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Political Participation and Ethnic Division in Bosnia and Herzegovina
Wednesday, September 13, 2017

From September 11 to September 22, 2017, the OSCE participating States meet in Warsaw, Poland, for the Human Dimension Implementation Meeting (HDIM).  The HDIM is Europe’s largest annual human rights event. Over the course of two weeks, the 57 participating States will discuss compliance with consensus-based commitments on full range of fundamental freedoms, democracy, tolerance and nondiscrimination, and humanitarian concerns.

While denial of equal opportunities for all citizens to participate in the political life of their country is a concern in many OSCE countries, the ethnic restrictions in the constitution of Bosnia and Herzegovina which deny Bosnian citizens the right to run for certain political offices is perhaps the most blatant example of this problem among the OSCE participating States.

Download the full report to learn more.

Contributor: Robert Hand, Senior Policy Advisor

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  • Chairman Smith Underscores Plight of Political Prisoners in OSCE Region on International Human Rights Day

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  • Helsinki Commission Briefing to Probe Human Rights Violations in Occupied Crimea

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  • Marking 20 Years Since the Signing of the Dayton Peace Accords

    Mr. SMITH of New Jersey. Mr. Speaker, November 21 will mark the 20th anniversary of the Dayton Agreement, which ended the conflict in Bosnia-Herzegovina from 1992 to 1995.  As a member and later Chairman of the Helsinki Commission, I remember those events vividly—many Bosnians and Serbs testified before the Helsinki Commission in the 1990s (including victims of human rights abuses and human rights defenders) and some have since played leading roles as elected officials. In 1991, Frank Wolf and I visited Vukovar in neighboring Croatia while it was still under siege. With a group of other Helsinki Commissioners and Members of Congress, I urged a decisive international response under U.S. leadership from the very beginning of the war. In 1995 we spearheaded a movement to lift the arms embargo on Bosnia, so that it would not present such an inviting target to Serb militias. Sadly the embargo was lifted too late for the Bosniaks in Srebrenica.  Just last month I met with a group of young Bosniaks belonging to Voices of the Bosnian Genocide. It was so moving to meet with these young people—many of them were from Srebrenica—and to learn how many of them had taken up work or study that sought to bring some good out of the horrors of 1995. Many studied human rights law, or conflict resolution, or medicine.  Their lives were shaped not only by Srebrenica but also by Dayton, which brought an end to the killing. Yet as public officials we have a responsibility to remember that robust action earlier in the conflict could have saved many more lives and produced better prospects for the future.  Twenty years later, this Dayton anniversary offers the opportunity to assess what has been achieved in Bosnia-Herzegovina. The agreement should rightly be remembered for restoring a peace that has held to this day, and for ensuring the sovereignty, unity and territorial integrity of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Dayton gave the country time to begin to heal from a horrific conflict infamous for ethnic cleansing and atrocities against innocent civilians, including the genocide at Srebrenica— which we remembered with the unanimous passage of House Resolution 310 this past July—as well as the shelling of Sarajevo and other urban centers, and the rape and death camps established by Serb militant forces at the beginning of their aggression. In this small country, over two million were displaced by the conflict, more than 100,000 were killed, and tens of thousands were raped or tortured. Scars made by crimes of this scale still remain.  Dayton was a central part of an effort that helped the international community transition from a world divided between East and West in order to meeting post-Cold War challenges, including the extreme and violent nationalism and its inherent hatred for others which manifested itself elsewhere in the Balkans and Europe. For the first time since World War II, an international tribunal was established to hold persons accountable for war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide. Determining the fate of missing persons, using new technology such as satellite photography to locate mass graves and DNA testing to identify remains, became a priority. The NATO Alliance, previously confined to the borders of its member states, expanded its security role to operate ‘‘out of area,’’ first to restore peace and then to keep it. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe also evolved to include significant field operations and new mandates ranging from election observation to police training. These developments remain relevant today.  As we commemorate the accomplishments of Dayton, Mr. Speaker, we also must remember that the people of Bosnia-Herzegovina must live in its wake. It is my hope that, at the 30th anniversary of the end of the conflict, Bosnia will have made more progress and we will have more to celebrate.

  • Helsinki Commission Chair Honored by Voices of the Bosnian Genocide

    WASHINGTON—Voices of the Bosnian Genocide honored Helsinki Commission Chair Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04) on Thursday with an award recognizing his efforts to ensure that the genocide at Srebrenica is acknowledged. “It is moving to receive this award from young people, many of whom are survivors of the genocide or lost relatives at Srebrenica and are now working to promote human rights,” said Rep. Smith. “Today the international community is nearly unanimous when it proclaims that the Srebrenica massacre was a genocide, although shockingly, there are those who continue to deny that the policies of aggression and ethnic cleansing implemented by Serb forces meet that criteria.” For more than 20 years, Rep. Smith has worked tirelessly to see that the perpetrators of the horrific acts at Srebrenica and elsewhere in Bosnia-Herzegovina are punished and that closure is provided to survivors and victims’ families. In July 2015, Rep. Smith authored H. Res. 310 defining the Srebrenica massacre as a genocide, which was passed unanimously by the U.S. House of Representatives.   Voices of the Bosnian Genocide is a Seattle-based nonprofit organization devoted to raising awareness and educating the public about the genocide that took place in Bosnia-Herzegovina in the 1990s and the ongoing effects that the genocide is having on Bosnia and the world. The group is made up of individuals who are passionate about genocide education and prevention and human rights.

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

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  • Helsinki Commission Chair Deplores Attack on Serbian Prime Minister during Srebrenica Commemoration

    WASHINGTON—Following the stone-throwing attack on Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic at Saturday’s ceremony commemorating the 20th anniversary of the Srebrenica genocide, Helsinki Commission Chair Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04) issued the following statement: “Such violence is unworthy of the memory of the thousands of innocent civilians who were massacred in the genocide 20 years ago. Prime Minister Vucic’s attendance at the ceremony demonstrated a willingness to seek reconciliation and learn from the past.  I add my voice to those who have condemned the mob attack in the strongest possible terms and I urge the Bosnian authorities to take the necessary steps to apprehend and prosecute those responsible.” Rep. Smith is the author of the recently passed H. Res. 310, which affirms that the policies of aggression and ethnic cleansing implemented by Serb forces at Srebrenica constituted genocide, and condemns statements denying that the massacres meet the definition of genocide. Since 1995, Rep. Smith has worked to see that the perpetrators of the horrific acts at Srebrenica are punished and that closure is provided to survivors and victims’ families.

  • Urging Passage of H. Res. 310

    Madam Speaker, this week, the world pauses to remember and reflect on the Srebrenica genocide, horrific acts of brutality, wanton cruelty, and mass murder committed in Srebrenica beginning July 11, 20 years ago. This week, we pause to honor those brave Bosniaks who suffered and died, victims of genocide. This week, the people in the United States and men and women of goodwill throughout the world again extend our deepest condolences and respect to the mothers and surviving family members who have endured unspeakable sorrow and loss that time will never abate. And this week, the international community must recommit itself to justice, once and for all, for those who perpetrated these heinous crimes. Today, Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic are incarcerated, awaiting final disposition of their cases before the International Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia for multiple counts of genocide, crimes against humanity, and violations of laws and customs of war. Twenty years ago, Madam Speaker, an estimated 8,000 people were systematically slaughtered by Bosnian Serb soldiers in the United Nations-designated “safe haven” area of Srebrenica. They killed Muslim women and children, but especially sought out and murdered adult males in that area. These brutal killings were not committed in battle. They were committed against people who were unarmed and helpless and who had been repeatedly assured by Dutch peacekeepers that they would not be harmed if they surrendered. The evidence is overwhelming that the executions were committed with the specific intention of destroying the Bosnian Muslim population of that area. This intention is the central element in the crime of genocide. The U.N. peacekeeping forces in Srebrenica were charged with enforcing Security Council Resolution 836, which had pledged to defend the safe areas with “all necessary means, including the use of force.” But when the moment of truth came, the U.N. forces offered only token resistance to the Serb offensive. Their military and political commanders had redefined their primary mission not as the protection of the people of Srebrenica, but as the safety of the U.N. forces themselves. When Bosnian Serb Commander Ratko Mladic threatened violence against the blue- helmeted soldiers here is the way one of those soldiers described the reaction. And I quote him: ‘‘everybody got a fright. You could easily get killed in such an operation. As far as I knew, we had not been sent to Srebrenica to defend the enclave, but, rather, as some kind of spruced-up observers.’’ So that is what the peacekeepers became: observers to genocide. Soon they became something more than observers: enablers. On July 13, the Dutch blue-helmet battalion handed Bosnian Muslims who had sought safety within the U.N. compound over to the Serbs. They watched as the men were separated from the women and children, a process which was already well known in Bosnia—it was at the time—as a sign that the men were in imminent danger of being executed. These men were never heard from again. At one congressional hearing I chaired in March of 1998—and I had six of them— Hasan Nuhanovic, the indigenous translator working for the U.N. peacekeepers in Srebrenica, testified. He was there in the room. Hasan lost his family in the genocide. He was there when Mladic and the commanders of the Dutch peacekeepers talked about the terms. Here is what he told my panel, in part: “On July 12, the day before the fall of Srebrenica, the Bosnian Serb Army commander, General Ratko Mladic, requested a meeting with the Dutchbat commander, Lieutenant Colonel Karemans, and local representatives of Srebrenica in the nearby town of Bratunac outside the enclave . . . During the meeting, Mladic assured the Dutch and local delegation that no harm would come to the refugees in Potocari . . . “Upon returning to the camp, three local representatives are ordered by Dutchbat deputy commander, Major Franken, to prepare a list of all males, all men and boys between the ages of 16 and 65 among the refugees inside and outside the camp. The list of the males among the 6,000 inside the camp was completed the same day . . . “On July 13, the Dutch ordered 6,000 refugees out of the Potocari camp. The Serbs were waiting at the gate, separating all males from the women and children. Major Franken stated that all the males whose names were on the list would be safe . . . I watched my parents and my brother being handed over to the Serbs at the gate. None of them have been seen since. “I want to explain here that the people hoped that the Dutch were going to protect them, the U.N. peacekeeping troops and all other members of all other organization who were present in Srebrenica who were inside the camp, the people hoped that they would be protected, but the Dutch soldiers and officer gave no other option to the refugees but to leave. So the refugees inside were told to leave without any other choice. My family was told on the evening of 13 July that they should leave. About 6 p.m., there were no more refugees inside the camp. “I don’t know if this is the topic of the meeting or hearing, but the same night the Dutch soldiers had a party inside the camp because they received two or three trucks full of beer and cigarettes. They played music while I was sitting, not knowing what happened to my family.” As he went on to say later, they had all been slaughtered. In July of 2007, Madam Speaker, I visited Srebrenica, where, together with my good friends President Haris Silajdzic and the Grand Mufti of Bosnia, Reis Ceric, I spoke at a solemn memorial service and witnessed the internment of hundreds of wooden coffins of newly discovered victims of the genocide. It was a deeply moving experience to see 12 years then after the genocide— now it is 20 years—families still grieving loved ones whose bodies were being identified, often miles from the killing sites, as Serb forces, trying to hide the evidence of their crimes, moved the bodies of their victims. For the record, 10 years ago—in 2005— the House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed H. Res. 199, which I authored, which clearly and unambiguously condemned the Srebrenica massacre for what it was: genocide. That resolution was a landmark in the recognition of the Srebrenica massacre as a genocide. Two years later the verdict of the International Court of Justice found the same, in confirming the ruling of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. Today the international community is nearly unanimous when it proclaims that the Srebrenica massacre was a genocide. The resolution today, of course, supports that as well. Astonishingly, Madam Speaker, there are some genocide deniers. That is why this resolution condemns statements that deny that the massacre at Srebrenica constituted genocide. Just last weekend Milorad Dodik, the president of Republika Srpska, asserted that the Srebrenica genocide is a lie. Madam Speaker, just as it is doing in Ukraine, Russia is utilizing misinformation and historical revisionism in an attempt to destabilize Bosnia and the Balkan region. Today Russia vetoed a British U.N. Security Council resolution that reaffirms that Srebrenica was a genocide. Russia has encouraged Serbia itself to protest the resolution and emboldened genocide denialism in the Republika Srpska, one of Bosnia’s two constituent entities. Madam Speaker, this resolution also encourages the administration to fulfill other neglected responsibilities. In particular, it urges the Atrocities Prevention Board to study the lessons of Srebrenica and issue informed guidance on how to prevent similar incidents from recurring in the future. As you may know, the Atrocities Prevention Board is a U.S. interagency committee established by the administration in 2012 to flag potential atrocities. However, since its creation, the board has been marked by inaction and a complete lack of transparency. This is unacceptable, especially as conflicts with disturbing parallels to Bosnia before the genocide continue to fester in Syria, the Central African Republic, Burma, and in Burundi. Africa, in particular, would stand to benefit from a more active board. The conflict in Burundi is currently at a tipping point, and it absolutely needs attention.  Madam Speaker, despite the need for much greater atrocities prevention in U.S. policy, there have been many promising developments in the Balkan region, and this needs to be underscored. In particular, I would note that Serbia today is not the Serbia of the Slobodan Milosevic era. That era was marked by nationalist aggression against neighboring countries and peoples, as well as considerable repression at home. One of those who testified at one of my hearings on Serbia, Curuvija, a great young leader, was murdered on the second day after our bombing began by Serbian people. And the persons who did that have now been held to account. So what has happened there—thankfully, there have now been significant changes in Serbia. I want to thank my colleagues. I do hope we will have a strong show of support for this resolution. I reserve the balance of my time.

  • Helsinki Commission Chair Introduces Resolution Marking 20th Anniversary of Srebrenica Genocide

    WASHINGTON—Ahead of the 20th anniversary of the atrocity committed at Srebrenica in Bosnia and Herzegovina in July, Helsinki Commission Chair Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04) today introduced a resolution to affirm that the policies of aggression and ethnic cleansing implemented by Serb forces in that country constituted genocide as well as to condemn statements denying that the massacres meet the definition of genocide. The resolution has 28 original co-sponsors, 14 Republicans and 14 Democrats. H. Res. 310 urges the Atrocities Prevention Board—an interagency organization charged with helping the U.S. government identify and address atrocity threats—to issue guidance on preventing future genocides, and encourages the United States to continue to support the independence and territorial integrity of Bosnia and Herzegovina, as well as peace and stability in southeastern Europe as a whole. This comes as part of a broader effort to push the Obama Administration to take atrocities prevention seriously. “The thousands of innocents who were brutally slaughtered at Srebrenica deserve our remembrance of the tragedy for what it was: genocide,” said Rep. Smith. “The international community must ensure the perpetrators are held accountable for their actions, and study the lessons of Srebrenica with the aim of preventing future atrocities, particularly in current conflicts in the Central African Republic, Burundi, and Syria. In addition, we must continue to uphold the right of all people in Bosnia and Herzegovina and throughout the Balkans today—no matter their ethnic or religious background—to enjoy the benefits of democracy, the rule of law, and economic opportunity.” The July 1995 massacre at Srebrenica was one of the worst atrocities to occur in the conflict in Bosnia and Herzegovina between April 1992 and November 1995, during which period more than 2,000,000 people were displaced, more than 100,000 were killed, and tens of thousands were raped or otherwise tortured and abused. In addition to being the primary victims at Srebrenica, individuals with Bosniak heritage comprise the vast majority of the victims during the conflict in Bosnia and Herzegovina as a whole, especially among the civilian population.

  • Helsinki Commission Calls for Renewed Commitment to Defending Human Rights of Roma

    WASHINGTON — U.S. Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04), Chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, and U.S. Senator Roger Wicker (MS), Co-Chairman of the Commission, released the following statement regarding the observation of International Roma Day:  “In a number of OSCE countries, Roma continue to be denied equal access to housing, suffer disproportionately from high unemployment, and routinely face discrimination in public life. Racial profiling by police, mass evictions, and forced expulsions are commonplace. “Roma children are underserved by governments that fail to guarantee them access to a quality education. In some countries, systematic segregation removes Roma from regular schools and places them into educational institutions designed for children with learning disabilities. Some Roma children succeed against overwhelming odds; the vast majority of them are left behind. “In response to this human tragedy, European governments have promoted ‘action plans’ and ‘framework strategies’ for Roma over the past two decades. However, these efforts have largely lacked a key ingredient for success: political will. On International Roma Day, we strongly urge the governments of OSCE participating nations to renew their commitment to defending and promoting basic human rights of Roma throughout the region.”

  • Chairman Smith Condemns Brutal Murder of Former Russian Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov

    WASHINGTON—Following tonight’s reports of the shooting death of peaceful opposition leader and former Russian Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov in Moscow, Helsinki Commission Chairman Chris Smith (NJ-04) issued the following statement:   “I condemn the brutal slaying of Boris Nemtsov in the strongest terms possible. The gangland-style murder of a leading Russian dissident on the streets of Moscow raises the question of whether bullets have replaced the ballot box in Russia, and whether any peaceful opposition voice is safe. We mourn Mr. Nemtsov’s death and send our deepest condolences to his family and friends.” According to Russian officials, Mr. Nemtsov was shot four times in the back on a street near the Kremlin. A leader of Russia’s political opposition, he was a co-founder of Solidarity and a key organizer of a scheduled March 1 protest in Moscow. Mr. Nemtsov served as First Deputy Prime Minister of Russia under President Boris Yeltsin. He spoke at a Helsinki Commission event in Washington in November 2010 at the world premiere of the film “Justice for Sergei.”

  • Chairman Smith Urges OSCE Leaders: Respond to Humanitarian Needs in Eastern Ukraine

    WASHINGTON—A renewed effort is underway in the Organization for Cooperation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to urge it to respond to humanitarian needs in eastern Ukraine, and to follow through on OSCE commitments to fight human trafficking and anti-Semitism. Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04) led the U.S. Delegation to the annual Winter Meeting of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA) last week in Vienna, where he spearheaded this push. Smith expressed particular concern about the potential for human trafficking of vulnerable groups stemming from the current conflict in Ukraine. In a question to Ivica Dačić, the OSCE’s Chairman-in-Office for 2015 and the Foreign Minister of Serbia, Smith drew attention to the needs of internally displaced persons and the potential for human trafficking in eastern Ukraine. He noted that, among the nearly one million internally displaced persons, woman and children are particularly vulnerable to trafficking, and raised concerns that criminal gangs are taking advantage of the conflict:   “Is the OSCE equipping the special monitoring mission and other OSCE entities working in the Ukraine conflict zone, or with IDPs, to recognize and protect human trafficking victims, and is the OSCE taking trafficking prevention measures for this particular vulnerable population?” At a private meeting during the event, Chairman Smith met with Chairman-in-Office Dačić  to discuss the humanitarian, human rights, and security concerns arising from the Russian-backed conflict in eastern Ukraine. Smith encouraged Serbia to vigorously uphold the commitments made at the at the 10th  anniversary of the OSCE's Berlin Conference on anti-Semitism, and to review and reform the OSCE’s contracting regulations to ensure that OSCE activities do not contribute to trafficking in persons. He also urged Chairman-in-Office Dačić to promote an appropriate commemoration by the OSCE of the 20th anniversary of the Srebrenica genocide. Chairman Smith also met the Director of the OSCE’s Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, Michael Georg Link. In addition to human trafficking and anti-Semitism, the two discussed OSCE election observation missions, as well as the organization’s current efforts to protect freedom of religion. In a meeting with Ambassador Madina Jarbussynova, the OSCE Special Representative and Coordinator for Combating Trafficking in Human Beings, Chairman Smith spoke about the most effective ways to fight human trafficking and assist with the rehabilitation of trafficking victims – including by working with faith-based organizations, as well as by encouraging participating States to adopt legislation preventing child sex tourism, such as Chairman Smith’s legislation currently pending in the U.S. Senate. Chairman Smith has pioneered OSCE engagement in fighting human trafficking and anti-Semitism. Since 2004, he has served as the OSCE PA’s Special Representative on Human Trafficking Issues – click here to read his most recent report. Starting in 2002, Smith led the movement to put anti-Semitism on the agenda of the OSCE, and he continues to work closely with Rabbi Andy Baker, the OSCE’s Representative on Combating Anti-Semitism, to ensure a more vigorous implementation of OSCE commitments in the area. In 2005 Smith authored H. Res. 199, a landmark congressional resolution recognizing the atrocity at Srebrenica in which an estimated 8,000 civilian men and boys were murdered by Serb forces as a genocide.

  • Chairman Smith and Rep. McGovern Introduce “Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act”

    WASHINGTON—Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04), Chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the U.S. Helsinki Commission, and Rep. Jim McGovern (MA-02), today introduced the “Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act” (H.R. 624). The bill prohibits foreign human rights offenders and corrupt officials operating anywhere in the world from entering into the United States and blocks their U.S. assets. It effectively globalizes and strengthens the “Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act of 2012,” which was directed at individuals and entities from Russia. “The ‘Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act’ is a game-changer, and demonstrates America’s commitment to protecting human rights worldwide,” said Chairman Smith. “We are sending a message to the world’s worst human rights violators:  we will shine a spotlight on your crimes. We will deny your visas. We will freeze your assets. No matter who you are or how much money you have, you won’t be enjoying the fruits of your misdeeds by visiting the United States or taking advantage of our financial institutions.” “We have made important progress in the last few years,” Rep. McGovern said.  “But since the introduction of the original Magnitsky Act, human rights defenders and anti-corruption activists worldwide have urged us to pass a law that covers similar violations in countries other than Russia.  Through the Global Magnitsky Act, we can better standardize our approach to human rights violators and provide clear guidance to the executive branch on how we expect these perpetrators to be held accountable.” “Conscripting child soldiers, kidnapping political opponents, and brutalizing people based on their religion are horrifying acts for which people must be held accountable – and this bill will do it,” said Chairman Smith. “The earlier Magnitsky Act enjoyed overwhelmingly bipartisan support in both the House and the Senate. I expect the Global Magnitsky Act to move forward with the same level of commitment in both chambers, and on both sides of the aisle.” Earlier this week, Senators Ben Cardin (MD) and John McCain (AZ) introduced similar legislation in the Senate, which also applies worldwide and employs visa bans and property freezes. Unique aspects of the House bill include the requirement that the President impose sanctions if he or she determines that a foreign person has committed gross human rights offenses. The bill also permits the President to sanction perpetrators regardless of whether the victims were exercising or defending basic human rights; requires that the annual Global Magnitsky List be released each year on Human Rights Day; and directs the Comptroller General to assess and report on implementation. Both the “Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act” and the earlier “Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act of 2012” were inspired by Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, who was arrested and imprisoned by the Russian government following his investigation into fraud involving Russian officials. He was beaten to death by prison guards in 2009 after being held in torturous conditions for 11 months without trial. Summary: The “Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act” This act requires the President to publish and update a list of foreign persons or entities that the President determines are responsible, and who the President has sanctioned, for gross violations of internationally recognized human rights – including extrajudicial killings, torture, enforced disappearances, and prolonged, arbitrary detention – or significant corruption. Known as the Global Magnitsky List, the list will be due annually on December 10 (Human Rights Day). Although the bill directs the President to prioritize cases where the victims were seeking to exercise or defend internationally recognized human and rights and freedoms, like freedom of religious, assembly, and expression, or expose illegal government activity, the President can act regardless of the victim. Sanctions on these individuals and entities will include: Prohibiting or revoking U.S. visas or other entry documentation for foreign individuals. Freezing and prohibiting U.S. property transactions of a foreign individual or entity if such property and property interests are in the United States; come within the United States; or are in, or come within, the control of a U.S. person or entity. This act also requires the Comptroller General of the United States to assess the implementation of the law and report to Congress, so that Congress can ensure it is being executed fully.

  • U.S. Helsinki Commission Chair Slams Verdicts in Navalny Trial

    WASHINGTON—Following Tuesday’s guilty verdicts and subsequent sentencing of Alexei and Oleg Navalny in Moscow, U.S. Senator Ben Cardin (MD), Chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, issued the following statement: “I am deeply troubled by the guilty verdicts handed down in the latest manipulation of Russia’s so-called justice system against brothers Alexei and Oleg Navalny. The decision further demonstrates how the Russian government has warped what should be an independent voice and check on executive power into a tool to retaliate against its political opponents, continuing its ongoing crackdown on civil society in general.   “By punishing those who dare to voice their dissent, the Russian government undermines only itself. The Russian people deserve better than leaders who attempt to strangle their freedoms under the guise of deterring criminal activity.  As I noted in my statement Tuesday regarding the addition of names to the U.S. government’s visa ban and asset freeze lists, accountability and transparency are sadly lacking in President Putin’s Russia. “I remind Russia, as an OSCE participating State, that the Helsinki Final Act establishes principles and commitments including respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms within states which it has pledged to uphold. I urge the government of Russia to uphold its obligations and commitments to respect the freedoms of expression, assembly and of the media.  The Russian people must be allowed the right to voice their opinions openly, without fear of retaliation by their own government.” Alexei and Oleg Navalny were accused by the Russian authorities of fraud, charges which are viewed as politically motivated; Alexei Navalny is Russia’s leading anti-corruption crusader and a key member of the political opposition. In 2010, Alexei Navalny appeared at a Helsinki Commission briefing on fraud schemes in the Russian market.

  • U.S. Helsinki Commission Chair Notes Challenges, Need for Action on International Human Rights Day

    WASHINGTON—To mark International Human Rights Day, U.S. Senator Ben Cardin (MD), Chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, issued the following statement: "It has been a difficult year for those of us who are active in human rights in the OSCE region. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has flagrantly violated the principles enshrined in the Helsinki Final Act, exacerbated regional security, and further revealed the weaknesses of Russia’s own democracy .  The space for civil society – the guardians of the rule of law and fundamental freedoms – is shrinking in more than a few of our participating States, including Russia, Azerbaijan, and Hungary, breeding abuse of power and corruption. We have been appalled by violent anti-Semitic attacks and a rising tide of intolerance across the OSCE region against minorities and other vulnerable populations.  Uzbekistan holds the world’s longest-imprisoned journalist, who languishes alongside of thousands of political prisoners. "Clearly, the challenges for the countries of the OSCE are as great as ever.  We look forward to supporting Serbia’s 2015 chairmanship of the OSCE, which offers an opportunity both for the country and for the organization. As the effective successor to the only country to be suspended from the Helsinki process, Serbia is a concrete example of how a country can turn things around and how the OSCE can contribute. "In particular, we urge Serbia to build on decisions adopted at last week's Basel Ministerial Council on combating anti-Semitism and corruption.  These are challenges faced by virtually every OSCE participating State. We hope that Serbia will move forward with conviction to support these initiatives and to defend and advocate for the Helsinki principles throughout the region." December 10, International Human Rights Day, celebrates the adoption of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights by the UN General Assembly on December 10, 1948.

  • U.S. Helsinki Commission to Host Premiere Screening of "The Gang"

    WASHINGTON—The U.S. Helsinki Commission, with the participation of Freedom House and the German Marshall Fund of the United States, today announced the following event: The Gang: 15 Years On and Still Silent A Documentary about Enforced Disappearances in Belarus Wednesday, December 17 5:00 pm – 7:00 pm United States Capitol Visitor Center, Room HVC-201 First Street, SE, Washington, DC In 1999 and 2000, during the first presidential term of Alexander Lukashenka, four prominent leaders were abducted in Belarus: Viktar Hanchar, a member of the dissolved parliament; Anatoly Krasovsky, his close associate; Yuri Zakharenka, a former Minister of the Interior; and Dmitri Zavadski, a journalist known for his critical reporting.  Each of the cases has remained under separate investigation, plagued by minimal progress and multiple inconsistencies. Fifteen years later, as the statute of limitations is running out, a leading Belarusian human rights defender meticulously analyzes rare documentary evidence, including the testimonies of family members, lawyers, and former Belarusian investigators, to piece together a nuanced and unsettling picture that links the unsolved disappearances together. The Gang examines the complicity of senior Belarusian officials in the enforced disappearances, alongside the failure of the Belarusian authorities to properly investigate. The premiere screening of the film is open to the public, and will be followed by a discussion with Raisa Mikhailovskaya, producer and prominent Belarusian human rights defender, and Irina Krasovskaya, co-founder of the We Remember Foundation and the widow of the disappeared businessman Anatoly Krasovsky.

  • The Tyranny You Haven't Heard Of

    You could call it a stealth North Korea: a country in the same league of repression and isolation as the Hermit Kingdom, but with far less attention paid to its crimes. The country is Uzbekistan, one of the Central Asian nations that emerged out of the wreckage of the Soviet Union in 1991. It has brought some unique touches to the conduct of a dictatorship. When political prisoners have served their full terms, they often have their sentences extended for violations such as improperly peeling carrots in the prison kitchen or failing to sweep their cells correctly. At harvest time, millions of students, teachers and other workers are temporarily enslaved to pick cotton to the profit of the regime. It has been known to boil its prisoners alive. But in most ways, it is a classic, hard-core police state, among the worst in the world. Like Zimbabwe, it has a president who will not go away: Islam Karimov, who assumed power as Communist Party boss in 1989. After a quarter-century, Karimov, 76, appears as ensconced as ever, though Uzbekistan’s GDP per capita of $3,800 puts it 171st in the world. Like China, it had its Tiananmen Square massacre: the shooting of hundreds of unarmed protesters in the city of Andijan in 2005, after which the government ramped up its repression nationwide. And like North Korea, it confines in brutal conditions thousands of political prisoners. How many thousands? Probably not the 80,000 to 120,000 who populate North Korea’s gulag. Human rights groups have offered estimates of 10,000 or 12,000. But, as Human Rights Watch noted in a recent report, no one really knows, because, like North Korea, “Uzbekistan has become virtually closed to independent scrutiny.” Foreign correspondents and human rights monitors generally are not granted visas. No U.N. human rights expert has been allowed in since 2002. Even the International Committee of the Red Cross, which is permitted almost everywhere because it never publicly embarrasses a country, had to pull out of Uzbekistan last year because of interference in its attempted prison visits. Drawing the curtains has helped Uzbekistan avoid scrutiny. But the nation has stayed below the radar for another reason, too: The United States and other Western nations have been reluctant to confront Karimov and his regime. They have needed to ship military supplies through Uzbekistan to reach Afghanistan. And as Russian President Vladi­mir Putin has become increasingly hostile, the West has competed with him for the favor of neighboring nations. Thus the tenor of this White House summary of a telephone call between President Obama and Karimov in 2011, unimaginable if Kim Jong Un had been on the other end of the line: “President Obama congratulated President Karimov on Uzbekistan’s 20 years of independence, and the two leaders pledged to continue working to build broad cooperation between our two countries. The President and President Karimov discussed their shared desire to develop a multi-dimensional relationship between the United States and Uzbekistan, including by strengthening the contacts between American and Uzbek civil societies and private sector.” Never mind that Karimov has virtually eradicated Uzbekistan’s “civil sector.” It’s hard to read of such a phone call without thinking of, say, Muhammad Bekjanov, 60, possibly the world’s longest-imprisoned journalist. Uzbek security agents kidnapped Bekjanov in 1999 in Ukraine, where he was living in exile. He has been beaten, shocked, subjected to temporary suffocation (the “bag of death”) and tortured in other ways. He has contracted tuberculosis, and beatings have cost him most of his teeth and much of his hearing. When his term was set to expire in 2012, he was sentenced to another five years for unspecified “violations of prison rules.” Bekjanov’s crime was to have served as editor of an opposition party newspaper. “There may be legitimate national security concerns that the U.S. needs to engage on,” Sarah Margon, Washington director of Human Rights Watch, told me. “That doesn’t mean you have to shove everything else under the rug.” There are some encouraging signs that Congress, at least, may be lifting a corner of that rug. In October the congressional Helsinki Commission, which is chaired by Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) and co-chaired by Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), held a briefing on political prisoners in Uzbekistan. Last week eight senators, including Foreign Relations Committee chairman Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), sent Karimov a letter urging the release of five prisoners, including Bekjanov. These are small steps, but they shine some light on Uzbekistan’s crimes. Karimov cares about his reputation, his access to Western weaponry and his officials’ freedom to travel to Europe and the United States. If Obama also would take some small steps, it might make a big difference to the inmates of Uzbekistan’s invisible gulag.

  • U.S. Helsinki Commission Marks Five-Year Anniversary of Sergei Magnitsky’s Death

    WASHINGTON—Sunday, November 16 marked the five-year anniversary of the death of Sergei Magnitsky, who was arrested by the Russian government following his investigation into fraud involving Russian tax officials. He died in prison after being held for 11 months without trial.   U.S. Senator Ben Cardin (MD), Chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, issued the following statement: “It is with sadness and respect that we mark the 5th anniversary of the death of Sergei Magnitsky at the hands of Russian government authorities. During the past five years, the crimes that Sergei first exposed have been further documented.  Despite credible evidence of criminal conduct resulting in Mr. Magnitsky’s death, Russian government officials have failed to bring those responsible to justice. “Perhaps worse, the facts of the case – including misappropriation of Russian tax resources and the ensuing cover-up by Russian government officials – have been distorted, to the extent that the Russian government has posthumously prosecuted the late Mr. Magnitsky for the financial crimes perpetrated by those answerable for his death. “After five years, my outrage at the continuing refusal of Russian leaders’ to confront their own transgressions in the death of Sergei Magnitsky has not abated. Instead, I continue to be amazed at how Russian authorities continue to concoct conspiracy theories attributing blame to others, with tragic consequences: they prohibit their young people from participating in U.S. high school exchange programs, strangle political activity and civic involvement of NGOs, and restrict the media.   “The Russian government has forsaken its obligation to ensure for citizens of the Russian Federation the freedoms of expression, assembly and the right to fair, impartial judicial processes. This rejection has consequences for Russia and its people; for its neighbors, especially Ukraine; and more broadly for us all.   “As we remember Sergei Magnitsky and his sacrifice for justice and transparency in Russia, we and our partners must reaffirm our unwavering support for the international commitments to basic freedoms. The Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act, enacted in 2012, must continue to be used to demonstrate to the world that the voices of those who seek justice and who speak out about human rights violations are heard and valued by the United States of America.”

  • Annual OSCE Human Rights Meeting Dominated by Russia and Ukraine

    Representatives of governments and civil society from OSCE participating States met in Warsaw, Poland, from September 22 to October 3, 2014 for the annual Human Dimension Implementation Meeting (HDIM).  The meeting was organized by the OSCE office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) under the leadership of its newly-appointed Director Michael Link. This year’s annual OSCE human dimension implementation meeting drew 1,225 participants from 53 countries, including 700 NGOs.  There were an unprecedented 82 side events on specific countries or issues.  The session on tolerance and nondiscrimination was the most oversubscribed of the three-hour sessions with 85 people vying for the speaker’s list. Other specific topics for HDIM sessions included violence against women, rights of migrants and right of national minorities. In this issue: About the U.S. HDIM Delegation Russia Takes Propaganda Campaign to Warsaw OSCE Ambassadors Visit Auschwitz Civil Society Speaks Up

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