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Relatives Testify to Struggles to Resolve Missing Persons Cases in Former Yugoslavia
Thursday, September 25, 2003

By Bob Hand
CSCE Staff Advisor

The United States Helsinki Commission held a hearing Friday, August 1, 2003, to address the issue of missing persons in the southeastern region of Europe formerly known as Yugoslavia.

Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-NJ) presided over the hearing which featured testimony from four witnesses who lead non-governmental organizations representing the families of missing persons in Kosovo and Croatia.

In his opening statement, Chairman Smith noted the importance of stories from relatives of missing persons to underscore the human tragedy and legacy of the conflicts that erupted in the region. In exploring those experiences, Smith said, those in the United States can begin to empathize with such a heartbreaking issue not often noted as a consequence of conflict.

Citing the twenty-eighth anniversary of the Helsinki Final Act, Smith remarked that "nothing is more appropriate for the Helsinki Commission than to have a public hearing not about policies and programs, but about real people who have suffered so much. Like the prosecution of war crimes and crimes against humanity, the resolution of missing persons cases can help bring about at least some closure and help individuals recover from their tragic loss."

In prepared remarks for the hearing, Co-Chairman Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-CO) said, "While we are saddened by the stories our witnesses will tell of missing relatives--some for many, many years--we are also inspired by their courage and leadership as they forge ahead seeking truthful answers." Co-Chairman Campbell emphasized that stringent professional law enforcement procedures are needed throughout the region of Southeast Europe in order to help bring closure to existing cases.

Gordana Jaksic is a member of the Board of Directors for the Association of Parents and Families of the Arrested, Captured and Missing in Novi Sad, Serbia. Jaksic testified that her Serbian-based organization is currently investigating cases of 560 missing persons who vanished from 1991 to 1996, immediately following the fall of Yugoslavia. One case is that of her own son, Slobodan, captured by Croatian forces in May 1992 while serving in the Yugoslav People's Army in Bosnia. "Eleven years is a very long time," Jaksic said. "I do not ask for pity. I do not need anyone's pity. I want to [awaken] people's minds and consciousness so that they raise their voices together with mine so that we can reach the truth."

In response, Chairman Smith expressed sympathy and added, "The time has come for closure, and the only way that there will be closure is if the political will exists on all sides to get to the bottom of this."

Cedomir Maric is President of the Association of Missing Persons from Krajina, a Belgrade-based organization investigating the cases of 2,824 Serbian families from within the territory of Croatia known as Krajina. Maric testified that his dedication to the cause of missing persons began in 1995, when his son, Jalimir, was kidnapped in the town of Knin.

"Our struggle has been going on for eight years, but it will continue until we find our loved ones," Maric told the Commission. "As time passes by, we become more conscious of the fact that maybe we will not reach the day, we will not live to the day when we wait for them at home and they come back alive, but we want to continue the struggle to get the remains of our children so that we know where we can bury them and go to light the candle according to our rights."

Olgica Bozanic and Verica Tomanovic represent the Belgrade-based Association of Family Members of Missing and Kidnapped Individuals. Bozanic described her five-year search for fourteen of her relatives who disappeared in Kosovo in 1998, during a period of high-intensity conflict involving the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA). "Serbs were kidnapped everywhere," Bozanic stressed.

Bozanic, who actually met with those responsible for her family members' disappearances, expressed frustration with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, which is prosecuting Balkan war crimes. Citing repeated contact with Tribunal Chief Prosecutor Carla del Ponte. Bozanic explained that authorities were hesitant to assert jurisdiction in the cases of the families represented by her organization.

"I wanted to achieve something while people in my family were still alive, but Carla Del Ponte answered that they cannot arrest anybody or indict anybody because they have no evidence," Bozanic said. "I asked what they considered as evidence. I was told that if there were no bodies, there was no evidence."

Tomanovic discussed the work of her organization, formed in 2000 to bring organized power to many individual cases languishing before international and local authorities. Today, 1,303 families of those kidnapped since 1998 in Kosovo are represented. "We are a non-governmental humanitarian organization and our only goal is to find the truth about the fate of our loved ones," Tomanovic said in her testimony.

"All of these kidnappings and abductions had the same goal, which was the cleansing of Kosovo and Metohija of the Serbs," Tomanovic said. "It has been thousands of nights for some mothers who have not slept at all since their loved ones disappeared. There are children who [are] waiting for their fathers. There is so much pain and suffering, and this anxiety is more horrible than any truth."

Tomanovic's husband, Dr. Andrija Tomanovic, is one of the victims her organization represents. A popular full-time professor and vice president of the Red Cross of Serbia and Kosovo, Dr. Tomanovic was kidnapped in June 1999 at a Pristina Hospital, supposedly guarded by the UN Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK).

Tomanovic echoed Bozanic's discontent with the responsiveness of international authorities. After reporting her husband's kidnaping to KFOR and UNMIK officials, Tomanovic said she received a warm welcome, but limited direct action with no result.

"I have to emphasize that we have a very active cooperation with the UNMIK office in Belgrade, but we are not satisfied with this cooperation because there is no result," Tomanovic said. "The UNMIK has not helped Serbs, not even once, to resolve at least one case. I believe that we can find the truth very quickly if those people who kidnapped our loved ones are arrested."

Maric added that his group has had no direct contact with the Croatia military on their cases.

Chairman Smith responded, "If we are to have faith in the military of Croatia, the least they can do is be absolutely aggressive, thorough and transparent in resolving missing persons issues as it relates to their military."

Adjourning the hearing, Chairman Smith indicated the Commission would hold additional sessions addressing the missing persons issue elsewhere in the war-torn areas of Southeast Europe.

Subsequently the Commission scheduled a hearing, Missing Persons in Southeast Europe (Part 2), for September 18, 2003. The hearing was cancelled due to a hurricane which swept the U.S. Eastern Seaboard. The scheduled witnesses, all ethnic Albanians from Kosovo, have been asked to provide written testimony for the combined record.

All Commission hearings and briefings are open to the public. Interested media and other individuals are encouraged to attend.

The United States Helsinki Commission, an independent federal agency, by law monitors and encourages progress in implementing provisions of the Helsinki Accords. The Commission, created in 1976, is composed of nine Senators, nine Representatives and one official each from the Departments of State, Defense and Commerce.

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Hastings (FL-20), Chairman, U.S. Helsinki Commission Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) is a lead sponsor of the Paul Simon Study Abroad Program Act, which works to increase study abroad opportunities for diverse populations. Study abroad is often a precursor to professions in the diplomatic corps. Chairman Hastings also amended the Matthew Young Pollard Intelligence Authorization Act for Fiscal Years 2018 and 2019, which directs the Office of the Director of National Intelligence to implement a plan to expand the intelligence community’s recruitment efforts so that rural and underserved regions in the U.S. are more fully represented.  In 2017, Sen. Cardin worked with then-chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Sen. Bob Corker (TN) to include several strong diversity provisions, including support for the Donald M. Payne Fellowship and diversity data collection, in the 2018 State Department authorization bill. Most recently, Sen. Cardin helped lead Senate and House Foreign Relations Committee efforts to improve diversity at the State department Supporting policies that strengthen diversity and inclusion in the diplomatic corps and across the federal government ensures that the United States will become a shining example of the power and strength diversity can bring.  A diplomatic corps composed of individuals from all parts of the U.S. society not only presents a more accurate snapshot of America to the world and proves that the U.S. abides by its human rights principles, but also equips the country to handle complex challenges at home or abroad with the widest variety of skills, knowledge, perspectives, ideas, and experiences at the ready. 

  • Helsinki Commission Hearing to Examine Human Rights At Home

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following online hearing: HUMAN RIGHTS AT HOME Implications for U.S. Leadership Thursday, July 2, 2020 11:00 a.m. Watch Live: www.youtube.com/HelsinkiCommission By signing the Helsinki Final Act, the United States committed to respecting human rights and the rule of law, even under the most challenging circumstances. Recent developments in the United States—including George Floyd’s tragic death at the hands of police and subsequent protests—have put U.S. human rights commitments to the test in the eyes of the world. During this online hearing, witnesses will discuss these events, the U.S. response, and the resulting implications for U.S. leadership in foreign policy. Witnesses scheduled to participate include: Ambassador (ret.) Ian Kelly, former U.S. Permanent Representative to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Malcolm Momodou Jallow, Member of Parliament (Sweden) and General Rapporteur on Combating Racism and Intolerance, Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) Nkechi Taifa, Founding Principal & CEO, The Taifa Group, LLC; Convener, Justice Roundtable; and Senior Fellow, Center for Justice, Columbia University

  • Hastings: Plagues Do Not Stop Persecution

    WASHINGTON—Ahead of World Refugee Day on June 20, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) issued the following statement: “The COVID-19 pandemic has exponentially multiplied the overwhelming challenges already faced by refugees and asylum seekers worldwide. To stop the spread of the disease, many countries have closed their borders or strictly limited entry. Unfortunately, this gives refugees nowhere to turn; plagues do not stop persecution. “I encourage governments in the OSCE region to be mindful of safeguarding the public health of their citizens and residents, while still living up to their commitments to offer refuge to the most vulnerable. No country should exploit the pandemic to permanently restrict entry from refugees and asylum seekers. “In addition, authorities must ensure that refugees and asylum seekers can access the services they need to stay healthy. The close quarters in many camps and detention centers make social distancing impossible and, along with a lack of quality medical care and in some cases even basic sanitation, can contribute to coronavirus outbreaks among already vulnerable populations.” In a June 2019 podcast, the Helsinki Commission examined the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on vulnerable communities throughout the OSCE, including refugees and minorities. More than 79.5 million people worldwide were forcibly displaced as of the end of 2019, including 26 million refugees, 45.7 internally displaced persons, and 4.2 million asylum seekers, according to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. Almost 7 million of these refugees and more than 2.1 million asylum seekers were located in OSCE participating States. On March 17, UNHCR and the International Organization for Migration announced they were suspending resettlement departures following pandemic-related entry restrictions by resettlement countries. They announced a resumption on June 18. One hundred and sixty-one countries still have partial or full entry closures, including 97 countries with no exemptions for refugees or asylum seekers. The U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration suspended U.S. Refugee Admissions Program admissions for two weeks on March 19 and subsequently indefinitely. The few admissions since have been emergency exceptions. In addition, rules effective March 20 restricted land ports of entry from Canada and Mexico to “essential travel.” Neither rule included travel by asylum seekers, refugees, or unaccompanied minors as “essential.” All U.S. restrictions currently remain in effect.

  • 8:46 (George Floyd)

    George Floyd’s tragic death at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer—recorded for a wrenching eight minutes and 46 seconds—shocked the world. During this online briefing, political and civil rights leaders from the United States and Europe discussed the impact made by resulting protests and the need to change policing tactics, alongside an honest review of how racism stemming from the transatlantic slave trade and colonialism persists today. Related Information Panelist Biographies Podcast | Communities at Risk: The Impact of COVID-19 on the OSCE’s Most Vulnerable Populations Press Release | Chairman Hastings Introduces LITE Act to Strengthen Ties with U.S. Allies, Support Visionary Leadership on Both Sides of the Atlantic Press Release | Chairman Hastings Introduces Bill to Promote Diversity and Inclusion in the Federal Workforce Press Release | Chairman Hastings Recognizes Black European Fight for Inclusion Safe, Inclusive, and Equitable Societies Helsinki Commission Initiatives on Racial Justice, Minority Rights, and Tolerance and Non-Discrimination ENAR demands to address racist police violence and structural racism

  • Political and Civil Rights Leaders to Discuss Impact of George Floyd’s Death at Helsinki Commission Briefing

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following staff-led online briefing: 8:46 (GEORGE FLOYD) A Time for Transformation at Home and Abroad Friday, June 12, 2020 10:00 a.m. Register to attend. George Floyd’s tragic death at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer—recorded for a wrenching eight minutes and 46 seconds—shocked the world.  During this online briefing, political and civil rights leaders from the United States and Europe will discuss the impact made by resulting protests and the need to change policing tactics, alongside an honest review of how racism stemming from the transatlantic slave trade and colonialism persists today. Panelists scheduled to participate include: Abena Oppong-Asare, Member of Parliament, United Kingdom Adam Hollier, Michigan State Senator Mitchell Esajas, Chair, New Urban Collective (Netherlands) Karen Taylor, Chair, European Network Against Racism (ENAR) Panelists may be added.

  • Helsinki Commission Chairman Condemns Reported U.S. Withdrawal from Open Skies Treaty, Calls For New START Extension

    WASHINGTON—Following reports that the Trump administration has notified other governments of its intent to withdraw from the Treaty on Open Skies, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) issued the following statement: “The Open Skies Treaty has underpinned transatlantic security for decades, and has always enjoyed bipartisan support precisely because of its contributions to our security and that of our allies and partners,” said Chairman Hastings. “The Trump administration’s ideological opposition to arms control agreements has undercut transparency and predictability in Europe at a time when U.S. leadership is needed most.  “The timing of this ill-advised decision so close to our elections is distasteful. The United States withdrawing from the Open Skies Treaty can only benefit Putin’s continuing campaign of aggression against Russia’s neighbors. I urge the administration to reconsider and instead work with Congress to double down on supporting our allies and partners in Europe, and particularly working to secure the prompt extension of the New START Treaty.” The Open Skies Treaty is designed to increase transparency, build confidence, and encourage cooperation among the United States, Russia, and 32 other participating states (including much of Europe as well as partners like Ukraine and Georgia), by permitting unarmed observation aircraft to fly over their entire territory to observe military forces and activities. The United States has conducted nearly three times as many flights over Russia as Russia has over the United States under the Treaty. The United States has also used the Treaty to support partners by conducting flights over hotspots such as the Ukraine-Russian border. The New START Treaty between the United States and Russia limits each side’s intercontinental ballistic missile launchers, nuclear-capable heavy bombers, and deployed nuclear warheads, and includes a substantial verification regime to ensure the sides comply with the Treaty’s terms. New START is due to expire in February 2021, unless both parties agree to extend it for no more than five years. 

  • Human Rights and Democracy in a Time of Pandemic

    The outbreak of the novel coronavirus pandemic has prompted governments around the world to take extraordinary measures in the interest of public health and safety. As of early April, nearly two-thirds of the 57 participating States of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe had declared “states of emergency” or invoked similar legal measures in response to the crisis. Often such measures have enabled governments to enact large-scale social distancing policies and suspend economic activity to save lives and preserve the capacity of national public health infrastructure to respond to the spread of infections. At the same time, human rights organizations and civil society activists have expressed concern regarding the breadth of some emergency measures and recalled the long history of government abuse of emergency powers to trample civil liberties. Exactly three decades ago, OSCE participating States unanimously endorsed a set of basic principles governing the imposition of states of emergency, including the protection of fundamental freedoms in such times of crisis. In 1990 in Copenhagen, OSCE countries affirmed that states of emergency must be enacted by public law and that any curtailment of human rights and civil liberties must be “limited to the extent strictly required by the exigencies of the situation.” According to the Copenhagen Document, emergency measures furthermore should never discriminate based on certain group characteristics or be used to justify torture. Building on these commitments a year later in Moscow, participating States underscored that states of emergency should not “subvert the democratic constitutional order, nor aim at the destruction of internationally recognized human rights and fundamental freedoms.” The Moscow Document stresses the role of legislatures in imposing and lifting such declarations, the preservation of the rule of law, and the value of guaranteeing “freedom of expression and freedom of information…with a view to enabling public discussion on the observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms as well as on the lifting of the state of public emergency.” In some corners of the OSCE region, however, national authorities are violating these and other OSCE commitments in the name of combatting coronavirus. While many extraordinary responses are justified in the face of this crisis, government overreach threatens the well-being of democracy and the resilience of society at a critical time. Download the full report to learn more.

  • Respecting Human Rights and Maintaining Democratic Control during States of Emergency

    Statement at the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly Webinar: Respecting Human Rights and Maintaining Democratic Control during States of Emergency President Tsereteli, Secretary General Montella, it is good hear from you.  I am pleased to see that this Assembly has found ways to communicate, cooperate and collaborate — in spite of the distances that keep us apart, and as an expression of our shared commitments to our roles as legislators. At last year’s annual session, I was the lead sponsor of a supplementary item on “the role of civil society — individuals and non-governmental organizations — in realizing the aims and aspirations of the OSCE.”  The resolution we adopted in Luxembourg acknowledges the critical role civil society plays in enhancing security and cooperation across all OSCE dimensions. I appreciate President Tsereteli appointing our colleague, the Honorable Pia Kauma, as the Assembly’s Special Representative to be an advocate for civil society engagement and she has done a great job so far. I am sorry, but not surprised that some governments have taken the need for emergency measures as an opportunity for repressive measures. Hungary is the only OSCE participating State that does not have a sunset clause for the expiration of its emergency measures, or requiring parliamentary approval for an extension.  Parliamentary oversight is absolutely essential, especially when governments seek to exercise extraordinary powers. I believe we must also pay particular attention to those measures that relate to freedoms of assembly, association, and expression.  I am also troubled by the heavy-handed disciplinary and punitive approach utilized in some areas, which exacerbates existing discriminatory and unconstitutional policing.  I want to thank you, Director Gisladottir, for your attention to this and speaking out against the hate crimes and scapegoating of minorities, refugees and migrants. In the next legislation that will come before the U.S. Congress, I will support provisions to address hate crimes and other forms of discrimination in our societies recently highlighted by the pandemic. The February 25 profiling murder of Ahmaud Aubrey by his neighbors in the state of Georgia demonstrates the urgency of our fight for equity and justice for all beyond our current crisis. But I would like to pause here for a moment, to reflect on violations of fundamental freedoms that some governments had already imposed even before now.  If a law or practice violated OSCE human rights and democracy norms before the pandemic, circumstances now will surely not cure that violation. Threats against journalists, restrictions on academic freedom, imprisoning people for their political views, and impeding or even criminalizing NGOs’ access to and communication within and outside their own countries — all of that is still inconsistent with OSCE commitments, and the pandemic does not change that.  Principle VII of the Helsinki Final Act still holds: individuals still have the right to know and act upon their rights. I therefore add my voice to the international calls from OSCE institutional bodies and others around the world for the release of all prisoners of conscience given this pandemic. Prison populations are particularly susceptible to community spread. To address dangerous overcrowding, governments should work first and foremost to release those imprisoned for exercising their internationally recognized rights or those wrongly imprisoned contrary to international commitments.  I regret Turkey's decision in particular to approve a plan to release 90,000 prisoners that excluded relief for any of the thousands of political prisoners, including opposition politicians, civil society activists, employees of U.S. diplomatic missions, and many more. Which brings me back to the important work of Special Representative Kauma.  Civil society is not a luxury, it is essential.  If anything, it becomes even more important during an emergency when governments may legitimately exercise powers, but those powers may not be unlimited, unchecked, or unending.  A vibrant civil society plays a critical role in holding governments to account, particularly at times of great social stress.  Those human rights groups, the parent-teacher organizations, book clubs, or food banks— all enrich our societies. Colleagues, this pandemic has upended elections across the OSCE region.  According to the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly’s factsheet, forty OSCE participating States — including my own — have elections scheduled for this year. As we all rise to meet the challenge of conducting elections safely, we must maintain transparency regarding the entire electoral process, especially any changes to the timing of elections, methods of voting, or measures that impact campaigning.  The United States is already debating these issues in preparation for November. Even in a pandemic, international and domestic election observation remains vital.  We must find a solution to ensure that they are engaged and included even now. 

  • Remarks from Sen. Cardin Concerning COVID-19 Emergency Responses

    OSCE PA Webinar: Respecting Human Rights And Maintaining Democratic Control During States of Emergency Thank you, Mr. President Tsereteli and Secretary General Montella, for organizing this dialogue.  Director Gisladottir and Mr. Abramowitz, thank you for the work each of you is doing to shine a light on the human rights and democracy implications of emergency measures introduced in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as the implications of other government actions taken during this public health crisis that may threaten the health of our democracies. As parliamentarians, we have a responsibility to ensure that the measures we introduce and which our governments implement are consistent with OSCE standards on human rights and democracy, including the 1991 Moscow Document’s commitments regarding states of emergency. Those actions must be necessary, proportional, transparent, and temporary. Emergency provisions which restrict freedom of speech or freedom of the media are especially concerning and may actually undermine our efforts to address this health emergency. We need to ensure that journalists, medical professionals, scientists and others can provide the public with information we need to battle covid.  Muzzling independent voices undermines public confidence in government at a time when that confidence and public cooperation is critical to the success of the safety measures we need.  And yes, sometimes this means governments are going to hear they they’re not getting it right and sometimes governments will need to make course corrections. But there’s a big difference between addressing bad news and suppressing bad news.  A robust civil society is a critical partner to each of our governments and will strengthen our resilience.  Unfortunately, just this virus exploits vulnerabilities of pre-existing conditions, some governments may exploit the human rights limitations already in place before this pandemic, including laws or practices that unduly restrict civil society, or limit the freedoms of expression, association, or assembly. President Tseretelli, your appointment of a Special Representative on Civil Society last August could not have come at a more important time.  I hope members of this assembly will advance efforts to protect the core fundamental freedoms that are essential for civil society voices to be heard and support the work of my colleague, Special Representative Pia Kauma. We also need to ensure that civil society voices continue to be heard within the OSCE.  As we look ahead to how the participating States organize human dimension activities this year, and particularly the annual Human Dimension Implementation Meeting, it is critical that we preserve the access and openness that have made the OSCE such an important forum for human right defenders.  Whether OSCE meetings are in person or online, those standards of access should be preserved. Finally, democratic institutions, including as the rule of law, the independence of the judiciary, and free elections, must be preserved even during states of emergency.  I think this is really one of the most important contributions of the 1991 Moscow Document — it speaks to these exact points: “A state of public emergency may not be used to subvert the democratic constitutional order.” “The participating States will endeavor to ensure that the normal functioning of the legislative bodies will be guaranteed to the highest possible extent during a state of public emergency.”  “The participating States will endeavor to ensure that the legal guarantees necessary to uphold the rule of law will remain in force during a state of public emergency.”  We may need to make changes in how our courts hear cases or the mechanics of our elections.  But a health emergency does not diminish our commitment to ensure the integrity of our democratic institutions. The United States will proceed with our elections in a manner that ensures the public’s safety and respects the rights of voters, and consistent with our OSCE commitments.  Thank you.

  • Statement at the Meeting of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly Bureau

    Mr. President, Secretary General Montella, thank you for giving me the opportunity to participate in this Bureau meeting. I commend you for your efforts to ensure that the work of the Assembly continues and that this body responds to the urgent challenges all of our countries face. I particularly welcome the information you have put online about the participating States’ responses to the covid-19 pandemic and the role of legislative bodies in formulating those responses. Parliamentary oversight is essential, not expendable, in an emergency. Since my last report in Luxembourg, I have focused on the profound threat of rising and increasingly deadly intolerance. Anti-Semitic, racist and xenophobic attacks in my own country, at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh and the targeted killings of Latin Americans in El Paso, Texas, underscore the urgency of this threat.  Obviously, the pandemic creates new and additional challenges.  But it is precisely at this moment that we cannot afford to lower our guard against discrimination and bigotry, when pandemic fears may fan the flames of intolerance. Minority and immigrant communities are already more vulnerable to the impact of the pandemic because of past inequalities. Those disparities may be compounded without appropriately targeted healthcare and economic responses. Covid-caused disruptions in education may also have long-term disproportionate consequences for those already impacted by discriminatory schooling. As parliamentarians, we have a responsibility to ensure that the measures we introduce and which our governments implement are consistent with OSCE standards on human rights and democracy, including the 1991 Moscow Document’s commitments regarding states of emergency. It is also vital that our parliamentary oversight extends to the use of military authorities and policing, which may have the potential to exacerbate relations with minority communities and erode public confidence in government at a time when that trust is critical for the effective implementation of responses to this virus. Disciplinary and punitive policies by national or local authorities run the risk of backfiring. As this body’s special representative on anti-Semitism and racism, I am alarmed by attacks on people who are being scapegoated for this virus. Parliamentarians should lead by example in countering disinformation, conspiracy theories, and other propaganda that stokes anti-Asian bigotry, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, and other forms of racism. In the face of an extraordinary threat, people may feel that ordinary constraints on governments do not apply. But too often, temporary changes introduced for emergencies have a way of becoming permanent. I welcome the statements by my Third Committee colleagues that have called for the participating States’ responses to meet the basic tests of necessity, transparency, and proportionality. It is also crucial that they include sunset provisions and subject to periodic review. When democratic norms erode, protections against hate crimes do too. Mr. President, I will be reporting more fully on my activities later this year at a more opportune time, when we will all be able to assess the very fluid, unfolding challenges.  Covid-19 will undoubtedly lead to profound changes in all our countries for a long time to come. I thank you and my colleagues here today for the work you are doing to ensure that we meet a global crisis with global cooperation faithful to the commitments we have undertaken in the OSCE.  

  • Chairman Hastings Marks International Roma Day, Notes Consequences of Systemic Racism Exposed by Pandemic

    WASHINGTON—To mark the occasion of International Roma Day on April 8, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) issued the following statement: “This year, we sadly must put aside many of the annual celebrations of Romani art, culture, music, and heritage that usually mark International Roma Day, and instead address the urgent concerns exposed by a global pandemic. “This health crisis has spotlighted many of the consequences of systemic racism long faced by Romani communities. Unequal access to care—or in some cases even basic sanitation and clean running water—puts not only Roma but also other socially excluded groups in great danger of infection. Now more than ever, governments must ensure that all members of society have permanent access to healthcare, functioning sanitation facilities, and clean water. “In addition, around the world—even in our own country—there are those who seek to use this crisis to fan the flames of bigotry. We must not tolerate or excuse such discrimination on the basis of fear. Stoking racism and xenophobia will not make us healthier or stronger. It will only divide and weaken us at a time when unity is most needed. “To successfully counter COVID-19, OSCE participating States must work with local community representatives to build trust, enhance the transparency of national initiatives, and bolster participation in critical public health efforts. Roma and other marginalized groups must not be forgotten. To quote from the OSCE Action Plan, ‘for Roma, with Roma.’” In the April 2020 episode of the Helsinki Commission’s “Helsinki on the Hill” podcast, Romani scholar and activist Dr. Margareta Matache discussed the state of Roma rights in Europe, as well as resolutions introduced by Helsinki Commission leaders to celebrate Romani American heritage.   In April 2019,  Chairman Hastings, Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS), Rep. Steve Watkins (KS-02), and Ranking Helsinki Commissioner Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) introduced resolutions in the U.S. House of Representatives (H.Res.292) and the U.S. Senate (S.Res.141) celebrating Romani American heritage.  In 2003, OSCE participating States adopted an “Action Plan on Improving the Situation of Roma and Sinti within the OSCE Area.” These guidelines—recommendations for participating States and OSCE institutions—are intended to combat racism and discrimination; ensure equal access and opportunities in education, employment, housing, and health services; enhance Romani participation in public and political life; and address issues relating to Roma in conflict and post-conflict situations.

  • Chairman Hastings Introduces LITE Act to Strengthen Ties with U.S. Allies, Support Visionary Leadership on Both Sides of the Atlantic

    WASHINGTON—Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) yesterday introduced the Leadership Institute for Transatlantic Engagement (LITE) Act (H.R.6239) to strengthen ties with U.S. allies, protect democratic institutions, and support visionary leadership on both sides of the Atlantic. “Numerous challenges are putting western democracies and the transatlantic partnership at risk, including disparities in wealth, health, employment, education, and justice that lead citizens to question whether democracy can deliver on its promise of freedom and opportunity for all,” said Chairman Hastings. “We must find new and better ways to help democratic 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.”  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.  Recognizing the rapid and ongoing demographic change on both sides of the Atlantic, LITE focuses on inclusive and intergenerational solutions to current challenges and would empower individuals across generations and from diverse backgrounds with the knowledge, tools, 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. 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 2019, Helsinki Commission held hearings featuring European lawmakers, and focusing on global leadership, democracy, and public diplomacy.  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.

  • Chairman Hastings Introduces Bill to Promote Diversity and Inclusion in the Federal Workforce

    WASHINGTON—Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) yesterday introduced H.R.6240, a bill to establish a government-wide diversity and inclusion plan to ensure fair access and opportunity to federal jobs for all Americans.  “Estimates indicate that by 2050, more than half of the U.S. workforce will be made up of Americans from diverse populations,” said Chairman Hastings. “Effectively governing our nation will require that we fill federal jobs—whether they are in the military, intelligence, foreign service, health, or education sectors—with an equally diverse federal workforce who can meet the needs of our country.” 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 to recruit, hire, promote, retain, and support workers representing America’s diverse talent pool. It also calls for a review of diversity in government contracting and grant-making. “Diversity and inclusion are the underpinnings of democratic societies,” said Chairman Hastings. “It is time to ensure that those from all segments of our society have an equal opportunity to contribute to the future of our nation as part of the vibrant workforce that is at the heart of our democracy.” The introduction of the bill follows the February 2020 GAO report highlighting problems in the State Department and legislative initiatives to increase diversity in the national security workforce.  Advancing societies that are safe, inclusive, and equitable is central to the work of the Helsinki Commission. The commission supports programs to address inequities in employment, political participation, and other sectors for women and minorities and strives to empower communities to unite against bias and discrimination to foster truly democratic, inclusive, and free societies.

  • Helsinki Commission Chairman Condemns Russian-backed Syrian Government Offensive in Idlib

    WASHINGTON—In response to mounting casualties from clashes between Turkish and Russian-backed Syrian forces in northwestern Syria and the Turkish government’s decision to open its borders to refugee flows toward mainland Europe, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) issued the following statement: “A vicious Russian and Syrian government offensive in Idlib province is responsible for the unacceptable military escalation, civilian suffering, and displacement crisis we have witnessed in recent days and weeks,” said Chairman Hastings. “Presidents Putin and Assad must stop this assault immediately and comply with international humanitarian law requiring them to protect civilians and civilian infrastructure. I further urge the Trump administration to deploy appropriate resources to address these pressing security and humanitarian challenges, which will undoubtedly impact the OSCE region. We must sustainably meet the needs of the most vulnerable and the countless refugees resulting from Russian and Syrian aggression.” On February 27, Russian-backed Syrian forces killed at least 33 Turkish soldiers in the northwestern Idlib province of Syria. Following this incident, the Turkish government announced the opening of Turkey’s borders for refugees and migrants to go westward to European Union member countries, despite the March 2016 EU-Turkey agreement “to end the irregular migration from Turkey to the EU.” That agreement is founded on the multi-billion euro EU Facility for Refugees in Turkey established in 2015. According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees in a March 2 statement, the daily rate of refugees and asylum-seekers arriving in Greece from Turkey has increased in March.     Since early December, fighting in northwestern Syria has displaced more than 948,000 people, including 569,000 children and 195,000 women, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Turkey hosts more than 3.5 million Syrian refugees. Along with the United States, Tukey is a NATO ally. The United States, Russian Federation and Turkey, are  participating States of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

  • Restrictions on Civil Society in Hungary

    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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