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Human Rights and Democracy in a Time of Pandemic
Reviewing OSCE Commitments and Recent Developments during the Coronavirus Outbreak
Tuesday, May 12, 2020

The outbreak of the novel coronavirus pandemic has prompted governments around the world to take extraordinary measures in the interest of public health and safety. As of early April, nearly two-thirds of the 57 participating States of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe had declared “states of emergency” or invoked similar legal measures in response to the crisis. Often such measures have enabled governments to enact large-scale social distancing policies and suspend economic activity to save lives and preserve the capacity of national public health infrastructure to respond to the spread of infections. At the same time, human rights organizations and civil society activists have expressed concern regarding the breadth of some emergency measures and recalled the long history of government abuse of emergency powers to trample civil liberties.

Exactly three decades ago, OSCE participating States unanimously endorsed a set of basic principles governing the imposition of states of emergency, including the protection of fundamental freedoms in such times of crisis. In 1990 in Copenhagen, OSCE countries affirmed that states of emergency must be enacted by public law and that any curtailment of human rights and civil liberties must be “limited to the extent strictly required by the exigencies of the situation.” According to the Copenhagen Document, emergency measures furthermore should never discriminate based on certain group characteristics or be used to justify torture.

Building on these commitments a year later in Moscow, participating States underscored that states of emergency should not “subvert the democratic constitutional order, nor aim at the destruction of internationally recognized human rights and fundamental freedoms.” The Moscow Document stresses the role of legislatures in imposing and lifting such declarations, the preservation of the rule of law, and the value of guaranteeing “freedom of expression and freedom of information…with a view to enabling public discussion on the observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms as well as on the lifting of the state of public emergency.”

In some corners of the OSCE region, however, national authorities are violating these and other OSCE commitments in the name of combatting coronavirus. While many extraordinary responses are justified in the face of this crisis, government overreach threatens the well-being of democracy and the resilience of society at a critical time.

Download the full report to learn more.

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  • Putin's Shadow Warriors

    Reports of shadowy Russian mercenaries in unexpected locations have grown more frequent and alarming. Yet, western understanding of the Kremlin’s use of private contractors — useful to Moscow for their deniability and relatively low cost — remains limited. Policy responses can be complicated by the potential conflation of Russian organizations, like the Wagner Group, with the private military and security companies used by the United States and its allies. At this Helsinki Commission briefing, experts shone a spotlight on the Kremlin’s destabilizing use of mercenaries around the world, clarified the difference between Moscow’s approach and that of the United States and its allies, and reviewed efforts underway internationally, within the OSCE and elsewhere, to develop and promote norms that would govern the use of private security and military companies (PMSCs). During the briefing, the audience heard from the RAND Corporation’s Dara Massicot, University of Denver Professor Dr. Deborah Avant, and recently retired U.S. Government technical expert on armed contractors Col. Christopher Mayer, U.S. Army retired. The briefing was moderated by Helsinki Commission Senior Policy Advisor Alex Tiersky. Mr. Tiersky explained in his opening remarks that even though reports of Russian mercenaries have become more frequent and alarming, our understanding of the Kremlin’s use of private security contractors remains somewhat limited. He pointed to The New York Times’ headline from the day before, which confirmed suspicions of Russian mercenaries in Libya, as an example of the relevancy of the issue today. Ms. Massicot began the panel with a broad overview about Russian PMSCs. She explained that there are two types of contracting groups in Russia: private security companies, which are legal entities in Russia that are more selective in their recruitment and types of missions, and private military companies (PMCs), which are illegal yet have proliferated in recent years. The most well-known Russian private military company is the Wagner Group, best known for its involvement in eastern Ukraine, Syria and Africa. Massicot also noted that Russian PMCs support both Russian grand strategy and the commercial interests of their owners. Dr. Avant remarked on the double-edged sword of the flexibility of PMSCs. On the one hand, they provide services for unexpected or necessary demands. For example, if a government needed French-speaking troops but did not have many of them, they could hire a private security company who could provide those forces. On the other hand, they are managed outside of regular political and military channels, resulting in an increased risk of misbehavior by the contracting government and the PMSC personnel. Dr. Avant briefly delved into the work of the International Code of Conduct Association, which seeks to define appropriate behavior for PMSCs. Col. Mayer spoke about the international and national efforts the United States government participated in to regulate the conduct of PMSCs. He specifically spoke about the Montreux Document, which details international legal obligations and good practices for states involved in the PMSC process, United States national laws that regulate PMSC conduct, and the International Code of Conduct for Private Security Service Providers. Col. Mayer also remarked on the current decrease of State Department and Defense Department involvement in international activity regarding PMSCs. This is concerning as it coincided with increased activity among mercenary groups, thereby threatening the gains made in the past 15 years by international agreements. However, Col. Mayer noted that there is hope for future United States reengagement, citing one promising initiative as the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly’s recent resolution on PMSC activity.

  • U.S. Helsinki Commission Hosts Staff Briefing on World’s Biggest Data Set of Hate Crime Statistics

    On Wednesday, October 23, 2019, the U.S. Helsinki Commission hosted a congressional staff briefing on addressing hate crimes in Europe and the United States. The event was moderated by Dr. Mischa Thompson, Director of Global Partnerships, Policy and Innovation at the U.S. Helsinki Commission. The Commission’s guest speaker, Cristina Finch, the Head of the Tolerance and Non-Discrimination Department at the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) provided an overview of hate crimes statistics in Europe and North America. She described the efforts that the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has made to address hate crimes and hate incidents in the region. Finch also discussed the commitments made by the 57 OSCE participating States to document, investigate, and prosecute hate crimes, as well as the tools and best practices available to assist countries in meeting their commitments. ODIHR’s Annual Report on Hate Crime combines official government reports submitted by 33 OSCE participating States with an additional 108 reports from 135 civil society organizations. In 2018, 5,258 hate crime incidents were reported to ODIHR. As Finch described it, this volume of information makes the report “the world’s biggest data set on hate crime.” The full 2018 Hate Incidents data set will be published on November 15, 2019. According to Finch, accurate recording of hate crimes by the police remains a serious issue. “In many countries police do not record hate crimes as a specific category in a systemic way,” she noted. “This means that information is missing, which impedes investigation, prosecution, prevention and policy making.” Other serious obstacles to publishing accurate data exist. For example, estimates indicate that 90 percent of hate crimes are not reported by victims to the police at all. Promoting safe, inclusive, and equitable societies is a priority of the Helsinki Commission for the 116th Congress. Commission efforts on inclusion have included briefings, hearings, legislation, and inter-parliamentary initiatives in the U.S. Congress and Europe.  Additionally, Helsinki Commission Ranking Member Sen. Ben Cardin serves as the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly’s Special Representative on Anti-Semitism, Racism, and Intolerance and has called for increased efforts to address hate crimes in the region.

  • Helsinki Commission Provides Robust, Bipartisan U.S. Representation at Inter-Parliamentary Gathering in Morocco

    Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) led a congressional delegation to Marrakech, Morocco, in early October for the 18th Autumn Meeting of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA). The delegation included Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS), an OSCE Vice President and head of the U.S. Delegation to OSCE PA in 2019, as well as Ranking House Commissioner Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02), Commissioner Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (MO-05) and Rep. Andy Harris (MD).  Prior to arriving in Marrakech, the delegation visited Tunisia and Israel for a firsthand examination of what recently has been a dynamic political landscape in each country, with implications for U.S. policy. The Assembly’s ongoing activities provide the United States good opportunities for active engagement of its allies and friends, as well as to advance issues of U.S. concern or interest.  Autumn Meetings were established in 2002 to bridge the gap between the OSCE PA’s annual sessions, usually held in late June or early July and ending with the adoption of a substantive declaration, and winter meetings held in mid-February to engage OSCE officials and institutions. Autumn meetings provide an additional opportunity for dialogue and often include—as was the case in Marrakech—a forum focusing on Mediterranean issues. The program also includes a meeting of the Standing Committee, composed of heads of delegations, which makes many of the executive decisions shaping OSCE PA activity.  For the first time, in 2019 the Autumn Meeting was hosted not by an OSCE participating State, but by a Mediterranean partner country. The 2019 meeting attracted approximately 190 parliamentarians from among the 57 participating States and five Mediterranean partner countries.  The U.S. delegation was the largest ever to an Autumn Meeting, making overall U.S. participation in the OSCE PA in 2019 the highest since the assembly was founded in 1991. Chairman Hastings addressed the Mediterranean forum, reporting on the delegation’s visit to Tunisia and Israel beforehand and emphasizing the need to increase opportunities for youth and to engage civil society. Co-Chairman Wicker also reported on delegation travels in the Standing Committee, concentrating on elections and government formation in Tunisia and Israel, adding that in Israel the threat posed by Iran also was an important topic. He also noted that the U.S. Government shared the concerns of France and Italy, among other countries, regarding Turkish drilling for natural gas in the Mediterranean Sea near Cyprus. The three other sessions of the Autumn Meeting focused on the security, economic/environmental and human dimensions of OSCE work, each with guest speakers from the host country or elsewhere in Africa.  In his capacity as a Vice President of OSCE PA, Sen. Wicker chaired a session on the exchange of best practices between the OSCE and African regional partners, noting that the OSCE’s concept of “comprehensive security” has had successful applications in European dialogue that could also be valuable in the wider Euro-Mediterranean region. Rep. Harris spoke in a session highlighting economic development and environmental migration, addressing issues ranging from human trafficking to energy diversity to water supplies. In a session on combating intolerance and discrimination based on religion or belief, Rep. Cleaver focused on the real dangers of rising intolerance in an ever-smaller world. On the margins of the formal sessions, the U.S. delegation held bilateral meetings with the parliamentary delegations of Ukraine and Morocco, and Chairman Hastings hosted all attending Mediterranean partner country parliamentarians to a session focusing on U.S. policy and interests in North Africa and the Middle East. Chairman Hastings and Co-Chairman Wicker also participated in a working lunch to discuss possible reforms of the OSCE PA to make the Assembly more effective and visible.  Rep. Harris attended an event convened by the OSCE Ad Hoc Committee on Migration, while Rep. Joe Wilson met with the Bulgarian and other delegations to discuss items of common interest.   The U.S. delegation also extensively engaged parliamentarians and diplomats from Albania ahead of that country’s chairmanship of the OSCE in 2020. While the OSCE PA will remain active throughout the remainder of 2019—including observing elections in Belarus and Uzbekistan and attending the December meeting of the OSCE Ministerial Council in Bratislava, Slovakia—the next large gathering of OSCE PA delegates will be in February of 2020, for the Winter Meeting in Vienna.

  • At What Cost?

    Sparked by the recent Turkish military offensive in northeastern Syria, increased tensions between the United States and Turkey have reignited the debate about the future of U.S.-Turkish bilateral relations. The Helsinki Commission convened this hearing to discuss how the United States should respond to the Turkish Government’s continuing abuse of human rights and fundamental freedoms. Expert witnesses at the hearing reviewed prominent cases of politically-motivated prosecution, failures of due process, and prospects for judicial reform as they relate to Turkey’s commitments as a member of both the OSCE and NATO. The panel also evaluated President Erdogan’s plan to return millions of Syrian refugees to their war-torn country or push them to Europe, and the human consequences of his military incursion into Syria. Presiding over the hearing, Commission Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson affirmed that as co-chair for the Caucus on U.S.-Turkey Relations & Turkish Americans he supports the people of Turkey and the U.S.-Turkish alliance. He cautioned, however, that President Erdogan’s actions threaten to undermine that alliance and damage the security of the region. Rep. Marc Veasey noted that Turkey is being “torn between two worlds”: one of democracy and one of autocracy. Sen. John Boozman and Rep. Steve Cohen were also present at the hearing. The Commission heard testimony from Gonul Tol, Director of the Center for Turkish Studies at the Middle East Institute; Merve Tahiroglu, the Turkey Program Coordinator at the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED); Henri Barkey, the Bernard L. and Bertha F. Cohen Professor at Lehigh University; Eric Schwartz, the President of Refugees International; and Talip Kucukcan, professor of sociology at Marmara University. Dr. Tol testified that “most freedoms under Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan have been dramatically curtailed” but counseled that Turkey “is not a fullblown dictatorship.” The Turkish government has targeted activists, journalists, and opposition politicians with “trumped-up terrorism charges and “largely criminalized Kurdish political expression.” She highlighted the opposition’s recent victories in mayoral elections as “a testament to the peoples of Turkey, the great majority of whom refuse to give up on the idea of democratic rule.” Dr. Tol further urged the United States to view “the Kurdish question…[as] a matter of democratization and human rights” for the Turkish state. Ms. Tahiroglu explained the deterioration of the rule of law under Erdogan’s government. According to her testimony, Erdogan’s administration has politicized the judiciary and rendered it “a main weapon against government critics and opponents” through repressive laws and false terrorism charges. She noted key judicial cases against civil society activists, journalists, opposition politicians, professors, U.S. citizens, and employees of U.S. consulates in the country. Ms. Tahiroglu testified that the breakdown of the rule of law in Turkey matters for U.S. interests because it has swept up U.S. citizens, “fuels anti-Americanism,” and “embolden[s] Turkey’s aggressive policies abroad by suppressing dissenting voices.” Dr. Barkey focused his testimony on the Turkish government’s suppression of the struggle for recognition of Kurdish social and political identity. Barkey explained the significance of the People’s Democratic Party (HDP)—Turkey’s second largest opposition party—in providing an opportunity for Turkey’s Kurdish population to participate in Turkish politics. “From that perspective, they have been very, very successful,” Barkey assessed. “It may have been far too successful for its own good.” Dr. Barkey detailed President Erdogan’s “relentless campaign to dismantle and delegitimize the HDP.” Mr. Schwartz spoke about the humanitarian implications of Turkey’s incursion into northeastern Syria. The reports of human rights abuses and civilian deaths are cause for deep concern, he said. He criticized the decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria instead of implementing a strategic departure. Schwartz concluded with a recommendation for the United States to support locally based NGOs that provide humanitarian assistance to populations by the Turkish operation. Dr. Kucukcan reminded the audience that Turkey’s incursion occurred with President Donald Trump’s consent. The incursion, he noted, serves to protect Turkey’s national security and preserve the territorial integrity of Syria.  Dr. Kucukcan disputed that Turkey plans “ethnic cleansing” or “demographic engineering in places where [military] operations took place.”

  • Helsinki Commission to Host Briefing on Kremlin Mercenaries Abroad

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following briefing: PUTIN’S SHADOW WARRIORS Mercenaries, Security Contracting, and the Way Ahead Wednesday, November 6, 2019 10:00 a.m. Rayburn House Office Building Room 2359 Live Webcast: www.facebook.com/HelsinkiCommission Reports of shadowy Russian mercenaries in unexpected locations have grown more frequent and alarming. Yet western understanding of the Kremlin’s use of private contractors—useful to Moscow for their deniability and relatively low cost—remains limited.  Policy responses can be complicated by the potential conflation of Russian organizations, like the Wagner Group, with the private military and security companies used by the United States and its allies. At this Helsinki Commission briefing, experts will shine a spotlight on the Kremlin’s destabilizing use of mercenaries around the world; clarify the difference between Moscow’s approach and that of the United States and its allies; and review efforts underway internationally, within the OSCE and elsewhere, to develop and promote norms that would govern the use of private security and military companies.  Panelists scheduled to participate include: Dr. Deborah Avant, Josef Korbel School of International Studies, University of Denver; author of The Market for Force: the Consequences of Privatizing Security; director of the Private Security Monitor Dara Massicot, Policy Researcher, RAND Corporation; former senior analyst for Russian military capabilities at the U.S. Department of Defense Col. Christopher T. Mayer (U.S. Army, Ret.), former Director of Armed Contingency Contractor Policies and Programs for the U.S. Department of Defense, responsible for the department's utilization of private security companies

  • 2019 ECONOMIC AND ENVIRONMENTAL DIMENSION IMPLEMENTATION MEETING

    By Camille Moore, Policy Advisor From October 14 – 15, 2019, approximately 150 senior officials, experts, academics, and non-governmental organization representatives gathered in Vienna, Austria for the 2019 Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Economic and Environmental Dimension and Implementation Meeting (EEDIM). Transboundary cooperation over natural resources is key to avoiding future geopolitical challenges; however, a changing global climate presents more existential obstacles. For example, the European Academies’ Science Advisory Council – a body of 27 national science academies from the EU, Norway, and Switzerland – found that the number of costly floods and other hydrological events have quadrupled since 1980 and have doubled since 2004. As the world’s largest regional security organization, the OSCE is uniquely equipped to address transboundary issues related to economics and the environment. For example, across the OSCE region there are over 150 river and lake basins shared by two or more participating States, making joint agreements and cooperation critical to conflict prevention and sustainable development. The 2019 EEDIM focused on the management, legal protection, and cooperation around energy and shared natural resources like water. Environmental crimes, good “green” governance, and the inclusion of women in water management were all highlighted at the meeting. Historically, the EEDIM sets the agenda for the decisions made at the annual December Ministerial Council. While the 2019 discussion was constructive and several noteworthy initiatives were shared, the overall dialogue focused on past accomplishments rather than plans to critically assess the present strength or future of shared cooperation over natural resources. Environmental Crimes Environmental crime is the third most lucrative transnational crime activity today—after narcotic drugs trafficking and counterfeiting—and generates an estimated $281 billion in illicit profits annually. The Group of Friends on the Environment is an informal coalition of participating States seeking to keep transboundary environmental crimes and environmental good governance high on the OSCE agenda. Participants include OSCE participating States Albania, Germany, Austria, Canada, the United States of America, France, Georgia, Italy, Kazakhstan, Latvia, Lithuania, Montenegro, the Czech Republic, the United Kingdom, Slovakia, and Switzerland. Defending the environment is no easy task and dangerous work. One non-governmental organization (NGO) present at the 2019 EEDIM noted the need for dedicated support to combat the perpetrators of environmental harm. Rather than inspiring further discussion about the real dangers faced by environmental defenders, however, the statement was met only with vague comments from a handful of participating States on the importance of funding environmental protection. Good “Green” Governance The Maastricht Strategy (2003) defines good governance as a contribution to prosperity, stability, and security at all levels. Within the environmental dimension, the OSCE promotes commitments to both good governance and environmental sustainability. Most, if not all, participants shared their 2030 plans to “green” their economies, which included measures like limiting industrial risk, aligning national and international economic agreements, and modernizing technological innovation for greater efficiency. Instead of sharing the obstacles they face in reaching the 2030 sustainable development goals or the funding and support they need to realistically meet their needs (for example, the OSCE offers its support of cross-border cooperation in the form of agreements like those between Albania and North Macedonia like the Ohrid Lake Joint Commission which establishes a framework for integrated border management to stabilize relations over Ohrid Lake), most nations focused solely on national policy strategies and improved legislative frameworks. Womenomics and Water Management Women are disproportionately burdened when water resources are mismanaged or scarce. “Women are much more active than men in activities related to water,” says Matluba Rajabalieva, Chairperson of the Garm Development Centre, a Tajikistan-based NGO working to promote women and girls’ empowerment in communities. Womenomics, the idea that women’s economic advancement improves the whole economy, has been well-documented in water management and has fueled several OSCE initiatives. The OSCE and its participating States have developed programming and initiatives that address water diplomacy with women-centric solutions. Through workshops, initiatives, and activities, the OSCE Gender Section and the Office of the Coordinator of OSCE Economic and Environmental Activities (OSCEEA) connects water users and decision makers and ensures gender parity between the two groups. At the EEDIM, the Permanent Delegation of Finland to the OSCE hosted an official side event titled “Water Diplomacy, Proactive Peace Mediation,” which focused on the OSCEEA’s extra-budgetary project, “Women, Water Management and Conflict Prevention.” The project aims to enhance the participation of women in conflict resolution and water management at all levels in Central Asia and Afghanistan. The Kazakh-German University also recently launched a water resource management program which focuses on women participation.

  • Hastings and Cardin Condemn Mob Attack on Budapest Community Center

    WASHINGTON—Following Wednesday’s mob attack on Aurora, a small Jewish community center that provides office space to civil society groups in Budapest, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) and Ranking Member Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) issued the following statements: “Wednesday’s mob attack on Aurora is an alarming escalation of violence toward minorities and civil society groups in Hungary. This second attack by paramilitary-style extremists in less than a month sends a frightening message: Authorities cannot, or will not, protect you,” said Chairman Hastings. “A decade ago, far-right extremists in Hungary orchestrated dozens of violent attacks, murdering six Hungarians including five-year-old Robert Csorba. The Government of Hungary must not allow such a tragedy to occur again.” “The Hungarian Government may boast of a ‘zero-tolerance for anti-Semitism’ policy abroad, but in reality, in Budapest they traffic in anti-Semitic tropes, honor fascist-era leaders and ideologues, and stoke hatred of migrants and Muslims,” said Sen. Cardin, who also serves as the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly Special Representative on Anti-Semitism, Racism, and Intolerance. “Actions speak louder than words. I hope that available photographs of the mob will aid law enforcement in the investigation and prosecution of the perpetrators, and I commend the district’s newly elected mayor for visiting Aurora and seeking to ensure its safety.” Marom, a Hungarian Jewish association, established and runs Aurora Community Center, an umbrella organization that provides office space to small civil society groups including the Roma Press Center, migrant aid, and Pride Parade organizers. In Wednesday’s attack, the mob burned a rainbow flag and branded a para-military logo onto the premises. On September 26, the center also was attacked and vandalized by extremists. Under the Orbán government, the conditions for independent nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in Hungary have deteriorated. Over the past two years, Hungarian authorities have accused Marom of administrative violations ranging from mismatched dates on official documents to, most recently, lacking an appropriate agreement with the center’s landlord. In 2018, Hungary passed a law establishing a 25 percent tax on organizations which engage in “propaganda activity that portrays immigration in a positive light.” It is a tax on government-disfavored speech. Hungary also adopted amendments to its "law on aiding illegal migration" that make handing out know-your-rights leaflets punishable by up to one year in prison. In 2017, Hungary adopted a Russian-style "foreign agent" law which, according to the U.S. Department of State, “unfairly burdens a targeted group of Hungarian civil society organizations, many of which focus on fighting corruption and protecting human rights and civil liberties.” The bill was proposed by the far-right wing party Jobbik. In 2014, armed police carried out raids on 13 civil society organizations, seizing computers and documents for alleged financial misconduct. No charges were ever brought against the NGOs. Between 2008 and 2010, at least six people were murdered, many others were injured, and whole communities were terrorized in a series of attacks by right-wing extremists.  Maria Balog was shot in her own home in a middle-of-the-night raid that also wounded her 13-year-old daughter. Jeno Koka was shot as he got in his car to go to work. Five-year-old Robert Csorba and his father were killed by sniper fire while attempting to escape an arson attack on their home.

  • Helsinki Commission Hearing to Review Human Rights Developments in Turkey

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following hearing: AT WHAT COST? The Human Toll of Turkey’s Policy at Home and Abroad Thursday, October 31, 2019 10:00 a.m. – 12:00 p.m. Rayburn House Office Building Room 2200 Live Webcast: www.youtube.com/HelsinkiCommission Sparked by the recent Turkish military offensive in northeastern Syria, increased tensions between the United States and Turkey have reignited the debate about the future of U.S.-Turkish bilateral relations. At the hearing, expert witnesses will discuss how the United States should respond to the Turkish Government’s continuing abuse of human rights and fundamental freedoms. Participants will review prominent cases of politically-motivated prosecution, failures of due process, and prospects for judicial reform as they relate to Turkey’s commitments as a member of both the OSCE and NATO. The panel also will evaluate President Erdogan’s plan to return millions of Syrian refugees to their war-torn country or push them to Europe, and the human consequences of his military incursion into Syria. The following witnesses are scheduled to participate: Henri Barkey, Bernard L. and Bertha F. Cohen Professor, Lehigh University Talip Kucukcan, Professor of Sociology, Marmara University Eric Schwartz, President, Refugees International Merve Tahiroglu, Turkey Program Coordinator, Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED) Gonul Tol, Director, Center for Turkish Studies, Middle East Institute (MEI) Additional witnesses may be added.

  • Remembering Rep. Elijah E. Cummings and His Global Legacy in the Security Sector

    By Nida Ansari, Policy Advisor and State Department Detailee and Dr. Mischa Thompson, Director of Global Partnerships, Policy, and Innovation “These measures are critical in enhancing the efficiency and effectiveness of the U.S. armed forces by addressing the under-representation of women and ethnic minorities and creating a diverse military that fully represents our nation’s citizens […] for the sake of our country, we can and must do better.”  – Congressman Elijah E. Cummings Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a stalwart voice in the U.S. Congress, passed away on October 17, 2019. Representing Baltimore, Maryland, his many legislative initiatives included groundbreaking work to advance diversity and inclusion in the security sector alongside Helsinki Commissioners and other global changemakers. In 2008, Rep. Cummings and other Members of Congress joined forces with then-Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin to establish the Military Leadership Diversity Commission (MLDC). Rep. Cummings’ goal was to increase the number of people of color and women in flag officer rank by focusing on military recruitment, retention, and promotion.  The 2011 MLDC final report, “From Representation to Inclusion: Diversity Leadership for the 21st-Century Military,” proposed 20 recommendations to develop policy goals and metrics to manage and sustain diversity at the U.S. Department of Defense.  Following the release of the report, Rep. Cummings, Sen. Cardin, and other Members of Congress held a 2012 Congressional Military Diversity Forum with MLDC Chairman General Lester Lyles, where the general raised the urgency of implementing the report’s recommendations to maintain force levels in concert with increasing diversity in the United States. Helsinki Commission efforts—including legislation by Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee Hastings and Sen. Cardin on the incorporation of women in combat divisions and on increasing diversity in the intelligence and national security workforces—have complemented and built upon Rep. Cummings’ work. Rep. Cumming’s efforts also were integral to the 2013 launch of the Mission Critical: Inclusive Leadership for the Security Sector program, led by the German Marshall Fund and supported by Helsinki Commission leadership.  Findings from the MLDC underpin the initiative, which brought together militaries, Members of Congress, staff of the Department of Defense, other government officials and experts from Europe and the United States to review and take stock of diversity and inclusion best practices in the security sector. “There must be an assigned and qualified individual on the command level to oversee military issues including discrimination, racial profiling, and hazing. In particular, the military needs to have a more effective response against hazing cases to better identify and respond to dangerous situations.  Women, minorities, and every single soldier should be able to achieve their goals when joining the military.”  – Congressman Elijah Cummings, Mission Critical 2013 As part of the inaugural Mission Critical event in 2013, Congressman Cummings highlighted lessons learned from the MLDC and the need to address discrimination and other problems, including hazing, in militaries to increase diversity and ensure the success of missions critical to national security.  Efforts to address these and other issues have continued at subsequent Mission Critical events, most recently in June 2019. Continuing to build upon the MLDC foundation, the event focused on diversity and inclusion issues related to personnel, the future of security, and technology in the security sector.  Speakers echoed the sentiments of Rep. Cummings years before. Then-German Federal Minister of Defense Ursula von der Leyen stressed the value of religious diversity in the armed forces, sharing how she was working to get the Bundeswehr’s military chaplaincy to include Jewish rabbis and Muslim imams instead of only the traditional Protestant and Roman Catholic chaplains.  Tjorven Bellmann of the German Federal Ministry of Foreign Affairs raised the importance of recruitment methods that appeal to young people from diverse backgrounds. He also noted that discrimination in the military remains a barrier for racial minorities, women, LGBT+, and other groups.  Nida Ansari, a State Department detailee to the Helsinki Commission, discussed U.S. Government inclusion efforts around faith communities. Ursula von der Leyen’s elevation to the Presidency of the European Commission offers hope for highly-placed advocacy of inclusive policies and concrete strategies beyond the security sector and broader dissemination of practices shared during Mission Critical. Congressman Cummings’ vision of a more inclusive security sector, and more inclusive societies generally, at home and abroad will not soon be forgotten.  Signs of progress include examples like General Lori Robinson, whose distinguished career included serving as the first woman to command a major Unified Combatant Command when she led United States Northern Command (USNORTHCOM) and the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) from May 2016 to May 2018.  The rarity of her example, however, only underlines the work that Mr. Cummings well knew was still required. With special thanks to Leah Perry, former Professional Staff Member, House Oversight Committee, for her assistance in providing background information for this article. 

  • 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. 

  • Inclusive Leadership Summit

    “The real political division lies between people who believe we should be more inward looking versus those who want a more globalized world.  If we don’t include citizens, then we diminish our values. Inclusivity is not a constraint, but a true opportunity we need to seize and build on.” - Drancy Mayor Aude Lavail-Lagarde, France By Nida Ansari and Dr. Mischa Thompson From September 18 to September 20, 2019, more than forty European and U.S. leaders representing 12 countries across Europe and the United States participated in the second annual Inclusive Leadership Summit held in Paris, France. Focused on Achieving Political Inclusion, the summit featured findings from a recent report and knowledge-sharing among participants on advancing the practice of inclusive leadership through four essential areas: inclusive representation in legislatures; inclusive policymaking; civic participation; and election systems. Hosted by the German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF), the Summit included alumni of the GMF, U.S. Helsinki Commission, and State Department-supported Transatlantic Inclusion Leaders Network.   As leaders incorporating inclusive practices into their organizations, participants emphasized the importance of the widening circle of representation in political discourse and establishing leadership networks to specific strategies and techniques to strengthen political inclusion. They also stressed the need for increased engagement with marginalized communities to ensure the development of policies that are inclusive of all members of society. Participants also discussed strategies for engaging political parties, navigating difficult political environments, and effectively promoting diversity across sectors to advance political inclusion. Participants also explored opportunities and pitfalls of political engagement through technology and the role of the private sector in advancing inclusivity. Dr. Mischa Thompson of the Helsinki Commission, facilitated a panel on how diverse government leaders have successfully envisioned and met inclusivity goals. Promoting safe, inclusive, and equitable societies is a priority of the Helsinki Commission for the 116th Congress. Commission efforts on inclusion have included briefings, hearings, legislation, and inter-parliamentary initiatives in the U.S. Congress and Europe. In addition, the Helsinki Commission frequently partners with the U.S. State Department and other stakeholders in the United States and Europe to empower diverse voices at the decision-making table to be able to effectively devise public policies that meet the needs of all members of society, rather than just a few.

  • HELSINKI COMMISSION TO REVIEW NEW WAYS TO FIGHT FOREIGN BRIBERY

    THIS HEARING HAS BEEN POSTPONED. RESCHEDULING INFORMATION WILL BE AVAILABLE SHORTLY. WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following hearing: ANTI-CORRUPTION INITIATIVES TO FIGHT EMERGING METHODS OF FOREIGN BRIBERY  Thursday, October 24, 2019 10:00 a.m. Rayburn House Office Building Room 2128  Live Webcast: www.youtube.com/HelsinkiCommission   The methods of foreign corrupt actors in the global economy have changed dramatically since America assumed the mantle of international anti-corruption champion with the passage of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) in 1977. The integration of formerly closed states into the global economy and the development of transformative technologies have led to unprecedented wealth, but also unprecedented corruption. This globalized variant of corruption hollows out rule-of-law institutions and threatens to dismantle the liberal world order that underpins U.S. national security and prosperity. This hearing will examine new anti-corruption trends and initiatives to determine how the United States can most effectively engage the evolving threat of foreign bribery. Currently, while the United States still leads the world in investigating and prosecuting this crime, the foreign corrupt officials who demand bribes are not liable under U.S. law. The Foreign Extortion Prevention Act (FEPA), developed with the support of the Helsinki Commission, seeks to close this loophole. The hearing also will examine dual-use technologies such as blockchain, which have the potential to help fight foreign bribery, but also to facilitate it. The following witnesses are scheduled to testify: Patrick Moulette, Head of the Anti-Corruption Division, OECD Directorate for Financial and Enterprise Affairs Casey Michel, Journalist David Lawrence, Founder and Chief Collaborative Officer, RANE Eric Lorber, Senior Director, Center on Economic and Financial Power, Foundation for Defense of Democracies Additional witnesses may be added.

  • HELSINKI COMMISSION HEARING TO EXAMINE DEMOCRATIC REFORMS IN ARMENIA

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following hearing: REFORM IN ARMENIA Assessing Progress and Opportunities for U.S. Policy Tuesday, October 22, 2019 2:00 p.m. – 4:00 p.m. Cannon House Office Building Room 210 Live Webcast: www.youtube.com/HelsinkiCommission 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. In light of these developments, the U.S. Helsinki Commission will convene 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. The following witnesses are scheduled to participate: Hamazasp Danielyan, Member of Parliament (My Step Alliance), National Assembly of Armenia Daniel Ioannisian, Program Director, Union of Informed Citizens Jonathan D. Katz, Senior Fellow, German Marshall Fund Arsen Kharatyan, Founder & Editor-in-Chief, Aliq Media Miriam Lanskoy, Senior Director, National Endowment for Democracy Additional witnesses may be added.

  • Chairman Hastings on Yom Kippur Shooting outside German Synagogue

    WASHINGTON—Following yesterday’s shooting outside of a synagogue in Halle, Germany, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) issued the following statement: “I am heartbroken to hear about the shooting near a synagogue in Germany where Jewish worshippers gathered to observe Yom Kippur. I stand in solidarity with the two innocent lives lost and the families and worshippers who were impacted by this senseless act of violence and hatred. As we commemorate the one-year anniversary of the Pittsburgh synagogue tragedy later this month, we must do more across borders to address these common challenges together.”

  • Chairman Hastings Leads Bipartisan Delegation to Tunisia, Israel, and Morocco

    WASHINGTON—From September 28 to October 6, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) led a bipartisan, bicameral U.S. delegation to Tunisia, Israel, and Morocco to assess the state of security, human rights, and democracy in the Middle East and North Africa. The delegation concluded with the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (PA) Autumn Meeting in Marrakech, Morocco, where the strong U.S. presence demonstrated the consistent and bipartisan commitment of the United States to security and cooperation in the OSCE and neighboring Mediterranean regions. “As a Member of Congress, I spent decades traveling to the Middle East and North Africa,” said Chairman Hastings, who formerly served President of the OSCE PA as well as the OSCE PA Special Representative to the Mediterranean Partners for Cooperation. “This trip was an occasion to revisit long-standing relationships and discuss some of the most consequential dynamics impacting the Mediterranean region today.” Chairman Hastings was joined on the delegation by Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS); Helsinki Commission Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02), Helsinki Commissioner Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, II (MO-05), and Rep. Andy Harris (MD-01). In Tunisia, the delegation met with Interim President Mohamed Ennaceur, who noted that that the gravest threat facing his nation is the economic and social despair afflicting many young people. Members also held roundtable discussions with civil society groups and local and international election observers, who provided an assessment of the September 15 presidential election and prospects for country’s upcoming legislative election and presidential run-off. In Israel, the delegation met with both Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mohamed Shtayyeh. Members also met with civil society to assess possible threats to the rule of law impacting both Israelis and Palestinians, and with Christian leaders to explore interreligious relations and the mediating role Christian churches play in the Holy Land. During the OSCE PA Autumn Meeting, Chairman Hastings and other members of the delegation discussed ways to maximize cooperation with OSCE Mediterranean Partners in areas ranging from migration and human trafficking, to tolerance and non-discrimination, to energy and water, all in the context of good governance and democratic institutions. “In the coming days, I urge you, my distinguished colleagues, to continue exploring ways to integrate civil society in our work and to deepen engagement with the OSCE Mediterranean Partners, particularly through support for, and observation of their electoral processes,” said Chairman Hastings during the meeting. Co-Chairman Wicker, who serves as a vice-president of the OSCE PA and as the 2019 Head of the U.S. Delegation to the OSCE PA, chaired a session focusing on regional and national perspectives of cooperation across North Africa and the African continent. In Morocco, members also met with the Algerian, Moroccan, and Ukrainian delegations to the OSCE PA; OSCE PA President George Tsereteli; and OSCE PA Secretary General Roberto Montella.

  • Remarks to the Mediterranean Forum

    Autumn Meeting of the OSCE PA *NOTE: As prepared for delivery* Before arriving in Morocco, I led a bicameral and bipartisan Congressional delegation to Tunisia and Israel. While in these countries, my colleagues and I held high-level exchanges with national leadership, civil society, religious leaders, and others to assess the current state of regional security, human rights and democracy. As a Member of Congress, I spent decades traveling to the Middle East and North Africa.  I was never more proud of that engagement, than when I served as President of the Parliamentary Assembly and its  Special Representative to the Mediterranean Partners for Cooperation. This trip was an occasion to revisit longstanding relationships and discuss some of the most consequential dynamics impacting the Mediterranean region today. Our delegation arrived in Tunisia and Israel at sensitive political moments. Tunisia held its second democratic presidential election ever on September 15 and will follow in the coming weeks with its third-ever free legislative election and a presidential run-off. In Israel, the country’s second national election this year on September 17 once again delivered an ambiguous result, touching off a flurry of government formation negotiations with no end in sight. In Tunis, my colleagues and I met with Interim President Mohamed Ennaceur. I commended him for leading his country through a historic peaceful transition of power following the death of President Beji Caid Essebsi earlier this year. When I asked about the most serious existential threat facing Tunisia, he had a bracing assessment: that the gravest threat is the economic and social despair afflicting so many youth. We should heed President Ennaceur’s words and commit ourselves during this meeting of the Parliamentary Assembly to discussing ways to restore hope and opportunity for the youth in our societies. Early next year, I intend to do my part to respond to the call of President Ennaceur and others by hosting young parliamentarians from throughout the OSCE region and the Partners for Cooperation in Washington for a seminar that empowers our future leaders. I look forward to sharing details with your delegations in the near term. While in Tunisia, our delegation also held roundtables with civil society groups and local and international election observers. I was encouraged by the bold commitment of these groups to preserving and advancing the gains Tunisia has made since 2011 in respect for the rule of law, democracy, and fundamental freedoms. I remain concerned, however, that the ongoing imprisonment of one of the leading presidential candidates could undermine confidence in the democratic process. In Israel, our delegation met both with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mohamed Shtayyeh. Both leaders were candid in their assessments of the impasse in the peace process. While no clear opportunities emerged, I was affirmed in my belief that parliamentary diplomacy bridges divides. Prime Minister Netanyahu shared his sobering assessment of the global threat posed by Iran and the existential danger it poses to the people of Israel. I hope we will discuss ways of addressing this matter during our debates in the coming days. During a roundtable with Israel-based civil society, we heard warnings about possible threats to the rule of law impacting both Israeli citizens and Palestinians. In a separate meeting with the leaders of major Christian denominations, including Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem Theophilos III, we explored interreligious relations and the mediating role Christian churches play in the Holy Land. In Luxembourg this summer, this assembly passed a resolution I authored on the importance of integrating and protecting civil society engagement in the work of the OSCE and this Assembly. Our meetings with such groups in Tunis and Jerusalem confirms the value of consulting local activists in our work as parliamentarians at home and abroad. In the coming days, I urge you, my distinguished colleagues, to continue exploring ways to integrate civil society in our work and to deepen engagement with the Mediterranean Partners, particularly through support for- and observation of their electoral processes.

  • Safe and Dignified Return

    In July, nearly 300 parliamentarians from the 57 OSCE participating States met for the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (PA) 2019 annual session in Luxembourg, where they addressed in a final declaration the wide range of issues of current concern to the organization. Of these issues, none received more attention than those relating to human rights and humanitarian questions; the relevant section of the declaration contained more than 180 paragraphs. Leading subjects of concern included the treatment of investigative journalists, manifestations of discrimination and intolerance in society, gender inequality, and efforts to stifle dissent. The text also focused heavily on migration, including the rights of refugees. During the consideration of a final text for adoption, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (TX-18), who has been active in representing the United States at OSCE PA meetings in recent years and serves on the OSCE PA’s Ad Hoc Committee on Migration, proposed an amendment underlining the importance of the right of safe return of refugees. Her amendment, co-sponsored by other members of Congress and by parliamentarians from Cyprus, Georgia, Ireland, Italy, and North Macedonia, made clear that returns should not only be safe, but also voluntary and dignified. The adopted text, included in the Luxembourg Declaration, reads as follows: “The OSCE Parliamentary Assembly underlines that the right of voluntary, safe and dignified return for refugees and internally displaced persons to their homes and properties must be guaranteed;” The concept of voluntary return is at the heart of binding international law on refugees. The 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees states, “No Contracting State shall expel or return (‘refouler’) a refugee in any manner whatsoever to the frontiers of territories where his life or freedom would be threatened on account of his race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.” The convention originally was restricted to people who became refugees because of “events occurring in Europe before 1 January 1951.” The 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, which removed the convention’s time and geographic restrictions, maintains the binding “non-refoulement” obligation. There are only a few exceptions on “grounds of national security or public order” and only after “due process of law.” According to the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, presented in 1998 by the United Nations Secretary General’s Representative on Internally Displaced Persons, “Competent authorities have the primary duty and responsibility to establish conditions, as well as provide the means, which allow internally displaced persons to return voluntarily, in safety and with dignity, to their homes or places of habitual residence, or to resettle voluntarily in another part of the country.” The principles are not legally binding on governments, but they are the point of reference for how a government should respond to internally displaced persons.

  • Co-Chairman Wicker Welcomes Confirmation of Assistant Secretary Destro

    WASHINGTON—Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) today welcomed the confirmation of Robert A. Destro to serve as the Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor. The Assistant Secretary traditionally also serves as the State Department’s representative on the Helsinki Commission. “I am pleased that Assistant Secretary Destro has been confirmed to this critical post, and I look forward to working closely with him to promote security and human rights around the globe,” said Co-Chairman Wicker. “I encourage the White House to act quickly and formally appoint him to the Helsinki Commission. America’s voice is strongest and most effective when our executive and legislative branches work together. The Helsinki Commission offers a unique opportunity to reap the benefits of such a partnership.” Mr. Destro is a human rights advocate and a civil rights attorney with expertise in religious freedom issues and election law. He is also professor of law and founding director of the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies at The Catholic University of America.

  • Helsinki Commission Leaders Appoint Shannon Simrell as Representative to U.S. Mission to the OSCE

    WASHINGTON—Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20), Chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (U.S. Helsinki Commission), today announced the appointment of Shannon Simrell as the Representative of the Helsinki Commission to the U.S. Mission to the OSCE (USOSCE). “On behalf of the Commission leadership, I am pleased to welcome Shannon Simrell as the Helsinki Commission’s representative to USOSCE for the 116th Congress,” said Chairman Hastings. “Her extensive experience with a wide variety of OSCE missions and institutions makes her an invaluable resource not only to the Helsinki Commission but also to Ambassador Gilmore and our other State Department colleagues.” For 25 years, Simrell has worked to advance U.S. comprehensive security objectives in the Balkans, Central and Eastern Europe, Caucasus, and Central Asia. Early in her career, Simrell organized short-term democratization and environmental study tours in the United States for emerging leaders in Central and Eastern Europe and Russia. Between 2006 and 2008, she served first as a democratization officer then as acting regional center director at the OSCE mission in Kosovo. Following her time in Kosovo, Simrell spent a decade recruiting, deploying, and supporting more than 2,300 American experts serving in nearly 100 OSCE permanent, special, and election observation missions on behalf of the U.S. Department of State.  During this time, she observed elections in Kosovo, Georgia, Ukraine, and Tajikistan, and conducted dozens of site visits to OSCE missions and institutions. Simrell replaces Janice Helwig, who returns to the Helsinki Commission in Washington to resume her previous position of senior policy advisor. Helwig’s portfolio will include Central Asia, trafficking in persons, and the OSCE’s human dimension.

  • A Global Pandemic: Disinformation

    By Annie Lentz,  Max Kampelman Fellow Popularly and ambiguously dubbed “fake news,” malign efforts to spread false facts often are wrongly lumped together with politicians’ diatribes against negative media coverage. Well-orchestrated disinformation campaigns do exist around the world, using algorithms, social platforms, and advertisements as a means of deceiving the public and undermining democracy. Due to its proliferation and widespread attention, the definition of so called “fake news” has been lost. Even the meaning of the terms it is defined by are ambiguous. In fact, misinformation and disinformation are not synonymous. Misinformation refers the inadvertent spread of false information, while disinformation refers to the purposeful circulation of deceptive news stories by both state and nonstate actors. Disinformation plagues the modern world in increasingly sophisticated and pervasive ways largely due to widespread use of social media. Whether it’s shared through Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, or WhatsApp, fake news is easy to share, difficult to identify, and almost impossible to stop. Easy to Share The trickle-down effect of counterfeit news campaigns is massive. A single fake story has the potential to reach millions, propagated by bots and trolls and manipulation of social media content algorithms. For example, a heavily edited interview from conservative CRTV portrayed a fictional conversation between one of their hosts and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez where the Congresswoman admitted to know nothing of the legislative process. Although CRTV eventually said it was satire, the video was viewed almost 1 million times within 24 hours prior to CRTV’s clarification. This was not an isolated incident. Thanks to the universality of social media, with Facebook and Twitter having a global presence economically and socially, cultures around the world are all susceptible to manipulation through such platforms. Following the 2019 European Union elections—second only to India as the largest democratic elections in the world—the European Commission documented “ongoing disinformation campaigns” by Russian sources. Officials went on to demand Facebook, Google, and Twitter “step up their efforts” in combatting fake news; they classified the fight as enduring, saying, “Malign actors constantly change their strategies. We must strive to be ahead of them.” The influence and impact of Russian disinformation efforts remains unknown and therefore future elections in both the EU and elsewhere remain at risk. Difficult to Identify Several aspects of the communication space make disinformation hard to identify. When reading content from a seemingly trustworthy source, even if there is no evidence of professionalism, most naturally consider the information to be trustworthy. However, that is not always the case and those creating and spreading propaganda are well-versed in mimicking reputable sources in structure and design. Moreover, the more specific the topic and narrow the scope, the easier it is for disinformation to spread as consumers lack the background and context to identify red flags, which are becoming ever harder to detect. According to Politifact, earlier this year a Facebook post about Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, claiming he was trying to take away health care from millions of Americans, went viral. This claim was a mischaracterization of his stance on federal funding for health care and falsified his personal history with the program. Regardless, the false narrative spread to thousands of people who lacked the in-depth background knowledge to recognize the inaccuracy. Disinformation is not limited to false news stories or phony websites; it also extends to doctored photos and videos, like the CRTV interview previously mentioned. The Washington Post’s guide to fact-checking video makes the point, “Seeing isn’t believing.” Even high-profile politicians can be fooled by such disinformation. One doctored video appearing to show Nancy Pelosi drunk that was retweeted by President Trump, who shared the false narrative with more than 62.8 million followers. Even content originating from seemingly trustworthy sources can be deceptive. For example, pro-Brexit campaigns from the UK Independence Party (UKIP) during the EU referendum vote in 2016 told a false story through misleading photos (actually from the border of Slovenia) of thousands of immigrants pouring into the UK. Though the poster and campaign were widely condemned, it is impossible to measure the number of voters that may have been influenced. However, the very existence of such misleading material threatened the democratic integrity of the referendum. The Russia Problem While there are many guilty parties—like those who spread doctored stories and videos leading up to India’s elections in April and May of 2019 and incited hatred between Buddhists and Muslims in Sri Lanka and Malaysia on Facebook—the biggest culprit behind the growth of widespread disinformation is the Russian Government. The Kremlin has used sophisticated disinformation campaigns to justify its actions in Crimea and eastern Ukraine, interfere in the 2019 European Union elections, and attempt to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential elections. However, Kremlin interference isn’t isolated to politics. RT America, cited as a principle meddler in the 2016 presidential elections, aired a campaign of stories about health risks associated with 5G signals, none of which were supported by scientific facts. Such efforts from “the Kremlin’s principal international propaganda outlet” match what experts cite as the Kremlin’s ultimate goal: to amplify voices of dissent, sow public discord, and exacerbate social divides. Impossible to Stop … or Not? There is no global police force to defend against disinformation. There are platform-specific efforts, such as Facebook’s regulations for political advertising; grassroots efforts, like Factitious, an online game designed to teach students to identify fake news stories; and coalitions like the one formed by Facebook, Google and Twitter after the March 15 massacre in Christchurch, New Zealand, when the tech giants signed an agreement with world leaders to fight hate speech online. However, with the amount of disinformation growing every day and no unified or cohesive approach from both the public and private sector to aggressively and actively combat online propaganda, these efforts are akin to putting a Band-Aid on a broken leg. Any attempts to regulate disinformation are constrained by the right to free speech. If the response is too broad–whether from a corporation like Facebook or a government entity–it quickly challenges the fundamental freedoms afforded to citizens. On the one hand, stopping false facts from spreading and inundating social media benefits democracy and freedom the world round. On the other hand, the people’s right to free speech must be respected. Any meaningful efforts to battle disinformation must carefully balance the protection of the community against the protection of the individual. In addition, those with the best ability to fight against disinformation—private companies like Facebook and Twitter—have no true legal obligation to do so and may have alternative interests in terms of profit. Until Congress shined a light on this problem, there were no serious efforts on the part of social media platforms to fight against foreign influence. As social platforms and their users maintain the right to freedom of expression, the ability of Congress to require them to undertake any specific efforts is lacking. However, that hasn’t stopped them from trying. There are other solutions. One is promoting better media literacy among citizens, so they can more easily identify false or misleading information. Another is “sourcing” news stories, so readers know the true origin of a story—a story about a local issue in Kansas may in fact emanate from Russia, for example. The content would still be available, but readers would have a better awareness of potential manipulation by outside actors. To combat the ripple effect of disinformation, media self-regulation to verify sources and stories before publishing them is another effective tool. The most important and most effective way to confront disinformation is by understanding it. Through events like the 2017 Helsinki Commission hearing on Russian Disinformation, and OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media Harlem Désir’s efforts to lead the OSCE in combatting disinformation, additional progress can be made. Disinformation is a disease to which no one is immune; the longer the virus goes untreated, the worse it becomes.

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