Twenty-Five Years of the Helsinki Commission

Twenty-Five Years of the Helsinki Commission

Hon.
Steny H. Hoyer
United States
House of Representatives
107th Congress Congress
First Session Session
Wednesday, June 27, 2001

Mr. Speaker, twenty-five years ago this month, on June 3, 1976, a law was enacted creating the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe. We know it as “the Helsinki Commission.” One of the smallest and most unique bodies in the U.S. Government, it perhaps ranks among the most effective for its size. I have been proud to be a member of the Commission for the past 16 years. When President Gerald Ford signed, in Helsinki in 1975, the Final Act of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, he said that “history will judge this Conference not by what we say here today, but by what we do tomorrow--not only by the promises we make, but by the promises we keep.” That piece of rhetoric has not only been repeated in various forms by every United States President since; it has continually served as a basis for U.S. policy toward Europe. Credit for this fact, and for the Commission's establishment, first goes to our late colleague here in the House, Millicent Fenwick, and the late-Senator Clifford Case, both of New Jersey. Observing the foundation of human rights groups in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe to monitor and, it was hoped, to encourage their governments to keep the promises made in Helsinki, she and other Members of Congress felt it would be good to give them some signs of support.

 

Keep in mind, Mr. Speaker, that this was in the midst of detente with Moscow, a polite dance of otherwise antagonistic great powers. It was a time when the nuclear warhead was thought to be more powerful than the human spirit, and the pursuit of human rights in the communist world was not considered sufficiently realistic, except perhaps as a propaganda tool with which to woo a divided European continent and polarized world. The philosophy of the Commission was otherwise. Respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms is, as the Helsinki Final Act indicates, a prerequisite for true peace and true security. As such, it is also a principle guiding relations between states, a legitimate matter for discussion among them. This philosophy, broadened today to include democratic norms such as free and fair elections and respect for the rule of law, remains the basis for the Commission's work.

 

Of course, the Commission was not meant to be a place for mere debate on approaches to foreign policy; it had actually to insert itself into the policy-making process. The Commission Chairman for the first decade, the late Dante Fascell of Florida, fought hard to do just that. It was, I would say, a bipartisan fight, with several different Congresses taking on several different Administrations. Moreover, it was not just a fight for influence in policy-making; it was a much tougher fight for better policies. The Commission staff, led during those early years by R. Spencer Oliver, was superb in this respect. It knew the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. It worked with non-governmental organizations to increase public diplomacy and, subsequently, public support for In 15 years at the East-West divide, the Commission also championed policies, like the Jackson-Vanik amendment, linking human rights to trade and other aspects of U.S. bilateral relationships. The concept of linkage has often been chastised by the foreign policy establishment, but it comes from the passion of our own country's democratic heritage and nature. With persistence and care, it ultimately proved successful for the United States and the countries concerned.

 

The Helsinki Commission also became the champion of engagement. Commission members did not simply speak out on human rights abuses; they also traveled to the Soviet Union and the communist countries of East-Central Europe, meeting dissidents and ``refuseniks'' and seeking to gain access to those in the prisons and prison camps. At first, the Commission was viewed as such a threat to the communist system that its existence would not be officially acknowledged, but Commissioners went anyway, in other congressional capacities until such time that barriers to the Commission were broken down. The Commission focus was on helping those who had first inspired the Commission's creation, namely the Helsinki and human rights monitors, who had soon been severely persecuted for assuming in the mid-1970s that they could act upon their rights. Ethnic rights, religious rights, movement, association and expression rights, all were under attack, and the Commission refused to give up its dedication to their defense. Eventually, the hard work paid off, and the beginning of my tenure with the Commission coincided with the first signs under Gorbachev that East-West divisions were finally coming to an end. Sharing the chairmanship with my Senate counterparts--first Alfonse D'Amato of New York and then Dennis DeConcini of Arizona--the Commission argued against easing the pressure at the time it was beginning to produce results.

 

We argued for the human rights counterpart of President Reagan's “zero option'' for arms control, in which not only the thousands of dissenters and prospective emigrants saw benefits. They were joined by millions of everyday people--workers, farmers, students--suddenly feeling more openness, real freedom, and an opportunity with democracy. Dissidents on whose behalf the Commission fought--while so many others were labeling them insignificant fringe elements in society--were now being released and becoming government leaders, people like Polish Foreign Minister Bronislaw Geremek and Czech President Vaclav Havel. The independence of the Baltic States, whose forced incorporation into the USSR was never officially recognized by the United States, was actually reestablished, followed by others wishing to act upon the Helsinki right to self-determination.

 

Of course, Mr. Speaker, those of us on the Commission knew that the fall of communism would give rise to new problems, namely the extreme nationalism which communism swept under the rug of repression rather than neutralized with democratic antiseptic. Still, none of us fully anticipated what was to come in the 1990s. It was a decade of democratic achievement, but it nevertheless witnessed the worst violations of Helsinki principles and provisions, including genocide in Bosnia-Herzegovina and brutal conflicts elsewhere in the Balkans as well as in Chechnya, the Caucuses and Central Asia, with hundreds of thousands innocent civilians killed and millions displaced. Again, it was the Commission which helped keep these tragedies on the U.S. foreign policy agenda, holding hearings, visiting war zones and advocating an appropriately active and decisive U.S. response. In the face of such serious matters, too many sought to blame history and even democracy, equated victim with aggressor and fecklessly abandoned the principles upon which Helsinki was based. Again the Commission, on a bipartisan basis in dialogue with different Administrations, took strong issue with such an approach. Moreover, with our distinguished colleague, Christopher Smith of New Jersey, taking his turn as Chairman during these tragic times, the Commission took on a new emphasis in seeking justice for victims, providing much needed humanitarian relief and supporting democratic movements in places like Serbia for the sake of long-term stability and the future of the people living there.

 

In this new decade, Mr. Speaker, the Commission has remained actively engaged on the issues of the time. Corruption and organized crime, trafficking of women and children into sexual slavery, new attacks on religious liberty and discrimination in society, particularly against Romani populations in Europe, present new challenges. Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell of Colorado, the latest Commission Chairman, has kept the Commission current and relevant. In addition, there continue to be serious problem areas or widespread or systemic violations of OSCE standards in countries of the Balkans, Central Asia and the Caucuses, or reversals of the democratization process as in Belarus. The Commission was born in the Cold War, but its true mission--the struggle for human rights, democratic government and the rule of law--remains as important now as it was then. It remains an essential element for true security and stability in the world, as well as, to paraphrase Helsinki, for the free and full development of the individual person, from whose inherent dignity human rights ultimately derive.

 

To conclude, Mr. Speaker, I wish to erase any illusion I have given in my praise for the Helsinki Commission on its first quarter of a century that it had single-handedly vanquished the Soviet empire or stopped the genocidal policies of Slobodan Milosevic. No, this did not occur, and our own efforts pale in comparison to the courage and risk-taking of human rights activists in the countries concerned. But I would assert, Mr. Speaker, that the wheels of progress turn through the interaction of numerous cogs, and the Commission has been one of those cogs, maybe with some extra grease. The Commission certainly was the vehicle through which the United States Government was able to bring the will of the American people for morality and human rights into European diplomacy. To those who were in the Soviet gulag, or in Ceausescu's Romania as a recent acquaintance there relayed to me with much emotion, the fact that some Americans and others were out there, speaking on their behalf, gave them the will to survive those dark days, and to continue the struggle for freedom. Many of those voices were emanating in the non-governmental community, groups like Amnesty International, Freedom House and Human Rights Watch. Through the Helsinki Commission, the voice of the United States Congress was heard as well, and I know that all of my colleagues who have been on the Commission or worked with it are enormously proud of that fact.

Leadership: 
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  • Hastings and Wicker Denounce Fraudulent Vote in Russia

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  • Co-Chairman Wicker Urges Swiss Government to Restore Confidence in Integrity of Magnitsky Investigation

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  • The Future of American Diplomacy

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When employees reach senior-level positions, the percentages of non-white employees fall even more drastically. The GAO reports found that promotion rates within the State Department and USAID were generally lower for racial and ethnic minorities, and that minorities were underrepresented at higher ranks.  Native Americans were virtually absent from both agencies. The Road to Improvement In attempts to capitalize on the benefits of diversity to the diplomatic corps, the Department of State and USAID have introduced several efforts to attract and retain outstanding individuals from traditionally underrepresented groups. Some programs expose students and young professionals to the Foreign Service, allowing the U.S. Government to proactively recruit new generations of talented Americans. For example, the State Department’s Pathways Internship Program targets high school students as well as individuals enrolled in undergraduate and graduate institutions. 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Payne Fellowships, named in honor of those in government who made a major impact in foreign affairs, aim to recruit, train, and retain the best and brightest from all corners of the United States and draw from the extensive perspectives of the American public. Over the years, these programs, which have historically received bipartisan support, cumulatively have produced nearly 1,000 fellows, many of whom are current Foreign Service Officers serving with the State Department or USAID in over 65 countries. 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The Public Policy and International Affairs Program promotes inclusion and diversity in public policy; Black Professionals in International Affairs focuses on expanding roles in global policy; and TruDiversity, an initiative of the Truman National Security Project, aims to attract more underrepresented minority groups to the field of national security. Increased efforts to recruit and retain diverse populations for diplomatic corps in other agencies have also begun at USDA, and been called for at the Departments of Commerce and Homeland Security, the Peace Corps, and other agencies. “The diversity of the American people is one of our greatest assets as a nation. Our national security agencies, especially those on the frontlines representing America around the world, should reflect this reality.” Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (MD), Ranking Member, U.S. Helsinki Commission Helsinki Commission Efforts Members of the Helsinki Commission have a long history of supporting diversity and inclusion efforts in the diplomatic corps and in national security careers more broadly.  For close to a decade, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) and Ranking Member Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland (MD) have joined bipartisan Congressional efforts to support annual funding for State Department and USAID diversity fellowship programs such as the Rangel, Payne, Pickering, and ICAP programs. Chairman Hastings and Sen. Cardin are both lead sponsors of the National Security Diversity and Inclusion Workforce Act of 2019 (S.497), which would strengthen employee diversity in the U.S. national security workforce through enhanced hiring, retention, and growth practices targeting gender, race, ethnicity, disability status, veteran status, sexual orientation, gender identity, national origin, and other demographic categories. In March, Chairman Hastings introduced the Federal Jobs Act to require a government-wide diversity and inclusion strategy. “Estimates indicate that by 2050, more than half of the U.S. workforce will be made up of Americans from diverse populations.  Effectively governing our nation will require that we fill federal jobs—whether they are in the military, intelligence, foreign service, health, or education sectors—with an equally diverse federal workforce who can meet the needs of our country.” Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20), Chairman, U.S. Helsinki Commission Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) is a lead sponsor of the Paul Simon Study Abroad Program Act, which works to increase study abroad opportunities for diverse populations. Study abroad is often a precursor to professions in the diplomatic corps. Chairman Hastings also amended the Matthew Young Pollard Intelligence Authorization Act for Fiscal Years 2018 and 2019, which directs the Office of the Director of National Intelligence to implement a plan to expand the intelligence community’s recruitment efforts so that rural and underserved regions in the U.S. are more fully represented.  In 2017, Sen. Cardin worked with then-chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Sen. Bob Corker (TN) to include several strong diversity provisions, including support for the Donald M. Payne Fellowship and diversity data collection, in the 2018 State Department authorization bill. Most recently, Sen. Cardin helped lead Senate and House Foreign Relations Committee efforts to improve diversity at the State department Supporting policies that strengthen diversity and inclusion in the diplomatic corps and across the federal government ensures that the United States will become a shining example of the power and strength diversity can bring.  A diplomatic corps composed of individuals from all parts of the U.S. society not only presents a more accurate snapshot of America to the world and proves that the U.S. abides by its human rights principles, but also equips the country to handle complex challenges at home or abroad with the widest variety of skills, knowledge, perspectives, ideas, and experiences at the ready. 

  • Helsinki Commission Hearing to Examine Human Rights At Home

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  • Hastings: To Promote Human Rights Abroad, We Must Fiercely Protect Them at Home

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  • Chairman Hastings Demands Release of Paul Whelan

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  • 8:46 (George Floyd)

    George Floyd’s tragic death at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer—recorded for a wrenching eight minutes and 46 seconds—shocked the world. During this online briefing, political and civil rights leaders from the United States and Europe discussed the impact made by resulting protests and the need to change policing tactics, alongside an honest review of how racism stemming from the transatlantic slave trade and colonialism persists today. Related Information Panelist Biographies Podcast | Communities at Risk: The Impact of COVID-19 on the OSCE’s Most Vulnerable Populations Press Release | Chairman Hastings Introduces LITE Act to Strengthen Ties with U.S. Allies, Support Visionary Leadership on Both Sides of the Atlantic Press Release | Chairman Hastings Introduces Bill to Promote Diversity and Inclusion in the Federal Workforce Press Release | Chairman Hastings Recognizes Black European Fight for Inclusion Safe, Inclusive, and Equitable Societies Helsinki Commission Initiatives on Racial Justice, Minority Rights, and Tolerance and Non-Discrimination ENAR demands to address racist police violence and structural racism

  • Political and Civil Rights Leaders to Discuss Impact of George Floyd’s Death at Helsinki Commission Briefing

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following staff-led online briefing: 8:46 (GEORGE FLOYD) A Time for Transformation at Home and Abroad Friday, June 12, 2020 10:00 a.m. Register to attend. George Floyd’s tragic death at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer—recorded for a wrenching eight minutes and 46 seconds—shocked the world.  During this online briefing, political and civil rights leaders from the United States and Europe will discuss the impact made by resulting protests and the need to change policing tactics, alongside an honest review of how racism stemming from the transatlantic slave trade and colonialism persists today. Panelists scheduled to participate include: Abena Oppong-Asare, Member of Parliament, United Kingdom Adam Hollier, Michigan State Senator Mitchell Esajas, Chair, New Urban Collective (Netherlands) Karen Taylor, Chair, European Network Against Racism (ENAR) Panelists may be added.

  • OSCE Supplementary Human Dimension Meeting Examines Intolerance and Discrimination during Pandemic

    On May 25-26, 2020, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) held the year’s first Supplementary Human Dimension Meeting (SHDIM).  The event, which attracted more than 950 participants from 57 countries, focused on addressing intolerance and discrimination and was the OSCE’s first public event hosted in an entirely virtual format. During the event, representatives of governments, civil society, and OSCE institutions discussed the importance of immediate, robust, and coordinated responses to acts of scapegoating, racism, xenophobia, and anti-Semitism, especially during times of crisis. Participants underscored the need to reject hate speech both online and off, and shared best practices to prevent its escalation into violence. Recommendations centered on the shared goals of building inclusive and resilient societies that guarantee human rights for all. In her closing remarks, Shannon Simrell, the U.S. Helsinki Commission Representative to the U.S. Mission to the OSCE in Vienna, highlighted recent commission engagement on combating intolerance and discrimination. Under the leadership of Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20), the Helsinki Commission's ongoing commitment to building safe, equitable, and inclusive societies has been embodied by “On the Road to Inclusion,” a new interethnic, multicultural, inter-religious, and intergenerational initiative designed to build broad-based coalitions and crafts durable solutions, based on respect and meaningful engagement of all members of society.  In addition, Helsinki Commission Ranking Member Senator Ben Cardin (MD), who also serves as the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly Special Representative for Anti-Semitism, Racism, and Intolerance, has directed funding to support OSCE’s comprehensive and multi-year Words into Action project, which develops inclusion handbooks for governments and communities.  The second Supplementary Human Dimension Meeting of 2020, scheduled for June 22-23, will focus on freedom of expression, press freedom, and access to information.  Closing Remarks by Shannon Simrell, U.S. Helsinki Commission Representative to the U.S. Mission to the OSCE On behalf of the U.S. Helsinki Commission, I wish to congratulate the Chair in Office for organizing this historic event, thank the speakers for sharing your expertise, and recognize my colleagues and civil society representatives for your thoughtful engagement on these issues. In the past two days, we have heard not only about the importance of immediate and definitive responses to acts of hate and intolerance, but also the importance of a comprehensive and long-term approach to dismantle the social, economic, legislative, and technological roots of discrimination.  Crises such as the COVID-19 pandemic lay bare the significant work that still needs to be done across the OSCE region to address prejudice, racism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, and all forms of discrimination.  Helsinki commitments must be equally realized by everyone among us. Without exception. To ODIHR colleagues, thank you for your comprehensive approach to addressing hate crimes and intolerance while recognizing also the specific and varied challenges faced by various vulnerable groups, including Roma/Sinti, people of African descent, disabled, youth, women, and migrants and refugees.  In support of ODIHR’s vital role, I note that U.S. Senator Ben Cardin, in addition to his role as OSCEPA Special Representative for Anti-Semitism, Racism, and Intolerance, is proud to have directed funding to support phase two of the Words into Action project.  In addition, the Commission's commitment to building safe, equitable, and inclusive societies is further underscored by an initiative under the leadership of U.S. Helsinki Chairman Alcee Hastings, called “On the Road to Inclusion.”  This interethnic, multicultural, inter-religious, and intergenerational initiative builds broad-based coalitions and crafts durable solutions, based on respect and meaningful engagement of all members of society. I look forward to future events where we can continue not only our exploration of the hurdles, but an update on ways we are working to guarantee human rights for all.

  • Disinformation, COVID-19, and the Electoral Process

    Listen to audio of the briefing on Facebook.  Free and fair elections are one of the most fundamental measures of a democratic society. During the 2016 presidential elections, many Americans became aware for the first time that disinformation can be easily coupled with technology by state and nonstate actors to disrupt and muddy the information space in the months, weeks, and days leading up to an election.  The use of disinformation to influence elections has since become a pervasive and persistent threat in all 57 OSCE participating States, one which many still struggle to adequately address. With presidential, parliamentary, or local elections scheduled in 15 OSCE participating States before the end of 2020, the stakes could not be higher. The COVID-19 pandemic has added another level of complexity, as Russia, China, and Iran are all attempting to use the crisis to drive a wedge between the United States and Europe. Governments in the region are struggling to respond, with some enacting measures that further restrict the free flow of information and threaten press freedom. This briefing featured three expert panelists who each examined the implications of this emerging threat to the electoral process and explored opportunities for nations, state and local governments, the private sector, and civil society to collaborate to identify and mitigate disinformation’s corrosive effects.  Some of the more urgent concerns they noted were the increased politicization of the information space and the rise of nonstate actors.  Heather Conley, Senior Vice President for Europe, Eurasia, and the Arctic at the Center for Strategic International Studies, noted, “Russia does not create the weaknesses; they simply exploit them.  And this is where I think it’s very important to understand that in the U.S. system they’re exploiting, obviously, our partisanship.  So we are offering them the weakness, and then they use it wherever they can.” Nina Jankowicz, Disinformation Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center Science and Technology Information Program and author of the upcoming book How to Lose the Information War, said the goal is often simply to bombard the information space with so much conflicting information, the voter loses interest: “They want people to consume less news and to feel like participation at all stages of the process is futile, whether that means communicating with our elected representatives, participated in civil society, or even the act of voting itself.” She added that partisanship cannot be permitted to frame the response to disinformation. “Disinformation is not a partisan issue,” she said.  “If we’re to make any progress in protecting our democracies, we need to not only clearly recognize the threat that disinformation poses but reject its tactics whole cloth.  Any government that uses disinformation cannot hope to fight it.” Chatham House’s Sophia Ignatidou called for a US-EU approach to combatting disinformation that was rooted in international human rights. She noted, “The reason for doing that is that international human rights law is suitable to deal with an issue that doesn’t respect any physical boundaries.  And it can provide a more holistic view of the issue of disinformation which we are lacking sometimes.” Ignatidou also challenged one of the primary arguments that some of the big tech companies use to push back against regulation – freedom of expression – as misleading, because “the problem with disinformation is dissemination patterns and scale, not content, per se.  And freedom of speech does not equate [with] freedom of reach.” Other questions centered on the importance of OSCE election monitoring missions paying more attention to how disinformation impacts the atmosphere surrounding an election in the months leading up to it.  The discussion ended on a positive note as all three panelists, when asked to cite examples of successful efforts to mitigate disinformation, spoke about the importance of using trusted, credible voices at the grass-roots level and of building resilience among voters in a nonpartisan fashion.  Related Information Panelist Biographies Podcast: Helsinki on the Hill | Defending against Disinformation A Global Pandemic: Disinformation Hearing: The Scourge of Russian Disinformation Briefing: Lies, Bots, and Social Media

  • Helsinki Commission Chairman Condemns Reported U.S. Withdrawal from Open Skies Treaty, Calls For New START Extension

    WASHINGTON—Following reports that the Trump administration has notified other governments of its intent to withdraw from the Treaty on Open Skies, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) issued the following statement: “The Open Skies Treaty has underpinned transatlantic security for decades, and has always enjoyed bipartisan support precisely because of its contributions to our security and that of our allies and partners,” said Chairman Hastings. “The Trump administration’s ideological opposition to arms control agreements has undercut transparency and predictability in Europe at a time when U.S. leadership is needed most.  “The timing of this ill-advised decision so close to our elections is distasteful. The United States withdrawing from the Open Skies Treaty can only benefit Putin’s continuing campaign of aggression against Russia’s neighbors. I urge the administration to reconsider and instead work with Congress to double down on supporting our allies and partners in Europe, and particularly working to secure the prompt extension of the New START Treaty.” The Open Skies Treaty is designed to increase transparency, build confidence, and encourage cooperation among the United States, Russia, and 32 other participating states (including much of Europe as well as partners like Ukraine and Georgia), by permitting unarmed observation aircraft to fly over their entire territory to observe military forces and activities. The United States has conducted nearly three times as many flights over Russia as Russia has over the United States under the Treaty. The United States has also used the Treaty to support partners by conducting flights over hotspots such as the Ukraine-Russian border. The New START Treaty between the United States and Russia limits each side’s intercontinental ballistic missile launchers, nuclear-capable heavy bombers, and deployed nuclear warheads, and includes a substantial verification regime to ensure the sides comply with the Treaty’s terms. New START is due to expire in February 2021, unless both parties agree to extend it for no more than five years. 

  • Co-Chairman Wicker Commends Decision by Belarus to Refuse Extradition of Jehovah’s Witness to Russia

    WASHINGTON—Following the April decision by the Prosecutor General of Belarus to reject the Government of Russia’s request to extradite a Russian national to face criminal charges for being a Jehovah’s Witness, Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) issued the following statement: “I commend the government of President Alexander Lukashenko for releasing Nikolai Makhalichev and rejecting the Kremlin’s request to extradite him. If forced to return to Russia, Mr. Makhalichev would face detention, a criminal trial, certain conviction, and imprisonment—merely for practicing his sincerely-held religious beliefs. “In keeping with Belarus’ OSCE commitments and other international obligations, Belarusian authorities should continue to resist the extradition of Mr. Makhalichev to Russia, allow him to move freely, and respect his human rights and fundamental freedoms, regardless of whether the Government of Belarus grants him refugee status or another country gives him legal protection.” Background Amendments in 2006 to Russia’s Federal Law on Countering Extremist Activity criminalized a wide range of religious activities as “extremist,” without precisely defining extremism or requiring that such activities have a violent element. The Russian Government invoked the law as it began relentlessly targeting Jehovah’s Witnesses, a peaceful faith community, with investigations, raids, arrests, detention, trials, the closure of local congregations, website and literature bans, and more. In July 2017, the Supreme Court of Russia upheld an earlier ruling in favor of the Ministry of Justice that Jehovah’s Witnesses are an “extremist” group, criminalizing and effectively banning their activities, and ordering their property to be seized and liquidated. Since then, Russian authorities have conducted criminal investigations into at least 333 Jehovah’s Witnesses, including Makhalichev; courts have convicted at least 32 of them. The authorities have engaged in raids, detentions, house arrests, travel restrictions, property confiscations, and even torture. In February 2020, Belarusian police detained Makhalichev, citing the criminal charges against him in Russia. He then applied for refugee status in Belarus. The Russian Prosecutor General’s Office formally requested extradition in March. The Belarusian Ministry of Interior is currently adjudicating Makhalichev's refugee application. In September 2019, the Helsinki Commission held a hearing highlighting how the Kremlin and other autocratic governments engage in transnational repression against people they perceive as hostile to them: using tools such as INTERPOL to request arrest and extradition, and sometimes even surveilling, abducting, and assassinating targeted persons on foreign soil. Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L Hastings (FL-20), Co-Chairman Wicker, Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02), and Ranking Member Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) introduced the Transnational Repression Accountability and Prevention (TRAP) Act to combat such threats. Like all participating States of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Russia and Belarus have repeatedly committed themselves to recognizing, respecting, and protecting freedom of religion or belief. In December 2019, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo redesignated Russia for the Special Watch List of countries that have committed severe violations of religious freedom, per the Frank R. Wolf International Religious Freedom Act. Since 2017, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom has recommended designating Russia as a Country of Particular Concern under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998. Belarusian law authorizes the government to grant refugee status to a foreigner if he or she has a “well-founded fears of being persecuted in the country of his/her citizenship for the reason… of…religion,” and prohibits the government from expelling the applicant to that country, even if the government denies, revokes, or otherwise removes their refugee status. The law also requires the government to give foreigners requesting refugee status or related legal protection access to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees.

  • Helsinki Commission Briefing to Examine Corrosive Impact of Disinformation on the Electoral Process

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following briefing: DISINFORMATION, COVID-19, AND THE ELECTORAL PROCESS Thursday, May 21, 2020 10:30 a.m. – 11:30 a.m. Register to attend. Free and fair elections are one of the most fundamental measures of a democratic society. During the 2016 presidential elections, many Americans became aware for the first time that disinformation can be easily coupled with technology by state and nonstate actors to disrupt and muddy the information space in the months, weeks, and days leading up to an election.  The use of disinformation to influence elections has since become a pervasive and persistent threat in all 57 OSCE participating States, one which many countries still struggle to adequately address. With presidential, parliamentary, or local elections scheduled in 15 OSCE participating States before the end of the year, the stakes cannot be higher. The COVID-19 pandemic has added another level of complexity, as Russia, China, and Iran are all attempting to use the crisis to drive a wedge between the United States and Europe. Governments in the region are struggling to respond, with some enacting measures that further restrict the free flow of information and threaten press freedom. This briefing will examine the implications of this emerging threat to the electoral process and explore opportunities for nations, state and local governments, the private sector, and civil society to collaborate to identify and mitigate disinformation’s corrosive effects. Expert panelists scheduled to participate include: Heather Conley, Senior Vice President for Europe, Eurasia, and the Arctic, The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) Nina Jankowicz, Disinformation Fellow, Woodrow Wilson Center Science and Technology Information Program; author of “How to Lose the Information War” Sophia Ignatidou, Academy Associate, International Security Programme, Chatham House

  • World Press Freedom Day in the OSCE Region

    Madam Speaker, I rise today to emphasize the urgency of global press freedom, particularly across the 57-nation region of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). Earlier this week, we celebrated World Press Freedom Day, a day originally proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly in December 1993 to celebrate the fundamental principle of a free and independent press. On this day and beyond, we honor journalists and media professionals for their tireless service in reporting the truth, sometimes at the risk of their own personal safety. World Press Freedom Day serves as an important reminder to governments around the world to respect their country’s commitment to press freedom. The U.S. Helsinki Commission, of which I am Chairman, is charged with monitoring compliance with human rights and security commitments in the OSCE region. Freedom of the press is a foundational commitment to human rights and democracy. Unfortunately, however, some leaders view the media as a threat and seek to silence individuals and outlets through financial, legal, and physical means. What these leaders truly fear is that journalists will expose corruption, human rights violations, abuses of power, and other undemocratic behavior. According to the latest reports from the Committee to Protect Journalists, 250 journalists are imprisoned worldwide for their work, 64 journalists are missing, and 1,369 journalists have been killed since 1992. Additionally, Reporters Without Borders' 2020 World Press Freedom Index found that global press freedom has deteriorated by 12 percent since 2013. Madam Speaker, I also rise to applaud the undaunted service of the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, Harlem Désir. His leadership as an independent monitor for these issues among OSCE participating States has offered candid review of our collective challenges, while demonstrating the importance of OSCE institutions.  Mr. Désir’s team has provided impeccable service to help nations implement their international commitments to this end through country visits and legislative review, as well as hosting expert conferences.  I encourage my colleagues to closely follow his work and to learn more about his mandate by reviewing the proceedings of the U.S. Helsinki Commission hearing I chaired with Mr. Désir on July 25, 2019 addressing “State of Media Freedom in the OSCE Region.” Madam Speaker, amid this global pandemic, it is more important than ever that journalists and media professionals are able to work freely and without retribution. Unfortunately, too many journalists remain in jail throughout the OSCE region, while states like Russia, Azerbaijan, and Hungary criminalize providing essential information and transparency about the COVID-19 pandemic. Independent media continues to be assaulted under the pretense of punishing allegedly false, misleading, or unofficial information. This is unacceptable. Earlier in April, I released statements expressing concern with the latest attacks on press freedom in Russia and the unchecked power granted to Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán amid the coronavirus pandemic. During these trying times, strong journalism and access to accurate, unbiased information are essential tools for countering the spread of the disease. I ask my colleagues to join me in urging states to recognize the indispensable role of the media during this time and to reverse policies that in any way discourage freedom of expression.

  • Human Rights and Democracy in a Time of Pandemic

    The outbreak of the novel coronavirus pandemic has prompted governments around the world to take extraordinary measures in the interest of public health and safety. As of early April, nearly two-thirds of the 57 participating States of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe had declared “states of emergency” or invoked similar legal measures in response to the crisis. Often such measures have enabled governments to enact large-scale social distancing policies and suspend economic activity to save lives and preserve the capacity of national public health infrastructure to respond to the spread of infections. At the same time, human rights organizations and civil society activists have expressed concern regarding the breadth of some emergency measures and recalled the long history of government abuse of emergency powers to trample civil liberties. Exactly three decades ago, OSCE participating States unanimously endorsed a set of basic principles governing the imposition of states of emergency, including the protection of fundamental freedoms in such times of crisis. In 1990 in Copenhagen, OSCE countries affirmed that states of emergency must be enacted by public law and that any curtailment of human rights and civil liberties must be “limited to the extent strictly required by the exigencies of the situation.” According to the Copenhagen Document, emergency measures furthermore should never discriminate based on certain group characteristics or be used to justify torture. Building on these commitments a year later in Moscow, participating States underscored that states of emergency should not “subvert the democratic constitutional order, nor aim at the destruction of internationally recognized human rights and fundamental freedoms.” The Moscow Document stresses the role of legislatures in imposing and lifting such declarations, the preservation of the rule of law, and the value of guaranteeing “freedom of expression and freedom of information…with a view to enabling public discussion on the observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms as well as on the lifting of the state of public emergency.” In some corners of the OSCE region, however, national authorities are violating these and other OSCE commitments in the name of combatting coronavirus. While many extraordinary responses are justified in the face of this crisis, government overreach threatens the well-being of democracy and the resilience of society at a critical time. Download the full report to learn more.

  • Hastings and Wicker Troubled By Mounting Harassment of Opposition Members, Activists, and Journalists by Government of Azerbaijan

    WASHINGTON—In response to the Government of Azerbaijan’s mounting harassment of Azerbaijani opposition members, activists, and journalists, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) and Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) issued the following statement: “During this pandemic, public health precautions do not excuse politically-motivated repression. We are deeply troubled by reports that the Government of Azerbaijan is further squeezing its people’s access to free expression, media, and information through arrests, fines, harassment, and possibly torture. Authorities should cease exploiting this global crisis to limit the speech of members of the Popular Front Party of Azerbaijan and other activists and reporters.” In recent weeks, Azerbaijani authorities have detained, questioned, jailed, fined, and, in one case possibly tortured opposition members and journalists affiliated with the country’s main opposition party, the Popular Front Party of Azerbaijan (PFPA), and opposition-aligned media outlet Azadliq. Since the global spread of the novel coronavirus, the Azerbaijani Government has intermittently cut off internet and phone access to PFPA Chair Ali Karimli, preventing him from communicating with the outside world, including conducting interviews with media. Last week, a coalition of opposition parties accused the government of torturing PFPA activist Niyameddin Ahmedov while in custody. Other PFPA affiliated activists and writers, including Aqil Humbatov, Faiq Amirli, and Saadat Jahangir, have been detained for allegedly violating quarantine rules after speaking or reporting critically about the government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.

  • Wicker and Cardin Urge Pompeo to Work with EU High Representative to Advance EU Magnitsky Sanctions

    WASHINGTON—In a letter released today, Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) and Ranking Member Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) urged U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to ask the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Josep Borell, to expedite the adoption of EU sanctions on human rights abusers, include provisions for sanctioning corruption, and ensure that the EU sanctions regime bears Sergei Magnitsky’s name. The letter reads in part: “In this time of global crisis, dictators and kleptocrats are only increasing their bad actions, making it more important than ever that the EU move quickly to make the EU Magnitsky Act a reality... “It has become clear that corruption and human rights abuse are inextricably linked. The lack of provisions to sanction corruption would weaken the comprehensive Magnitsky approach. It would also lead to difficulties synchronizing U.S. and EU sanctions by enabling corrupt officials barred from the United States to continue operating in the EU, thus diminishing our deterrent and increasing Europe’s vulnerability to exploitation... “It was Sergei Magnitsky who started this very effort to end impunity for human rights abusers and corrupt officials. Omitting the name of Magnitsky, who was jailed, tortured, beaten, murdered, and posthumously convicted, would indicate a lack of resolve to stand up to brutal regimes around the world.” The U.S. Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act, which authorizes the President to impose economic sanctions and deny entry into the United States to any foreign person he identifies as engaging in human rights abuse or corruption, has been an important asset in the U.S. diplomatic toolkit. In December 2019, High Representative Borrell announced that all Member States unanimously agreed to start preparatory work for an equivalent of Global Magnitsky, adding that such a framework would be “a tangible step reaffirming the European Union’s global lead on human rights.” The Baltic States, Canada, and the UK already have adopted similar legislation. However, the current proposal for an EU Magnitsky Act does not include sanctions for officials involved in corruption, nor does it include any reference to Sergei Magnitsky by name. The full text of the letter can be found below: Dear Mr. Secretary, As the original sponsors of the Magnitsky Act, we aim to increase the impact of the legislation worldwide by encouraging our allies to join us in sanctioning bad actors. At the moment, the European Union (EU) has agreed in principle to adopt their own sanctions similar to those provided by the Global Magnitsky Act, but certain issues remain. Therefore, we ask that you work with Josep Borrell, High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, to ensure the EU adopts and implements the most thorough and effective sanctions package possible. Our first concern is that the EU seems to have stalled in putting together the details of their Magnitsky sanctions regime because of the global health crisis. In December, High Representative Borrell announced that there was political agreement to move forward on a Magnitsky-like piece of legislation, which his team would begin drafting. Since then, we fear this work has been sidelined. In this time of global crisis, dictators and kleptocrats are only increasing their bad actions, making it more important than ever that the EU move quickly to make the EU Magnitsky Act a reality. Our second concern is that the proposal for an EU Magnitsky Act does not include sanctions for officials involved in corruption. It has become clear that corruption and human rights abuse are inextricably linked. The lack of provisions to sanction corruption would weaken the comprehensive Magnitsky approach. It would also lead to difficulties synchronizing U.S. and EU sanctions by enabling corrupt officials barred from the United States to continue operating in the EU, thus diminishing our deterrent and increasing Europe’s vulnerability to exploitation. Finally, we are concerned that the EU is not planning to include Magnitsky’s name on the sanctions regime. It was Sergei Magnitsky who stood up to a ruthless, violent, and corrupt state and demanded fairness and accountability for his fellow citizens. And it was Sergei Magnitsky who started this very effort to end impunity for human rights abusers and corrupt officials. Omitting the name of Magnitsky, who was jailed, tortured, beaten, murdered, and posthumously convicted, would indicate a lack of resolve to stand up to brutal regimes around the world. Therefore, we request that you ask the High Representative Borrell to expedite the adoption of their sanctions, include provisions for sanctioning corruption, and ensure that the EU sanctions regime bears Sergei Magnitsky’s name. It is important that we do not let our guard down and continue our global leadership in this important area. Sincerely, Benjamin L. Cardin                                                       Roger F. Wicker Ranking Member                                                          Co-Chairman

  • Respecting Human Rights and Maintaining Democratic Control during States of Emergency

    Statement at the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly Webinar: Respecting Human Rights and Maintaining Democratic Control during States of Emergency President Tsereteli, Secretary General Montella, it is good hear from you.  I am pleased to see that this Assembly has found ways to communicate, cooperate and collaborate — in spite of the distances that keep us apart, and as an expression of our shared commitments to our roles as legislators. At last year’s annual session, I was the lead sponsor of a supplementary item on “the role of civil society — individuals and non-governmental organizations — in realizing the aims and aspirations of the OSCE.”  The resolution we adopted in Luxembourg acknowledges the critical role civil society plays in enhancing security and cooperation across all OSCE dimensions. I appreciate President Tsereteli appointing our colleague, the Honorable Pia Kauma, as the Assembly’s Special Representative to be an advocate for civil society engagement and she has done a great job so far. I am sorry, but not surprised that some governments have taken the need for emergency measures as an opportunity for repressive measures. Hungary is the only OSCE participating State that does not have a sunset clause for the expiration of its emergency measures, or requiring parliamentary approval for an extension.  Parliamentary oversight is absolutely essential, especially when governments seek to exercise extraordinary powers. I believe we must also pay particular attention to those measures that relate to freedoms of assembly, association, and expression.  I am also troubled by the heavy-handed disciplinary and punitive approach utilized in some areas, which exacerbates existing discriminatory and unconstitutional policing.  I want to thank you, Director Gisladottir, for your attention to this and speaking out against the hate crimes and scapegoating of minorities, refugees and migrants. In the next legislation that will come before the U.S. Congress, I will support provisions to address hate crimes and other forms of discrimination in our societies recently highlighted by the pandemic. The February 25 profiling murder of Ahmaud Aubrey by his neighbors in the state of Georgia demonstrates the urgency of our fight for equity and justice for all beyond our current crisis. But I would like to pause here for a moment, to reflect on violations of fundamental freedoms that some governments had already imposed even before now.  If a law or practice violated OSCE human rights and democracy norms before the pandemic, circumstances now will surely not cure that violation. Threats against journalists, restrictions on academic freedom, imprisoning people for their political views, and impeding or even criminalizing NGOs’ access to and communication within and outside their own countries — all of that is still inconsistent with OSCE commitments, and the pandemic does not change that.  Principle VII of the Helsinki Final Act still holds: individuals still have the right to know and act upon their rights. I therefore add my voice to the international calls from OSCE institutional bodies and others around the world for the release of all prisoners of conscience given this pandemic. Prison populations are particularly susceptible to community spread. To address dangerous overcrowding, governments should work first and foremost to release those imprisoned for exercising their internationally recognized rights or those wrongly imprisoned contrary to international commitments.  I regret Turkey's decision in particular to approve a plan to release 90,000 prisoners that excluded relief for any of the thousands of political prisoners, including opposition politicians, civil society activists, employees of U.S. diplomatic missions, and many more. Which brings me back to the important work of Special Representative Kauma.  Civil society is not a luxury, it is essential.  If anything, it becomes even more important during an emergency when governments may legitimately exercise powers, but those powers may not be unlimited, unchecked, or unending.  A vibrant civil society plays a critical role in holding governments to account, particularly at times of great social stress.  Those human rights groups, the parent-teacher organizations, book clubs, or food banks— all enrich our societies. Colleagues, this pandemic has upended elections across the OSCE region.  According to the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly’s factsheet, forty OSCE participating States — including my own — have elections scheduled for this year. As we all rise to meet the challenge of conducting elections safely, we must maintain transparency regarding the entire electoral process, especially any changes to the timing of elections, methods of voting, or measures that impact campaigning.  The United States is already debating these issues in preparation for November. Even in a pandemic, international and domestic election observation remains vital.  We must find a solution to ensure that they are engaged and included even now. 

  • Chairman Hastings and Co-Chairman Wicker Commemorate World Press Freedom Day

    WASHINGTON—Ahead of World Press Freedom Day on May 3, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) and Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) issued the following statements: "Given these uncertain and unprecedented times, it is more important than ever that journalists and media professionals are able to work freely and without retribution," said Chairman Hastings. "Unfortunately, journalists remain in jail throughout the OSCE region, while states like Russia, Azerbaijan, and Hungary criminalize providing essential information and transparency about the COVID-19 pandemic. Independent media continues to be assaulted under the pretense of punishing allegedly 'false,' 'misleading,' or unofficial information. This is unacceptable." Read Chairman Hastings' full Congressional Record statement. “Journalists across the globe risk their safety, and some even their lives, to report the truth," said Co-Chairman Wicker. "On World Press Freedom Day, we honor a freedom that is a cornerstone of democracy and should always be protected in any healthy society. During this pandemic, good journalism and unflinching investigative reporting are essential as we work to mitigate the effects of the coronavirus and get our economies started again. Now more than ever, I urge all OSCE states to uphold this fundamental freedom." According to the latest reports from the Committee to Protect Journalists, 250 journalists are imprisoned worldwide for their work, 64 journalists are missing, and 1,369 journalists have been killed since 1992. Additionally, Reporters Without Borders' 2020 World Press Freedom Index found that global press freedom has deteriorated by 12 percent since 2013. Ahead of World Press Freedom Day, OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media Harlem Désir, along with the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Opinion and Expression and the Organization of American States Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression, issued a joint declaration on freedom of expression and elections in the digital age, particularly noting challenges to press freedom during the COVID-19 pandemic. On April 17, Chairman Hastings and Co-Chairman Wicker released a statement expressing concern with the latest attacks on press freedom in Russia amid the coronavirus pandemic, including death threats to Russian journalist Yelena Milashina by Chechnya’s leader Ramzan Kadyrov. Earlier in April, Chairman Hastings also denounced the unchecked power granted to Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban following his request to rule by decree in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

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