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Property Restitution Efforts Examined
Thursday, October 10, 2002

By Maureen T. Walsh,
CSCE General Counsel

On July 16, 2002, the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe held a public hearing titled “Property Restitution in Central and Eastern Europe: The State of Affairs for American Claimants” on the status of property restitution, with a particular focus on claims in Poland, the Czech Republic, and Romania. This was the Commission’s third hearing on the issue of property restitution; previous hearings were held in 1996 and 1999.

In his opening statement, Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-NJ) acknowledged that “Central and East European governments have done much regarding property restitution that is commendable.” Smith noted that “governments seeking membership in Western institutions want to be perceived as reform governments by passing a private property restitution law. . Upon closer examination, however, one finds lackluster the implementation of the laws” as well as serious rule of law problems and discriminatory citizenship requirements that continue to impede restitution and compensation efforts.

Commissioner Rep. Joseph R. Pitts (R-PA) expressed the need for countries addressing problems created by the legacies of fascism and communism to “address all pertinent issues and cases, including claims of those individuals or families who may fall between the cracks of current laws.”

According to Commissioner Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-MD), barriers to restitution and compensation dealt the survivors of the Holocaust a second tragedy. In response, he made clear that “we will not stop until all the OSCE states treat property restitution in a serious way by having effective laws to compensate for illegally confiscated property.”

Commissioner Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-NY) expressed a need “to constantly be creating an atmosphere in which these claims are viewed as appropriate, legitimate, and justiciable.” She stressed “the rapid restitution of assets that were stolen during that horrible period is a critical step towards achieving some measure of fairness.” “As the countries of Eastern and Central Europe consider reforming their property restitution laws, they can look to the United States as a leader in considering the restitution of World War II era property,” Senator Clinton concluded.

Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-NY), a member of the House International Relations Committee, urged the Bush Administration to ensure that progress on property restitution claims be considered as a component for European Union membership. Rep. Crowley’s remarks focused on the lack of a private property restitution law in Poland where he stated “as many as 170,000 property owners and their heirs still wait for legislation that will restore their rights.” He also noted that “the protection of property rights is a basic requirement for all democratic governments that operate under the rule of law.”

Witnesses reiterated two themes throughout the hearing: the protection of property rights as a requirement of democratic governments and the need for states to recognize their responsibilities to resolve outstanding restitution claims.

The first witness, Special Envoy for Holocaust Issues at the U.S. State Department, Randolph Bell, said the U.S., in its diplomatic relations, emphasizes that restitution processes must be clear, straightforward and non-discriminatory. Countries are encouraged to adopt broad legislation that provides restitution for the variety of claims which are being made.

Mr. Bell remarked, “in joining the Euro-Atlantic mainstream and applying for membership in organizations, [Central and East European states] are seeking to join a community of values.” He outlined the following principles that these states should bear in mind when addressing property restitution:

  • Restitution laws should govern both communal property owned by religious and community organizations, and private property owned by individuals and corporate entities.
  • To document claims, access to archival records frequently requiring government facilitation is necessary. Reasonable alternative evidence must be permitted if archives have been destroyed.
  • Uniform enforcement of laws is necessary throughout a country.
  • The restitution process must be non-discriminatory, there should be no residence or citizenship requirement.
  • Legal procedures should be clear and simple.
  • Privatization programs should include protections for claimants.
  • Governments need to make provisions for current occupants of restituted property.
  • When restitution of property is not possible, adequate compensation should be paid.
  • Restitution should result in a clear title to the property, not merely the right to use the property.
  • Communal property should be eligible for restitution or compensation without regard to whether it had a religious or secular use. Some limits on large forest or agricultural holdings may be needed.
  • Foundations managed jointly by local communities and international groups may be appropriate to aid in preparation of claims and to administer restituted property.
  • Cemeteries and other religious sites should be protected from desecration or misuse before and during the restitution process.

Mr. Bell emphasized the common goals of the legislative and executive branches in pursuing these issues. He recommended Congress and the Administration continue to encourage Central and East European states to enact addition legislation to allow greater property restitution and to hold the governments of those states accountable to the public declarations they have previously made.

The second panel of witnesses was comprised of Israel Singer, President of the Conference on Jewish-American Claims against Germany and Co-Chairman of the World Jewish Restitution Organization; Yehuda Evron, U.S. President of the Holocaust Restitution Committee; Mark Meyer, attorney and Chairman of the Romanian-American Chamber of Commerce; and Olga Jonas, economist and member of several non-governmental organizations addressing issues in the Czech Republic. These witnesses’ statements revealed broad dissatisfaction with the current status of restitution efforts.

Israel Singer reported that many East European states had “enacted restitution legislation with cut-off dates with the effect, whether intended or not, of restricting the rights of Jewish communities and others with legitimate claims to reclaim their property.” He emphasized the critical importance of timeliness in resolving restitution claims by stating that Holocaust survivors are dying at a rate of 15 percent per year. Singer urged the Commission to pursue three goals: first, to follow his “report card” on countries’ efforts toward restitution and to insist on greater accountability for any shortcomings. Second, to question why NATO allies allow property restitution to be used as an excuse for anti-Semitism within their borders. And third, to reiterate to these allies that resolution of property restitution issues is not only a material obligation, but also a moral obligation.

Yehuda Evron’s testimony focused on restitution in Poland where, Evron said, “Efforts to return property to former owners have been uneven, and often unsuccessful or worse, discriminatory.” Like Mr. Singer, he reiterated the dire need for resolution of these claims and declared the efforts thus far to resolve American claims in Poland a failure. Evron noted the law on restitution which the Polish Government is currently crafting will reportedly offer a symbolic monetary compensation to the rightful owners rather than actual return of confiscated property. Describing why Holocaust survivors will not be satisfied with symbolic compensation, Mr. Evron explained, “We survivors lost all of our families. The homes that are left are the only thing left from our family. There is no money in the world that can compensate for this house, and we don't want any money.”

Mark Meyer described the property restitution situation in Romania. Mr. Meyer, an attorney with extensive experience representing property claimants, acknowledged Romania’s efforts in passing a restitution law, but criticized the law for having “so many exceptions to the overall principle of in-kind restitution that in fact it is not providing very much in the way of in-kind restitution at all. Instead it offers restitution in the equivalent.” Meyer described the claims process as a “procedural morass” and a “bureaucratic meltdown” because of the multiplicity of obstacles facing claimants. Meyer recommended that Romania broaden in-kind restitution. When in-kind restitution is not feasible, he suggested that long-term bonds be issued rather than cash compensation. He also argued for the inclusion of personal property restitution in any amendments to the Romanian restitution law. Meyer noted the importance of Romania rescinding Law 112 of 1995 which currently allows tenants of seized property to purchase that property, thus further complicating return of the property to the original owner.

Olga Jonas testified concerning property restitution in the Czech Republic. Ms. Jonas criticized Czech policy on the return of confiscated properties as being intended “to directly benefit communist and former communist functionaries who have acquired these properties or who hope to acquire them in privatization.” Ms. Jonas enumerated several particularly egregious restrictions on property restitution including the disallowance of restitution to “all persons who are not considered Czech citizens by the Czech Government, to legal persons, and to those victims whose Nazi-confiscated assets were to be returned by the 1945 restitution laws but [which were not actually returned] before the communist takeover.” She noted the U.N. Human Rights Committee’s multiple rulings that by denying U.S. citizens the right to restitution of confiscated property the Czech Government has violated the non-discrimination requirement of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Two days after the hearing, Co-Chairman Smith hand-delivered a letter to Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski during a meeting with congressional leaders in Washington, stressing the urgent need for a non-discriminatory law governing restitution or compensation of private property confiscated from individuals by the Nazi or communist regimes in Poland. In response, President Kwasniewski underscored Poland's good will in tackling this problem, which he characterized as more difficult in Poland that some other countries because of post-World War II border changes. He said he expected to have a draft law ready by the beginning of next year — one that would not include any citizenship restrictions.

The United States Helsinki Commission, an independent federal agency, by law monitors and encourages progress in implementing provisions of the Helsinki Accords. The Commission, created in 1976, is composed of nine Senators, nine Representatives, and one official each from the Departments of State, Defense, and Commerce.


United States Helsinki Commission intern Georgianna Gaines contributed to this article.

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    WASHINGTON—For the first time in its 43-year history, the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the U.S. Helsinki Commission, will convene outside of the United States for a field hearing to underscore America’s commitment to security in the Baltic Sea region and its unwavering support for U.S. friends and allies. At this historic hearing, held less than 80 miles from Russia’s border, senior U.S. civilian and military leaders will outline America’s collaborative approach to enhancing security in the region. High-level officials from states including Lithuania, Poland, Finland, Sweden, and Estonia will provide regional perspectives on the evolving security environment in and around the Baltic Sea. BALTIC SEA REGIONAL SECURITY A Field Hearing of the U.S. Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe Tuesday, July 2, 2019 3:00 p.m. CET The Artus Court Gdańsk, Poland Watch Live: www.youtube.com/HelsinkiCommission Panel I: Mr. Douglas D. Jones, Deputy Permanent Representative, United States Mission to NATO Lt. Gen. Stephen M. Twitty, Deputy Commander, United States European Command Panel II: Minister Raimundas Karoblis, Minister of National Defense, Ministry of National Defense of the Republic of Lithuania Major General Krzysztof Król, Deputy Chief of the General Staff of the Polish Armed Forces, Republic of Poland Director-General Janne Kuusela, Director-General, Defense Policy Department, Ministry of Defense of the Republic of Finland State Secretary Jan-Olof Lind, State Secretary to the Minister for Defense, Ministry of Defense of the Kingdom of Sweden Permanent Secretary Kristjan Prikk, Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Defense, Ministry of Defense of the Republic of Estonia Other panelists may be added. Against the backdrop of the location of the first battle of World War II, panelists will discuss regional maritime threats—including Kremlin aggression—and possible responses; the current effectiveness of NATO’s deterrent posture in the Baltics; the transatlantic security architecture; and hybrid and emerging threats. Members of the media must register in advance at https://form.jotform.com/91692541401958 to attend this hearing. Preregistration closes at noon CET on Friday, June 28, 2019.

  • Partially Protected?

    The U.S. Helsinki Commission convened an expert briefing on the background, implementation, and legal and political implications of temporary protection for people in the United States and Europe who come from countries of conflict or natural disaster but not qualify for asylum. The discussion explored whether some European Union countries are choosing temporary protection even when asylum claims are credible. Alex T. Johnson, Chief of Staff for the Helsinki Commission, said in his opening remarks, “Chairman Hastings sees [protected status] as a priority, particularly in the United States and in the OSCE region because of the erosion of human rights and democratic institutions that we are seeing now. It’s particularly urgent as we look at our own domestic compliance with commitments in the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and how we partner with countries who are also exploring issues related to granted protected status for vulnerable communities in their midst.” Johnson also noted Chairman Hasting’s introduction of H.Con.Res. 5, which expresses support for Haitians residing in the United States with Temporary Protected Status (TPS). In the discussion that followed, Jill Wilson of the Congressional Research Service provided context on TPS and its implementation in the U.S. Wilson reported, “Ten countries are currently covered by TPS, benefitting some 400,000 individuals in the United States. The Trump administration has announced terminations for six of these ten countries on the grounds that the conditions on which the original designations were based no longer exist. These terminations are currently on hold pending court action.”  Recent efforts by members of the 115th and 116th Congress saw a greater number and variety of TPS-related bills that seek either to expand or restrict TPS and shift the decision-making power from the Secretary of Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to the U.S. Congress. Currently, the Secretary of the DHS, in consultation with other key government offices namely the U.S. State Department, has the power to designate a country for temporary protection in periods of six, twelve, or eighteen months based on three categories: armed conflict, natural disaster, or extraordinary circumstances that prevent the safe return of a country’s nationals. Marleine Bastien of the Family Action Network Movement shared her expertise on the current political and economic situation in Haiti, following the catastrophic earthquake in 2010 and subsequent natural disasters that resulted in major public health emergencies, about 300,000 displaced people, and severely damaged infrastructure. Despite these continuing poor conditions, Haiti’s TPS status is subject to termination. Bastien remarked, “We hope that Congress will take a close look at what’s going on in Haiti today…The conditions in Haiti continue to deteriorate. Haiti still qualifies for temporary protected status… TPS is still applicable, not only for the countries that qualify now, but for the countries in the future which may experience natural and political disasters.” Without its TPS re-instated, she said, Haiti does not have the capacity to resettle and support the 58,000 Haitians currently living in the U.S. Sui Chung, an attorney with the Immigration Law and Litigation Group in Miami, Florida, and Chair of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Committee of the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA) stated that unless legislation like the American Dream and Promise Act, H.R. 6 is passed, TPS recipients remain at risk of being detained or deported. Chung remarked, “Although the federal courts have enjoined the termination of TPS for some countries, these court orders are temporary. If a higher court rules unfavorably, those with TPS would be vulnerable to losing authorization to work and reside in the U.S., and they would be subject to deportation.” Chung stated that 94 percent of individuals under TPS are employed, generating about $5.5 billion in federal, state, and local taxes, with roughly $25 billion spending power. According to Chung, losing this population could cripple the U.S. economy and harm communities.  Catherine Woollard, Secretary General of the European Council on Refugees and Exiles, described Europe’s decision-making process for protection status as an inconsistent and unfair “asylum lottery” She argued that the lack of fairness and uniformity in granting TPS originates from the selection process, where the decision to grant protection status is left solely to the discretion of the twenty-eight European Union Member States rather than a universal eligibility process. Woollard noted, “Our analysis shows that these different protection statuses have a wide variation when it comes to the rights attached. Key rights that are of interest and necessity for people who are seeking protection vary. If you have refugee status, your residence rights are for a longer duration. For subsidiary protection, less time is granted for residential rights. In some cases, there are very stark differences.”

  • Helsinki Commission Briefing to Explore Non-Asylum Protections in United States And Europe

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following briefing: PARTIALLY PROTECTED? Non-Asylum Protection in the United States and the European Union Friday, June 14, 2019 2:00 p.m. Rayburn House Office Building Room 2237 Live Webcast: www.facebook.com/HelsinkiCommission The United States and the European Union give legal protection to some people who flee armed conflict or natural disaster, but do not qualify as refugees. In the United States, the Secretary of Homeland Security designates countries of origin for “Temporary Protected Status” (TPS), enabling their nationals to legally remain in the United States and work until and unless the Secretary terminates the designation. Approximately 417,000 individuals from 10 countries currently have TPS, living in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and U.S. commonwealths and territories. In 2018, more than 100,300 people were granted similar non-asylum protection, on an individual basis, across the 28 countries of the European Union. Since 2017, the United States has extended TPS for Somalia, South Sudan, Syria, and Yemen, and announced terminations for El Salvador, Haiti, Honduras, Nepal, Nicaragua, and Sudan. Lawsuits have challenged the terminations. To date, Members of Congress have introduced at least 10 TPS-focused bills in the 116th Congress. This briefing will explore the background and implementation of non-asylum protection in the United States and Europe—including whether some European Union Member States are according this protection even when asylum claims are credible—legislative and legal responses, and implications for policy, law, and protection. The following panelists are scheduled to participate: Marleine Bastien, Executive Director, Family Action Network Movement Sui Chung, Attorney at Law, Immigration Law and Litigation Group, and Chair, Immigration and Customs Enforcement Committee, American Immigration Lawyers Association Jill H. Wilson, Analyst in Immigration Policy, Congressional Research Service Catherine Woollard, Secretary General, European Council on Refugees and Exiles Additional panelists may be added.

  • Helsinki Commission Chairman Condemns Mob Attacks on Roma in Europe

    WASHINGTON—Following reports of a mob attack against the Roma community and a police station in Gabrovo, Bulgaria, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) today issued the following statement: “I am very disturbed by the increasing frequency of mob attacks on Roma in Europe—most recently in Bulgaria, but also in Italy, France, and the Czech Republic. Governments must do more to counter the corrosive effects of hate-mongering and protect their most vulnerable communities from bias-motivated crimes. “The violence in Bulgaria is particularly concerning. As they say in the horror movies, ‘the call is coming from inside your house.’ An attack on a government institution like a police station is an attack on democracy itself.” Reports indicate that earlier this week, an anti-Roma group attacked the police station in Gabrovo when officers refused to turn over three Roma to the mob following an altercation at a local shop. Some Romaní homes were subsequently destroyed. The attack comes on the heels of recent anti-Roma rhetoric at the highest levels of the Government of Bulgaria. In February, Bulgarian Defense Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Krasimir Karakachanov proposed offering free abortions to limit the Roma birthrate. In early April, a mob attacked 70 Roma, including children, in a suburb of Rome, Italy. Prosecutors have opened an investigation into the attack.  Similar attacks on Roma in the town of Dvorec in the Czech Republic forced a Romani family to leave the area. Three Romani children were subsequently attacked in the Czech village of Lipník nad Bečvou. In France in late March, false kidnapping accusations against Roma circulated on social media were associated with gang attacks on Roma in France. Local police issued statements to quell the disinformation. 

  • Lies, Bots, and Social Media

    From the latest revelations about Facebook to ongoing concerns over the integrity of online information, the U.S. public has never been more vulnerable or exposed to computational propaganda: the threat posed by sophisticated botnets able to post, comment on, and influence social media and other web outlets to generate a desired outcome or simply sow distrust and disorder.  What can be done to confront and defeat these malevolent actors before they dominate civil discourse on the Internet? One possibility is the use of algorithmic signal reading which displays for users the geographic origin of a given post. Another answer may lie in improving how websites like Facebook curate their content, so the user can make more informed choices.  At this Helsinki Commission briefing, distinguished experts examined the implications of computational propaganda on national and international politics and explored options available to Congress and the private sector to confront and negate its pernicious influence.

  • Helsinki Commission Briefing to Examine Computational Propaganda

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following briefing:   LIES, BOTS, AND SOCIAL MEDIA What is Computational Propaganda and How Do We Defeat It? Thursday, November 29, 2018 10:30 a.m. Senate Dirksen Office Building Room 562 Live Webcast: www.facebook.com/HelsinkiCommission From the latest revelations about Facebook to ongoing concerns over the integrity of online information, the U.S. public has never been more vulnerable or exposed to computational propaganda: the threat posed by sophisticated botnets able to post, comment on, and influence social media and other web outlets to generate a desired outcome or simply sow distrust and disorder.  What can be done to confront and defeat these malevolent actors before they dominate civil discourse on the Internet? One possibility is the use of algorithmic signal reading which displays for users the geographic origin of a given post. Another answer may lie in improving how websites like Facebook curate their content, so the user can make more informed choices.  At this Helsinki Commission briefing, distinguished experts will examine the implications of computational propaganda on national and international politics and explore options available to Congress and the private sector to confront and negate its pernicious influence. Expert panelists scheduled to participate include: Matt Chessen, Acting Deputy Science and Technology Advisor to the Secretary of State, U.S. Department of State Karen Kornbluh, Senior Fellow and Director, Technology Policy Program, The German Marshall Fund of the United States Nina Jankowicz, Global Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars' Kennan Institute

  • Interview with Georgia Holmer, Senior Adviser for Anti-Terrorism Issues, Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe

    By Yena Seo, Communications Fellow Georgia Holmer, an expert on counterterrorism policy, recently visited the Helsinki Commission offices to discuss her portfolio at the Anti-Terrorism Issues Unit in the Transnational Threat Department at the OSCE Secretariat. At the OSCE, she oversees policy support and capacity building work on preventing and countering violent extremism and radicalization that lead to terrorism (VERLT). Ms. Holmer gave a short interview on her position at the OSCE and explained why she sees a human-rights based approach to counterterrorism to be critical. Holmer, who has worked on counterterrorism issues for over 20 years, observed that she “lived through an evolution in the U.S. government’s approach to terrorism that was quite extraordinary.” After spending 10 years as a terrorism analyst for the FBI, Holmer helped build analytic capacity at the Department of Homeland Security and taught classes on understanding radicalization. Later she directed the Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) program at the United States Institute of Peace, where she helped develop a strategic approach to violent extremism that harnessed peacebuilding tools. “We went from approaching terrorism as a security threat in which operations needed to be disrupted to realizing that there also had to be something done to prevent people from joining these groups and movements in the first place,” Holmer explained. “Not only did we begin to understand and address the root causes of terrorism but increasingly there was a realization that repressive measures in counterterrorism could actually exacerbate the problem. Upholding human rights as part of the effort to counter terrorism is necessary and can contribute to preventing violence in the long term.” Holmer acknowledged some of the pitfalls and counterproductive measures to be avoided in counterterrorism: a lack of due process and clear legislation, abusive treatment in detention facilities, and stigma and censorship against certain religious and ethnic groups can also fuel terrorist agendas and draw more people to violent extremism. These ideas led Holmer to pursue a degree mid-career in international human rights law at Oxford University. In 2017, Holmer was offered a position at the OSCE, and was drawn to its comprehensive approach to security. “I thought, here is a chance to work for an organization that had both a counterterrorism mandate and a human rights mandate. I think it’s a necessary marriage.” She sees the work she does in the prevention of VERLT to be directly relevant to human rights. “Programs to prevent radicalization that leads to terrorism not only ensure security, but they also help build more inclusive, resilient and engaged communities. This can also be understood inversely – upholding human rights is a pathway to preventing terrorism.” Holmer was further drawn to the OSCE because of its operational focus, pointing to the organization’s robust field operations presence. She stressed that the organization’s “on-the-ground presence” – particularly in the Western Balkans and Central Asia – allows it to develop close working relationships with governments and policymakers, giving it “a different level of reach.” For example, OSCE field missions in Dushanbe and Skopje have helped to convene stakeholders for important discussions, coordinate funders, and organize external partners for project implementation. Holmer considers the OSCE’s structure a strength when it comes to countering violent extremism. Holmer explained that because the OSCE is a political organization, its structure and activities invite states and other stakeholders to exchange ideas frankly. The OSCE’s annual counterterrorism conferences allow participating States to share opinions in a productive and meaningful manner. The OSCE frequently convenes policy makers and practitioners from its participating States to discuss measures to prevent radicalization leading to terrorism. Various seminars, workshops, and conferences have introduced concepts of prevention and helped advance the role of civil society in countering violent extremism. Holmer observed that while there is no “one-size-fits-all solution,” the organization regularly emphasizes the sharing and implementation of good practices. She also added that sharing good practices is only effective when efforts are made to tailor responses and approaches to a specific context. Measures to prevent need to incorporate an understanding of the nature of the threat in any given environment. She said the ways that individuals radicalize and the dynamics that influence people to become engaged in violent extremism differ. “What works in a rural village in Bosnia-Herzegovina versus what might work in Tajikistan might be completely different.” Holmer believes that through her role as Senior Adviser, she can continue working with member states to pursue “good practices” in the prevention of VERLT and support anti-terrorism within a human rights framework. “The aim of our work at the OSCE is to support participating states with the tools, the policy and legal frameworks they need to address these complicated challenges.” For more information, contact Alex Tiersky, Senior Policy Advisor for Global Security and Political-Military Affairs.

  • The Cold War Is Over, But The OSCE's Value Is Timeless

    History has shown that robust engagement in multilateral arenas represents long-term realism: to lead, we must be involved; to protect our national interests and the principles we hold dear, we must remain engaged; and to inspire those who suffer every day under authoritarian regimes, we must hold our own country to the highest standards on the world stage. Unfortunately, efforts to maintain America’s preeminence in the world have come under increasing pressure in recent years. These challenges are not isolated and are waged on many fronts – economically, militarily, and diplomatically. Some may use these challenges as an excuse to retreat, claiming that engagement in international organizations like the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) adds no value. We believe that quite the opposite is true. If we want to continue to lead, protect, and inspire, we need the OSCE’s opportunities for multilateral engagement more than ever. Amid the alphabet soup of institutional acronyms, many Americans probably have not heard of the OSCE, let alone know that it is the largest regional security organization in the world. Comprising 57 countries, it links Vancouver in the West to Vladivostok in the East, spanning North America, Europe, and Central Asia. We are members of the organization’s Parliamentary Assembly, where we have represented our country and our principles in a forum of international lawmakers for a combined 34 years. We have engaged the OSCE, as a whole, even longer. We know firsthand the value of U.S. leadership and sustained high-level engagement in the organization – and conversely, we know the enormous risks that would come with retreat. A Broader Definition of Security The essential, enduring value of the OSCE can be traced back to its founding and the ideological transformation that it quietly unleashed. In the 1950s, the Soviet Union first conceived the idea of the Helsinki Final Act. The founding charter of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, or CSCE, later institutionalized as today’s OSCE, would eventually be signed in 1975. Moscow saw the document as a way to validate post-World War II border changes and tighten its stranglehold on Eastern Europe. The Kremlin, no doubt, also hoped to create an alternative to NATO and weaken U.S. ties to Europe. As troops massed along the Iron Curtain after the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, Europe began to see some value in greater East-West engagement. The United States saw the Soviet proposal as a damage-mitigation exercise at best. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger famously decried the Helsinki Final Act, saying, “They can write it in Swahili for all I care… The Conference can never end up with a meaningful document.” Opposition to the Helsinki Final Act was not limited to Foggy Bottom. The Wall Street Journal published the editorial “Jerry, Don’t Go” just prior to President Ford’s departure to sign the document in Finland, reflecting widespread opposition from U.S. foreign policy hawks and Americans across the country who descended from the “captive nations” of Eastern Europe. What most observers at the time overlooked, however, was the Helsinki Final Act’s uniquely comprehensive definition of “security.” The Act contains 10 principles guiding inter-state relations, including respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms; respect for sovereign equality; recognition of the territorial integrity of states; and the commitment of states to fulfill in good faith their obligations under international law. The integration of human rights into a concept of security was revolutionary. The Act also provided that any country signatory could publicly challenge any other country that wasn’t living up to Helsinki principles, either internally or externally. This was remarkable for its time. These two innovations made the Act a rallying point for human rights advocates everywhere, especially dissident movements in the one-party communist states of the Soviet bloc. Groups like Charter 77 in Czechoslovakia, Solidarity in Poland, and other monitoring groups in the Soviet Union and Baltic States that were crucial to the eventual collapse of communism in Europe relied on Helsinki commitments in their advocacy. With U.S. leadership, meetings of the CSCE also became venues for frank exchanges, where countries committing human rights abuses were named and victims identified. The strongest weapons in the U.S. arsenal – democratic ideals, market principles, and the primacy of individual rights – rallied European friends and allies, attracted Soviet satellites, and left Moscow isolated, if not fully convinced. Today's Inflection Point We were both serving in the House of Representatives shortly after the Soviet Union collapsed in the early 1990s. We were aware that the transitions ahead would be difficult, particularly as horrific ethnic cleansing spread in the Balkans and a brutal war was waged in Chechnya. Although we were on opposite sides of the aisle, we were joined in our conviction that liberal democracy would ultimately prevail throughout Europe and into Central Asia. Unfortunately, our confidence was dramatically misplaced. Thirty years later, instead of the peace and prosperity we expected in the OSCE region, we are at an inflection point, faced with uncertainty and the increasing erosion of the security framework that followed the Cold War. In recent elections, we’ve watched nationalist parties gain a strong foothold in Europe. NATO ally Turkey – one of the world’s most oppressive regimes toward journalists – is succumbing to authoritarian rule, weakening checks on executive power and targeting more than 100,000 perceived opponents of the ruling party in sweeping purges. Vladimir Putin continues to violate the sovereignty and territorial integrity of not just Ukraine – where, in areas controlled by Russia, pro-Ukrainian sentiment is met with imprisonment, torture, or death – but also Georgia, where Russia has occupied 20 percent of the country’s territory for more than a decade. The Russian government supports separatists in the Transnistrian region of Moldova, interferes in elections in the United States and Europe, and undermines faith in democratic governments worldwide through cyberattacks and information warfare. An era of increasing nationalism, Kremlin revisionism, and rising authoritarianism may not, at first, seem to be the best moment to revitalize multilateral diplomacy. But it has been, and will continue to be, in our national interest to promote democracy, the rule of law, and human rights around the world – just as we did more than 40 years ago in the Finnish capital. Those Helsinki commitments, and their institutionalization over time, empower us to stand up for our values and for comprehensive security at a time in which we absolutely must. In April 2017, we – along with every other senator currently serving on the Helsinki Commission – introduced a resolution urging President Trump to recognize the importance of the Helsinki Final Act and the OSCE as well as their relevance to American national security. We hope the administration will endorse this effort. A Record of Results The value of the OSCE and the effectiveness of American involvement are evident in the organization’s more recent evolution and achievements. This is no Cold War relic. We have seen examples of multilateral success in many initiatives, beginning with its quick embrace of newly independent states, from the Balkans to Eastern Europe and Central Asia. As multiethnic states broke apart, the OSCE created a high commissioner on national minorities in 1992 to address ethnic tensions and proactively prevent conflict between or within states over national minority issues. Participating states developed mechanisms to respond to the most recalcitrant actors, such as the unprecedented suspension of Yugoslavia the same year for the “clear, gross, and uncorrected” violations of Helsinki principles by the regime of Slobodan Milosevic against Bosnia and Herzegovina. Under OSCE auspices, internal political confrontations in Serbia in 1996 and Albania in 1997 were resolved through high-level engagement before they became a broader threat to peace and prosperity in Europe. The United States led the way, generating the political will to act quickly and with resolve. Robust field missions also were created in the 1990s to respond to conflicts, first in the Balkans and then extending into Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, and Central Asia. In some places, such as Kosovo, the OSCE often was the only acceptable international monitor or facilitator on the ground, serving as the eyes and ears of the international community, bringing opposing sides together, and mitigating spillover effects in neighboring countries. Today, the OSCE’s civilian Special Monitoring Mission (SMM) to Ukraine is the only independent observer group in the war zone. Established in 2014 to monitor implementation of the Minsk Agreements, its approximately 700 monitors provide clear and unbiased reporting of ceasefire violations and human costs of the conflict. Approximately half of the U.S. contribution to the OSCE goes toward funding the SMM. The mission faces challenges, including attempts to sabotage its work and concerns about security. The latter was tragically demonstrated by the death of Joseph Stone, a U.S. paramedic killed last year when his vehicle struck a landmine in separatist-controlled territory. Without the SMM’s reporting, however, we would lack critical information to understand and address ongoing Russian aggression against Ukraine. Kremlin propaganda would have a clear field to disguise the true nature and scale of the conflict. The OSCE also sets the gold standard for election observation across the region. The organization’s trained observers partner with international lawmakers, including ourselves, to analyze election-related laws and systems and the effectiveness of their implementation. The evaluations that these missions produce are critical benchmarks for OSCE countries and support U.S. efforts to promote human rights, democracy, and the rule of law around the world. Pressure from the organization and its participating states has been a major factor in the release of political prisoners in countries like Azerbaijan. For example, the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, and the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly publicly condemned Baku for its targeting of investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova and the broader use of its judicial system to repress political opponents, journalists, and minorities. The Helsinki Commission also weighed in. In May 2016, Ismayilova was released from prison. Our actions in this and similar cases demonstrate global leadership. We welcome the recent nomination of a new U.S. permanent representative to the OSCE. This important post has remained vacant for far too long. We urge our Senate colleagues to swiftly consider the nominee, who will be responsible for leading America’s vigorous defense of democracy and human rights in the region. Let us also not overlook the fact that our work in the OSCE in relation to Russia is not simply to counter Moscow’s anti-democratic ambitions. Follow-up meetings to the original Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe became one of a shrinking number of places where East-West dialogue could take place during the Cold War. Likewise, after Russia was suspended from the G8 in March 2014, today’s OSCE provides one of the few remaining opportunities to engage with Russia and hold the Kremlin accountable to principles it has endorsed. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov attends OSCE ministerial meetings, where he easily – and with great success – engages with senior officials from around the region. That alone should encourage our secretary of state to be present. Secretary Tillerson attended the 2017 ministerial, and we urge Secretary Pompeo to do the same. Future Challenges Along with successes, we also have seen areas where multilateralism has fallen short. Areas like Nagorno-Karabakh, Transnistria, Chechnya, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia have consumed OSCE attention and resources, but unfortunately, the organization’s actions have not thawed these frozen conflicts. The OSCE may have kept things from getting worse than they might have been otherwise; this is something to praise, but cannot yet be counted as a win. These efforts have been hindered in part by the otherwise positive requirement that major decisions in the organization require consensus. This rule is vital to the OSCE’s success. The organization can convene all parties on an even footing and – because no country can claim that it didn’t voluntarily agree to its commitments – the rule gives unique force to the OSCE’s actions. However, decision-making by consensus also allows a single intransigent country to wield its veto as a weapon, even in cases of otherwise overwhelming agreement. In 2008, Russia successfully blocked the OSCE from establishing a field mission in Georgia as Russian-backed separatists occupied South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Since then, resistance to hosting or authorizing field missions, a core capability of the OSCE, has spread. Belarus kicked out its OSCE mission in 2011. Azerbaijan forced the mission in Baku to close in 2015, and two years later, it insisted on the shuttering of a mission in Armenia. Mongolia, the newest OSCE participating state, has repeatedly requested a mission to foster its continued democratic development and build closer ties with other participating states. Moscow consistently blocks that request. A related and ongoing problem is the lack of transparency of the OSCE’s decision-making. Opening its official deliberations to the public would help make those countries that thwart progress more broadly accountable for their recalcitrance. A more recent challenge comes from the government of Turkey. Ankara continues to use the 2016 coup attempt as pretext for not only violently repressing its citizens and detaining others, including Americans, but also for limiting the participation of non-governmental organizations in certain OSCE meetings. The OSCE is the only international organization that allows NGOs to participate equally with governments in meetings on human rights commitments, allowing these groups to raise their concerns directly. If Turkey has its way, human rights groups might be denied a seat at the table. It is easy to imagine which countries quietly hope this effort will succeed. The United States must continue to make it clear that it is not one of them. Indeed, the moral here is that the United States should not only support the strengths and potential of the OSCE, but we must also be present and potent when progress and principles are challenged within the organization. Our colleagues in both chambers of Congress have the passion and determination to do just that. In these days of partisan discord, we must remember – and treasure – the fact that Congress is broadly committed to the principles enshrined in the Helsinki Final Act: respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, democratic principles, and liberty. We see this in the establishment of the Helsinki Commission itself, a unique agency conceived by Congress to strengthen the legitimacy of human rights monitoring, defend those persecuted for acting on their rights and freedoms, and ensure that violations of Helsinki provisions are given full consideration in U.S. foreign policy. The OSCE’s broad membership and comprehensive definition of security make it an ideal platform to advocate for our interests in a vital region. Its institutions remain singularly placed to moderate regional conflicts, promote respect for human rights, and safeguard essential elements of democracy. We have not only the right, but also the duty, to hold countries responsible if they fail to adhere to the basic principles that we all agreed to in 1975. We also have the responsibility to hear and consider other participating states when they feel that the United States is not fully meeting our commitments. Leading by example means that we must be held accountable, too. At this critical juncture, when the rules-based order appears particularly fragile, any weakening or absence of the OSCE could irreversibly damage the chances for democracy and peace in the region. We must not allow that to happen – and the key is our own steadfastness, in words and deeds. Roger Wicker (@SenatorWicker) is chairman of the U.S. Helsinki Commission and a vice president of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly. A member of the Republican Party, he has represented Mississippi in the Senate since December 2007. He previously represented Mississippi for 13 years in the House of Representatives. Ben Cardin (@SenatorCardin) is ranking Senate member of the U.S. Helsinki Commission. He serves as special representative on anti-Semitism, racism, and intolerance for the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly. A member of the Democratic Party, he has represented Maryland in the Senate since January 2007 after 20 years in the House of Representatives.

  • Who's Afraid of Civil Society?

    By Erika Schlager, Counsel for International Law “How will you mark the anniversary?” That’s what Timothy Garton Ash asked dissident playwright Vaclav Havel 30 years ago, prior to the 70th anniversary of the Czechoslovak state. The answer? A symposium on the incidence of the number “eight” in Czechoslovak history: 1918 (the creation of the modern Czechoslovak state), 1938 (Nazi Germany’s invasion of Czech lands), 1948 (the Communist takeover), 1968 (the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact invasion that crushed the Prague Spring) . . . and 1988. As a junior Helsinki Commission staffer, I attended that symposium. It was my first solo trip for the Commission. At the time, the 35 signatories of the Helsinki Final Act were meeting in Vienna to review the implementation of the Final Act, negotiate new commitments, and schedule future meetings. Czechoslovakia—the Czechoslovak Socialist Federal Republic, to be more precise—had proposed holding a future meeting in Prague as part of the Helsinki process work on economic cooperation. And why not? Budapest, the capital of another one-party communist state, had managed to become the host for a cultural forum in 1985. In Vienna, the Soviet delegation had boldly proposed holding a follow-up meeting on human rights in Moscow. However, Czechoslovakia—unlike Hungary, Poland or even the Soviet Union under Gorbachev—remained a firmly hardline communist regime through the 1980s, with significant restrictions on civil society.  According to the U.S. Department of State at the time, freedom of assembly was severely restricted. Efforts to hold independently organized meetings or demonstrations systematically resulted in arrests, criminal prosecutions, assaults on persons attempting to hold such events, sometimes using water cannon, dogs, tear gas and truncheons.  Nevertheless, as the Prague symposium approached, the United States had still not taken a position in Vienna on the Czechoslovak proposal. Earlier in the year, authorities in Czechoslovakia disrupted efforts by independent peace activists to hold a meeting in Prague by refusing to allow foreigners to enter the country to participate. If Czechoslovakia was unwilling to allow openness and access at such meetings, was it fit to serve as the host of a Helsinki process follow-up meeting? The November meeting would be kind of a test. My handler from the U.S. Embassy welcomed to my visit. The United States had recently declared a Czechoslovak diplomat in Washington persona non grata for actions inconsistent with his diplomatic status, a euphemism for spying. The U.S. Embassy, then led by Ambassador Shirley Temple Black, assumed it was only a matter of time before the Czechoslovak regime would kick an American out of Prague in retaliation. The embassy thought it might avoid that outcome if it cut off ties with dissidents. My visit gave the embassy’s political officer an opportunity to resume those ties.  Still, he warned me, I might be the convenient target of retaliation. Czechoslovakian authorities allowed foreign participants to attend the symposium, but by the time my plane landed, the principal organizers of the event, including Vaclav Havel, had been arrested. I was deposited at the Hotel Jalta, along with  others who had come from abroad to participate. The small black and white television in my room had a neatly typed card in front of it that said in English, “Do not attempt to change the station.” I spun the dial at every opportunity.  This is where I first met Max van der Stoel, the former Dutch Foreign Minister and man of inestimable integrity who later became the OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities.  Eventually, Vaclav Havel was released, and I met with him and other dissidents before heading to a “parallel” symposium on “8s” organized by exiles in Vienna. In Vienna, I also reported to the head of the U.S. delegation to the Vienna Follow-up Meeting, Ambassador Warren Zimmerman, about the events in Prague. On November 15, 1988, Ambassador Zimmerman announced the U.S. position on the Czechoslovak bid to host a follow-up meeting, noting that the lack of openness and access made U.S. endorsement impossible: . . . [T]he pattern of repression in Czechoslovakia, together with the persistent efforts of the Czechoslovak delegation to secure approval for Prague as host of an economic follow-up, lead me to state for the record the U.S. position on the candidacy of Czechoslovakia . . .  [A] prospective host should reflect commitment to openness and access, for its visitors and for its own citizens, that has been so well exemplified by the government of Austria at the Vienna meeting. By this simple and reasonable standard, the government of Czechoslovakia fails – and fails abysmally. For that reason, the United States will not join any proposal that any post-Vienna meeting be held in Czechoslovakia. That decision is irrevocable; it will not be subject to review or change during the life of the Vienna meeting. In June 1989, an American diplomat – my control officer for the November symposium – was declared persona non grata by the Czechoslovak authorities, in retaliation for the U.S. expulsion of another Czechoslovak diplomat from Washington, and expelled one-month short of the end of his three-year tour. In November 1989, the communist police violently broke up a peaceful pro-democracy demonstration and brutally beat many student participants. They also planted a false story in the opposition that a student demonstrator had been beaten to death. The secret police thought they would be able to reveal that the opposition report of a fatality was false and thereby discredit the growing dissident movement. Their plan backfired. Instead, as journalist Mary Battiata wrote, “a half-baked secret police plan to discredit a couple of dissidents apparently boomeranged and turned a sputtering student protest into a national rebellion.” The United States continues to advocate for openness and access for civil society at meetings organized in the Helsinki process.  Hopefully, it will continue to do so with the same firmness and determination it did 30 years ago.

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