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Helsinki Commission Visit to Armenia, Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine
Friday, April 10, 1992

This Helsinki Commission delegation was the first to visit the "former Soviet Union" since its breakup in December 1991. It was also the first Commission delegation visit to any of the former republics in their new status as independent countries, and the first ever to Ukraine, Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan.

Of particular significance was the fact that all the former republics are now full­ fledged members of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE), having been admitted during the meeting of the CSCE Council of Ministers in Prague in late January 1992. Their entry into the CSCE means that all the governments of these newly independent countries have obligated themselves to implement Helsinki commitments, providing a standard by which their progress towards democratization, observance of human rights and free market economic systems can be measured. Moreover, since at least two of these countries -- Armenia and Azerbaijan -- are, essentially, engaged in hostilities, if not actually a state of war, the CSCE's mechanisms for conflict mediation and resolution can be brought into play: a test both for the republics, and the CSCE, especially in the aftermath of the Yugoslavia crisis. The fact that the delegation's visit took place during the CSCE Follow-up Meeting in Helsinki (March-June 1992) offered an appropriate backdrop to this Commission fact-finding mission.

This mission had particular resonance in the Central Asian republics, which have long been neglected in the West. In fact, there had been much debate among CSCE participating States as to whether these republics should be admitted to the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, as they were manifestly not in Europe geographically, or, in many ways, culturally. Nevertheless, the CSCE's Council of Ministers was persuaded by the argument that the best way to bring Western democratic and free market ideas to the region was to include them in the process.

The visit to Armenia and Azerbaijan was motivated by obvious considerations: the increasingly bloody and alarming conflict between them over Nagorno-Karabakh. From an ethnic dispute that threatened to complicate Mikhail Gorbachev's reform program, the conflict has ballooned, with the dissolution of the USSR, into a larger regional conflict with international significance that threatens to involve neighboring states, one of which -­ Turkey -- is a NATO member.

From the CSCE perspective, this conflict brings to the fore the inherent contradiction between two equally valid principles of the CSCE: the right of peoples to self-determination, on the one hand; and territorial integrity, with only peaceful change of borders, on the other. Yugoslavia in 1991 had already presented the CSCE with the difficult problem of reconciling these principles; Armenia and Azerbaijan are offering the latest challenge. There is reason to believe -- or fear -- that this issue will resurface elsewhere on the territory of the former USSR, and the unhappy experience of these two Transcaucasian countries may prove an object lesson that has applicability to other situations.

Reflecting the concern of the CSCE member States about the situation, and in an attempt to resolve the crisis, a decision was taken at the March 1992 opening of the Helsinki Follow-up Meeting to organize a "Conference on Nagorno-Karabakh" which will meet soon in Minsk under CSCE auspices.

Ukraine, meanwhile, is embroiled in its own disputes as it develops its institutions as a newly independent country and CSCE state. Unlike its quarrel with Russia over division of the USSR's assets, especially the disposition of the Black Sea fleet, some issues have direct relevance to the CSCE. The Crimea, for example, may hold a referendum on its future status (remaining within Ukraine, autonomy, joining Russia, or opting for independence), which reflects the emphasis placed in the CSCE on democratic expression and fair balloting practices. Another area of critical importance is military security and arms control: the disposition of Ukraine's nuclear arsenal and compliance with the CFE (Conventional Forces in Europe) agreement, when Kiev has not yet reached agreement with Moscow and other capitals of former republics over a unified military that could implement the agreement. Finally, Ukraine's efforts to build a law-based state and overcome the legacy of 70 years of communism must overcome difficulties of personnel, "old thinking" (a term popular among Moscow's elite a few years ago), and bureaucratic resistance to change.

The United States recognized all the former Soviet republics as independent countries on December 25, 1991, but established diplomatic relations only with Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Armenia, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. Establishment of formal diplomatic relations with the others was put off, pending satisfactory assurances of commitment to human rights, democracy, responsible arms control policies, and a free market economic system. This "two-tiered" approach drew criticism, however, for risking the alienation of the "second-tier" states and the potential loss of American influence, I especially with the January 1992 decision by the CSCE to admit the former Soviet republics as full members. In February, the Bush administration signalled its intention to establish diplomatic relations with all the former Soviet republics. The result was the speedy opening of U.S. Embassies in the newly independent countries, which was enthusiastically greeted by the leaderships and opposition forces. Effectively, therefore, the United States is the only Western country with fully-functioning Embassies in all the new countries visited by the Helsinki Commission.

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  • Hastings and Wicker Troubled By Mounting Harassment of Opposition Members, Activists, and Journalists by Government of Azerbaijan

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    WASHINGTON—Ahead of World Press Freedom Day on May 3, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) and Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) issued the following statements: "Given these uncertain and unprecedented times, it is more important than ever that journalists and media professionals are able to work freely and without retribution," said Chairman Hastings. "Unfortunately, journalists remain in jail throughout the OSCE region, while states like Russia, Azerbaijan, and Hungary criminalize providing essential information and transparency about the COVID-19 pandemic. Independent media continues to be assaulted under the pretense of punishing allegedly 'false,' 'misleading,' or unofficial information. This is unacceptable." Read Chairman Hastings' full Congressional Record statement. “Journalists across the globe risk their safety, and some even their lives, to report the truth," said Co-Chairman Wicker. "On World Press Freedom Day, we honor a freedom that is a cornerstone of democracy and should always be protected in any healthy society. During this pandemic, good journalism and unflinching investigative reporting are essential as we work to mitigate the effects of the coronavirus and get our economies started again. Now more than ever, I urge all OSCE states to uphold this fundamental freedom." According to the latest reports from the Committee to Protect Journalists, 250 journalists are imprisoned worldwide for their work, 64 journalists are missing, and 1,369 journalists have been killed since 1992. Additionally, Reporters Without Borders' 2020 World Press Freedom Index found that global press freedom has deteriorated by 12 percent since 2013. Ahead of World Press Freedom Day, OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media Harlem Désir, along with the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Opinion and Expression and the Organization of American States Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression, issued a joint declaration on freedom of expression and elections in the digital age, particularly noting challenges to press freedom during the COVID-19 pandemic. On April 17, Chairman Hastings and Co-Chairman Wicker released a statement expressing concern with the latest attacks on press freedom in Russia amid the coronavirus pandemic, including death threats to Russian journalist Yelena Milashina by Chechnya’s leader Ramzan Kadyrov. Earlier in April, Chairman Hastings also denounced the unchecked power granted to Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban following his request to rule by decree in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

  • Hastings, Wicker, Moore, and Hudson Mark the Third Anniversary of Joseph Stone’s Death in Ukraine

    WASHINGTON—Three years after the death of Joseph Stone, a U.S. paramedic serving with the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission (SMM) in Ukraine, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) recalled Stone’s tragic death in the Russia-driven conflict and lamented the suffering of civilians who remain the chief victims of Kremlin aggression.  Stone was killed on April 23, 2017, when his vehicle struck a landmine in Russian-controlled territory in eastern Ukraine. “Another year has passed since Joseph Stone lost his life, and still Moscow’s war in eastern Ukraine rages on,” said Chairman Hastings. “Stone was killed as he helped document the senseless human suffering inflicted by the Kremlin’s assault on Ukraine. Even amidst a global pandemic, we must not forget the civilians with courage like Stone, who remain on the frontlines of conflict zones globally.” Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) underlined the Russian Government’s responsibility for the war’s ongoing toll and affirmed that the Kremlin would continue to face consequences for its aggression. “The Kremlin continues to fuel this war while denying its direct involvement,” said Co-Chairman Wicker. “Joseph Stone’s death three years ago was a direct result of Russian aggression, which is only part of Vladimir Putin’s broader campaign against Ukraine. Our sanctions will remain in place until Moscow changes course and Ukraine’s territorial integrity is restored.” Helsinki Commissioner Rep. Gwen Moore (WI-04) celebrated Stone’s contributions to regional security and condemned the threats OSCE monitors continue to face in the field. “Born in my district in Milwaukee, Joseph Stone was a courageous young man whose life tragically ended much too soon.  All OSCE states, including Russia, must do everything possible to support the OSCE monitors who, to this day, face unacceptable threats and restrictions as they shine a light on the daily cost of this needless war,” said Rep. Moore. Helsinki Commissioner Rep. Richard Hudson (NC-08), who also chairs the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly Committee on Political Affairs and Security, called for the immediate lifting of new, baseless restrictions imposed by Russian-led forces under the pretext of COVID-19. “Even as OSCE monitors seek to report on the COVID-19 outbreak’s impact on vulnerable populations, Russian-controlled forces are using so-called quarantine restrictions to deny them access,” Rep. Hudson said.  “The increasing limitations by Moscow-led forces also stall crucial humanitarian shipments and services by international organizations. This obstruction and harassment must cease immediately.” The SMM was established in 2014 to monitor implementation of the Minsk agreements, which were designed to bring peace to eastern Ukraine. It is an unarmed, civilian mission that serves as the international community’s eyes and ears on the security and humanitarian situation in the conflict zone. The SMM operates under a mandate adopted by consensus among the 57 OSCE participating States, including the United States, Russia, and Ukraine. It currently fields roughly 750 monitors, approximately 600 of whom are in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of Ukraine. The United States supports the SMM by providing 54 monitors (the largest contingent) and has contributed more than $140 million to the mission since its inception.

  • Chairman Hastings on Anniversaries of Sumgait Pogrom and Khojaly Massacre

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

  • Life Under Occupation

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

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

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

  • An Assessment of the Open Skies Treaty

    By Juliet Michaelsen, Max Kampelman Fellow Recently, a somewhat obscure security and confidence-building measure returned to the headlines. In October 2019, reports surfaced that the Trump Administration was considering withdrawing from the Treaty on Open Skies, an overflight arrangement designed to boost military transparency and stability across 34 signatories in North American and Eurasia. What is the Open Skies Treaty? In 1955, President Eisenhower first proposed that the United States and Soviet Union allow aerial observation flights over each other’s territories to reduce the risk of miscommunication and subsequent war. Although initially rejected by the Soviets, the idea of Open Skies was revived by President George H.W. Bush in 1989. Bush built on Eisenhower’s vision, suggesting the agreement not just be between the United States and the Soviet Union, but also between NATO and the Warsaw Pact. In 1992, the Open Skies Treaty was signed by the United States, Canada, Russia, and 21 European states. Since the treaty entered into force in 2002, membership has increased to 34 states. The treaty requires that all participants allow observation aircraft to fly over their territory to observe and take pictures of military forces and activities. These images are shared with the observing and observed states, and available for purchase by other treaty signatories. The Open Skies Treaty’s fundamental purpose—enhancing military transparency and cooperation—flows from the same set of commitments that underpin both the Helsinki Commission and the Vienna-based Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). As Alexandra Bell noted during a Helsinki on the Hill podcast on Open Skies, this “increased openness between militaries will reduce tensions between states and limit the probability of conflict [because] if you know what another country has, if it’s clearly observable to you, you don’t have to plan for things that you’re just guessing about.” Assessing the Treaty During the treaty’s almost 18 years of implementation, the parties have conducted over 1,500 observation flights. The cooperation required to solve logistical problems (such as air traffic control) and inspect planes is one important confidence-building measure. Another is the fact that host countries also have personnel on any observation flight, thus ensuring the flight stays within its agreed plan. This collaboration increases mutual trust and encourages cooperation. Additionally, the Open Skies Consultative Commission, the implementing body of the Open Skies Treaty based at the Organization for Security and Cooperation’s (OSCE) headquarters in Vienna, provides one of the few remaining forums where the United States and Russia can discuss problems and collaborate on solutions. The treaty also allows the United States to provide an important benefit to its allies and partners, who typically ride on flights conducted by the United States. Specifically, as Rep. Emmanuel Cleaver II noted during a joint hearing of the Helsinki Commission and the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Europe, Eurasia, Energy and the Environment, the treaty “allows even small countries a way to get information on military activities around them [which] has been even more important given the Kremlin’s propensity to violate established borders.” One notable example came in December 2018 after Russia attached Ukrainian naval vessels near the Kerch Strait. The United States undertook an Open Skies flight, which was “intended to reaffirm U.S. commitment to Ukraine and other partner nations,” according to the Department of Defense, a message underscored by the flight’s inclusion of personnel from Canada, Germany, France, the United Kingdom, Romania, and—crucially—Ukraine. The Open Skies Treaty also has heightened transparency, specifically between the United States and Russia. Both countries have conducted numerous observation flights over the other’s territory. The United States and its allies have flown about 500 flights over Russia since the treaty’s implementation, including 16 in 2019 alone. According to the State Department, the United States participated in nearly three times as many flights over Russia as Russia has over the United States. The images captured by these flights serve as a crucial, credible, unclassified source of information about Russian forces at a time when Europe and the United States are often uneasy about Russia’s intentions. The Open Skies Treaty does face criticism by some politicians and analysts. For example, a Senate resolution introduced by Sens. Ted Cruz and Tom Cotton calls for the United States’ withdrawal from the Open Skies Treaty, citing Russia’s partial non-compliance as a major problem the treaty. Specifically, Russia has restricted Open Skies flights over its military hub in Kaliningrad and restricted the conduct of flights near its border with South Ossetia and Abkhazia. However, the State Department does not consider these problems insurmountable and has taken many steps to address these issues, including bringing the problem to the Open Skies Consultative Committee, restricting Russian flights over Hawaii, and denying access to two United States airbases. The Future of the Open Skies Treaty In the wake of President Trump’s reported plan to withdraw the United States from the Open Skies Treaty, many members of Congress have expressed support for the agreement and warned of the dangers of withdrawal. House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Rep. Eliot Engel first sounded the alarm in a publicly released letter to National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien on October 7, 2019. In the letter, Engel expressed concern about such reports and argued that “American withdrawal would only benefit Russia and be harmful for our allies’ and partners’ national security interests.” Soon after, numerous members of Congress came together to urge foreign policy officials to keep the treaty. House Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Adam Smith and Sens. Robert Menendez and Jack Reed (the ranking members of the foreign relations and armed services committees, respectively), joined Rep. Engel in writing a letter to Secretary of State Pompeo and Secretary of Defense Esper, highlighting the importance of Open Skies. A similar letter was sent to Secretary Pompeo by 11 Democratic senators two weeks later. In November 2019, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings co-sponsored the bipartisan “Open Skies Treaty Stability Act,” which would prevent the president from unilaterally withdrawing the United States from the treaty by setting conditions on any potential steps towards withdrawal. The bill specifically notes that “due to the significant benefits that observation missions under the Open Skies Treaty provide to the United States and United States allies, the United States should commit to continued participation in the Treaty; and the President should not withdraw the United States from the Open Skies Treaty.” Support for the Open Skies Treaty extends beyond Capitol Hill. For example, in an October 20, 2019, Wall Street Journal contribution, former-national security officials George Shultz, William J. Perry and Sam Nunn suggested that “Open Skies has become what Eisenhower envisioned—a critical confidence-building treaty that improves Euro-Atlantic security with every flight. The U.S. should preserve this agreement, particularly in a time of renewed tensions with Russia.”  Similar calls have come from abroad. The Political and Security Affairs Committee Chair of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA) strongly urged the United States to stay in the treaty, citing the increased transparency and cooperation fostered by the agreement. Meanwhile, Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry expressed their interest in “maintaining and implementing this treaty” in a statement to the Wall Street Journal. The vocal advocacy both within and outside of the United States for the continuation of the Open Skies Treaty sheds light on its important role in Euro-Atlantic security and cooperation.

  • Chairman Hastings Urges Ukraine to Grant Akhmetova Political Asylum

    WASHINGTON—Ahead of Tuesday’s trial to determine whether journalist and activist Zhanara Akhmetova will be granted political asylum in Ukraine or face extradition to her home country of Kazakhstan, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) released the following statement: “By granting asylum to Zhanara Akhmetova, the Government of Ukraine can demonstrate its commitment to protecting the fundamental freedoms of those who peacefully express political dissent. Her request for asylum clearly is motivated by real and dangerous political persecution in her home country. Ukraine must stand firmly on the side of human rights and allow Ms. Akhmetova to remain safely in the country.” Akhmetova fled to Ukraine in 2017 after she was targeted by authorities in Kazakhstan for her reporting and for peacefully expressing her political opinions through the Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan (DCK) movement, an opposition party associated with the main political opponent of former President Nazarbayev. Later that year, Ukrainian authorities detained her following a request by the Government of Kazakhstan, which previously has misused Interpol mechanisms to target opposition figures. In the past, Ukrainian authorities sometimes have cooperated with requests by the authorities of Central Asian states to return persecuted individuals. Persons affiliated with the DCK have previously faced mistreatment and torture at the hands of Kazakh authorities, suggesting that Akhmetova’s extradition would seriously endanger her safety. Ukrainian migration authorities have twice denied Akhmetova’s request for asylum, although Ukraine’s Supreme Court has ordered that the case be reconsidered as political.

  • Co-Chairman Wicker Introduces Ukraine Religious Freedom Support Act in Senate

    WASHINGTON—Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) yesterday introduced the Ukraine Religious Freedom Support Act (S. 3064) in the Senate. The legislation would combat Russia’s religious freedom violations in the Crimea and Donbas regions of Ukraine. Helsinki Commission Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) and Commissioner Rep.  Emanuel Cleaver, II (MO-05) introduced a bipartisan companion bill in the House of Representatives last week. “The Kremlin’s illegal land grab is accompanied by a brutal crackdown on religious freedom in Crimea and the Donbas,” said Co-Chairman Wicker. “This legislation would combat persecution of faith communities in Ukraine and ensure that Russian authorities are held responsible for their actions.” The Ukraine Religious Freedom Support Act would require the president of the United States to consider particularly severe violations of religious freedom in Russia-occupied or otherwise controlled territory in Ukraine when determining whether to designate Russia as a Country of Particular Concern (CPC) for such violations. The bill would clarify that Russia should be held responsible for violations in territory it controls or occupies illegally, not just for violations inside Russia’s internationally-recognized borders. The International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 requires the president to designate CPCs when their governments engage in or tolerate particularly severe violations of religious freedom. It also requires the president to take 15 specific actions, or other commensurate action, in response. Last year, on behalf of President Donald Trump, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo designated Russia for the Special Watch List of countries where violations are severe. Russian forces first invaded Crimea in February 2014 and continue to occupy it illegally. Since April 2014, Russia has controlled parts of the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine with non-state armed groups and illegal entities under its command. Under international humanitarian law, including the Geneva Conventions, Russia is responsible for religious freedom violations in Crimea and parts of the Donbas. As a participating State of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Russia has repeatedly committed to respect and protect freedom of religion or belief. The Helsinki Commission has compiled 16 documents outlining religious freedom commitments made by OSCE participating States.

  • Helsinki Commissioners Introduce Ukraine Religious Freedom Support Act

    WASHINGTON—Helsinki Commission Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) and Commissioner Rep.  Emanuel Cleaver, II (MO-05) yesterday introduced the bipartisan Ukraine Religious Freedom Support Act (H.R. 5408) in the House of Representatives. The legislation combats Russia’s religious freedom violations in the Crimea and Donbas regions of Ukraine. Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) plans to introduce a companion bill in the Senate next week. “For more than five years, Russia has illegally occupied Crimea and controlled part of the Donbas with the armed groups it commands. Kremlin personnel and proxies abduct, imprison, and torture people in those regions for their faith,” said Rep. Wilson. “Russian officials are culpable, and this bill helps ensure they are held accountable.” “The Kremlin persecutes peaceful religious communities in occupied Crimea and crony-controlled eastern Donbas even more brutally and broadly than it does in Russia,” said Rep. Cleaver. “The Russian Government is violating international humanitarian law and its international commitments to respect and protect religious freedom. Creating consequences for the Kremlin for this lawlessness will mean justice for the people of Ukraine.” The Ukraine Religious Freedom Support Act would require the President of the United States to consider particularly severe violations of religious freedom in Russia-occupied or otherwise controlled territory in Ukraine when determining whether to designate Russia as a Country of Particular Concern (CPC) for such violations. The bill clarifies that Russia should be held responsible for violations in territory it occupies illegally or controls, not just for violations inside Russia’s internationally-recognized borders. The International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 requires the president to designate CPCs when their governments engage in or tolerate particularly severe violations of religious freedom. It also requires the president to take 15 specific actions, or commensurate action, in response. Last year, on behalf of President Donald Trump, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo designated Russia for the Special Watch List of countries where violations are severe. Russian forces first invaded Crimea in February 2014 and continue to illegally occupy it. Since April 2014, Russia has controlled parts of the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine with non-state armed groups and illegal entities it commands. Under international humanitarian law, including the Geneva Conventions, Russia is responsible for religious freedom violations in Crimea and parts of the Donbas. As a participating State of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Russia has repeatedly committed to respect and protect freedom of religion or belief. The Helsinki Commission has compiled 16 documents outlining religious freedom commitments made by OSCE participating States. Original co-sponsors of the legislation include Helsinki Commissioners Rep. Gwen S. Moore (WI-04), Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (PA-01), Rep. Marc A. Veasey (TX-33), and Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09). Rep. Anna G. Eshoo (CA-18), Rep. Mark Meadows (NC-11), Rep. Mike Quigley (IL-05), Rep. Gus M. Bilirakis (FL-12), Rep. Daniel W. Lipinski (IL-03), Rep. Andy Harris, M.D. (MD-01), and Rep. Marcy Kaptur (OH-09) are also original co-sponsors.

  • Senators Cardin and Wicker Introduce Countering Russian and Other Overseas Kleptocracy (CROOK) Act

    WASHINGTON—Helsinki Commission Ranking Member Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) and Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) today introduced the Countering Russian and Other Overseas Kleptocracy (CROOK) Act (S. 3026). The CROOK Act would establish an anti-corruption action fund to provide extra funding during historic windows of opportunity for reform in foreign countries as well as streamline the U.S. Government’s work building the rule of law abroad. On July 18, 2019, Rep. Bill Keating (MA-10) and Helsinki Commissioner Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (PA-01) introduced a similar bill in the U.S House of Representatives. “Corruption has become the primary tool of authoritarian foreign policy,” said Sen. Cardin. “Reprehensible regimes steal the livelihoods of their own people and then use that dirty money to destabilize other countries. No leader deploys this strategy more blatantly and destructively than Vladimir Putin, who has devastated the Russian economy and the lives of ordinary Russians to advance his own interests.” “This bill would bolster the legal and financial defenses of U.S. allies against the influence of Russia, China, Venezuela, and other authoritarian regimes,” said Sen. Wicker. “By working together, we can close off opportunities for corrupt actors to undermine democracy around the world.” The anti-corruption action fund established in the legislation would assist countries where U.S. assistance could significantly increase the chances of successfully transitioning to democracy, combating corruption, and establishing the rule of law, such as Ukraine in 2014, Ethiopia after the election of a new Prime Minister who instituted important reforms in 2018, or Armenia after the December 2018 parliamentary election. This no-year fund would establish a mechanism to allocate aid and take advantage of ripened political will more quickly. The monies for this fund would derive from a $5 million surcharge to individual companies and entities that incur Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) criminal fines and penalties above $50 million. The legislation would also establish several complementary mechanisms to generate a whole-of-government approach to U.S. efforts to strengthen the rule of law abroad. These include an interagency taskforce; the designation of embassy anti-corruption points of contact to liaise with the task force; reporting requirements designed to combat corruption, kleptocracy, and illegal finance; and a consolidated online platform for easy access to anti-corruption reports and materials. The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the U.S. Helsinki Commission, endeavors to counter corruption and malign influence in all its forms. Helsinki Commissioners have sponsored and cosponsored other anti-corruption legislation such as the Kleptocrat Exposure Act (H.R. 3441), the Foreign Extortion Prevention Act (H.R. 4140), the Transnational Repression Accountability and Prevention Act (H.R. 4330/S. 2483), and the Rodchenkov Anti-Doping Act (H.R. 835/S. 259).

  • Reform in Armenia

    Last year, peaceful mass protests swept Armenia’s ruling party out of power, ending its more than two decades at the helm of Armenian politics. Protest leader and opposition legislator Nikol Pashinyan rode the wave of what has been termed Armenia’s Velvet Revolution to a landslide victory in national elections in December. Voters gave his My Step Alliance two-thirds of the seats in parliament, with a robust mandate to follow through on his promises to fight corruption, govern democratically, and grow the economy. This democratic opening presents an historic opportunity to advance crucial reforms. Some U.S. assistance is already helping to strengthen Armenia’s democratic institutions and there are Congressional calls to double this aid. Even so, many Armenians have been critical of the pace of Pashinyan’s reforms, saying that his government has been too cautious and indecisive in its policymaking. In light of these developments, the U.S. Helsinki Commission convened a hearing to assess the Armenian Government’s achievements thus far, identify priority areas for reform, and highlight opportunities for the U.S. to support the reform process. Commissioner Marc Veasey presided over the hearing, voicing his interest in learning how to best orient U.S. and multilateral assistance to Armenia’s reform program. He expressed his regret over the closure of the OSCE Field Office in Yerevan in 2017 that resulted from the objections of the Azerbaijani government. Rep. Veasey further highlighted U.S. efforts to compensate for the loss of the OSCE Field Office by coordinating an Armenian Cooperation Program among OSCE participating states who contribute voluntarily to sustaining some OSCE programming in the country. Two co-chairs of the Congressional Armenian Caucus, Rep. Jackie Speier and Rep. Frank Pallone, also gave opening statements. Drawing on their recent travel to Armenia, both remarked on the progress and reforms they observed there and stressed the importance of increasing United States aid to the country to strengthen Armenia’s democratic institutions. During the hearing, the Commission heard testimony from a Member of Parliament from the My Step Alliance, Hamazasp Danielyan; the founder and editor-in-chief of Aliq Media, Arsen Kharatyan; the program director for the Union of Informed Citizens, Daniel Ioannisian; senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund, Jonathan Katz; and senior director at the National Endowment for Democracy, Miriam Lanskoy. All the witnesses remarked on the remarkable nature of Armenia’s political transformation since the Velvet Revolution. Mr. Danielyan and Mr. Kharatyan explained that it was a revolution of values, where people were struggling for democratic principles and human rights over corruption and authoritarianism. The witnesses noted that Armenia still has a long way to go in its reforms. Mr. Ioanissian and Ms. Lanskoy testified about the remaining corruption in Armenia. They each noted the continued power of oligarchs in the media, especially those with close ties to Russia, while independent media organizations lack the funding and institutional support to break in to the media market. They encouraged the United States to support independent media organizations in Armenia. Mr. Ioanissian and Mr. Katz detailed the reliance Armenia has on energy imports, specifically natural gas from Russia. They both recommended that the United States assist Armenia in its pursuit for energy independence.  Mr. Ioanissian, Ms. Lanskoy and Mr. Katz analyzed the reasons for Armenia’s slow pace of reforms. They attributed the lagging pace to the inexperience of the new politicians and authorities swept into power by the revolution. All three witnesses stressed the importance of international assistance to strengthening Armenia’s democratic institutions—particularly the parliament and judiciary—to ensure the durability of future reforms. 

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