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The Helsinki Commission regularly publishes feature articles about Commission initiatives, OSCE meetings, developments relating to the Helsinki Final Act taking place in OSCE participating States, and more.

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  • The 2017 OSCE Asian Partners Conference

    By Janice Helwig, Policy Advisor and Representative of the Helsinki Commission to the USOSCE From June 19 to June 20, 2017, approximately 150 representatives of governments, academia, and international organizations from 41 OSCE participating States and seven Partners for Cooperation gathered in Berlin for the annual OSCE Asian Partners. The venue of the annual conference rotates among the five OSCE Asian Partners for Cooperation; however, as this year’s chair of the Asian Partners Contact Group, Germany hosted rather than Afghanistan. The conference, with a theme of “Common Challenges and Common Opportunities,” opened with a high-level session in which participants discussed security challenges in the OSCE and Asian regions. H.E. Adela Raz, Afghanistan’s Deputy Foreign Minister for Economic Cooperation, described the growing complexities of combating terrorism, including an increase in foreign terrorist fighters, links between international organized crime and terrorist financing, and the vulnerability to recruitment of unemployed and marginalized youth. The session also focused on threats stemming from North Korea’s nuclear and missile testing programs, territorial disputes in the South China Sea, and cybercrime. A second session focused on connectivity and regional economic cooperation, particularly between Afghanistan and the countries of the Central Asian region. Participants discussed various initiatives to foster trade along the historic Silk Road, including building roads, railways, and modernized ports, as well as developing digital and financial connectivity. The third session looked at three specific United Nations Sustainable Development Goals –, goal 4 on ensuring inclusive and quality education for all, goal 5 on achieving gender equality, and goal 16 on promoting peaceful and inclusive societies – and opportunities for the OSCE to support them. Common priorities discussed included increasing access to and funding for quality education, combating violence against women, and promoting human rights and the rule of law. A side event organized by the OSCE focused on a project to increase women’s participation in water management and promote confidence-building between Afghanistan and Central Asia. Women play a major role in household use of water in the rural areas of the region, but often have little say in decisions concerning water management. The OSCE project  fosters the development of a regional network of female water professionals from state agencies, NGOs, research institutes, and water users associations and providing capacity building in negotiation and mediation skills.

  • Helsinki Commission Staff Meet with Special Envoys on Holocaust Issues

    By Erika Schlager, Counsel for International Law Thomas Yazdgerdi, Special Envoy for Holocaust Issues at the State Department, and The Rt Hon Sir Eric Pickles, the UK's Special Envoy for post-Holocaust Issues and Anti-Corruption Champion, met with staff of the U.S. Helsinki Commission on July 14, 2017, to discuss Holocaust-related issues. Sir Eric Pickles was appointed Special Envoy for Post-Holocaust issues in September 2015. He works closely with Holocaust survivors, scholars, educational and other civil society organizations in the UK.  The State Department’s Office of the Special Envoy for Holocaust Issues develops and implements U.S. policy with respect to the return of Holocaust-era assets to their rightful owners, compensation for wrongs committed during the Holocaust, and Holocaust remembrance. The meeting touched on issues related to the needs of elderly Holocaust survivors.  The Special Envoys praised the adoption of a bill in Serbia last year that provides compensation to Serbian Holocaust survivors both in Serbia and abroad. The compensation is derived from property rendered heirless as a result of the Holocaust. Although, generally speaking, states claim property that is without heirs, the specific circumstance of genocide makes that general rule unsupportable. The 2009 Terezin Declaration on Holocaust Era Assets and Related Issues, adopted at the conclusion of a 46-nation meeting, noted that “in some states heirless property could serve as a basis for addressing the material necessities of needy Holocaust (Shoah) survivors and to ensure ongoing education about the Holocaust (Shoah), its causes and consequences.” They also addressed issues regarding Croatia, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Latvia, Poland, and elsewhere. Poland remains the only country in central Europe that has not adopted a general private property compensation or restitution law. Special Envoys Yazdgerdi and Pickles discussed their work within the 31-nation International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, including the breakthrough adoption in April of last year of a working definition of anti-Semitism, and the OSCE’s engagement in this area.  Germany, in its 2016 capacity as OSCE Chair-in-Office, committed funds for a multiyear project called “Turning Words Into Action” which seeks to improve implementation of the OSCE’s significant body of existing commitments regarding combating anti-Semitism and discrimination. Finally, participants in the meeting exchanged views on prospects for removing the pig farm from the Lety concentration camp site in the Czech Republic. The pig farm has been the target of criticism and is seen by some as a desecration of a sensitive site of remembrance. At the 2016 OSCE Human Dimension implementation Meeting, Czech government officials discussed efforts to remove the pig farm. The Helsinki Commission played an instrumental role in securing the agreement of the Czech government to share a complete microfilm copy of the Lety concentration camp archives with the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. Although there were other World War II concentration camps established specifically for Roma, the only known complete surviving archives are from Lety. More Information Roundtable on Fighting Anti-Semitism Looks at Turning Words into Action

  • Addressing Anti-Semitism through Intersectional Advocacy

    By Dr. Mischa Thompson, Policy Advisor “[There were so many victims of the Holocaust] but we engage in competitive victimhood, where we take the oppressor’s view of a victim’s worth.” – Words into Action participant Misko Stanisic, Terraforming From June 21 to June 23, 2017, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (OSCE/ODIHR) hosted the second in a series of workshops focused on addressing anti-Semitism.  The workshop, titled “Gender and Intersectional Activism: Coalition-Building for a More Tolerant Society,” provided a forum for 50 civil society leaders to discuss their efforts to address prejudice and discrimination across the 57 European and North American countries of the OSCE.  The forum was part of the OSCE/ODIHR’s “Turning Words into Action to Address Anti-Semitism” (WiA) project, which increases the capacity of countries and civil society to prevent and respond to anti-Semitism through security, education, and coalition-building measures.  According to Cristina Finch, Head of the ODIHR Tolerance and Discrimination Department, the forum will also assist with “creation of a coalition-building manual that ODIHR will publish to assist civil society in these efforts.”  Noting the problem of “underreporting,” the forum educated participants about OSCE/ODIHR efforts to collect hate crimes statistics, and highlighted methods by which civil society could work with local law enforcement and the OSCE/ODIHR to report hate crimes.  At the forum, OSCE/ODIHR shared recent findings that indicate that while Jewish men are more likely to be victims of anti-Semitic speech or physical violence, Jewish women fear anti-Semitic attacks more.  This suggests gender may play an important role in addressing anti-Semitism, prompting the need for more gender-rich and intersectional prevention efforts. For instance, Misko Stanisic of Terraforming, an organization focused on Holocaust and human rights education, noted that thousands of women participated in crimes of the Holocaust, but that gender stereotypes resulted in women often not being viewed as perpetrators, resulting in “female perpetrators [being] seldom investigated for their crimes and rarely prosecuted during the post-war trials.” He also described how socially constructed perceptions of gender, race, and other identities not only impacted who is – and who is not – included in text books and other educational tools on the Holocaust, but also how this has impacted efforts to address anti-Semitism.  “[There were so many victims of the Holocaust] but we engage in competitive victimhood, where we take the oppressor’s view of a victim’s worth,” he said. Other participants highlighted the forum’s relevance to American scholar Kimberle Crenshaw’s intersectionality theory, which details how hierarchal systems of gender and race resulted in African-American women often being excluded from the mainstream feminist movement in the United States.  In particular, participants discussed how efforts to address anti-Semitism and other forms of prejudice and discrimination have been stymied by approaches that have reinforced gender and other hierarchical power structures preventing men and women within communities from effectively working together.  Invoking American luminary James Baldwin, Finnish journalist Maryan Abdulkarim stated, “No one is free until we are all free.” She stressed the need for more inclusive efforts that move away from a focus on differences that separate the “majority” and “minorities,” and to restore humanity by challenging harmful societal constructs and working across communities, including with the “majority” to address problems. While the forum explored the importance of inclusive approaches to addressing anti-Semitism and other forms of intolerance, some participants warned that intersectionality could become an ineffective trend if care is not taken in its implementation.  Specifically, the differences between academic discussions and practice were raised.  In particular, participants cited the need for clear laws, processes, and procedures that protect all, as well as equal access to justice.   For example, laws and policies should be understandable to police, judges, and ordinary citizens, and straightforward to implement.  Researchers, funders, and advocates should be particularly mindful as to whether their efforts advance equality, or simply check a box. The art and commentary of speaker Dan Perjovschi underscored and offered insight into the societal challenges forum participants faced in efforts to address anti-Semitism, gender and other inequities in countering prejudice and discrimination at large, and the need for their continued efforts. More Information Roundtable on Fighting Anti-Semitism Looks at Turning Words into Action OSCE/ODIHR Turning Words into Action Project

  • Helsinki Commission Staff Meet with OSCE Election Experts

    By Erika Schlager, Counsel for International Law On July 11, Helsinki Commission staff met with Dame Audrey Glover, head of the OSCE election observation mission during the 2016 U.S. elections. Other members of the OSCE team included Mr. Jan Haukass (Vienna Representative of the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, or ODIHR), Dr. Richard Lappin (ODIHR-Warsaw), and Mr. Radivoje Grujic (ODIHR-Warsaw).  The meeting was part of OSCE’s standard consultations following the deployment of an election observation mission.  The election team also held meetings in Washington with Members of Congress and the Department of State. OSCE election observation is based on the 1990 Copenhagen Document in which the participating States agreed that “the will of the people, freely and fairly expressed through periodic and genuine elections, is the basis of the authority and legitimacy of all government.” The commitment fosters universal suffrage, equality, fairness, freedom, transparency, accountability, and secrecy of the ballot. The original proposal for a commitment to hold free and fair elections came from the Helsinki Commission in 1989 but, at that time, was unacceptable to communist countries. In 1990, as communist regimes began to fall, agreement on the new commitment was adopted and signaled the rejection of the one-party systems that had previously dominated Eastern Europe. However, implementation of this commitment continues to be restricted in some countries where civil society is limited or faces repression. OSCE election observation in the region represents the “gold standard” in international election observation. In some instances, when even the fundamental conditions for free and fair elections are lacking, the OSCE may decline to observe elections rather than give them a degree of legitimacy that is unwarranted. In 2015, restrictions imposed by the government of Azerbaijan compelled the OSCE to cancel a planned election observation mission. Some countries, such as Russia, have sought to undermine OSCE election observation by promoting observation through the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), a post-Soviet grouping that includes Azerbaijan, Armenia, Belarus, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Ukraine.  CIS election observers consistently praise elections that are considered to be significantly flawed by independent observers, particularly the OSCE.  Helsinki Commissioners and staff have participated in well over 100 election observation missions since 1990 – the vast majority of them as members of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly contingent that is part of the larger OSCE-led international observation missions. The Commission continues to support OSCE observation efforts, focusing on countries where resistance to democratic change remains the strongest.  The Commission has also actively supported the right of domestic election observers to monitor the elections in their own countries. Learn more about OSCE election observation.

  • #MovetheCouch: Transatlantic Leaders Convene in Brussels

    By Dr. Mischa Thompson, Policy Advisor “If we cannot be entrusted as leaders to do the small things, why should the public trust us to do the big ones, including governing international relations?” –Svante Myrick Mayor of Ithaca, New York TILN 2016 From March 20-26, 2017, the U.S. Helsinki Commission, in partnership with the German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF), the U.S. State Department, and other stakeholders, hosted the sixth annual Transatlantic Inclusion Leaders Network (TILN) workshop in Brussels, Belgium.     Twenty-five young leaders representing more than fourteen European countries and the United States came together to learn from one another, expand their leadership skills, and offer a more inclusive vision for the world. As participants in the Brussels Forum Young Professionals Summit, TILN participants engaged with senior U.S. and European public and private sector leaders on the most pressing issues impacting the transatlantic relationship today, ranging from U.S. elections and the international workforce to Russia and counterterrorism. Several TILN participants also visited a high school in Brussels, exploring opportunities for international exchange and collaboration between administrators, educators, and students related to the educational needs of increasingly diverse student bodies and the future workforce on both sides of the Atlantic. Ithaca Mayor Svante Myrick closed Brussels Forum with powerful cautionary comments to all leaders. “While here in Brussels thinking about global problems, I received an email from a constituent who has been annoyed by an abandoned couch for days. It might seem like a small issue, but I'm going to make sure I move that couch,” he stated.  “I had to move it because, if we cannot be entrusted as leaders to do the small things, why should the public trust us to do the big ones, including governing international relations?” Sharing the vision for a more inclusive world, in the week following the workshop, TILN alumni from previous years led GMF-funded alumni leadership action projects in the Netherlands, Finland, Italy, and during the European Union’s Roma Week.  For more information on this year's Brussels workshop, please see the Transatlantic Inclusion Leaders Network 2017 Workshop Report. The Transatlantic Inclusion Leaders Network (TILN) “inspires, informs, and connects diverse young leaders to excel in elected office and other leadership roles, advance inclusive policies, and engage with senior transatlantic policymakers.” Participants are from diverse U.S. and European communities, including the Balkans, with a proven commitment to advancing diversity and inclusion best practices in their policymaking and society.  For more information on TILN, please see the Transatlantic Inclusion Leaders Network 2017 Workshop Report.   TILN 2016 Participants Umut Aydin | France | Analyst, Meridiam Delio Diaz Garcia | Spain | Secretary General, Juventudes de Unidad Progresista Nebojša Dobrijević | Croatia | Independent Advisor, Joint Council of Municipalities Judith Garcia | United States | City Councillor, Chelsea, Massachusetts Diana Horvat | Serbia | Editor, Radio Televison of Vojvodina Maryam Jamshid | Belgium | Social Council Elected Member, City of Hasselt, Flanders Paulette Jordan | United States | State Representative, Idaho Natascha Kabir | Germany | Green Party Faction Leader, City Parliament of Offenbach Aroosa Khan | Netherlands | Board Member, PvdA Party, Amsterdam-East Edin Koljenović | Montenegro | Program Coordinator, Civic Alliance Oleksii Krasnoshchokov | Ukraine | Board President, Pidmoga.info Hayatte Maazouza | France | Municipal Council Member, Trappes Sammy Mahdi | Belgium | President, Work Group on Diversity, Youth, CD&V Party Martin Mata | Czech Republic | City Council Member, Usti nad Labem Svante L. Myrick | United States | Mayor, City of Ithaca, New York Frances O'Donovan | Denmark | City Council Member, Fredericia Anna Poisner | Ukraine | Counsel, Dragon Capital Aida Salketić | Bosnia and Herzegovina | Cultural Heritage Professional Athena Salman | United States | State Representative, Arizona Brandon Scott | United States | City Council Member, Baltimore, Maryland Karen Taylor | Germany | Advisor to of Member of Parliament Dr. Karamba Diaby David Walsh | United Kingdom | International Relations Officer, Board of Deputies of British Jews John Vargas | United States | Secretary, NALEO Alex Yip | United Kingdom | City Councillor for Sutton New Hall, Birmingham City

  • Social Media Day 2017

    First celebrated in 2010, Social Media Day recognizes the enormous impact social media has had on global communication. Many OSCE institutions, field missions, and related entities maintain a robust presence on social media, allowing them to share news, facilitate dialogue, and promote democracy, the rule of law, and human rights throughout the 57 participating States of the OSCE. Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (U.S. Helsinki Commission)  Twitter Facebook YouTube Flickr LinkedIn U.S. Mission to the OSCE Twitter Facebook YouTube OSCE Parliamentary Assembly Twitter Facebook YouTube Flickr Instagram OSCE Secretariat  Twitter Facebook YouTube Instagram LinkedIn SoundCloud OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities  Twitter OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights Twitter Facebook LinkedIn OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media Twitter Facebook YouTube Flickr OSCE Presence in Albania  Twitter Facebook OSCE Mission to Bosnia and Herzegovina Twitter Facebook YouTube Google+ SoundCloud OSCE Mission in Kosovo Twitter Facebook YouTube OSCE Mission to Serbia Twitter Facebook OSCE Mission to Skopje Twitter Facebook OSCE Mission to Moldova Facebook OSCE Project Co-ordinator in Ukraine Facebook OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine Twitter Facebook OSCE Office in Tajikistan Facebook

  • Using Technology to Protect Children from Online Exploitation

    Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Chris Smith, the Special Representative for Human Trafficking to the President of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, has registered a supplementary item for this year’s Annual Session in Minsk, Belarus, titled, “Preventing Child Sexual Exploitation Online through Advances in Technology.”  Smith’s supplementary item examines the ways protections for children have lagged behind technology, leaving children vulnerable. “Impressionable children in most of the OSCE region have unrestricted access on any web-capable device to every conceivable form of pornography—even the most violent and vile acts—and that exposure has measurable impact on their vulnerability to sexual exploitation,” Smith said. “Tragically, we are seeing children targeted and further victimized as they are exposed to pornographic websites,” said Smith. Studies Show Correlation between Youth Access to Pornography, Sexual Exploitation Similar to earlier studies, a 2016 study in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence (Stanley et. al) of 4,564 young people aged 14 to 17 found in boys a statistically significant correlation between viewing online pornography and committing sexual coercion and abuse.   Importantly, this study was conducted in five OSCE participating States. A definitive study in the European Journal of Developmental Psychology (Bonino, et. al, 2006) found that adolescent girls who report viewing pornography are more likely to report being victims of sexual harassment or forced sex at the hands of male friends or acquaintances. “We are kidding ourselves if we think unrestricted access to pornography online is not harming our children,” said Smith. “We are allowing them to be actively and passively groomed for trafficking,” said Smith, referring to how child sex abusers are known to lower the defenses of children and condition children to accept sexual abuse as normal by showing children pornography. Age Verification The United Kingdom recently joined Germany, Finland, and Iceland in recognizing that unrestricted access of children to online pornography is a public health concern.  In April of this year, the UK’s Digital Economy Act of 2017 became law, empowering an “age verification-regulator,” most likely the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC), to create guidelines on age verification walls for all pornographic websites viewed from within the UK.  The age-verification regulator will be able to fine websites that violate the new guidelines.  Ultimately, IP addresses in the UK for non-compliant websites could be shut down.  The new UK law is in addition to the country’s current requirement that cell phone companies filter content unless the cell phone owner is 18 or older. “All UK mobile operators run content filtering and age verification on their networks, based on the BBFC guidelines,” said Ernie Allen, who led the Center for Missing and Exploited Children in the United States and International Center for Missing and Exploited Children for more than 25 years. “If a customer tries to access an 18+ site and has not age verified, he or she receives a notice on the site that they may not access it until they have age verified,” Allen said.  Verification may be accomplished by visiting the cell phone store and showing identification, or logging into a designated website and using a credit card.  Cardholders must be 18 or older to have a credit card in the UK.  To make sure the card is not “borrowed” from a parent, one pound may be deducted to give notice to the credit card owner that their card has been used for age verification.   The data repository already created by the UK cell phone requirements could be used to inform age verification for pornographic websites.  In addition, the data repository created by the UK’s Gambling Act of 2005, which imposed age restrictions for online gambling, could also be used to verify age.  Visitors to pornographic websites could enter their gambling account number, which would then be authenticated by the website.   The pornography industry has recently come out with its own age verifying system, AgeID.  After an account is created on AgeID, the account number would be sufficient for age verification. Other companies are offering biometric options, using apps to verify that a passport showing the appropriate age belongs to the person offering the passport as verification. “We now have the technology to protect children online,” said Allen.  “A few data points sent to a third party can effectively verify age without necessarily disclosing identity.” The pending supplementary item received sponsorship from 54 parliamentarians representing 26 countries.  President of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, Christine Muttonen, has offered her support. Since raising this issue at the St. Petersburg Annual Session in 1999, Rep. Smith has introduced or cosponsored a supplementary item or amendments on trafficking at every annual session of the OSCE PA, including on issues such as prevention of sex tourism, situational awareness for the detection of trafficking victims in transit, and corporate responsibility for trafficking in supply chains.

  • 2017 Trafficking in Persons Report – the OSCE Region

    Human trafficking remains a pressing human rights violation around the world with the International Labor Organization estimating that nearly 21 million people are enslaved at any given time, most of them women and children. As part of U.S. efforts to combat human trafficking, the U.S. Department of State today released the 2017 Trafficking in Persons Report (TIP Report), reflecting the efforts of 187 countries and territories to prosecute traffickers, prevent trafficking, and to identify and assist victims, as described by the Palermo Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, especially Women and Children. Trafficking Victim Identification and Care: Regional Perspectives According to the new TIP Report, in the 2016 reporting year, countries in the OSCE region identified 304 more trafficking victims than in the previous year, for a total of 11,416 victims.  This increase is particularly notable when compared to the East Asia and Pacific, Near East, South and Central Asia, and Western Hemisphere regions, where victim identification declined, but still maintained a generally upward trend over 2014.  Trafficking victim identification and care is critical for proper management of refugee and migrant flows.  In order to help law enforcement and border guards identify trafficking victims among the nearly 400,000 migrants and refugees entering the region last year, the OSCE Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Human Beings launched a new project to conduct multiple trainings, including simulation exercises, through 2018.  The first training in November 2016 included participants from 30 OSCE participating States. Victim identification and care are also critical for successful prosecutions.  Nearly every region of the world saw a drop in prosecutions of human traffickers, but an increase in convictions in the 2016 reporting year.  This trend may reflect a growing knowledge among prosecutors of how to successfully investigate and prosecute a trafficking case.  It also may reflect an overall increase in trafficking victims who have been identified, permitted to remain in-country, and cared for such that the victims—now survivors—are ready, willing, and able to testify against their traffickers.  Despite the dramatic decline in prosecutions (46 percent) in the OSCE region, convictions held steady at nearly the same numbers as the previous year. Individual Country Narratives Along with regional statistics, the TIP Report also provides individual country narratives, recommendations for the most urgent changes needed to eliminate human trafficking, and an assessment of whether the country is making significant efforts to meet the minimum standards for the elimination of human trafficking. Tier 1 countries meet the minimum standards for the elimination of human trafficking. Tier 2 countries do not yet meet the standards, but are making significant efforts to do so.  Tier 2 Watch List countries do not meet the minimum standards and are making significant efforts to do so, but have a very large or increasing number of trafficking victims, have failed to demonstrate increasing efforts over the previous year, or lack a solid plan to take additional steps in the coming year. Tier 3 countries do not meet the minimum standards and are not making significant efforts to do so. Twenty-five OSCE participating States qualified for Tier 1 in the TIP Report.  Nineteen participating States qualified for Tier 2, including Ukraine, which was upgraded this year after four years on the Tier 2 Watch List.  Five participating States were designated for the Tier 2 Watch List, including Hungary, Moldova, Montenegro, Serbia, and Bulgaria.* Four participating States were on Tier 3, including Belarus, Russia, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.  States on Tier 3 may be subject to sanctions. Legislation authored by Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Chris Smith—who also serves as the Special Representative for Human Trafficking Issues to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe Parliamentary Assembly – requires the TIP Report to be produced every year.  In recent years the report has also included an assessment of the United States.   Since the inception of the report, more than 100 countries have written or amended their trafficking laws, with some nations openly crediting the report for inspiring progress in their countries’ fight against human trafficking. * OSCE participating States Andorra, Monaco, Lichtenstein, and San Marino are not included in the TIP Report.

  • World Refugee Day 2017

    By Nathaniel Hurd, Policy Advisor There are more forcibly displaced people in the world today than at any other time in human history. Fleeing their homes because of persecution or violent conflict, refugees sometimes have to leave so suddenly that they are only able to bring the clothes they are wearing and few or no possessions. Many refugees get separated for months or even years from their family and friends and are vulnerable to human smugglers and human traffickers.  The UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that a refugee spends an average of 17 years uprooted from their homes. The scale of the number of refugees worldwide, and even in the OSCE region and that of its partners, is almost beyond imagination. Refugees or IDPs? Refugees are those who have been forced to flee their country and enter another in search of safety. According to UNHCR, by the end of 2016 there were more than 22.5 million refugees worldwide. Nearly two-thirds of refugees come from just four countries: Syria, Afghanistan, South Sudan, and Somalia. Less well-known than refugees, and greater in number, are internally displaced persons. Like refugees, they have had to flee their homes. Unlike refugees, they still reside in their home countries and have not crossed a border into another country. UNHCR estimates that there are almost twice as many IDPs (more than 40.3 million) as refugees worldwide. There is no binding treaty for IDPs and so countries lack the legal obligations—and IDPs lack the full range of legal protections—accorded to refugees. IDPs are often also harder to reach with humanitarian aid, sometimes because their own governments played a role in their displacement and are obstructing access, and sometimes because the conflict itself makes access difficult or impossible. Refugees and IDPs in the OSCE Region The 57 participating States of the OSCE region host more than 5.5 million refugees, including almost three million Syrians who escaped to Turkey. In addition, there are more than one million refugees in OSCE Mediterranean Partner countries, which include Algeria, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Morocco, and Tunisia. Jordan hosts more than 660,000 Syrian refugees while Egypt hosts more than 122,000 Syrian refugees. Asian Partners for Co-operation, which include Afghanistan, Australia, Japan, the Republic of Korea, and Thailand, host more than 212,000 refugees while more than 2.4 million Afghans are refugees themselves. Mediterranean Drivers of the European Refugee Crisis Conflict and other factors outside the OSCE region have driven the broader European refugee crisis, the largest on the continent since World War II. In 2015, more than one million refugees and migrants crossed the Mediterranean Sea into Europe, and between 3,700 and 4,000 of them—including many children—died or went missing en route. Syrian and Iraqi refugees have been among the large groups among these arrivals. At an October 2015 hearing of the Helsinki Commission, the Regional Representative of the UN High Commission for Refugees testified that shortfalls in funding for responses to the Syrian humanitarian crisis forced reductions in assistance in the region, like a 30 percent cut in food rations from the World Food Program, and was a major trigger in Syrian refugees going to Europe. In 2016, the number of refugee and migrants crossing into the region decreased to around 362,000 and the number who died during the journey increased to more than 5,000. So far in 2017, more than 75,000 refugees and migrants have reached European shores via the same route. More than 1,800 have died or gone missing before making landfall. Almost all of the one million Mediterranean Sea arrivals in 2015 first arrived in Greece (84 percent) or Italy (15 percent). In 2016, Italy received just over 50 percent of the arrivals and Greece just less than half. Of the arrivals this year, Italy has received more than 65,000 (87 per cent) and Greece more than 8,000 (11 percent). Ukraine One major, ongoing refugee and IDP crisis originated in the OSCE region itself. Russia’s ongoing military aggression in Ukraine has forced 1.8 million people – out of a population of more than 44 million – to become internally displaced. More than 3.8 million people in-country need humanitarian assistance. Another 239,000 Ukrainians have become refugees. Looking Ahead Despite the drop in Mediterranean arrivals, the number of refugees who have already arrived in the OSCE from other regions, as well as the ongoing conflict and humanitarian crisis in Ukraine, mean there will likely continue to be millions of displaced persons in the OSCE region and its partners for the foreseeable future. Addressing the political drivers of the underlying conflicts will be essential to enabling safe, voluntary, dignified returns. This information was compiled by Helsinki Commission staff from UNHCR sources, including its staff; the 2016 Global Trends Report; its Operational Data Portal; its Population Statistics Database; and situation reports. Other sources include ReliefWeb, a digital service of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

  • OSCE Debates Future of European Security

    By Alex Tiersky, Global Security and Political-Military Affairs Advisor Can an organization of 57 participating States which includes both the United States and Russia come to agreement on the causes of instability in European security today, let alone re-commit to the basic rules of the road governing states’ behavior?  And are all participating States – especially Russia – still able and willing to participate in good faith in a positive-sum, cooperative approach to building security, rather than a competitive, beggar-thy-neighbor approach? These were the questions that underpinned the OSCE Security Days conference of non-governmental experts and governmental representatives on “Countering fragmentation and polarization: Re-creating a climate for stability in Europe,” held on May 18-19, 2017 in Prague.  While the Czech hosts were proud to inform attendees that the meeting was held in the very hall in which the July 1, 1991 protocol dissolving the Warsaw Pact was signed, it seemed unlikely that this historical spirit would deliver positive breakthroughs in the current challenges facing the post-Cold War order in Europe, which was declared dead by more than one speaker. The great majority of interventions focused on the deliberate undermining of other countries’ security and independence by Russia. Additional challenges raised by speakers included increasing polarization within and among states, the rise of populist movements, a post-truth environment that feeds instability and mistrust, and the emergence of the cyber domain and its use in interstate competition. Russian revisionist perspectives on the European security order, declared on such occasions as President Putin’s speech at the Munich Security Conference in 2007, underline the extent to which Russian leaders see the post- cold war order as detrimental to Russia’s interests and therefore obsolete, according to several speakers. Conference participants from Russia, for their part, painted an entirely different reality than that described by most other participants. In the former’s telling, the west took advantage of Russia in the post-cold war period despite positive actions by Russia, ranging from the withdrawal of troops and armaments previously stationed across Europe, to more recent collaboration in fighting against piracy or eliminating Syrian chemical weapons. Stressing the concept of indivisibility of security, Russian speakers underlined that Russia would make no more of what they called unilateral concessions, and called for a new European Security Treaty.  NATO’s concept of deterring Russia is not compatible with OSCE commitments, they asserted. Seeking to address these widely differing perspectives among its membership, the German Chairmanship in 2016 and the Austrian Chairmanship in 2017 have launched an informal working group on “structured dialogue” to discuss participating States’ differing views on security threats and possible ways forward.  Conference participants were of mixed views on the prospects for the structured dialogue effort, with skeptics citing what they saw as similar past processes such as the Corfu Process or Helsinki +40, which failed to show concrete results.  Many participants were keen to underline the need for the structured dialogue to avoid calling existing institutions or principles into question.  The challenges facing European security were not institutional in nature, these voices argued, but rather the result of one OSCE participating State – Russia – failing to uphold its commitments or respect the sovereignty and independence of other participating States. Conference participants offered a number of policy recommendations for strengthening the OSCE (such as providing a small crisis response fund under the Secretary General’s authority; providing additional tangible assets like unmanned aerial vehicles; supporting historical research to better understand the sources of divergent perspectives; or modernizing arms control and confidence building measures).  The OSCE should pay more attention to the increasing instability in the Western Balkans, it was suggested, and ongoing work on cyber norms had real potential utility. Individual participating States were urged to combat disinformation campaigns by investing in tools to rapidly rebut false claims, educate publics, and discredit outlets that serve as propaganda, while safeguarding fundamental freedoms.  Despite these and other positively-inclined recommendations, however, the general mood at the conference was one of urgency, not optimism. If one point of general consensus emerged among the widely differing perspectives, it was that in the face of increasingly complex and urgent challenges (many of them caused by or closely linked to Russia’s geopolitical stance, according to the great majority of conference attendees) the absence of shared views and approaches was unlikely to resolve itself in the near term. This dynamic was likely to contribute to a worsening of existing and emerging security crises – and ultimately the further loss of lives. Alex Tiersky attended the conference as a representative of the U.S Helsinki Commission.

  • OSCE Debates Counterterrorism Approaches

    By Alex Tiersky, Global Security and Political-Military Affairs Advisor Several hundred officials, academics, journalists, NGO representatives and youth ambassadors gathered in Vienna on May 23-24, 2017 for the OSCE’s annual counterterrorism conference.  The event was convened around the subject of “Preventing and Countering Violent Extremism and Radicalization that Lead to Terrorism.” The subject matter could hardly have been more pressing, with the conference taking place in the immediate wake of the tragic terrorist attack in Manchester, England.  That attack – and those suffered by so many OSCE participating States in recent months and years – served to heighten the sense of urgency towards finding ways to address all aspects of the problem, from effectively preventing radicalization that leads to violence, to ensuring societies are resilient in the face of future attacks. OSCE participating States were particularly concerned about the continued threat posed by so-called “foreign terrorist fighters” – citizens of their countries who traveled abroad to fight, in particular to Iraq and Syria, who could return with the intent to inflict attacks on their home countries.  Experts at the meeting voiced concern that many countries are unprepared for the challenge of mitigating any threat posed by these individuals – including children who may have been radicalized as a result of travel as part of families – upon their return. Youth are particularly vulnerable to radicalization and a key element of any sustainable and effective strategy to counter it, according to the OSCE Chair-in-Office, Austrian Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz. He stated that recent OSCE youth workshops had called for greater inclusion of young people in anti-radicalization discussions and strategies; efforts to eliminate propaganda from social media; and broader dissemination of narratives describing the negative results of radicalization. Conference participants differed somewhat on whether best practices in countering extremism developed in one country were universally applicable, or whether local (or even family-level) actors, who may be best placed to identify early warning signs of radicalization and counter it, should be emphasized. Still, most participants underlined that counterterrorism approaches that failed to emphasize the rule of law, fundamental freedoms, and support to civil society, or that singled out religious or ethnic communities, would ultimately prove counterproductive.  The OSCE itself served as a useful platform on this issue, according to head of the U.S. Delegation Irfan Saeed (the Director of the Department of State’s Office of Countering Violent Extremism), who commended ongoing OSCE programs such as the capacity-building work of OSCE Field Missions and the #UnitedCVE social media campaign.  Among the many recommendations offered by various conference participants for heightened national or international efforts were the following: Supporting capacity building efforts by OSCE field missions in the Balkans and Central Asia. Strengthening border controls. Improving governmental interoperability of information systems and access to encrypted information, as well as the ability to process large amounts of data rapidly. Increasing the sharing of biometric data collection to improve effectiveness of policing and border controls. Greater sharing of financial information to detect terrorist networks and their financing. Ensuring cooperation between local communities and law enforcement. Fighting online radicalization and propaganda, in collaboration with the private sector. Addressing the particular vulnerabilities of women and girls and empowering their contributions to countering extremism. Strengthening legal systems to prevent impunity. Using data-driven approaches to assess the effectiveness of programs. Developing and promoting a positive, inclusive vision for Western societies to serve as an alternative to the hate-filled narrative of violent groups. Combatting the challenge of radicalization in prisons. Despite a number of areas of agreement, there were some differences of opinion among the conference participants, including how prominently values should feature in any counterterrorism approach; the characterization of specific groups as “terrorist;” or the use of censorship to address potentially extremist speech on line. One consistently outlying view was expressed by Russian delegates, including Deputy Foreign Minister Oleg Syromolotov, who claimed that (unnamed) partners often committed only rhetorically to countering terrorism rather than acting as part of a global anti-terrorist front, and chastised Western partners who, he said, put their own “geopolitical ambitions” above the need to counter terrorism.  Other Russian interventions included accusations that Western states tolerated or even supported terrorist groups and suggestions that excessive liberalism allowed for terrorists to go unchecked in Western societies.  The interventions served as a reminder of the obstacles that remain to fully maximizing the utility of international cooperation to address this common challenge. Alex Tiersky attended the conference as a member of the U.S. delegation, which was led by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Counterterrorism and Countering Violent Extremism.

  • Minority Faiths Under the Hungarian Religion Law

    By Erika Schlager, Counsel for International Law On April 25, 2017, the European Court on Human Rights announced a judgment in the case of the Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship v. Hungary.  This decision followed a 2014 finding by the Court that Hungary's 2011 law on religion violated the rights to freedom of association and freedom of religion.  In light of the failure of Hungary to end continuing violations, the April judgment awarded the Evangelical Fellowship €3 million in damages.  Religious Discrimination after the 2011 Law The case has its origins in changes made to Hungary’s religion law, which establishes a framework for the registration, or official recognition, of churches.  The law was rushed through parliament in June 2011 in a midnight parliamentary session as part of a massive three-year wave of 700 new laws, a new constitution, and five amendments to the Constitution passed between 2010 and 2013.  The “church law,” as it is known, came into force in 2012 and stripped legal recognition from over 300 previously recognized faiths; only 14 faiths retained their status under the new law.  The law gives the exclusive authority to the elected politicians in the Hungarian parliament to determine what constitutes a church, based on a parliamentary review of a religious community’s faith and rites; bylaws and internal rules; and elected or appointed administrative and representative bodies. The parliament then makes its decision according to a two-thirds vote.  Churches recognized by the parliament are granted a range of financial benefits and other privileges, including the ability to minister to co-religionists in public institutions such as schools, prisons and the military; unregistered faiths are denied these benefits.   Religions that lose their state recognition may have their assets confiscated by the state.  Hungarian Ombudsman Mate Szabo criticized the law when it was adopted and the Constitutional Court has twice struck down parts of the new religion law.  Parliament changed the law to allow unrecognized groups to identify as “churches” (translation:  “you can call yourself whatever you want”), but refused to alter the discriminatory framework that excludes unregistered faiths from the benefit of official status (translation:  “you’ll still have second-class status”).  In other words, there was no meaningful legislative change to address the law’s shortcomings.   The Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship, joined by several smaller groups, including Mennonites, two small reformed Jewish congregations, and a Buddhist congregation, brought the case that was decided by the European Court in 2014.  The European Court held that the “church law” is “inconsistent with the State’s duty of neutrality in religious matters that religious groups had to apply to Parliament to obtain re-registration as churches and that they were treated differently from incorporated churches with regard to material benefits without any objective grounds.”  Damages were awarded to the other religious communities in 2016, but the Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship continued to seek damages in light of continuing violations. In its April 2017 decision, the court awarded €3 million to the Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship.  The damages for discriminatory treatment included the loss of personal income tax donations and the corresponding supplementary State subsidy; the loss of State subsidies intended to support the applicant’s social and educational institutions; the loss of subsidies for religious teaching; and the loss of salary supplements paid to the staff employed by church institutions providing public-interest services. Unfortunately, the Court does not have the authority to compel Hungary to change its religion law and it is up to the Hungarian parliament to take the measures to comply with the ruling.  (The Court may award damages again – and again – in the case of continuing violations.) De-registered churches may be able to get a judgment for damages in Strasbourg, but only Budapest can provide a legal remedy.  The government may be trying to squeeze the Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship out of existence by depriving them of the benefits extended to other faiths and forcing them to devote resources to constantly litigate and re-litigate the same violations.  Smaller churches de-registered after 2011 have already largely been shuttered.  About the Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship The Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship broke from the Hungarian Methodist Church in the mid-1970s over the issue of collaboration with the communist regime. As a faith that would not bend to the communist regime, the Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship was subsequently forced underground and persecuted for engaging in charitable work with the poor at a time when the communist regime was loath to admit that poverty was a serious problem.  After the fall of the communist regime, in 1991 the Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship was officially recognized until stripped of this status under the 2011 law.  The Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship is known for its charitable and humanitarian work, particularly with Romani communities, and runs schools, homeless shelters, and soup kitchens. However, becausethe Hungarian tax authority has refused to issue a tax number to deregistered churches such as the Evangelical Fellowship, it is impossible for them to be designated them as recipients of a 1 percent charitable donation on tax forms.   Related Issues In 2017, the Hungarian Government has also proposed a Russian-style “foreign agents” law, which is currently scheduled for a vote by parliament, possibly on June 13. In recognition of criticism that, among the draft law’s many problems, it would stigmatize groups that receive foreign funding – including support from co-religionists in other countries – the current draft was altered to include a carve-out exception for religious organizations and sports.  If adopted, the law may spur the adoption of copycat laws in the region that might not have the same carve-outs for religious groups.  During a press conference in April, Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s chief of staff Janos Lazar suggested that Hungarian groups that receive foreign funding should be designated with a star.  He later apologized.

  • Russia’s Weaponization of Corruption (and Western Complicity)

    By Paul Massaro, policy advisor and Amelie Rausing, intern Russia’s weaponization of corruption—its export of corrupt practices via the abuse of western legal and financial loopholes in order to further its geopolitical goals—has stimulated anti-American sentiment in Europe and galvanized extremist forces on both sides of the Atlantic. While Moscow pushes its anti-globalization narrative, it is simultaneously taking advantage of globalization to export its own version of crony capitalism to many countries in the OSCE region. The Russian brand of corruption thrives off of globalization and depends on access to the global financial system. Under this model, weak property rights and lack of rule of law support a corrupt system at home, where markets are distorted and courts are politicized. State funds are looted and assets are acquired through corporate raiding and asset stripping. Cronies then siphon off national funds to safe havens outside of former Soviet countries. Offshored money can be used to buy real estate, education, and health care in the United States and in Europe. It can also be used back home, to finance rigged elections, support local political figures, reward loyal cronies, and fund projects strategically important for geopolitical goals. Stolen money can also buy influence and keep foreign governments friendly. In the meantime, popular discontent brews domestically. Western politicians often argue that globalization undermines corruption and authoritarianism. In reality, that is not the whole story. The emergence of a parallel, opaque, financial system that allows dictators to anonymously and untraceably funnel money to the West is one of the direst consequences of an increasingly globalized world. European and American lawyers, bankers, lobbyists, and accountants provide services that facilitate and benefit from the laundering of stolen assets. Illicit wealth is then invested in real estate in cities like London, New York, and Miami. In many cases, victims are well aware of the West’s complicity in funneling off their hard-earned taxes and state budgets. Their sense of powerlessness is further fortified when the United States and European countries fail to trace and recover funds that have vanished in the global financial system. It strengthens the sense of a culture of impunity for grand corruption, a public setback that can then be exploited by extremist voices. In Russia, “Londongrad” is widely known as the capitol of Russia’s stolen wealth. Furthermore, in the digital era, stolen assets are flaunted on social media for everyone to see. Last year, reporters from the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) and Novaya Gazeta established that a 280-plus foot super-yacht named St. Princess Olga belonged to Putin crony and Rosneft CEO Igor Sechin after examining the social media accounts of his rumored girlfriend, Olga Rozhkova. While the exact price of the yacht is unknown, it is estimated to be around $190 million. At best, the United States and other Western countries are accused of facilitating the looting of corrupt countries. At worst, they drive and benefit from the transfer of financial assets from the East to the West. Disdain of the West becomes especially contagious when people like Russian opposition leader and anti-corruption blogger Alexei Navalny start to express frustration with Western complicity in money laundering. It is bad news when freedom fighters and dissidents, traditional allies of the United States, start to question the West’s commitment to democratic development. The failure to return ill-gotten assets, especially when they have been invested in the U.S. economy, diminishes the United States’ democratic legitimacy and America’s claim to be a champion of freedom. The perception of a hypocritical West with sham values is then exploited by opportunist politicians and media, who egg on anti-American sentiment with this carefully constructed narrative about globalization. This narrative fuels extremism and terrorism and it is in the United States’ national interest to encounter it. The Helsinki Commission recently investigated one aspect of this phenomenon in a staff-level briefing titled, “Countering Corruption in the OSCE Region: Returning Ill-Gotten Assets and Closing Safe Havens.” This briefing demonstrated that strengthening mechanisms for repatriation and accountability in the financial sector needs to be a priority. When these illicit assets are safeguarded in places where democratic governments have some leverage then it is important to use it to ensure the responsible return of funds for the benefit of victims. To avoid looking hypocritical, financial organizations and law firms that enable the looting cannot profit from the repatriation process. There are many different methods required to combat corruption and responsible asset recovery might not seem like the most critical at first glance. However, it is an essential step for preventing future corruption. Recovered assets can be invested in the rule of law and aspects of civil society that serve as corruption watchdogs. Responsible and transparent repatriation has the potential to empower these watchdog organizations, strengthening the backbone of democratic development.

  • Commissioner and Special Representative Ben Cardin Counters Anti-Semitism and Promotes Diversity

    When the U.S. funding bill commonly known as the Omnibus passed in May 2017, it included a number of provisions outlining U.S. foreign policy and national security measures.  It also included provisions supporting diversity and human rights in foreign affairs in the face of increased violence and discrimination across the 57 North American and European countries that make up the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. “Continuing anti-migrant and refugee sentiments, anti-Muslim backlash following terrorist attacks, and a surge in anti-Semitic and racist incidents in this country and abroad are just some of the reasons I was compelled to act,” said Helsinki Commission Ranking Senator Ben Cardin (MD), who is also the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly’s first Special Representative on Anti-Semitism, Racism, and Intolerance. “These legislative provisions are just a few recent efforts I have advanced to ensure diverse populations in our country and throughout the OSCE region are afforded the same rights, protections, and opportunities as others that are enshrined in the Helsinki Final Act and numerous OSCE tolerance and non-discrimination commitments,” said Senator Cardin, whose U.S. spending bill provisions include: Increased funding to counter global anti-Semitism. U.S. support for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to advance new initiatives to counter anti-Semitism, racism, and intolerance. Expansion of the Department of State workforce diversity programs. Prior to the passage of the Omnibus, on April 25 Senator Cardin introduced the National Security Diversity and Inclusion Workforce Act (NSDIWA) of 2017, building on legislation he passed in December 2016 to diversify the State Department and USAID labor force.  “I have championed these equality and anti-discrimination provisions because America’s diversity is one of our greatest assets as a nation, and our government should reflect that reality,” said Senator Cardin. “When America leads with our values on display, whether we are promoting human rights abroad or helping resolve conflicts to help societies heal and move forward, including our own, it should be done with personnel who reflect the entire tapestry of the United States,” Senator Cardin continued. “Inequities and discrimination are not just a U.S. problem.  The hope is that this legislation can also serve as a model for other countries grappling with similar issues from hate crimes to inequality.” Senator Cardin was appointed the OSCE PA's Special Representative on Anti-Semitism, Racism and Intolerance in March 2015. More on his mandate and efforts can be found at http://www.oscepa.org/about-osce-pa/special-representatives/anti-semitism.

  • Chairman Wicker Meets with Valentin Inzko, High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina

    On May 16, Austrian diplomat Valentin Inzko, the international community’s High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina since 2009, met with Senator Roger F. Wicker, Chairman of the U.S. Helsinki Commission.  Dr. Inzko was visiting Washington for consultations with the U.S. Administration and Members of Congress, prior to reporting to the United Nations Security Council on his work later in the week. The High Representative updated the Senator on the ongoing challenges in implementation of the 1995 Dayton Agreement, which ended a horrific conflict that began in Bosnia in April 1992.   He indicated that nationalist sentiment continues to divide the country.   As a result, efforts to achieve the country’s disintegration take place simultaneous to efforts to achieve the country’s integration into Europe.  Inzko urged that the United States continue to actively engage in Bosnia and Herzegovina, noting U.S. credibility among local stakeholders and the European Union’s challenges in achieving any real progress on its own.  Senator Wicker recalled the major U.S. commitment to Bosnia in the immediate post-Dayton period and asked what policy options are available today.   Among the items discussed were the need to maintain active U.S. diplomatic representation in Bosnia, as well as the potential impact of sanctions or other actions against obstructionist political leaders.  In January, the United States applied sanctions on Milorad Dodik, President of the Republika Srpska entity in Bosnia and Herzegovina, for obstructing Dayton implementation, thereby threatening the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the country. At a Commission hearing the next day on Russia's military threat to Europe, similar concerns were raised as expert witnesses indicated the Western Balkans were in “Russian crosshairs” to influence and destabilize. Russian influence is most visible in Serbia but also in Macedonia and Bosnia. It is particularly strong in the Republika Srpska entity, encouraging Dodik to pursue a secessionist agenda. Russian involvement in the attempted coup in Montenegro last October was also noted, just as the country was in the process of acceding to NATO. Through successive leaderships, the U.S. Helsinki Commission has been at the forefront of congressional efforts to support Bosnia and Herzegovina, not only in line with the terms of the 1995 Dayton Agreement but in compliance with the principles and provisions of the 1975 Helsinki Final Act and subsequent commitments of the OSCE.

  • Senators Wicker, Cardin Meet with Georgian Prime Minister

    Giorgi Kvirikashvili, Prime Minister of Georgia, met with Helsinki Commission Chairman Senator Roger Wicker and Ranking Member Senator Ben Cardin on the final leg of his three-day visit to Washington. The Prime Minister expressed his sincere thanks to the senators for co-sponsoring the Senate resolution supporting the territorial integrity of Georgia. He also highlighted the continuing aggression Georgia faces from Russia, and stressed that U.S. support is vital. Senator Wicker welcomed the Prime Minister’s visit, and vowed to do his best to ensure speedy passage of the resolution. Senator Cardin noted that Georgia would enjoy strong support with Senator Wicker serving as the chair of the Helsinki Commission. He praised Georgia’s Parliamentary Assembly delegation as one of the strongest in the OSCE.  

  • Helsinki Commissioners Urge President to Prioritize Democracy, Human Rights in Foreign Policy

    On May 3, Helsinki Chairman Senator Roger Wicker (MS), Ranking Commissioner Senator Ben Cardin (MD), and Helsinki Commissioners Senator Cory Gardner (CO), Senator Marco Rubio (FL), and Senator Thom Tillis (NC) signed a letter encouraging President Trump to prioritize democracy and respect for human rights in the Administration’s foreign policy agenda. The letter reads in part: “America has long been a leader in supporting individual rights. It was more than 240 years ago that the Founding Fathers declared  that all are created equal and endowed with inalienable rights, including life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. These principles have successfully formed the backbone of the American experiment in self- government. The rights the Founders recognized are not by any means solely ‘American,’ but rather are universal. Being fortunate to enjoy these freedoms ourselves, we have the moral imperative to promote democracy and human rights across the globe.” The bipartisan letter was also signed by Senator Todd Young (IN), Senator Edward Markey (MA), Senator Bob Menendez (NJ), Senator Susan Collins (ME), Senator Dick Durbin (IL), Senator Patrick Leahy (VT), Senator Christopher Coons (DE), Senator Lisa Murkowski (AK), Senator Cory Booker (NJ), and Senator Jeff Merkley (OR). The full text of the letter can be found below. Dear Mr. President: As you carry out the responsibilities of the Office of the President, we in the Congress stand ready to work with you to ensure that America remains a leader in advocating for democracy and human rights. We urge your administration to make these issues a priority. As you know, America has long been a leader in supporting individual rights.  It was more than 240 years ago that the Founding Fathers declared  that all are created equal and endowed with inalienable rights, including life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  These principles have successfully formed the backbone of the American experiment in self- government. The rights the Founders recognized are not by any means solely “American,” but rather are universal. Being fortunate to enjoy these freedoms ourselves, we have the moral imperative to promote democracy and human rights across the globe.  At a Senate Foreign Relations Committee subcommittee hearing earlier this year titled “Democracy and Human Rights: The Case for U.S. Leadership” human rights activists shared their stories of living under oppressive regimes. They made clear that they believe that the United States has a critical role to play in safeguarding the fundamental rights of all people. A world that is more democratic, respects human rights, and abides by the rule of law strengthens the security, stability, and prosperity of America. History has demonstrated time-and-again that free societies are more likely to be at peace with one another. Constitutional democracies are also less likely to fail and become breeding grounds for instability, terrorism, and migration.  Democratic nations that respect good governance and the rights of their own citizens are also more likely to be economically successful, and to be stable and reliable trade and investment partners for the United States.  Our economic partnerships with Japan, Germany, Taiwan, the Republic of Korea, and numerous other nations’ today stand as testament to the wisdom of far-sighted U.S. policy that seeks to develop good governance and strong democratic institutions as necessary enablers for strong economic partnerships as well. As we have seen over the past decade, there is a creeping authoritarian resurgence across the globe, against which we are the bulwark for individual rights and freedoms.  America, since its founding, has led this fight, not just for the rights of Americans found in the Constitution, but for the rights of all.  By elevating democracy and human rights to a prominent place on your foreign policy agenda you can make a measurable difference and make America safer, more prosperous, and more secure.  There is longstanding and deep bipartisan Congressional commitment to advancing freedom around the world, just as Republican and Democratic administrations for decades have supported democracy and human rights, and we look forward to working with you on this important cause.  We ask that, as you continue to formulate your foreign and defense policies, you put the promotion of democracy and human rights front-and-center as a primary pillar of America’s approach abroad.  As we move forward with the process of holding confirmation hearings for your nominees to key foreign policy positions we will be assessing their commitment to uphold these important American values as they carry out our nation’s foreign policy.

  • World Press Freedom Day 2017

    By Jordan Warlick, Staff Associate Although freedom of the press is recognized by democracies around the world as an essential and basic human right, emerging reports show that it is globally in decline, even in countries considered strong democracies. The recently published Freedom House 2017 Freedom of the Press Report and Reporters Without Borders’ 2017 World Press Freedom Index both indicate grim trends – Freedom House declares press freedom at its lowest point in 13 years, and Reporters Without Borders describes the “ever darker world map” it has published this year. The OSCE region is not uniform when it comes to freedom of the press. OSCE participating States include some of the freest nations in the world, like Norway and the Netherlands, alongside some of the least free nations, like Azerbaijan and Turkey. The worst-performing region in the aforementioned Freedom House report is Eurasia, while the best-performing is Europe, both of which are largely encompassed in the OSCE region. The central problems of media freedom are also varied between countries, from violence, intimidation, and incarceration of journalists; to emerging contempt for the media among politicians; to media outlet ownership and transparency issues. While some countries require more attention and monitoring than others, any conditions that impede on press freedom or that are considered harmful for journalists deserve attention. The OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media was an office created in 1997 to do just that: monitor and assist participating States with compliance commitments on freedom of expression and free media. The most recent OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, Dunja Mijatović, was a fierce advocate for the rights of journalists across the OSCE. The OSCE participating States currently are in the process of selecting her successor, an appointment that requires consensus among the 57 OSCE participating States.  This office’s function as a watchdog for violations and deteriorating conditions for media has been critical to bringing attention to issues and cases that may otherwise go unnoticed. Still, undemocratic regimes, changing political tides in the region, and the evolving landscape of journalism present ongoing challenges. Over the last week alone, the Helsinki Commission has held three different events where media freedom has been an important topic of discussion: a hearing on human rights abuses in Russia; a briefing on Russian human rights violations of Ukrainian citizens; and a briefing on human rights in Turkey after its referendum on changes to the constitution.  At the hearing on human rights in Russia, each witness brought attention to the Kremlin’s control of the media and persecution of independent journalists. The briefing on Russian human rights violations against Ukrainian citizens focused on the incarceration of filmmaker Oleg Sentsov, but highlighted other cases of imprisoned journalists such as Roman Sushchenko of Ukrinform News and Mykola Semena, a contributor to Radio Free Europe. On Turkey, Freedom House panelist Nate Schenkkan described the severe restrictions on access to information and underscored Turkey’s status as the number one jailer of journalists in the world. If there is any hope for the future of press freedom in these countries where media is especially unfree, it is in the passion and talent of journalists who are committed to holding their governments accountable despite the risks. It is vital that the United States continue to be an exemplar of and advocate for freedom of the press, enshrined by our founders in the First Amendment in recognition of its importance for democracy, for other countries around the world.

  • Political Prisoners in Russia

    Principle VII of the 1975 Helsinki Final Act recognizes the right of individuals to know and act upon their human rights and fundamental freedoms, including freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief, without distinction as to race, sex, language or religion. The following individuals who were profiled in the Helsinki Commission's April 2017 hearing, "Democracy & Human Rights Abuses in Russia: No End in Sight," illustrate the many cases of political prisoners in Russia today. Dmitry Buchenkov – Buchenkov was charged under Article 212 of the Russian criminal code (“participation in mass riots”) and Article 318 (“use of force against a representative of the authority”) for his participation in the 2012 Bolotnaya Square protests against fraud in the 2011 presidential elections. He was arrested in December 2015 and is currently under house arrest.  He is recognized by Memorial as a political prisoner not only because the alleged offense did not take place, but also due to the lack of a fair trial and the disproportionate use of pretrial detention in light of the charge against him. His case illustrates the prosecution of individuals for engaging in nonviolent public protest against the government in general and the Bolotnaya Square cases in particular. Oleg Navalny – Navalny was charged under Article 159 (“swindling on a large scale”), article 159.4 (“swindling on a particularly large scale in the entrepreneurial sphere”), and article 174.1.a (laundering of funds on a large scale acquired by a person through a crime committed by him”).  He was sentenced to 3 ½ years in a closed proceeding, Memorial considers him a political prisoner because the alleged offense did not take place and he was not given a fair trial. In reality, Oleg Navalny was targeted because he is the brother of prominent political activist Alexei Navalny.  It appears the authorities are unwilling to make a martyr out of Alexei Navalny but seek to exert pressure on him by persecuting his brother. Oleg Navalny’s case illustrates the willingness of the government to target family members as a means of exerting pressure on political activists, which is specifically prohibited under the OSCE 1989 Vienna Concluding Document. Darya Polyudova – Polyudova was charged under article 280 of the Russian criminal code (“public appeals for extremist activity” and “public appeals for actions aimed at a violation of the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation”) in connection with her participation in preparation for a march that did not take place.  In reality, she was indicted for criticizing Moscow online for its support of Russia-backed separatists in Ukraine's east.  She is recognized as a political prisoner because the offense did not take place, her right to a fair trial was violated, and the government disproportionately used pretrial detention given the nature of the charges.  She was sentenced to two years in prison, becoming the first person in Russia convicted under a 2014 law criminalizing calls for separatism on the Internet. Her case illustrates the government’s prosecution of Russian nationals who criticize Russia’s actions and policies in Ukraine. Sergei Udaltsov – Udaltsov was charged under Article 30 of the Russian criminal code (“preparation of actions aimed at organizing mass riots”) and Article 212 (“organization of mass riots”) after participating in the Bolotnaya Square protests. He has been arrested multiple times before for protesting against the government. Memorial recognizes him as a political prisoner on the grounds that he was charged with an offense that did not take place; his right to a fair trial was violated; and the government disproportionately used pretrial detention. He was sentenced to four years and six months in prison. Ivan Nepomniashchikh – Nepomniashchikh was charged with Article 212 of the Russian criminal code (“participation in mass riots”) and Article 318 (“use of force against a representative of the authority”). He is recognized as a political prisoner on the grounds that he is being prosecuted for exercising his right to freedom of assembly; he is being charged with an offense that did not take place; he was not allowed a fair trial;  and the government disproportionately used pretrial detention. He is another example of those being prosecuted for participating in the Bolotnaya Square protests against the 2011 fraud in the presidential election. Alexei Pichugin – Pichugin was charged under Article 162 of the Russian criminal code (“robbery”) and Article 105 (“murder”). At a closed trial, Pichugin, the former head of internal economic security for the Yukos Company then headed by Mikhail Khodorkovsky, was sentenced to life imprisonment in a special-regime penal colony. He has been in prison since 2003 and is recognized as a political prisoner on the grounds that his prosecution was conducted without a fair trial.  The European Court on Human Rights also has held that Pichugin was denied a fair trial.   Oleg Sentsov – Senstov is a Ukrainian filmmaker imprisoned in Russia since 2015, and was the focus of a separate Helsinki Commission briefing. Sentsov was arrested in the Russian-occupied Crimean territory of Ukraine and charged under Article 205.4 of the Russian criminal code (“organization of a terrorist group”), Article 205 (“terrorist act committed by an organized group”), Article 30 in connection with Article 205 (“preparation of a terrorist act”), Article 30 in connection with Article 222 (“attempted illegal acquisition of firearms and explosive devices”), and Article 222 (“illegal acquisition and storage of far arms and explosive devices”).  He was accused of planning an attack on a monument to Lenin, a charge he denies. He was sentenced in a Russian military court to 20 years in a strict regime penal colony for terrorism. Other Illustrative Cases Alexander Kolchenko – Kolchenko, a Crimean activist, was charged under article 205 of Russia’s criminal code (art. 205.4 part 2: "Participation in a terrorist organization," and art. 205, paragraph "a," part 2: "A terrorist act conducted by a terrorist group"). He refuted the accusations of terrorism. Mr. Kolchenko was detained in May 2014, in Simferopol, Crimea, shortly after Russia took control over the peninsula. On August 25, 2016, the North Caucasus District Military Court of Russia sentenced Mr. Kolchenko to 10 years of imprisonment in a strict-regime colony. He is serving his sentence in the Chelyabinsk Oblast, in the city of Kopeysk, a facility notorious for its poor treatment of convicts. Mr. Kolchenko is recognized as a political prisoner by Russia’s Memorial watchdog group. Mykola Semena (under a travel ban) – Semena, a Crimean journalist, has been charged under Article 280.1 of Russia’s criminal code, which penalizes "public calls for actions violating the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation." The law was added to the Russian criminal code in December 2013, and came into force in May 2014 - several weeks after Crimea was annexed by Russia. Semena was one of the only independent journalists to remain on the peninsula following Russia’s March 2014 annexation of Crimea. He contributed reporting to RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service and its Crimea Desk. On April 19, 2016, after Russian police searched Semena’s home and confiscated computers and storage media, the de facto Crimean prosecutor-general ordered Semena to remain on the peninsula while he was investigated for alleged “calls to undermine Russia’s territorial integrity via the mass media.” Semena has been forced to stay in Crimea ever since, despite his requests to travel to Kyiv for urgently needed medical care. Roman Sushchenko (in pre-trial detention) – Sushchenko, a Ukrainian journalist, is charged under article 276 of Russia’s criminal code (espionage). He has worked as a Paris-based correspondent for Ukraine’s state news agency, Ukrinform, since 2010. He was detained at a Moscow airport on September 30, 2016, upon his arrival from Paris on private business. He was accused of collecting classified information on the activities of Russia’s armed forces and the National Guard. Mr. Sushchenko denies any involvement in espionage. His employer, Ukrinform, also considers the accusations false and called his detention a “planned provocation.” Mr. Sushchenko’s attorney is Mark Feygin, who previously represented Pussy Riot and Nadezhda Savchenko. Memorial, a Russian organization established to report on the crimes of Stalinism, documents cases of political prisoners as well as cases of those persecuted for their faith.This information was compiled by Helsinki Commission staff from Memorial, the U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices, and news sources. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom also tracks cases of individuals imprisoned in connection with their faith.

  • Background: OSCE Special Monitoring Mission in Ukraine

    By Alex Tiersky, Global Security and Political-Military Affairs Advisor On April 23, 2017, the OSCE announced that a U.S. paramedic serving in the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission in Ukraine had been killed when his vehicle struck an explosive – likely a landmine – in separatist controlled territory in eastern Ukraine. Two other SMM personnel, from Germany and the Czech Republic, were also injured in the incident. What is the OSCE SMM? The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE)’s Special Monitoring Mission (SMM) in Ukraine was established in 2014, to monitor implementation of the Minsk agreements designed to bring peace to eastern Ukraine. The SMM operates under a mandate adopted by consensus among the 57 OSCE participating States, including the United States, Russia and Ukraine.  Currently fielding roughly 700 monitors, nearly 600 of whom are in Donetsk and Luhansk regions, the SMM is an unarmed, civilian mission that serves as the international community’s eyes and ears in the conflict zone. The Mission has some notable achievements, including regular reporting on the near-constant ceasefire violations, as well as the humanitarian needs of the population struggling in the conflict zone.  It has also sought to bring the sides together on weapons withdrawals and demining, as well as working towards agreements to fix power and water lines in the conflict area. However, Mission personnel face regular and sometimes violent harassment by combined Russian-separatist forces, who seek to limit the SMM’s access to the areas they control.  The attacks have made the environment in which Mission personnel operate increasingly volatile and dangerous, a fact tragically underlined by the incident on April 23.  In addition to this harassment, the SMM has faced limits imposed by the Russian-backed separatists including denial of access to the Ukrainian-Russian border, as well as jamming or downing of the OSCE’s unmanned aerial vehicles, critical tools for maintaining a clear operational picture. What is the U.S. Position? The United States supports the SMM and its monitors by providing personnel (roughly 75 Americans, making it the largest national contributor) and resources to the mission. The U.S. also supports the SMM by pushing Russia to end the separatists’ obstructions.  Since the April 23 incident, the U.S. has reiterated its call for full implementation of the Minsk Agreements, particularly by the Russian-led separatist forces who are most responsible for the threats to the SMM.  The U.S. has pushed for the sides to move towards a real and durable ceasefire, withdrawal of heavy weapons, and disengagement from the line of contact, as well as safe, full, and unfettered access throughout the conflict zone for the SMM monitors. The U.S. Helsinki Commission has consistently upheld Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity, including through support of the efforts of the SMM in Ukraine, and called for full implementation of the Minsk Agreements, in particular underlining Russia’s responsibility in ensuring that the separatists make verifiable and irreversible progress on the implementation of the Minsk agreements. The latest incident must not only be fully investigated; it is a reminder of the urgent need for progress on full implementation of the Minsk Agreements, including a cease-fire and withdrawal of weapons.  

  • OSCE Convenes Regional Mayors on Local Approaches to Global Challenges

    By Ambassador David Killion, chief of staff Paul Massaro, policy advisor Janice Helwig, representative of the Helsinki Commission to the USOSCE Jordan Warlick, staff associate​ and Jackson Lines, intern From March 30-31, 2017, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) hosted the conference “Creating inclusive, safe and sustainable cities: Local approaches to global challenges” in Vienna, Austria. This unique conference brought together a diverse group of mayors and other senior officials from cities across the OSCE region to discuss their achievements and challenges in building integrated societies, countering violent extremism, creating sustainability, and constructing coalitions for change. The “Cities” conference was one of several “Security Days” conferences held by the OSCE each year. The OSCE launched these conferences in 2012 to provide a platform for prominent experts from government, think tanks, and academic institutions, civil society, youth, and media to engage with one another and official representatives from OSCE participating States. Community Engagement From battling violent extremism to building green energy capacity and resettling refugees, individuals, familial groups, and community units were put forward as the most effective change agents. Ahmed Aboutaleb, the mayor of Rotterdam in the Netherlands opened the conference by observing, “It is not the police or the army that brings peace. It is the citizens.” The idea that citizens are the driving force behind community transformation was underscored by Park Won-Soon, the Mayor of Seoul, Korea (an OSCE Asian partner) who elaborated upon his pride in the people of Seoul who stood up for core values when protesting President Park Geun-hye. Many of the participating mayors believed that promoting citizen participation must begin with engagement at the individual level, and offered recommendations to engage different stakeholders in the community. Suggested programs ranged from efforts in Poznan, Poland to retain youth in the community, to having women-only days within municipal departments, where women are given the opportunity to address issues or play sports in an exclusively female environment. Local policies must have the support of the community to be successful. For example, on the subject of sustainable development through green policies, Erion Veliaj, Mayor of Tirana, Albania, discussed his town’s “car-free days” initiative. He observed that success in Albania means owning a car, making it quite difficult to “green” the city. However, after car-free days were promoted as opportunities for children to play without fear of vehicular accidents, participation increased substantially. Building coalitions through engagement on good policies on an international level is an important next step. In the final session of the conference, Vice Mayor of Helsinki, Finland, Pekka Sauri, called for creative solutions to engage youth, suggesting, among other ideas, the OSCE version of the EU’s Erasmus student-exchange program to familiarize young people with the OSCE and the diverse cultures of its participating States. Countering Radicalism Due to Europe’s recent experiences with terrorism, participating mayors also were deeply interested in addressing the issue of radicalism in their cities. Many mayors felt that, although  radicalism has quickly become a fact of life, it is not necessarily a negative development. For example, Mayor Aboutaleb suggested that not all radicalism must be destructive, because it is possible for “radicals” develop new ideas and think in a different way.  Integration was of particular interest when dealing with radicalization. Jørgen Kristiansen, Vice Mayor of Kristiansand in Norway, promoted the idea that treating radicalization as “regular crime” helps promote integration. Other mayors, including Tanja Wehsely, Chair of the Vienna City Council Committee on Finance, Economy, and International Affairs, discussed building a dialogue through extracurricular activities and organizations such a sports clubs. Wehsely perhaps captured the founding idea behind these programs best when she stated, “You must give trust to gain trust”. Other solutions put forth focused on youth engagement to prevent radicalism from taking hold of the most vulnerable population. Participants also shared their ideas for implementing programs specifically designed to target the radicalization of criminals and prisoners. Rather than focusing on a single subset of their cities’ populations, a number of mayors advocated community-wide approaches. One of the most popular ideas was a Norwegian “buddy system,” where citizens “host” refugee families in their homes to build trust and help integrate refugees into the community. With each city acting as a testing ground for different approaches to solving Europe’s radicalism problems, idea-sharing events such as this conference are of great importance to promote a peaceful and safe Europe.  It is important to frame both community engagement and radicalism solutions in the current political climate by acknowledging the wave of populism sweeping across OSCE nations. Conclusion Many issues discussed at the OSCE – including fostering inclusive, safe, and sustainable societies – require innovation and cooperation at the local level, with the active input and interest of municipal governments. By sharing best practices, mayors and other city officials are better equipped to understand and deal with persistent problems, such as countering violent extremism, in the OSCE region and partner countries. Because mayors, diplomats, and parliamentarians have a variety of perspectives to offer on the challenges that face the OSCE region, an eventual inter-branch “Security Days” that brings them all together could offer additional insights, ideas, and best practices.

  • Earth Day 2017: Eyes on the Arctic

    By Paul Massaro, policy advisor and Jordan Warlick, staff associate On the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970, 20 million Americans volunteered and demonstrated across the country to celebrate the importance of the Earth and environment for the very first time. Founded by Democratic Senator Gaylord Nelson and co-founded by Republican Senator Pete McCloskey, and supported by Members of Congress on both sides of the aisle, Earth Day demonstrates a bipartisan commitment to protection of the environment. By the end of that year, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was founded and three key pieces of legislation were passed by Congress: the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, and Endangered Species Act. Today, Earth Day is observed internationally and is considered the largest secular observance in the world, celebrated by over a billion people every year. Since its inception, the OSCE has recognized environmental issues as fundamental to European peace and security. The 1975 Helsinki Final Act reads, “efforts to develop co-operation in the fields of trade, industry, science and technology, the environment and other areas of economic activity contribute to the reinforcement of peace and security in Europe, and in the world as a whole.” Economic and environmental issues make up the second of three core baskets of the Helsinki Final Act, also known as the OSCE’s second dimension: the Economic and Environmental Dimension. In 1997, OSCE participating States established an Office of the Coordinator of OSCE Economic and Environmental Activities (OCEEA), dedicated to promoting international cooperation on these issues. The OCEEA, led by Dr. Halil Yurdakul Yigitgüden since February 2013, identifies OSCE environmental goals and priorities; organizes the meetings of the Economic and Environmental Forum; and supports field missions on environmental initiatives in areas such as water management, waste management, and sustainable energy. Although there are many areas of environmental concern that are often overlooked, the Helsinki Commission has recently spotlighted one issue in particular: the Arctic. In November 2016, the Helsinki Commission held a congressional briefing on nuclear pollution in the Arctic. The total catalogue of nuclear waste in the Arctic is staggering, and while most of the waste originated from Soviet-era Russian dumping, the United States and the United Kingdom are also responsible for some of the legacy waste. The panelists at the briefing, including expert Nils Bøhmer of the Bellona Foundation, Julia Gourley of the State Department, and Jon Rahbek-Clemmensen of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, considered approaches to handling nuclear waste in the Arctic and working with international partners on this issue. Nuclear pollution is only one of many concerns facing the Arctic region. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, over the last 20 years atmospheric temperatures have increased at a rate at least three times the global average, and as of 2011 sea ice thickness was 42 percent below what it was in 1979. If trends continue, summers may produce ice-free waters in the Arctic Ocean by the late 2030s. The melting of Arctic ice will likely have an impact on sea levels and ocean currents, and produce other environmental changes. Warming waters may also open up opportunities for new shipping routes and other development, which will transform the region’s geostrategic environment.

  • Helsinki Commission Staff Attend OSCE Permanent Council

    By A. Paul Massaro III, policy advisor, Janice Helwig, Representative of the Helsinki Commission to USOSCE, Orest Deychakiwsky, policy advisor, Alex Tiersky, policy advisor, and Jackson Lines, intern On March 30, 2017, Ambassador David Killion, Chief of Staff of the Helsinki Commission, and Helsinki Commission Policy Advisors Paul Massaro and Everett Price attended the Permanent Council (PC) of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in Vienna. Helsinki Commission staff members occasionally have the opportunity to attend OSCE events, including PC meetings, which help inform the work of Congress with regard to the OSCE region. What is the Permanent Council? In contrast to OSCE Summit or Ministerial Meetings, which are held annually and provide political direction and standard setting for the OSCE, the Permanent Council is the regular body for political consultations and decisions concerning the day-to-day operational work of the OSCE, and also provides a forum to address current issues. PC Meetings are held once a week at the Ambassadorial level in Vienna, Austria, and usually consist of a report by the head of an OSCE field mission or an invited speaker, and discussion of current issues. Any decisions are taken by consensus.   The PC is generally closed to the public and press, although press may be allowed in for statements by high-level visitors, and academic and other visiting groups are occasionally allowed to observe the proceedings. The Helsinki Commission, joined by the State Department, has long recommended opening the Permanent Council and webcasting it as a way to improve transparency. The United States Mission to the OSCE (USOSCE) regularly posts statements it makes in the PC on its website and shares them on social media. March 30 Meeting The March 30 meeting included a report by Ambassador Michael Scanlan, Head of the OSCE Mission to Moldova, which focused largely on discussions of the future status of Transnistria within Moldova; a discussion of Russian intervention in Eastern Ukraine; and remarks on media freedom in Belarus and religious freedom in Russia. Ambassador Scanlan noted that, due to a lack of elections this year, 2017 is an important opportunity to address the Transnistrian autonomy issue in a meaningful way. Many participants expressed hope that a mid-May conference meant to open dialogue on the issue would make tangible steps towards Transnistrian autonomy. If a framework can be agreed upon, the PC volunteered the OSCE to mediate talks finalizing the deal. The United States, through its Chargé d’Affaires, Kate Byrnes, intervened on each issue. On Moldova, the United States reaffirmed its commitment to working with the 5+2 partners to find a comprehensive conflict settlement that respects the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Moldova and affords a special status for the Transnistrian region. On Ukraine, the United States summarized the appalling continuation of Russia’s ongoing aggression and detailed violations of the ceasefire. The U.S., Ms. Byrnes stated, “affirms its staunch support for Ukraine’s sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity within its internationally-recognized borders.” While no participant was willing to take responsibility for the escalation of tensions in Ukraine, all delegations remained concerned with the situation and agreed that both sides in the conflict need to abide by the Minsk Agreements if progress towards peace is to continue. The United States also condemned crackdowns on protestors in Russia and Belarus. The United States, EU, and the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights Director (ODIHR) Michael Link joined together to issue statements reminding Belarus of the need to uphold its obligations to human rights and fundamental freedoms as part of the OSCE. The U.S. and EU delegations also condemned the arrests of protestors in Russia. Both called for the release of those arrested, with a particular focus on Alexei Navalny. Finally, the United States expressed concern about a Russian court case against the Jehovah’s Witnesses that could lead to the disenfranchisement of the group in Russia, violating OSCE commitments to uphold freedom of religion.

  • First Person: Election Observation in Armenia

    By Everett Price, Policy Advisor As the Helsinki Commission’s policy advisor for Armenia, I participated in the election observation mission (EOM) to Armenia organized by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA) from March 31 to April 3, 2017. On April 2, the Republic of Armenia held its first parliamentary election since approving constitutional amendments in a popular referendum in 2015 that transition the country from a semi-presidential to a parliamentary system. The election was also significant as the first nation-wide vote held under sweeping 2016 revisions to the country’s electoral code that implemented a new process for allocating legislative seats, improved transparency, mandated advanced voter authentication measures, and increased female and minority representation quotas. I was one of a 63-member delegation of parliamentarians and staff deployed by the OSCE PA to serve as short-term observers to the Armenian election. This parliamentary delegation complemented the work of a team of 14 experts, 28 long-term observers, and over 300 short-term observers sent throughout the capital and across the country by the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR). Representatives from the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) and the European Parliament (EP) also participated. The OSCE PA and ODIHR regularly lead EOMs in the OSCE region at the invitation of the host country. (Learn more about OSCE election observation.) In the days before the vote, our OSCE PA observation team received extensive briefings on the election process and current political dynamics from ODIHR experts and from Armenian government officials, political parties, civil society, and media representatives. These briefings focused on allegations of electoral violations, the complexity of the electoral code, the role of international and local observers, and the tenor of the campaign. We heard a “unified message of concern” from civil society representatives.  Citizen activists, journalists, and opposition members told us that the ruling party would abuse its access to administrative resources to get out the vote and that it, and other parties, would engage in voter intimidation and vote buying.  They warned that while new electoral procedures might mitigate concerns about the casting and counting ballots, the ruling party and powerful oligarchs would wield improper influence outside the voting booth, diminishing the fairness of the vote. One political commentator assessed that the difficult economic situation experienced by many voters during this election season would make them especially susceptible to selling their vote. Briefers also discussed the complexity of Armenia’s new electoral code and the extent to which it would address past electoral violations. Significantly, this was Armenia’s first time employing electronic voter identification, multiple ballots, and a partial open list voting system that allows voters to express their preference for specific candidates. The code incorporated many recommendations from Armenian civil society, ODIHR, and other international experts and was generally assessed as a positive step forward. Concerns remained, however, about the complexity of voting procedures, voter registration policy, relatively weak campaign finance transparency provisions, and restrictions on citizen observer participation, among other issues.       Civil society activists specifically raised concerns about the overall number of citizen observers and the rules governing their access to polling stations. Armenia registered over 28,000 citizen observers in a country of less than 3 million people, prompting concerns about overcrowding at polling stations and questions about the origins of the organizations and individuals behind these observation missions. One civil society representative said that only 600 of the citizen observers were from known NGOs and that many of the rest are likely from NGOs established by political parties. Some worried that the large number of citizen observers was meant to suppress the participation of legitimate groups since the electoral code stipulates that a maximum of 15 citizen observers are allowed in a polling station at one time. Ruling party officials, meanwhile, noted that hundreds of citizen observers were foreigners registered under local NGOs. They intimated that these observers could be a vehicle for unwelcome foreign influence. One media representative characterized the content of the campaign as “the most primitive” in recent memory, while another political commentator lamented the “poverty of ideas” and “competition of personalities” on display. Several members of the media and some political party officials regretted that lack of any televised debate among candidates—only three of the nine parties and political coalitions on the ballot were willing to hold such a debate. What’s more, several journalists noted that many parties actively avoided the press and restricted most of their candidates from interacting with the media.    Before dawn on election day, two other observers and I deployed to our first assigned polling station to watch the opening procedures. At a school in downtown Yerevan, I watched as the precinct chairwoman capably organized the precinct committee that worked together to prepare the space and voting materials for the arrival of the day’s first voters. The importance of orderliness at this particular polling station became evident within the hour when presidential security arrived to prepare for Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan to cast his vote there. Despite this exceptional circumstance, in other ways the experience at this polling station typified the voting I observed elsewhere throughout the day. I saw non-credentialed citizens hovering watchfully—and in violation of the electoral code—outside the polling station and engaging voters—likely local party officials keeping tabs on voter participation. Inside the polling place there was some overcrowding, a malfunctioning electronic voter authentication device, and modest voter confusion about the voting procedure, which involved selecting among nine separate ballots and optionally marking a candidate preference on the reverse side. I visited a total of seven polling places that day, stretching from downtown Yerevan to the shores of Lake Sevan and the surrounding hinterland 60km northeast of the capital. In larger precincts I witnessed large contingents of party proxies and citizen observers monitoring the vote. In several instances, citizen observers credentialed under the name of a local NGO turned out to be from foreign countries and were unable to explain to me the mission of their organization, highlighting the opaque origins of some citizen observation efforts. In most precincts I saw a mix of credentialed and non-credentialed individuals from political parties and local NGOs mingling inside and outside the polling station, engaging voters, and generally making their presence felt. Our day ended in Yerevan where we observed the closure procedure at a polling place where about 700 votes had been cast. The precinct chairwoman carefully walked the precinct committee through the process step by step, openly acknowledging to us the difficulty of carrying out the complex procedure for the first time. The tallying took place transparently in front of us and in full view of several local observers and party proxies that stayed late into the night to oversee the count. We had the opportunity, along with our fellow observers, to ask questions of the precinct chairwoman about how she and her team were adjudicating individual ballots and counting votes. Although my observations here are anecdotal, they are consistent with the preliminary findings and conclusions of the international election observation mission that the elections “were well administered and fundamental freedoms were generally respected” although the vote was “tainted by credible information about vote-buying and pressure on civil servants and employees of private companies.” The end result was a vote that suffered from “an overall lack of public confidence and trust.” (Read the full Statement of Preliminary Findings and Conclusions.)        While Armenia’s democracy took some important strides in the procedural conduct of this election, much work remains to be done. With the vote tallying complete, Armenia now embarks on a critical period of transition to a parliamentary system that will be fully realized at the end of the President’s final term in April 2018. All political actors, but particularly the new governing coalition, must shoulder their responsibilities to ensure that this new system of governance earns the trust of the public it serves. To build this trust, Armenia would benefit from a process of political evolution that accompanies its institutional transition and procedural reforms. Specifically, Armenia’s political parties and new parliament would do well to ensure a competition of ideas replaces the all too common clashes of personalities and patronage networks on display during this election.

  • International Roma Day 2017

    International Roma Day is observed annually on April 8, commemorating the anniversary of the1971 London meeting of Romani activists from across Europe. The 1971 London meeting, convened as the "World Romani Congress," was one of the first transnational gatherings of Roma.  Since 1990, International Roma Day has been an opportunity to celebrate Romani culture and counter anti-Roma prejudice that fosters political and economic marginalization.  Roma—Europe’s Largest Ethnic Minority Roma live throughout all European countries as well as the Americas and Australasia. In Europe, the Roma population is very conservatively estimated at 15 million, with large concentrations in Central, Eastern, and Southern Europe.  Roma have migrated to the United States since the colonial period. There are an estimated one million Americans with some Romani roots (recent or distant Romani ancestry).  Roma live throughout the United States, with larger communities in New York City, Baltimore, Chicago, and Los Angeles. They are sometimes the victims of racial profiling by law enforcement.  The last explicitly anti-Roma law in the United States was repealed in New Jersey in 1998. Romani Americans have served as public members on the U.S. delegation to several OSCE human dimension meetings.  In 2016, the President appointed Dr. Ethel Brooks to serve on the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum Council, bringing a Romani voice to that body. Helsinki Commission Advocacy on Romani Human Rights The Commission has long record of addressing human rights issues relating to Roma.  As early as 1990, a Helsinki Commission delegation in Bucharest raised alarm orchestrated attacks on Roma conducted as part of a larger crackdown on dissent.  Helsinki Commissioners have continued to engage regarding the situation of Roma through hearings, briefings, and congressional meetings with Roma in Europe and the United States.  In recent years, the Commission has supported Romani inclusion in annual initiatives for political leaders such as the Transatlantic Minority Political Leadership Conference (TMPLC) and Transatlantic Inclusion Leaders Network (TILN).  On March 27-28, the Commission worked in cooperation with the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights to hold a workshop during “Roma Week” at the European Parliament in Brussels titled, “Strengthening diverse leadership, participation and representation of Roma, including women and youth, in public and political life.”  Roma Day Events in the United States Harvard will host its fifth Annual Roma conference on April 10, where Helsinki Commission staff will participate. Scholars of Romani culture and Roma who work as academics, activists, and performers will convene a conference at New York University April 28-29. Later in the spring, on May 6, the 20th Annual Herdeljezi Music Festival will be held in the San Francisco area at the Croatian American Cultural Center. In the Washington area, the Embassy of the Czech Republic supported a March 30 screening of the documentary about the prejudice faced by the FC Roma football club. On May 17, the Czech Embassy will support a concert at the national Gallery of Art by Romani-Czech pianist Tomas Kaco. Learn More International Roma Day: Statement by U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson Celebrating International Roma Day: Statement by USOSCE Acting Deputy Chief of Mission Michele Siders International Roma Day: Statement by OSCE/ODIHR Director Michael Link

  • Romani Political Participation Key to Change

    On March 27 and 28, 2017, thirty-five Romani elected officials and civil society representatives participated in a two-day event held by the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) in cooperation with the U.S. Helsinki Commission, as part of the European Union’s “Roma Week.”  The event focused on opportunities to enhance Romani political participation as a means of strengthening the long-term strength and stability of the OSCE region.  As citizens of many OSCE participating States, Roma have long contributed to the prosperity of their countries in numerous ways, ranging from serving in the military to educating the next generation.  However, Roma are often described and perceived in negative terms, leading political leaders and others, to consider Roma a problem rather than a solution. Referring to the political rhetoric that instigated the tragic murders of Roma in 2008 and 2009, Romani-Hungarian researcher and Transatlantic Inclusion Leaders Network alumni Roland Ferkovics stressed, “Political narratives should not only motivate and influence people but should also unite…Political leaders must take Roma as equal partner(s) using narratives [that] focus on similarities instead of differences.” Diverse speakers from across the OSCE region also shared experiences and practices that have been successful in inspiring democratic change. “Standing for elected office and using one’s right to vote is a powerful tool for Roma communities in Europe to counter anti-Roma rhetoric, hate crimes and racism,” said Mee Moua, former President of Asian Americans Advancing Justice (AAJC), who also served as a Minnesota State Senator in the United States. Noting the importance of united communities, Killion Munyama, a member of the Polish Parliament and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, noted the importance of Roma having a seat at the decision-making table:  “Societies benefit from broad and diverse participation representing the voices of all communities in the public and political spheres.” Participants also stressed the urgency in ensuring the success of current Romani legislative initiatives and the importance of ensuring that legislative initiatives aimed at Roma, such as the EU Framework Strategy for Integration, are designed and implemented with the participation of Roma at all levels of government.  Other speakers at the event included MEP Terry Reintke, former MEP Livia Jaroka, and Jamen Gabriela Hrabanova of the European Roma Grassroots Organizations Network. Dr. Mischa Thompson of the Helsinki Commission participated as a facilitator.

  • Chairman Wicker Highlights Importance of OSCE Mission in Stabilizing Europe

    At a March 21 U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) hearing on “U.S. Policy and Strategy in Europe,” Helsinki Commission Chairman Senator Roger Wicker underlined his commitment to Ukraine’s future and highlighted the importance of the mission of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). “The more Ukraine succeeds, the better off it is for us in the United States and the West, and I think it is one of the most profoundly important issues that we face in the next year or two,” stated Senator Wicker, who also serves as a senior member of SASC. Praising the OSCE’s monitoring mission in Ukraine as providing the “international community’s eyes and ears in the conflict zone,” Chairman Wicker underlined the challenges facing the consensus-based OSCE in addressing the increased aggression in Europe by Russia, one of its participating States. Citing the fundamental “Helsinki principles” on which the OSCE is based, Senator Wicker pressed a panel of experts for their views on the continued value of the OSCE. Ambassador William J. Burns, former U.S. Deputy Secretary of State who also served as U.S. Ambassador to Russia, stated that despite the OSCE’s limitations, the organization has continuing value. “It embodies some of the core values that we share with our European allies and partners in terms of sovereignty of states and the inviolability of borders—so that the big states don’t just get to grab parts of smaller states, just because they can,” he said. Burns further called for continued U.S. investment in the OSCE. Former NATO SACEUR General Philip M. Breedlove, USAF (Ret.), suggested that the Special Monitoring Mission in Ukraine was a particularly valuable expression of the OSCE’s work, underlining that “…with some of the fake news that was created in the Donbass and other places as Russia invaded, even though OSCE was challenged … often, [the monitoring mission] was the source of the real news of what was actually going on on the ground.” Ambassador Alexander R. Vershbow, former Deputy Secretary General of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization who also served as U.S. Ambassador to Russia, stated that the OSCE remains valuable, despite the challenges inherent in Russian actions, “…because of the norms and values that it upholds – even though the Russians are violating a lot of those right now – it gives us a basis on which to challenge their misbehavior.”  Praising the Special Monitoring Mission in Ukraine as “very courageous,” Vershbow underlined that while the OSCE faces serious limitations, “I don’t see any alternative right now in trying to manage a conflict like in Eastern Ukraine.”

  • Baltic War Game Scenario Plays Out at Helsinki Commission

    On March 3, 2017, U.S. Helsinki Commission staff, joined by Congressional staff from various offices, took part in an interactive, informal simulation led by the RAND Corporation, which demonstrated RAND’s research on the shape and probable outcome of a near-term hypothetical Russian invasion of the Baltic states. The meeting followed the Commission’s December 2016 briefing, Baltic Security After the Warsaw NATO Summit, where RAND expert Michael Johnson presented the research and war-game approach exploring how a hypothetical Russian invasion of the Baltics would actually play out tactically. During the event, Johnson and his team not only described their research but also demonstrated the advantages of the flexible platform of physical simulation in such a context. Attendees were able to “play out” military deployments on both sides of the board, representing both Russian and NATO forces. Using a physical model – as opposed to a digital platform – allowed attendees to pose hypothetical scenario-based questions to one another and to the RAND team, and to explore the defense outcomes on a representative military theater. The RAND simulation demonstrated that, under current NATO postures, Russian forces would be likely to be able to take the capitals of all three Baltic States in 60 hours or less. More information on the war-gaming research by Michael W. Johnson and David A. Shlapak can be found in their report, Reinforcing Deterrence on NATO’s Eastern Flank: Wargaming the Defense of the Baltics (2016).

  • Helsinki Commissioners Meet with U.S. 6th Fleet Leadership

    By Alex Tiersky, Global Security / Political-Military Affairs Advisor U.S. Helsinki Commission En route to the 2017 OSCE Parliamentary Assembly Winter Meeting in Vienna, five members of the Helsinki Commission and four other members of Congress made a strategic stopover in Naples, Italy, for a closed-door briefing at the headquarters of the U.S. 6th Fleet. Members of the Delegation, led by Helsinki Commission Chairman Senator Roger Wicker (MS), discussed several regional security challenges with Vice Admiral Christopher W. Grady (Commander, U.S. 6th Fleet, Deputy Commander, U.S. Naval Forces Europe [NAVEUR], and Commander, Naval Striking Forces NATO) and his subordinates. These included ongoing operations against ISIS; migration flows across the Mediterranean; and Russia’s increasingly assertive regional military posture and activities. In addition to Senator Wicker, members of the U.S. Congressional Delegation at the 6th Fleet briefing included Helsinki Commissioners Rep. Roger Aderholt (AL-04), Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), Rep. Alcee Hastings (FL-20), and Rep. Richard Hudson (NC-08). The Delegation also included Senator Lamar Alexander (TN), Rep. Lloyd Doggett (TX-35), Rep. Eliot Engel (NY-16), and Rep. Trent Kelly (MS-01). About the 6th Fleet As Commander of U.S. 6th Fleet, Vice Admiral Grady directs the operations of U.S. ships, submarines and aircraft and the Sailors and civilians who operate them in Europe and swaths of Africa. NAVEUR has a number of task forces and subordinate units organized around functions including surface naval activity, missile defense, logistics, land-based patrol aircraft, Naval Expeditionary Forces, and submarine forces. The U.S. 6th Fleet conducts the full spectrum of joint and naval operations, often in concert with allied, joint and interagency partners in order to advance U.S. national interests and security and stability in Europe and Africa.  The main lines of operation of the 6th Fleet include Operation Inherent Resolve (counter-ISIS) and Operation Atlantic Resolve (demonstrating continued commitment to collective security of NATO), as well as reassurance and deterrence activities with European allies and partners such as military exercises including SEA BREEZE (a multinational exercise co-hosted by the U.S. and Ukraine Navies with several thousand troops from more than a dozen nations) and BALTOPS (which last year featured 6,100 maritime, ground, and air force troops exercising maritime interdiction, anti-subsurface warfare, amphibious operations, and air defense, and demonstrating resolve among NATO and partner forces to defend the Baltic region).

  • Helsinki Commission Chairman Leads U.S. Delegation to Parliamentary Gathering of OSCE Countries

    Led by Helsinki Commission Chairman Senator Roger F. Wicker (MS), 10 Members of the U.S. Congress joined the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly’s annual Winter Meeting in Vienna, Austria, on February 23 and 24, 2017. Since the founding of the OSCE PA, Members of Congress have actively engaged their Canadian, European, and Central Asian counterparts at Winter Meetings and other OSCE PA events. Such engagement was particularly significant in 2017 in the context of an ongoing terrorist threat in Europe, Russian aggression against Ukraine and other neighboring countries, and the challenges of the massive influx of refugees and migrants into Europe from the Middle East and Africa. The transition to a new Administration in the United States made it more important than ever to reaffirm the commitment of the United States to security and cooperation in the region.  Approximately 250 parliamentarians from 53 participating States took part in the 2017 Winter Meeting, and active participation of the U.S. Delegation – the largest in OSCE PA Winter Meeting history – was warmly welcomed. In addition to Senator Wicker, the U.S. Delegation included Helsinki Commissioners Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20), Rep. Robert B. Aderholt (AL-04), Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), and Rep. Richard Hudson (NC-08), as well as Senator Lamar Alexander (TN), Rep. Eliot L. Engel (NY-16), Rep. Lloyd Doggett (TX-35), Rep. Steve King (IA-04), and Rep. Trent Kelley (MS-01). U.S. Delegation Speaks Out on Security, Religious Freedom, and Human Rights in Times of Crisis The bicameral, bipartisan Delegation was highly visible throughout the meeting. In addition to his role as Head of the U.S. Delegation in 2017, Senator Wicker serves as chairman of the Assembly’s General Committee on Political Affairs and Security (also known as the First Committee), which met during the Winter Meeting. Opening the committee session, Senator Wicker applauded the opportunity the Winter Meeting provides “to dialogue directly with senior officials working within the OSCE” and “to discuss pressing concerns with the Ambassadors representing all of our States on a continuing basis.”  “This dialogue,” he added, “is one way in which we, as representatives of our citizens, help to shape the future of the OSCE…  The role of this Committee remains as important as at any time in the history of our Assembly. Let us now get down to the work of discussing how we will collectively rise to the challenges of our time.” Representative Hudson participated in the First Committee’s debate on confronting terrorism.  Observing that some countries misuse laws regarding extremism and terrorism to persecute an entire religious community, Hudson agreed that “violent extremism and terrorism – including in the name of religion – are real threats that must be countered,” but argued that “religious affiliation itself is never a justification for detention and imprisonment.” As some governments have been accused in recent years of using outside threats and security concerns as justification for the denial of basic human rights to political opponents, “protecting human rights in a time of crisis” was chosen as a relevant and timely topic for the closing plenary debate. At the closing plenary, Representative King noted the magnitude and gravity of the threats Turkey faces today, including ISIS- and extreme Kurdish-sponsored terrorism as well as an attempted military coup.  He added, however, that the response must respect core obligations and should not be broadened into a crackdown on political rivals, independent voices and average citizens. Representative Aderholt, who also serves as one of nine Vice Presidents of the OSCE PA, remarked on contrasting developments in another country facing a crisis: Ukraine. He noted that the threat posed by Russian aggression since 2014 “could easily have led to a deterioration in Ukraine’s human rights situation, as well as increased corruption and societal intolerance,” but that, “to Ukraine’s credit, this has not happened.” He reminded delegates of the difficult and substantial reforms the country has undertaken in recent years and encouraged their implementation. He also detailed the “contrasting deterioration in the human rights of those parts of Ukraine which have been seized by Russia and its separatist proxies.” Beyond the Debates Chairman Wicker also represented the United States in a session which amended the Assembly’s rules of procedure to encourage greater discipline to avoid over-amending draft resolutions at Annual Sessions which take place each summer, and to ensure that those resolutions are placed on the agenda based on the degree of support they get from heads of delegation.  While in Vienna, the U.S. Delegation hosted two additional events to facilitate an exchange of views: one for 15 of the Parliamentary Assembly’s leaders and heads of delegation, including Austrian parliamentarian and current President Christine Muttonen; and a second for senior OSCE officials. Bilateral talks with the delegates from Georgia, Israel, Poland, Romania, and Russia took place on the margins of the meeting. The next gathering of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly will be its Annual Session, scheduled to take place in Minsk, Belarus, on July 5-9, 2017. About the OSCE PA Winter Meeting The Parliamentary Assembly was formed as the Cold War ended in the early 1990s to allow elected representatives to take a more active role in the multilateral diplomacy of what is today the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).   Winter Meetings initiate the Assembly’s work for the coming year and debate current issues. Unlike other Assembly meetings, Winter Meetings always take place in Vienna to facilitate greater interaction between the parliamentarians and both OSCE officials and diplomatic representatives of the 57 OSCE participating States.   

  • U.S. Congressional Delegation Expresses Bicameral, Bipartisan Commitment to Enduring Partnerships with Jordan and Israel

    Helsinki Commission Chairman Senator Roger F. Wicker (MS) led a bicameral and bipartisan delegation of nine Members of the U.S. Congress to Jordan and Israel from February 19-22, 2017 before traveling to Vienna for the Winter Meeting of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly. This was the first major U.S. Congressional delegation to visit Jordan and Israel, two of the United States’ strongest Middle East allies, since the start of the 115th Congress and the inauguration of President Donald J. Trump. As such, it manifested the United States’ lasting and bipartisan commitment to these partnerships that are vital to defending American interests overseas and at home. In addition to Senator Wicker, the U.S. Delegation included Helsinki Commissioners Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20), Rep. Robert B. Aderholt (AL-04), Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), and Rep. Richard Hudson (NC-08), as well as Senator Lamar Alexander (TN), Rep. Eliot L. Engel (NY-16), Rep. Lloyd Doggett (TX-35), and Rep. Trent Kelly (MS-01). In Jordan, the delegation met with King Abdullah II and reviewed the full horizon of threats and opportunities that lie ahead for Jordan and the United States, particularly concerning the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Iran, Syria, and the fight against terrorism. The King also shared his views about the economic and social challenges facing Jordan in the near- and medium-term, including slow economic growth, high unemployment, and a massive refugee population. Members of the delegation also had the opportunity to visit a Jordanian military unit and meet with the unit’s United States and United Kingdom military trainers to witness the depth of US-Jordanian cooperation and integration. The delegation also consulted with leading members of Jordan’s cabinet, parliament, business community, and civil society. In Israel, the delegation further discussed regional dynamics with Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, Deputy Minister for Diplomacy Michael Oren, and Ministry of Foreign Affairs Political Director Alon Ushpiz. In their capacities as U.S. lawmakers, members of the delegation also met with their counterparts from the Israeli Knesset, including members of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, to discuss the role of legislative institutions in fostering effective foreign policy. In each location the delegation held consultations with the United States’ leading diplomatic and military officers to learn about the work of the United States interagency to strengthen our foreign government partners, communicate our values, protect our personnel overseas, and defend the homeland. Jordanian and Israeli interlocutors commonly stressed the importance of reinvigorating American leadership in the region to address the emergence of power vacuums where pernicious influences thrive. The delegation heard concerns in both countries about the impact of Russia and Iran’s ascendant influence in regional conflicts, particularly Syria. These officials further emphasized the need for the US to shape a coalition of moderate regional countries that can challenge the reach of terrorist groups, radical ideologies, and Iran’s destabilizing foreign policy.    The U.S. delegation reaffirmed the United States’ commitment to Israel’s security, which faces threats from virtually every direction on a daily basis. Delegation members also elicited Jordanian and Israeli officials’ views about recent developments in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the prospects for peace, particularly the possibility of achieving a two-state solution. Neither Jordanian nor Israeli officials expressed optimism about the near-term feasibility of achieving a final status agreement and establishing a Palestinian state. Although they emphasized different obstacles to achieving peace, both sides acknowledged the significant challenge posed by weak Palestinian leadership and institutions. Members of the delegation also heard about the importance of U.S. foreign aid to Jordan and Israel, two of the world’s largest recipients of American foreign assistance. The delegation heard how such assistance fosters closer coordination and forges lasting partnerships that are unrivaled by the cooperation offered by other regional stakeholders, thus representing a critical mechanism of US influence.   

  • Panelist Profile: Dr. Margareta Matache

    Dr. Margareta Matache was a speaker at the Helsinki Commission’s February 16, 2017 panel discussion on the challenges faced by Romani communities in Romania. The event followed a screening of the acclaimed Romanian film “Aferim!” (“Bravo!”), which addresses the forgotten history of 500 years of Roma slavery in two former Romanian principalities. Margareta is a Romani activist and scholar from Romania with over 18 years of experience in the field of human rights. She joined the Harvard FXB Center for Health and Human Rights team in 2012, where she currently works as an instructor and director of the Roma Program. Before this position, for seven years Dr. Matache served as the executive director of Romani CRISS, a leading Romani non-profit in Romania. Margareta grew up under the first wave of Romani activism in post-communist Romania. Her father, a construction worker of Romani descent, was a community activist himself, which played a role in fostering her interest in the field of human rights. “This activist environment taught me about our ancestors, some of whom on my mother’s side may have been slaves, and so I am trying to document that now,” she says. Margareta was the first child in her family and community to attend high school. She has a B.A. in Social Work, an M.A. in European Social Policies and a PhD, magna cum laude, from the University of Bucharest. However, her educational path was no easy feat. “As an adolescent, I felt the pressure and pain of race and class constructs and wanted to drop out from school way too often,” she admits.   She says that those feelings later became one of the triggers of her motivation to dedicate a large portion of her work to fighting racism and stigma against Romani adolescents. Margareta became involved with the Romani movement in 1999 as a volunteer for the Roma Students Association, working with association director Emilian Nicolae in a local community in Bucharest. Six years later, she became the executive director of Romani CRISS. “Taking a stand in cases of anti-Roma racism was at the core of our work at Romani CRISS,” Margareta says. Since the 1990s, the organization has documented countless cases of Romani rights violations which were later ruled upon by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) and included in reports from Amnesty International, the U.S. State Department, and other institutions. “In 2006, we assisted the community in the town of Apalina, after the police used violence against 37 Roma, including elders. Based on a complaint filed by Romani CRISS, the ECHR condemned the way the Romanian government had conducted the investigation and awarded the victims €192,000 in damages,” she recalls.   Yet, she also recalls that they lost cases before the court in many instances. “We had quite a lot of failures or so called ‘lessons learnt,’” she adds. Margareta’s work was also dedicated to fostering the right to education. “When I took over the Romani CRISS leadership, I continued prioritizing the issues of Romani children segregated in separate schools and classes from their non-Roma peers. We set up a coalition of five renowned nonprofit and intergovernmental organizations that worked with the Ministry of Education to develop a legal document that prohibits segregation. In 2007, our advocacy led to the issuing of a School Desegregation Bill,” she recounts. In 2011, along with other partners, Margareta’s organization convinced the Romanian Parliament to include an article that targets the misdiagnosis and abusive placement of children in special schools based on their ethnicity or another discriminatory criterion in the new Education Law. Despite these successes, Margareta feels that there is still a lot to be done as Romani children continue to be placed in segregated schools and classes to this day. In 2012, Margareta decided to take a break from activism and shifted to academia. At the Harvard FXB Center for Health and Human Rights, she has been pursuing and piloting participatory approaches for assessing the needs of Romani youth and suggest better-informed policies and measures. Moreover, the Roma Program has provided support for Romani and non-Romani youth to conduct culturally sensitive and participatory research. Margareta is also contributing to strengthening ties and joint advocacy efforts between Roma and other social movements, working on reparations claims across historical and geographical spheres.  Slavery in Romania is an example of past state-sponsored injustices around which Margareta’s program try to create awareness and solidarity. “Romania has not even advanced symbolic reparations, including memorials, museums to acknowledge this episode in our country history. Roma and Romanian children are simply deprived from learning about this central episode in their collective history. We need to help the next generations of children, Roma and non-Roma, to learn about the origins of the present-day biases, racist behaviors, and also, to understand the effects of the unseen gadjo or non-Roma privilege,” she says. Margareta also champions the idea to use films and other artistic productions as a tool to ignite discussions and raise awareness of difficult topics. She points out that "Aferim!" helped lay the foundations for the acceptance, recognition, and memorialization of the past of injustice in Romania. “It was remarkable to me that the film was produced and directed by fellow Romanians, who told the world the hidden truth about the uncomfortable past of 500 years of slavery on Romanian territories. I think that 'Aferim!' started the public conversation on the history of slavery while The Great Shame, a play written and directed by the brilliant mind of Alina Serban, continues the conversation on slavery and takes a step further, by looking at the past through the eyes of the present,” she says. According to Margareta, what makes the film exceptional is that “'Aferim!' shifts the emphasis on the non-Roma and their moral responsibility for past injustices and the roots of present-day injustice, including exploitation and discrimination, pulling to pieces the discourse on Roma vulnerability and  the ‘Roma problem.’” “We would not need any integration policy if we benefited from a just treatment throughout our history, she says. “'Aferim!' speaks, in many ways, to all embedded biases in our Romanian culture, and also mocks them in a manner that could potentially help Romanians understand present-day discrimination against Roma and other groups, and how ridiculous and outdated racism should be.” Asked why learning about Roma is important for Americans, Margareta points out that there is a need to build solidarity with the Roma. However, she also stresses that Romani communities face stigmatization on the American soil as well: “There is an idea in the U.S. that the gypsies are not a people; it’s rather a way of life: bohemian, free spirit. The truth is that we have quite a large Romani population here in the United States, about a million people. Also, reality shows, Hollywood movies, and many other cultural products continue to portray Roma solely in stereotypical images and that adds to the stereotypical ways in which some Americans perceive this population. Fearing stigma, many Roma in the U.S. hide their identity.  In this context, there is a need for mobilization of Romani people in the U.S. in view of building a new discourse to balance the stereotypical ways in which some Americans perceive this population."

  • Roundtable on Fighting Anti-Semitism Looks at Turning Words into Action

    On March 1, 2017, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) hosted a roundtable discussion in Washington focusing on the active role of civil society organizations in the United States and Europe to combat anti-Semitism and violent hate crime.  “Turning Words Into Action: Addressing Anti-Semitism and Intolerance in the OSCE Region” featured opening remarks by ODIHR Director Michael Link and Senator Ben Cardin, who serves as the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly Special Representative on Anti-Semitism, Racism, and Intolerance. Helsinki Commission Chairman Senator Roger Wicker offered closing remarks.  Director Link underscored the continuing importance of the OSCE in helping participating States meet their human rights commitments, including through the new OSCE/ODIHR Words Into Action to Address Anti-Semitism project to prevent and respond to anti-Semitism through security, education, and coalition-building initiatives.  “We...assist the participating States, state authorities, parliaments, civil society, [and] media, …concentrating especially...on security, on education and on coalition-building [including] the development of resources to better equip governments and civil society, to address the security needs of Jewish communities.  It includes the development and publication of the practical security guide, an online platform for reporting anti-Semitic hate crimes, hate speech, discrimination and other incidents of intolerance.” Noting the need for immediate action in response to recent threats made against Jewish institutions in the United States over the past month, OSCE PA Special Representative Senator Cardin reiterated the importance of the ODIHR project and collective responsibility of political leaders to act, including by supporting coalitions and youth-led initiatives.  He highlighted the importance of collaboration between local law enforcement, school administrators, and civil society in addressing security needs for Jewish communities citing recent incidents in the state of Maryland.  “Now, it’s not just Maryland.  It’s happening throughout the entire country...This is a problem throughout the OSCE region," he said. Senator Cardin continued, "It’s not limited to anti-Semitism...Nothing would help more to stop these calls about bomb scares or to stop the desecration of cemeteries or what we see at places of worship than [to] get some people prosecuted for these crimes and convicted for these crimes.  Any act of vandalism or violence is wrong.  But when it’s motivated by hate, it should be elevated to a higher level.  And that’s what we’ve done by our hate crime laws, and that’s what we’ve done by our special units in law enforcement.  And we need to support those efforts, put the spotlight on it and let the public know that we won’t tolerate that type of hate activities in our community.” Following the introductory remarks, expert panelists Cristina Finch, Head, Tolerance and Non-Discrimination Department, OSCE/ODIHR, Stacy Burdett, Director of Government Relations, Anti-Defamation League, Mark Weitzman, Director of Government Affairs, Simon Wiesenthal Center, Susan Corke, Director, Antisemitism and Extremism, Human Rights First, moderated by  Dr. Mischa Thompson of the U.S. Helsinki Commission, explored current challenges and recent initiatives in addressing anti-Semitism and increased prejudice and discrimination in the 57 participating States of the OSCE. Roundtable participants focused on the need for increased efforts to address the surge in anti-Semitic incidents in the U.S. and Europe, and ways to strengthen relationships between the Jewish community, law enforcement and other actors to address continuing prejudices and violence.  Additionally, they provided concrete recommendations for next steps for the OSCE/ODIHR and Members of Congress.    The event closed with remarks from Chairman Wicker, who emphasized the importance civil society and leadership to address the problem, noting, “It has to be encouraging that the president would mention Black History Month and anti-Semitism... in the first 60 seconds of his speech [before the Joint Session of Congress and] something that the international community would take notice of.”

  • The Helsinki Commission, Forty Years Ago and Today

    Spencer Oliver saw the foundation of the Helsinki Commission as its first Chief of Staff, from 1976 to 1985. After subsequent service as Chief Counsel at the House Foreign Affairs Committee, he served as the first Secretary General of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly from October 1992 to December 2015. Spencer Oliver, a personal witness to the diplomacy that brought trans-Atlantic relations from the Cold War era to the present, recently paid a visit to the Helsinki Commission offices he first opened in 1976.  After a nine-year tenure as the Commission’s first Chief of Staff, Mr. Oliver remained involved with the Helsinki Process through his subsequent career in the Congress and at the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly. Mr. Oliver gave a short interview on the Commission’s accomplishments over four decades, and prospects for the future. Before the establishment of the Helsinki Commission in 1976, Oliver observed, “human rights were not really a component of U.S. foreign policy. It was the Commission that made a strong effort for President Carter to make human rights a definite element in his foreign policy portfolio.” He recalled a private foreign policy strategy meeting in the fall of 1976 with then-candidate Jimmy Carter’s foreign policy team. Then-Helsinki Commission Chairman Dante B. Fascell, a U.S. Representative from Florida, made a pitch about why human rights should be on Carter’s agenda.  Senator Hubert Humphrey, a very close friend and advisor to Carter, slammed his hand on the table and said, “By golly, Dante’s right! Human rights ought to be one of the principal pillars of the Carter foreign policy!” After Carter took office, Chairman Fascell and his staff, including Mr. Oliver, met with the new President’s Secretary of State, Cyrus Vance, to discuss a plan to make human rights a U.S. foreign policy priority. They recommended that: 1) the State Department position of “Coordinator of Humanitarian Affairs” be elevated to a full Bureau for Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs; 2) Patricia M. Derian, a civil rights activist from Mississippi, become the first Assistant Secretary of State to head that Bureau; 3) the Assistant Secretary also become the State Department’s representative on the Helsinki Commission; and 4) the Helsinki Commission be fully integrated into inter-agency CSCE planning and the U.S. Delegation to the upcoming CSCE Review Meeting in Belgrade. The Secretary agreed and implemented these recommendations, despite resistance within the State Department. “Without Dante Fascell and Patt Derian, human rights probably would not have had the place it eventually did in American foreign policy,” Oliver observed. Oliver mentioned with sadness the passing of Derian in May 2016. Mr. Oliver explained that the Helsinki Commission was also partly responsible for creating the practice of human rights implementation, review, and accountability. At the 1977 Belgrade Review Meeting, the Helsinki Commission participants in the U.S. Delegation articulated specific cases of human rights abuses and violations of the Helsinki Accords committed by the Soviet Union. In response, the Soviet delegation shot back with criticisms of U.S. human rights issues, such as racism and poverty, to which the United States responded by investigating and reporting factually on these concerns. By publishing a human rights compliance report, the United States set a precedent for accountability on the part of all Helsinki Final Act signatory states. “The Helsinki Accords,” Oliver explained, “were not just about how the countries treat one another, but also about how countries treat their own citizens.” Noting that, today, Russia’s human rights conditions are worse than they have been since the collapse of the USSR, Mr. Oliver recalled moments that looked more promising. Accompanying Fascell to Moscow in April 1986, he was among the first American officials to meet with Mikhail Gorbachev after his consolidation of power as leader of the Soviet Union. In a four-hour meeting at the Kremlin on a Saturday morning, Mr. Oliver expected Gorbachev to find recourse to concerns raised by displaying the same defensiveness and counter-criticism as previous Soviet leaders. Instead, Gorbachev was honest about the issues his country was facing, and expressed his intention to enact economic and political reforms to open the Soviet Union up to the rest of the world. Mr. Oliver left that meeting feeling encouraged about the direction of the USSR. This progressive streak in Russian leadership was short-lived, as illustrated by Vladimir Putin’s increasingly authoritarian rule and denial of basic freedoms. Mr. Oliver believes that Putin’s rise to power and current popularity result from the turmoil and economic devastation of the 1990s, compounded with his tight grip on the media. “There’s no country in the world where the dictator controls the media and he isn’t running at 80 percent in the polls,” he said. In terms of U.S. policy towards Russia, Mr. Oliver believes that strengthening and widening those economic sanctions already in place would put the most pressure on the Russian government to change its ways. “When the Russians invaded Crimea, they broke every one of the ten principles of the Helsinki Final Act,” he said.  “We should let the Russians know that we don’t intend to back off until they change their ways.” In the meantime, the Commission can continue to play an important role maintaining the gains made in promoting human rights through bilateral as well as multilateral diplomacy.

  • Helsinki Commission Honored for Work on Ukraine

    At yesterday’s 2016 Ukraine in Washington forum, the U.S.-Ukraine Foundation recognized the Helsinki Commission for four decades of support for Ukraine and Ukrainian dissidents. “Long before Ukraine’s independence and the formation of the House and Senate Ukraine Caucuses, we must remember there was the Congressional Helsinki Commission,” said Robert McConnell, co-founder of the U.S.-Ukraine Foundation. “It was doing everything possible to shine international klieg lights on Ukraine’s human rights issues, from its political prisoners to the illegality of the Ukrainian Catholic Church.”  The Helsinki Commission has a long history of supporting Ukrainians’ aspirations for human rights and democracy, even prior to independence when Ukraine – the largest non-Russian republic in the Soviet Union – was viewed as a particular threat to Moscow’s rule. Since 1991, the Commission has been a strong supporter of the development of an independent, secure, democratic Ukraine. The Commission was instrumental in introducing and ensuring passage of the original resolution calling for the U.S. to recognize Ukraine’s independence in the face of State Department opposition.  In the intervening 25 years, Helsinki Commission hearings, briefings, and other activities have highlighted issues including Chornobyl; the state of democracy and rule of law; the political situation in Ukraine; elections; and – more recently – Russia’s war against Ukraine and human rights violations in Crimea and the occupied territories of the Donbas.  “We know the Ukrainian people want freedom and democracy, whether it be in Crimea or other parts of the country,” said Helsinki Commission Chairman Christopher Smith (NJ-04). “Yet we find again that this persistent aggression by the Russians—which is reminiscent of Soviet times—continues to make the freedom, democracy, and prosperity that the people so richly deserve that much harder to achieve.” (View video.) Commissioners have also played an active role in the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly on Ukraine, especially in condemning Russia’s aggression and violation of all core OSCE principles enshrined in the Helsinki Final Act. Commission leadership has led several Congressional delegations to Ukraine, including three since Russia’s invasion, and the Commission has observed virtually every national election in Ukraine since 1990. “The Helsinki Commission’s efforts then and now must never be forgotten as they were – though often like cries in the wilderness – critically important in keeping the truth of Ukraine alive and in providing a rallying point for so many efforts that eventually helped Ukraine shed the Kremlin’s shackles,” McConnell said. “The Helsinki Commission for decades was like a beacon of hope. It was an outside promise for the Ukrainian Helsinki Group and a critical source of support for Ukrainian-Americans and so many others as they persevered in their quest for freedom against what seemed like insurmountable odds.”

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