.g., freedoms of speech, assembly and association; prevention of torture; right to a fair trial), as well as rule of law, free elections and democracy-building issues. National minorities, Roma, tolerance and non-discrimination are also on the agenda. The United States continued its longstanding practice of naming specific countries and cases of concern. In accordance with OSCE procedures, the agenda included three specially selected topics, each of which was given a full day of review. This year, those subjects were: 1) education and awareness-raising in the promotion of human rights; 2) freedom of religion or belief; and 3) focus on identification, assistance and access to justice for the victims of trafficking. Of the three, the sessions on religious liberty attracted the most speakers with over 50 statements. A large number of side events were also part of the HDIM, organized by non-governmental organizations, OSCE institutions or offices, other international organizations, or participating States. These side events augment implementation review sessions by providing an opportunity to examine specific subjects or countries in greater depth and often with a more lively exchange than in the formal sessions. Along with active participation at these side events, the United States held extensive bilateral meetings with government representatives, as well as with OSCE officials and NGO representatives. At the end of the second week of the HDIM, Human Rights Directors from capitals also held a working meeting to discuss issues of mutual concern, with a special focus on United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325, on women, peace and security. This year, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom also hosted a reception to honor the OSCE Panel of Experts on Freedom of Religion or Belief, as well as the tenth anniversary of the U.S. International Religious Freedom Act and the 60th anniversary of the UN Declaration of Human Rights. Greece, scheduled to assume the chairmanship of the OSCE starting in January 2009, came under particular criticism for its treatment of minorities. Unlike the highly emotional reactions of senior Greek diplomats in Warsaw two years ago, the delegation this year responded to critics by circulating position papers elaborating the Greek government’s views. Greece also responded to U.S. criticism regarding the application of Sharia law to Muslim women in Thrace by stating that Greece is prepared to abolish the application of the Sharia law to members of the Muslim minority in Thrace when this is requested by the interested parties whom it affects directly. Issues relating to the treatment of ethnic, linguistic and religious minorities in the OSCE region are likely to remain an important OSCE focus in the coming period, especially in light of developments in the Caucasus, and it remains to be seen how the Greek chairmanship will address these concerns in light of its own rigid approach to minorities in its domestic policies. Throughout the HDIM, many NGOs continued to express concern about the fitness of Kazakhstan to serve as OSCE Chair-in-Office in 2010 given serious short comings in that country’s human rights record. In particular, Kazakhstan was sharply criticized for a draft religion law (passed by parliament, but not yet adopted into law). One NGO argued that a Kazakhstan chairmanship, with this law in place, would undermine the integrity of the OSCE, and urged participating States to reconsider Kazakhstan for the 2010 leadership position if the law is enacted. Juxtaposing Kazakhstan’s future chairmanship with the possible final passage of a retrograde law on religion, the Almaty Helsinki Committee asked the assembled representatives, “Are human rights still a priority – or not?” (Meanwhile, on October 5, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice visited Kazakhstan.) On the eve of the HDIM, Belarus held elections. Those elections received considerable critical attention during the HDIM’s focus on democratic elections, with the United States and numerous others expressing disappointment that the elections did not meet OSCE commitments, despite promises by senior Belarusian officials that improvements would be forthcoming. Norway and several other speakers voiced particular concern over pressures being placed on ODIHR to circumscribe its election observation activities. Illustrating those pressures, the Russian Federation reiterated elements of a proposal it drafted on election observation that would significantly limit the independence of ODIHR in its election observation work. The Head of the U.S. Delegation noted that an invitation for the OSCE to observe the November elections in the United States was issued early and without conditions as to the size or scope of the observation. (Russia and others have attempted to impose numerical and other limitations on election observation missions undertaken by the ODIHR and the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly.) Tolerance issues featured prominently during discussions this year, as they have at other recent HDIMs. Forty-three interventions were made, forcing the moderator to close the speakers list and requiring presenters to truncate their remarks. Muslim, migrant, and other groups representing visible minorities focused on discrimination in immigration policies, employment, housing, and other sectors, including racial profiling and hate crimes, amidst calls for OSCE countries to improve implementation of existing anti-discrimination laws. Jewish and other NGOs called for sustained efforts to combat anti-Semitism. Representatives of religious communities expressed concern about the confusion made by ODIHR in its Annual Hate Crimes Report between religious liberty issues and intolerance towards members of religious groups. This year, some governments and NGOs elevated their concerns relating to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender persons, increasingly placing these concerns in the context of the OSCE’s focus on hate crimes. A civil society tolerance pre-HDIM meeting and numerous side events were held on a broad range of tolerance-related topics. The United States and several U.S.-based NGOS called for a high-level conference on tolerance issues to be held in 2009. Unlike in prior years, however, no other State echoed this proposal or stepped forward with an offer to host such a high-level conference. In many of the formal implementation review sessions this year, NGOs made reference to specific decisions of the European Court on Human Rights, urging governments to implement judgments handed down in recent cases. During the discussion of issues relating to Roma, NGOs continued to place a strong focus on the situation in Italy, where Roma (and immigrants) have been the target of hate crimes and mob violence. NGOs reminded Italy that, at the OSCE Supplementary Human Dimension Meeting in July, they had urged Italy to come to the HDIM with concrete information regarding the prosecution of individuals for violent attacks against Roma. Regrettably, the Italian delegation was unable to provide any information on prosecutions, fostering the impression that a climate of impunity persists in Italy. As at other OSCE fora, the United States was criticized for retaining the death penalty, contrary to the abolitionist trend among the OSCE participating States. Of the 56 OSCE participating States, 54 have abolished, suspended or imposed a moratorium on the death penalty and only two – the United States and Belarus – continue to impose capital punishment as a criminal sanction. Two side events held during the HDIM also put a spotlight on the United States. The first event was organized by Freedom House and entitled, “Today’s American: How Free?” At this event, Freedom House released a book by the same title which examined “the state of freedom and justice in post-9/11 America.” The second event was a panel discussion on “War on Terror or War on Human Rights?” organized by the American Civil Liberties Union. Speakers from the ACLU, Amnesty International and the Polish Human Rights Foundation largely focused on issues relating to the United States, including the military commission trials at Guantanamo, and official Polish investigations into allegations that Poland (working with the United States) was involved in providing secret prisons for the detention and torture of “high-value” detainees.(3) In a somewhat novel development, Russian Government views were echoed by several like-minded NGOs which raised issues ranging from claims of “genocide” by Georgia in South Ossetia to grievances by ethnic Russians in Latvia and Estonia. Ironically, the Russian delegation, in its closing statement, asserted that this year’s HDIM had an “improved atmosphere” due (it was asserted) to the efforts by both governments and NGOs to find solutions to problems rather than casting blame. As at past HDIMs, some sessions generated such strong interest that the time allotted was insufficient to accommodate all those who wished to contribute to the discussion. For example, the session on freedom of the media was severely constrained, with more than 20 individuals unable to take the floor in the time allotted, and several countries unable to exercise rights of reply. Conversely, some sessions – for example, the session on equal opportunity for men and women, and the session on human dimension activities and projects – had, in terms of unused time available, an embarrassment of riches. Following a general pattern, Turkmenistan was again not present at the HDIM sessions this year.(4) In all, 53 participating States were represented at the meeting. At the closing session, the United States raised issues of particular concern relating to Turkmenistan under the “any other business” agenda item. (This is the sixth year in a row that the United States has made a special statement about the situation in Turkmenistan, a country that some view as having the worst human rights record in the OSCE.) For the past two years, there has been a new government in Turkmenistan. The U.S. statement this year noted some positive changes, but urged the new government to continue the momentum on reform by fully implementing steps it already has begun. In addition, the United States called for information on and access to Turkmenistan’s former representative to the OSCE, Batyr Berdiev. Berdiev, once Turkmenistan’s ambassador to the OSCE, was reportedly among the large number of people arrested following an attack on then-President Niyazov’s motorcade in 2002. His fate and whereabouts remain unknown. OSCE PA President João Soares addressed the closing plenary, the most senior Assembly official to participate in an HDIM meeting. The Russian-Georgian Conflict With the outbreak of armed violence between Russia and Georgia occurring only two months earlier, the war in South Ossetia would have seemed a natural subject for discussion during the HDIM. As a human rights forum, the meeting was unlikely to serve as a venue to debate the origins of the conflict, but there were expectations that participants would engage in a meaningful discussion of the human dimension of the tragedy and efforts to stem ongoing rights violations. As it turned out, this view was not widely shared by many of the governments and NGOs participating in the meeting. The opening plenary session foreshadowed the approach to this subject followed through most of the meeting. Among the senior OSCE officials, only High Commissioner on National Minorities Knut Vollebaek squarely addressed the situation in the south Caucasus. Vollebaek condemned the19th century-style politicization of national minority issues in the region and the violation of international borders. At the time of the crisis, he had cautioned against the practice of “conferring citizenship en masse to residents of other States” (a reference to Russian actions in South Ossetia) and warned that “the presence of one's citizens or ‘ethnic kin’ abroad must not be used as a justification for undermining the sovereignty and territorial integrity of other States.” Sadly, that sound advice went unobserved in Georgia, but it is still applicable elsewhere in the OSCE region.(5) The statement delivered by France on behalf of the countries of the European Union failed to address the conflict. During the plenary, only Norway and Switzerland joined the United States in raising humanitarian concerns stemming from the conflict. In reply, the head of the Russian delegation delivered a tough statement which sidestepped humanitarian concerns, declaring that discussion of Georgia’s territorial integrity was now “irrelevant.” He called on participating States to adopt a pragmatic approach and urged acknowledgment of the creation of the new sovereign states of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, terming their independence “irreversible” and “irrevocable.” Perhaps more surprising than this Russian bluster was the failure of any major NGO, including those who had been active in the conflict zone collecting information and working on humanitarian relief, to take advantage of the opportunity to raise the issue of South Ossetia during the opening plenary. As the HDIM moved into its working sessions, which cover the principal OSCE human dimension commitments, coverage of the conflict fared better. The Representative on Freedom of the Media remarked, in opening the session on free speech and freedom of the media that, for the first time in some years, two OSCE participating States were at war. During that session, he and other speakers called on the Russian Federation to permit independent media access to occupied areas to investigate the charges and counter-charges of genocide and ethnic cleansing. The tolerance discussion included calls by several delegations for Russia to cooperate and respond favorably to the HCNM’s request for access to South Ossetia to investigate the human rights situation in that part of Georgia. Disappointingly, during the session devoted to humanitarian commitments, several statements, including those of the ODHIR moderator and EU spokesperson, focused narrowly on labor conditions and migration, and failed to raise concerns regarding refugees and displaced persons, normally a major focus of this agenda item and obviously relevant to the Georgia crisis. Nevertheless, the session developed into one of the more animated at the HDIM. The Georgian delegation, which had been silent up to that point, spoke out against Russian aggression and alleged numerous human rights abuses. It expressed gratitude to the European Union for sending monitors to the conflict zone and urged the EU to pressure Russia to fully implement the Six-Point Ceasefire agreement negotiated by French President Sarkozy. The United States joined several delegations and NGOs calling on all parties to the conflict to observe their international obligations to protect refugees and create conditions for their security and safe voluntary return. In a pattern observed throughout the meeting, the Russian delegation did not respond to Georgian charges. It left it to an NGO, “Ossetia Accuses,” to make Russia’s case that Georgia had committed genocide against the people of South Ossetia. A common theme among many interventions was a call for an independent investigation of the causes of the conflict and a better monitoring of the plight of refugees, but to date Russian and South Ossetian authorities have denied both peacekeeping monitors and international journalists access to the region from elsewhere in Georgia. A joint assessment mission of experts from ODIHR and the HCNM, undertaken in mid-October, were initially denied access to South Ossetia, with limited access to Abkhazia granted to some team members. Eventually, several experts did gain access to the conflict zone in South Ossetia, though to accomplish this they had to travel from the north via the Russian Federation. One can only speculate why Georgia received such limited treatment at this HDIM. The crisis in the south Caucasus had dominated OSCE discussions at the Permanent Council in Vienna for weeks preceding the HDIM. Some participants may have feared that addressing it in Warsaw might have crowded out the broader human rights agenda. Others may have felt that, in the absence of a clear picture of the circumstances surrounding the conflict and with so many unanswered questions, it was best not to be too critical or too accusatory of either party. The EU (and particularly the French) were, at the time of the HDIM, in the process of negotiating the deployment of European observers to the conflict zone, and may have feared that criticism of Russia at this forum would have only complicated the task. In fact, the EU’s only oblique reference to Georgia was made at HDIM’s penultimate working session (a discussion which focused on human dimension “project activity”) in connection with the work of High Commissioner for National Minorities. (One observer of this session remarked that there seemed to be a greater stomach for dinging the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights for shortcomings in its work than for criticizing Russia for invading a neighboring OSCE participating State.) Finally, other participants, particularly NGOs, seemed more inclined to view human rights narrowly in terms of how governments treat their own citizens and not in terms of how the failure to respect key principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity are invariably accompanied by gross violations of human rights and can produce humanitarian disasters. Amid simmering tensions between Russia and Georgia which could erupt into renewed fighting, and completion of a report requested by the Finnish Chairmanship in time for the OSCE’s Ministerial in Helsinki in early December, Ministers will have to grapple with the impact of the south Caucasus conflict and what role the OSCE will have. Beyond Warsaw The relative quiet of the HDIM notwithstanding, French President M. Nicolas Sarkozy put a spotlight on OSCE issues during the course of the meeting. Speaking at a conference in Evian, France, on October 8, he responded to a call by Russian President Dmitri Medvedev, issued in June during meetings with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, for a new “European Security Treaty” to revise Europe’s security architecture – a move seen by many as an attempt to rein in existing regional security organizations, including NATO and the OSCE. President Sarkozy indicated a willingness to discuss Medvedev’s ideas, but argued they should be addressed in the context of a special OSCE summit, which Sarkozy suggested could be held in 2009. The escalating global economic crisis was also very much on the minds of participants at the HDIM as daily reports of faltering financial institutions, plummeting markets, and capital flight promoted concerns over implications for the human dimension. Several delegations voiced particular concern over the possible adverse impact on foreign workers and those depending on remittances to make ends meet. Looking Ahead The human rights and humanitarian concerns stemming from the war in South Ossetia will likely come into sharper focus in the lead up to the December OSCE Ministerial in Helsinki as talks on the conflict resume in Geneva, and OSCE and other experts attempt to document the circumstances surrounding the outbreak of fighting and current conditions. The coming weeks can also be expected to bring renewed calls for an overhaul of the human dimension and the ODIHR by those seeking to curb attention paid to human rights and subordinate election monitoring activities. It remains to be seen whether Kazakhstan will fulfill the commitments it made a year ago in Madrid to undertake meaningful reforms by the end of this year. There is also the risk that a deepening economic crisis will divert attention elsewhere, even as the resulting fallout in the human dimension begins to manifest itself. It is unclear what priorities the Greek chairmanship will be set for 2009, a year that portends peril and promise. Notes (1) OSCE Human Dimension Implementation Meetings are held every year, unless there is a Summit. Summits of Heads of State or Government are preceded by Review Conferences, which are mandated to review implementation of all OSCE commitments in all areas (military-security, economic and environmental cooperation, and the human dimension). (2) Helsinki Document 1992, The Challenges of Change, IV (16). (3) Interestingly, at the session on human rights and counterterrorism, moderator Zbigniew Lasocik, member of the United Nations Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture, noted that Poland’s Constitutional Court had, the previous day, struck down a 2004 law that purported to allow the military to shoot down hijacked commercial aircraft – even if they were being used as weapons like the planes that killed thousands of people on 9/11. The Court reportedly reasoned that shooting down an aircraft being used as bomb would infringe on the constitutional protection of human life and dignity of the passengers. (4) Turkmenistan sent a representative to the HDIM in 2005 for the first time in several years. While responding to criticism delivered in the sessions, the representative appeared to focus more on monitoring the activities of Turkmen NGOs participating in the meeting. Turkmenistan subsequently complained that certain individuals who had been charged with crimes against the State should not be allowed to participate in OSCE meetings. Turkmenistan officials did not participate in the 2006 or 2007 HDIMs. Participation in the 2008 meeting would have been a welcome signal regarding current political developments. (5) The HCNM had previously expressed concern regarding Hungary’s overreach vis-a-vis ethnic Hungarian minorities in neighboring countries. In 2004, Hungary held a referendum on extending Hungarian citizenship to ethnic Hungarians abroad – an idea that still holds political currency in some quarters of Hungary – but the referendum failed due to low voter turnout.

  • Belarus’ Parliamentary Elections Fail to Meet OSCE Democratic Election Commitments

    By Orest Deychakiwsky and Winsome Packer Policy Advisors The conduct of the September 28 parliamentary elections in Belarus fell significantly short of international standards, despite some hopes that there would be improvements following the August release of political prisoners, Belarus’ reluctance to recognize South Ossetia and Abkhazia and statements by senior Belarusian officials raising expectations. The Commission followed the run-up to the elections closely, holding a hearing on September 16 titled “Business as Usual? Belarus on the Eve of the Elections,” and issuing a press release expressing concern about the pre-election climate and encouraging last minute steps, including transparency in the vote count and full access for OSCE observers. [Both the hearing and the press release are available on the Commission’s website.] Two members of the Commission staff traveled to Belarus as part of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly’s delegation of the overall OSCE Election Observation Mission, observing in Minsk and Smolevichi. In its statement, issued the day after the election, the OSCE election observation mission concluded that despite minor improvements, the conduct of the parliamentary elections in Belarus “ultimately fell short of OSCE commitments for democratic elections.” On election day, voting itself was generally well conducted, though the vote count was assessed as bad or very bad in 48 percent of OSCE observations. The experiences of Commission staff on voting day were consistent with those of other OSCE observers. For the most part, the voting itself in the precincts staff visited went smoothly. However, the vote counting process was particularly problematic, given the lack of transparency. All 110 elected members of the Chamber of Representatives of the National Assembly (lower chamber of parliament) are pro-government. No opposition activists from out of 70 nominated by the democratic opposition were elected. The vote count in one Minsk precinct in which Commission staff observed jointly with a Swedish member of parliament was dramatically lacking in transparency. There were three candidates on the ballot in this precinct, including one opposition member. Both the OSCE and domestic observers were hindered from having a full view of the vote counting proceedings. The precinct electoral commission set tables up as barriers about three meters from the tables on which the ballots were being counted. Further obstructing the observers’ view of the ballot count were the electoral commission workers themselves, who were positioned in such a way as to make viewing difficult. Attempts by observers and a proxy of the opposition candidate to clarify which provisions of the electoral code permitted this behavior by the electoral commission went nowhere. All of the ballots – from the early voting, mobile voting, and regular voting were mixed in together. When an OSCE observer took a picture of the vote count, or, more accurately, of the election commission members blocking the vote count, the chairwoman interrupted the count to write a complaint against the observer. After about 20 minutes, the opposition candidate’s proxy notified her that according to Article 55 of the electoral code, “the count must be performed without a break until the results of the voting have been obtained.” Only at that point did the Chairwoman cease writing and resume the count. In the North-East Minsk district that other Commission staff monitored with an Irish senator, the experience was similar. The voting process at the eight polling stations that they monitored was orderly and transparent. The problems came in the counting process. Similar to the reports from other observers, Commission staff and the Irish observer were prevented from standing close enough to watch the vote counting in a manner that allowed them to see the names and other distinguishing information on the ballots, even though the importance of this facet of observation was stressed to the government by the OSCE and the Interior Minister assured observers in a briefing on September 25 that election monitors would be able to watch the counting from a close vantage point. In a far departure from this promise, the precinct officials refused to announce what boxes they were opening during the process. They would lift a box, dump its contents on a table on the other side of the room from where the observers were seated, and ten or so people would crowd around the table to separate the ballots and "count" the votes. Observers could not distinguish which ballots came from early voting versus the ballots cast on election day, or spoiled ballots. They refused to announce the results of the count or record them in the protocol as was delineated in the procedural manual provided by ODIHR. They then huddled with a calculator to tabulate numbers, write them on a piece of paper in complete silence. Afterward, the precinct chair posted all of their numbers on a bulletin board. They then gathered up the ballots and left the building without a word. It is apparent that further legal and cultural changes are required for truly democratic elections to occur in Belarus. Several problems that manifested themselves during the actual voting were that the material used to seal the ballot boxes was easily manipulable and could be removed and put back on (clay dough and a string). In a number of precincts, the early voting ballot boxes were not in plain view, as required by law. Early voting was significant in several precincts, up to 39 percent in one case. Before voting day, there appeared to be a certain willingness on the part of some in the West to give the benefit of the doubt to the authorities, in part due to the minor improvements that had taken place in the election campaign, such as slightly increased access of opposition representatives to district election commissions, and the decision to repeat the airing of the candidates’ five-minute campaign spots on state TV and radio stations. This, together with the release of political prisoners Aleksandr Kozulin, Syarhei Parsyukevich and Andrei Kim (which led to the temporary lifting of U.S. sanctions on two subsidiaries of Belarus’s giant petrochemical conglomerate Belnaftakhim), and Belarussian leader Alexander Lukashenka’s unenthusiastic response to Russia’s occupation of Georgia and refusal to date to recognize South Ossetia and Abkhazia created an atmosphere of optimism that Lukashenka would be willing to take steps towards democratic reform and engage in a dialogue with Europe and the United States. The stark lack of transparency in the vote count was also surprising to many because it flew in the face of Belarusian authorities’ pledges prior to the vote, and it was probably unnecessary. Given the overall election campaign climate, which did not allow for genuine political competition and where the opposition had extremely minimal representation on precinct election commissions, the vast majority of pro-governmental candidates would have won in any event. This is within the context of the wider extremely inhospitable environment for the democratic opposition, in which for almost 15 years the Lukashenka regime has tightly controlled the media; vilified the opposition; repressed the independent media; disappeared, detained, imprisoned, and beaten opposition members and democracy activists; harassed and suppressed non-governmental organizations and, in short, done its best to stifle independent thought. Notwithstanding the EU’s temporary lifting of some visa sanctions against senior Belarusian officials, Mr. Lukashenka may have yet again missed an opportunity to move Belarus towards democratic Europe, which would enhance Belarus’ independence, at a time when it especially needs to be strengthened, given intensifying Russian pressure on Belarus. Notwithstanding the flawed elections, both the United States and Europe have displayed a willingness to continue to engage in dialogue with Minsk and to encourage Belarus to move forward along the path of compliance with freely undertaken OSCE human rights and democracy commitments. The poor quality of the September 28 elections did not facilitate this process, as had been hoped by the West. Nevertheless, if the Belarusian authorities take steps to increase political freedom and respect for human rights, the real possibility exists for a gradual opening in U.S.-Belarusian relations – for Belarus to begin the process of reducing its self-imposed isolation and eventually taking its rightful place among the community of European nations.

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