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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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  • 'Don't let Azerbaijan use political prisoners as props'

    The Washington Post Don’t let Azerbaijan use political prisoners as props By Khadija Ismayilova Khadija Ismayilova is an investigative journalist and contributor to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Azerbaijani service. She has been imprisoned in Azerbaijan since December 2014. I am writing this letter from jail in Baku, Azerbaijan, where I’m serving a 7½ -year sentence for a crime I never committed. I am a journalist and my only “crime” was to investigate high-level corruption within the government and family of Azeri President Ilham Aliyev . Aliyev inherited power from his father in 2003 and changed the constitution in 2009 so he could stay in power indefinitely. He has been called an enemy of the press by international watchdogs, while abusing other fundamental freedoms and violating people’s right to truth and decency. Aliyev is in Washington this week to attend the Nuclear Security Summit that began Thursday. To get an invitation to this event from President Obama, he had to pardon several political prisoners. A lthough they have been released from jail, they remain confined within the country, barred from leaving, and justice has not been restored. This is a very costly invitation for Aliyev, who for years refused to accept international pressure or criticism on this issue. His response was, always, that Azerbaijan doesn’t have political prisoners. In December, Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-N.J.) introduced the Azerbaijan Democracy Act to recognize Azerbaijan’s violations of human rights and freedoms and to hold individual officials accountable. It must pass. But why were some of the political prisoners suddenly set free? What has changed? Aliyev needed these prisoners so that in exchange for their release, he could shake hands with Obama or get a loan from the World Bank to finance his failing currency and crippled economy after the sudden fall of oil prices. Aliyev is shamelessly trying to use political prisoners as bargaining chips to advance his foreign policy agenda. And they are supposed to be happy that they were freed. I am happy — very happy — that some political prisoners have been released. But their fights, and mine, are not over. I am not a toy to be exchanged for diplomatic gain by Baku or Washington so that officials can continue to pretend that it is business as usual. We are hostages of the regime, whether we are inside or outside of prison. Freedom is my universal and constitutional right, and Aliyev failed to protect it as the head of state. I am not going to ask to be pardoned for a crime I never committed. I am free even now, in jail, and my freedom is not for sale. So President Obama, please ask President Aliyev to stop muzzling the independent media and civil society. Ask him to explain the billions of petrodollars wasted on white-elephant projects for the benefit of a few. Ask him when he is going to hold free and fair elections. Ask him when he is going to let all the political prisoners go free. Ask him when fundamental freedoms can become a right, in practice — not a gift that he can give or take away. I asked these questions, and I ended up in jail. These are important questions. They must not go unanswered. And we will fight until justice is fully served.

  • Smith Responds to the Release of Political Prisoners by Azerbaijan

    WASHINGTON—In response to the release of 14 political prisoners in Azerbaijan, Representative Chris Smith (NJ-04), Chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, made the following statement: “I am relieved to know that these wrongly-held prisoners will be home with their families soon, but I remain concerned about the plight of the many other prisoners in Azerbaijan who are being held on politically-motivated charges. Anar Mammadli, the founder of an independent election monitoring group, was released, but he should have never been in prison. There are many others who should be released as well, such as Khadija Ismayilova, Intigram Aliyev, Ilgar Mammadov. I respectfully request President Aliyev to not only release all political prisoners, but also repeal the many undemocratic laws and regulations that prohibit the exercise of universally-recognized human rights in Azerbaijan.” Human rights organizations estimate there are approximately 100 political prisoners in Azerbaijan. Despite the release of 14 prisoners today, there continue to be new arrests of journalists, bloggers and others who voice opinions the government deems critical. Chairman Smith is the sponsor of the Azerbaijan Democracy Act of 2015 (H.R. 4264), a bill he introduced on December 16, 2015, to draw attention to the systematic efforts of the Government of Azerbaijan to eliminate the voices of independent journalists, opposition politicians, and civil society groups. In addition to denying U.S. visas to senior leaders of the Government of Azerbaijan, those who derive significant financial benefit from business dealings with senior leadership, and members of the security or judicial branches, the Azerbaijan Democracy Act also expresses the sense of Congress that financial penalties should be considered. Sanctions could be lifted when the Azerbaijani government shows substantial progress toward releasing political prisoners, ending its harassment of civil society, and holding free and fair elections.

  • Germany’s Chairmanship of the OSCE: Priorities and Challenges

    At this hearing, the U.S. Helsinki Commission welcomed Germany’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, H.E. Frank-Walter Steinmeier, to discuss pressing issues in the OSCE region as Germany assumes the 2016 Chair-in-Office. Steinmeier began by honoring the historical connection between Germany and the institution of the OSCE. In his words, Germany would not forget the “instrumental work” of the Helsinki Commission and the “unequivocal support” of the U.S. in the reunification of the East and West. Steinmeier then introoduced the German theme for their chairmanship, "renewing dialogue, rebuilding trust, restoring security," and called for the return of strong cooperation with the application of OSCE commitments in the face of current conflicts, such as Russian aggression in Ukraine, terror and religious radicalism in the Middle East and Northern Africa, and the refugee crisis across Europe. Members included Chairman Rep. Christopher Smith, Co-Chairman Senator Roger Wicker, Commissioner, Senator Ben Cardin and Commissioner Rep. Joseph Pitts. Each raised their concerns, but in some instances also pressed Minister Steinmeier to take certain political action (e.g. to condemn the Azerbaijani government for unlawfully imprisoning journalist Khadija Ismayilova). Priorities were also set to advocate for freedom of the media, to fight against discrimination, racism, and intolerance, and to combat human trafficking. Both parties agreed that the year ahead would be challenging, but discussed strong policies to build a more peaceful, stable international system and to ensure comprehensive security.

  • German Foreign Minister to Testify at Helsinki Commission Hearing

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following hearing: “Germany’s Chairmanship of the OSCE: Priorities and Challenges” March 1, 2016 2: 00 PM Cannon House Office Building Room 334 Live Webcast:www.youtube.com/HelsinkiCommission Germany’s 2016 Chairmanship-in-Office of the 57-nation Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) – the world’s largest regional security body – comes at a turbulent time.  Russia’s aggression against Ukraine continues to have serious ramifications on pan-European security; the refugee crisis has exposed cracks in the European approach to migration; and some question the OSCE’s relevance and role in twenty-first century Europe.  Germany’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, H.E. Frank-Walter Steinmeier, will discuss Germany’s plans to “renew dialogue, rebuild trust, and restore security” as it assumes the OSCE Chairmanship-in-Office, including resolving the conflict in Ukraine; supporting negotiations in Nagorno-Karabakh, Transdniestra, and Georgia; renewing discussions on key European security agreements; counterterrorism and cybersecurity; and strengthening OSCE capacities.

  • Religious Freedom, Anti-Semitism, and Rule of Law in Europe and Eurasia

    In this hearing ODIHR Director Michael Link discussed the importance of the OSCE's work on human rights through ODIHR.  He focused on the fight against anti-Semitism and the human rights situation in Ukraine.  He spoke about ODIHR's newest project to combat anti-Semitism, called "Turning Words into Action," which will give leaders the knowledge and tools to address anti-Semitism in their communities.   Director Link also noted that in Ukraine he was particularly concerned about the human rights violations in Crimea and expressed his support for a cease-fire as a pre-condition of the implementation of the Minsk package.

  • OSCE Foreign Ministers Meet in Belgrade

    Serbia’s year-long chairmanship of the OSCE culminated in Belgrade in the annual meeting of the OSCE Ministerial Council on December 3 and 4, 2015.  Key issues addressed in the context of Ministerial discussions included: Ongoing efforts to de-escalate the Russia-Ukraine crisis and the need for Russia to fully implement the Minsk Agreements. Reaffirmation of the Helsinki Final Act and subsequent commitments and the comprehensive nature of security (i.e., respect for fundamental freedoms within a state has an impact on the security between states). The assault on human dignity and human rights, including through terrorist attacks, the continued rollback on rights and freedoms in the OSCE area, and the refugee and migration crisis. Secretary of State John Kerry led the U.S. delegation, which also included Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland; Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor Robert Berschinski; Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Central Asia Daniel N. Rosenblum; and Helsinki Commission Senior Senate Staff Representative Ambassador David T. Killion. The atmosphere was strained, as tensions between Ukraine and Russia, Russia and Turkey, and Armenia and Azerbaijan spilled over into the negotiations. As Russia blocked virtually all decisions on human rights, as well as on the migration crisis and on gender issues, only a handful of documents were adopted. Successful declarations addressed recent terrorist attacks in the OSCE region, combating violent extremism that leads to terrorism, and addressing the illicit drug trade.

  • Germany to Lead OSCE in 2016

    Germany will serve as OSCE Chair-in-Office in 2016. Germany has indicated it will continue the work on youth exchanges initiated by the previous Serbian and Swiss chairmanships. In the human dimension, Germany will focus on: Freedom of the press and freedom of information, independence of the media, and the safety of journalists. Protection of minorities. Combating political extremism, intolerance and discrimination, including anti-Semitism and integration issues related to migrants. Strengthening the rights of women.

  • OSCE Human Dimension Implementation Meeting 2015

    “The Human Dimension” is OSCE-speak for human rights, democracy, and humanitarian concerns.  When the Helsinki Final Act (HFA) was signed in Helsinki, Finland in 1975, it enshrined among its ten Principles Guiding Relations between participating States (the Decalogue) a commitment to "respect human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the freedom of thought, conscience religion or belief, for all without distinction as to race, sex, language or religion" (Principle VII). In addition, the HFA included a section on cooperation regarding humanitarian issues that provided an umbrella for addressing (among other things) family reunification and working conditions for journalists. "The Human Dimension" was a term coined during the drafting of the 1989 Vienna Concluding Document to serve as shorthand to describe the human rights and humanitarian provisions of the agreements concluded within the framework of the Helsinki process. Today, it has come to include the OSCE’s watershed commitments on democracy, the rule of law, and free and fair elections. In any given year, the OSCE participating States address human dimension issues in multiple fora.  The Human Dimension Implementation Meeting – HDIM – attracts the largest number of participants, covers the greatest range of issues, and is open to participation by civil society. That work includes formal sessions on the full range of human rights  issues as well as rule of law, free elections, and democracy-building issues. National minorities, Roma, and tolerance and nondiscrimination are also on the agenda.  U.S. Delegation Led by David Kramer The 2015 HDIM was held September 21 to October 2 and drew 1,386 participants.  The U.S. delegation was led by David J. Kramer, Senior Director for Human Rights and Human Freedoms at the McCain Institute and former Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor.  It also included U.S. Ambassador to the OSCE Daniel Baer; Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Robert Berschinksi; Department of State Special Advisor for International Rights Judith Heumann; and Helsinki Commission Senior Senate Staff Representative Ambassador David T. Killion.  Helsinki Commission staff participated in all aspects of the delegation’s work. In addition to active engagement in the formal sessions, the United States participated in side events focused on specific countries or issues organized by civil society, OSCE participating States, or international organizations, and held numerous bilateral meetings with other delegations to raise and discuss human rights.  Special Advisor Heumann led a panel highlighting the importance of disability rights for OSCE countries as part of a U.S. side event cosponsored with Finland. Russia: External Aggression and Internal Repression During the HDIM, Russia’s aggression in and against Ukraine was raised in connection with almost every agenda item for the meeting.  The OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) also issued a joint report prepared with the OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities detailing widespread human rights violations in Russian-occupied Crimea.  Increasing levels of repression within Russia also were raised throughout the HDIM and served to highlight the relationship between external aggression and internal repression. In early 2015, Boris Nemtsov, an advocate for the rule of law and accountability in Russia and an outspoken Russian critic of the Russian government’s war against Ukraine, was gunned down just outside the Kremlin.  Russia’s increasingly repressive government has eroded the democratic institutions that ensure a government’s accountability to its people. A free and independent media is virtually nonexistent and the remaining state-controlled media is used to propagandize disinformation, fear, bigotry, and aggression. Azerbaijan’s Record Draws Sharp Criticism In 2015 Azerbaijan unilaterally shuttered the OSCE Mission in Baku, effectively blocked the OSCE’s independent election observation in October, and sentenced journalist-heroine Khadija Ismayilova to 7 ½ years in prison for reporting on government corruption.  The government of Azerbaijan has also escalated pressure against the family members of its critics, in a further effort to stifle dissent.  As a consequence, throughout the HDIM, Azerbaijan was the subject of singular attention and criticism. In one particularly sharp exchange with the moderator during the discussion of fundamental freedoms in the digital age, Azerbaijan challenged its critics to name at least 25 of an estimated 100 political prisoners.  A partial list – 25 names – is below. Abilov, Abdul Aliyev, Intigam Aliyev, Nijat Akhundov, Rashadat Guliyev, Araz Hasanov, Nasimi Hashimli, Parviz Hazi, Seymur Ismayilova, Khadija Jabrayilova, Valida Jafarov, Rasul Karimov, Fara Mammadli, Anar Mammadov, Hilal Mammadov, Igar Mammadov, Omar Mirkadirov, Rauf Ramazanov, Rashad Rustamov, Aliabbas Rustamzada, Ilkin Seyidov, Elnur Yagublu, Tofig Yunusov, Arif** Yunus, Leyla** Zakharchenko, Irina **Leyla and Arif Yunus have been released from prison since the HDIM but remain under house arrest.

  • Serbia Concludes Year-Long OSCE Chairmanship

    Four decades after the signature of the Helsinki Final Act, Serbian Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic presided over a Serbian chairmanship of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) that kicked off with high expectations.  As a successor to the only participating State ever suspended from OSCE decision-making for egregious violation of Helsinki standards (1992 to 2000), the ability of Serbia to chair the organization was a credit not only to the country, but also to the OSCE which provided significant guidance and engagement through the transition.  Throughout Serbia’s chairmanship, the situation in Ukraine dominated the work of the OSCE participating States, including at the annual OSCE Parliamentary Assembly meeting.  This overshadowed efforts to commemorate the Helsinki Final Act’s 40th anniversary, as the OSCE’s future was considered to hinge on the Minsk agreements and its response to the crisis in and around Ukraine. Ukraine Russia’s egregious violations of the Minsk agreement led to its collapse in January 2015.  Minsk II, adopted in February 2015, represents a further attempt to de-escalate the war in the Donbas. After six months of non-implementation, a September 1 cease-fire has largely held, with considerably fewer casualties than earlier, although there has been an uptick in recent weeks.  Heavy weapons are slowly being withdrawn from the line of contact.  Nevertheless, the agreement remains extremely tentative as Russia and its separatist proxies continue to disregard the majority of its provisions:  Special Monitoring Mission (SMM) access remains blocked in large portions of the Russian-led separatist-controlled territory; Russian forces and equipment remain on Ukrainian territory; Ukrainian control over its borders with Russia has not been restored.  Furthermore, restrictions continue on humanitarian aid and Ukrainian hostages remain in Russian custody.  Terrorism 2015 was also scarred by numerous terrorist attacks in the OSCE region, including incidents targeting Jewish institutions and free speech in Paris and Copenhagen in January and February; the bombing of a Russian civilian airliner over the Sinai Peninsula in October; an attack in Turkey just three weeks before November 1 snap elections; and multiple, simultaneous attacks again in Paris in November.  On November 17, the Permanent Council adopted a declaration on the need to combat by all means, in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations and international law–including applicable international human rights, refugee and humanitarian law–threats to international peace and security caused by terrorist acts. Refugee Crisis Issues relating to the refugee crisis became more acute over the course of the year.  In early June, the Serbian Chairmanship held a special human dimension event on refugees and internally displaced persons.  On October 6, following significant increases of migrant flows into Europe, the Serbian Chairmanship convened an unprecedented joint meeting of the Permanent Council’s three committees (on military-security, economic and environmental cooperation, and the human dimension) to focus on the refugee-migrant crisis. Finally, many hoped that Serbia’s positive experience hosting a field mission would serve as an example to other participating States cooperating with OSCE field activity.  Unfortunately, turned out not to be the case, as illustrated by the abrupt closure of the mission in Baku. In addition, Serbia – missed an opportunity in 2015 to more strongly exemplify OSCE norms by providing justice for the 1999 execution-style murders of the three Kosovar-American Bytyqi brothers, a key issue in U.S.-Serbian relations.

  • What is the OSCE Doing in Ukraine?

    In Ukraine, the OSCE monitors the cease-fire, weapons withdrawal, and overall security situation in eastern Ukraine. In addition, the OSCE has observed local elections and reports on widespread human rights violations in Russian-occupied Crimea. Special Monitoring Mission (SMM) Mandate adopted by consensus on March 21, 2014 and extended until March 31, 2016 634 international monitors as of November 18, 2015 Posts daily updates at OSCE.org Has encountered episodes of hostage-taking and been fired upon OSCE Observer Mission at the Russian Checkpoints Gukovo and Donetsk Mandate adopted by consensus on July 24, 2014 Gathers information and reports on the security situation at the two checkpoints Minsk Agreement Adopted September 5, 2014, by Russia, Ukraine, and Russian-backed separatists under OSCE auspices OSCE tasked with monitoring its implementation, including the cease-fire and weapons withdrawal Minsk II Adopted February 11, 2015 Continues work of Minsk agreement OSCE Election Observation Observed local elections in 2015 Joint report by ODIHR & HCNM on Russian-occupied Crimea ODIHR and HCNM report released September 17, 2015, identifies widespread human rights violations

  • It's Time to Hold the Azerbaijan Regime Accountable

    Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev's habit of brutally silencing dissent may be finally catching up with him. A new bill introduced in Congress last month would require the U.S. State Department to deny visas to senior members of Aliyev's government until the country can prove it has ceased harassment of independent media and NGOs and made significant progress toward freeing its political prisoners. Despite facing long odds, the Azerbaijan Democracy Act of 2015 marks a major turning point. For years, the United States has struggled to muster any real condemnation of Azerbaijan's government, one of the most corrupt and repressive in the world. U.S. officials and lawmakers still routinely refer to their Azerbaijani counterparts as "friends" despite the fact that the former Soviet country's latest crackdown has been accompanied by a general turn away from the West. Or should we say partial turn. Azerbaijan wants to be at the table with Western nations when money is up for grabs, but it hasn't acquired the same taste for values about human rights and dignity. This juxtaposition was perhaps most apparent earlier this year when the country hosted the inaugural European Games, a 17-day competition featuring 6,000 athletes from 50 countries. The capital city of Baku spared no expense to project a modern, glamorous image during the event--even flying in Lady Gaga for a surprise performance. For many people, it was a first glimpse of Azerbaijan. But that glimpse was carefully choreographed. Foreign reporters who agreed to play by the government's rules were rewarded with access to the games; others,including Guardian sports correspondent Owen Gibson, were banned from attending after calling out human rights abuses in the country. What the cameras did not capture that night was the escape of Emin Huseynov, the founder of the Institute for Reporters' Freedom and Safety, who fled Azerbaijan for Switzerland on the private plane of the Swiss foreign minister. Huseynov first sought refuge at the Swiss embassy ten months earlier after Azerbaijani authorities raided his office. Other human rights advocates and journalists have not been as fortunate. Within a 10-day period in August 2014, Intigam Aliyev, Rasul Jafarov, and Leyla and Arif Yunus all were arrested. They were later subjected to speedy show trials resulting in lengthy prison sentences for crimes they did not commit. Leyla and Arif, both seriously ill, have recently been released to serve suspended sentences but still face charges of treason. Employees of Meydan TV, whose founder reported receiving a high-level threat during the European Games, have been barred from leaving Azerbaijan, repeatedly questioned at the prosecutor's office, and detained without cause. Their families have also faced pressure. Two brothers of editor Gunel Movlud are currently being held on bogus drug charges. Most tragically, in August, Rasim Aliyev, a journalist and chairman of the Institute for Reporters' Freedom and Safety, died after he was severely beaten by attackers. Although the assault was reportedly connected to a criticism Aliyev made of a soccer player on Facebook, Aliyev had previously experienced threats against his life. The attack was one of hundreds against Azerbaijan's journalists in the past decade, including at least two other murders. Quiet diplomacy from the United States and the European Union has failed to reverse Azerbaijan's relentless pursuit of critics and civil society groups. The State Department called Leyla Yunus' release earlier this month a "welcome" development and a "positive step." Meanwhile, the deputy chairman of the opposition Popular Front Party, was arrested the day before, and the treason trial of dissident journalist Rauf Mirqadirov is still underway. But perhaps President Aliyev's luck is running out. In November, in an unprecedented step, the Organization for Security and Co-Operation in Europe's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, its Parliamentary Assembly, and the European Parliament all canceled monitoring missions to Azerbaijan to protest the irregularity of the country's parliamentary elections. Last month, Thorbjørn Jagland, secretary general of the Council of Europe, made a bold move of his own, announcing an inquiry into Azerbaijan's implementation of the European Convention on Human Rights. And on the same day, U.S. Congressman Chris Smith, chairman of the Helsinki Commission, introduced the Azerbaijan Democracy Act and held a hearing on the case of Khadija Ismayilova, one of the few journalists in Azerbaijan who dared to report on corruption among the country's ruling elite. Ismayilova was arrested last year and is now serving a seven and a half-year prison sentence. Ismayilova has kept up the pressure on her country even from behind bars. On the eve of the European Games, with the help of Sport for Rights, a coalition of international press freedom groups that recently published a report on Azerbaijan's human rights record, she managed to get a letter out of jail to The New York Times. "The truth is that Azerbaijan is in the midst of a human rights crisis. Things have never been worse," she wrote, urging the international community: "Do not let the government of Azerbaijan distract your attention from its record of corruption and abuse." Maybe now the world is ready to listen.

  • Helsinki Commission Chair Acts to End Human Rights Violations in Azerbaijan

    WASHINGTON—Following years of systematic efforts by the Government of Azerbaijan to eliminate the voices of independent journalists, opposition politicians, and civil society groups, Helsinki Commission Chair Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04) today introduced H.R. 4264, the Azerbaijan Democracy Act of 2015, a landmark bill that will deny U.S. visas to senior members of the Azerbaijani government. “We recognize that there are important national security and economic ties that exist between our two countries, but the United States can no longer remain blind to the appalling human rights violations that are taking place in Azerbaijan,” said Rep. Smith. “Journalists and activists are routinely arrested and imprisoned; opposition politicians are in jail and elections are not free and fair; human rights lawyers have been harassed and disbarred; and religious freedom is under attack.  The Azerbaijan Democracy Act demonstrates that the United States takes human rights and fundamental freedoms seriously, and that we will not compromise when faced by a government that represses the political opposition, the media, and religious minorities.” In addition to denying U.S. visas to senior leaders of the Government of Azerbaijan, those who derive significant financial benefit from business dealings with senior leadership, and members of the security or judicial branches, the Azerbaijan Democracy Act also expresses the sense of Congress that financial penalties should be considered. Sanctions could be lifted when the Azerbaijani government shows substantial progress toward releasing political prisoners, ending its harassment of civil society, and holding free and fair elections. “It is unacceptable that senior members of the Azerbaijani government are free to visit the United States while courageous women and men like investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova, attorney Intigam Aliyev, opposition politician Ilgar Mammadov, and activist Anar Mammadli are locked away in prisons with inadequate access to legal or even medical assistance,” Rep. Smith said. “If they can pay the price for standing up for human rights, the least we can do is to stand with them.” Rep. Smith is a long-standing advocate for human rights in Azerbaijan. Following the introduction of today’s legislation he will chair a 2PM hearing to examine Azerbaijan’s persecution of Ms. Ismayilova, who was sentenced to 7.5 years in prison in early September.

  • U.S. Bill Seeks Sanctions On Azerbaijani Officials For 'Appalling' Rights Record

    A U.S. lawmaker has introduced legislation that would deny U.S. visas to senior Azerbaijani officials due to what he calls Baku's "appalling human rights violations." U.S. Representative Chris Smith (Republican-New Jersey) introduced the bill, titled the Azerbaijan Democracy Act of 2015, in the House of Representatives on December 16. "The human rights situation has seriously deteriorated in Azerbaijan, causing damage to its relations with the United States and other countries, and has damaged its own society by imprisoning or exiling some of its best and brightest citizens," Smith told a hearing of Congress's Helsinki Commission held in conjunction with the announcement of the legislation.

  • The Russian Government Violates Its Security, Economic, Human Rights Commitments and Agreements

    Mr. Speaker, yesterday I chaired a hearing of the Helsinki Commission that examined the Russian government’s repeated violations of its international security, economic, and human rights commitments.  In accord with the three dimensions of security promoted by the OSCE and the Helsinki Final Act of 1975, the Commission looked at Russia’s respect for the rule of law through the lens of three ‘‘case studies’’ current to U.S.-Russian relations—arms control agreements; the Yukos litigation; and instances of abduction, unjust imprisonment, and abuse of prisoners.  Forty years after the signing of the Helsinki Final Act, we face a set of challenges with Russia, a founding member of the organization, that mirror the concerns that gave rise to the Helsinki Final Act.  At stake is the hard-won trust between members—now eroded to the point that armed conflict rages in the OSCE region. The question is open whether the principles continue to bind the Russian government with other states in a common understanding of what the rule of law entails.  In respect of military security, under the 1994 Budapest Memorandum Russia reaffirmed its commitment to respect Ukraine’s independence, sovereignty, and existing borders. Russia also committed to refrain from the threat or use of force or economic coercion against Ukraine. There was a quid pro quo here: Russia did this in return for transferring Soviet-made nuclear weapons on Ukrainian soil to Russia.  Russia’s annexation of Crimea and subsequent intervention in the Donbas region not only clearly violate this commitment, but also every guiding principle of the 1975 Helsinki Final Act. It appears these are not isolated instances. In recent years, Russia appears to have violated, undermined, disregarded, or even disavowed fundamental and binding arms control commitments such as the Vienna Document and binding international agreements, including the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE), Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF), and Open Skies treaties.  In respect of commercial issues, the ongoing claims regarding the Russian government’s expropriation of the Yukos Oil Company are major tests facing the Russian government. In July 2014, GML Limited and other shareholders were part of a $52 billion arbitration claim awarded by the Hague Permanent Court of Arbitration and the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR).  In response, the Russian government is threatening to withdraw from the ECHR and seize U.S. assets should American courts freeze Russian holdings on behalf of European claimants, while filing technical challenges that will occupy the courts for years to come. All of this fundamentally calls into question Russia’s OSCE commitment to develop free, competitive markets that respect international dispute arbitration mechanisms such as that of the Hague.  I note that U.S. Yukos shareholders are not covered by the Hague ruling for their estimated $6 billion in losses. This is due to the fact that the United States has not ratified the Energy Charter Treaty, under which European claimants won their case, as well as the continued absence of a bilateral investment treaty with Russia. This has handicapped U.S. investors in Russia’s energy sector, leaving them solely dependent of a State Department espousal process with the Russian government.  We were all relieved to learn that Mr. Kara-Murza is recovering from the attempt on his life—by poisoning—in Russia earlier this year. His tireless work on behalf of democracy in Russia, and his personal integrity and his love of his native country is an inspiration—it is true patriotism, a virtue sadly lacking among nationalistic demagogues.  Sadly, the attempt on Mr. Kara-Murza’s life is not an isolated instance. Others have been murdered—most recently Boris Nemtsov—and both his and Mr. Kara-Murza’s cases remain unsolved.  In other cases, such as the abductions, unjust imprisonments, and abuses of Nadiya Savchenko, Oleg Sentsov, and Eston Kohver, we are dealing the plain and public actions of the Russian government. Nadiya Savchenko, a Ukrainian pilot and elected parliamentarian, was abducted by Russian government agents, imprisoned, subjected to a humiliating show trial, and now faces 25 years in prison for allegedly murdering Russian reporters—who in fact were killed after she was in Russian custody.  Meanwhile, a Russian court has sentenced Ukrainian film director Oleg Sentsov on charges of terrorism. Tortured during detention, Sentsov’s only transgressions appear to be his refusal to recognize Russia’s annexation of the peninsula and his effort to help deliver food to Ukrainian soldiers trapped on their Crimean bases by invading Russian soldiers. And the kidnaping and subsequent espionage trial against Estonian law enforcement officer Eston Kohver demonstrates the Russia’s readiness to abuse its laws and judicial system to limit individual freedoms both within and beyond its borders.  The Magnitsky Act that I had the honor to co-sponsor was in part meant to address human rights abuses such as these. It sanctions those involved in the abuse, and works to discourage further human rights violations while protecting those brave enough to call attention to their occurrence. It troubles me greatly to hear that the Administration’s listings of sanctioned individuals has thus far only targeted ‘minor players,’ rather than those who pull the strings.  

  • Helsinki Commission Chair Chris Smith Shines Light on Egregious Rule-of-Law Abuses by Russian Government

    WASHINGTON—At a Congressional hearing today, the U.S. Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, spotlighted the many recent violations of the rule of law committed by the Russian government. “Forty years after the signing of the Helsinki Final Act, we face a set of challenges with Russia, a founding member of the organization, that mirror the concerns that gave rise to the Helsinki Final Act,” said Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04), who called the hearing. “At stake is the hard-won trust between members, now eroded to the point that armed conflict rages in the OSCE region. The question is open whether the principles continue to bind the Russian government with other states in a common understanding of what the rule of law entails.” “Russia’s annexation of Crimea and subsequent intervention in the Donbas region not only clearly violate this commitment, but also every guiding principle of the 1975 Helsinki Final Act.  It appears these are not isolated instances.  In recent years, Russia appears to have violated, undermined, disregarded, or even disavowed fundamental and binding arms control commitments,” Smith continued. “[I also] question Russia’s OSCE commitment to develop free, competitive markets that respect international dispute arbitration mechanisms...[and recent government actions] demonstrate Russia’s readiness to abuse its laws and judicial system to limit individual freedoms both within and beyond its borders.” Witness testimony highlighted case studies corresponding to each of the three dimensions of comprehensive security established by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE): politico-military security; economic and environmental security; and human rights and fundamental freedoms. Tim Osborne, executive director of GML Ltd., the majority owner of the now-liquidated Yukos Oil Company, said, “It is clear that the Russian Federation is not honoring its obligations and commitments under the rule of law or in a manner consistent with the Helsinki process.  Russia’s tendency, more often than not, has been to ignore, delay, obstruct or retaliate when faced with its international law responsibilities…Russia cannot be trusted in international matters and that even when it has signed up to international obligations, it will ignore them if that is what it thinks serves it best.” “Russia had engaged in the uncompensated expropriation of billions of dollars of U.S. investments in Yukos Oil Company,” observed former U.S. Under Secretary of State for Economic, Business and Agricultural Affairs Ambassador Alan Larson. “American investors—who owned about 12 percent of Yukos at the time of the expropriation—have claims worth over $14 billion, and they are entitled to compensation under international law even though they have no option for bringing claims directly against the Russian Federation.” Vladimir Kara-Murza, a well-known Russian activist and the coordinator of the Open Russia Movement, said, “Today, the Kremlin fully controls the national airwaves, which it has turned into transmitters for its propaganda…the last Russian election recognized by the OSCE as conforming to basic democratic standards was held more than 15 years ago.” “There are currently 50 political prisoners in the Russian Federation,” Kara-Murza continued. “These prisoners include opposition activists jailed under the infamous ‘Bolotnaya case’ for protesting against Mr. Putin’s inauguration in May 2012; the brother of anti-corruption campaigner Alexei Navalny; and Alexei Pichugin, the remaining hostage of the Yukos case.” “A clear pattern emerges when one looks at Russia’s implementation of its arms control obligations overall,” observed Stephen Rademaker, former Assistant Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security and Nonproliferation. “Should Moscow conclude such agreements have ceased to serve its interest, it will ignore them, effectively terminate them, violate them while continuing to pay them lip service, or selectively implement them…Russia believes that this is how great powers are entitled to act, and today Moscow insists on acting and being respected as a great power.” Chairman Smith was joined at the hearing by a panel of lawmakers including Commission Co-Chairman Senator Roger Wicker (MS) and Representative Robert Aderholt (AL-04).

  • Europe's Refugee Crisis: How Should the US, EU and OSCE Respond?

    This hearing, held on October 20, 2015, discussed possible responses to the Syrian refugee crisis.  Witnesses, including representatives from the American and Serbian governments, the UNHCR, the European Union, and non-profit groups working with refugees, highlighted the scale and intensity of the crisis.  Many of the witnesses also emphasized the need for cooperation among governments and between governments and non-profit organizations in addressing this crisis.

  • Smith Calls for Action on Worst Refugee Crisis in Europe since WWII

    WASHINGTON—At a hearing convened today by the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, Chairman Chris Smith (NJ-04) and other lawmakers scrutinized actions being taken to deal with Europe’s largest refugee crisis since World War II by the United States, European governments, regional bodies like the OSCE and the EU, and civil society. The Commission also reviewed recommendations on developing a long-term solution to the crisis. “The European crisis requires a response that is European, national, and international. There must be effective coordination and communication directly between countries as well as through and with entities like the OSCE and European Union,” said Rep. Smith, who called today’s hearing. “There is real human need and desperation. Refugees are entrusting themselves to smugglers and where there is human smuggling there is a higher risk of human trafficking,” he continued. “There is also the real threat that terrorist groups like ISIS will infiltrate these massive movements of people to kill civilians in Europe and beyond. I am deeply concerned that the screening at many European borders is inadequate and putting lives at risk. All of us must be responsive to the humanitarian needs without compromising one iota on security.” Smith said that “given the disproportionate number of men fleeing to Europe and potentially soon to the United States – currently only 14 percent of the refugees and migrants arriving via the Mediterranean Sea are women, 20 percent are children, and the remaining 65 percent are men – robust vetting is essential. We must ensure that lone wolf terrorists don’t turn into wolf packs.” Smith noted that during the conflict in Kosovo, he travelled to Stenkovec refugee camp in Macedonia and was at the McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey to welcome some of the 4,400 people brought from there to the United States. A refugee – Agron Abdullahu – was apprehended and sent to jail in 2008 for supplying guns and ammunition to the “Fort Dix 5,” a group of terrorists who were also sent to prison for plotting to kill American soldiers at the Fort Dix military installation. Given Secretary Kerry’s announcement in September that the United States intended to resettle at least 85,000 refugees in fiscal year 2016, including at least 10,000 Syrians, and at least 100,000 refugees in fiscal year 2017, “The United State and Europe must be on high alert to weed out terrorists from real refugees,” Smith said. He added, “ISIS has committed genocide, mass atrocities, and war crimes, against Christians and other minorities. Religious and ethnic minorities often have additional risks and vulnerabilities even as refugees and should be prioritized for resettlement.”   Witnesses testifying at the hearing focused on the root causes of the refugee crisis as well as the current measures being put into place to help mitigate the humanitarian impact and ensure that security and economic challenges are addressed. In addition, witnesses emphasized the importance of a shared and coordinated response by all actors involved to ensure a long-term solution to the crisis. “It’s a very challenging situation,” said Anne Richard, Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees, and Migration. “The scale of this migration is much bigger than before.” “The US government has a three-pronged approach: strong levels of humanitarian assistance; active diplomacy; and expanded refugee resettlement,” she continued. “Without our support, more people would be making the dangerous journey to the north.” “Europe is facing its biggest refugee influx in decades. UNHCR is calling upon the European Union to provide an immediate and life-saving response to the thousands of refugees as they are crossing the Mediterranean and making their way through Europe,” said Shelly Pitterman, Regional Representative to the United States and Caribbean, Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. “Europe can no longer afford to continue with this fragmented approach that undermines efforts to rebuild responsibility, solidarity and trust among states, and is creating chaos and desperation among thousands of refugee women, men and children. After the many gestures by governments and citizens across Europe to welcome refugees, the focus now needs to be on a robust, joint European response.” “The ongoing refugee crisis is not a European crisis. It is a global crisis, fueled by conflicts, inequality and poverty, the consequences of which unfolded in Europe but the roots of which are far away from our continent,” noted EU Ambassador to the United States David O’Sullivan. “The EU and its Member States are firmly committed to the promotion and protection of the human rights of migrants. Despite the influx, we do not remove or return genuine refugees, we respect the fundamental rights of all persons arriving in the EU, and we invest major resources in saving lives at sea.” Djerdj Matkovic, Ambassador of the Republic of Serbia to the United States, said, “The OSCE region is witnessing the largest refugee influx in decades. Apart from being a significant economic challenge, this is a process with potentially very serious security implications and the cause of concern in regards to the respect for human rights… As the presiding country [of the OSCE] Serbia recognizes the importance of this issue and is trying to provide more active and concrete approach of the OSCE in addressing it. In light of this bleak security situation and looming instability, it is paramount that all the mechanisms that were designed and adopted by the participating States to oversee the implementation of commitments are strong and functioning.” Sean Callahan, chief operating officer of Catholic Relief Services, observed, “As global leaders in international humanitarian and refugee response, the US and Europe must find new and creative ways to help to alleviate this suffering and protect the vulnerable.  Pope Francis has led in this effort to do more by asking every Catholic parish in Europe to reach out and assist the refugees; he reminds us of our moral obligation to help the stranger... Despite efforts by [international NGOs] like CRS, local civil societies, governments, and non-traditional donors, the despair of so many refugees indicates that assistance must move beyond short-term band-aids to longer-term solutions.” Chairman Smith was joined at the hearing by a bipartisan group of lawmakers, including Senator John Boozman (AR), Senator Jeanne Shaheen (NH), Representative Michael Burgess (TX-26), Representative Randy Hultgren (IL-14), and Representative Joe Pitts (PA-16).

  • Helsinki Commission Announces Hearing to Examine Europe's Refugee Crisis

    Europe is experiencing an enormous refugee crisis. An estimated half a million migrants and refugees have crossed the Mediterranean to Europe so far in 2015; as many as 50 percent are Syrian refugees.  Thousands more join them each day, and many of the European nations of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) are struggling to cope.

    As the regional security organization in Europe, how can the OSCE use its tools, standards, and commitments to help manage the humanitarian crisis and ensure that security and economic challenges are addressed? What has the US government done, and what should it be doing? The hearing will examine the reasons for the current crisis; relevant OSCE and other European agreements, commitments, and structures; the response of the OSCE, the EU, and the US; potential security issues related to the ability of extremists to infiltrate the refugee stream; and the potential for refugees to become victims of human trafficking.

  • Bipartisan Congressional Delegation Represents US at OSCE Parliamentary Assembly; Also Visits Ukraine, Czech Republic

    Forty years after the signing of the Helsinki Final Act established the precursor to today’s Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), five members of the Helsinki Commission and four other members of Congress traveled to the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly Annual Session in Helsinki to demonstrate the U.S. commitment to confronting Russian aggression in Ukraine and elsewhere. Led by Commission Co-Chairman Senator Roger F. Wicker (MS), the bicameral, bipartisan delegation organized by the Helsinki Commission included Commission Chairman Representative Chris Smith (NJ- 04); House Commissioners Robert B. Aderholt (AL-04), Steve Cohen (TN-09) and Alan Grayson (FL-09); and Representatives Gwen Moore (WI-04), Michael Fitzpatrick (PA-08), Richard Hudson (NC-08) and Ruben Gallego (AZ-07). Before attending the Annual Session from July 5 to 7, several members of the delegation also visited Ukraine and the Czech Republic. A central concern to the delegation throughout the trip was Russia’s restrictions on democracy at home and aggression in Ukraine, along with Russia’s threat to European security.

  • Chairman Smith and Serbian Foreign Minister Support OSCE Role in Promoting Peace in Ukraine

    WASHINGTON–On February 25, Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04), Chairman of the Helsinki Commission, held a hearing at which Ivica Dacic, the Foreign Minister of Serbia and Chairman-in-Office of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), testified as to his plans for Serbia’s 2015 leadership of the OSCE. The chief issue facing the organization is Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the humanitarian needs of the people of eastern Ukraine, including the OSCE’s role in monitoring the Minsk cease-fire agreement. Both Russia and Ukraine are among the 57 member states of the OSCE, the world’s largest regional security organization. Opening the hearing, Chairman Smith said that Foreign Minister Dacic’s leadership of the OSCE “comes at a moment of tragedy, of tremendous human suffering.” Smith emphasized that “one OSCE member – the Russian government – is tearing the heart out of a neighboring member, Ukraine.” “Understanding that the OSCE is a consensus organization – meaning that the Russian government has an effective veto over many significant actions – we believe that the OSCE is still able and responsible to speak the truth about the conflict, to find ways to limit it, and to help the people of Ukraine,” he said. Foreign Minister Dacic emphasized that “the Serbian Chairmanship will make every effort to help restore peace in Ukraine.” In its role as Chairman of the OSCE, Dacic said, “Serbia brings to the table good relations with all the key stakeholders, and we are making every effort to serve as an honest broker and use our leadership role to utilize the OSCE toolbox impartially and transparently.” Foreign Minister Dacic also discussed the fight against human trafficking and anti-Semitism with Chairman Smith.  Other members of the Helsinki Commission participating in the hearing included Senator Ben Cardin, and Congressmen Joe Pitts, Alcee Hastings, and Steve Cohen.

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