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Remembering Rep. Elijah E. Cummings and His Global Legacy in the Security Sector
Thursday, October 24, 2019

By Nida Ansari, Policy Advisor and State Department Detailee
and Dr. Mischa Thompson, Director of Global Partnerships, Policy, and Innovation

“These measures are critical in enhancing the efficiency and effectiveness of the U.S. armed forces by addressing the under-representation of women and ethnic minorities and creating a diverse military that fully represents our nation’s citizens […] for the sake of our country, we can and must do better.”

 – Congressman Elijah E. Cummings

Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a stalwart voice in the U.S. Congress, passed away on October 17, 2019. Representing Baltimore, Maryland, his many legislative initiatives included groundbreaking work to advance diversity and inclusion in the security sector alongside Helsinki Commissioners and other global changemakers.

In 2008, Rep. Cummings and other Members of Congress joined forces with then-Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin to establish the Military Leadership Diversity Commission (MLDC). Rep. Cummings’ goal was to increase the number of people of color and women in flag officer rank by focusing on military recruitment, retention, and promotion.  The 2011 MLDC final report, “From Representation to Inclusion: Diversity Leadership for the 21st-Century Military,” proposed 20 recommendations to develop policy goals and metrics to manage and sustain diversity at the U.S. Department of Defense. 

Following the release of the report, Rep. Cummings, Sen. Cardin, and other Members of Congress held a 2012 Congressional Military Diversity Forum with MLDC Chairman General Lester Lyles, where the general raised the urgency of implementing the report’s recommendations to maintain force levels in concert with increasing diversity in the United States.

Helsinki Commission efforts—including legislation by Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee Hastings and Sen. Cardin on the incorporation of women in combat divisions and on increasing diversity in the intelligence and national security workforces—have complemented and built upon Rep. Cummings’ work.

Rep. Cumming’s efforts also were integral to the 2013 launch of the Mission Critical: Inclusive Leadership for the Security Sector program, led by the German Marshall Fund and supported by Helsinki Commission leadership.  Findings from the MLDC underpin the initiative, which brought together militaries, Members of Congress, staff of the Department of Defense, other government officials and experts from Europe and the United States to review and take stock of diversity and inclusion best practices in the security sector.

“There must be an assigned and qualified individual on the command level to oversee military issues including discrimination, racial profiling, and hazing. In particular, the military needs to have a more effective response against hazing cases to better identify and respond to dangerous situations.  Women, minorities, and every single soldier should be able to achieve their goals when joining the military.” 

– Congressman Elijah Cummings, Mission Critical 2013

As part of the inaugural Mission Critical event in 2013, Congressman Cummings highlighted lessons learned from the MLDC and the need to address discrimination and other problems, including hazing, in militaries to increase diversity and ensure the success of missions critical to national security. 

Efforts to address these and other issues have continued at subsequent Mission Critical events, most recently in June 2019. Continuing to build upon the MLDC foundation, the event focused on diversity and inclusion issues related to personnel, the future of security, and technology in the security sector. 

Speakers echoed the sentiments of Rep. Cummings years before. Then-German Federal Minister of Defense Ursula von der Leyen stressed the value of religious diversity in the armed forces, sharing how she was working to get the Bundeswehr’s military chaplaincy to include Jewish rabbis and Muslim imams instead of only the traditional Protestant and Roman Catholic chaplains.  Tjorven Bellmann of the German Federal Ministry of Foreign Affairs raised the importance of recruitment methods that appeal to young people from diverse backgrounds. He also noted that discrimination in the military remains a barrier for racial minorities, women, LGBT+, and other groups.  Nida Ansari, a State Department detailee to the Helsinki Commission, discussed U.S. Government inclusion efforts around faith communities.

Ursula von der Leyen’s elevation to the Presidency of the European Commission offers hope for highly-placed advocacy of inclusive policies and concrete strategies beyond the security sector and broader dissemination of practices shared during Mission Critical.

Congressman Cummings’ vision of a more inclusive security sector, and more inclusive societies generally, at home and abroad will not soon be forgotten.  Signs of progress include examples like General Lori Robinson, whose distinguished career included serving as the first woman to command a major Unified Combatant Command when she led United States Northern Command (USNORTHCOM) and the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) from May 2016 to May 2018.  The rarity of her example, however, only underlines the work that Mr. Cummings well knew was still required.

With special thanks to Leah Perry, former Professional Staff Member, House Oversight Committee, for her assistance in providing background information for this article. 

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Canada thanked participants for sharing their experiences and reiterated its commitment to addressing racism and discrimination.  Recommendations from participants in the September 20 session included: Increasing the representation of people of African descent in OSCE institutions and leadership positions Adopting national action plans to improve the situation of people of African descent, including implementing the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination and the International Decade for People of African Descent Collecting disaggregated data on hate crimes and discrimination in housing, education, employment, and other sectors impacting people of African descent Targeting programs for refugees and migrants of African descent, including an increased focus on integration Training initiatives to improve police interaction with African descent populations, including migrant and refugee populations Increasing support for civil society and work in partnership with civil society  

  • A Truly Inclusive Society

    While the United States has an exemplary system of integration, empowerment, and protection from discrimination, individuals with intellectual disabilities like Down Syndrome have recommended numerous further improvements to U.S. law. This briefing explored best practices developed federally and locally in the United States to empower and integrate individuals with intellectual disabilities. Sara Hart Weir discussed how perceptions of the disabled community impair equality in many facets of society including education, housing, and financial independence, and discussed changes to the law that are still needed 30 years after the Americans with Disabilities Act. For instance, 80-year-old legislation named the “Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938” has unfairly permitted corporations to pay disabled employees less than minimum wage. This longstanding law was recently challenged by the National Down Syndrome Society through the TIME Act. Ms. Weir also supported continued work to build upon the recently adopted ABLE Act, which allows individuals with Down syndrome to save for their futures without losing benefits. She highlighted that many individuals with Down syndrome still face the choice between limiting their hours to part-time work or losing their much-needed Medicaid benefits. New, comprehensive legislation will be needed to address this problem if individuals with Down syndrome will be fully incorporated into the economy.   Kayla McKeon, the first registered lobbyist with Down syndrome, relayed the need for legal changes and social acceptance at an institutional level, stating, “To me, having Down syndrome is who I am but it has never stopped me for achieving my own hopes, dreams, and passions. What I want for my life and all individuals with disabilities is for us all to be treated just like everyone else. I want to live the American Dream.” The Special Olympian and lobbyist recalled being educated alongside her peers and receiving additional help as needed, as well as independence when needed. She is now attending college while working as the Manager of Grassroots Advocacy at the National Down Syndrome Society. Dr. Sheryl Lazarus, Director of the TIES Center, underscored the importance of including children with disabilities in educational settings alongside their peers, stating, “Early inclusion supports later inclusion. Early segregation almost ensures that there will be segregation later in life.” Dr. Lazarus encouraged teachers raise their expectations of disabled students’ cognitive abilities by promoting coursework such as math, reading, and social studies, not just self-care. She encouraged training and the availability of educational resources to ensure all teachers feel confident they can include children with disabilities in their classrooms. She noted that “the behavior of adults must change” to ensure that children with disabilities can reach their full potential. John Cronin, co-founder of John’s Crazy Socks, recounted that his disability “never held [him] back.” The Chief Happiness Officer of his $6 million company, he assists with public relations, merchandising, and same-day shipping to customers—who include presidents, prime ministers, and movie stars.  His passion drives his 8-hour work day, and he wants the world to know what tremendous feats people like him can accomplish. John’s Crazy Socks competes with corporate giants such as Amazon, yet the company is set apart by its social mission: to raise money for its partners and to demonstrate that hiring individuals with disabilities is a smart business decision. John’s Crazy Socks emphasizes employees’ abilities rather than disabilities and matches those abilities to the needs of the company. More than half of John’s Crazy Socks employees are differently-abled. Mark Cronin, CEO of John’s Crazy Socks, underscored that John’s Crazy Socks employees are paid above minimum wage, even though the law permits him to pay below minimum wage: “Our colleagues do not do minimum work, so we do not offer minimum pay.” He explained, “Employers will learn that those with differing abilities are an asset, not a liability. And the employers who learn this lesson the fastest, will be at an advantage and find greater success.”

  • Helsinki Commission Briefing to Highlight Empowerment of Those with Intellectual Disabilities

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following briefing: A TRULY INCLUSIVE SOCIETY:  ENCOURAGING THE ABILITY IN DISABILITY Monday, September 24, 2018 3:30 p.m. Dirksen Senate Office Building Room 562 Live Webcast: www.facebook.com/HelsinkiCommission Fifty-seven million Americans are living with disabilities, 400,000 of them with Down Syndrome. Almost three decades ago President Bush signed into law the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which provides individuals with disabilities access to the same employment opportunities and benefits available to people without disabilities; encourages employers to make reasonable accommodations; requires state and local governments to make all services and programs available to individuals with disabilities; prohibits places of public accommodation from discriminating against individuals with disabilities; and directs businesses to make reasonable modifications when serving individuals with disabilities. In so doing, the ADA has broken down many barriers blocking the full participation of individuals with disabilities in their communities and economies across the United States. While the United States has an exemplary system of integration, empowerment, and protection from discrimination, individuals with intellectual disabilities like Down Syndrome have recommended numerous further improvements to U.S. law. This briefing will explore best practices developed federally and locally in the United States to empower and integrate individuals with intellectual disabilities and discuss legal changes that will enable individuals with intellectual disabilities to reach their full potential. Panelists scheduled to participate include:   Sara Hart Weir, President and CEO, National Down Syndrome Society Kayla McKeon, Manager of Grassroots Advocacy, National Down Syndrome Society; first Capitol Hill lobbyist with Down Syndrome Dr. Sheryl Lazarus, Director, The TIES Center John Cronin, Entrepreneur with Down Syndrome; co-founder of John’s Crazy Socks Mark Cronin, Co-Founder and President, John’s Crazy Socks

  • Bosnia & Herzegovina

    Mr. President, it is important for this Senate and this country to once again be interested in Bosnia and Herzegovina. During my time in Congress, and particularly since joining the U.S. Helsinki Commission, which I now chair, the Western Balkans have been an ongoing concern of mine. Although our relationship with all of these countries of the Western Balkans is important, the United States has a specific interest, a particular interest, in Bosnia and Herzegovina. We need to concentrate more on that. I had the opportunity in July to lead a nine-member bicameral delegation to Bosnia. The delegation sought to see more of the country and to hear from its citizens, rather than meet only in the offices of senior Bosnian officials. We visited the small town of Trebinje in the entity of Republika Srpska, and we visited the city of Mostar in the entity of the Federation. Then, we went on and visited in Sarajevo, the capital, engaging with international officials, the Bosnian Presidency, and citizens seeking a better Bosnia. Bosnia was a U.S. foreign policy priority when I came to the House in 1995. In less than a decade, Bosnia had gone from international acclaim while hosting the Winter Olympics to the scene of the worst carnage in human suffering in Europe since World War II. The conflict that erupted in Bosnia in 1992 was not internally generated. Rather, Bosnia became the victim of the breakup of Yugoslavia and the extreme nationalist forces this breakup unleashed throughout the region, first and foremost by Serbian leader and war criminal Slobodan Milosevic. The carnage and tragic conflict that occurred in the early 1990s was more than about Bosnia. It was about security in a Europe just emerging from its Cold War divisions and the international principles upon which that security was based. For that reason, the United States, under President Bill Clinton, rightly exercised leadership when Europe asked us to, having failed to do so themselves. The Clinton administration brokered the Dayton peace agreement in November 1995 and enabled NATO to engage in peacemaking and peacekeeping to preserve Bosnia's unity and territorial integrity. That was the Bosnian peace agreement. Almost a quarter of a century later, after the expenditure of significant diplomatic, military, and foreign assistance resources, the physical scars of the conflict have been largely erased. As we learned during our recent visit, the country remains far short of the prosperous democracy we hoped it would become and that its people deserve. Mostar, a spectacular city to visit, remains ethnically divided with Bosniak and Croat students separated by ethnicity in schools, even inside the same school buildings. Bosnian citizens, who are of minority groups, such as Jews, Romanis, or of mixed heritage, still cannot run for certain political offices. This is 2018. They can't run for State-level Presidency, simply because of their ethnicity. Neither can Bosniaks and Croats in Republika Srpska or Serbs in the Bosnian Federation run for the Presidency because of their ethnicity, in Europe in 2018. Nor can those numerous citizens who, on principle, refuse to declare their ethnicity because it should not replace their real qualifications for holding office. This goes on despite repeated rulings by the European Court of Human Rights that this flaw in the Dayton-negotiated Constitution must be corrected. In total, well over 300,000 people in a country of only 3.5 million fall into these categories despite what is likely their strong commitment to the country and to its future as a multiethnic state. This is simply wrong, and it needs to end. In addition, youth employment in Bosnia is among the highest in the world, and many who can leave the country are doing so, finding a future in Europe and finding a future in the United States. This denies Bosnia much of its needed talent and energy. Civil society is kept on the sidelines. Decisions in Bosnia are being made by political party leaders who are not accountable to the people. They are the decision makers. The people should be decision makers. Corruption is rampant. Ask anyone in Europe, and they will tell you, Bosnia's wealth and potential is being stolen by corruption. General elections will be held in October with a system favoring the status quo and resistance to electoral reforms that would give Bosnians more rather than fewer choices. The compromises made two and a half decades ago in Dayton to restore peace and give the leading ethnic groups--Bosniaks, Serbs, and Croats-- an immediate sense of security make governance dysfunctional today. Two-and-a-half-decades-old agreements make governance inefficient today in Bosnia. Collective privileges for these groups come at the expense of the individual human rights of the citizens who are all but coerced into making ethnic identity their paramount concern and a source of division, when so many other common interests should unite them. Ethnically based political parties benefit as they engage in extensive patronage and corruption. Beneath the surface, ethnic reconciliation has not taken hold, and resulting tensions can still destabilize the country and even lead to violence. Malign outside forces, particularly Vladimir Putin's Russia but also influences from Turkey and Gulf States, seek to take advantage of the political impasse and malaise, steering the country away from its European and Euro-Atlantic aspirations. As a result of these developments, Bosnia and Herzegovina is not making much progress, even as its neighbors join NATO and join the EU or make progress toward their desired integration. In my view, we should rightly credit the Dayton agreement for restoring peace to Bosnia. That was 25 years ago, but it is regrettable the negotiators did not put an expiration date on ethnic accommodations so Bosnia could become a modern democracy. As one of our interlocutors told us, the international community, which has substantial powers in Bosnia, has steadily withdrawn, turning over decision making to Bosnian officials who were not yet committed to making the country work and naively hoping the promise of future European integration would encourage responsible behavior. That has not happened. Of course, we can't turn back the clock and can't insert that expiration date on the Dayton agreement, but having made a difference in 1995, we can and should help make a difference again today. It is in our national security interest that we do so. I suggest the following. The United States and our European friends should state, unequivocally, that Dayton is an absolute baseline, which means only forward progress should be allowed. Separation or new entities should be declared to be clearly out of the question. Secondly, U.S. policymakers should also remind everyone that the international community, including NATO, did not relinquish its powers to Bosnia but simply has chosen to withdraw and exercise them less robustly. We should seek an agreement to resurrect the will to use these powers and to do so with resolve if growing tensions make renewed violence a credible possibility. Next, the United States and Europe should adopt a policy of imposing sanctions on individual Bosnian officials who are clearly engaged in corruption or who ignore the Dayton parameters, Bosnian law, and court rulings in their work. Washington has already done this regarding Republika Srpska President Milorad Dodik, and just recently, Nikola Spiric, a member of Bosnia's House of Representatives. However, the scope should be expanded, and European capitals need to join us in this regard. Senior U.S. officials, as well as Members of Congress, should make Sarajevo a priority. I hope more of our Members will visit Bosnia and increase our visibility, demonstrate our continued commitment, and enhance our understanding. Bosnia may not be ready to join NATO, but its Membership Action Plan should be activated without further delay. As soon as this year's elections are over in Bosnia, the international community should encourage the quick formation of new parliaments and governments at all levels, followed immediately by vigorous reform efforts that eliminate the discrimination in the criteria for certain offices, ensure that law enforcement more effectively serves and protects all residents, and end the corruption in healthcare and so many other violent areas of daily life. Our policy must shift back to an impetus on universal principles of individual human rights and citizen-based government. Indeed, the privileges Dayton accorded to the three main ethnic groups are not rights but privileges that should not be upheld at the expense of genuine democracy and individual rights. We, in my view, have been far too fatalistic about accepting in Bosnia what we are not willing to accept anywhere else. We also underestimate what Bosnians might find acceptable, and we should be encouraging them to support leaders based on credentials, positions, and personal integrity, not based on ethnicity. There should no longer be a reason why a Bosniak, Serb, or Croat voter should be prohibited by law from considering a candidate of another ethnicity or a multiethnic political party. All candidates and parties would do well to seek votes from those not belonging to a single ethnic group. This may take time and perhaps some effort, but it should happen sooner rather than later. Let me conclude by asserting that greater engagement is in the interest of the United States--the economic interest and the national security interest. Our country is credited with Bosnia's preservation after the country was almost destroyed by aggression, ethnic cleansing, and genocide. Thank God our country was there for Bosnia. Our adversaries--notably, but not exclusively, Russia--would like nothing more than to make an American effort fail in the end, and they would ensure that its repercussions are felt elsewhere around the globe. Current trends in Bosnia make the country an easier entry point for extremism in Europe, including Islamic extremism. If we wait for discrimination and ethnic tensions to explode again, our engagement will then become a moral imperative at significantly greater cost. The people of Bosnia, like their neighbors throughout the Balkans, know they are in Europe but consider the United States their most trusted friend, their most honest friend. They want our presence and engagement, and given the tragedies they have experienced, they have earned our support and friendship.

  • Race, Rights, and Politics

    Today, Europe is grappling with the complex intersection of national identity, immigration, and security concerns, as well as a rise in xenophobic violence. As a result, European states are facing increased scrutiny of their efforts to integrate minorities and migrants, with some questioning the commitment of European governments to democratic principles and human rights.   The briefing featured European political leaders and civil society representatives of African descent, or black Europeans, who discussed the state of their democracies and recent efforts to address inclusion of Europe’s diverse populations, including parallel issues faced by black and minority populations on both sides of the Atlantic.  Helsinki Commissioner Representative Gwen Moore opened the event, stressing the importance of transatlantic cooperation to address increasing challenges to democracy and rising prejudice and discrimination in Europe and the United States. The speakers emphasized the need for greater protection of human rights of minorities of all backgrounds—racial and otherwise—including Polish, Romanian, Jewish, and Muslim populations, particularly in a modern Europe of sharp demographic change, BREXIT, and stagnating birth rates. They also discussed the need for migrant labor to revitalize and sustain European economies and social welfare systems.  Hungarian Parliamentarian Olivio Kocsis-Cake called for European policymakers to do more to address the situation of Roma. In response to a question on the European Parliament invoking Article 7 sanction procedures against Hungary—censuring it for violating “fundamental values” of the EU—he expressed hope that the EU’s rebuke would lead Hungarian PM Viktor Orbán to reconsider the “nationalist” and xenophobic policies he was advancing.   MP Killion Munyama of Poland spoke of his work on the Council of Europe Resolution 2222, which promotes minority political participation.  Parliamentarian Clive Lewis of the United Kingdom argued that BREXIT would negatively impact black populations—exacerbating existing housing, job, and education disparities—and that xenophobic rhetoric associated with the BREXIT campaign had led to a 20-30 percent spike in “race-hate” attacks. Against the backdrop of the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) party and the recent neo-Nazi protests in Chemnitz, Germany, Parliamentarian Aminata Toure of Schleswig-Holstein, Germany, reflected on her experience as the first black woman elected to her region’s parliament and one of only six black MPs in all of Germany. She called for more be done to empower the 23 percent of Germans with migrant backgrounds who find themselves massively underrepresented in governing structures, and are increasingly becoming targets of violence. Panelists Nero Ughwujabo and Simon Woolley discussed their separate efforts on implementing the United Kingdom’s March 2018 Race Disparity Audit Report to eradicate disparities across all sectors. The effort was heralded as a potential model for by which governments could address systemic inequalities amongs their own populations.  Ministers must “explain or change” disparities, with 90 million pounds dedicated towards the effort. Citing the UK effort as a model that could be emulated, Mr. Woolley contended that it is in every government’s self-interest to “unlock the potential on their doorstep” in minority populations. Civil society representatives Ali Khan and Jeffrey Klein argued that empowering black and minority populations was key, including by directing funding towards minority-led, grassroots organizations.  Groups do not need to be saved from without, but empowered from within. The panel concluded with speakers calling for solidarity and lasting cooperation in implementing democratic principles, and seeking recognition, representation, and access to equal opportunities for diverse communities. For more information on the Transatlantic Minority Political Leadership Conference, download the full report. 

  • Ongoing Election Challenges in Bosnia and Herzegovina

    On October 7, 2018, Bosnia and Herzegovina will hold general elections for government offices at the state level, as well as for offices in each of the “entities” into which the country is politically divided (Bosnian Federation and Republika Srpska), and finally within each of the 10 cantons that make up the Federation.  These elections mark a continuing transition to democratic norms, including respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms as well as adherence to the rule of law, detailed in OSCE commitments. Unfortunately, the challenges faced by a country in its transition have been complicated in Bosnia by the lingering effects of the 1992-1995 conflict, where all sides—primarily but not exclusively Serb nationalist forces—targeted civilians in ethnic cleansing campaigns. These atrocities, which included the genocide at Srebrenica in July 1995, resulted in the displacement of about half the country’s population, the deaths of approximately 100,000 individuals, and the torture or mass rape of thousands more. More than 20 years later, it would be a mistake to underestimate the social scars associated with such a traumatic experience in a country of 3 to 4 million people.    The most visible artifact of the conflict, however, is not those scars but the political system in which the upcoming elections will be held. Peace was restored by a combination of outside intervention and concessions at the negotiating table; the resulting constitutional arrangement contained in Annex IV of the Dayton Peace Agreement remains in place today. This arrangement includes allowing only those declaring their affiliation with one of the three main ethnic groups or constituent peoples—Bosniaks, Serbs, and Croats—to stand for election to a seat on the state-level presidency or in the House of Peoples of the country’s parliament. Even then, citizens are only eligible if they also live in the right place; Bosniaks and Croats must also reside in the Bosnian Federation and Serbs must reside in Republika Srpska. In 2009, the European Court of Human Rights ruled in favor of two Bosnian citizens, Dervo Sejdic and Jacob Finci, who were ineligible to run as presidential candidates because they do not affiliate with one of the three recognized groups; they are Romani and Jewish respectively. In 2016, Ilijaz Pilav won a similar case at the court when he was denied the chance to run because he is a Bosniak who lives in Republika Srpska. Two years earlier, Azra Zornic also won her ECHR case against Bosnia after she was declared ineligible for not declaring her ethnic affiliation.  Despite these court victories in Strasbourg, discrimination in Bosnia and Herzegovina continues. Between Bosnian citizens who do not belong to any of the three constituent peoples, Bosniaks and Croats residing in in Republika Srpska, Serbs residing in the Bosnian Federation, and an unknown number of those like Zornic who do not wish to identify on the basis of ethnicity, more than 300,000 Bosnian citizens are denied the right to stand for election to the Bosnian Presidency or seek a seat in the state-level House of Peoples. The October 2018 elections are further complicated by the 2017 decision of Bosnia’s constitutional court that the mechanism for establishing the Bosnian Federation’s own House of Peoples was unconstitutional and by the annulment of relevant portions of the electoral code. In this case, the claim was made that existing practices had disadvantaged ethnic Croat voters. In early 2018, political talks under international auspices failed to produce a solution, largely due to a desire by those seeking to maintain political power to further entrench ethnicity as a defining factor into the system. The result could be a political crisis after the elections if the Bosnian Federation parliament cannot convene, leading to a similar situation at the state level. In July 2018, a congressional delegation organized by the U.S. Helsinki Commission visited Bosnia and Herzegovina. Nine Members of Congress met with Sejdic, Finci, and Pilav, as well as civil society representatives and others, to learn more about the ethnic barriers to effective exercise by citizens of their human rights and fundamental freedoms. The nine-member congressional delegation and U.S. Ambassador Maureen Cormack with Dr. Ilijaz Pilav, Ambassador Jacob Finci, and Mr. Dervo Sejdic in Sarajevo.  At the end of the visit, the head of the delegation and Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) concluded, “The discriminatory ethnic criteria that prevent some Roma, Jewish, Serbs in the Federation, Croats and Bosniaks in the Republika Srpska, and other citizens who do not self-identify with a group from seeking certain public offices is unacceptable and can easily be addressed… We hope for progress on electoral reform, in line with accepted norms for free and fair elections, so that election results can be implemented and a government formed. We are dismayed at the lack of political diversity within some of the main ethnic groups in this country, and take issue with those who argue they are entitled to a monopoly in representing those groups.”  The congressional delegation expressed frustration over the lack of progress with the current state presidency. It also asked the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, meeting in Berlin later that month, to maintain a strong focus on Bosnia and Herzegovina and to send a robust election observation mission to the country in October. Of course, Bosnia’s woes go beyond this issue. Republika Srpska officials continue to undermine the country’s state-level institutions to justify an agenda that is not only openly separatist but, as evidenced by the recent revocation of a 2004 report acknowledging he massacre at Srebrenica, also highly nationalistic. One political party seeks define ethnic privileges that would essentially allow it alone to represent Bosnia’s Croat population. Bosniak political leaders, while perhaps more flexible regarding non-ethnic political options, nevertheless seem content representing the country’s primary victims from the conflict period as they remain in power and engage, as do the others, in widespread corruption. Malign outside influences, including Russia, thrive on the Bosnia’s political impasse.  Getting elections right—at this most fundamental level in addition to their overall conduct—is critical and perhaps the best place to start the larger reform effort Bosnia needs. Unless this happens, the country, which is estimated to have the world’s highest youth unemployment rate at well over 50 percent, will see its most talented citizens future vote with their feet, and exercise the right they retain as individuals, regardless of ethnicity, to leave the country behind for a future elsewhere.

  • Helsinki Commission to Hold Briefing on Race, Rights, and Politics in Europe

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following briefing: RACE, RIGHTS, AND POLITICS: BLACK AND MINORITY POPULATIONS IN EUROPE Wednesday, September 12, 2018 10:00 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. Rayburn House Office Building Room 2220 Live Webcast: www.facebook.com/HelsinkiCommission Today, Europe is grappling with the complex intersection of national identity, immigration, and security concerns, as well as a rise in xenophobic violence. As a result, European states are facing increased scrutiny of their efforts to integrate minorities and migrants, with some questioning the commitment of European governments to democratic principles and human rights.   At the briefing, European political leaders will discuss the state of their democracies and recent efforts to address inclusion of Europe’s diverse populations, including findings from the European Parliament’s May 2018 People of African Descent Week and United Kingdom’s March 2018 Race Disparity Audit Report. The following speakers are scheduled to participate: MP Olivio Kocsis-Cake (Hungary)  MP Clive Lewis (United Kingdom)  MP Killion Munyama (Poland)  MP Aminata Toure (Schleswig-Holstein, Germany)  Nero Ughwujabo, Special Adviser to Prime Minister Theresa May, Social Justice, Young People & Opportunities (United Kingdom)  Alfiaz Vaiya, Coordinator, European Parliament Anti-Racism and Diversity Intergroup (ARDI)  Simon Woolley, Director, Operation Black Vote; Chair, Prime Minister’s Race Disparity Advisory Group (United Kingdom)

  • Attacks on Roma in Ukraine

    Roma are the largest ethnic minority group in Europe and experience widespread discrimination and bigotry. Since the adoption of the 1990 OSCE Copenhagen Document, the U.S.  Helsinki Commission has actively monitored and advanced the OSCE’s human rights commitments to Roma.  Over the course of 2018, attacks on Roma in Ukraine have escalated dramatically. Several of the mob attacks have been filmed and broadcast in an attempt to intimidate Roma communities. The attacks have destroyed property, injured many, and killed at least one. Families, homes, and entire communities have been the target of these mob attacks.  Since April, the Roma Coalition reported eight attacks against Roma settlements in Ukraine, and more than 150 people have fallen victim to these attacks.  Although efforts have been made at the local, national, and international levels to counter this violence, much remains to be done. Helsinki Commission Counsel on International Law Erika Schlager explained, “These messages were intended to stoke fear and sow interethnic tension … by engaging sooner rather than later, it makes it more likely that the government can take the actions necessary to put an end to this kind of violence.” Halyna Yurchenko, coordinator of the NGO “Roma of Ukraine – TERNIPE,” added, “Most of the attacks were conducted on vulnerable groups quite below the poverty line and on those who live a traveling lifestyle. This traveling lifestyle is not a tradition but forced labor migration because of their difficult socio-economic situation.” Zola Kondur, founder of the Chiricli International Roma Women’s Fund, highlighted some of the other challenges that Roma face in Ukraine. For example, many Roma lack civil registration documentation such as birth certificates, passports, and proof of residence, which can prevent them from fully exercising rights such as the right to an education.  Although the panel agreed that education is one of the most vital components for the success and integration of Roma, obtaining an education in Ukraine without such legal documentation is difficult; such documentation is required for a student to enroll.  “The obstacle is that parents have to provide a lot of documents to prove that their child can attend the school belonging to that district” said Kondur. Even if a Roma child is enrolled successfully, Roma settlements are often situated far from schools; monthly contribution from parents; and they can face language barriers, and discrimination. The combination of no education and civil documentation makes obtaining a job difficult or even impossible. Although there are no official statistics for the current rate of unemployment of Roma, according to estimates from NGOs, only 38 percent of Roma are employed. Oskana Shulyar, Deputy Chief of Mission at the Embassy of Ukraine to the United States, acknowledged the grave humanitarian situation affecting Roma and explained how the Ukrainian government’s continuously tries to assist one of its nation’s most vulnerable groups.  “Ukraine is strongly committed to principles of tolerance and nondiscrimination of all ethnic groups, including the Roma community,” she said. Alongside the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Ukraine, law enforcement, and national security, grassroots organizations and local governments are working to create a safer community for Roma.  Shulyar stated, “We need the continuous support from our partners, including the United States … to support Ukrainian reforms.” Suggestions by the panelists to improve the situation of Roma in Ukraine and counter the increasing attacks on this vulnerable minority included better monitoring and assessment of hate crimes in Ukraine; careful identification of hate as a motive so that government can properly identify and counter increases in these crimes; and more effective efforts to prosecute and convict perpetrators of violent hate-motivated acts. Panelists also recommended that individuals or groups implicated in such violence be barred from state funding, and that Roma should be included in the policy making process, especially if there is consideration of updating Ukraine’s 2013 strategy for inclusion in light of the recent attacks. Click here to see the full timeline of the attacks.

  • Helsinki Commission Briefing to Examine Attacks on Roma in Ukraine

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following briefing: ATTACKS ON ROMA IN UKRAINE Wednesday, July 25, 2018 10:00 a.m. Senate Visitor Center Room SVC 214 Live Webcast: www.facebook.com/HelsinkiCommission Over the course of 2018, attacks on Roma in Ukraine have escalated dramatically. Several of the mob attacks have been filmed and broadcast in an attempt to intimidate Roma communities. The attacks have destroyed property, injured many, and killed at least one. This briefing will examine the impact on Romani communities, possible patterns in the attacks, and the response of the Ukrainian government. Panelists will also offer policy recommendations for protecting what is arguably Ukraine’s most vulnerable minority. Panelists scheduled to participate include: Zemfira “Zola” Kondur, Romani human rights activist; Founder, Chiricli International Roma Women’s Fund Halyna Yurchenko, Coordinator, the NGO “Roma of Ukraine - TERNIPE” Oksana Shulyar, Deputy Chief of Mission and Minister Counselor, Embassy of Ukraine to the United States

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