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Restrictions on Civil Society in Hungary
Friday, February 28, 2020

Since returning to power in 2010, Viktor Orban has systematically dismantled a system of checks and balances, facilitating the consolidation of control by the Fidesz government, which is now in its fourth (third consecutive) term. This has included introducing significant changes to the legal framework for parliamentary elections; stripping hundreds of faiths of their state recognition in 2011 and then channeling money to religious groups that do not challenge government positions (increasing dependence of those groups on the state); overseeing the consolidation of most Hungarian media, first into the hands of government-tied oligarchy and then into a single foundation exempt from anti-trust regulation; and eroding judicial independence by, for example, expanding and packing the constitutional court.

In light of restrictions imposed on political opposition, faith organizations, the media and the judiciary, the role of Hungarian civil society in holding the government to account (by, for example, suing the government for non-compliance with the Hungarian constitution or Hungary’s international legal commitments) has taken on heightened importance. At the same time, civil society organizations have become the targets of escalating rhetorical attacks and legislative restrictions, including laws that significantly lower the bar for what it takes to jail people who seek to exercise their freedoms of speech, assembly, and association.

Download the full report to learn more.

Contributors: Erika Schlager, Counsel for International Law
and Daniela Ondraskova, Max Kampelman Fellow

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    WASHINGTON—Following the adoption of a new constitution in Kyrgyzstan on April 11, U.S. Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) and commission leaders Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) and Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) issued the following joint statement: “We are concerned that this new constitution will move Kyrgyzstan—long considered among the most democratic countries in Central Asia—toward authoritarian rule by concentrating power in the hands of the president, reducing the role of parliament, and minimizing checks and balances. “Vague provisions prioritizing the ‘moral and ethical values and public conscience of the people of the Kyrgyz Republic’ could be used to restrict human rights, including freedom of expression. We urge the Government of Kyrgyzstan to ensure that the country’s independent media and civil society can exercise their human rights and fundamental freedoms without interference.” The new constitution was approved via referendum, although voter turnout was low at just over 30 percent. President Sadyr Japarov, who took office after being freed from prison during unrest that followed a popular revolt sparked by fraudulent parliamentary elections last October, promoted the constitution’s stronger presidential role. Prior to the referendum, the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) and the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission jointly evaluated the draft constitution and concluded that the process adopting it did not follow the rule of law and took place with minimal public consultation or parliamentary debate, and that it raised “grave concerns over the lack of respect for the principles of the rule of law, separation of powers, and inherent lack of checks and balances.”

  • Cardin and Wicker on April 15 Sanctions Against Russia

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  • Helsinki Commission Leaders Call on Belarusian Authorities to Release Journalists, Political Prisoners

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  • Helsinki Commission Leaders Commemorate International Roma Day with Senate and House Resolutions

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  • Senator Ben Cardin Returns to Lead Helsinki Commission

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  • U.S. Election Practices: An International Perspective

    Madam Speaker, this chamber recently passed H.R. I, the "For the People Act,'' significant legislation making it easier for American citizens to vote in U.S. elections and improve transparency and accountability in our election process. The White House also recently announced a new executive order to assist this effort. These are positive developments that I welcome and support, but, as we all know, not everything regarding the conduct of elections can be done at the federal level. Unfortunately, many state legislatures are now undertaking efforts that would make it more difficult for eligible Americans to participate in the electoral process and vote. As Chair and in the leadership of the Helsinki Commission, I have supported the positive steps we are trying to take on this issue, yet I remain deeply concerned about those who want to move our country backward. Perhaps it would help our debate to look at the conduct of the 2020 U.S. elections from an international perspective, including the conduct of elections in conformity with international commitments first proposed and advocated by the United States more than 30 years ago. The United States has been one of five countries thus far where the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly has observed elections during the unprecedented challenges of the pandemic, and a German parliamentarian reported on its findings on February 26. He did not point fingers at us and accuse. He mentioned the positive as well as the negative. He is clearly a friend who cares, as most of the OSCE observers undoubtedly were. As a previous election observer in the OSCE region, I can also attest, that the code of conduct makes it is extremely unlikely that the OSCE election observation could be steered in support of any particular agenda other than better democracy. I therefore want to commend to my colleagues the full OSCE Final report "United States of America General Elections, 3 November 2020, ODIHR Limited Election Observation Mission," which can be found at https://www.osce.org/files/f/documents/7/7/477823_2.pdf. It offers an important perspective on our elections from persons who rightly care about the process, not the result. They have observed not only our elections since 2002 but elections in dozens of other countries on a regular basis. The issues raised in the report are the same issues we Americans debate here in Washington, in our state capitals and through the media. I take the conclusions and recommendations, including criticisms, in this election observation report seriously. It serves as a helpful guide on what next steps we should take to improve our electoral system. I believe our election officials and state legislators should read this report; indeed, I recommend it to any American who cares about his or her country. It is a broad snapshot of our entire, complex electoral system. Several of the priority recommendations in the report deal with voting rights and voter identification. Specifically, it says that "authorities should review existing measures to further reduce the number of unregistered voters, including addressing burdensome procedures and obstacles faced by disadvantaged groups.'' It also says that "states should make every effort to ensure that voter identification requirements are equally accessible to all voters.'' It also makes specific recommendations regarding specific groups of American citizens. We do not need to agree about every conclusion and recommendation in this report to take it seriously. It is a contribution to our debates from a unique perspective. Moreover, our acceptance of international observation serves a useful function in our foreign policy. OSCE election observation has encouraged practices giving voters a real choice in numerous other countries, many of which were once repressive, one-party communist states but are now our friends and even, in some cases, allies. The United States initiated this effort with the OSCE and contributes significantly to election observation missions elsewhere, providing the expertise that comes with our experience. If we are to encourage other governments to take this effort seriously and implement recommendations, we need to set the example ourselves. Unfortunately, several U.S. states greatly restrict or even prohibit international observation. This is something which must change as we prepare for mid-term elections in 2022 and general elections in 2024.

  • Ten-Member Congressional Delegation Demonstrates Ongoing U.S. Engagement With the OSCE

    By Bob Hand, Senior Policy Advisor Approximately 270 parliamentarians from across the OSCE region gathered virtually from February 24 – 26 for the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly’s Winter Meeting, the first statutory meeting of the Assembly held since the COVID-19 pandemic limited inter-parliamentary diplomacy to online gatherings.  The ongoing impact of COVID-19 on security, the economy, the environment and the human rights and democratic development of the 57 OSCE States remained the focus of the annual gathering.  Supported by the U.S. Helsinki Commission, the U.S. Delegation remained actively engaged, fielding a bicameral, bipartisan delegation of 10 Members of Congress who participated remotely in the debates.  Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) served as Head of the U.S. Delegation.   The OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (PA) is an independent institution of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) created in 1991 for parliamentarians to complement the inter-governmental work of the 57 participating States. Unlike other OSCE bodies, countries are represented based on population rather than each having a single seat at the table (the United States has the largest representation with 17 seats), and decision-making is based on a majority vote rather than consensus. The Annual Session each summer is the principal gathering, with a Winter Meeting in February and an Autumn Meeting in October to initiate and conclude the year’s work. Despite a busy congressional schedule, the members of the U.S. Delegation successfully raised critical country, issue, and institutional concerns, including the attempted poisoning and incarceration of Alexei Navalny, Russian aggression in Ukraine, the brutal crackdown in Belarus and corruption and authoritarian tendencies elsewhere in the OSCE region. Active U.S. engagement demonstrates the depth of U.S. commitment to European security, and reflects the importance of the OSCE PA as a vehicle for advancing U.S. interests and building support on issues like human trafficking, attacks on the media, manifestations of anti-Semitism, racism and intolerance, as well as country-specific concerns.  Such a large delegation of Members of Congress reflected the diversity of opinion in the United States, setting an example of openness and honesty for others to follow, deflecting accusations of double standards on U.S. performance, and strengthening the message on human rights concerns in other countries where the Members of Congress can and do express a united view. Improvising Engagement Amid Pandemic Since 2002, Winter Meetings have been held in Vienna, Austria to facilitate direct interaction among parliamentarians, OSCE officials, and diplomatic representatives of the OSCE participating States.  The Winter Meeting also allows the Assembly’s general committees to discuss work for the coming year.  The outbreak of the COVID pandemic in early 2020 forced the cancellation of the Annual Session scheduled for July in Vancouver and the Autumn Meeting scheduled for October in San Marino.  Without rules dealing with such situations, the OSCE PA Secretariat maintained inter-parliamentary engagement by organizing a dozen or more inter-parliamentary web dialogues from April into November to substitute for the traditional gatherings. While no replacement for traditional meetings, these unofficial events provided needed continuity and contact among delegates.  First the first time in the history of the OSCE PA, no annual declaration was adopted, but the then-Assembly President George Tsereteli provided summaries of the web debates on relevant issues, a record of dialogue even in the midst of pandemic. The OSCE PA resumed election observation where possible and responded to political impasse within the OSCE itself by issuing a “Call for Action” urging a reaffirmation of the organization’s once common purpose.    For 2021, the OSCE PA has been seeking to resume its regular meeting schedule, although conditions still required the Winter Meeting to be held remotely.  Five sessions were scheduled during hours that best accommodated participants across some 16 time zones, from Vancouver to Ulaanbaatar.     At the meeting of the Heads of Delegation, known as the Standing Committee, it was announced that the 2021 Annual Session would be unable to be held in person as planned in Bucharest, Romania, in early July.  As a result, the Standing Committee amended the Assembly’s rules of procedure to allow statutory meetings to go forward online, including permitting elections for OSCE PA officers and other decisions to be handled remotely. Maintaining Focus on Substantive Issues and Concerns Beyond scheduling and procedures, the Standing Committee also looked at substance. Following reports from current OSCE PA President Peter Lord Bowness (United Kingdom), Secretary General Roberto Montella (Italy), and OSCE PA Special Representatives appointed to address particular concerns, there were heated exchanges between Azerbaijan and Armenia regarding Nagorno-Karabakh, as well as on Russian aggression against Ukraine and the brutal crackdown on protesting opposition in Belarus—issues that would be raised repeatedly throughout the meeting.  Sen. Cardin, attending not only as Head of Delegation but also as Special Representative on Anti-Semitism, Racism and Intolerance, delivered a report on his activities, as did Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04), who serves as the Special Representative on Human Trafficking Issues.   “The coronavirus pandemic has created an unprecedented health crisis in the OSCE region, exacerbated by pre-existing inequities and disproportionately impacting people of color. Heightened anti-Asian discrimination, anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, and violent attacks targeting diverse populations have followed… My report details a response to these developments, as well as the global racial justice movement spurred by the tragic death of George Floyd.” ​ Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), Head of U.S. Delegation, U.S. Helsinki Commission Rep. Smith noted, “Traffickers did not shut down during the pandemic—they simply adapted their methods. Meanwhile, vulnerable people were made even more vulnerable by both the virus and its deleterious impact on the global economy… As we worked to address these challenges, it was crucial to have information and recommendations based on real, concrete data.” The Joint Session of the General Committees effectively served as the opening plenary. President Bowness opened the session with a defense of principled-based dialogue, and guest speakers included Ann Linde, Sweden’s foreign minister and this year’s OSCE Chair-in-Office, as well as Helga Schmid (Germany), the OSCE’s new Secretary General.  The chairperson outlined plans for 2021, asserting that the she will “prioritize the comprehensive concept of security across all three dimensions,” namely the Security, Economic and Human Dimension, which she argued “contributes to making the OSCE truly unique.”  The Secretary General expressed her hopes to provide needed support for the organization and its mission, and she credited the OSCE PA for bringing emerging security issues into the OSCE debate.      Sen. Cardin thanked the Assembly and its parliamentarians for their expressions of concern and support for the United States in light of efforts to delegitimize the November 2020 presidential elections and the related violent mob attack on the U.S. Capitol in January 2021.  He also expressed support for the comments of Lord Bowness and the priorities announced by the Swedish Chair-in-Office, including to have the Human Dimension Implementation Meeting in 2021. “We must challenge those who are seeking to weaken the OSCE or aren’t living up to their commitments. That’s our priority as parliamentarians … and we must as parliamentarians support the mission of the OSCE and help strengthen it through our actions and our capitals,” he said.  Finally, speaking on behalf of Rep. Alcee Hastings (FL-20), who was unable to attend, Sen. Cardin asked the Swedish chair about how the OSCE can engage Armenia and Azerbaijan in order to address outstanding issues and encourage a return to the Minsk Group settlement process to achieve a sustainable resolution of the conflict. Taking a Closer Look at the Security, Economic and Human Dimensions of OSCE Following the Joint Session, each of the three General Committees heard from OSCE officials in their respective fields, or dimensions, of OSCE work.  Presenters included the ambassadors serving as chairs of the counterpart committees of the OSCE’s Permanent Council and the head of the OSCE’s Special Monitoring Mission in Ukraine. The three committees also heard from their respective rapporteurs on plans for drafting substantive reports that will be the basis of further activity at the Annual Session. Rep. Richard Hudson (NC-08), who chairs the General (First) Committee on Political Affairs and Security, noted the myriad of security and political issues confronting the OSCE during the past year, including the war in Ukraine, conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, and political turmoil in countries of concern like Russia, Belarus, and most recently Georgia.  “Our engagement with critical issues in the OSCE space has been consistent and impactful,” he concluded. Speaking during the session, Acting U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Phil Reeker called the erosion of the European security environment the “biggest challenge we face today in the organization” and highlighted U.S. plans for the Forum for Security Cooperation (FSC) during its four-month chairmanship.  The Acting Permanent Representative of the United States to the OSCE and FSC chair, senior diplomat Courtney Austrian, was present for the discussion. Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) took the floor during subsequent debate to condemn Russian violations of Helsinki Principles in its aggression in Ukraine.  He said that “Moscow must withdraw proxies in eastern Ukraine” and “respect Ukraine’s territorial integrity,” asserting that relevant sanctions will remain in place until that happens.  Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09) also responded to an intervention on youth and drugs by a delegate from Belarus, arguing that citizens need to be given greater freedom if young people are to feel a commitment to the country. Three other Members of Congress participated in the session of the General (Second) Committee on Economic Affairs, Science, Technology and the Environment, which covered issues ranging from corruption to climate change.  Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (PA-01) focused on addressing corruption. “It should come as no surprise to anyone … that legislatures have one of the most important roles to play in combating corruption—that of establishing a transparent and accountable legal and financial framework that empowers law enforcement officials and is maximally resistant to fraud,” he said.  Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (RI) said that the United States “is back” in efforts to combat climate change and noted recent U.S. legislation designed to address shell companies that support a global dark economy by sheltering “assets of thieves.”  Rep. Gwen Moore (WI-04) spoke about the devastating impact of the pandemic on women in the healthcare industry as well as on small business, and she expressed concern about risks to supply chains and business ties to both China and Russia.   Three Members of Congress also participated in of the General (Third) Committee on Democracy, Human Rights and Humanitarian Questions.   Rep. Cohen asserted that human rights has reclaimed its place in U.S. foreign policy, and emphasized human rights in concerns in Russia, Belarus, and Hungary. He expressed particular concern about the poisoning and recent arrest of Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny and called for Belarus to release political prisoners and to hold elections with OSCE observers. Rep. Marc Veasey (TX-33) took the floor in a later debate, responding to a report on the OSCE’s observation of the U.S. general elections in November 2020.  He stressed the need for U.S. states that currently prohibit or restrict international observation to consider a more open approach and   concluded that “our election officials and state legislators should read this report,” along with “any American who cares about his or her country.  It is a broad snapshot of our entire electoral complex system that we have here.”  Rep. Robert Aderholt (AL-04) raised concerns about discriminatory restrictions on religious assembly during the pandemic, as well as on the diminishing free media environment in many participating States. “Press freedom in the OSCE region has continued to decline as some governments are using economic, legal, and extra-legal tools to silence independent media and also to bolster loyal outlets and dozens of journalists are imprisoned in the OSCE region,” he said. “We’ve seen that in Russia, we’ve seen that in Belarus, we’ve seen that in Turkey, detaining scores of journalists in recent national protests.” There was one side event held in conjunction with the Winter Meeting, organized by the Norwegian Helsinki Committee in cooperation with the Lithuanian Mission to OSCE. Seven panelists in two sessions highlighted how international instruments—such as the Moscow Mechanism, Magnitsky-like legislation, the International Criminal Court, the European Court of Human Rights, and the promotion of a universal criminal jurisdiction—could increase accountability of state actors, support Belarus’ democracy movement, and deny financial safe havens to Russian kleptocrats.  Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya and Boris Nemtsov Foundation for Freedom chairman Vladimir Kara-Murza were among the event panelists. Assessing the Effort The virtual three-day, five-session Winter Meeting could not replace an in-person gathering in Vienna, a point frequently made by the parliamentarians themselves.  However, it did allow for a resumption of constructive debate in the general committees and interaction among parliamentarians and other OSCE institutions, paving the way for a return to more traditional work as the year progresses. The need to cancel the Annual Session planned for July in Bucharest was a major disappointment, but the adoption of rules governing such emergency situations now permit some continuity of effort.

  • Helsinki Commission Leaders Welcome Sanctions on Russian Officials Implicated in Crimes against Navalny

    WASHINGTON—Following Tuesday’s announcement that the United States will impose sanctions on seven senior Russian figures implicated in Alexei Navalny’s poisoning and imprisonment, Helsinki Commission leaders Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20), Sen. Roger Wicker (MS), Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) and Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) issued the following statements: “Our actions signal that we continue to stand with the Russian people,” said Rep. Hastings. “The United States will always defend those like Mr. Navalny who battle against the oppression of their fellow citizens, fight for basic freedoms, and offer a path to democracy.” “The Kremlin’s attacks on Mr. Navalny are meant to serve as a warning to any Russian who dares to defy Putin,” said Sen. Wicker. “The United States will not tolerate such threats against the human rights and fundamental freedoms of the Russian people without imposing serious consequences to deter Putin and his criminal regime.” “The Kremlin will insist that sanctions are anti-Russian. On the contrary, there is nothing more anti-Russian than authorities who cheat, harm, and steal from their fellow citizens,” said Rep. Wilson. “These sanctions provide a concrete check on the bad acts of Putin’s flunkies.” “Only in a free Russia can justice truly be served. Sanctioning perpetrators of the crimes against Mr. Navalny is a necessary first step,” said Sen. Cardin. “We must make it clear that the United States and our allies will not tolerate attempts by the Kremlin to silence its critics—whether through assassination, imprisonment, or harassment.” In August 2020, Alexei Navalny was the victim of an assassination attempt by the Russian FSB that used a Russia-developed chemical weapon in the Novichok family. He spent months recovering after being flown to Berlin for treatment. Navalny returned to Moscow on January 17, 2021, and immediately was arrested. On February 2, a Russian judge sentenced Navalny to three and a half years in a prison colony for violating the terms of a suspended sentence related to a 2014 case that the European Court of Human Rights deemed arbitrary and unreasonable. Previous time served under house arrest reduced his prison time to two years and eight months. Navalny is likely to serve the remainder of his sentence at one of Russia’s most notorious penal colonies in the Vladimir region, about three hours east of Moscow.

  • Helsinki Commission Digital Digest: February 2021

  • Helsinki Commission Leaders Slam Detention of Georgian Opposition Leader Nika Melia

    WASHINGTON—Following the February 23 detention of Georgian opposition leader Nika Melia by authorities, Helsinki Commission leaders Rep. Alcee Hastings (FL-20), Sen. Roger Wicker (MS), Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02), and Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) issued the following joint statement: “As a participating State of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Georgia has committed to respecting democratic institutions, human rights, and the rule of law. “Storming the headquarters of an opposing political party and arbitrarily detaining its leader is not in keeping with democratic progress. We urge the Government of Georgia to release Nika Melia, deescalate the crisis, and recommit to dialogue rather than aggression.”

  • Chairman Hastings Introduces Federal Jobs Act to Increase Diversity, Ensure Access to Federal Jobs for All Americans

    WASHINGTON—Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) on Thursday reintroduced the Federal Jobs Act, a bill to establish a government-wide diversity and inclusion plan to ensure fair access and opportunity to federal jobs for all Americans.  “My colleagues and I have engaged in diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts in the federal government not because they are nice or politically correct, but because they are is in the best interest of the longevity of our nation,” said Chairman Hastings. “Sustaining the well-being of our country will require that we hire—and retain—a more diverse federal workforce in every area, from the military, intelligence, and diplomatic services to the health and education sectors.” The bill would require the development of a government-wide diversity and inclusion plan to ensure that all branches of the federal government are engaged in multi-year strategic planning that recruits, hires, promotes, retains, and supports leadership representing America’s diverse talent pool. It also calls for a review of diversity in government contracting and grant-making. “Diversity and inclusion underpin truly democratic societies,” said Chairman Hastings. “It is time that we ensure that all segments of our society have both the access and the opportunity to contribute to our democracy.” The Federal Jobs Act complements President Biden’s recent executive orders on racial equality by providing an essential tool to address discrimination and disparities in the workplace. Chairman Hastings originally introduced the Federal Jobs Act in March 2020, following a February 2020 GAO report highlighting problems in the State Department and legislative initiatives to increase diversity in the national security workforce.  For close to a decade, Chairman Hastings has been a part of bipartisan Congressional efforts to support annual funding for State Department and USAID diversity fellowship programs such as the Rangel, Payne, Pickering, and ICAP programs. He also has collaborated with Helsinki Commissioners to support initiatives focused on equality and justice globally, such as the 2019 Leadership Institute for Transatlantic Engagement (LITE) Act, and was a lead sponsor of the National Security Diversity and Inclusion Workforce Act of 2019 (S.497). Efforts to advance societies that are safe, inclusive, and equitable and promote racial justice are central to the work of the Helsinki Commission. Commissioners regularly introduce and champion legislation addressing diversity, inclusion, and racial justice issues in the United States and abroad; support programs to address inequities in employment, political participation, and other sectors for women and minorities; and strive to empower communities to unite against bias and discrimination to foster truly democratic, inclusive, and free societies. Representatives Gregory Meeks, Gwen Moore, and Sheila Jackson Lee are original cosponsors of the bill.

  • Chairman Hastings Introduces LITE Act to Foster Shared Values, Restore Faith in Democratic Institutions on Both Sides of the Atlantic

    WASHINGTON—Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) on Thursday reintroduced the Leadership Institute for Transatlantic Engagement (LITE) Act to strengthen ties with U.S. allies, protect democratic institutions, and support visionary leadership on both sides of the Atlantic. The legislation was originally introduced in March 2020. “Dramatic disparities in wealth, health, employment, education, and justice are leading some to question whether democracy can deliver on its promise of freedom and opportunity for all,” said Chairman Hastings. “By helping leaders ensure that laws are equitable, transparent, and enforced; elections are free and fair; and the same protections, rights, and laws are extended to all in their constituencies, we can restore faith in democratic institutions on both sides of the Atlantic.” LITE would further codify transatlantic leadership exchanges and knowledge-building activities to equip Western policymakers with legislative, communications, conflict resolution, and other leadership tools to strengthen democratic institutions in their societies as well as the transatlantic relationship. It complements President Joe Biden’s initiatives to address racial equity and discrimination, as well as to reengage with America’s European allies. Recognizing the rapid and ongoing demographic change on both sides of the Atlantic, LITE also focuses on inclusive and intergenerational solutions to current challenges and would empower individuals across generations and from diverse backgrounds with the knowledge, skills, opportunity, and access to fully participate in their democracies. In addition, LITE would assist in community reunification by helping leaders develop strategies to build resilience against the exploitation of community grievances that can lead to dangerous divisions in society. During the 116th Congress, the Helsinki Commission, under the leadership of Chairman Hastings, organized multiple initiatives to promote inclusive democracies, including a September 2019 hearing on the state of diversity and inclusion in Europe. In December 2019, the commission convened a hearing on public diplomacy initiatives that cultivate leaders who espouse democratic principles, including inclusive and representative governance. In February 2020, the Helsinki Commission hosted more than 30 young legislators from OSCE participating States and partner countries to discuss the role of young people in peace and security efforts and forge a transatlantic network for political action to address emerging human rights and security challenges. For more than a decade, the Helsinki Commission has convened U.S. and European policymakers with the State Department and other partners under the banner of the Transatlantic Minority Political Leadership Conference and Transatlantic Inclusion Leaders Network to support increased political representation in Western democracies. In November 2019, the State Department, in cooperation with the Helsinki Commission, launched a new transatlantic democracy program for youth, “On the Road to Inclusion.” The program empowers young people to collaborate across diverse social, cultural, religious, and generational differences to promote positive change through democratic practices. Representatives Gregory Meeks, Gwen Moore, Steve Cohen, and Sheila Jackson Lee are original cosponsors of the bill.

  • Chairman Hastings Introduces Initiatives to Promote Rights and Recognize Achievements of People of African Descent

    WASHINGTON—As the United States celebrates Black History Month and the world continues to highlight the International Decade for People of African Descent, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) introduced two pieces of legislation on Thursday focused on promoting the rights of people of African descent and recognizing their achievements and invaluable contributions to society. The African Descent Affairs Act of 2021 would establish a U.S. strategy to protect and promote the human rights of people of African descent worldwide. “We have seen a sharp increase in racism, anti-Semitism, xenophobia and other forms of prejudice and discrimination across the globe,” said Chairman Hastings. “Global racial justice movements have drawn attention not only to the problem, but also to opportunities to join efforts with countries around the world to develop and implement global and national solutions.” The African Descent Affairs Act, originally introduced in 2019, seeks to facilitate the full and equal participation of people of African descent in society; promote knowledge of and respect for the diverse heritage, culture, and contributions of people of African descent; and strengthen and implement legal frameworks that combat racial discrimination by: Developing an Office of Global African Descent Affairs within the U.S. State Department to develop global foreign policy and assistance strategies beyond the African continent; Creating a State Department fund to support antidiscrimination and empowerment efforts by civil society organizations; Requiring annual State Department human rights reports to include a section on discrimination faced by people of African descent; Creating similar initiatives at the United States Agency for International Development.  A related resolution recognizes the achievements and contributions of people of African descent and Black Europeans in the face of persistent racism and discrimination. It encourages the European Union (EU), European governments, and members of civil society and the private sector to work with African descent communities to implement national strategies to address inequality and racism. “While the presence of Blacks in Europe can be traced to enslavement, colonization, military deployments, voluntary or forced migration, the movement of refugees and asylum seekers, or educational and other professional exchanges and even before the time of the Egyptians, the story of Europeans of African descent and Black Europeans still remains largely untold,” said Chairman Hastings. “The system has rendered many of their past and present contributions to the very fabric of Europe unseen or forgotten, which is unacceptable.” The resolution urges the United States to take a number of steps to improve the situation of people of African descent in Europe by supporting: EU-wide anti-racism and inclusion strategies, including implementation of the EU’s first Anti-racism Action Plan and the adoption of national strategies in all 27 EU Member States; A Joint U.S.-EU Action Plan on Racial and Ethnic Equality and Inclusion, as well as other multilateral efforts to address racial inequality and combat racial discrimination, including efforts of the OSCE, Council of Europe, United Nations and their parliamentary assemblies; The active promotion of racial and ethnic representation and participation at all levels of national, regional, and local government, in addition to other measures. Chairman Hastings originally introduced the resolution, which was co-sponsored by the late Rep. John Lewis, in March 2019.  “It is my hope that when we gather in the years to come to review the efforts of the United Nations designated International Decade for People of African Descent, we will not only speak of how our efforts resulted in our respective nations publicly recognizing the injustices and long-term impact of slavery and colonialism, but also of how our societies reconciled these issues in a manner that ensured equal opportunity, access, and justice for all people of African descent,” said Chairman Hastings. Both initiatives align with President Biden’s recent executive orders on racial equality and justice. Over the past decade, the Helsinki Commission has drawn attention to continuing issues of racism and discrimination on both sides of the Atlantic, most recently through a September 2020 hearing on reinforcing U.S.-EU parliamentary coordination to promote race equity, equality, and justice following the June 19, 2020 adoption of the European Parliament resolution on the anti-racism protests following the death of George Floyd. Representatives Gregory Meeks, Gwen Moore, Steve Cohen, Sheila Jackson Lee, and Bobby Rush are original cosponsors of the bill.

  • Cardin, Wicker Introduce Bill to Counter Corruption and Promote Good Governance

    WASHINGTON—U.S. Senator Ben Cardin (D-Md.) and Senator Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), incoming Chair of the U.S. Helsinki Commission and Co-Chair, respectively, have re-introduced legislation that would elevate the federal government’s anti-corruption activities. S.158, the Countering Russian and Other Overseas Kleptocracy Act, or CROOK Act, would establish an anti-corruption action fund to provide extra funding during historic windows of opportunity for reform in foreign countries and streamline work strengthening the rule of law abroad. “Vladimir Putin and other kleptocrats around the world seek to undermine democracy and hollow out the rule of law for their own personal gain. This bipartisan legislation would provide the authority and resources required to fight back against these reprehensible regimes,” said Senator Cardin, a senior member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “Countering corruption and promoting good governance is a national security priority.” “There is no better indicator of the need to confront corruption around the world than Vladimir Putin’s disgraceful actions against democratic activist Alexei Navalny,” Senator Wicker said. “By targeting individual wrongdoers, this legislation would help to counter the influence of corrupt actors on the world stage, whether they be from Russia, China, or Venezuela. Any steps we can take to crack down on illegal practices and strengthen the rule of law are welcome.” The anti-corruption action fund established in the Cardin-Wicker legislation would assist countries where U.S. assistance could significantly increase the chances of successfully transitioning to democracy, combating corruption, and establishing the rule of law. For example, Ukraine in 2014, Ethiopia after the election of a new Prime Minister who instituted important reforms in 2018, or Armenia after the December 2018 parliamentary election. This no-year fund would establish a mechanism to allocate aid and take advantage of ripened political will more quickly. The monies for this fund would derive from a $5 million surcharge to individual companies and entities that incur Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) criminal fines and penalties above $50 million. S.158 also would establish several complementary mechanisms to generate a whole-of-government approach to U.S. efforts to strengthen the rule of law abroad. These include an interagency taskforce; the designation of embassy anti-corruption points of contact to liaise with the task force; reporting requirements designed to combat corruption, kleptocracy, and illegal finance; and a consolidated online platform for easy access to anti-corruption reports and materials.

  • Cardin and Wicker Introduce Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Reauthorization Act

    WASHINGTON—U.S. Senator Ben Cardin (D-Md.), incoming Chair of the U.S. Helsinki Commission and author of the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act, and Helsinki Commission Co-Chair Senator Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) have introduced the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Reauthorization Act (S. 93).The bipartisan legislation would extend U.S. sanctions against violators of human rights and corrupt actors so they do not escape the consequences of their actions even when their home country fails to seek justice for their victims. “The Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act has been a powerful tool in our global effort to protecting human rights and fight corruption. I thank Senator Wicker for working with me to strengthen the law as a message to abusers and kleptocrats who think they can act with impunity,” said Senator Cardin. “This reauthorization will send a clear signal of our national commitment to defending democratic values and the international rules and standards that enable us all to live peaceably together. When human rights abusers and kleptocrats violate these norms, it is incumbent upon us to create concrete consequences.” “When it was introduced, the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act was a groundbreaking tool for combating human rights abuses and corruption around the world,” Senator Wicker said. “Since then, the law has helped to hold the worst violators accountable no matter where they are. I look forward to working with Senator Cardin to make this legislation permanent, so that the U.S. can continue to defend human rights abroad.” Actions taken under the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act continue to demonstrate the reach, flexibility, and broad scope of the Global Magnitsky authorities. The United States responded to serious human rights abuses and corruption globally, addressing some of the most egregious behavior this tool can attempt to disrupt and deter. These actions targeted, among other things, serious human rights abusers affecting millions of members of Muslim minority groups in northwest China’s Xinjiang province; corrupt actors in South Sudan involved in draining the country of critical resources; and Ugandan officials engaged in an adoption scam that victimized Ugandan-born children. These designations clearly demonstrate the importance of this tool, when appropriate, to target individuals and entities engaging in specified conduct. The Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Reauthorization Act (S. 93) seeks to harmonize the original Act (Title XII, Subtitle F of P.L. 114-328; 22 U.S.C. §2656 note) with Executive Order 13818 by: Removing the victim status requirement to ensure no victim is excluded; Adopting the “serious human rights abuse” and “violation of internationally recognized Human rights” standards to expand the actors and abuses eligible for sanctions; Simplifying the standard for corruption offenses; Supplementing the activity-based targeting standard with a status-based standard; and Allowing for the sanctioning of immediate family members. S. 93 calls for a report on the steps taken through diplomacy and assistance to foreign or security sectors to address persistent underlying causes of serious human rights abuses, violations of internationally recognized human rights, and corruption in each country in which foreign persons have been subject to sanctions. It also repeals the sunset clause in the original legislation.

  • Hastings Deplores Sentencing of Alexei Navalny

    WASHINGTON—Following the sentencing of Alexei Navalny to two years and eight months in a Russian penal colony, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) issued the following statement: “Those who uncover the Kremlin’s corruption and demand more accountable government for the Russian people often pay with their freedom—or their lives. After the scheme to kill Alexei Navalny failed, Putin is now trying to silence him with a prison sentence. This mockery of justice is a grave insult to Mr. Navalny and to all Russians who wish to exercise their freedoms without fear of abuse.” On February 2, a Russian judge sentenced Navalny to three and a half years in a prison colony for violating the terms of a suspended sentence related to a 2014 case that the European Court of Human Rights called “arbitrary and unreasonable.” Previous time served under house arrest will reduce his prison time to two years and eight months. On January 29, Helsinki Commission leaders condemned Navalny’s detention in Moscow upon his return from Berlin, where he was recovering from an assassination attempt by the Russian FSB.

  • Cardin Condemns Sentencing of Russian Opposition Leader Alexei Navalny

    WASHINGTON—U.S. Senator Ben Cardin (D-Md.), a senior member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and author of the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act, issued the following statement in response to the sentencing of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny. “The Russian court case we just witnessed against Alexei Navalny was a farce beyond compare. Mr. Nalvany’s sentence to 2 1/2 more years in prison on charges that he violated the terms of his probation while he was recuperating in Germany from nerve-agent poisoning is appalling. I am deeply disturbed by Putin and his cronies’ continued efforts to repress democracy and independent voices. The international community is watching. There must be consequences for these latest actions. “I encourage the Biden-Harris administration to quickly respond to this latest move by Putin. The list of Russia’s transgressions continues to grow: the apparent use of a chemical weapon against Mr. Navalany, cyberattacks against the U.S. government and U.S. companies, and interfering in U.S. elections. We need to stand up against ongoing, aggressive Russian actions. I urge my colleagues to join me in supporting the bipartisan Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Reauthorization Act (S. 93) and Combatting Global Corruption Act (S. 14) that I have introduced in this Congress. Putin has shown how much he despises Magnitsky laws, which is why we must continue to make them stronger as a strong signal to him and other authoritarian regimes that protecting human rights and fighting corruption are central U.S. national security priorities.”

  • Helsinki Commission Leaders Condemn Jailing of Navalny, Attacks on Peaceful Protesters across Russia

    WASHINGTON—Following Alexei Navalny’s recent arrest, violent attacks on peaceful protesters across Russia, and police raids on the offices and homes of Navalny and his colleagues, Helsinki Commission leaders Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20), Sen. Roger Wicker (MS), Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02), and Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) issued the following statements: “Protesters who support Mr. Navalny’s release and seek a more just Russia should not be beaten in the streets and treated like criminals,” said Rep. Hastings. “The true criminals are those who continue to enable Putin and his cronies to steal from the people of Russia.” “What has happened to Alexei Navalny is a travesty. After being poisoned at the Kremlin’s orders, he returned home to Russia only to be jailed for the ‘crime’ of pulling back the curtain on the corruption and violence entrenched in Putin’s system,” said Sen. Wicker. “Those who expose the truth should be rewarded, not condemned.” “If Vladimir Putin did not fear Navalny and his anti-corruption movement, he would not go to such great lengths to silence them,” said Rep. Wilson. “He understands that his power is threatened when the truth is exposed.” “Mr. Navalny must be allowed to return to his family and his work without further harassment by the Kremlin,” said Sen. Cardin. “The Russian people have the right to protest peacefully and advocate for the future of their country without fear of violent retribution from Putin.” In August 2020, Navalny was the victim of a coordinated assassination attempt by the Russian FSB that used a chemical weapon in the Novichok family. After holding him for two days in Russia, Russian authorities allowed Navalny to travel to Berlin, where he spent months recovering, for treatment. Navalny returned to Moscow on January 17 and immediately was arrested. Shortly thereafter, in a makeshift trial in a Moscow police station, Navalny was sentenced to 30 days of pre-trial detention. He will receive his final sentence on February 2. Following Navalny’s detention and his release of an exposé documenting Vladimir Putin’s palace on the Black Sea, thousands of Russians in over 100 cities and towns took to the streets on January 23 to protest. Police responded with widespread violence and over 3,700 people, including more than 50 journalists, were detained. Additional protests are planned for January 31.

  • Hastings Marks International Holocaust Remembrance Day

    WASHINGTON—Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) today released the following statement marking International Holocaust Remembrance Day: “International Holocaust Remembrance Day marks the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, a place more emblematic of the tragedy of the Holocaust than any other.  Today, we remember the six million Jews who perished in the Holocaust and the millions of other innocent people murdered by the Nazi regime—Poles, Soviets, Roma, Serbs, Afro-Germans, Jehovah's Witnesses, gay men and women, and people with disabilities. We honor those who survived.  “Throughout my time in Congress, I have supported both Holocaust education and the academic freedom necessary to achieve it. I have worked to protect critical archives like those in Bad Arolsen and Lety and preserve sensitive sites of remembrance. I have condemned Holocaust trivialization and revisionism. I have supported efforts in the United States and around the globe to counter anti-Semitism, racism, and xenophobia. “However, this year’s remembrance is like no other. Today, we recall the liberation of Auschwitz in the aftermath of the deadly insurrection at the United States Capitol. The appalling symbols of hate, violence, and sedition carried by the mob included a ‘Camp Auschwitz’ shirt.  This shocking imagery glorifying the Holocaust brings to mind the words of my late colleague, Congressman Tom Lantos—the only Holocaust survivor to have served in the United States Congress. As he once said, ‘The veneer of civilization is paper thin. We are its guardians and we can never rest.’ We should have no illusions about the importance, urgency, and magnitude of our task.”

  • Holocaust Remembrance Day 2021

    Today, the world comes together to remember the horrors of the Holocaust. We honor the six million Jews and five million others – Roma, Afro-Germans, gay men and women, people with disabilities, and more – whom the Nazis brutally murdered. And we stand in awe and celebration of those brave souls who managed to survive. It is difficult to comprehend the terrors that took place in Europe between 1939 and 1945. But we carry an obligation, to those who perished and those who survived, to prevent further genocide and mass atrocities. It is critical that we understand what happened to them, so that we can prevent it from ever happening again. One of the most important things to understand about the Holocaust is that while a limited group of particularly evil monsters orchestrated it, they could not have succeeded without the active or tacit support of millions of average people. Men and women agreed to turn over their neighbors, patrol the ghettos, drive the cattle cars, guard the death camps, and line people up to shoot them down. Or men and women decided to avert their gaze and do nothing to stop the atrocities. I don’t believe that all of those people were born villains. I think they were taught by their communities to adopt a level of anti-Semitism and prejudice that likely would have be recognizable to many of us today, and that the Nazi propaganda masters exploited those feelings. That terrifies me, because it means that the Holocaust was not an anomaly.  It means that, under the right conditions, a similar atrocity could happen again. The hatred that gave rise to the Holocaust is still very much alive. The Anti-Defamation League’s (ADL) 2014 Global Index of Anti-Semitism found that more than 1 billion people – nearly one in eight – around the world harbor anti-Semitic attitudes. Over 30 percent of those surveyed said it was ‘probably true’ that Jews have too much control over financial markets, that Jews think they are better than other people, that Jews are disloyal to their country, and that people hate Jews because of the way that Jews behave.  Such sentiments too often translate into violence, leading 40 percent of European Jews to report in 2018 that they lived in daily fear of being physically attacked. Sadly, these trends bear out closer to home, too. Jews make up fewer than 3 percent of the American population, but the majority of reported religion-based hate crimes target Jewish people or institutions. In 2019, the ADL reported that anti-Semitism in America had hit a four-decade high. According to the 2020 survey by the American Jewish Committee, more than one-third of American Jews say they have been verbally or physically assaulted during the past five years simply because they are Jewish. I believe that the world looks to the United States for moral leadership.  When we allow anti-Semitism, racism, or other kind of intolerance to flourish here, other countries take that as license to do the same.  Moreover, we need to recognize the nexus between and networking among those who traffic in hate and conspiracies in the United States, and other like-minded individuals and groups around the globe. Combatting the most dangerous forms of this bigotry will require understanding the ways in which such groups are reinforcing and learning from each other. Unfortunately, the last four years – beginning with white nationalists chanting ‘Jews will not replace us’ in Charlottesville, and ending with an insurrectionist wearing a ‘Camp Auschwitz’ sweatshirt while storming the Capitol – are a dark stain on this country’s record.  By allowing such vicious hatred to take root and to grow, we failed ourselves, and we failed the rest of the world. Now, we have the opportunity to redeem ourselves – to become leaders once more in the fight to eliminate anti-Semitism and all forms of hatred around the globe. It will not be easy, but it is something we have to do – and it starts with education. In the ADL’s 2014 global survey, 35 percent of the respondents had never heard of the Holocaust, and 28 percent of those who did know of it believed that the number of Jews who died in the Holocaust has been greatly exaggerated. Meanwhile, the AJC’s 2020 Survey of the General Public found that nearly one-quarter of Americans know nothing or not much about the Holocaust, and nearly one-half are not even sure what the term ‘anti-Semitism’ means. How can we hope to learn, as a society, from the horrors of the Holocaust, if so many people either do not know or do not believe that it happened?  How can we root out anti-Semitism if almost half of us do not even understand what it is? We must educate the next generation on the horrors of the Holocaust and the dangers of intolerance.  I am proud to have led efforts to provide full funding for the recently enacted Never Again Education Act in order to expand the reach of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s world-renowned educational programming. This will allow educators across the country from K-12 through college to access age-appropriate curriculum on the Holocaust. It will also bolster the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s continued collection and use of survivor testimony so that tomorrow’s leaders will see and hear for themselves why we must never again allow hatred to thrive. At the same time, we must fight against Holocaust denial in any form, in any part of the world. As the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe Parliamentary Assembly’s Special Representative on Anti-Semitism, Racism and Intolerance, I am committed to countering attempts to erase or revise the events of the Holocaust, such as Poland’s efforts to punish those who speak the truth about the three million Jews killed there. I am deeply disturbed, for instance, by the news of a slander lawsuit against two Polish scholars for their writings on Jews forced into hiding during the Nazi occupation. I am also appalled that Hungary’s Viktor Orban has erected a monument that tries to whitewash Hungary’s wartime role in the murder of more than half a million Hungarian Jews.  On a day we remember the liberation of Auschwitz, I remember too that one of every three Jews who died there was Hungarian. “The Holocaust happened, and it can happen again. It can. We made a promise to our grandparents and to our grandchildren that it never would.  I believe that we are each responsible for keeping that promise. So let us heed the lessons of the past in order to build a more peaceful, just, and compassionate future for all.

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