Remembering the 50th Anniversary of the Hungarian Uprising

Remembering the 50th Anniversary of the Hungarian Uprising

Hon.
Christopher H. Smith
United States
House of Representatives
110th Congress Congress
First Session Session
Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Mr. Chairman, this past October, Hungary celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Hungarian Uprising. As President Bush said in his October 18 Presidential Proclamation, “the story of Hungarian democracy represents the triumph of liberty over tyranny.” Like the President, I honor the men and women who struggled – not only in 1956 but for many years thereafter – for democracy in Hungary. 

The following remarks were made by Istvan Gereben, a man who came to this country after the 1956 revolution, but who never forgot his homeland. They were delivered by Mr. Gereben in San Francisco on October 22, 2006, at the “Remember Hungary 1956” Commemoration, at the California State Building.

REVOLUTION, REBIRTH, FREEDOM: 
HUNGARY 1956

From the shadows of blood, iron bars, gallows and simple wooden crosses we step today into the sunshine of remembrance, hope, duty and responsibility. During the past sixteen years the ideas, guiding principles, heroes and martyrs of 1956 gained amends. The moral and political legacy of the Hungarian Revolution, however, still, even today, is misunderstood, misrepresented and waiting to be fully appreciated. 

We remember…our friends, the “Kids of Pest”, the colleagues, the relatives, the familiar strangers. The brave Hungarians. Let’s remember the dead here, thousands of miles away from their graves but close to their soul, grieving woefully, but full with hope. We pray for those who in their defeat became triumphant. “For what they have done has been to expose the brutal hypocrisy of Communism for all mankind” –declared Archibald McLeish in the Special Report of Life Magazine in 1957. 

Why did it happen? 

The best answer can be found in Sandor Marai’s poem: “Christmas 1956." Angel from Heaven.” 

The whole world is talking about the miracle. 
Priests talk about bravery in their sermons. 
A politician says the case is closed. 
The Pope blesses the Hungarian people. 
And each group, each class, everybody 
Asks why it happened this way. 
Why didn’t they die out as expected? 
Why didn’t they meekly accept their fate? 
Why was the sky torn apart? 
Because a people said, “Enough!” 

They who were born free do not understand, 
They do not understand that 
“Freedom is so important, so important!” 

The fight waged by Hungarians in 1956 was inspired by a burning desire for freedom of the individual and the nation, by want for national independence, by thirst for full national and individual sovereignty and by hunger for inner democracy. This Revolution against the Soviet occupiers was a defining moment in Hungarian history and in the nation’s political culture. 1956 was one of the most powerful nail driven into the coffin of an evil and fraudulent tyranny. 

Then and continuously since we witness the expression of praise, admiration of and support for the aims of this miracle that is called the Hungarian Revolution. 

Let’s refresh our memory with some of the more striking observations by our friends here in America and elsewhere in the World: 

President John F. Kennedy: 
“October 23, 1956 is a day that will forever live in the annals of free men and free nations. It was a day of courage, conscience and triumph. No other day since history began has shown more clearly the eternal unquenchability of man’s desire to be free, whatever the odds against success, whatever the sacrifice required” 
(Statement, October 23, 1960) 

President Ronald Reagan: 
“The Hungarian Revolution of 1956 was a true revolution of, by and for the people. Its motivations were humanity’s universal longings to live, worship, and work in peace and to determine one’s own destiny. The Hungarian Revolution forever gave the lie to communism’s claim to represent the people, and told the world that brave hearts still exist to challenge injustice” 
(Excerpt from the Presidential Proclamation issued on October 20, 1986.) 

President George W. Bush: 
“On the 50th anniversary of the Hungarian Revolution, we celebrate the Hungarians who defied an empire to demand their liberty; we recognize the friendship between the United States and Hungary; and we reaffirm our shared desire to spread freedom to people around the world.” 
(Excerpt from the Presidential Proclamation issued on October 18, 2006.) 

Milovan Djilas: 
“The changes in Poland mean the triumph of national Communism, which in a different form we have seen in Yugoslavia. The Hungarian uprising is something more, a new phenomenon, perhaps no less meaningful than the French or Russian Revolutions…The revolution in Hungary means the beginning of the end of Communism.” 
(Excerpt from: “The Storm in Eastern Europe,” “The New Leader,” No. 19, 1956) 

The New York Times: 
“We accuse the Soviet Government of murder. We accuse it of the foulest treachery and the basest deceit known to man. We accuse it of having committed so monstrous crime against the Hungarian people yesterday that its infamy can never be forgiven or forgotten.” 
(In an editorial in the paper’s November 1956 issue.) 

I could continue with Statements made by Albert Camus, President Richard Nixon, Sir Leslie Munroe, Henry Kissinger, Leo Chern, Pablo Picasso, Nehru and I could read hundreds and hundreds of pages from the Congressional Record listing the praising remarks of hundreds and hundreds lawmakers uttered in the past 50 years. All the words were saved for posterity, everyone can find and savor them. 

October 23, 1956 happened when two powerful ideas – tyrannical communism and the eternal human principles of democracy – met and clashed in the middle of Europe, in the small and defenseless Hungary. In this inherently uneven conflict blood was shed and lives were lost. Imre Nagy and his colleagues were arrested, tried and most of them along with countless Freedom Fighters were executed on June 16, 1958. 

Since their death, the political and human challenge has been to find the rationale for their supreme sacrifice. This rationale is the indestructible dignity of every human being. By refusing to beg for his life, Imre Nagy repudiated his personal past for a more hopeful future of Hungary and the world at large. 

The significance of his and countless other Hungarians’ sacrifice is etched onto the political map of the 21st century. The invented hope of the Hungarian Revolution is taking shape in the recent developments throughout the world. That is the real miracle of the events of 1956 and the subsequent human sacrifices of Imre Nagy and his fellow Freedom Fighters. 

The Revolution was brutally and unavoidably defeated. 

Why was the fate of the Revolution predetermined? Why did it happen so that when we in the last days of October and the early days of November in 1956 enthusiastically and full with hope sensing victory strolled the streets of Budapest and the cities and villages of Hungary not suspecting that our fate, independently from us, already has been determined. The deadly sentence was delivered by the powers of the world? And if it is so why was the verdict such as it was? 

Even after 50 years there is still no answer. 

The questions are not new. The lack of answer frustrated many historians, political scientists but none had the determination, the skill, the objectivity and patience to provide an authentic answer. 

Robert Murphy, who, in the absence of Secretary of State John Foster Dulles from Washington, attended to the day to day business of the State Department during the Hungarian Revolution, summarized his frustration caused by not being able to find a satisfactory answer to Hungary’s demands in his autobiography, Diplomat Among Warriors, published in 1964 this way: 

“In retrospect, world acceptance of the Russian aggression in Hungary is still incredible. For sheer perfidy and relentless suppression of a courageous people longing for their liberty, Hungary will always remain a classic symbol. Perhaps history will demonstrate that the free world could have intervened to give the Hungarians the liberty they sought, but none of us in the State department had the skill or the imagination to devise a way.” 

This answer seems to be the most honest one. 

Hungarians have fallen back in the Soviet yoke. But the nation persevered. 

There are times when remembrance is the bravest action – declared Gyula Illyes the eminent Hungarian poet in the middle of the twentieth century. Today such times are present in Hungary. The time for bravery to remain faithful to the moral and political maxims of the Revolution. Bravery witnessed not against the tanks, soldiers and henchmen of the occupying empire, bravery not contesting a strange, inhuman ideology, but courage to face insensitivity, to confront and solve the problems of humdrum everyday life, the bravery necessary to assume the responsibility and sacrifice of building a truly modern country, which is democratic, committed to observe the rule of law and governed by the constitution. At the present this kind of bravery does not uniformly characterize all Hungarians. 

Hungary was redeemed 35 years after the defeated Revolution. During that 35 years her plight to fulfill the demands of 1956 gained respect and support in the West. The courage, the intelligence, the determination and the skill of the Hungarian Democratic Opposition to engage a first bloodthirsty, later sophisticated dictatorship resulted in recognition of the opposition’s leaders as authoritative spokesman for the fulfillment of the desires of the Hungarian people. They were inspired by the spirit of the Revolution and adopted its maxims. 

In the United States Presidents and ordinary citizens lined up in support behind the Democratic Opposition. The United States by publicly expressing support in words and in action provided protection for individuals and the whole community of the dissidents. 

The U.S. Government published English translations of selected samizdat literature produced by opposition activists. Many volumes each with hundreds of pages of these were printed and distributed in the 70s and the 80s. A collection of these is deposited in the National Szechenyi Library in Budapest. 

Information provided by the dissidents were used by the Hungarian Freedom Fighters Federation U.S.A. and the Coordinating Committee of Hungarian Organizations in North America in their countless testimonies before Congress, the U.S Commission on Security and Cooperation, and in numerous briefings presented in the White House and in the State and Defense Departments. 

A longstanding issue between the Hungarian Communist Government and the Opposition, Hungarians abroad and more significantly the United States Government was the unwillingness of the Communist Government to identify the secret location of the graves in which the executed Freedom Fighters were buried. A campaign covering several decades by U.S. Presidents, Congressman, the Commission on Security and Cooperation, hundreds of leading public figures and civic organizations culminated in a letter sent on June 20, 1988, by Congressman Frank Horton, along with forty-three other Representatives urging Prime Minister Karoly Grosz of Hungary to comply with the many requests filed with the Hungarian Government in the past and allow the family members of the executed to have access to the body of their relatives. Responding in letter dated July 18, 1988 the Prime Minister wrote: 

“My Government has the intention to settle this problem in a humane spirit in the near future, enabling the families to rebury the dead and to pay their tribute at the graves.” 

The public ceremony of the reburial took place on June 16, 1989 in the presence of 200,000 grieving Hungarians. With this act the road opened to free parliamentary and local elections in 1990 and the formation of a free Government. 

The demands of the Hungarian people were fulfilled. The building of a constitutional parliamentary democracy is under way. 

In these days worrisome news comes from Hungary indicating that the road is not smooth. The diamond of twentieth century Hungarian history that was formed in 1956 under the stresses of the circumstances and in the fire burning in every Hungarian’s heart is being tested today in Hungary. False prophets, eager mouths, zealous hands driven by dark emotions attempt to pulverize this gem into powder of coal and then burn it into ashes and dross. They will not succeed. History and we will not let them to succeed. 

On this 50th Anniversary when we remember and pay tribute to the ideals and heroes of 1956, we also affirm our deeply felt conviction that lasting freedom and democracy will not take hold in Hungary unless the precepts of the Revolution regarding resolute unity, sacrifice, human and political wisdom are practically and fully implemented. We call upon those who are responsible for Hungary’s welfare to heed to the principles for which so many died in 1956 and to whose memory we pay tribute today. 

We pray that it will be so! Lord Hear our prayer… God bless Hungary…Isten aldd meg a magyart! 
 

Relevant countries: 
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    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following briefing: “Human Rights Violations in Russian-Occupied Crimea” Friday, December 11 2:00 PM Rayburn House Office Building Room B-318 Russia’s illegal annexation of Ukraine’s sovereign territory of Crimea in March 2014 – which flagrantly violated numerous international agreements, including core OSCE principles enshrined in the Helsinki Final Act – resulted in a deplorable human rights situation that continues today.   Changes in government and the legal framework in Crimea following Russia’s annexation have had a toxic impact on human rights and fundamental freedoms. Violations of civil, political, social, economic, and cultural rights are widespread, especially against those who openly oppose the Russian occupation, including Crimean Tatars and other ethnic, political, and religious groups. The Helsinki Commission briefing will present key findings of the recent report, “Human Rights on Occupied Territory: Case of Crimea,” prepared by an international team of lawyers led by Ivanna Bilych.  Panelists from Ukraine will provide valuable insights about the situation on the ground. The following panelists are scheduled to participate: Ivanna Bilych, Co-founder and President of VOLYA Institute, board member of the Ukrainian American Bar Association Andriy Klymenko, Chief Editor of Black Sea News; prominent economist, originally from Crimea Bohdan Yaremenko, Chairman of the board of the Ukrainian non-governmental organization, Maidan of Foreign Affairs, former Ukrainian diplomat Yuriy Yatsenko, Activist of the Maidan Revolution of Dignity who was illegally imprisoned in Russia on political grounds and recently released after a year of imprisonment

  • Helsinki Commission Chair Honored by American Hungarian Federation

    WASHINGTON—The American Hungarian Federation honored Helsinki Commission Chair Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04) on October 22 with its Colonel Commandant Michael Kovats Medal of Freedom, awarded to outstanding individuals to recognize their life's achievements, dedication to freedom and democracy, promotion of transatlantic relations, and meritorious contribution to society. “I am delighted to have received the Kovats award, which represents the long-standing commitment of Hungarian Americans to the United States and is a testament to the special ties between our two nations,” said Rep. Smith. “Colonel Kovats gave his life for the cause of freedom during the American Revolution, and truly embodied the courage and patriotism of the Hungarian people. This courage was reflected during the 1956 Hungarian Revolution against the Soviet-installed communist dictatorship, which remains a model of patriotism, heroism and resistance against tyranny.” Rep. Dan Lipinski (IL-03) was also honored with the Kovats Medal by the American Hungarian Federation, which was founded in 1906. It is the largest Hungarian-American umbrella organization in the United States and among the oldest ethnic organizations in the country. “Rep. Smith is a strong supporter of good bilateral relations with Hungary, and recognizes that the U.S. has a strategic interest in maintaining good ties with that country,” said Frank Koszorús, Jr., National President of the American Hungarian Federation.  “He steadfastly promotes human rights and democracy, and has traveled to Budapest to better gauge what is happening on the ground and to understand the country, its people, its hopes and fears, and its accomplishments over the centuries.” Also attending Thursday’s event, which marked the 59th anniversary of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, were Hungarian Ambassador Réka Szemerkényi, Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (FL-25), and Rep. Dennis Ross (FL-15). “It was in the month of October, on the twenty-third day in 1956, that the small Eastern European nation of Hungary rose up in a revolution against the Soviet Union that represented the first major challenge to its military dominion since World War II… this was David facing down Goliath in the modern era, and as such it remains and will remain an inspiration to freedom loving people everywhere,” said Dr. Louis S. Segesvary of the American Hungarian Federation. “Hungary and the United States share a similar past. Both risked revolutions against the greatest powers of their times.” “Almost 60 years after the Hungarian revolution, and more than 25 years after the regime change, it is more important than ever for Hungarians and Americans alike to remember that communism was not a beautiful utopia,” said Marion Smith, Executive Director of the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, which co-hosted the program. “It was and is an ideology that enables tyranny. Communist regimes everywhere systematically killed a portion of their own people as a matter of policy in peacetime, denied citizens their basic rights, robbed them of their food and of their labor, and tore families apart in maintaining a police state.”

  • Bipartisan Congressional Delegation Represents US at OSCE Parliamentary Assembly; Also Visits Ukraine, Czech Republic

    Forty years after the signing of the Helsinki Final Act established the precursor to today’s Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), five members of the Helsinki Commission and four other members of Congress traveled to the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly Annual Session in Helsinki to demonstrate the U.S. commitment to confronting Russian aggression in Ukraine and elsewhere. Led by Commission Co-Chairman Senator Roger F. Wicker (MS), the bicameral, bipartisan delegation organized by the Helsinki Commission included Commission Chairman Representative Chris Smith (NJ- 04); House Commissioners Robert B. Aderholt (AL-04), Steve Cohen (TN-09) and Alan Grayson (FL-09); and Representatives Gwen Moore (WI-04), Michael Fitzpatrick (PA-08), Richard Hudson (NC-08) and Ruben Gallego (AZ-07). Before attending the Annual Session from July 5 to 7, several members of the delegation also visited Ukraine and the Czech Republic. A central concern to the delegation throughout the trip was Russia’s restrictions on democracy at home and aggression in Ukraine, along with Russia’s threat to European security.

  • Helsinki Commission Calls for Renewed Commitment to Defending Human Rights of Roma

    WASHINGTON — U.S. Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04), Chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, and U.S. Senator Roger Wicker (MS), Co-Chairman of the Commission, released the following statement regarding the observation of International Roma Day:  “In a number of OSCE countries, Roma continue to be denied equal access to housing, suffer disproportionately from high unemployment, and routinely face discrimination in public life. Racial profiling by police, mass evictions, and forced expulsions are commonplace. “Roma children are underserved by governments that fail to guarantee them access to a quality education. In some countries, systematic segregation removes Roma from regular schools and places them into educational institutions designed for children with learning disabilities. Some Roma children succeed against overwhelming odds; the vast majority of them are left behind. “In response to this human tragedy, European governments have promoted ‘action plans’ and ‘framework strategies’ for Roma over the past two decades. However, these efforts have largely lacked a key ingredient for success: political will. On International Roma Day, we strongly urge the governments of OSCE participating nations to renew their commitment to defending and promoting basic human rights of Roma throughout the region.”

  • Chairman Smith Condemns Brutal Murder of Former Russian Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov

    WASHINGTON—Following tonight’s reports of the shooting death of peaceful opposition leader and former Russian Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov in Moscow, Helsinki Commission Chairman Chris Smith (NJ-04) issued the following statement:   “I condemn the brutal slaying of Boris Nemtsov in the strongest terms possible. The gangland-style murder of a leading Russian dissident on the streets of Moscow raises the question of whether bullets have replaced the ballot box in Russia, and whether any peaceful opposition voice is safe. We mourn Mr. Nemtsov’s death and send our deepest condolences to his family and friends.” According to Russian officials, Mr. Nemtsov was shot four times in the back on a street near the Kremlin. A leader of Russia’s political opposition, he was a co-founder of Solidarity and a key organizer of a scheduled March 1 protest in Moscow. Mr. Nemtsov served as First Deputy Prime Minister of Russia under President Boris Yeltsin. He spoke at a Helsinki Commission event in Washington in November 2010 at the world premiere of the film “Justice for Sergei.”

  • Chairman Smith and Rep. McGovern Introduce “Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act”

    WASHINGTON—Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04), Chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the U.S. Helsinki Commission, and Rep. Jim McGovern (MA-02), today introduced the “Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act” (H.R. 624). The bill prohibits foreign human rights offenders and corrupt officials operating anywhere in the world from entering into the United States and blocks their U.S. assets. It effectively globalizes and strengthens the “Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act of 2012,” which was directed at individuals and entities from Russia. “The ‘Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act’ is a game-changer, and demonstrates America’s commitment to protecting human rights worldwide,” said Chairman Smith. “We are sending a message to the world’s worst human rights violators:  we will shine a spotlight on your crimes. We will deny your visas. We will freeze your assets. No matter who you are or how much money you have, you won’t be enjoying the fruits of your misdeeds by visiting the United States or taking advantage of our financial institutions.” “We have made important progress in the last few years,” Rep. McGovern said.  “But since the introduction of the original Magnitsky Act, human rights defenders and anti-corruption activists worldwide have urged us to pass a law that covers similar violations in countries other than Russia.  Through the Global Magnitsky Act, we can better standardize our approach to human rights violators and provide clear guidance to the executive branch on how we expect these perpetrators to be held accountable.” “Conscripting child soldiers, kidnapping political opponents, and brutalizing people based on their religion are horrifying acts for which people must be held accountable – and this bill will do it,” said Chairman Smith. “The earlier Magnitsky Act enjoyed overwhelmingly bipartisan support in both the House and the Senate. I expect the Global Magnitsky Act to move forward with the same level of commitment in both chambers, and on both sides of the aisle.” Earlier this week, Senators Ben Cardin (MD) and John McCain (AZ) introduced similar legislation in the Senate, which also applies worldwide and employs visa bans and property freezes. Unique aspects of the House bill include the requirement that the President impose sanctions if he or she determines that a foreign person has committed gross human rights offenses. The bill also permits the President to sanction perpetrators regardless of whether the victims were exercising or defending basic human rights; requires that the annual Global Magnitsky List be released each year on Human Rights Day; and directs the Comptroller General to assess and report on implementation. Both the “Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act” and the earlier “Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act of 2012” were inspired by Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, who was arrested and imprisoned by the Russian government following his investigation into fraud involving Russian officials. He was beaten to death by prison guards in 2009 after being held in torturous conditions for 11 months without trial. Summary: The “Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act” This act requires the President to publish and update a list of foreign persons or entities that the President determines are responsible, and who the President has sanctioned, for gross violations of internationally recognized human rights – including extrajudicial killings, torture, enforced disappearances, and prolonged, arbitrary detention – or significant corruption. Known as the Global Magnitsky List, the list will be due annually on December 10 (Human Rights Day). Although the bill directs the President to prioritize cases where the victims were seeking to exercise or defend internationally recognized human and rights and freedoms, like freedom of religious, assembly, and expression, or expose illegal government activity, the President can act regardless of the victim. Sanctions on these individuals and entities will include: Prohibiting or revoking U.S. visas or other entry documentation for foreign individuals. Freezing and prohibiting U.S. property transactions of a foreign individual or entity if such property and property interests are in the United States; come within the United States; or are in, or come within, the control of a U.S. person or entity. This act also requires the Comptroller General of the United States to assess the implementation of the law and report to Congress, so that Congress can ensure it is being executed fully.

  • U.S. Helsinki Commission Chair Slams Verdicts in Navalny Trial

    WASHINGTON—Following Tuesday’s guilty verdicts and subsequent sentencing of Alexei and Oleg Navalny in Moscow, U.S. Senator Ben Cardin (MD), Chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, issued the following statement: “I am deeply troubled by the guilty verdicts handed down in the latest manipulation of Russia’s so-called justice system against brothers Alexei and Oleg Navalny. The decision further demonstrates how the Russian government has warped what should be an independent voice and check on executive power into a tool to retaliate against its political opponents, continuing its ongoing crackdown on civil society in general.   “By punishing those who dare to voice their dissent, the Russian government undermines only itself. The Russian people deserve better than leaders who attempt to strangle their freedoms under the guise of deterring criminal activity.  As I noted in my statement Tuesday regarding the addition of names to the U.S. government’s visa ban and asset freeze lists, accountability and transparency are sadly lacking in President Putin’s Russia. “I remind Russia, as an OSCE participating State, that the Helsinki Final Act establishes principles and commitments including respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms within states which it has pledged to uphold. I urge the government of Russia to uphold its obligations and commitments to respect the freedoms of expression, assembly and of the media.  The Russian people must be allowed the right to voice their opinions openly, without fear of retaliation by their own government.” Alexei and Oleg Navalny were accused by the Russian authorities of fraud, charges which are viewed as politically motivated; Alexei Navalny is Russia’s leading anti-corruption crusader and a key member of the political opposition. In 2010, Alexei Navalny appeared at a Helsinki Commission briefing on fraud schemes in the Russian market.

  • U.S. Helsinki Commission Chair Notes Challenges, Need for Action on International Human Rights Day

    WASHINGTON—To mark International Human Rights Day, U.S. Senator Ben Cardin (MD), Chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, issued the following statement: "It has been a difficult year for those of us who are active in human rights in the OSCE region. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has flagrantly violated the principles enshrined in the Helsinki Final Act, exacerbated regional security, and further revealed the weaknesses of Russia’s own democracy .  The space for civil society – the guardians of the rule of law and fundamental freedoms – is shrinking in more than a few of our participating States, including Russia, Azerbaijan, and Hungary, breeding abuse of power and corruption. We have been appalled by violent anti-Semitic attacks and a rising tide of intolerance across the OSCE region against minorities and other vulnerable populations.  Uzbekistan holds the world’s longest-imprisoned journalist, who languishes alongside of thousands of political prisoners. "Clearly, the challenges for the countries of the OSCE are as great as ever.  We look forward to supporting Serbia’s 2015 chairmanship of the OSCE, which offers an opportunity both for the country and for the organization. As the effective successor to the only country to be suspended from the Helsinki process, Serbia is a concrete example of how a country can turn things around and how the OSCE can contribute. "In particular, we urge Serbia to build on decisions adopted at last week's Basel Ministerial Council on combating anti-Semitism and corruption.  These are challenges faced by virtually every OSCE participating State. We hope that Serbia will move forward with conviction to support these initiatives and to defend and advocate for the Helsinki principles throughout the region." December 10, International Human Rights Day, celebrates the adoption of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights by the UN General Assembly on December 10, 1948.

  • U.S. Helsinki Commission to Host Premiere Screening of "The Gang"

    WASHINGTON—The U.S. Helsinki Commission, with the participation of Freedom House and the German Marshall Fund of the United States, today announced the following event: The Gang: 15 Years On and Still Silent A Documentary about Enforced Disappearances in Belarus Wednesday, December 17 5:00 pm – 7:00 pm United States Capitol Visitor Center, Room HVC-201 First Street, SE, Washington, DC In 1999 and 2000, during the first presidential term of Alexander Lukashenka, four prominent leaders were abducted in Belarus: Viktar Hanchar, a member of the dissolved parliament; Anatoly Krasovsky, his close associate; Yuri Zakharenka, a former Minister of the Interior; and Dmitri Zavadski, a journalist known for his critical reporting.  Each of the cases has remained under separate investigation, plagued by minimal progress and multiple inconsistencies. Fifteen years later, as the statute of limitations is running out, a leading Belarusian human rights defender meticulously analyzes rare documentary evidence, including the testimonies of family members, lawyers, and former Belarusian investigators, to piece together a nuanced and unsettling picture that links the unsolved disappearances together. The Gang examines the complicity of senior Belarusian officials in the enforced disappearances, alongside the failure of the Belarusian authorities to properly investigate. The premiere screening of the film is open to the public, and will be followed by a discussion with Raisa Mikhailovskaya, producer and prominent Belarusian human rights defender, and Irina Krasovskaya, co-founder of the We Remember Foundation and the widow of the disappeared businessman Anatoly Krasovsky.

  • The Tyranny You Haven't Heard Of

    You could call it a stealth North Korea: a country in the same league of repression and isolation as the Hermit Kingdom, but with far less attention paid to its crimes. The country is Uzbekistan, one of the Central Asian nations that emerged out of the wreckage of the Soviet Union in 1991. It has brought some unique touches to the conduct of a dictatorship. When political prisoners have served their full terms, they often have their sentences extended for violations such as improperly peeling carrots in the prison kitchen or failing to sweep their cells correctly. At harvest time, millions of students, teachers and other workers are temporarily enslaved to pick cotton to the profit of the regime. It has been known to boil its prisoners alive. But in most ways, it is a classic, hard-core police state, among the worst in the world. Like Zimbabwe, it has a president who will not go away: Islam Karimov, who assumed power as Communist Party boss in 1989. After a quarter-century, Karimov, 76, appears as ensconced as ever, though Uzbekistan’s GDP per capita of $3,800 puts it 171st in the world. Like China, it had its Tiananmen Square massacre: the shooting of hundreds of unarmed protesters in the city of Andijan in 2005, after which the government ramped up its repression nationwide. And like North Korea, it confines in brutal conditions thousands of political prisoners. How many thousands? Probably not the 80,000 to 120,000 who populate North Korea’s gulag. Human rights groups have offered estimates of 10,000 or 12,000. But, as Human Rights Watch noted in a recent report, no one really knows, because, like North Korea, “Uzbekistan has become virtually closed to independent scrutiny.” Foreign correspondents and human rights monitors generally are not granted visas. No U.N. human rights expert has been allowed in since 2002. Even the International Committee of the Red Cross, which is permitted almost everywhere because it never publicly embarrasses a country, had to pull out of Uzbekistan last year because of interference in its attempted prison visits. Drawing the curtains has helped Uzbekistan avoid scrutiny. But the nation has stayed below the radar for another reason, too: The United States and other Western nations have been reluctant to confront Karimov and his regime. They have needed to ship military supplies through Uzbekistan to reach Afghanistan. And as Russian President Vladi­mir Putin has become increasingly hostile, the West has competed with him for the favor of neighboring nations. Thus the tenor of this White House summary of a telephone call between President Obama and Karimov in 2011, unimaginable if Kim Jong Un had been on the other end of the line: “President Obama congratulated President Karimov on Uzbekistan’s 20 years of independence, and the two leaders pledged to continue working to build broad cooperation between our two countries. The President and President Karimov discussed their shared desire to develop a multi-dimensional relationship between the United States and Uzbekistan, including by strengthening the contacts between American and Uzbek civil societies and private sector.” Never mind that Karimov has virtually eradicated Uzbekistan’s “civil sector.” It’s hard to read of such a phone call without thinking of, say, Muhammad Bekjanov, 60, possibly the world’s longest-imprisoned journalist. Uzbek security agents kidnapped Bekjanov in 1999 in Ukraine, where he was living in exile. He has been beaten, shocked, subjected to temporary suffocation (the “bag of death”) and tortured in other ways. He has contracted tuberculosis, and beatings have cost him most of his teeth and much of his hearing. When his term was set to expire in 2012, he was sentenced to another five years for unspecified “violations of prison rules.” Bekjanov’s crime was to have served as editor of an opposition party newspaper. “There may be legitimate national security concerns that the U.S. needs to engage on,” Sarah Margon, Washington director of Human Rights Watch, told me. “That doesn’t mean you have to shove everything else under the rug.” There are some encouraging signs that Congress, at least, may be lifting a corner of that rug. In October the congressional Helsinki Commission, which is chaired by Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) and co-chaired by Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), held a briefing on political prisoners in Uzbekistan. Last week eight senators, including Foreign Relations Committee chairman Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), sent Karimov a letter urging the release of five prisoners, including Bekjanov. These are small steps, but they shine some light on Uzbekistan’s crimes. Karimov cares about his reputation, his access to Western weaponry and his officials’ freedom to travel to Europe and the United States. If Obama also would take some small steps, it might make a big difference to the inmates of Uzbekistan’s invisible gulag.

  • Combating Corruption in the OSCE Region: The Link between Security and Good Governance

    Combating corruption is increasingly recognized as the critical factor in ensuring long-term security, because corruption creates fertile ground for social upheaval and instability. The change in government in Ukraine in 2014 was a prime example of how corruption can fuel legitimate popular discontent. Although the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has created new tools to address corruption, tackling the problem requires more than raising awareness and sharing best practices. In many OSCE participating States, systemic issues including lack of media freedom, lack of political will, and lack of an independent judiciary contribute substantially to persistent high-level and low-level corruption. The hearing drew attention to the work of the OSCE in combating corruption in all 57 participating States, with a particular emphasis on the need to build effective institutions and the important role played by civil society in combatting corruption.

  • U.S. Helsinki Commission Marks Five-Year Anniversary of Sergei Magnitsky’s Death

    WASHINGTON—Sunday, November 16 marked the five-year anniversary of the death of Sergei Magnitsky, who was arrested by the Russian government following his investigation into fraud involving Russian tax officials. He died in prison after being held for 11 months without trial.   U.S. Senator Ben Cardin (MD), Chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, issued the following statement: “It is with sadness and respect that we mark the 5th anniversary of the death of Sergei Magnitsky at the hands of Russian government authorities. During the past five years, the crimes that Sergei first exposed have been further documented.  Despite credible evidence of criminal conduct resulting in Mr. Magnitsky’s death, Russian government officials have failed to bring those responsible to justice. “Perhaps worse, the facts of the case – including misappropriation of Russian tax resources and the ensuing cover-up by Russian government officials – have been distorted, to the extent that the Russian government has posthumously prosecuted the late Mr. Magnitsky for the financial crimes perpetrated by those answerable for his death. “After five years, my outrage at the continuing refusal of Russian leaders’ to confront their own transgressions in the death of Sergei Magnitsky has not abated. Instead, I continue to be amazed at how Russian authorities continue to concoct conspiracy theories attributing blame to others, with tragic consequences: they prohibit their young people from participating in U.S. high school exchange programs, strangle political activity and civic involvement of NGOs, and restrict the media.   “The Russian government has forsaken its obligation to ensure for citizens of the Russian Federation the freedoms of expression, assembly and the right to fair, impartial judicial processes. This rejection has consequences for Russia and its people; for its neighbors, especially Ukraine; and more broadly for us all.   “As we remember Sergei Magnitsky and his sacrifice for justice and transparency in Russia, we and our partners must reaffirm our unwavering support for the international commitments to basic freedoms. The Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act, enacted in 2012, must continue to be used to demonstrate to the world that the voices of those who seek justice and who speak out about human rights violations are heard and valued by the United States of America.”

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