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Report on Azerbaijan's Presidential Election
Tuesday, December 01, 1998

On October 11, 1998, Azerbaijan held presidential elections. The contest pitted incumbent President Heydar Aliev, the former Communist Party leader who returned to power in 1993, against moderate opposition leader Etibar Mamedov, political maverick Nizami Suleimanov, and three other candidates with little recognition or following. While no one seriously expected Aliev to lose, the opposition candidates were hoping for a second round.

Five leading opposition politicians—Abulfaz Elchibey, Isa Gambar, Rasul Guliev, Ilyas Ismailov and Lala Shovket—boycotted the vote, unwilling to legitimize by their participation an election they believed would be unfair. Negotiations that took place in August between the government and the boycotting opposition over the most controversial aspect of the election—the composition of the Central Election Commission—proved unsuccessful, with the authorities rejecting the opposition’s demand for equal representation on the CEC. The five leaders, joined by numerous other parties and groups in the Movement for Electoral Reform and Democratic Elections, urged voters not to go to the polls. The authorities minimized the boycott’s significance, arguing that the opposition leaders knew they had no chance in a fair election and therefore preferred to claim fraud and not participate.

Beginning August 15, the boycotting parties organized a series of rallies and demonstrations to pressure the government and call for fair elections. These were the first mass street actions in Azerbaijan in years. The authorities refused to let the opposition hold a demonstration in Freedom Square, in the center of Baku, offering alternative venues instead. On September 12, protesters clashed with police, resulting in arrests and injuries. Afterwards, authorities and opposition tried to reach agreement on the demonstrators’ route, and most pre-election rallies, some of which drew big crowds, were largely peaceful.

The increasingly tense relations between the government and boycotting opposition parties were one factor in the OSCE/ODIHR’s appraisal of the election.  In ODIHR’s view, these failings outweighed the positive aspects of the election, such as the election law, which all sides acknowledged as acceptable, the freedom for candidates to speak openly on television, the abolition of censorship and provisions for domestic observers. The OSCE/ODIHR assessment was that the election fell short of meeting international norms. With the OSCE assessment placing in question the official results, the CEC’s failure to publish election protocols until long after the stipulated time period heightens doubts about President Aliev’s standing. The election was largely a referendum on his five-year presidency. Since his return to power in 1993, he has not solved the major problems besetting the country. The NagornoKarabakh conflict remains unsettled; Azerbaijani territory is still under Armenian occupation and no refugees have returned to their homes. Living standards for the great majority of the population have declined precipitously, though it is widely known that a tiny stratum of corrupt officials and businessmen have become rich. Moreover, the predominance of people from Nakhichevan - Aliev’s home region - in positions of power exacerbates general discontent.

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  • First Person: Election Observation in Armenia

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The importance of orderliness at this particular polling station became evident within the hour when presidential security arrived to prepare for Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan to cast his vote there. Despite this exceptional circumstance, in other ways the experience at this polling station typified the voting I observed elsewhere throughout the day. I saw non-credentialed citizens hovering watchfully—and in violation of the electoral code—outside the polling station and engaging voters—likely local party officials keeping tabs on voter participation. Inside the polling place there was some overcrowding, a malfunctioning electronic voter authentication device, and modest voter confusion about the voting procedure, which involved selecting among nine separate ballots and optionally marking a candidate preference on the reverse side. I visited a total of seven polling places that day, stretching from downtown Yerevan to the shores of Lake Sevan and the surrounding hinterland 60km northeast of the capital. In larger precincts I witnessed large contingents of party proxies and citizen observers monitoring the vote. In several instances, citizen observers credentialed under the name of a local NGO turned out to be from foreign countries and were unable to explain to me the mission of their organization, highlighting the opaque origins of some citizen observation efforts. In most precincts I saw a mix of credentialed and non-credentialed individuals from political parties and local NGOs mingling inside and outside the polling station, engaging voters, and generally making their presence felt. Our day ended in Yerevan where we observed the closure procedure at a polling place where about 700 votes had been cast. The precinct chairwoman carefully walked the precinct committee through the process step by step, openly acknowledging to us the difficulty of carrying out the complex procedure for the first time. The tallying took place transparently in front of us and in full view of several local observers and party proxies that stayed late into the night to oversee the count. We had the opportunity, along with our fellow observers, to ask questions of the precinct chairwoman about how she and her team were adjudicating individual ballots and counting votes. Although my observations here are anecdotal, they are consistent with the preliminary findings and conclusions of the international election observation mission that the elections “were well administered and fundamental freedoms were generally respected” although the vote was “tainted by credible information about vote-buying and pressure on civil servants and employees of private companies.” The end result was a vote that suffered from “an overall lack of public confidence and trust.” (Read the full Statement of Preliminary Findings and Conclusions.)        While Armenia’s democracy took some important strides in the procedural conduct of this election, much work remains to be done. With the vote tallying complete, Armenia now embarks on a critical period of transition to a parliamentary system that will be fully realized at the end of the President’s final term in April 2018. All political actors, but particularly the new governing coalition, must shoulder their responsibilities to ensure that this new system of governance earns the trust of the public it serves. To build this trust, Armenia would benefit from a process of political evolution that accompanies its institutional transition and procedural reforms. Specifically, Armenia’s political parties and new parliament would do well to ensure a competition of ideas replaces the all too common clashes of personalities and patronage networks on display during this election.

  • Helsinki Commission Leaders to Azerbaijan: Release All Political Prisoners

    WASHINGTON—On the traditional holiday of Nowruz, Helsinki Commission leaders called on the Azerbaijani government to immediately release all remaining political prisoners and honor its OSCE commitments to human rights, democracy, and the rule of law. “It is disappointing that President Aliyev released only a small number of political prisoners among several hundred pardons he issued prior to Nowruz,” said Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS). “OSCE participating States commit to respecting freedom of expression, including the freedom to exchange information and views without interference from public authorities. The Government of Azerbaijan should uphold this commitment by releasing opposition figures, civil rights activists, journalists, and religious leaders who are currently in jail for peacefully exercising their rights. This is particularly true in the case of former presidential candidate Ilgar Mammadov, who recently entered his fifth year in prison on politically-motivated charges.”  “President Aliyev’s pardons left dozens of human rights activists, journalists, and political dissidents languishing in prison and subject to mistreatment,” said Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04). “I call on President Aliyev to respect human rights and democracy in his country and immediately release all prisoners of conscience.” In 2016, the Government of Azerbaijan pardoned 148 inmates in the days leading up to Nowruz, including more than a dozen people identified as political prisoners by leading human rights organizations. This year, the Government issued pardons to more than 400 prisoners, but only four political prisoners were freed.

  • Helsinki Commission Chairman Wicker Comments on Poisoning of Pro-Democracy Russian Activist, Fighting in Ukraine

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  • Smith Leads Mission to Genocide Survivors in Iraq

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

  • Helsinki Commission Leaders Mark International Human Rights Day

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

  • Smith Denounces Azerbaijan Law Criminalizing Online ‘Insults’ To President

    WASHINGTON—Following the amendment of Azerbaijan's criminal code last week, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04) made the following statement: “Make no mistake, anyone imprisoned under the new provisions of Azerbaijan’s criminal code – which make online ‘insults’ of the president a punishable offense – will be a political prisoner.  These new provisions clearly violate international human rights standards and Azerbaijan’s OSCE commitments. I urge the government of Azerbaijan to repeal these provisions and to release political prisoners, including Ilgar Mammadov, Seymur Haziyev, and Abdul Abilov, who have been wrongly jailed for criticizing the government.” Chairman Smith is the sponsor of the Azerbaijan Democracy Act of 2015 (H.R. 4264), a bill he introduced to draw attention to the systematic efforts of the Government of Azerbaijan to eliminate the voices of independent journalists, opposition politicians, and civil society groups. In addition to denying U.S. visas to senior leaders of the Government of Azerbaijan, those who derive significant financial benefit from business dealings with senior leadership, and members of the security or judicial branches, the Azerbaijan Democracy Act also expresses the sense of Congress that financial penalties should be considered. Sanctions could be lifted when the Azerbaijani government shows substantial progress toward releasing political prisoners, ending its harassment of civil society, and holding free and fair elections.

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

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

  • Smith: Azerbaijan Referendum Lacks Legitimacy

    WASHINGTON—Following today’s announcement of the results of the constitutional referendum in Azerbaijan, in which the government reported 91 percent approval of sweeping constitutional changes, including extending the presidential term and increasing the president’s powers, Helsinki Commission Chair Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04) issued the following statement: “It is clear that the package of constitutional changes put to a vote yesterday is designed to degrade checks on the power of the president. Regardless of the final tally, this referendum is the culmination of a process that lacks legitimacy. The Azerbaijani government rushed these significant changes to a vote while depriving the Azerbaijani people of their fundamental rights necessary to freely debate the matters under consideration.  For weeks, political activists and journalists have withstood rounds of detention and harassment by the government, part of an effort to suppress the voices of those who oppose the government’s planned changes. Only a year ago, Azerbaijan blocked OSCE election observation of its parliamentary elections, illustrating Baku’s unwillingness to allow its citizens to cast ballots consistent with its OSCE commitments. I remain deeply concerned that this illegitimate process will further delay the democratic future Azerbaijanis desire and deserve. I renew my call for the Government of Azerbaijan to release all prisoners of conscience and drop charges and travel bans against them and their colleagues in civil society serving suspended sentences.” On September 8, Chairman Smith and other Members of Congress wrote an open letter to President Aliyev about the content of the Azerbaijani government's proposed amendments. In December 2015, Chairman Smith introduced H.R. 4264, the Azerbaijan Democracy Act, a bill that would deny U.S. visas to senior members of the Azerbaijani government until such a time that Azerbaijan makes substantial progress toward releasing political prisoners, ending its harassment of civil society, and holding free and fair elections.

  • Moldova at a Crossroads

    Twenty-five years after its independence, Moldova is at a crossroads as it prepares for presidential elections scheduled for October 30. While it seeks to overcome significant internal challenges, the country is also squarely in the crosshairs of Russian destabilization efforts intended to maintain Moscow’s influence and strike at the foundation of Moldovan democracy. The experts at this briefing offered valuable insight on the significant internal and external challenges Moldova faces as it approaches presidential elections in October 2016. The speakers addressed continued threats to Moldovan territorial integrity and sovereignty; hostile Russian actions including disinformation campaigns, an economic blockade, and threatening rhetoric; and the roles of the Moldovan government and external actors, including the OSCE, in addressing Moldovan vulnerabilities. Commissioner Rep. Joe Pitts (PA-16) opened the briefing with a statement on Moldova and the Transnistrian conflict, as he has been deeply interested and engaged in Moldova throughout his career.  Witnesses Ambassador William Hill and Matthew Rojansky then discussed Moldova's internal and external challenges in greater depth. As a veteran diplomat in Moldova and the region, Ambassador William Hill assigned an absence of rule of law as Moldova’s central challenge. Mr. Rojansky, a renowned scholar on this subject, offered historical perspective on Russia’s objectives in maintaining instability in neighboring countries like Moldova. Before beginning audience Q&A, the event also welcomed comments from Tatiana Solomon, Chargé d’Affaires ad interim of the Moldovan Embassy, who thanked the witnesses and the Helsinki Commission for engagement on the issues discussed. All participants encouraged U.S. support for Moldova and the region as it works towards a stable, democratic, and prosperous future.

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

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

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

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

  • Helsinki Commission Briefing to Examine Challenges to Moldovan Security, Including Russian Destabilization Efforts

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following briefing: “Moldova at a Crossroads” Thursday, September 22, 2016 4:00 PM Rayburn House Office Building Room 2456 Twenty-five years after its independence, Moldova is at a crossroads as it prepares for presidential elections scheduled for October 30. While it seeks to overcome significant internal challenges, the country is also squarely in the crosshairs of Russian destabilization efforts intended to maintain Moscow’s influence and strike at the foundation of Moldovan democracy. Speakers will address continued threats to Moldovan territorial integrity and sovereignty; hostile Russian actions including disinformation campaigns, an economic blockade, and threatening rhetoric; and the roles of the Moldovan government and external actors, including the OSCE, in addressing Moldovan vulnerabilities. The following experts are scheduled to participate: Ambassador William Hill, National War College, National Defense University Matthew Rojansky, Director, Kennan Institute, Woodrow Wilson Center

  • Azerbaijan’s Constitutional Referendum Creates Crisis of Legitimacy

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

  • It’s Time for the United States to Act on Azerbaijan

    David J. Kramer is senior director for human rights and democracy at the McCain Institute for International Leadership and a former assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor. Richard Kauzlarich is an adjunct professor at George Mason University and former U.S. ambassador to Azerbaijan and to Bosnia and Herzegovina. Earlier this year, President Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan looked like he was softening his authoritarian grip on his country. In March, he released 14 political prisoners ahead of his visit to Washington for President Obama’s Nuclear Security Summit. Even the harsh anti-American rhetoric from Azerbaijani officials and regime media seemed to subside. While in Washington, Aliyev had sit-downs with Vice President Biden and Secretary of State John F. Kerry. But since the April summit, Aliyev’s regime has intensified its crackdowns on freedoms. Azerbaijan’s rapid, dangerous deterioration demands more decisive action from the United States, yet the Obama administration has remained largely silent. The government in Baku has increased its arrests and detentions of another dozen opposition figures, peaceful religious believers and civil society activists. Nearly 100 political prisoners are languishing in the country’s jails. Azerbaijani writer Akram Aylisli was detained at the national airport and prevented from leaving the country. Faig Amirli, financial director of Azadliq newspaper and assistant to the chairman of the Azerbaijan Popular Front Party, was arrested last month. Other opposition politicians arrested in August include Natiq Jafarli,  executive secretary of the REAL movement, and NIDA civic movement activist Elgiz Qahraman. The situation on the ground may get even worse. On Sept. 26, Aliyev’s regime plans to force a referendum which aims to enhance his powers. The result of the referendum is already known; we can be sure that the government will ensure its approval. That means that Aliyev can extend his term from five to seven years, create new positions of vice president (to which he might name a member of his family) and lower the age for members of parliament — opening the door for his son Heydar to be elected. It would not be a surprise if elections were called early under the new constitution to ratify these authoritarian steps. Quiet diplomacy, we are told, is the only way to protect American interests in Azerbaijan. Along with its strategic location on the Caspian Sea between Russia and Iran, the country of 8 million is rich in oil and gas resources, and plays a role as a national security ally to the United States. No American interests are served if Azerbaijan’s increasing authoritarianism explodes into a political and social crisis. Moreover, Azerbaijan is following in the footsteps of Vladimir Putin’s media tactics in Russia by increasingly  painting the United States as the enemy. An editorial in the state-approved media outlet, Haqqin, accused the United States of “losing” Azerbaijan, “driving it into a corner” and “neglecting a valuable partnership” with Baku. The editorial warned that Azerbaijan will be left with no option but to establish closer relations with its immediate neighbors, Iran and Russia. Aliyev’s supporters have pointed to the failed Turkey coup and have accused the United States of supporting opposition forces not only to spoil the upcoming referendum — but to plot a coup in Azerbaijan. Aside from legislation introduced by Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-N.J.) last December and the cries of activists and human rights groups, Azerbaijan has received a free pass from the Obama administration. Rarely do either the U.S. Embassy in Baku or the State Department in Washington speak out against human rights abuses. Even the 2014 raid on U.S.-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) and the arrest of one of its journalists, Khadija Ismayilova, triggered a mild response from Washington. Ismayilova was released from prison earlier this year but has been refused permission to travel outside the country. RFE/RL  is still barred from operating in Azerbaijan, as are most American nongovernmental organizations. In the past, we have called for sanctions — asset freezes and visa bans — against Azerbaijani officials involved in and responsible for gross human rights abuses, similar to the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law and Accountability Act for Russia. President Obama doesn’t need new legislation to take such measures; he can do so under existing presidential authorities. Beyond that, we should withhold U.S. support for International Monetary Fund and World Bank assistance should Azerbaijan request it amid its deteriorating economic situation and end Overseas Private Investment Corporation and Export-Import Bank lending to Azerbaijan. The United States should consider recalling our ambassador for extended consultations over human rights concerns as well as the rising anti-American rhetoric of Azerbaijan officials and government-sanctioned media. We also need to get the Europeans on board with similar measures. These steps should be taken unless and until all the political prisoners are released and the referendum enhancing Aliyev’s powers is voided. Letting Azerbaijan follow through on its threat to form closer ties with Moscow and Tehran without balance from the United States may be a necessary, albeit unpleasant, learning experience for the regime in Baku. The problem in Azerbaijan is not that Aliyev has too little power; it is that he exercises the power he has in the wrong ways against innocent people.  America’s silence as the situation on the ground worsens risks making us accomplices to a looming human rights disaster in Azerbaijan.

  • Chairman Smith Supports Genocide Victims in Syria and Iraq

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

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