Implementation of the Helsinki Accords Vol I - Human Rights and ContactsWednesday, February 23, 1977
This hearing focused on the implementation of the Helsinki Accords and explored proposals for advancing compliance. The Commissioners and witnesses discussed how the accords could better East-West relations. They discussed how the framework of the Helsinki accords helps provide protection against armed intervention in internal affairs, or the threat of such intervention. The Commissioners heard testimonies from those working on human rights in Warsaw Pact countries and from many American citizens seeking reunification with relatives in Warsaw Pact countries.
Podcast: Seeking Justice in Serbia
Twenty years after U.S. citizens Ylli, Agron, and Mehmet Bytyqi were brutally murdered in Serbia in the aftermath of the 1999 conflict in Kosovo, their brother Ilir documents his family’s fight for justice in the face of inaction by Serbian authorities. Ilir is joined by family lawyer Praveen Madhiraju and Helsinki Commission senior policy advisor Robert Hand. "Helsinki on the Hill" is series of conversations hosted by the U.S. Helsinki Commission on human rights and comprehensive security in Europe and beyond. The Helsinki Commission, formally known as the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, promotes human rights, military security, and economic cooperation in 57 countries in Europe, Eurasia, and North America. Transcript | Episode 2: Seeking Justice in Serbia | Helsinki on the Hill
Justice at Home
Promoting human rights, good governance, and anti-corruption abroad can only be possible if the United States lives up to its values at home. By signing the Helsinki Final Act, the United States committed to respecting human rights and fundamental freedoms, even under the most challenging circumstances. However, like other OSCE participating States, the United States sometimes struggles to foster racial and religious equity, counter hate and discrimination, defend fundamental freedoms, and hold those in positions of authority accountable for their actions. The Helsinki Commission works to ensure that U.S. practices align with the country’s international commitments and that the United States remains responsive to legitimate concerns raised in the OSCE context, including about the death penalty, use of force by law enforcement, racial and religious profiling, and other criminal justice practices; the conduct of elections; and the status and treatment of detainees at Guantanamo Bay and elsewhere.
Human rights within states are crucial to security among states. Prioritizing respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, defending the principles of liberty, and encouraging tolerance within societies must be at the forefront of America's foreign policy agenda. Peace, security, and prosperity cannot be sustained if national governments repress their citizens, stifle their media, or imprison members of the political opposition. Authoritarian regimes become increasingly unstable as citizens chafe under the bonds of persecution and violence, and pose a danger not only to their citizens, but also to neighboring nations. The Helsinki Commission strives to ensure that the protection of human rights and defense of democratic values are central to U.S. foreign policy; that they are applied consistently in U.S. relations with other countries; that violations of Helsinki provisions are given full consideration in U.S. policymaking; and that the United States holds those who repress their citizens accountable for their actions. This includes battling corruption; protecting the fundamental freedoms of all people, especially those who historically have been persecuted and marginalized; promoting the sustainable management of resources; and balancing national security interests with respect for human rights to achieve long-term positive outcomes rather than short-term gains.
Mr. President, I rise today to call to my colleagues' attention to human rights developments in Slovakia. These developments point Slovakia in the opposite direction from the road their neighbors have been traveling. Their neighbors accept western values and seek integration into western institutions, developments leading to individual freedom, political democracy, and economic prosperity in a free market system. In stark contrast, Slovakia is not in compliance with some important Helsinki process commitments and is showing signs of regression toward authoritarian, if not totalitarian relations between the state and its citizens.
This country, which showed so much promise upon gaining independence in 1993, has failed to press ahead with vitally needed democratic reforms, in contrast with so many other countries in the region, including other newly independent countries. While the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland have worked hard to qualify for EU membership and NATO accession, Slovakia has lagged behind. While states like Lithuania and Slovenia have emerged from repressive empires to bring prosperity and hope to their peoples, Slovakia has not. Even Romania, which has struggled profoundly with the transition from totalitarianism, has managed to undertake significant reforms in the past few months.
From the outset, members of the Helsinki Commission have supported the democratic transformation in Slovakia. We believe that a strong, democratic Slovakia will enhance stability and security in Europe. Unfortunately, human rights and democratization in Slovakia have taken a severe beating, both literally and figuratively, in recent months. The hopes raised by free and fair elections and by the passage of a democratic constitution have been dashed. Last month, I understand some officials in Bratislava criticized a congressional report on NATO enlargement and complained that the discussion of Slovakia's progress toward democracy was too superficial. Well, I will provide a little more detail for those who genuinely want to know what worries us here in Washington.
Parliamentary democracy in Slovakia took a bullet in late November, when parliamentarian Frantisek Gaulieder, after announcing his resignation from the ruling coalition's Movement for a Democratic Slovakia, was stripped of his parliamentary mandate through antidemocratic means that are unheard of anywhere else in Europe. His removal has been protested by the European Union and the United States at OSCE meetings in Vienna, but, so far, to no avail. Even more outrageously, there was a bomb attack against Mr. Gaulieder's home, while he and his family were present. This is a tactic that reminds me of the Communists, fascists, and other similarly bloody and ruthless groups.
The 1995 kidnaping of President Kovac's son is not only still unsolved, but the manner in which this matter has been investigated has fueled speculation that the government's own security forces were directly involved in this crime. The murder last year of Robert Remias, who may have had key evidence in this case, and the ineffectual investigation of that case has deepened these suspicions. Adding to this disturbing pattern, questions are already being raised about the official investigation of the December bomb attack on Frantisek Gaulieder's home: Mr. Gauliedier has reported that some of his testimony regarding the attack is missing from his police file, that the first investigator was removed after only 3 days on the case, and that the Slovak Minister of Interior has, shockingly, suggested that Mr. Gaulieder may have planted the bomb himself, the same `he-did-it-himself' story that no one believes regarding the kidnaping of Mr. Kovac, Jr. I am now informed that this investigation, like the Kovac and Remias cases, has been `closed for lack of evidence.' For a country supposedly seriously committed through its OSCE obligations to the establishment of a `rule of law' state, this is a damagingly poor performance.
In addition to these acts of violence, it has been reported that the President, the President's son, and members of the Constitutional Court have been subjected to death threats. In fact, in early December the Association of Slovak Judges characterized the anonymous, threatening letters addressed to Milan Cic, the Chair of the Slovak Constitutional Court, as an attack against the court as a whole and a means of political intimidation. It has also been reported that on February 24 an opposition political figure in Banska Bystrica, Miroslav Toman, was attacked by four assailants.
We see a country where politically motivated violence is on the increase, where public confidence in the government's intent to provide security for all Slovaks has plummeted, and where acts of violence and threats of violence have brought into question both the rule of law and the very foundations of democracy. The ruling coalition has continued to pursue an openly hostile agenda toward a free and independent media and free speech in general. During the course of the past year, two newspapers, Slovenska Republika and Naroda Obroda, have seen a total of 21 editors quit over alleged political interference with their work. Defamation suits launched by public officials appear to be a common vehicle for harassing one's political opponents. Most recently, on November 19, the government barred four journalists from attending a regular press conference after the weekly cabinet meeting because the journalists were believed to be unsympathetic to the government. Although this decision was ultimately rescinded after a public outcry, including a protest from the journalists' union, it was further evidence of the government's relentless efforts to curb any reporting it doesn't like. In fact, in one of the more shocking episodes of the battle for free speech in Slovakia, it has been reported that Vladimir Meciar, the Prime Minister of the country and, not insignificantly, a former boxer, warned journalist Dusan Valko just a few weeks ago that `I will punch you so that your own mother will not recognize you.' So much for Mr. Meciar's tolerance for other points of view and nonviolence.
The Slovak Government continues to pursue a minorities policy that would be laughable if it were not so wrong and harmful. This policy has included everything from banning the playing of non-Slovak national anthems last year to the more recent decision to bar the issuance of report cards in the Hungarian language, reversing long-standing practices. Such petty gestures are beneath the dignity of the Slovak people, whose heritage has survived more than a thousand years of foreign, and often markedly repressive, rule. The Slovak language and culture, now protected in an independent Slovakia, are not so weak that they can only flourish at the expense of others. More seriously, it should be noted that past repressive crackdowns on minorities, for example, in Cluj, Romania, and in Kosovo, Serbia, began by whittling away at the minority language opportunities that had traditionally been respected by the majority community. Accordingly, these seemingly small restrictions on the Hungarian minority in Slovakia may very well be the harbinger of more repressive tactics ahead. With this in mind, the failure of the Slovak parliament to adopt a comprehensive minority language law, and the recommendation of the Ministry of Culture that such a law is not even necessary, defy common sense. Current laws on minority-language use in Slovakia do not provide adequate or satisfactory guidance regarding the use of Hungarian for official purposes, as the recent report-card flap shows. Much harm can be done until a minority language law is passed based on a genuine accommodation between the majority and minority communities.
Finally, recent reductions in government-provided cultural subsidies have had a disproportionately negative effect on the Hungarian community. The Slovak Government's defense, that all ethnic groups have been equally disadvantaged by these cut-backs, is unpersuasive in light of the Culture Minister Hudec's stated intent to `revive' Slovak culture in ethnically mixed areas and to make cultural subsidies reflect that goal. While Hungarians suffer from a more direct form of government intolerance, other ethnic groups suffer more indirectly. Put another way, it is not so much government action which threatens Romani communities in Slovakia, it is government inaction. According to the most recent State Department report on Slovakia, skinhead violence against Roma is a serious and growing problem; three Roma were murdered as a result of hate crimes last year, and others have been severely injured. Some Roma leaders, in response to their government's inability or unwillingness to protect them, have called for the formation of self-defense units. Obviously, the Slovak Government is just not doing enough to address the deadly threats they face. Moreover, the repugnant anti-Roma statements that have repeatedly been made by Jan Slota, a member of the ruling coalition, have fostered this climate of hatred.
The fact that the Czech Republic, Germany, and other European countries also confront skinhead movements in no way relieves Slovakia of its responsibility to combat racism, just as Slovakia's skinhead problem does not relieve the other countries of their responsibilities. It is time and past time for Prime Minister Meciar to use his moral authority and political leadership to set Slovakia on the right course. He must make clear, once and for all, that Jan Slota, who also called the Hungarian minority `barbarian Asiatic hordes', is not his spokesman, and that the Slovak National Party's unreconstructed fascists do not represent the majority of the people of Slovakia.
Mr. President, the leadership of the Helsinki Commission, including my co-chairman, Representative Christopher H. Smith, and ranking members Senator Frank Lautenberg and Representative Steny Hoyer, have raised our concern about developments in Slovakia with Slovak officials on a number of occasions. Unfortunately, all we hear from the Slovak leadership is one excuse after another, and all we see is a search for one scapegoat after another: it's the Hungarians, it's the Czechs, it's the Ukrainian mafia, it's the hostile international community seeking to destroy Slovakia's good name, it's a public relations problem abroad, not real problems back home: in short, there is always somebody else to blame besides the people that are, in fact, running the country.
I don't mean to suggest that there have been no positive developments in Slovakia over the past 4 years. In fact, I have been especially heartened by the emergence of a genuine civil society that is increasingly willing to express its views on a broad range of issues. But positive initiatives by the Government have been too few and too far between. I make this statement today in the hope that the leadership in Bratislava will start to make real reforms, like their colleagues in Romania, and begin to restore the promising future that the people of Slovakia deserve. Their present policies are leading down a path toward international isolation, increasing criticism, and economic deprivation for their people. One Belarus is enough.