President Shevardnadze’s Statement Welcomed, but Action also Needed

President Shevardnadze’s Statement Welcomed, but Action also Needed

Hon.
Christopher H. Smith
United States
House of Representatives
108th Congress Congress
First Session Session
Thursday, April 03, 2003

Today I want to acknowledge and welcome the March 14th statement of the President of Georgia, Eduard Shevardnadze, pledging his commitment to religious freedom for all Georgians and promising the punishment of individuals complicit in mob attacks on religious minorities. (I am submitting the statement for the RECORD below.) President Shevardnadze made this pledge during an ecumenical service in Tbilisi’s Evangelist-Baptist Cathedral Church, attended by leaders of the Georgian Orthodox, Armenian Apostolic, Roman Catholic, Lutheran and Baptist churches and many individuals from the diplomatic community. The U.S. Ambassador to Georgia, Richard Miles, also attended and addressed the gathering. Reportedly, so many people came that hundreds had to listen via loudspeakers in the churchyard.

 

The service was initially planned for late January, but defrocked priest Basil Mkalavishvili and his crowd of thugs assaulted worshipers and clergy an hour before it was scheduled to begin -- as they have been doing with impunity since 1999. Individuals were beaten as they tried to leave, with rocks and stones being reportedly thrown. While President Shevardnadze quickly condemned that attack, ordering the Interior Minister, the Prosecutor General, State Chancellery Head, and the Security Council Secretary to investigate and punish the perpetrators, no arrests or prosecutions followed.

 

Despite Georgia’s appalling record on religious tolerance for the last few years, I hope President Shevardnadze’s speech at the Baptist church signals a new determination to arrest and aggressively prosecute the mob leaders and their henchmen. He promised that “as the President of Georgia and a believer, I shall not restrict myself only to a mere expression of resentment. I do promise that the President and the Authorities of Georgia will do their utmost to grant every person freedom of expression of faith.” Driving home the point further, Mr. Shevardnadze declared, “the state will exert its pressure on whoever comes in defiance of this principle. You may stand assured that the aggressors will be brought to justice.”

 

As Co-Chairman of the U.S. Helsinki Commission, over the past three years I have watched with increasing alarm the escalation of mob violence. On September 24th I chaired a Commission hearing focused on this disturbing pattern. The Jehovah’s Witnesses have borne the brunt of attacks, along with Baptists, Pentecostals, Adventists and Catholics. Most disheartening has been the government's indifference; victims throughout the country have filed approximately 800 criminal complaints, without one criminal conviction.

 

Despite a series of statements by President Shevardnadze, Georgia's Minister of Interior and Prosecutor General appear unwilling to effectively enforce the rule of law, refusing to arrest mob leaders like Mkalavishvili and Paata Bluashvili and not attempting serious prosecutions. For example, the trial of Mkalavishvili has dragged on for more than a year, without a single piece of evidence considered yet. I would hope the provision of adequate and visible security, which took months to organize, will continue and that the prosecutor will begin his case shortly. Also, the inauguration of trial proceedings against Bluashvili in Rustavi is positive; I trust the delays and shenanigans seen in Mkalavishvili’s trial will not be repeated there. I also urge the Government of Georgia to arrest and detain Mkalavishvili, Bluashvili and other indicted persons who continue to perpetrate violent criminal acts against religious minorities.

 

Undoubtedly, President Shevardnadze’s presence at the March 14th service and his statement illustrate his personal commitment to religious tolerance and basic law and order. Yet, while I appreciate his gesture, it is time for real action. If the attacks are allowed to continue, it will only become more difficult to rein in this mob violence. If presidential orders are repeatedly ignored, it will only further weaken the government’s ability to enforce the rule of law. And, of course, we must not forget the plight of minority religious communities that continue to live in a state of siege, without any real protection from their government. Ironically, it appears that minorities’ religious communities are freer to profess and practice their faith in regions of Georgia not under the control of President Shevardnadze’s government.

 

In closing, I urge President Shevardnadze to fulfill his most recent commitment to punish the aggressors, thereby restoring Georgia’s international reputation and upholding its international commitments as a participating State in the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. I and other Members of Congress are acutely interested in seeing whether the Government of Georgia will actually arrest the perpetrators of violence and vigorously prosecute them.

 

Speech of the President of Georgia, Eduard Shevardnadze, at the Evangelist-Baptist Cathedral Church

 

“Representatives of all Religions and Nations have to Raise Prayers for Peace Together”

Tbilisi, Georgia

March 14, 2003

 

My dear friends,

Christians,

Dear Ambassadors!

 

I am here to give utterance to my contentment and admiration, which derives from seeing you, all Christians, or, to be more precise, representatives of all Christian folds, assembled here, under the same roof of this temple, in the capital of Georgia famed as the Virgin’s lot.

 

I am happy to be a witness to this occurrence. I am happy because you are together, because we are together. But all of us have our own faith.

 

I am an Orthodox believer, but we are all Christians. It is what we should always bear in mind and keep intact this wholeness and unity.

 

Georgia is one of those countries on the planet whose roots go back the farthest in history. Tolerance has become particularly entrenched in its history and nature since the days we embraced Christianity.

 

Christ granted that we be together. And more than this: Georgia is a multinational country, where Muslims and followers of other confessions have dwelt along with Christians in the course of centuries.

 

We live presently in a world of stark contradictions. It remains anybody’s guess when a bomb may blast. You probably understand what I mean. Therefore, we should pray for peace, and these prayers should be raised by all of us: Christians, Muslims, representatives of every religion, confession and nation.

 

But prayers alone will not keep us together. We have also to struggle, in order that, through our benevolence, faith, love and respect to one another, we may put up resistance to the eradicating processes of which I already made a mention.

 

As was customary with my great ancestors, I go to an Orthodox church. But nor do I keep distance from synagogues, mosques or churches of different Christian confessions.

 

I feel respect for all who have confident belief in kindness and its victory.

 

I am happy to see, along with Georgian citizens, the attendance of the distinguished ambassadors and diplomats accredited in Georgia, who have come this evening to share our happiness.

 

I cannot but express a deep sense of regret, even resentment at the gross infringement of our unity, mutual respect and freedom of faith by some of the aggressors.

 

As the President of Georgia and a believer, I shall not restrict myself only to a mere expression of resentment. I do promise that the President and the Authorities of Georgia will do their utmost to grant every person freedom of expression of faith.

 

The state will exert its pressure on whoever comes in defiance of this principle. You may stand assured that the aggressors will be brought to justice.

 

I would like to greet you once more and wish you happiness and advancement of goals. So as with Georgia, a multinational country of various religious confessions, my wishes are for joy, happiness and prosperity.

Relevant countries: 
Leadership: 
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Cardin asked the Swedish chair about how the OSCE can engage Armenia and Azerbaijan in order to address outstanding issues and encourage a return to the Minsk Group settlement process to achieve a sustainable resolution of the conflict. Taking a Closer Look at the Security, Economic and Human Dimensions of OSCE Following the Joint Session, each of the three General Committees heard from OSCE officials in their respective fields, or dimensions, of OSCE work.  Presenters included the ambassadors serving as chairs of the counterpart committees of the OSCE’s Permanent Council and the head of the OSCE’s Special Monitoring Mission in Ukraine. The three committees also heard from their respective rapporteurs on plans for drafting substantive reports that will be the basis of further activity at the Annual Session. Rep. Richard Hudson (NC-08), who chairs the General (First) Committee on Political Affairs and Security, noted the myriad of security and political issues confronting the OSCE during the past year, including the war in Ukraine, conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, and political turmoil in countries of concern like Russia, Belarus, and most recently Georgia.  “Our engagement with critical issues in the OSCE space has been consistent and impactful,” he concluded. Speaking during the session, Acting U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Phil Reeker called the erosion of the European security environment the “biggest challenge we face today in the organization” and highlighted U.S. plans for the Forum for Security Cooperation (FSC) during its four-month chairmanship.  The Acting Permanent Representative of the United States to the OSCE and FSC chair, senior diplomat Courtney Austrian, was present for the discussion. Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) took the floor during subsequent debate to condemn Russian violations of Helsinki Principles in its aggression in Ukraine.  He said that “Moscow must withdraw proxies in eastern Ukraine” and “respect Ukraine’s territorial integrity,” asserting that relevant sanctions will remain in place until that happens.  Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09) also responded to an intervention on youth and drugs by a delegate from Belarus, arguing that citizens need to be given greater freedom if young people are to feel a commitment to the country. Three other Members of Congress participated in the session of the General (Second) Committee on Economic Affairs, Science, Technology and the Environment, which covered issues ranging from corruption to climate change.  Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (PA-01) focused on addressing corruption. “It should come as no surprise to anyone … that legislatures have one of the most important roles to play in combating corruption—that of establishing a transparent and accountable legal and financial framework that empowers law enforcement officials and is maximally resistant to fraud,” he said.  Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (RI) said that the United States “is back” in efforts to combat climate change and noted recent U.S. legislation designed to address shell companies that support a global dark economy by sheltering “assets of thieves.”  Rep. Gwen Moore (WI-04) spoke about the devastating impact of the pandemic on women in the healthcare industry as well as on small business, and she expressed concern about risks to supply chains and business ties to both China and Russia.   Three Members of Congress also participated in of the General (Third) Committee on Democracy, Human Rights and Humanitarian Questions.   Rep. Cohen asserted that human rights has reclaimed its place in U.S. foreign policy, and emphasized human rights in concerns in Russia, Belarus, and Hungary. He expressed particular concern about the poisoning and recent arrest of Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny and called for Belarus to release political prisoners and to hold elections with OSCE observers. Rep. Marc Veasey (TX-33) took the floor in a later debate, responding to a report on the OSCE’s observation of the U.S. general elections in November 2020.  He stressed the need for U.S. states that currently prohibit or restrict international observation to consider a more open approach and   concluded that “our election officials and state legislators should read this report,” along with “any American who cares about his or her country.  It is a broad snapshot of our entire electoral complex system that we have here.”  Rep. Robert Aderholt (AL-04) raised concerns about discriminatory restrictions on religious assembly during the pandemic, as well as on the diminishing free media environment in many participating States. “Press freedom in the OSCE region has continued to decline as some governments are using economic, legal, and extra-legal tools to silence independent media and also to bolster loyal outlets and dozens of journalists are imprisoned in the OSCE region,” he said. “We’ve seen that in Russia, we’ve seen that in Belarus, we’ve seen that in Turkey, detaining scores of journalists in recent national protests.” There was one side event held in conjunction with the Winter Meeting, organized by the Norwegian Helsinki Committee in cooperation with the Lithuanian Mission to OSCE. Seven panelists in two sessions highlighted how international instruments—such as the Moscow Mechanism, Magnitsky-like legislation, the International Criminal Court, the European Court of Human Rights, and the promotion of a universal criminal jurisdiction—could increase accountability of state actors, support Belarus’ democracy movement, and deny financial safe havens to Russian kleptocrats.  Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya and Boris Nemtsov Foundation for Freedom chairman Vladimir Kara-Murza were among the event panelists. Assessing the Effort The virtual three-day, five-session Winter Meeting could not replace an in-person gathering in Vienna, a point frequently made by the parliamentarians themselves.  However, it did allow for a resumption of constructive debate in the general committees and interaction among parliamentarians and other OSCE institutions, paving the way for a return to more traditional work as the year progresses. The need to cancel the Annual Session planned for July in Bucharest was a major disappointment, but the adoption of rules governing such emergency situations now permit some continuity of effort.

  • Helsinki Commission Digital Digest: February 2021

  • Helsinki Commission Leaders Slam Detention of Georgian Opposition Leader Nika Melia

    WASHINGTON—Following the February 23 detention of Georgian opposition leader Nika Melia by authorities, Helsinki Commission leaders Rep. Alcee Hastings (FL-20), Sen. Roger Wicker (MS), Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02), and Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) issued the following joint statement: “As a participating State of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Georgia has committed to respecting democratic institutions, human rights, and the rule of law. “Storming the headquarters of an opposing political party and arbitrarily detaining its leader is not in keeping with democratic progress. We urge the Government of Georgia to release Nika Melia, deescalate the crisis, and recommit to dialogue rather than aggression.”

  • Hastings Deplores Sentencing of Alexei Navalny

    WASHINGTON—Following the sentencing of Alexei Navalny to two years and eight months in a Russian penal colony, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) issued the following statement: “Those who uncover the Kremlin’s corruption and demand more accountable government for the Russian people often pay with their freedom—or their lives. After the scheme to kill Alexei Navalny failed, Putin is now trying to silence him with a prison sentence. This mockery of justice is a grave insult to Mr. Navalny and to all Russians who wish to exercise their freedoms without fear of abuse.” On February 2, a Russian judge sentenced Navalny to three and a half years in a prison colony for violating the terms of a suspended sentence related to a 2014 case that the European Court of Human Rights called “arbitrary and unreasonable.” Previous time served under house arrest will reduce his prison time to two years and eight months. On January 29, Helsinki Commission leaders condemned Navalny’s detention in Moscow upon his return from Berlin, where he was recovering from an assassination attempt by the Russian FSB.

  • Cardin Condemns Sentencing of Russian Opposition Leader Alexei Navalny

    WASHINGTON—U.S. Senator Ben Cardin (D-Md.), a senior member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and author of the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act, issued the following statement in response to the sentencing of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny. “The Russian court case we just witnessed against Alexei Navalny was a farce beyond compare. Mr. Nalvany’s sentence to 2 1/2 more years in prison on charges that he violated the terms of his probation while he was recuperating in Germany from nerve-agent poisoning is appalling. I am deeply disturbed by Putin and his cronies’ continued efforts to repress democracy and independent voices. The international community is watching. There must be consequences for these latest actions. “I encourage the Biden-Harris administration to quickly respond to this latest move by Putin. The list of Russia’s transgressions continues to grow: the apparent use of a chemical weapon against Mr. Navalany, cyberattacks against the U.S. government and U.S. companies, and interfering in U.S. elections. We need to stand up against ongoing, aggressive Russian actions. I urge my colleagues to join me in supporting the bipartisan Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Reauthorization Act (S. 93) and Combatting Global Corruption Act (S. 14) that I have introduced in this Congress. Putin has shown how much he despises Magnitsky laws, which is why we must continue to make them stronger as a strong signal to him and other authoritarian regimes that protecting human rights and fighting corruption are central U.S. national security priorities.”

  • Helsinki Commission Leaders Condemn Jailing of Navalny, Attacks on Peaceful Protesters across Russia

    WASHINGTON—Following Alexei Navalny’s recent arrest, violent attacks on peaceful protesters across Russia, and police raids on the offices and homes of Navalny and his colleagues, Helsinki Commission leaders Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20), Sen. Roger Wicker (MS), Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02), and Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) issued the following statements: “Protesters who support Mr. Navalny’s release and seek a more just Russia should not be beaten in the streets and treated like criminals,” said Rep. Hastings. “The true criminals are those who continue to enable Putin and his cronies to steal from the people of Russia.” “What has happened to Alexei Navalny is a travesty. After being poisoned at the Kremlin’s orders, he returned home to Russia only to be jailed for the ‘crime’ of pulling back the curtain on the corruption and violence entrenched in Putin’s system,” said Sen. Wicker. “Those who expose the truth should be rewarded, not condemned.” “If Vladimir Putin did not fear Navalny and his anti-corruption movement, he would not go to such great lengths to silence them,” said Rep. Wilson. “He understands that his power is threatened when the truth is exposed.” “Mr. Navalny must be allowed to return to his family and his work without further harassment by the Kremlin,” said Sen. Cardin. “The Russian people have the right to protest peacefully and advocate for the future of their country without fear of violent retribution from Putin.” In August 2020, Navalny was the victim of a coordinated assassination attempt by the Russian FSB that used a chemical weapon in the Novichok family. After holding him for two days in Russia, Russian authorities allowed Navalny to travel to Berlin, where he spent months recovering, for treatment. Navalny returned to Moscow on January 17 and immediately was arrested. Shortly thereafter, in a makeshift trial in a Moscow police station, Navalny was sentenced to 30 days of pre-trial detention. He will receive his final sentence on February 2. Following Navalny’s detention and his release of an exposé documenting Vladimir Putin’s palace on the Black Sea, thousands of Russians in over 100 cities and towns took to the streets on January 23 to protest. Police responded with widespread violence and over 3,700 people, including more than 50 journalists, were detained. Additional protests are planned for January 31.

  • Helsinki Commissioners Reintroduce Ukraine Religious Freedom Support Act

    WASHINGTON—Helsinki Commission Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) and Commissioner Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, II (MO-05) yesterday reintroduced the bipartisan Ukraine Religious Freedom Support Act (H.R. 496) in the House of Representatives. The House unanimously passed the original legislation, which targets Russia’s religious freedom violations in Ukraine, on November 18, 2020. “The Kremlin and its proxies continue to imprison and torture people on Ukrainian territory for their faith. Russian government perpetrators must be punished for these crimes,” said Rep. Wilson. “This legislation would ensure that the president of the United States has the authority and mandate to impose costs on Russian officials who are responsible for such assaults on religious freedom.” “The yoke of Putin’s occupation and oppression weighs heavily on Ukrainians. The desire to seek and follow the truth, to explore ultimate meaning, is written on every human heart,” said Rep. Cleaver. “We must stand up to the Russian government’s attempts to suppress the freedom of Ukrainians to follow their religious conscience.” The Ukraine Religious Freedom Support Act would require the president of the United States to consider particularly severe violations of religious freedom in Russia-occupied or otherwise controlled territory in Ukraine when determining whether to designate Russia as a Country of Particular Concern (CPC) for such violations. The bill authorizes the president to hold Russia responsible for violations in Ukrainian territory it illegally occupies or controls, not just for violations inside Russia’s internationally-recognized borders. The International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 requires the president to designate CPCs when their governments engage in or tolerate particularly severe violations of religious freedom, including killings, torture, abduction, and detention. It also requires the president to then take 15 specific actions, or commensurate action, and ban the foreign officials responsible from entering the United States. The Secretary of State has placed Russia on the Special Watch List for countries with severe violations every year since 2018. The legislation also states, “It is the policy of the United States to never recognize the illegal, attempted annexation of Crimea by the Government of the Russia or the separation of any portion of Ukrainian territory through the use of military force.” Russian forces first invaded Crimea in February 2014 and continue to illegally occupy it. Since April 2014, Russia has controlled parts of the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine with non-state armed groups and illegal entities it commands. Under international humanitarian law, including the Geneva Conventions, Russia is responsible for religious freedom violations in Crimea and parts of the Donbas. Participating States of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, including Russia, have repeatedly committed to respect and protect freedom of religion or belief. The Helsinki Commission has compiled 16 documents outlining religious freedom commitments made by OSCE participating States. Original co-sponsors of the legislation include Helsinki Commissioners Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (PA-01), Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), Rep. Richard Hudson (NC-08), and Rep. Gwen S. Moore (WI-04). Rep. Gus M. Bilirakis (FL-12), Rep. Anna G. Eshoo (CA-18), and Rep. Andy Harris, M.D. (MD-01) are also original cosponsors.

  • Helsinki Commission Digital Digest: January 2021

  • Ambassador Max Kampelman’s Contributions to the Helsinki Process

    By Emma Derr, Max Kampelman Fellow The Helsinki Commission’s flagship fellowship program recognizes former U.S. Ambassador Max Kampelman, who spent his life working toward comprehensive security at home and across the Atlantic. Over his career, which spanned more than half a century, Kampelman defended the principles of the Helsinki Final Act, strengthened the Helsinki process, and fought to reduce—and later eliminate—nuclear arms. One of his strongest legacies was his belief in bipartisanship, demonstrated by his service to both Democrats and Republicans and in his role as a U.S. ambassador. In the words of longtime Helsinki Commissioner Senator Ben Cardin (MD), “It was a privilege for me and so many of my colleagues to work with a great and good man, whose example reminded us every day: this is what leadership looks like.” Max Kampelman: The Ambassador Kampelman began his career as legislative counsel to Senator Hubert Humphrey before joining the private law practice of Fried Frank.  Although he practiced private law for the majority of his career, Kampelman continued to serve the United States when called on by presidents of both parties. In 1980, President Jimmy Carter asked Kampelman to represent the United States as the lead negotiator at the 1980 Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) meeting in Madrid, which sought to bring eastern European countries into compliance with the Helsinki Final Act. The meeting was supposed to last two to three months. It lasted three years. Under President Ronald Reagan, Kampelman continued to lead these negotiations until an agreement was reached in 1983. In 1990, in the aftermath of the fall of the Berlin Wall, OSCE participating States gathered to unite their different definitions of European security. Kampelman led the U.S. delegation to this historic meeting and advocated for democratic elections and universal human rights.   “He played a pivotal role in securing agreement on the first international instrument to recognize the specific problem of anti-Semitism and the human rights problems faced by Roma,” said Sen. Cardin. “Moreover, at a moment when Europe stood at a crossroads, Max Kampelman negotiated standards on democracy and the rule of law that remain unmatched.” “The Copenhagen document has been called by a number of professors of international law the most important international human rights document since the Magna Carta, and it spells out what a democracy means. If anybody was to come and join this process, they would be joining what is apparent, a series of 'oughts;' and that’s our task. Once the 'oughts' are there, we have a leg up toward the 'is.'”  ​ Amb. Max Kampelman in a 2003 interview The Copenhagen document strengthened the Helsinki Process by including unprecedented provisions, such as the commitment to democracy as the only form of governance. It also emphasized the rights of national minorities and the right to freedom of association, freedom of conscience, and freedom of expression. The CSCE eventually became today’s Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the world’s largest regional security organization. Max Kampelman: The Arms Advisor In addition to his work defending the Helsinki Final Act, Kampelman also negotiated arms control agreements and guided the United States through some of the most difficult periods of U.S.-Soviet relations. By the end of his career, Kampelman had engaged in more than 400 hours of face-to-face negotiations with the Soviets. He successfully protected the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), a system designed under Reagan to protect against potential nuclear attacks, from Soviet efforts to stifle it. He led negotiation efforts on the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty and the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), effectively reducing nuclear arms for the first time in history.   During the late phases of the Cold War, Kampelman helped arrange the release of political and religious dissidents from the Soviet Union. “We cannot wish it away. It is here and it is militarily powerful. We share the same globe. We must try to find a formula under which we can live together in dignity. We must engage in that pursuit of peace without illusion but with persistence, regardless of provocation." ​ Amb. Max Kampelman, ahead of 1985 arms negotiations Kampelman dedicated much of his later years to Global Zero, envisioning a world without nuclear weapons and encouraging statesmen Henry Kissinger, Sam Nunn, William Perry, and George Shultz, to advocate for this goal. For his service to his country, Kampelman received the Presidential Citizens Medal from President George H.W. Bush in 1989 and the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, from Bill Clinton in 1999. Max Kampelman’s Early Life Kampelman was born in New York in 1920 to parents who had immigrated from what was then part of Romania. He grew up in the Bronx and received a law degree from NYU in 1945. During World War II, he registered for alternate service as a conscientious objector. Kampelman enrolled in a strict food and work regimen known as the Minnesota Starvation Experiment to help authorities understand how to treat prisoner of war and concentration camp survivors. During this time, he finished his doctorate in political science from the University of Minnesota, titled "The Communist Party and the CIO: A Study in Power Politics." He opposed Communism and opposed war, but his feelings regarding nonviolence changed over time with the development of the atomic and hydrogen bombs, later leading him to renounce his earlier pacifist beliefs. Kampelman said his prevailing desire for American foreign policy was to turn the 21st century into the century of democracy. He died on January 25, 2013, at age 92.

  • OSCE Ministerial Council Appoints Top Leaders, Adopts Several Key Decisions Amidst Constraints of COVID-19 and Conflict in Europe

    By Shannon Simrell, Representative of the Helsinki Commission to the U.S. Mission to the OSCE Foreign ministers of the 57 OSCE participating States convened on December 3 - 4, 2020, for the 27th OSCE Ministerial Council. For the first time, this annual gathering was convened in an entirely virtual format due to the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite a turbulent year, which included managing not only the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic but also the global anti-racism protests initiated following the killing of George Floyd; ongoing protracted conflicts in Moldova, Georgia, and Ukraine; fraudulent elections and systemic human rights violations in Belarus; and a renewal of active conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia, consensus was achieved on many, but not all, draft decisions. The United States delegation to the Ministerial Council was led by Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun. The delegation and included Deputy Assistant Secretaries of State George P. Kent, Michael Murphy, and Bruce Turner; Acting Assistant Secretary of State Philip Reeker; U.S. Ambassador to the OSCE James Gilmore; U.S Helsinki Commission Chief of Staff Alex Johnson; and Helsinki Commission staff Robert Hand, Janice Helwig, Rebecca Neff, Erika Schlager, Shannon Simrell, Dr. Mischa Thompson, and Alex Tiersky. A Call to “Turn a Corner” from Crisis to Cooperation Leveraging the meeting’s virtual format, national statements were livestreamed, offering transparency of the proceedings. Albanian Prime Minister and OSCE Chairperson-in-Office Edi Rama opened the meeting by recalling the solidarity of the signatories of the Helsinki Final Act and Charter of Paris and requesting that ministers “turn a corner” and demonstrate the political will required to address the multiple and complex challenges faced by the organization and across the region. In his remarks, Deputy Secretary Biegun reaffirmed U.S. priorities for engagement at the OSCE, underscoring the commitment to European peace and security and highlighting key challenges facing the OSCE region including Russia’s continued aggression in eastern Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia, and the destabilizing effect of its flagrant violations of the OSCE’s foundational principles.  He called upon Belarus to hold accountable those responsible for its human rights violations and electoral crisis, urged Armenia and Azerbaijan to engage with the Minsk Group Co-Chairs to attain a lasting end to the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, and warned States against using COVID-19 as a pretext to restrict civil society, independent media, or public access to information. Finally, he expressed concern about the increasing number of political prisoners and the rise in cases of anti-Semitism, anti-Roma racism, and other forms of hatred and hate crimes in the OSCE region since the onset of the pandemic.  Consensus Achieved on Organizational Leadership, Preventing Torture, Countering Corruption, and More Despite the challenges inherent in virtual negotiations, consensus was achieved on 11 texts spanning all three OSCE dimensions of comprehensive security and supporting the organization’s internal governance. Ministers agreed on the appointment of the OSCE’s top four leaders: Helga Schmid (Germany) as Secretary General, Maria Teresa Ribiero (Portugal) as Representative on Freedom of the Media, Matteo Mecacci (Italy) as Director of the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), and Kairat Abdrakhmanov (Kazakhstan) as High Commissioner on National Minorities.  The decisions broke a months-long impasse after Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, Turkey, and others blocked the reappointment of the previous executives, leaving the organization leaderless since July. Participating States also reached consensus on several decisions that added to OSCE’s body of commitments. One such decision concerned the prevention and eradication of torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, building on existing OSCE commitments. A version of the text was originally proposed in 2014 by Switzerland during their 2014 Chairpersonship of the OSCE. The initiative reflected the country’s historic leadership in the area of international humanitarian law and profound concerns regarding torture in the context of counterterrorism efforts.  The proposal was reintroduced over successive Ministerial Councils before its adoption in 2020.  The widespread use of torture and other horrific abuse by Belarusian authorities, documented by the November 2020 report under the OSCE Moscow Mechanism, added urgency to this decision this year.  As adopted, the decision includes explicit references to enforced disappearances and to incommunicado detention. Participating States also adopted decisions on preventing and combating corruption; strengthening co-operation to counter transnational organized crime; deepening cooperation with OSCE’s Asian Partners;  supporting the Transdniestrian settlement process (also known in the OSCE as the “5+2” format, which brings together representatives of Moldova, Transdniestria, the OSCE, the Russian Federation, Ukraine, the European Union, and the United States); and selecting North Macedonia to chair the organization in 2023. Unfinished Business Unfortunately, participating States did not reach consensus on several other important drafts, including one co-sponsored by the United States and Belarus based on lessons learned during the COVID-19 pandemic that would have set out new commitments for participating States to effectively combat human trafficking during times of emergency. Other proposals, including texts to modernize the Vienna Document (a wide-ranging confidence- and security-building measure that includes provisions requiring notification of significant military activities, as well as an exchange of information about armed forces, military organization, and major weapon and equipment systems), enhance public-private partnerships to counter terrorism, and counter trafficking in natural resources were scuttled by Russian, Azerbaijani, and Armenian intransigence.  Some drafts which did not reach consensus among all 57 states were turned into statements issued and signed by those countries that had supported their adoption. The United States signed onto nine such statements to support the concept of women, peace and security outlined in UN Security Council Resolution 1325; modernization of the politico-military framework of the Vienna Document; and a number of statements related to the OSCE’s role in addressing regional challenges like ending the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, improving human rights compliance by Belarus, countering Russian aggression in Ukraine and the Republic of Georgia, and addressing challenges relating to the COVID-19 pandemic.   The Albanian Chairperson, together with the OSCE’s 2019 Slovak Chairperson, and the OSCE’s three incoming Chairpersons (the “Quint”) issued two joint statements, one expressing concern about the ongoing conflict in Ukraine and another reaffirming the principles enshrined the Helsinki Final Act and the Charter of Paris for a New Europe. Side events highlight continuing challenges The Ministerial Council’s four side events highlighted priority areas for participating States and for the Parliamentary Assembly. Due to the virtual format, events on the Belarus Moscow Mechanism report, human rights violations in Crimea, combatting human trafficking during the COVID-19 crisis, and the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly’s call for renewed political will to address contemporary challenges, attracted hundreds of participants. Deputy Assistant Secretary Kent closed the Moscow Mechanism side event by promising to maintain a focus on the situation in Belarus, to support efforts to hold authorities accountable for torture and other human rights violations, and to ensure the voice of the Belarusian people is heard in determining their country’s future. At a side event organized by the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly titled “A Call to Action: Reaffirming a Common Purpose,” Helsinki Commission Ranking Member Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) affirmed the strong bipartisan support in the United States for the OSCE, and recognized it as vital forum to promote security, defend human rights and encourage democratic development in all OSCE countries. He argued that greater political accountability rather than organizational reform would make the OSCE more relevant and effective in the years ahead. “It remains the responsibility of the participating States to hold each other to account. In the face of repression at home or aggression abroad, the OSCE will succeed as a multilateral forum as long as those who are true believers stand united in defending the ten Helsinki principles and forthrightly raise violations in this forum.” ​ Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), Ranking Member, U.S. Helsinki Commission, OSCE MC 2020 Side Event on “A Call to Action” Due to challenges related to convening during the COVID-19 pandemic, the NGO network Civic Solidarity Platform did not organize its annual Civil Society Conference, which had been held in conjunction with each OSCE Ministerial Council since its first convening during the 2010 OSCE Summit in Astana. Instead, the network organized a series of webinars in December to maintain focus on key issues of concern. 2021: OSCE’s Swedish Chairpersonship “Back to Basics” Looking ahead to its 2021 Chairpersonship, Swedish Foreign Minister Ann Linde said that Sweden will work to get “back to basics:” defending the European security order, contributing to resolving conflicts, and upholding the OSCE’s comprehensive concept of security with a special focus on human rights, democracy, and gender equality.

  • Helsinki Commission Digital Digest: December 2020

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