Podcast: In the Beginning
In the inaugural episode of "Helsinki on the Hill," the Helsinki Commission's first staff director, Spencer Oliver, shares how the Helsinki Commission evolved from its beginnings in the 1970s to become an organization that reflects the overarching commitment of the United States to security and cooperation in Europe, and that has played a vital role in introducing and promoting the concept of human rights as an element in U.S. foreign policy decision-making globally. He also shares details about the role he played in the creation of today's OSCE, and his service as the first secretary general of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly from 1992 to 2015. "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 1: In the Beginning | Helsinki on the Hill
OSCE Election Observation
After OSCE nations pledged in 1990 to hold free and fair elections, election observation – one of the most transparent and methodical ways to encourage commitment to democratic standards – became a core element of the OSCE’s efforts to promote human rights, democracy, and the rule of law. As part of its OSCE commitments, each OSCE country is expected to invite foreign observers to observe its elections. In 2019 alone, the OSCE was invited to observe elections in more than two dozen OSCE participating States (Albania, Andorra, Austria, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Belgium, Canada, Croatia, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Kazakhstan, Lithuania, Moldova, North Macedonia, Poland, Portugal, Romania, San Marino, Serbia, Slovakia, Spain, Switzerland, Ukraine, the United Kingdom, and Uzbekistan).* History of OSCE Election Observation In 1990, all OSCE countries voluntarily committed to holding democratic elections that meet the same basic standards: universal access, equality, fairness, freedom, transparency, accountability, and privacy in voter submission. Because violations of these commitments can endanger stability in the OSCE region, as well as within an individual country, OSCE nations also agreed to open their elections to observers from other participating countries. To encourage compliance and confidence in the results of the observation missions, countries agreed to observe elections together under the OSCE umbrella. Since the 1990s, OSCE election observers have been present at more than 300 elections throughout the OSCE region. While some OSCE countries benefit from foreign observation more than others – especially those that formerly had one-party communist systems and little experience with democracy – the OSCE also observes elections in more established and stable democracies, such as the United States, Canada, Germany, and the United Kingdom. As one of the original 35 members of the OSCE, the United States has participated actively in OSCE election observation missions, both by providing observers for foreign elections as well as by inviting the OSCE to observe every general and midterm election since 2002. Election Observation in Practice By analyzing election-related laws and systems, as well as the effectiveness of their implementation, election observation missions help ensure that elections in OSCE countries are free and fair for voters and candidates alike. OSCE election observation missions often are undertaken jointly by the OSCE Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) and the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (PA). The missions, which combine strong technical expertise and sound political judgement, include ODIHR officials, professional analysts, parliamentarians, and others on loan from OSCE member countries. To ensure that no single country’s point of view is overrepresented, the OSCE limits the number of observers from any one country. No matter where they are from, observers must commit themselves to an election observation code of conduct, which limits their role to observing and reporting. Observers have no authority to instruct, assist, or interfere in the voting, counting, tabulation, or other aspects of the electoral process. Ahead of the elections, observers receive briefings from the host government, political parties, civil society, and media representatives. Long-term observers also follow pre-election activities including candidate and voter registration, political campaigns, and media coverage. On Election Day, two-person teams of short-term observers fan out across the country to observe the conduct of the election, including opening of polling stations; checking whether ballot boxes are empty and properly sealed; the counting of ballots; the handling of spoiled or unused ballots; and the transmission of polling station results. Observers monitor how voters are processed, the accuracy of voter registries, and whether voters are able to vote in secret and in an environment that is free from intimidation. After the elections, long-term observers note how electoral complaints and appeals are handled. The OSCE election observation mission publishes preliminary findings immediately after the elections, with a final comprehensive report issued a few weeks later. The final report includes in-depth analysis of the election’s political context and legislative framework; election administration; voter and candidate registration; the election campaign; the media; participation of women and national minorities; and the voting, counting, and tabulation processes. The OSCE methodology represents the global standard for quality election observation. Its expertise has been shared with other regional organizations, and the OSCE has contributed to observation efforts outside the OSCE region. The Helsinki Commission Contribution The U.S. Helsinki Commission was the first to propose concrete commitments regarding free and fair elections more than a year before they were adopted by the OSCE in June 1990. By that time, Commissioners and staff had already observed the conduct of the first multi-party elections in seven East and Central European countries transitioning from one-party communist states to functioning democracies. As the OSCE developed its institutional capacities in the mid-1990s, the Commission joined the efforts of an increasing number of observer teams from across the OSCE region, which evolved into the well-planned, professional election observation missions of today. Commissioners and staff have observed well over 100 elections since 1990. The Commission continues to support OSCE observation efforts, focusing on countries where resistance to democratic change remains the strongest. Learn More Elections: OSCE Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights Election Observation: OSCE Parliamentary Assembly * Following Needs Assessment Missions designed to assess the situation and determine the scale of a potential observation activity in a particular country, election observation was deemed unnecessary in some cases.
Mr. President, I know I express the sentiments and outrage of every Member of this body about the tragic events in Israel this past Tuesday where those in a synagogue were brutally slain. It was a shock to all of us--in a synagogue, in a place of worship, people there praying and studying, and their lives were brutally ended.
Let me just mention the victims. Rabbi Moshe Twersky, Rabbi Aryeh Kupinsky, Rabbi Kalman Levine, Avraham Goldberg, and Zidan Saif, a police officer.
I particularly want to mention Rabbi Kupinsky because there is a connection here to Maryland. Three of the victims had U.S. citizenship. Rabbi Kupinsky is a cousin of a distinguished constituent, Judge Karen Friedman of Baltimore. So this affects all of us.
I know first and foremost our prayers are with the families and we express our deepest sympathy. I also express our resolve to eliminate such extremists and to work with the international community so there is no refuge anywhere in the world--anywhere in the civilized world--for such extremists. Then I would hope we would all recognize and speak out for Israel's right, indeed its obligation, to defend its people from such brutal attacks.
The Baltimore Sun said this morning in its editorial there could be no excuse, no explanation, no reason or even plausible justification for the horrific attack on a Jerusalem synagogue Tuesday that left four Rabbis and an Israeli police officer dead.
I know we all believe in that statement. There is no justification for such actions. Yet Hamas--and again I would quote from the Sun paper--"Hamas, the militant [extremist] group that controls Gaza, hailed the attack in the synagogue as a blow against Israel's occupation. ..... ''
This just points out the difference between Hamas and Israel. I have been on the floor many times talking about Israel's legitimate right to defend itself and Hamas's desire to put innocent people in harm's way. It is our responsibility to speak out. If this event would have happened in the United States, I think we all know what the reaction would have been. So our resolve goes out to the people of Israel that we will stand by them and that we stand by their right to defend themselves.
This is in the backdrop of a rise of anti-Semitism. We have seen these violent attacks in Brussels and Toulouse earlier this year, a brutal slaying in Antwerp, Jewish schools and community centers and synagogues being targets of attacks, extremist parties gaining political support espousing anti-Semitism. We saw that in Hungary and other countries.
I want to mention once again the role this Congress plays in the Helsinki Commission. I have the honor of being the Chair of the Helsinki Commission during this Congress, and the Helsinki Commission implements the commitments we made almost 40 years ago--the Helsinki Final Act; the core principles of human rights and tolerance. Our bedrock principle is that in order to have a stable country you have to have a commitment to basic human rights, and it is not just your obligation but every country that is part of Helsinki, including the United States, that has the right to challenge any other country in its compliance with those basic human rights. We have made progress.
Ten years ago I was privileged to be part of the U.S. delegation in the Berlin conference. The Berlin conference was established to deal with the rise of anti-Semitism, and an action agenda came out of that conference 10 years ago. It put responsibility on us--political leaders--to speak out against anti-Semitic activities in our own country or anywhere in the world. It set up an action plan to deal with educating, and particularly dealing with Holocaust education, to deal with the Holocaust deniers. It dealt with police training because we understand a lot of criminal activities are hate crimes and the police need to be able to identify when hate crimes are taking place in their own community.
We decided to share best practices by providing technical help to countries to do better, and we established a special representative to deal with anti-Semitism. Rabbi Baker is currently that special representative. But we went further than that, we expanded it to all forms of intolerance--not just anti-Semitism but xenophobia, anti-Muslim activities--because we recognized that the same people who are extremists and who deny individuals because of their anti-Semitic acts would do the same against Muslims, would do the same against any people because of their race or ethnic background.
I was very pleased to see commemorated the 10th anniversary of the Berlin conference. There was a reconvening in Berlin--Berlin plus 10. Ambassador Powers, our Ambassador to the United Nations, led the U.S. delegation. She did a great job. I want to acknowledge that Wade Henderson, representing the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, also participated because there is unity here. It is not just the anti-Semitic activities, it is the intolerance we have seen grow too much in our world community today.
The concluding document said we need to increase our political and financial support for civil societies, and I agree with that. Transparency and supporting the NGOs, supporting civil societies, is critically important.
The bottom line is we must work together to root out all forms of anti-Semitism and all forms of intolerance. Let us work together to make all our communities safer by embracing diversity and recognizing basic human rights.