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Profile: Dr. Petra Gelbart
Tuesday, September 19, 2017

From September 11 to September 22, 2017, the OSCE participating States meet in Warsaw, Poland, for the Human Dimension Implementation Meeting (HDIM).  The HDIM is Europe’s largest annual human rights event. Over the course of two weeks, the 57 participating States will discuss compliance with consensus-based commitments on full range of fundamental freedoms, democracy, tolerance and nondiscrimination, and humanitarian concerns.  In particular, OSCE agreements address issues relating to the human rights of Roma, Holocaust remembrance, and preserving sensitive sites of remembrance.

During the Nazi occupation of the Czech lands, an internment camp in the Czech village of Lety became a concentration camp for Roma. Around 1,300 people were imprisoned there, including many children.  Some died in Lety as a result of the horrible conditions in the camp.  Many more were deported and perished at Auschwitz. An estimated three hundred survived.  In some ways, Lety is as emblematic of the experiences of Roma both during the and after the Holocaust.

During the communist period, a pig farm was established on the site of the former concentration camp.  After the fall of communism, the existence of the pork processing facility became an enduring controversy, generating progressively more frequent protests. In recent years, Czech officials moved closer to a decision to remove the pig farm.  In August, the Czech government announced agreement had been reached with the owners of the site on a purchase price, paving the way for the farm’s removal.

The United States subsequently welcomed the progress made by the Czech Republic.  Helsinki Commission Chairman Senator Roger Wicker observed, “[t]his achievement is the culmination of decades of work on the part of survivors, human rights groups, members of the Helsinki Commission, and others. It paves the way for a dignified and appropriate memorial for the thousands of men, women, and children who suffered and died there.”

At the opening of this year’s OSCE’s Human Dimension Implementation Meeting, the Czech Republic – the only European Union country to speak at the opening in its national capacity, in addition to supporting a joint EU statement – drew attention to this breakthrough:

“Against the backdrop of the deteriorating situation of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the OSCE, heightened attacks leveled at civil society, media and persons belonging to minorities, it remains crucial to continue promoting and protection fundamental OSCE commitments and principles.  In this context, we would like to highlight the recent positive developments in the implementation of the Czech Republic’s Roma Integration Strategy 2015-2020.  I have in mind the issue of the former Gypsy Concentration Camp in Lety u Pisku.”

In light of these developments, the Helsinki Commission had a conversation with Dr. Petra Gelbart.  Dr. Gelbart is a Romani ethnomusicologist who uses music and academic research to advocate for the remembrance of Romani victims of the Holocaust.[iv] She frequently speaks to a wide range of audiences about Romani music, culture, and their persecution during the Holocaust.  She has also served as a Public Member on a U.S. delegation to an OSCE Human Dimension Implementation Meeting.

Born in Czechoslovakia and the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors, Dr. Gelbart was introduced to Romani language, music, and culture at a young age. Her personal background drove her passion to study Romani culture further and to become an educator in Romani music, history, and other socio-political issues.

“My family’s experience during the Holocaust was the primary motivator in my decision to become involved in commemoration efforts,” Dr. Gelbart says. “Increasingly, I am also coming to terms with how much this background has shaped my personal identity and psychological makeup, so continuing the work is important for my mental wellbeing.”

She first studied musicology at UC Berkeley. Shortly after finishing her degree, she went on to pursue her postgraduate studies and earned a Ph.D. in ethnomusicology from Harvard University.

Dr. Gelbart co-founded the Initiative for Romani music at New York University and is currently the music curator for RomArchive. She has also taught ethnomusicology, music psychology, as well as Romani music and language at the university level.  Her research has focused on interethnic communication, the Holocaust, music psychology, and institutional ethnography.

“I try to take what people think they know about so-called ‘Gypsies,’ and replace it with something that's much more based in reality,” she explains.

Dr. Gelbart passionately advocates for the use of music to not only educate about Romani culture, but also to reflect upon the difficult aspects of this community’s history.

“Oral traditions and personal memoirs have kept the memory of the Holocaust alive among Roma and Sinti even in the absence of sympathetic institutions,” she observes. “The song Chajori Romani, for example, is considered an anthem of both Czech and Slovak Roma. It has a generic, happy text about a Romani girl, but also an alternate text that recounts the conditions of a concentration camp. Thus, even though the Holocaust-related text is sung less frequently, it looms in the background of this popular memory, which has come to be known as ‘the Romani lament’ regardless of which lyrics are being sung.”

“When people pay close attention to Romani music, they can learn not only things they may not have expected to find out about Roma and Sinti, but also about themselves,” Dr. Gelbart notes. “For example, many people associate Manouche (French Romani) people with Gypsy Jazz, and Gypsy Jazz with emotive passion. On objective analysis, however, it turns out that strong sentiments tend to be projected onto Gypsy Jazz and its performers, based on stereotypes of ‘Gypsies,’ rather than being inherent in the music itself. Also, some of the composers and performers who may be perceived as wild musicians have in fact produced decidedly tame, deeply reflective musical pieces, including a few with Holocaust-related themes.”

She continues, “Students and lecture audiences are surprised by the existence of Romani Holocaust songs, and as a consequence some of them ask why they were previously never exposed to the voices of Roma and Sinti in Holocaust education. At that point, it is useful to point out that just as Roma and Sinti expressed their grief and ongoing fears for their safety in songs during and after World War II, some of them also wrote memoirs or formed organized commemoration narratives. The image of Romanies as unschooled or illiterate is persistent, and yet Holocaust-related education shows Romani traditions in a rather different light.”

Dr. Gelbart works to educate her students and colleagues about the discrimination Romani face in Europe and to correct the offensive misconceptions many hold about them. One challenge she faces in educating people about the Romani experience during the Holocaust is undoing the erasure of Romani victimhood from historical narratives. Throughout much of Europe, the Romani were formerly not a legally recognized ethnic group and thus were excluded from regional Holocaust memory and discouraged from speaking out about their experiences.

“It is absolutely true that the continued, state-sponsored shaming of Romani cultures made surviving Romani families very unlikely to speak out about their wartime experiences,” Dr. Gelbart explains.

“There is an enduring misconception that Romani Holocaust remembrance is typically private,” she continues. “In reality, Romani attempts to give public testimony about genocide have largely paralleled post-war developments in Jewish families, albeit at a slower pace.”

In August, the Czech government agreed to remove the pig farm from the Lety concentration camp site. Dr. Gelbart believes that this decision is symbolic of the gradual inclusion of Romani Holocaust experiences in mainstream discourse.

“The pig farm at Lety, along with the recreational complex on the site of the Hodonin camp (where my great-great-grandmother was murdered by a Czech guard), are symbolic of not only the imperative to include Roma and Sinti fully in mainstream discourse on the Holocaust, but also the need to examine why the Romani Holocaust tends to be relegated to footnotes,” she says.

Though she sees improvement in the perspectives and treatment of Romani communities and history, Dr. Gelbart argues that the Romani experience during the Holocaust is understudied and that this trend reflects itself in lasting discrimination towards the community.

“In my opinion, the most important part of remembrance is making connections to present-day perils,” she explains. “We can honor the work of the Roma and allies who have fought for the dignity of the Lety victims, but we must not stop publicly pointing out the larger context of this struggle.”

Dr. Gelbart is committed to expanding the study and inclusion of Romani history and culture in the public sphere. She urges governments to take greater care in promoting Romani rights and society to learn more about the Romani, while elevating their memory above mere victimhood.

“Every book, every college course, every school curriculum and every ceremony commemorating the Holocaust should strive to make its audience aware of the difference between how Romanies are assumed to be and how they actually live their lives. It can be as simple as saying that ‘Roma and Sinti are a highly diverse ethnic group, with many communities striving for social integration. The same ideologies that labeled Romanies as subhuman in times of genocide are hindering their education, employment, and even physical safety in the twenty-first century.’ If nothing else, we need to show Romani students in both Europe and the Americas that their existence and their heritage are worth as much as any other group’s,” she says.

Dr. Gelbart’s activism within the Romani community extends beyond the classroom. She works with Czech families who foster or adopt Romani children. She is also interested in the role music plays in therapy, specifically in rehabilitative and developmental therapy. She is based in New York.

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  • Chairman Hastings Introduces LITE Act to Strengthen Ties with U.S. Allies, Support Visionary Leadership on Both Sides of the Atlantic

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  • Chairman Hastings Introduces Bill to Promote Diversity and Inclusion in the Federal Workforce

    WASHINGTON—Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) yesterday introduced H.R.6240, a bill to establish a government-wide diversity and inclusion plan to ensure fair access and opportunity to federal jobs for all Americans.  “Estimates indicate that by 2050, more than half of the U.S. workforce will be made up of Americans from diverse populations,” said Chairman Hastings. “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.” The bill would require the development of a government-wide diversity and inclusion plan to ensure that all branches of the federal government are engaged in multi-year strategic planning to recruit, hire, promote, retain, and support workers representing America’s diverse talent pool. It also calls for a review of diversity in government contracting and grant-making. “Diversity and inclusion are the underpinnings of democratic societies,” said Chairman Hastings. “It is time to ensure that those from all segments of our society have an equal opportunity to contribute to the future of our nation as part of the vibrant workforce that is at the heart of our democracy.” The introduction of the bill follows the February 2020 GAO report highlighting problems in the State Department and legislative initiatives to increase diversity in the national security workforce.  Advancing societies that are safe, inclusive, and equitable is central to the work of the Helsinki Commission. The commission supports programs to address inequities in employment, political participation, and other sectors for women and minorities and strives to empower communities to unite against bias and discrimination to foster truly democratic, inclusive, and free societies.

  • Restrictions on Civil Society in Hungary

    Since returning to power in 2010, Viktor Orban has systematically dismantled a system of checks and balances, facilitating the consolidation of control by the Fidesz government, which is now in its fourth (third consecutive) term. This has included introducing significant changes to the legal framework for parliamentary elections; stripping hundreds of faiths of their state recognition in 2011 and then channeling money to religious groups that do not challenge government positions (increasing dependence of those groups on the state); overseeing the consolidation of most Hungarian media, first into the hands of government-tied oligarchy and then into a single foundation exempt from anti-trust regulation; and eroding judicial independence by, for example, expanding and packing the constitutional court. In light of restrictions imposed on political opposition, faith organizations, the media and the judiciary, the role of Hungarian civil society in holding the government to account (by, for example, suing the government for non-compliance with the Hungarian constitution or Hungary’s international legal commitments) has taken on heightened importance. At the same time, civil society organizations have become the targets of escalating rhetorical attacks and legislative restrictions, including laws that significantly lower the bar for what it takes to jail people who seek to exercise their freedoms of speech, assembly, and association. Download the full report to learn more. Contributors: Erika Schlager, Counsel for International Law and Daniela Ondraskova, Max Kampelman Fellow

  • Chairman Hastings on Anniversaries of Sumgait Pogrom and Khojaly Massacre

    WASHINGTON—Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) yesterday issued a floor statement on the anniversaries of the Sumgait Pogrom and the Khojaly Massacre, two pivotal tragedies in the in the decades-long conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the territory of Nagorno Karabakh. The statement reads in part: “Although separated by four years and 200 miles, the Sumgait Pogrom in 1988 and Khojaly Massacre in 1992 both demonstrated the heinous potential of interethnic hatreds to tear apart communities and trample human dignity. The commemoration of these horrific events is an opportunity to reflect on the innocent lives lost in this ongoing conflict as well as a chance to affirm the need for urgent steps to heal these wounds and sue for peace once and for all… “I strongly encourage the political leadership in Yerevan and Baku to use these solemn commemorations of Sumgait and Khojaly this week to turn a new page in this terrible conflict. The most fitting way to honor the lives of those lost would be through words of reconciliation and steps toward peace. Together, the peoples of Armenia and Azerbaijan can ensure such atrocities are never be repeated and that future generations will know a life of secure and prosperous coexistence.” Download the full statement.  

  • Congressional Delegation Led by Chairman Hastings Champions U.S. Leadership in Transatlantic Security, Human Rights

    WASHINGTON—Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) last week led a bicameral, bipartisan congressional delegation to the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly’s (OSCE PA) 19th Winter Meeting in Vienna, Austria. At the meeting, Chairman Hastings and other members of the delegation engaged with OSCE officials, delegations from other OSCE participating States, and diplomats to advance U.S. interests while assuring friends, allies, and potential adversaries of the U.S. commitment to security and cooperation in Europe.   The 11-member delegation was among the largest U.S. delegations ever to attend the annual gathering, which attracted more than 300 parliamentarians from 53 OSCE participating States. Chairman Hastings, a former president of the OSCE PA, was joined in Austria by Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS), Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02), and Helsinki Commissioners Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (MO-05), Rep. Gwen Moore (WI-04), Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), Rep. Robert Aderholt (AL-04), and Rep. Richard Hudson (NC-08). Rep. Gregory Meeks (NY-05), Rep. Lloyd Doggett (TX-35), and Rep. Andy Harris (MD-01) also joined the delegation, which benefited from the active support of Ambassador James Gilmore, the U.S. Representative to the OSCE.  In the Standing Committee, which oversees the OSCE PA’s work, Chairman Hastings highlighted recommendations resulting from a seminar for young parliamentarians on “Future Leadership for Political Inclusion in the OSCE Region,” hosted in Washington in early February by the Helsinki Commission and the OSCE PA. “We brought together some 35 young parliamentarians from 19 OSCE participating States and three partner States to learn from each other and incubate the solutions of the future,” Chairman Hastings said. “As I called on all of you at our last meeting in Marrakech, we must counter the economic and social despair afflicting our youth and we all have a role.”  At the same committee, Co-Chairman Wicker, who serves as a vice president of the assembly, shared his recent experience at the Munich Security Conference.  The committee also reviewed a written report submitted by former Helsinki Commissioner Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04), OSCE PA Special Representative on Human Trafficking Issues. In the committee focused on security issues, Rep. Hudson condemned Russia’s violations of Helsinki principles related to its aggression against Ukraine, while in the committee focusing on economic issues Rep. Harris cautioned Europe regarding the growing Chinese presence in the region.   During a special debate on confronting anti-Semitism and other forms of intolerance in the OSCE region, Helsinki Commission Ranking Member Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), who serves as the OSCE PA Special Representative on Anti-Semitism, Racism and Intolerance, delivered introductory remarks by video. “It is our responsibility to safeguard our democracies by speaking out and using our tools and voices as legislators against those who would divide our societies,” Sen. Cardin said. Later in the debate, Rep. Cohen urged participating States “to teach Holocaust history, which a fourth of the people in Europe or more don't understand or remember, and teach it so that the most horrific crime against humanity will be remembered so that it will not be repeated.” Rep. Cleaver linked anti-Semitism to broader trends of intolerance in society, and called OSCE participating States to action, stating, “There are many scary things in our world, but there is nothing quite able to generate fright like prejudice inspired by ignorance and nationalism manufactured by fear.” Rep. Hudson chaired a meeting of the OSCE PA Ad Hoc Committee on Countering Terrorism, and Rep. Moore participated in a similar meeting of the Ad Hoc Committee on Migration. On the margins of the Winter Meeting’s official sessions, members of Congress met with the Ukrainian delegation to the OSCE PA to discuss U.S. support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty in the face of unrelenting Russian aggression. Delegation members also met with OSCE Secretary General Thomas Greminger, Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights Director Ingibjörg Sólrún Gísladóttir, Special Representative and Coordinator for Combatting Trafficking in Human Beings Valiant Richey, and High Commissioner for National Minorities Lamberto Zannier.

  • Human Rights and Democracy

    For nearly three decades, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) has been at the forefront of efforts to promote human rights and democracy throughout the 57-nation OSCE region. Although best known for international election observation, ODIHR has also been instrumental in countering various forms of intolerance, helping governments combat human trafficking, protecting human rights defenders, and implementing OSCE commitments to fundamental freedoms. The U.S. Helsinki Commission convened the hearing to demonstrate bipartisan support for ODIHR, to reinforce the U.S.’s support related OSCE initiatives, and to hear about the ongoing work of ODIHR.  Commission Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) chaired the hearing and was joined by Commissioners Rep. Robert Aderholt (AL-04), Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), Rep. Gwen Moore (WI-04), and Rep. Marc Veasey (TX-33). Rep. Wilson’s opening remarks highlighted the historic achievements of ODIHR, which include assisting countries to “transition from communism to democracy,” supporting “civil society participation in OSCE events,” and facilitating “strong cooperation with the Parliamentary Assembly.”  In her first appearance before Congress, ODIHR Director Ambassador Ingibjörg Sólrún Gísladóttir addressed multiple challenges that have impeded the effectiveness of ODIHR activities. She then outlined ODIHR’s role in offering proactive solutions.  In particular, Ambassador Gísladóttir stressed the importance of dialogue and asserted that democracy is about “respect and trust, an acceptance of differing opinions, an exchange of views, and the willingness to share power and seek compromise.” She concluded on an optimistic note, emphasizing unity within the OSCE and its “commitment to democracy and to the wellbeing of its people.” Although conscious of ODIHR’s efforts, commissioners voiced concerns that some OSCE participating States are not complying with their commitments to uphold basic human rights standards. Commissioners specifically acknowledged restrictions on religious freedom in Russia, poor conditions for activists and journalists, and rising anti-Semitism and discrimination against the Roma people across the region. This hearing continued the Helsinki Commission practice of regularly engaging with senior OSCE officials.The Commission typically holds hearing with the foreign minister of the country holding the rotating chairmanship of the OSCE. The Commission has also held hearings with previous ODIHR directors as well as the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media.

  • Life Under Occupation

    Nearly six years into Russia’s illegal occupation of Crimea, the human rights situation there continues to deteriorate. Russian authorities have restricted freedom of speech and assembly, suppressed civil society activity, persecuted religious and ethnic minorities, muzzled dissent, and continue to implement an aggressive process of “Russification” toward residents of the peninsula.  The U.S. Helsinki Commission convened the hearing to explore Russia’s ongoing assault on Crimea’s vulnerable minorities, as well as its blatant disregard for human rights. As an occupying power, Russia bears the full weight of responsibility for the abuses being inflicted on the population of Crimea. Panelists discussed Russia’s repression of basic freedoms in Crimea and persecution of those who don’t recognize Russian authority. Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) chaired the hearing and was joined by Commission Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) and commissioners Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (RI), Rep. Robert Aderholt (AL-04), and Rep. Marc Veasey (TX-33). Chairman Hastings’ opening remarks addressed Russia’s attempts to stymie Ukraine’s relationship with the European community and the brutal tactics used throughout Crimea’s occupation. Hastings shed a light on the harsh reality of Russia’s continued occupation, which is “aimed at forcing a proud people into submission, whether they be civil society activists, community or religious leaders, artists, journalists, or simply those whose religion and ethnicity are viewed with distrust and fear.”   This hearing featured testimony from Oleg Sentsov, a Ukrainian writer and filmmaker who was sentenced to 20 years in jail by a Russian court on trumped-up charges of terrorism in 2014. In 2018, Sentsov became a worldwide symbol of defiance and courage when he launched a hunger strike on behalf of all Ukrainian political prisoners being held by Russia. He was released in September 2019. Tamila Tasheva, Deputy Permanent Representative of the President of Ukraine in the Autonomous Republic of Crimea, and Melinda Haring, Deputy Director of the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center, also served as witnesses. Sentsov addressed Russia’s “fabricated legal cases” and “long-term imprisonment” against those who simply think differently. He also testified about the various forms of torture he endured in a Russian prison. Sentsov voiced his appreciation for the United States’ continued efforts to counter Russian aggression in Ukraine and asked that Congress maintain pressure on the Putin regime. Tasheva focused her testimony on Russia’s persecution and internal displacement of “disloyal” groups, specifically the Crimean Tatars. Tasheva also called for the creation of an “international platform for negotiations on the return of the temporarily occupied Autonomous Republic of Crimea and the city of Sevastopol to sovereign Ukrainian jurisdiction.” Haring addressed the lack of free press in Crimea, asserting that “the media is controlled by the government.” She praised Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Crimea service, which tracks developments in Crimea and broadcasts them in three languages to the Crimean population. Haring also warned that the situation in Crimea is worsening, and that Russia has “effectively turned Crimea into a Russian military base.”  Throughout the hearing, commissioners expressed their concerns for freedom of religion, freedom of movement, and freedom of the press in Crimea. Commissioners also assured witnesses that support for President Zelensky and the fight for freedom in Ukraine is bipartisan and resolute.

  • Director of OSCE Office For Democratic Institutions and Human Rights to Testify at Helsinki Commission Hearing

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following hearing: HUMAN RIGHTS AND DEMOCRACY Obstacles and Opportunities in the OSCE Region Wednesday, January 29, 2020 10:00 a.m. Longworth House Office Building Room 1334 Live Webcast: www.youtube.com/HelsinkiCommission For nearly three decades, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) has been at the forefront of efforts to promote human rights and democracy throughout the 57-nation OSCE region. In her first appearance before Congress, ODIHR Director Ambassador Ingibjörg Sólrún Gísladóttir will discuss the organization’s flagship work in international election observation; countering anti-Semitism and other forms of intolerance; and helping governments to combat human trafficking, protect human rights defenders, and better implement their commitments to fundamental freedoms including assembly and religion. The OSCE, the world’s largest regional security body, is based on a comprehensive concept of security that recognizes that respect for human rights and functioning democratic institutions underpin regional peace and security. ODIHR provides support, assistance, and expertise to participating States and civil society to promote democracy, rule of law, human rights, and tolerance and non-discrimination. ODIHR observes elections at the invitation of participating States, reviews legislation, and advises governments on how to develop and sustain democratic institutions. The office also works closely with the OSCE’s field operations and organizes Europe’s largest annual human rights meeting, bringing together annually hundreds of government officials, international experts, civil society representatives and human rights activists.  

  • Helsinki Commission to Hold Hearing on Deteriorating Human Rights Situation in Crimea

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following hearing: LIFE UNDER OCCUPATION The State of Human Rights in Crimea Tuesday, January 28, 2020 10:00 a.m. Cannon House Office Building Room 210 Live Webcast: www.youtube.com/HelsinkiCommission Nearly six years into Russia’s illegal occupation of Crimea, the human rights situation there continues to deteriorate.  Russian authorities have restricted freedom of speech and assembly, suppressed civil society activity, persecuted religious and ethnic minorities, muzzled dissent, and continue to implement an aggressive process of “Russification” toward residents of the peninsula.  The hearing will feature Oleg Sentsov, a Ukrainian writer and filmmaker who was sentenced to 20 years in jail by a Russian court on trumped-up charges of terrorism in 2014. In 2018, Sentsov became a worldwide symbol of defiance and courage when he launched a hunger strike on behalf of all Ukrainian political prisoners being held by Russia. He and other witnesses will discuss the Russian Government’s continued assault on Crimea’s vulnerable minorities, as well as its blatant disregard for basic rights. The following witnesses are scheduled to participate: Oleg Sentsov, Ukrainian writer and filmmaker held prisoner by Russia for five years Tamila Tasheva, Deputy Permanent Representative of the President of Ukraine in the Autonomous Republic of Crimea Melinda Haring, Deputy Director, Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center; Senior Fellow, Foreign Policy Research Institute

  • Public Diplomacy, Democracy, and Global Leadership

    For more than a century, the United States has advanced shared human rights, economic, and security policy goals in the transatlantic relationship by cultivating people-to-people ties through public diplomacy initiatives.  As democracies around the world face new challenges emanating from demographic shifts, technological advancements, and evolving security threats, the need for public diplomacy initiatives that cultivate leaders who espouse democratic principles, including inclusive and representative governance, grows more relevant. The U.S. Helsinki Commission convened a hearing to focus on U.S.-led public diplomacy international exchange initiatives that strengthen democratic institutions by targeting young and diverse leaders, encouraging civic engagement, and fostering social inclusion and cohesion in the OSCE region. Presiding over the hearing, Chairman Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) stated, “This year, under my leadership, the Helsinki Commission has held events on the importance of international election observation, good governance, and focused on democratic backsliding in particular countries as part of our continued commitment to the underlying principles of the Helsinki Final Act.  Common to all of these issues is the role good leaders can play in ensuring free and fair elections; laws that are equitable, transparent, and enforced; and laying the groundwork to ensure protections and rights for all in their constituencies […] for the long-term stability of our nation and the transatlantic partnership.”  In his opening remarks, Chairman Hastings also noted that he planned to introduce legislation to support of leadership exchanges and knowledge-building between diverse transatlantic policymakers, and to encourage representative democracies. He also announced a February program for young OSCE parliamentarians to strengthen their political inclusion and advance peace and security efforts. Chairman Hastings was joined by Commissioners Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, II (MO-05) and Rep. Marc Veasey (TX-33). Rep. Veasey raised the importance of metrics in assessing the impact of leadership programs and soft diplomacy, while Rep. Cleaver stated, “For the first time since the end of World War II, the extreme right is actually winning seats in the German Parliament,” highlighting increased security risks related to public diplomacy programs operating in countries that have seen an increase in hate crimes and racial prejudice. Witnesses included Cordell Carter, II, Executive Director of the Socrates Program at the Aspen Institute; Stacie Walters Fujii, Chair of the American Council of Young Political Leaders; and Lora Berg, Counselor for Inclusive Leadership at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. Carter reviewed the Aspen Institute’s public policy programming on transatlantic relations and discussed the importance of promoting democratic values, including efforts to strengthen the capacity of congressional staff and encourage dialogues around the United States on being an “inclusive republic.”  He concluded by asking Congress to create more opportunities for public discourse on issues that threaten the stability of democracies around the world. Fujii discussed the importance of international exchanges in supporting democracies and the work of American Council of Young Political Leaders (ACYPL). ACYPL was founded in 1966 to strengthen transatlantic relationships by promoting mutual understanding among young political leaders in Western Europe and the former Soviet Union.  Critical aspects of the program include offering international leaders the opportunity to come to the U.S. to observe campaigning, polling stations, election returns, and the response of the American people to elections, complemented by follow-on educational conversations about democratic processes in their countries.  Berg highlighted the importance of public diplomacy initiatives in advancing inclusive leadership and observed that nations gain in richness and capacity when diversity is reflected in leadership. She also noted that inclusive leadership not only plays an important role in promoting social harmony, but it also helps to ensure economic growth, stating that “the places with the highest social cohesion are the most reliable for investment.” Berg explained that the GMF’s Transatlantic Inclusion Leaders Network (TILN) grew out of work she engaged in while working for the Department of State. TILN is an innovative network of young, diverse leaders across the United States and Europe supported by the Helsinki Commission and State Department.    Berg argued for the expansion of U.S. Government-supported public diplomacy inclusive leadership initiatives targeting youth and diverse populations in western democracies, including through public-private partnerships, the creation of a public diplomacy officer position in Europe to foster Europe-wide next generation transatlantic leadership, and increased political participation measures domestically and abroad for diverse populations.   

  • On the Road to Inclusion

    From November 18 to November 22, 2019, the State Department’s Strategic Religious Engagement Unit and the U.S. Consulate in Milan, in cooperation with the U.S. Helsinki Commission, launched a new transatlantic democracy program for youth, “On the Road to Inclusion.” The program empowers young people to collaborate across diverse social, cultural, religious, and generational differences to promote positive change through democratic practices.  The first iteration of the program took place in the northern Italian cities of Milan, Turin and Vicenza: cities with populations that have been at the heart of increased demographic change, economic decline resulting in high levels of youth unemployment, and political tensions that have increased societal divisions, including a rise in anti-Semitism, anti-Muslim sentiments, xenophobia and racism.  The program brought together more than 250 youth leaders and 50-plus organizations to tackle societal challenges at the local and national levels, engage and build coalitions with their peers across differences, and contribute to their communities effectively through advocacy and education. Participants included representatives of diverse populations – voices traditionally lost within the democratic process – as well as organizations working on migrant and refugee integration, social inclusion, youth engagement, and leadership. During the program, American experts Christin “Cici” Battle, Executive Director of Young People For, and Rebecca Lenn, a strategic communications consultant, led workshops to promote civic engagement and leadership with a focus on building community, strengthening interreligious and intercultural cooperation for action, advancing integration, and boosting traditional and digital media literacy. Battle helped participants develop concrete skills and advocacy tools in coalition building. These means of engagement included joining forces with groups who have different approaches in order to make a movement more powerful. Lenn led participants in discussions on how to recognize and counter hate speech, disinformation, and cyber bullying. In an interview with Giornale di Vicenza about the program, she outlined challenges young people face with social media, and underscored the importance of media in facilitating social change. Extensions of the program will include opportunities for alumni of the program to engage with U.S. youth and organizations to exchange civic engagement practices, and the Helsinki Commission will continue to work closely with the Department to expand “On the Road to Inclusion” in other Western European cities in the coming year. The Helsinki Commission has long worked with the State Department to support strategic investment in young and diverse leaders to enhance democratic development and safe, inclusive, and equitable societies across the OSCE region though programs like the Transatlantic Inclusion Leaders Network. A December 2019 commission hearing focused on the role public diplomacy leadership programs for emerging and established leaders can play in sustaining western democracies and the transatlantic partnership for the future. 

  • Helsinki Commission to Review Role of Professional Exchanges in Strengthening Democratic Institutions

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following hearing: PUBLIC DIPLOMACY, DEMOCRACY, AND GLOBAL LEADERSHIP An Approach for the 21st Century Thursday, December 5, 2019 10:00 a.m. Longworth House Office Building Room 1334 Live Webcast: www.youtube.com/HelsinkiCommission For more than a century, the United States has advanced human rights, economic, and security policy goals in Europe by cultivating people-to-people ties across the Atlantic. More than 500 heads of state, 100 Members of Congress, and thousands of professionals have participated in U.S. Government-sponsored exchanges, including the State Department’s International Visitor Leadership Program, while public and private organizations have hosted similar programs to bring leaders together.    Witnesses at the hearing will explore the origins and role of professional exchanges and other public diplomacy programs that strengthen relationships with U.S. allies in the face of shared challenges including eroding trust in democratic institutions, demographic shifts, technological advancements, and evolving security threats. In particular, the hearing will focus on international exchange initiatives that strengthen democratic institutions by targeting young and diverse leaders, encouraging civic engagement, and fostering social inclusion and cohesion in the OSCE region.  The following witnesses are scheduled to participate: Lora Berg, Senior Fellow, Leadership Programs, German Marshall Fund of the United States Cordell Carter, II, Executive Director, Socrates Program, The Aspen Institute   Stacie Walters Fujii, Chair, American Council of Young Political Leaders (ACYPL)   Photo credit: German Marshall Fund of the United States

  • U.S. Helsinki Commission Hosts Staff Briefing on World’s Biggest Data Set of Hate Crime Statistics

    On Wednesday, October 23, 2019, the U.S. Helsinki Commission hosted a congressional staff briefing on addressing hate crimes in Europe and the United States. The event was moderated by Dr. Mischa Thompson, Director of Global Partnerships, Policy and Innovation at the U.S. Helsinki Commission. The Commission’s guest speaker, Cristina Finch, the Head of the Tolerance and Non-Discrimination Department at the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) provided an overview of hate crimes statistics in Europe and North America. She described the efforts that the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has made to address hate crimes and hate incidents in the region. Finch also discussed the commitments made by the 57 OSCE participating States to document, investigate, and prosecute hate crimes, as well as the tools and best practices available to assist countries in meeting their commitments. ODIHR’s Annual Report on Hate Crime combines official government reports submitted by 33 OSCE participating States with an additional 108 reports from 135 civil society organizations. In 2018, 5,258 hate crime incidents were reported to ODIHR. As Finch described it, this volume of information makes the report “the world’s biggest data set on hate crime.” The full 2018 Hate Incidents data set will be published on November 15, 2019. According to Finch, accurate recording of hate crimes by the police remains a serious issue. “In many countries police do not record hate crimes as a specific category in a systemic way,” she noted. “This means that information is missing, which impedes investigation, prosecution, prevention and policy making.” Other serious obstacles to publishing accurate data exist. For example, estimates indicate that 90 percent of hate crimes are not reported by victims to the police at all. Promoting safe, inclusive, and equitable societies is a priority of the Helsinki Commission for the 116th Congress. Commission efforts on inclusion have included briefings, hearings, legislation, and inter-parliamentary initiatives in the U.S. Congress and Europe.  Additionally, Helsinki Commission Ranking Member Sen. Ben Cardin serves as the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly’s Special Representative on Anti-Semitism, Racism, and Intolerance and has called for increased efforts to address hate crimes in the region.

  • Hastings and Cardin Condemn Mob Attack on Budapest Community Center

    WASHINGTON—Following Wednesday’s mob attack on Aurora, a small Jewish community center that provides office space to civil society groups in Budapest, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) and Ranking Member Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) issued the following statements: “Wednesday’s mob attack on Aurora is an alarming escalation of violence toward minorities and civil society groups in Hungary. This second attack by paramilitary-style extremists in less than a month sends a frightening message: Authorities cannot, or will not, protect you,” said Chairman Hastings. “A decade ago, far-right extremists in Hungary orchestrated dozens of violent attacks, murdering six Hungarians including five-year-old Robert Csorba. The Government of Hungary must not allow such a tragedy to occur again.” “The Hungarian Government may boast of a ‘zero-tolerance for anti-Semitism’ policy abroad, but in reality, in Budapest they traffic in anti-Semitic tropes, honor fascist-era leaders and ideologues, and stoke hatred of migrants and Muslims,” said Sen. Cardin, who also serves as the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly Special Representative on Anti-Semitism, Racism, and Intolerance. “Actions speak louder than words. I hope that available photographs of the mob will aid law enforcement in the investigation and prosecution of the perpetrators, and I commend the district’s newly elected mayor for visiting Aurora and seeking to ensure its safety.” Marom, a Hungarian Jewish association, established and runs Aurora Community Center, an umbrella organization that provides office space to small civil society groups including the Roma Press Center, migrant aid, and Pride Parade organizers. In Wednesday’s attack, the mob burned a rainbow flag and branded a para-military logo onto the premises. On September 26, the center also was attacked and vandalized by extremists. Under the Orbán government, the conditions for independent nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in Hungary have deteriorated. Over the past two years, Hungarian authorities have accused Marom of administrative violations ranging from mismatched dates on official documents to, most recently, lacking an appropriate agreement with the center’s landlord. In 2018, Hungary passed a law establishing a 25 percent tax on organizations which engage in “propaganda activity that portrays immigration in a positive light.” It is a tax on government-disfavored speech. Hungary also adopted amendments to its "law on aiding illegal migration" that make handing out know-your-rights leaflets punishable by up to one year in prison. In 2017, Hungary adopted a Russian-style "foreign agent" law which, according to the U.S. Department of State, “unfairly burdens a targeted group of Hungarian civil society organizations, many of which focus on fighting corruption and protecting human rights and civil liberties.” The bill was proposed by the far-right wing party Jobbik. In 2014, armed police carried out raids on 13 civil society organizations, seizing computers and documents for alleged financial misconduct. No charges were ever brought against the NGOs. Between 2008 and 2010, at least six people were murdered, many others were injured, and whole communities were terrorized in a series of attacks by right-wing extremists.  Maria Balog was shot in her own home in a middle-of-the-night raid that also wounded her 13-year-old daughter. Jeno Koka was shot as he got in his car to go to work. Five-year-old Robert Csorba and his father were killed by sniper fire while attempting to escape an arson attack on their home.

  • Remembering Rep. Elijah E. Cummings and His Global Legacy in the Security Sector

    By Nida Ansari, Policy Advisor and State Department Detailee and Dr. Mischa Thompson, Director of Global Partnerships, Policy, and Innovation “These measures are critical in enhancing the efficiency and effectiveness of the U.S. armed forces by addressing the under-representation of women and ethnic minorities and creating a diverse military that fully represents our nation’s citizens […] for the sake of our country, we can and must do better.”  – Congressman Elijah E. Cummings Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a stalwart voice in the U.S. Congress, passed away on October 17, 2019. Representing Baltimore, Maryland, his many legislative initiatives included groundbreaking work to advance diversity and inclusion in the security sector alongside Helsinki Commissioners and other global changemakers. In 2008, Rep. Cummings and other Members of Congress joined forces with then-Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin to establish the Military Leadership Diversity Commission (MLDC). Rep. Cummings’ goal was to increase the number of people of color and women in flag officer rank by focusing on military recruitment, retention, and promotion.  The 2011 MLDC final report, “From Representation to Inclusion: Diversity Leadership for the 21st-Century Military,” proposed 20 recommendations to develop policy goals and metrics to manage and sustain diversity at the U.S. Department of Defense.  Following the release of the report, Rep. Cummings, Sen. Cardin, and other Members of Congress held a 2012 Congressional Military Diversity Forum with MLDC Chairman General Lester Lyles, where the general raised the urgency of implementing the report’s recommendations to maintain force levels in concert with increasing diversity in the United States. Helsinki Commission efforts—including legislation by Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee Hastings and Sen. Cardin on the incorporation of women in combat divisions and on increasing diversity in the intelligence and national security workforces—have complemented and built upon Rep. Cummings’ work. Rep. Cumming’s efforts also were integral to the 2013 launch of the Mission Critical: Inclusive Leadership for the Security Sector program, led by the German Marshall Fund and supported by Helsinki Commission leadership.  Findings from the MLDC underpin the initiative, which brought together militaries, Members of Congress, staff of the Department of Defense, other government officials and experts from Europe and the United States to review and take stock of diversity and inclusion best practices in the security sector. “There must be an assigned and qualified individual on the command level to oversee military issues including discrimination, racial profiling, and hazing. In particular, the military needs to have a more effective response against hazing cases to better identify and respond to dangerous situations.  Women, minorities, and every single soldier should be able to achieve their goals when joining the military.”  – Congressman Elijah Cummings, Mission Critical 2013 As part of the inaugural Mission Critical event in 2013, Congressman Cummings highlighted lessons learned from the MLDC and the need to address discrimination and other problems, including hazing, in militaries to increase diversity and ensure the success of missions critical to national security.  Efforts to address these and other issues have continued at subsequent Mission Critical events, most recently in June 2019. Continuing to build upon the MLDC foundation, the event focused on diversity and inclusion issues related to personnel, the future of security, and technology in the security sector.  Speakers echoed the sentiments of Rep. Cummings years before. Then-German Federal Minister of Defense Ursula von der Leyen stressed the value of religious diversity in the armed forces, sharing how she was working to get the Bundeswehr’s military chaplaincy to include Jewish rabbis and Muslim imams instead of only the traditional Protestant and Roman Catholic chaplains.  Tjorven Bellmann of the German Federal Ministry of Foreign Affairs raised the importance of recruitment methods that appeal to young people from diverse backgrounds. He also noted that discrimination in the military remains a barrier for racial minorities, women, LGBT+, and other groups.  Nida Ansari, a State Department detailee to the Helsinki Commission, discussed U.S. Government inclusion efforts around faith communities. Ursula von der Leyen’s elevation to the Presidency of the European Commission offers hope for highly-placed advocacy of inclusive policies and concrete strategies beyond the security sector and broader dissemination of practices shared during Mission Critical. Congressman Cummings’ vision of a more inclusive security sector, and more inclusive societies generally, at home and abroad will not soon be forgotten.  Signs of progress include examples like General Lori Robinson, whose distinguished career included serving as the first woman to command a major Unified Combatant Command when she led United States Northern Command (USNORTHCOM) and the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) from May 2016 to May 2018.  The rarity of her example, however, only underlines the work that Mr. Cummings well knew was still required. With special thanks to Leah Perry, former Professional Staff Member, House Oversight Committee, for her assistance in providing background information for this article. 

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