By Emma Derr,
Max Kampelman Fellow
“For more than four decades, the Helsinki Commission has championed human rights and democracy across North America, Europe, and Central Asia. While we have worked to keep these concerns on the U.S. agenda, much remains to be accomplished.”
Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20), Chairman, U.S. Helsinki Commission
In the OSCE region, 2019 and 2020 were marked by unprecedented challenges stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic, calls for racial justice, systematic human rights issues, and ongoing regional conflicts amidst U.S. presidential, Congressional, and regional and local elections. Through these crises, U.S. Helsinki Commission leadership worked tirelessly to ensure that human rights and comprehensive security continued to be promoted through the United States’ foreign and domestic policy agendas.
2020 also marked the 30th anniversary of the Charter of Paris, which set unprecedented commitments to human rights, providing an opportunity for OSCE participating States to reflect and bolster human rights commitments during such a crucial time.
Through hearings and briefings, legislative activities, public statements and reports, and engagement with other foreign policy actors, the Helsinki Commission has focused on human rights and security challenges both in the United States and abroad to advance the commission’s priorities in the 116th Congress: principled foreign policy; human rights at home; parliamentary diplomacy; and safe, inclusive, and equitable societies. Additional policy focuses include regional security, election observation, OSCE engagement, and anti-corruption work. View a comprehensive list of activities in the Helsinki Commission’s report on the 116th Congress.
Principled Foreign Policy
From respect for sovereignty and the territorial integrity of states to human rights and fundamental freedoms, commitments undertaken by OSCE participating States underpin peace and stability in the OSCE region and form the basis of comprehensive security for all people.
The Helsinki Commission strives to ensure that the protection of human rights and democratic development are central to a principled U.S. foreign policy. During the 116th Congress, Belarus, Russia, Turkey, Hungary, Ukraine/Crimea, and the Balkans attracted particular attention, given the ongoing human rights and regional conflict issues in those countries.
Following over two decades of authoritarian rule supported by the Kremlin, a political crisis erupted in Belarus in the summer of 2020. After August 9 elections, the Alexander Lukashenko regime claimed victory, and the country saw an unrelenting crackdown by Belarusian authorities on peaceful protests, civil society, and the media. According to international observers, Belarus has not had free and fair national elections since Lukashenko was first elected president in 1994. Unprecedented crowds continue to protest the election.
Ahead of the election, Lukashenko eliminated his main political competition through disqualification or imprisonment. Numerous protestors, supporters of opposition candidates, and journalists were arrested as last-minute candidate Svetlana Tsikhanovskaya drew unprecedented crowds to her rallies. Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) called on President Lukashenko “to order the release of those who have been detained for political reasons and allow real political competition in Belarus.”
After the elections and in reaction to the human rights abuses perpetrated by the Lukashenko regime, Chairman Hastings wrote to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin requesting that the U.S. administration revoke access to the U.S. financial system for the nine largest state-owned companies in Belarus.
“The United States stands with the people of Belarus, who have a right to make free choices about their country’s future and to protest peacefully.”
Sen. Roger Wicker (MS), Co-Chairman, U.S. Helsinki Commission
After the invocation by 17 OSCE participating States of the Moscow Mechanism to report on human rights concerns in Belarus and subsequent investigation, Professor Wolfgang Benedek—the selected rapporteur—joined the Helsinki Commission for a podcast to discuss his findings, including evidence of fraudulent elections, systematic human rights violations, and a general situation of impunity for perpetrators.
Regional Security and Stability
In May 2020, following reports that the Trump administration planned to withdraw from the Treaty on Open Skies, Chairman Hastings urged Congress to support the United States’ allies and partners in Europe, as “withdrawing from the Open Skies Treaty can only benefit Putin’s continuing campaign of aggression against Russia’s neighbors.”
Chairman Hastings also authored an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for the 2021 Fiscal Year to reflect support for the Open Skies Treaty and stated his regret in November when the U.S. withdrew from the treaty. The Helsinki Commission held a joint hearing in November 2019 with the House Foreign Affairs Committee concerning the importance of the Open Skies Treaty for security and stability in Europe and released a podcast on the treaty’s benefits, the complexity of execution, and current challenges in implementation.
In July 2019, for the first time in its 43-year history the Helsinki Commission convened outside of the United States for a field hearing to underscore America’s commitment to Baltic Sea regional security and emphasize its unwavering support for U.S. friends and allies.
The commission also held a briefing to discuss the potential use of energy, specifically oil and gas projects, to achieve foreign policy goals, as well as the extent to which energy independence can reduce the ability of hostile actors to destabilize the European region by threatening to cut off access to energy supplies.
Turkey, Hungary, Ukraine/Crimea, and the Balkans
In April 2019, Co-Chairman Wicker and Ranking Member Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) introduced the Defending United States Citizens and Diplomatic Staff from Political Prosecutions Act to address arbitrary arrests which contribute to Turkey’s deteriorating respect for human rights under President Erdogan.
In April 2019, the Helsinki Commission hosted a briefing on recent developments in Hungary concerning a steady erosion of freedom, the rule of law, and quality of governance. Later that year, the commission reported on an amendment to the Hungarian religion law, which continues to discriminate against people on the basis of their faith.
In late 2019, Co-Chairman Wicker successfully pressed Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban to stop the blockage of the European Union version of the Magnitsky Act. The U.S. Magnitsky Act allows the use of sanctions as a tool to target alleged human rights abusers and corruption, and its European counterpart would do the same. In May 2020, Co-Chairman Wicker and Ranking Member Cardin urged U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to work with the European Union’s High Representative to advance EU Magnitsky Sanctions.
Following a mob attack in October 2019 on a Jewish community center providing office space to civil society groups in Budapest, Chairman Hastings and Ranking Member Cardin called the Hungarian government to take action during this “alarming escalation of violence toward minorities and civil society groups.” In 2020, the commission released a report detailing the escalating rhetorical attacks and legislative restrictions against civil society as Orban continues to consolidate power in Hungary.
In December 2019, Helsinki Commission Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) and Commissioner Rep. Emanuel Cleaver II (MO-05) introduced the bipartisan Ukraine Religious Freedom Support Act in the House of Representatives, and Co-Chairman Wicker introduced the act, cosponsored by Helsinki Commissioner Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (NH), to the Senate.
The act, which would combat Russia’s religious freedom violations in the Crimea and Donbas regions of Ukraine, unanimously passed in the House of Representatives in November 2020 and awaits Senate action.
In July 2019, the Helsinki Commission hosted a briefing about reunifying societies divided by war, genocide, and other tragedies in areas such as the Balkans, as well as promoting reconciliation and healing for Holocaust survivors and other victims of Nazi persecution who continue to seek justice worldwide.
Twenty years after two U.S. citizens were brutally murdered in Serbia in the aftermath of the 1999 conflict in Kosovo, their brother Ilir joins the Helsinki Commission to share his family’s fight for justice in the face of inaction by Serbian authorities.
In 1990, all OSCE participating States pledged to hold free and fair elections and to invite international observers. OSCE election observation missions often are undertaken jointly by the OSCE Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) and the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (PA). These election observation missions have been recognized as one of the most transparent and methodical ways to encourage States’ commitment to democratic standards and have become a core element of the OSCE’s efforts to provide feedback on the election processes to the benefit of candidates and voters alike.
Commissioners and staff have observed well over 100 elections since 1990, and in 2020 alone, the OSCE has been invited to observe elections in nearly 20 OSCE participating States, including the United States.
In 2019, the commission held a briefing focused on the benefits and challenges of international election observation, best practices, and emerging issues such as voting technology and security.
In addition, the use of disinformation to influence elections has become a pervasive and persistent threat in all 57 OSCE participating States. Ahead of the 2020 general elections, the commission held a briefing on the intersections and influences of disinformation and COVID-19 on the electoral process. Election observation is an important way to help monitor these effects on the workings of democracy.
A limited election observation mission was deployed by the OSCE to observe the 2020 general election in the United States. Despite the challenges posed by the pandemic, the OSCE team was confident it produced a thorough, impartial, fact-based assessment that concluded the elections were free and fair, as well as “competitive and well managed despite legal uncertainties and logistical challenges” posed by the pandemic and the polarized political climate.
OSCE Institutions and Policy
During the past two years, the Helsinki Commission hosted hearings featuring both the Albanian and Slovakian OSCE Chairs in Office, as well as the OSCE Representative for Freedom of the Media Harlem Desir, to discuss OSCE institutional priorities such as human rights violations, conflict resolution, and the safety of journalists.
In January 2020, the Helsinki Commission welcomed OSCE Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights Director Ambassador Ingibjörg Sólrún Gísladóttir, in her first appearance before Congress, to address challenges in the OSCE region related to human rights and democracy.
In December 2020, the Helsinki Commission held a hearing, “U.S. Priorities for Engagement at the OSCE,” where Ambassador Philip T. Reeker U.S. State Department Senior Bureau Official, who has been serving in the role of Acting Assistant Secretary for Europe and Eurasia since March 2018, emphasized that the United States is focused on upholding Helsinki Final Act commitments and pushing all participating States to live up to their own commitments to these principles.
Human Rights at Home
Like all other OSCE participating States, the United States must also examine how well—or how poorly—it is living up to its own OSCE commitments. In the 116th Congress, the Helsinki Commission took a hard look at human rights at home.
“If the United States wants to remain a credible voice in the promotion of human rights abroad, we must fiercely protect them at home.”
Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20), Chairman, U.S. Helsinki Commission
In summer 2020 the Helsinki Commission launched a series of hearings focused on restorative justice related to public monuments and memorials, the safety of journalists, and implications of domestic human rights issues for U.S. leadership. The commission also convened political and civil rights leaders to discuss the impact of George Floyd’s tragic death on the need to shape policies that confront and prevent racism and racist acts.
The Helsinki Commission dealt at further length with the safety of journalists and freedom of the media in the United States. In the aftermath of attacks on journalists covering protests calling for racial justice, Chairman Rep. Hastings expressed the need to take an “honest and critical look at America’s own record in recent weeks on protecting journalists and safeguarding press freedom.”
The U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM) supports networks that reach more than 350 million people across the world, many of whom otherwise would not have access to independent, unbiased news. When USAGM failed to renew J-1 visas for foreign Voice of America (VOA) journalists, Chairman Rep. Hastings, Ranking Member Sen. Ben Cardin, and Helsinki Commissioners Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), and Rep. Marc Veasey (TX-33) demanded that U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM) CEO Michael Pack provide a detailed explanation and called for new policies to protect the personal security of VOA journalists working under the USAGM.
Safe, Inclusive, and Equitable Societies
Civil rights are human rights, and advancing societies that are safe, inclusive, and equitable is central to the work of the Helsinki Commission. Anti-racism initiatives have always been a priority for the commission, but they found particular focus in 2020 in conjunction with the exposure of systemic racism in police brutality and the disproportionate impacts of COVID-19 on minority populations. Commissioners looked inward to the United States’ own domestic policies, as well as outward to other OSCE countries, to develop ideas and policies that promote principles of social inclusion, empowering diverse populations and enhancing the ability for everyone to fully participate in society.
Over the past decade, Chairman Hastings has drawn attention to the racism and discrimination faced by black Europeans, recognizing their fight for inclusion. In March 2019, he introduced legislation establishing a strategy to protect the collective history and achievements of people of African descent and to promote the human rights of people of African descent worldwide, and a year later, he introduced a bill to implement a government-wide diversity and inclusion plan.
“Across the globe we find racial disparities between those of African descent and other populations in education, employment, health, housing, justice, and other sectors. At the same time, hate crimes and racial profiling targeting black populations are increasing,” said Chairman Hastings. “A global strategy ensures we are monitoring whether countries around the world are providing equal protections and opportunity to all within their borders.”
Chairman Hastings also collaborated with other Helsinki Commissioners to address racism globally. In July 2020, Chairman Hastings, along with Helsinki Commissioners Rep. Gwen Moore (WI-04), Rep. Cleaver, Rep. Veasey, and 35 other Members of the United States Congress, including the Congressional Black Caucus Chair, called for a sweeping plan of action following the European Parliament’s Juneteenth Day resolution supporting protests against racism and police brutality.
Chairman Hastings and Rep. Gregory W. Meeks (NY-05) also issued a statement regarding foreign affairs funding for diverse, global anti-racism programs, commemorating John Lewis’ yearly leadership in securing these appropriations requests.
In September, Chairman Hastings and other Helsinki Commissioners joined members of the European Parliament’s Civil Liberties Committee and Subcommittee on Human Rights to discuss combating racism and systemic discrimination on both sides of the Atlantic. In October, Ranking Member Cardin joined the office of the OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities for an online event that evaluated the applicability of the 2006 Recommendations on Policing in Multi-Ethnic Societies, highlighted relevant legislation, and discussed structural changes to address discriminatory police violence.
Ahead of International Roma Day in 2020, the Helsinki Commission hosted a discussion about racism against Roma, the largest ethnic minority in Europe who have historically faced enslavement and continue to battle discrimination. The conversation focused on the state of Roma rights in Europe, as well as resolutions introduced by Helsinki Commission leaders to celebrate Romani American heritage.
Reports from nearly every corner of the OSCE region suggest that minority groups have been impacted especially hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, and an extended episode of “Helsinki on the Hill” takes an in-depth look at the pandemic’s impact on vulnerable populations, such as the Roma, and the role of governments in addressing that impact.
In December 2019, the Helsinki Commission convened a hearing to focus on public diplomacy initiatives that cultivate leaders who espouse democratic principles, including inclusive and representative governance.
The commission also released a podcast discussing how to achieve equitable and inclusive democracies through political inclusion and economic empowerment. Guests discussed their experiences on the front lines of the fight for greater diversity and inclusion in Europe, and in the transatlantic policymaking space more broadly.
Members of the Helsinki Commission have long supported diversity and inclusion efforts in international affairs including through the annual Transatlantic Inclusion Leaders Network (TILN) workshop, a hearing about the state of diversity and inclusion in Europe, and a new transatlantic democracy program for youth “On the Road to Inclusion.”
In March 2020, Chairman Hastings introduced the Leadership Institute for Transatlantic Engagement (LITE) Act, calling for the creation of a transatlantic institute focused on strengthening democratic principles and values in the West, as well as pioneering inclusive and intergenerational solutions to current challenges that would empowering individuals across generations and from diverse backgrounds with the knowledge, tools, opportunity, and access to fully participate in their democracies.
The commission also supports diversity in the diplomatic corps. Chairman Hastings, Co-Chairman Wicker, and Ranking Member Cardin joined bipartisan Congressional efforts to support annual funding for State Department and USAID diversity fellowship programs, as well as study abroad opportunities.
Parliamentary diplomacy advances comprehensive security and democratic institutions in the OSCE region and acts as a tool to promote safe, inclusive and equitable societies. Commissioners have championed the development of parliamentary assemblies for regional organizations throughout the world and participate regularly in the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA), which offers opportunities for engagement among parliamentarians from OSCE participating States.
The Helsinki Commission organizes bicameral U.S. delegations to OSCE PA meetings throughout the year. With 17 of 323 seats, the United States has the largest representation in the assembly. In the 116th Congress, commissioners explored ways to defend human rights, hold the Kremlin accountable, and maximize cooperation with OSCE Mediterranean partners at OSCE PA meetings.
Co-Chairman Wicker led the largest bipartisan, bicameral U.S. delegation in history to the 28th Annual Session of the OSCE PA in July 2019 in Luxembourg. At this annual session, Helsinki Commission Ranking Member Cardin, who also serves as OSCE PA Special Representative on Anti-Semitism, Racism, and Intolerance, hosted a U.S. side event in his capacity as Special Representative on the topic of adopting an action plan to counter hate and foster inclusion.
Following a two-day seminar organized by Helsinki Commission and the OSCE PA in February 2020, Future Leadership for Political Inclusion in the OSCE Region: A Seminar for Young Parliamentarians, nearly 20 young legislators from OSCE participating States issued a joint declaration emphasizing the important role young people must play in addressing human rights and security challenges across the world.
The commission hosted OSCE PA officials for a briefing in December of 2019 to share a parliamentary perspective on the priorities and objectives of the Albanian chairmanship of the OSCE amid regional conflicts and resistance to democratic reforms in some countries in the OSCE region.
The commission also regularly hosts hearings, convenes panels, and participates in events related to parliamentary diplomacy, highlighting the important role the OSCE PA and other parliamentary assemblies play in holding governments accountable to standards of cooperation and human rights.
During the 116th Congress, the Helsinki Commission promoted efforts to combat corruption in the OSCE region, recognizing it as a threat to democracy, security, and human rights. The commission’s work focuses on authoritarian kleptocracy, a form of autocratic government that relies on financial globalization and secrecy to steal and maintain power.
Members of the Helsinki Commission introduced the Rodchenkov Act, the Kleptocrat Exposure Act, the Combating the Illicit Trade in Tobacco Products Act (CITTPA), the Countering Russian and Other Overseas Kleptocracy (CROOK) Act, the Foreign Extortion Prevention Act, and the Transnational Repression Accountability and Prevention (TRAP) Act.
The Rodchenkov Act passed through both chambers of Congress and was signed into law by President Trump on December 4, 2020. The act establishes criminal penalties for doping schemes, provides restitution for victims, protects whistleblowers from retaliation, and shares information with the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency.
Passage of the bipartisan legislation was spearheaded by Co-Chairman Wicker and Commissioner Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (RI) in the Senate and former Commissioners Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (TX-18) and Rep. Michael Burgess (TX-26) in the House of Representatives.
“This legislation is a great bipartisan accomplishment for the rights of athletes, the protection of whistleblowers, and our common goal of keeping criminals out of international sports,” said Co-Chairman Wicker.