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Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe and OSCE Commitments Regarding Freedom of Religion or Belief
Monday, June 24, 2019

The 57 participating States of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe have repeatedly committed to recognizing and respecting freedom of religion or belief. The 35 participating States of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe–the forerunner of the OSCE–signed the Helsinki Final Act of 1975, which included: “The participating States will recognize and respect the freedom of the individual to profess and practice, alone or in community with others, religion or belief acting in accordance with the dictates of his own conscience.”

The OSCE’s Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights has staff dedicated to freedom of religion or belief, led by a senior advisor. ODIHR legal reviews to help participating States comply with their OSCE commitments have included existing law and draft legislation on freedom of religion or belief. ODIHR only conducts such reviews after receiving a formal invitation from a participating State. A panel of OSCE/ODIHR experts on freedom of religion or belief assists OSCE/ODIHR, and the ODIHR director appoints the panel’s 14 members every three years.

This compilation, developed by Helsinki Commission staff, covers CSCE/OSCE commitments on freedom of religion or belief in 16 documents from the Final Act to the OSCE Ministerial Council in 2015. It includes the document title, excerpted text, and links to the original document. Participating States have also made commitments relating to discrimination or hate crimes base on religion or belief. Some examples are in “OSCE Human Dimension Commitments: Thematic Compilation.” This Helsinki Commission compilation only includes commitments on freedom of religion or belief. The Commission will update the compilation when new commitments on freedom of religion or belief are made.

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  • 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.   

  • 16th Winter Meeting Features Special Debate on Human Rights in Times of Crisis

    The March 1, 2017 issue of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly's weekly "News from Copenhagen" features an overview of the OSCE PA Winter Meeting, held in Vienna on February 23 and 24. Helsinki Commission Chair Senator Roger Wicker chaired a meeting of the Assembly's General Committee on Political Affairs and Security (known as the First Committee) during the event.

  • 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.”

  • Helsinki Commissioners Champion Security, Human Rights at OSCE PA Winter Meeting in Vienna

    WASHINGTON—Led by Helsinki Commission Chairman Roger Wicker (MS), five members of the Helsinki Commission and five other members of Congress traveled to the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (PA) Winter Meeting in Vienna last week to demonstrate the commitment of the U.S. Congress to  security, human rights, and the rule of law in the 57-nation OSCE region. “The OSCE Parliamentary Assembly is vital to shaping the future of our European partnership and contributing to upholding the Helsinki principles. I am pleased that we were able to debate a number of issues – including terrorism, human rights, refugees, and Ukraine – in a constructive way,” said Chairman Wicker. “Americans have a stake in uniting the community of participating nations in comprehensive security. I look forward to the opportunity to seek consensus on these and other issues.” Much of this debate took place in the General Committee on Political Affairs and Security (First Committee), which Wicker chairs. Senator Wicker (MS) was joined in Austria by 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), Rep. Trent Kelly (MS-01), and Rep. Steve King (IA-04), making the bipartisan, bicameral Delegation the largest U.S. delegation to a Winter Meeting in OSCE PA history. Speaking at the First Committee meeting, Rep. Hudson raised the issue of religious freedom, saying, “Violent extremism and terrorism – including in the name of religion – are real threats that must be countered and the related crimes prosecuted. However, religious affiliation itself is never a justification for detention and imprisonment.” He observed that several participating States, including Russia, misuse laws regarding extremism or terrorism to persecute entire religious groups. In a plenary debate on human rights in times of crises, Rep. Aderholt, who also serves as a vice-president of the OSCE PA, stated, “Since 2014, Ukraine has been in a time of crisis based on the threat posed by Russian aggression. Such a situation could easily lead to deterioration in the human rights situation as well as increased corruption and societal intolerance. To Ukraine’s credit, this has not happened … it must, of course, be noted that there has been a contrasting deterioration in the human rights record in those parts of Ukraine which have been seized by Russia and its separatist proxies.” During the same debate, Rep. King spoke on the situation in Turkey, noting, “Turkey has every right to undertake policies that serve the interests of national security within the bounds of its human rights commitments, including the Helsinki Final Act. There has never been a more critical time to reaffirm that document’s uniquely comprehensive idea of security that considers human rights and the building of democratic institutions as key pillars of a sustainable regional order.” While in Vienna, members of the Delegation also discussed issues confronting the OSCE with the organization's leading diplomatic representatives, as well as the acting U.S. representative to the OSCE. Prior to attending the Winter Meeting, several members of the Delegation also visited Italy, Jordan, and Israel. At the Naples-based headquarters of the U.S. Sixth Fleet, members were briefed on key military issues, including ongoing operations against ISIS; migration flows across the Mediterranean; and Russia’s increasingly assertive regional military posture and activities. In Jordan, Jordanian King Abdullah II received the Delegation and expressed his appreciation for the enduring support of the United States for his government and the Jordanian people. He underscored the importance of American leadership in the region and reviewed the regional and domestic challenges facing Jordan, particularly the security and humanitarian consequences of the civil war in Syria and war against ISIS. In Israel, the Delegation met with Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who stressed the grave and existential threat posed by Iran through its nuclear ambitions, advanced missile program, and regional terrorist proxies. He urged the U.S. to exercise leadership in the region to marginalize destabilizing forces and forge peaceful solutions to conflicts. The Delegation also met with Israeli Deputy Minister for Diplomacy Michael Oren and Political Director of the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs Alon Usphiz, who echoed calls for renewed American leadership in the region and expressed concerns about the instability that arises from power vacuums left by conflicts like the civil war in Syria.  

  • Report on Human Trafficking Issues to the 2017 Winter Meeting of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly

    Since 2004, Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Chris Smith has served as the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly Special Representative for Human Trafficking Issues. His 2017 winter report to the President of the Parliamentary Assembly regarding his activities as the Special Representative provides an overview of his meetings with government representatives of OSCE participating States and with the representatives of governments whose citizens are trafficked in participating States. In addition, the report covers implementation of newly enacted best practices in the United States, such as the International Megan’s Law to Prevent Child Exploitation and Other Sexual Crimes Through Advance Notification of Traveling Sex Offenders, which resulted in 1,780 notifications to 64 countries in 2016, and a new bilateral agreement with Slovakia, in addition to an existing agreement in place with the United Kingdom. Along with descriptions of other pending anti-trafficking bills authored by Rep. Smith, the report also explains the upcoming reauthorization of U.S. anti-trafficking law with the Frederick Douglass Trafficking Victims Prevention Act of 2017. In particular, the 2017 law will contain sections reflecting the supplementary items adopted by the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly as well as the 2013 Addendum to the OSCE Action Plan to Combat Trafficking in Human Beings, such as better oversight of government procurement to prevent purchase of goods tainted by human trafficking, and training for flight personnel and the hotel industry to identify and properly report suspected cases of human trafficking. Finally, the report provides overviews of the seven hearings Rep. Smith chaired last year that addressed human trafficking in whole or in part.  The report also provides an overview of the 2016 Trafficking in Persons Report (TIP Report), produced by the U.S. Department of State, as required by Rep. Smith’s previous trafficking legislation.  The TIP Report shows that the OSCE had gains in prosecutions and convictions in 2015 and eight new or amended pieces of anti-trafficking legislation, but a decline in trafficking victim identification. 

  • 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.

  • Smith and Eshoo Reintroduce Emergency Bill to Help Genocide Survivors

    WASHINGTON—Following his December 2016 mission to Erbil in the Kurdistan region of Iraq to meet with Christian survivors of ISIS genocide, Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04), along with his Democratic colleague Rep. Anna Eshoo (CA-18), today reintroduced their bipartisan legislation to provide emergency relief to survivors of genocide and ensure accountability for perpetrators. The Iraq and Syria Genocide Emergency Relief and Accountability Act (H.R. 390) is an enhanced version of the Smith-Eshoo bill (H.R. 5961) they introduced in 114th Congress. “The reintroduction of this bill is timely because just last month I saw in Iraq the lack of humanitarian aid for Christian genocide survivors. These genocide survivors told me the United States and global community had abandoned them. They are at-risk from freezing winter temperatures and require emergency help,” said Smith. “Tens of thousands of Christian genocide survivors in Iraq and Syria need our help now and it is essential that emergency humanitarian aid for the survivors be provided,” said Rep. Eshoo. “I thank Chairman Smith for his passionate leadership on this issue and I look forward to working with him and all my colleagues in Congress to quickly move this aid package and bring relief to those who continue to suffer.” The Syriac Orthodox Archbishop of Mosul, Nicodemus Sharaf, who had to seek refuge in Erbil from ISIS, told Smith, “We are the last people to speak the Aramaic language. Without help, we are finished.” The Chaldean Catholic Archdiocese of Erbil invited Smith to Erbil and has been supporting more than 70,000 Christians who escaped ISIS – almost 1/3 of the 250,000 Christians remaining in Iraq – with food, shelter, and medical care. It also serves Yezidis and Muslims displaced by ISIS. The Archdiocese has had to rely entirely on donations from organizations like the Knights of Columbus and Aid to the Church in Need. “Because the U.S. Government and United Nations have so far failed to support this life-saving work of the Archdiocese of Erbil, these Christian genocide survivors continue to hang on the edge between life and death,” added Smith.  Among its key provisions, H.R. 390 directs the U.S. Administration to: Support entities that are effectively serving genocide survivors in-country, including faith-based entities; Support entities that are conducting criminal investigations into perpetrators of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes in Iraq and Syria; Create a “Priority Two” (“P-2”) designation that Christians and other genocide survivors from religious and ethnic minority communities are of “special humanitarian concern to the United States” and therefore able to access an overseas application interview for the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program without needing a referral from the UN; Vet P-2 refugee applicants like any other Iraqi or Syrian refugee applicant and not admit them to the U.S. unless they have cleared this vetting; Assess and address the humanitarian vulnerabilities, needs, and triggers that might force survivors to flee their homes; Identify warning signs of deadly violence and other forms of persecution against genocide survivors from vulnerable religious and ethnic minority communities, or against other members of these communities, in Iraq or Syria; Identify gaps in U.S. law so that the American justice system can prosecute foreign perpetrators of genocide, crimes against humanity, or war crimes present in the U.S., as well as any Americans who commit such crimes; Encourage foreign countries to add identifying information about suspected perpetrators of such crimes to their security databases and security screening. The other original 15 cosponsors are Rep. Mark Meadows (R), Rep. Juan Vargas (D), Rep. Pete Sessions (R), Rep. Dan Lipinski (D), Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R), Rep. Louise Slaughter (D), Rep. Trent Franks (R), Rep. Robert Pittenger (R), Rep. Gus Bilirakis (R), Rep. Randy Hultgren (R), Rep. Randy Weber (R), Rep. David Trott (R), Rep. Sean Duffy (R), Rep. Jody Hice (R), and Rep. Barbara Comstock (R).   Background The Smith-Eshoo bill is supported by many groups, including the Knights of Columbus, Family Research Council, In Defense of Christians, 21st Century Wilberforce Initiative, Commission for International Justice and Accountability, HIAS, Aid the Church in Need USA, Open Doors, A Demand for Action, Yezidi Human Rights Organization International, Religious Freedom Institute, Christian Solidarity Worldwide, and Syrian Accountability Project, and Civitas Maxima. It is also supported by all the former US Ambassadors-at Large for War Crimes, David Scheffer (1997-2001), Pierre Prosper (2001-2005), Clint Williamson (2006-2009), and Stephen Rapp (2009-2015), as well as the Founding Chief Prosecutor of the Special Court for Sierra Leone, David Crane; Director of the Center for Religious Freedom Nina Shea; and the author of Defying ISIS, Rev. Johnnie Moore. Since 2013, Rep. Smith has chaired nine congressional hearings on atrocities in Iraq and Syria, including one titled The ISIS Genocide Declaration: What Next? and another titled Atrocities in Iraq and Syria: Relief for Survivors and Accountability for Perpetrators. He authored the bipartisan H. Con. Res 121, which the House passed overwhelmingly and calls for the formation of an ad hoc tribunal for perpetrators of crimes against humanity and war crimes in the Syrian conflict. Smith also authored with Eshoo the bipartisan, historic Frank Wolf International Religious Freedom Act (H.R. 1150), which the President signed into law. Smith and Eshoo also introduced H.R. 5961, the forerunner to H.R. 390. Just before Christmas, Smith traveled to the Erbil area of Kurdistan region of Iraq to meet with Christian genocide survivors and visit a camp for 6,000 displaced Christians, managed and supported by the Archdiocese of Erbil. He also met with Christian leaders; non-governmental organizations; and officials from the U.S., countries like Hungary and Poland that are proactively supporting assistance to Christian genocide survivors, and the United Nations. Christians have lived in Iraq since the 1st century and there were as many as 1.4 million in 2002. Sectarian violence and targeting of Christians reduced their presence to 500,000 by 2013, the year before ISIS started its genocide against them. At the end of 2015, less than 250,000 Christians remained in Iraq.

  • Smith Leads Mission to Genocide Survivors in Iraq

    ERBIL, Iraq—Just days before Christmas, a leading human rights lawmaker, Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04), went to Iraq to witness first-hand the plight of Christians who escaped ISIS into the Erbil area of the Kurdistan region and the failure of the Obama Administration to help them. After meeting with Christian families and leaders, and officials from the U.S., other OSCE participating States, and the United Nations, Smith said he returns to Washington to lead Congressional efforts to target more humanitarian aid to Christians and other religious minorities who have survived genocide. Smith also visited a camp for 6,000 internally displaced people, managed and supported by the Chaldean Catholic Archdiocese of Erbil. “This Christmas season, the survival of Christians in Iraq, where they have lived for almost 2,000 years, is at stake,” said Smith, who chairs both the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe and the House panel on global human rights and international organizations. “Today I met with Christian families who survived the ISIS genocide and have been ignored for two years by the Obama Administration. I hope that President-Elect Trump will act urgently to make sure his Administration helps these Christians with the funds Congress has approved for survivors of ISIS atrocities.” The Syriac Orthodox Archbishop of Mosul, Nicodemus Daoud Sharaf, who had to flee ISIS and seek refuge in Erbil, told Smith, “So often concern for Christians is minimized. I am so happy, because you are the first American who has come to just ask about the Christians. We pray that President Trump will help us. We are the last people to speak the Aramaic language. Without help, we are finished.”   “I also saw how the Obama Administration has shortchanged organizations conducting criminal investigations and collecting, preserving, and preparing evidence usable in criminal trials. Perpetrators will dodge punishment unless there is specific evidence linking them to specific atrocity crimes. My Iraq and Syria Genocide Relief and Accountability Act legislation is a blueprint for how to assist Christians and other genocide survivors and hold perpetrators accountable. I will be working tirelessly to get this bill on the new President’s desk when we reconvene in January,” added Smith. Responding to reports that the UN Office on the Prevention of Genocide is considering excluding Christians from its findings of ISIS genocide victims and recommendations for prosecution, Smith said, “Even the Obama Administration determined that ISIS has been committing genocide against Christians. It would be outrageous if the UN ignored the overwhelming evidence and turned its back on these people who have suffered so much.” Background In 2002, there were as many as 1.4 million Christians in Iraq. After years of sectarian conflict, followed by the ISIS genocide that began in 2014, they have dropped to less than 250,000. Most of the Christians who survived ISIS fled to the Erbil area, which now hosts more than 70,000 internally displaced Christians, almost a third of all Christians in Iraq. Iraqis have been eight percent of the refugees and migrants who arrived by sea in the OSCE region in 2016. The Chaldean Catholic Archdiocese of Erbil has provided most of the assistance to these displaced Christians – and has also assisted Yezidis and Muslims – including food, shelter, medical care, trauma care, and preparations for the impending winter. Smith was invited to Erbil by Archbishop Bashar Warda, head of the Archdiocese. During their meeting, Archbishop Warda emphasized that unless the ancient Christian communities of Iraq received significant financial support very soon, they may not survive. At a September hearing of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, chaired by Smith and titled Atrocities in Iraq and Syria: Relief for Survivors and Accountability for Perpetrators, Steve Rasche, Legal Counsel and Director of IDP Resettlement Programs for the Archdiocese, testified and said, “Since August 2014, other than initial supplies of tents and tarps, the Christian community in Iraq has received nothing in aid from any US aid agencies or the UN.” He added, “There’s a mistaken belief that it doesn’t get cold in Iraq. It snows in Erbil in the wintertime. Even the people that we’ve put in shelters, it gets incredibly cold for them at night, and so there are additional costs for heating oil and blankets. That is a concern for us. Our costs will go up.” Since 2013, Smith has chaired nine congressional hearings on atrocities in Iraq and Syria, including one titled The ISIS Genocide Declaration: What Next? and another titled Fulfilling the Humanitarian Imperative: Assisting Victims of ISIS Violence. He is also the author of the bipartisan Iraq and Syria Genocide Relief and Accountability Act (H.R. 5961), co-sponsored by Rep. Anna Eshoo (CA-18), which includes key provisions directing the U.S. Administration to: Support entities that are effectively serving genocide survivors in-country, including faith-based entities; Assess and address the humanitarian vulnerabilities, needs, and triggers that might force survivors to flee their homes; Identify warning signs of deadly violence against genocide survivors and other vulnerable religious and ethnic communities in Iraq or Syria; Support entities that are conducting criminal investigation into perpetrators of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes in Iraq and Syria; Close gaps in U.S. law so that the American justice system can prosecute foreign perpetrators present in the U.S., as well as any Americans who commit such crimes; Encourage foreign countries to add identifying information about suspected perpetrators  of such atrocity crimes in their security databases and security screening; Create a “Priority Two” (“P-2”) designation for persecuted religious and ethnic groups in Iraq or Syria. This legislation is supported by many groups including the Knights of Columbus, 21st Century Wilberforce Initiative, In Defense of Christians, Yazidi Human Rights Organization International, Commission for International Justice and Accountability, Center for Religious Freedom at the Hudson Institute, Religious Freedom Institute, Simon Wiesenthal Center, Open Doors, and others. The bill has also been endorsed by all of the former U.S. Ambassadors-at-Large for War Crimes: David Scheffer (1997-2001), Pierre-Richard Prosper (2001-2005), Clint Williamson (2006-2009), and Stephen Rapp (2009-2015). Smith also authored the bipartisan H. Con. Res 121, which the House passed overwhelmingly and calls for the formation of an ad hoc tribunal for perpetrators of crimes against humanity and war crimes in the Syrian conflict. Just last week, the President signed into law the bipartisan, historic Frank Wolf International Religious Freedom Act (H.R. 1150), which Smith authored and Eshoo co-sponsored. This law makes sweeping changes that will help ensure that the U.S. Administration and the State Department have the tools, training, and resources to anticipate, help prevent, and respond to genocide and other persecution against religious communities like Christians in Iraq and elsewhere. Smith continues to encourage leaders in other OSCE countries to provide more humanitarian assistance to Christian genocide survivors and support criminal investigations into and prosecutions of perpetrators.

  • Helsinki Commission Leaders Mark International Human Rights Day

    WASHINGTON—To mark International Human Rights Day on December 10, Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04), Chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, and Sen. Roger Wicker (MS), Co-Chairman of the Commission, issued the following statements: “2016 has been a challenging year for the OSCE region – some governments have backslid on human rights, and humanitarian crises on the OSCE’s periphery in Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere have driven waves of refugees into the OSCE region,” Chairman Smith said. “And despite our best efforts, child sex tourism is soaring while protection lags. We each have an essential role to play in fighting for the human rights of those who are persecuted, whether they are political prisoners in Azerbaijan, refugees fleeing genocide in Syria, journalists in Turkey, or victims of human trafficking in our own country. We must all become human rights defenders.” “We live in a world with significant security challenges, from cyber threats to terrorism to acts of aggression by one of our own OSCE participating States,” said Co-Chairman Wicker. “However, as we work to maintain regional stability, we remember that security cannot exist independently from securing fundamental human rights. Today, we recommit ourselves to democracy, the rule of the law, and the rights of all people to determine their future free from tyranny and oppression.” “The Helsinki Final Act is clear: human rights issues in one OSCE country are of direct and legitimate concern to all participating States,” Chairman Smith concluded. “I call on the 57 nations of the OSCE to defend the rights and dignity of the most vulnerable, and to provide humanitarian assistance to victims of genocide and war in the Middle East.”

  • Turkey: Human Rights in Retreat

    Five months after the failed coup attempt of July 15th, 2016, serious questions have emerged with regard to the future of democracy and the rule of law in Turkey.  The Turkish government maintains sweeping state of emergency decrees, which have shuttered educational institutions, civic associations, and media organizations. Tens of thousands of people have been arrested, suspended, or fired for colluding with coup plotters, a determination often made with little to no credible documentation. In the wake of this ongoing crackdown, the Helsinki Commission convened a briefing to examine Turkey’s deteriorating human rights conditions and the future of U.S.-Turkey relations. Helsinki Commission staff member Everett Price opened the briefing by recalling the Commission’s original mandate, its fundamental mission to shed light on human rights violations, and the importance of candor in fostering friendly international relations. Dr. Y. Alp Aslandogan, Executive Director of the Alliance for Shared Values, provided a detailed description of the government’s post-coup persecution of the Hizmet movement, minority groups such as the Kurds and Alevis, journalists, and teachers. Dr. Karin Karlekar, Director of the Free Expression Advocacy Team at PEN America, shed light on the Turkish government’s intensified suppression of press freedom and free expression in the wake of the failed coup attempt. Finally, Dr. Nicholas Danforth, Senior Policy Analyst at the Bipartisan Policy Center, assessed the risks posed by the Turkish government’s disregard for the rule of law and their potential implications for U.S.-Turkey relations. In the subsequent exchange of views moderated by Everett Price, the panelists reflected on the international community’s role in promoting human rights, threats to academic freedom, and the potential for a renewed democratic trajectory in Turkey.

  • Helsinki Commission to Probe Crisis of Human Rights in Turkey

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following briefing: “TURKEY: HUMAN RIGHTS IN RETREAT” Friday, December 9, 2016 2:00 PM Rayburn House Office Building Room 2255 Respect for human rights in Turkey has declined dramatically since the failed coup attempt on July 15, 2016. Though the international community agrees that the Turkish government has the right to pursue justice against those who sought to overthrow it, Ankara’s reaction to the coup attempt has swept aside international human rights standards. Five months after the coup attempt, the Turkish government maintains sweeping state of emergency decrees, shuttering educational institutions, civic associations, and media organizations and arresting, suspending, or firing tens of thousands of people alleged to have conspired with the coup plotters, oftentimes with little to no credible documentation. These measures, along with dramatic changes to the country’s judicial system and further changes planned to the country’s constitution, are transforming Turkish society and raising serious questions about the future of Turkish democracy. Panelists will review the ongoing crackdown in Turkey; discuss the broad authority the government enjoys under the state of emergency; raise areas of concern regarding human rights and rule of law; and evaluate the implications of these developments for Turkish institutions and society. The discussion will also focus on policy options for the incoming U.S. Administration and U.S. Congress to consider when shaping relations with Turkey in coming years. The following experts are scheduled to participate: Dr. Y. Alp Aslandogan, Executive Director, Alliance for Shared Values Dr. Nicholas Danforth, Senior Policy Analyst, Bipartisan Policy Center Dr. Karin Karlekar, Director, Free Expression at Risk Program, PEN America Additional panelists may be added.

  • Ongoing Human Rights and Security Violations in Russian-Occupied Crimea

    In Russia’s ongoing illegal occupation of the Ukrainian region of Crimea, occupying authorities persistently and egregiously violate the human rights of those perceived to oppose Russian annexation of this Ukrainian territory, especially Crimean Tatars.  At the same time, with Russia’s militarization of the peninsula, the security situation in the surrounding Black Sea region is becoming increasingly perilous. The situation in Crimea is bleak, and continues to deteriorate both from a democracy and human rights viewpoint, as well as a security standpoint.  The experts at this briefing examined the current state of affairs in the region in the face of Russian aggression, analyzed the response of the international community, and discussed how – 40 years after the Ukrainian Helsinki Monitoring Group was formed to monitor the Soviet Government’s compliance with the Helsinki Final Act – Ukrainians continue to defend Helsinki principles in the face of violations by Moscow. Helsinki Commission staff member Orest Deychakiwsky opened the briefing with a brief introduction on the current situation in Crimea. Mr. Deychakiwsky noted that this important briefing took place on the 40th anniversary of the founding of the Ukrainian Helsinki Monitoring Group in November of 1976. Ms. Shulyar and Mr. Berezovets both spoke on the illegality of the Russian occupation of Crimea and the flagrant human rights violations that have been perpetrated by Russian forces against the people of Crimea. Ambassador Herbst then spoke on the political and security challenges facing the West in regards to the situation in Crimea. Finally, Mr. Goble spoke on the challenges to the international system that Putin’s aggression in Crimea and Ukraine represents. All participants stressed the necessity for continued U.S. involvement in Ukraine to counter Russian aggression and to uphold the principles of the OSCE. 

  • Human Rights, Military Security in Crimea under the Microscope at Upcoming Helsinki Commission Briefing

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following briefing: Ongoing Human Rights and Security Violations in Russian-Occupied Crimea Thursday, November 10, 2016 2:00 PM Rayburn House Office Building Room B-318 In Russia’s ongoing illegal occupation of the Ukrainian region of Crimea, occupying authorities persistently and egregiously violate the human rights of those perceived to oppose Russian annexation of this Ukrainian territory, especially Crimean Tatars.  At the same time, with Russia’s militarization of the peninsula, the security situation in the surrounding Black Sea region is becoming increasingly perilous. The briefing will examine the current state of affairs in the region in the face of Russian aggression, analyze the response of the international community, and discuss how – 40 years after the Ukrainian Helsinki Monitoring Group was formed to  monitor the Soviet Government’s compliance with the Helsinki Final Act – Ukrainians continue to defend Helsinki principles in the face of violations by Moscow. The following panelists are scheduled to participate: Oksana Shulyar, Embassy of Ukraine to the United States John E. Herbst, Director, Dinu Patriciu Eurasia Center at the Atlantic Council; former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine   Paul A. Goble, Editor, Windows on Eurasia; Professor, The Institute of World Politics Taras Berezovets, Founder, Free-Crimea Project, Kyiv, Ukraine

  • Hearing Addresses Genocide, War Crimes Driving Refugee Crisis in OSCE

    WASHINGTON—At a hearing convened today by Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04), witnesses unanimously expressed support for Chairman Smith’s recently introduced Iraq and Syria Genocide Relief and Accountability Act of 2016 (H.R. 5961), bipartisan legislation that provides relief to victims of genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes in Iraq and Syria, and accountability for perpetrators.   “The atrocities in Iraq and Syria have been so horrible, for so long, with so little action from the Administration, that it has been difficult to hope. Nevertheless, when [Secretary Kerry] declared genocide, we dared to hope that finally the Administration would hear the voices of the victims and act. Instead, the Administration has said the right words and done the wrong things,” said Chairman Smith. “Displaced genocide survivors cannot pay for food, medicine, or shelter with words from Washington,” Chairman Smith continued.  “When the Executive Branch fails to acts, then Congress must require it to act. That is why I recently authored and introduced the bipartisan Iraq and Syria Genocide Relief and Accountability Act of 2016, with Representative Anna Eshoo as my lead cosponsor.” Witnesses discussed ways to support religious and ethnic communities that have survived such atrocities. In addition, they encouraged the U.S. to fund the criminal investigation, prosecution, and conviction of the perpetrators, and identified gaps in U.S. criminal statutes that make it difficult to prosecute Americans or foreigners in the U.S. who have committed such crimes. Former U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes Issues David Scheffer said, “H.R. 5961 demonstrates an undeniable logic: the survivors of genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes in Iraq and Syria merit the fullest possible assistance of our government, including consideration of admission of victim refugees to the United States.” “The perpetrators of atrocity crimes not only in Iraq and Syria but elsewhere in the world should be subject to investigation and prosecution,” Scheffer continued. “Federal jurisdiction over crimes against humanity and war crimes remains non-existent or very limited…it is a raw fact that the United States is currently a sanctuary for alien perpetrators of crimes against humanity or war crimes.” “The Iraq and Syria Genocide Relief Act [is] a much needed, not to mention overdue, piece of legislation,” said Chris Engels, deputy director of the Commission for International Justice and Accountability. “Criminal investigations done contemporaneously with the criminal acts are essential to ensuring later accountability. Otherwise, as we have seen in the past, evidence is lost and those responsible for these mass human rights violations go unpunished.” Witnesses also highlighted the humanitarian vulnerabilities and lack of assistance that force the survivors to flee their homes and recommended ways to support entities effectively serving genocide survivors in-country, including faith-based organizations. Steve Rasche, legal counsel and director of resettlement programs for the Chaldean Catholic Archdiocese of Erbil, noted, “Since August 2014, other than initial supplies of tents and tarps, the Christian community in Iraq has received nothing in aid from any U.S. aid agencies or the UN. When we have approached any of these entities regarding the provision of aid assistance …we have been told that we have done too well in our private efforts…every morning we wake up and rob six Peters to pay 12 Pauls.” “The current policy prioritizes individual needs but does not consider the needs of vulnerable communities,” said Carl Anderson, Supreme Knight, Knights of Columbus. “On one hand, we have the unanimous policy of the elected branches of the United States Government stating that a genocide is occurring. On the other hand we have an aid bureaucracy that is allowing the intended consequence of the genocide to continue, even though it is in our power to stop it.” “There is nothing unconstitutional, illegal, unethical or unprofessional about prioritizing their right to survival as a community,” Anderson added, referring to Christian and other communities that face extinction in Iraq and Syria. Bill Canny, executive director for migration and refugee services at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), said, “We are gravely concerned by the small number of religious minorities who have been resettled in the United States during the current fiscal year.” “It is unclear at the time of this writing precisely why the percentage of Syrian Christians, who have been registered as refugees or resettled in the United States as refugees, is so low,” Canny continued. “It is clear, however, that Christians and other religious minorities have become a target for brutality at the hands of the non-state actor ISIS, and that they are fleeing for their lives, and that far too few of them have been attaining U.S. resettlement.” USCCB resettles more refugees annually in the U.S. than any other agency. Chairman Smith was joined at the hearing by a bipartisan group of lawmakers, including Helsinki Commission Co-Chair Senator Roger Wicker (MS), Ranking Commissioner Senator Ben Cardin (MD), and Commissioners Rep. Joe Pitts (PA-16) and Rep. Alan Grayson (FL-09). In 2013, ISIS began its brutal campaign of extermination and expulsion in Syria, expanding to Iraq in 2014. Many of those who survived these atrocities have been joining the flood of refugees streaming out of the region to Europe and other areas of safety. Resolving their plight is a key component to helping address the refugee crisis and has been of intense interest to countries in the OSCE region.

  • Atrocities in Iraq & Syria: Relief for Survivors and Accountability for Perpetrators

      The civil war in Syria, which began in early 2011 and since spread into Northern Iraq has devastated both countries. Estimates of the number of people who have died during Syria's civil war since March 2011 range from 250,000 to 470,000. In Iraq, the estimated range is between 19,000 and 41,650 deaths since January 2014. The people living in these regions have been subjected to an extensive list of atrocities  including genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes. Thosands of refugees have fled Iraq and Syria to seek refuge in the OSCE region. The desperate situation in these areas has resulted in the worst refugee crisis since World War II. With the war in Iraq and Syria showing little signs of abating the danger for vulnerable groups in these countries continues to worsen.  This hearing examined the current situation in Iraq and Syria regarding the persecution of religious and ethnic minorities, and looked at how the United States and the international community can best help protect persecuted people in this region and ensure that perpetrators of genocide and related crimes in Iraq and Syria are punished. It featured witnesses from CIJA, the former Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes Issues, and leaders from the Catholic community. “The atrocities in Iraq and Syria have been so horrible, for so long, with so little action from the Administration, that it has been difficult to hope. Nevertheless, when [Secretary Kerry] declared genocide, we dared to hope that finally the Administration would hear the voices of the victims and act. Instead, the Administration has said the right words and done the wrong things,” said Helsinki Commission Chairman Chris Smith (NJ), “When the Executive Branch fails to acts, then Congress must require it to act. That is why I recently authored and introduced the bipartisan Iraq and Syria Genocide Relief and Accountability Act of 2016, with Representative Anna Eshoo as my lead cosponsor."  Witnesses discussed ways to support religious and ethnic communities that have survived such atrocities. In addition, they encouraged the U.S. to fund the criminal investigation, prosecution, and conviction of the perpetrators, and identified gaps in U.S. criminal statutes that make it difficult to prosecute Americans or foreigners in the U.S. who have committed such crimes. Former U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes Issues David Scheffer said, “H.R. 5961 demonstrates an undeniable logic: the survivors of genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes in Iraq and Syria merit the fullest possible assistance of our government, including consideration of admission of victim refugees to the United States.” “The perpetrators of atrocity crimes not only in Iraq and Syria but elsewhere in the world should be subject to investigation and prosecution,” Scheffer continued. “Federal jurisdiction over crimes against humanity and war crimes remains non-existent or very limited…it is a raw fact that the United States is currently a sanctuary for alien perpetrators of crimes against humanity or war crimes.” “The Iraq and Syria Genocide Relief Act [is] a much needed, not to mention overdue, piece of legislation,” said Chris Engels, deputy director of the Commission for International Justice and Accountability. “Criminal investigations done contemporaneously with the criminal acts are essential to ensuring later accountability. Otherwise, as we have seen in the past, evidence is lost and those responsible for these mass human rights violations go unpunished.” Witnesses also highlighted the humanitarian vulnerabilities and lack of assistance that force the survivors to flee their homes and recommended ways to support entities effectively serving genocide survivors in-country, including faith-based organizations. Steve Rasche, legal counsel and director of resettlement programs for the Chaldean Catholic Archdiocese of Erbil, noted, “Since August 2014, other than initial supplies of tents and tarps, the Christian community in Iraq has received nothing in aid from any U.S. aid agencies or the UN. When we have approached any of these entities regarding the provision of aid assistance …we have been told that we have done too well in our private efforts…every morning we wake up and rob six Peters to pay 12 Pauls.” “The current policy prioritizes individual needs but does not consider the needs of vulnerable communities,” said Carl Anderson, Supreme Knight, Knights of Columbus. “On one hand, we have the unanimous policy of the elected branches of the United States Government stating that a genocide is occurring. On the other hand we have an aid bureaucracy that is allowing the intended consequence of the genocide to continue, even though it is in our power to stop it.” Bill Canny, executive director for migration and refugee services at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), said, “We are gravely concerned by the small number of religious minorities who have been resettled in the United States during the current fiscal year.” “It is unclear at the time of this writing precisely why the percentage of Syrian Christians, who have been registered as refugees or resettled in the United States as refugees, is so low,” Canny continued. USCCB resettles more refugees annually in the U.S. than any other agency. Chairman Smith was joined at the hearing by a bipartisan group of lawmakers, including Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Senator Roger Wicker (MS), Ranking Commissioner Senator Ben Cardin (MD), and Commissioners Rep. Joe Pitts (PA-16) and Rep. Alan Grayson (FL-09).                

  • 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.”

  • Azerbaijan’s Constitutional Referendum Creates Crisis of Legitimacy

    WASHINGTON—In a recent letter to Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04) expressed deep concern about the country’s September 26 constitutional referendum, which proposes changes that would undermine Azerbaijan’s international obligations to protect democracy. The bipartisan letter urging President Aliyev to reconsider holding the referendum and to live up to his government’s commitment to human rights was also signed by Helsinki Commissioner Rep. Joe Pitts (PA-16) and Rep. Adam Schiff (CA-28). “By lengthening presidential terms and expanding presidential authorities, the proposed constitutional changes are susceptible to abuse that would entrench political authority, making it less responsive to the will of the Azerbaijani people,” the Members of Congress wrote. “We are especially troubled by amendments that would restrict fundamental rights that are vital to open public debate and government accountability.” Proposed changes to Azerbaijan’s constitution include extending the presidential term from five to seven years; removing the age limits for holding elected office; providing immunity for vice presidents; allowing the president to dissolve the national assembly and call early elections; and reorganizing the presidential line of succession. The Government of Azerbaijan has already faced international criticism for its crackdown on journalists, activists, opposition politicians, and members of religious minorities.  The referendum would further restrict fundamental freedoms by placing limits on freedom of expression when it provokes “hostility,” freedom of assembly when it “disrupt[s]…public morale,” and property rights when they violate “social justice and effective use.” “The upcoming referendum creates a grave crisis of legitimacy,” the letter read. “Neither the international community nor the Azerbaijani people can have confidence in a vote that takes place without free access to information, open debate, and transparency. That the Azerbaijani people are being asked to vote on measures that erode democratic principles makes the situation even more unacceptable.” In December 2015, Chairman Smith introduced H.R. 4264, the Azerbaijan Democracy Act, a bill that would deny U.S. visas to senior members of the Azerbaijani government until such a time that Azerbaijan makes substantial progress toward releasing political prisoners, ending its harassment of civil society, and holding free and fair elections. The full text of the letter is below. September 8, 2016 His Excellency Ilham Aliyev President of the Republic of Azerbaijan Presidential Palace Istiglaliyyat Street 19 Baku, AZ 1066 Dear President Aliyev, We write to you to express our deep concern regarding Azerbaijan’s upcoming constitutional referendum on September 26, 2016. We believe that the proposed changes to the constitution and the means for adopting them will undermine your government’s international obligations to protect democracy and human rights. By lengthening presidential terms and expanding presidential authorities, the proposed constitutional changes are susceptible to abuse that would entrench political authority, making it less responsive to the will of the Azerbaijani people. We are especially troubled by amendments that would restrict fundamental rights that are vital to open public debate and government accountability. Shortly following independence, the Government of Azerbaijan in 1992 joined the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) thereby expressing its commitment to the protection of fundamental rights and freedoms as one of the basic purposes of government. We regret that in the years hence Azerbaijan's human rights record fails to reflect this commitment. Time and again, the credibility of Azerbaijani elections has been marred by credible reports of ballot stuffing and irregularities with vote counting, as well as limitations on freedom of expression and freedom of association. These troubling precedents motivate our concern about the upcoming referendum. If successful, the vote would change the constitution to extend the presidential term from five to seven years, remove the age limits for holding elected office, provide immunity for vice presidents, allow the president to dissolve the national assembly and call early elections, as well as reorganize the presidential line of succession. Additionally, it would subject fundamental rights to vaguely worded restrictions, circumscribing freedom of expression when it provokes “hostility,” freedom of assembly when it “disrupt[s]…public morale,” and property rights when they violate “social justice and effective use.” We are deeply concerned that Azerbaijani voters are being asked to consider such consequential changes to Azerbaijan’s constitutional framework in a climate that makes free debate all but impossible. In recent days, it has been reliably reported that a number of political activists campaigning against the referendum and several journalists have been detained on trumped-up charges and some have faced mistreatment and torture at the hands of authorities. Even before the latest round of arrests and intimidation, half a dozen journalists were already in jail, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty has remained closed since December 2014, and other independent journalists and media outlets faced official harassment. The upcoming referendum creates a grave crisis of legitimacy. Neither the international community nor the Azerbaijani people can have confidence in a vote that takes place without free access to information, open debate, and transparency. That the Azerbaijani people are being asked to vote on measures that erode democratic principles makes the situation even more unacceptable. We urge you to reconsider this constitutional referendum and to re-invigorate your government’s flagging commitment to promote the freedom and dignity of its people by ceasing all harassment and proceedings that target political activists and journalists who peacefully express their visions for Azerbaijan. We are inspired by the example of these brave voices and hope that your government will recognize that Azerbaijan’s strength and stability derives from the liberty of its people. Sincerely, Christopher H. Smith Member of Congress Joseph R. Pitts Member of Congress Adam B. Schiff Member of Congress           

  • Introducing the Iraq and Syria Genocide Relief and Accountability Act of 2016

    Mr. Speaker, I rise today to introduce H.R. 5961, the Iraq and Syria Genocide Relief and Accountability Act of 2016. Since ISIS’ blitzkrieg across the multiethnic and religiously diverse mosaic of eastern Syria and western Iraq in 2014, I have chaired four hearings focused on the implications of this appalling advance for religious and ethnic minorities in those areas. Events in the region and the expert testimony of witnesses quickly revealed that ISIS was not merely focused on territorial conquest—the group was ideologically committed to exterminating ancient religious communities and cleansing its self-proclaimed caliphate of anything but its vicious and fundamentalist interpretation of Islam. Many of my colleagues and I were certain early on that ISIS was committing genocide. We pressed the Administration to formally acknowledge that fact until the Secretary of State did so in March of this year. But the most pressing question issue has always been the lives of those religious minorities right now that face extinction under this tyranny of terror. The Iraq and Syria Genocide Relief and Accountability Act of 2016 is an answer to the question of what the United States can do to mitigate this suffering, save lives, and build a more sustainable future for Syria and Iraq. The bill tackles this overwhelming challenge on three fronts by directing the Administration to take additional measures to improve the lives of displaced genocide survivors, provide some of them with an additional lifeline to escape their war torn lands, and support efforts that will help preserve the presence of religious minority communities in those areas for years to come. In a hearing this May that I chaired called “The ISIS Genocide Declaration: What Next?” Carl Anderson, Supreme Knight of the Knights of Columbus—who has been a leader in drawing attention to the plight of Christians in this conflict—testified that “Repeatedly we hear from Church leaders in the region that Christians—and other genocide survivors—are last in line for assistance from governments.” We can and must do better. To that end, H.R. 5961 requires the Administration to assess and address the humanitarian vulnerabilities, needs, and triggers to flee, of religious and ethnic communities that were targeted for genocide or otherwise severely persecuted. It directs the Administrations to fund entities that are effectively providing assistance to these communities and guarantees that faith-based organizations on the ground are not excluded from U.S. assistance. One such example is the Chaldean Catholic Archdiocese of Erbil, which provides assistance to internally displaced families of Yezidis, Muslims, and Christians, including food and resettlement from tents to permanent housing, as well as rental assistance, for Yezidis, medical care and education to Yezidis and Muslims through its clinics, schools, and university – which are open to everyone. The Archdiocese provides some form of each of these kinds of assistance to all of the estimated 10,500 internally displaced Christian families in the greater Erbil region. Yet as it provides these critical services, it has not received a single penny from any government. H.R. 5961 is clear that the Administration must be supporting entities, regardless of whether they are faith-based, that are heroically providing assistance to genocide survivors on the ground. In recognition of the extraordinary suffering of these religious and ethnic communities, and their extraordinary vulnerability to persecution, H.R. 5961 requires the Administration to create a Priority Two, or “P-2,” visa category of special humanitarian concern that would provide one additional avenue for genocide survivors to seek resettlement in the United States through the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program. It is important to note that this is not a “fast track” to resettlement—P-2 applicants undergo the same security screening as all refugee applicants. But this special category allows them to access an overseas interview wherever the United States interviews refugee applicants, without needing a referral from the UN, an NGO, or a US Embassy, as is usually the case. This bill also addresses a critical factor that will influence the continued presence of smaller, vulnerable religious communities in Syria and Iraq beyond this conflict: accountability for those who perpetrate heinous crimes against them. H.R. 5961 directs the Administration to prioritize supporting the criminal investigation, prosecution, and conviction of perpetrators of genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes. These efforts will be focused on funding and supporting entities that are conducting criminal investigations, building Syrian and Iraqi investigative and judicial capacity, or collecting and preserving evidence for eventual use in domestic courts, hybrid courts, or internationalized domestic courts. Whether they are members of the Asad regime, ISIS, or some of the Popular Mobilization Brigades in Iraq, there can be no impunity for individuals who committed these dreadful crimes. H.R. 5961 also directs the Administration to identify gaps in our criminal statutes to facilitate the prosecution of American perpetrators, and non-Americans present in the United States, of crimes against humanity and war crimes. Without accountability, without humanitarian assistance reaching these religious and ethnic communities, we risk losing the invaluable, ancient presence of these communities in these countries altogether. This will feed violent extremism and dim the future of Iraq and Syria.  I urge my House colleagues to support this measure that will deliver immediate assistance to genocide survivors, help prosecute and punish perpetrators, and invest in a sustainable future for these persecuted religious and ethnic communities in the lands in which they have lived for so many generations.

  • Chairman Smith Supports Genocide Victims in Syria and Iraq

    WASHINGTON—Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04), Rep. Anna Eshoo (CA-18), Rep. Trent Franks (AZ-08), and Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (NE-01) today introduced bipartisan legislation to provide relief for survivors of the ISIS-perpetrated genocide against vulnerable religious and ethnic groups in Syria and Iraq, and to ensure that perpetrators of genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes in those countries are punished. The Iraq and Syria Genocide Relief and Accountability Act of 2016, H.R. 5961, directs the U.S. Administration to treat these heinous acts as the crimes that they are, and to prioritize supporting the criminal investigation, prosecution, and conviction of perpetrators. “Mass murder and rape are not only human rights violations – they are also criminal acts that require careful investigation, documentation, and prosecution to bring the perpetrators to justice,” said Chairman Smith. “We need to support entities doing this work in the field, and close gaps in U.S. law so that our justice system can prosecute foreign perpetrators present in the U.S., as well as any Americans who commit such crimes.” The legislation also requires the U.S. State Department to create a “Priority Two” (“P-2”) designation for Iraqi and Syrian survivors of genocide, and other persecuted religious and ethnic groups in Iraq or Syria. Refugees who meet the P-2 criteria are able to apply overseas for resettlement in the United States without requiring a referral from the United Nations, an NGO, or a U.S. Embassy. “Although a P-2 designation does not guarantee admission to the United States – applicants must still clear the same security screening as other refugees – it provides victims of genocide with a much-needed additional path to access the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program,” said Chairman Smith. Finally, the bill directs the U.S. Administration to identify warning signs of deadly violence against genocide survivors and other vulnerable religious and ethnic communities in Iraq or Syria; assess and address the humanitarian vulnerabilities, needs, and triggers that might force them to flee their homes; and ensure that the U.S. supports entities effectively serving genocide survivors, including faith-based entities. Chairman Smith noted that the Chaldean Catholic Archdiocese of Erbil, which provides vital assistance to internally displaced families of Yezidis, Muslims, and Christians, including to all of the approximately 10,500 Christian IDP families in the Erbil region, has received no funding from the U.S. Government or any other government. “So far, the Administration has failed to keep its promise to enable these genocide survivors to remain in Iraq and Syria. It is overlooking groups, like the Chaldean Catholic Archdiocese of Erbil, that are serving tens of thousands of survivors every day. If the needs of these communities are ignored, thousands of victims may have to leave their ancient homelands forever and never return,” Chairman Smith said.

  • Fox Business: Sen. Wicker on Turkey

    Following the July 2016 attempted coup in Turkey, Helsinki Commission Co-Chair Senator Roger Wicker joined Fox Business Network to provide his perspective on recent events in the OSCE participating State and NATO Ally. Calling President Erdogan's subsequent actions "very disturbing," Co-Chairman Wicker noted, "There has been an all-out assault not only on the military -- on admirals and generals -- but also on the judiciary, on universities, on religious leaders." In addition to serving as the co-chairman of the Helsinki Commission, Senator Wicker is a senior member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and chairs the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA) Committee on Political Affairs and Security.

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