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Roadblock to Religious Liberty: Religious Registration Policies in the OSCE Region
Friday, November 16, 2001

By Knox Thames, CSCE Staff Advisor

On Thursday, October 11, 2001, the United States Helsinki Commission conducted a public briefing to explore the issue of religious registration, one of many roadblocks to religious freedom around the world.

Expert panelists focused on religious registration among the 55 nations of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). Several OSCE participating States are following a troubling trend toward restricting the right to freedom of religion by using registration schemes, making it virtually impossible for citizens to practice their faith.

Registration laws exist for a myriad of reasons. Some are vestiges of the communist era, while others purposefully limit the ability of new groups to function in a country. Yet this trend toward onerous registration ordinances and statutes has gradually emerged across the OSCE region. Furthermore, restrictive practices could be exacerbated in the aftermath of recent terrorist attacks that could be used as a pretext to further restrict or ban individuals and religious communities from practicing their faiths or beliefs.

As Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-NJ), Co-Chairman of the Helsinki Commission noted in a prepared statement, “Over the past decade I have observed a troubling drift away from a robust and vibrant protection of religious freedom in a growing number of OSCE States. I have become alarmed with how some OSCE countries have developed new laws and regulations that serve as a roadblock to the free exercise of religious belief. These actions have not been limited to emerging democracies, but also include Western European countries, with the definitive example being Austria.”

The briefing panel featured academic experts, lawyers and practitioners to discuss the various ways governments are chipping away at religious freedom. Dr. Sophie van Bijsterveld, Co-Chair of the OSCE/ODIHR Advisory Panel of Experts on Freedom of Religion or Belief and Law Professor at Catholic University–Brabant, Netherlands, was the first panelist to present remarks. She called the imposition of registration requirements “worrisome.” She continued that the need for government permission to allow “a person to adhere to a religion and to exercise his religion in community with others is, indeed, problematic in the light of internationally acknowledged religious liberty standards. Religious liberty should not be made dependent on a prior government clearance, and this touches the very essence of religious liberty.”

Dr. Gerhard Robbers, also a member of the OSCE/ODIHR Advisory Panel and Law Professor at the Trier University, Germany commented, “Registration of religious communities is known to most, probably to all legal systems in the world in one form or another as centralized or decentralized registration. It need not be a roadblock to religious freedom. In fact, it can free the way to more, positive religious freedom, if correctly performed.”

The next panelist was Vassilios Tsirbas, interim Executive Director and Senior Counsel for the European Centre for Law and Justice, based in Strasbourg, France. Mr. Tsirbas declared, “If the protection of the individual is considered the cornerstone of our modern legal [system] . . . religious freedom should be considered the cornerstone of all other rights.”

He also said, “Within this proliferation of the field of human rights, the Helsinki Final Act is a more than promising note. . . . [and] religious liberty stands out as one of those sine qua non conditions for an atmosphere of respect for the rights of individuals or whole communities.”

Lastly, Col. Kenneth Baillie of the Salvation Army-Moscow, Russia, told of efforts by Moscow city authorities to “liquidate” that branch of the church, allegedly due to a minor technicality in its application for registration. Col. Baillie stated, “The [registration] law’s ambiguity gives public officials the power to invent arbitrary constructions of the law.”

He added that the Salvation Army appears to be in the middle of a power struggle between Federal and State authorities. Col. Baillie said that the Salvation Army “will not give up.” But Baillie was “understandably skeptical about the religious registration law, and particularly the will to uphold what the law says in regard of religious freedom.”

In Commissioner Sen. Gordon H. Smith's (R-OR) submission to the briefing record, he addressed the 1997 Russian registration law. He stated, "The Russian law, among other things, limits the activities of foreign missionaries and grants unregistered 'religious groups' fewer rights than accredited Russian religious organizations such as the Russian Orthodox Church, Islam, Judaism and Buddhism. This law, if poorly implemented, could also sharply restrict the activities of foreign missionaries in Russia."

Senator Smith added, "The conventional wisdom regarding implementation of that law is that persecution occurs abroad - the farther away from Moscow and the centralized government, the greater the risk is for religious intolerance. But even in Moscow there is a requirement of vigilance. And I am happy to report that [the Senate] has been vigilant on this issue - especially regarding the old problem of anti-Semitism in Russia."

Commissioner Rep. Zach Wamp (R-TN) also submitted a statement for the briefing record, in which he highlighted Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan and their efforts in regards to registration laws. While Mr. Wamp did note specific problems, he also wanted to “highlight and praise both countries for seeking assistance from the OSCE Advisory Panel on Freedom of Religion or Belief.”

He continued, “The choice to seek assistance and working to ensure the new legislation is in line with human rights norms are marks of wise governance. Even more, I want to encourage these governments to continue their close cooperation with this body of experts, and to continue to strive to uphold OSCE commitments and international norms for religious freedom.”

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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    In 2021, Sweden chairs the world’s largest regional security organization—the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE)—which comprises 57 participating States stretching from North America, across Europe, and to Central Asia and Mongolia. Even as the OSCE begins to emerge from the global COVID-19 pandemic, it is tackling other critical challenges, including Russia’s ongoing aggression in Ukraine, protracted conflicts in Moldova and Georgia, and the pursuit of a lasting and sustainable peaceful settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict through the framework of the Minsk Group. Meanwhile, several countries are deliberately spurning their OSCE commitments to human rights, democracy, and the rule of law. Participating States including Russia, Belarus, and Turkey not only stifle dissent in their own countries but also seek to undermine the OSCE’s work defending fundamental freedoms and curtail civil society’s participation in OSCE activities. Other shared challenges include combating human trafficking, countering terrorism and corruption, and protecting vulnerable communities, including migrants, from discrimination and violence. At this virtual hearing, Swedish Foreign Minister and OSCE Chairperson-in-Office Ann Linde discussed Sweden’s priorities for 2021 and addressed current developments in the OSCE region. Related Information Witness Biography

  • COVID-19 Vaccination Rollouts Expose Underlying Inequalities, Underscore the Need for Equitable, Coordinated Response to Global Health Crises

    By Michelle Ngirbabul, Max Kampelman Fellow, and Shannon Simrell, Representative of the Helsinki Commission to the U.S. Mission to the OSCE More than one year into the COVID-19 pandemic, over 169 million cases and nearly four million deaths have been reported worldwide. The development and rollout of mass vaccination campaigns have proved to be the most effective, and most important, tools in combating the deadly virus. However, supply chain issues and geopolitical struggles have plagued vaccine rollout efforts, and subsequent delays have exposed and exacerbated existing social, health, and economic inequalities within and among OSCE participating States. To control the ongoing pandemic and prepare for the threats of future global health crises, governments must rely on extensive cooperation and coordination to ensure that vaccination programs and relevant policies are equitable among States. COVID-19 Vaccinations are the Key to Ending the Pandemic Vaccines always have been an important part of managing public health crises. During the COVID-19 pandemic, pharmaceutical companies based in the United States, Germany, China, India, Russia, the United Kingdom, and Sweden rapidly developed the nine leading approved or authorized coronavirus vaccines using various approaches. Vaccines produced by Pfizer, Moderna, Oxford-AstraZeneca, and Johnson & Johnson have been approved or authorized for wide use either in Europe or the United States. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration granted emergency use authorization (EUA) to the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines in December 2020 and to Johnson & Johnson’s Janssen vaccine in February 2021. Likewise, the European Medicines Agency authorized Pfizer for use in December 2020 and Moderna, AstraZeneca, and Janssen in early 2021. The highly effective vaccines inspire hope that an end to the pandemic may soon be within sight both at home and abroad. Systemic Challenges Hampered Effective Vaccination Rollout Despite the number of approved vaccines available, systemic challenges have impeded vaccine procurement and rollout. For example, in the weeks following the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines’  EUA, vaccine supply shortages, bottlenecks in distribution by manufacturers and production errors, and bureaucratic challenges complicated distribution amid a surge in demand globally. While Moderna and Pfizer expanded production, in the absence of a clear national strategy, confusion, delays, and shortages plagued early U.S. vaccination efforts. Across the Atlantic, the European Union’s stuttering vaccination rollout was beset by vaccine shortages, partially due to its insistence on a joint EU vaccine procurement strategy and related bureaucratic delays. Unlike the United States and other countries that rushed to secure agreements with vaccine producers as early as August 2020, the EU’s 27 Member States were caught in lengthy price negotiations, forcing the region to wait at the back of the line to receive shipments. Shortly thereafter, the region’s vaccination efforts were dealt a massive blow when AstraZeneca, the company with which EU leaders signed a contract for at least 300 million doses of its COVID-19 vaccine, informed leaders in January that it was unable to meet agreed supply targets for the first quarter. Despite missteps, at least 12 of the EU’s 27 countries remain confident they will reach targets to vaccinate at least 70 percent of the adult population by the end of summer 2021. Pre-existing socioeconomic inequalities within countries have further complicated early vaccination rollouts. In the United States, the lack of a coordinated, federal response led to the significant disparity of access to vaccinations, varying widely depending upon one’s location, age, occupation, and underlying health conditions. Similarly, the United Kingdom reported lower vaccination rates among Black, Asian, and minority ethnic groups.  Additionally, inequalities among countries also severely impacted efforts to control and end the pandemic. Vaccine Nationalism and Inter-State Competition Vaccine shortages also disproportionately affected certain countries in the EU, leading to inter-state competition for vaccines and varied vaccination rates among states. Frustrated with slow vaccine deliveries, authorities have coordinated restrictions on exporting vaccines—Italy, for example, had blocked a shipment of the AstraZeneca vaccine bound for Australia and warned of possible vaccine export restrictions to non-reciprocating countries outside the bloc. In March 2021, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen stated that the EU would not consider donating vaccine supplies to developing countries until they have “a better production situation in the EU,” as the bloc struggles to maintain its own supply of vaccines EU unity was further challenged as leaders from Austria, Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Latvia, and Slovenia complained to Brussels that vaccines were not being proportionately delivered as originally agreed in the EU’s joint vaccine strategy. Under the modified agreement, less wealthy EU states that could not afford the more expensive Pfizer or Moderna vaccines were forced to wait for AstraZeneca vaccines amid ongoing shortages. The protesting states were also those that had received the lowest number of vaccines at that time, which raised concerns about individual states’ progress to vaccinate their populations and reach herd immunity. Despite early concerns of sustained and widening disparities, technical specifications agreed in April have charted a course for the bloc’s Digital Green Certificates—a digital COVID-19 vaccination record program to be launched in June 2021. Emerging Vaccine Diplomacy Political, economic, and logistical challenges created an opening for Russian and Chinese influence in the region through so-called “vaccine diplomacy.” Amid shortages and uncertainty, Russia and China have filled the vaccine gap by offering exclusive deals or free vaccines in dozens of countries globally. In August 2020, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that Russian regulators had licensed Sputnik V, the world’s first COVID-19 vaccine, and claimed that clinical trials demonstrated an  efficacy rate of over 90 percent. In December 2020, approximately one month after Pfizer and Moderna received approval in the United States and the European Union, China-owned Sinopharm also brought its vaccine to market, claiming a 79 percent efficacy rate. Global experts in vaccine immunology and epidemiology have since criticized Moscow’s and Beijing’s lack of transparency, questioned the reliability of clinical trial data, and raised safety concerns. Despite such skepticism, Russia and China are determined to implement an elaborate international rollout of their vaccines to strengthen their  influence abroad, even at the expense of their domestic vaccinations.  Between the two countries, China and Russia have secured deals to supply more than 800 million vaccine doses in 41 countries. Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia were among the first European countries to forego waiting for Sputnik V’s and Chinese-made Sinopharm vaccine’s full approval or authorized emergency use from the European Medicines Agency. In mid-February, 500,000 doses of the initial batch of five million Sinopharm vaccines arrived in Hungary, making it the first member of the EU to receive the Chinese vaccine and authorize emergency use within the country. As of May 2021, nearly 60 countries have registered to administer the Sputnik V vaccine, including OSCE participating States Azerbaijan, Belarus, Hungary, Kazakhstan, Moldova, North Macedonia, Serbia, Slovakia, Ukraine, and Uzbekistan. Austria seemingly used negotiations with Russia for one million doses to bolster its bid for a greater portion of the EU’s pool of bloc-approved vaccines.  Although Sputnik V is not approved for use in the EU and received negative ratings by Russia’s own domestic drug regulating body, Slovakia authorized the vaccine for use in late May and followed Hungary as the EU’s second country to administer the Sputnik V vaccine.  In Hungary, which leads the EU in COVID-19 deaths per capita, demand remains high for EU-approved doses despite a pervasive government-supported campaign to increase interest in Russia’s jab. As countries attempted to procure vaccines, the Russian Direct Investment Fund was reaching deals with various companies in Italy, Spain, France, and Germany to produce Sputnik V, pending approval by the European Medicines Agency, promising to deliver vaccines for 50 million Europeans from June 2021. China has also signaled further investments in vaccine donations, particularly in countries in or near the Western Balkans—as they turn towards Russia and China for COVID-19 vaccine doses amid the EU’s struggles, intensifying the EU’s geopolitical problem. Adapting Approaches to Meet Emergent Challenges The emergence of varied and highly transmissible mutations of the virus risk in late 2020 and early 2021 outstripped the ability of vaccines to contain the virus, led to the extension or reintroduction of lockdowns, hampered economic recovery, and overburdened health care systems. Emergent variants have further highlighted the need to prioritize vaccination rollouts amid spiking case numbers. Also underscored is the role that effective vaccination programs can play to limit threats against democracy and misuse of global crises by corrupt leaders. Across the globe, challenges posed by the pandemic have provided governments with pretexts to consolidate power and restrict civil and human rights through measures such as imposed lockdowns, allegedly to curb high case counts or deaths. For example, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán assumed extraordinary emergency powers with no sunset clause to seize unchecked power.  While Orbán eventually opted to remove the most widely-condemned feature of his emergency powers in January 2021, the other elements of the measure remain in place. Systemic challenges also exist in inequities among countries as wealthier countries stockpiled batches of vaccines despite the efforts of COVAX—a global program led by the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovation (CEPI), GAVI, the WHO, and UNICEF that aims to ensure equitable distribution of COVID-19—to help prevent vaccine stockpiling and subsequent inequities. However, there is hope. An EU summit in March 2021 led to an agreement to improve vaccine production and distribution to its Member States and abroad.  As of mid-May 2021, COVAX has shipped more than 59 million vaccines to 122 countries. In the United States, the Biden administration launched a campaign to improve cooperation among industry rivals, increase vaccine production and distribution, promote access to reliable information, enhance cooperation with the EU, and waive vaccine patents. Increased U.S.-EU cooperation could alleviate vaccination shortages, secure supply chains, successfully and safely develop vaccine passports, and achieve widespread resistance to the virus and its powerful variants to save lives and reopen the global economy.  Lessons Learned for a More Equitable and Secure Future Vaccines have the potential to mitigate the spread of the virus and help orient the world within a “new normal” post-COVID-19, but only if they are sufficiently deployed. The pandemic illustrated that political leaders, scientists, and citizens cannot operate in silos during health crises. Rather, health emergencies must be viewed as global security crises that require coordination and cooperation among all stakeholders. To reap the full health, societal, and economic benefits of vaccines, programs must be coordinated, inclusive, and equitable. The COVID-19 pandemic demonstrates the enduring importance of the OSCE’s comprehensive approach to security: none are safe until we all are safe.

  • Swedish Foreign Minister Ann Linde to Appear at Helsinki Commission Online Hearing

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following online hearing: SWEDEN’S LEADERSHIP OF THE OSCE Priorities for 2021 Friday, June 11, 2021 9:15 a.m. to 10:15 a.m. Watch Live: https://www.youtube.com/HelsinkiCommission In 2021, Sweden chairs the world’s largest regional security organization—the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE)—which comprises 57 participating States stretching from North America, across Europe, and to Central Asia and Mongolia. Even as the OSCE begins to emerge from the global COVID-19 pandemic, it is tackling other critical challenges, including Russia’s ongoing aggression in Ukraine, protracted conflicts in Moldova and Georgia, and the pursuit of a lasting and sustainable peaceful settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict through the framework of the Minsk Group. Meanwhile, several countries are deliberately spurning their OSCE commitments to human rights, democracy, and the rule of law. Participating States including Russia, Belarus, and Turkey not only stifle dissent in their own countries but also seek to undermine the OSCE’s work defending fundamental freedoms and curtail civil society’s participation in OSCE activities. Other shared challenges include combating human trafficking, countering terrorism and corruption, and protecting vulnerable communities, including migrants, from discrimination and violence. At this virtual hearing, Swedish Foreign Minister and OSCE Chairperson-in-Office Ann Linde will discuss Sweden’s priorities for 2021 and address current developments in the OSCE region.

  • Helsinki Commission Commemorates 45 Years of Advancing Comprehensive Security in the OSCE Region

    WASHINGTON—To commemorate the 45th anniversary of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the U.S. Helsinki Commission, on June 3, Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) and commission leaders Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) and Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) issued the following statements: “The Helsinki Commission has played a vital role in elevating the moral dimension of U.S. foreign policy and prioritizing the protection of fundamental freedoms in our dealings with other nations,” said Chairman Cardin. “From fighting for fair treatment of Jews in the Soviet Union, to developing landmark legislation to address human trafficking, to demanding sanctions on human rights violators and kleptocrats, and so much more, the commission consistently has broken new ground.” “For 45 years, the commission has flourished as a bipartisan and bicameral platform for collaboration within the federal government. Its purpose is not to support a specific party or administration, but instead to advance transatlantic cooperation, promote regional security and stability, and hold OSCE participating States accountable to their promises,” said Sen. Wicker. “Our commissioners’ united front against threats to democracy and human rights worldwide has become a pillar of U.S. international engagement.” “I am grateful to have experienced the crucial role played by U.S. engagement in the Helsinki Process, both as an election observer in Bulgaria in 1990, and later as a lawmaker and commissioner,” said Rep. Wilson. “The Helsinki Commission is unique in its ability to adapt to evolving global challenges. The defense of human rights and democracy looks different now than it did during the Cold War, but we continue to unite over the same resilient principles and commitment to fundamental freedoms.” On June 3, 1976, U.S. President Gerald Ford signed the Helsinki Commission into existence through Public Law 94-304 to encourage compliance with the Helsinki Final Act of 1975—the founding document that lays out the ten principles guiding the inter-state relations among today’s OSCE participating States. The agreement created new opportunities to engage with European partners on human rights, cooperative security, economic opportunities, and territorial disputes, and the commission played an integral role in ensuring that human rights became a key component of U.S. foreign policy. Forty-five years after its founding, the Helsinki Commission continues to engage with participating States to confront severe and persistent violations of human rights and democratic norms. Since its establishment, the Helsinki Commission has convened more than 500 public hearings and briefings. It regularly works with U.S. officials in the executive branch and Congress to draw attention to human rights and security challenges in participating States, including racism, anti-Semitism, and intolerance; corruption; human trafficking; and Russia’s persistent violations of the Helsinki Final Act in its relations with Ukraine and other OSCE countries.

  • Cardin, Hudson Pledge Support to Ukraine in Bilateral Call Between OSCE PA Delegations

    WASHINGTON—In response to increased Russian aggression against Ukraine, Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) and Commissioner Rep. Richard Hudson (NC-08) initiated an exceptional bilateral meeting with members of the Ukrainian Delegation to the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA) on April 30.  Chairman Cardin, who serves as Head of the U.S. Delegation to the Assembly, and Rep. Hudson, who is a member of the delegation and chairs the OSCE PA’s General Committee on Political Affairs and Security, sought the meeting to express the support of the United States for Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty and to solicit the Ukrainian lawmakers’ perspectives on the ongoing crisis. Ukrainian participants included parliamentarians Mykyta Poturaiev (Head of Delegation) and Artur Gerasymov (Deputy Head of Delegation).  The exchange, which focused on the recent massing of Russian forces on Ukraine’s eastern border and in occupied Crimea, and the closure by Russia of parts of the Black Sea and the Azov Sea, also covered topics including: The militarization of occupied Crimea and widespread violations of fundamental freedoms there, with particular persecution directed toward Crimean Tatars The Crimean Platform, a Ukrainian diplomatic initiative to mobilize world leaders to raise the cost of Russia’s occupation of the peninsula, with the ultimate goal of de-occupation The effects of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline on Russian influence in Europe  The importance of continued reform processes in Ukraine, including in ensuring the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary and of Ukraine’s anti-corruption bodies Chairman Cardin and Rep. Hudson reiterated Congress’ strong and bipartisan support for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine. Chairman Cardin underscored that the United States stood with Ukraine in the face of Russian aggression, which “violated every principle of the Helsinki Final Act,” he stated. He added that the Ukraine Security Partnership Act unanimously approved by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on April 21 codified the U.S. security commitment to Ukraine and support for the Crimean Platform initiative, among other measures designed to strengthen the bilateral relationship. The United States remained “strongly and firmly united in our support for Ukraine,” Rep. Hudson said, pledging continued resolve in ensuring this message was clear to Russian authorities. Hudson, recalling a statement issued in his capacity as OSCE PA committee chair on April 7, also expressed readiness to engage fully in the parliamentary dimension of the Crimean Platform. In addition, the U.S. and Ukrainian delegates discussed plans for the 2021 Annual Session to be held remotely in late June and early July. 

  • Helsinki Commission Digital Digest: April 2021

  • Wicker, Shaheen Reintroduce Bill to Hold Russia Accountable for Its Religious Freedom Violations in Ukraine

    WASHINGTON—Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) and Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (NH) today reintroduced the bipartisan Ukraine Religious Freedom Support Act (S.1310). It is a companion bill to H.R. 496, introduced by Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) and Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (MO-05), which unanimously passed the House Foreign Affairs Committee yesterday. “The Kremlin’s current repression in Ukraine mirrors an ugly chapter from Soviet times when believers were persecuted for their religious faith,” said Sen. Wicker. “Vladimir Putin and his proxies should face real consequences for their brutal attempts to curtail the religious freedom of Ukrainians who suffer under this ruthless Russian occupation.” “There is a bipartisan urgency in Congress to demonstrate support for Ukraine in opposition to Putin’s cruelty, including his barbaric assault against peaceful religious communities. I’m proud to work with this group of lawmakers to reaffirm that sentiment and to stand up for democratic values around the world,” said Sen. Shaheen. “This legislation is an important step forward to hold Putin to account for his unlawful aggression against the Ukrainian people and the fundamental freedoms they hold dear.” The Ukraine Religious Freedom Support Act would authorize and require the president of the United States to consider particularly severe violations of religious freedom in the Ukrainian territory of Crimea and the Donbas—not just violations inside Russia’s internationally-recognized borders—when determining whether to designate Russia as a Country of Particular Concern (CPC). The bill reaffirms that “it is the policy of the United States to never recognize the illegal, attempted annexation of Crimea by the Government of the Russia or the separation of any portion of Ukrainian territory through the use of military force.” Russian forces invaded Crimea in February 2014 and continue to illegally occupy and attempt to annex it. The Kremlin has controlled parts of the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine since April 2014 with non-state armed groups and illegal entities it created and commands. Under international humanitarian law, including the Geneva Conventions, Russia is responsible for religious freedom violations in Crimea and parts of the occupied Donbas. The International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 requires the president to designate CPCs when their governments engage in or tolerate “particularly severe violations of religious freedom,” including killings, torture, abduction, and detention. It also requires the president to then take 15 specific actions, or commensurate action, unless exercising waiver authority, and to ban the foreign officials responsible from entering the United States. The Secretary of State has placed Russia on the Special Watch List for countries with severe violations every year since 2018. All participating States of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, including Russia, have repeatedly committed to respect and protect freedom of religion or belief. The Helsinki Commission has compiled 16 documents detailing religious freedom commitments that OSCE participating States have made.

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

    WASHINGTON—Ahead of International Roma Day on April 8, Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), commission leaders the late Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) and Sen. Roger Wicker (MS), and House Foreign Affairs Committee Chair Rep. Gregory Meeks (NY-04) introduced resolutions in the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives celebrating Romani American heritage. Chairman Cardin, Sen. Wicker, and Rep. Meeks issued the following joint statement: “Romani people have been part of every wave of European migration to the United States from the colonial period to today.  They enrich the fabric of our nation and strengthen the transatlantic bond.  “Through this resolution, we celebrate Romani culture and pay tribute to our shared history. We applaud the efforts to promote transnational cooperation among Roma launched at the historic First World Romani Congress on April 8, 1971.” In addition to recognizing and celebrating Romani American heritage, these resolutions support International Roma Day, recognized around the world on April 8, and the robust engagement of U.S. diplomats in International Roma Day activities throughout Europe.  The resolutions also commemorate the destruction of the Romani camp at Auschwitz when, on August 2-3, 1944, Nazis murdered between 4,200 and 4,300 Romani men, women, and children in gas chambers in a single night, and commend the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum for its critically important role in promoting remembrance of the Holocaust and educating audiences about the genocide of Roma. Chairman Cardin serves on the United States Holocaust Memorial Council, the governing board of trustees for the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Former Helsinki Commission Chairman Hastings, who died on April 6, was a longtime champion of Roma rights. In addition to regularly meeting with Roma from across Europe, he supported efforts in Romania to address the legacy of Roma enslavement; criticized the mass expulsions of Roma from France, fingerprinting of Roma in Italy, and destruction of the historic Romani neighborhood Sulukule in Istanbul; and condemned proposals to restrict births of Roma in Bulgaria and racist violence against Roma wherever it occurred. Rep. Hastings supported the work of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in its scholarship and education about the genocide of Roma and the museum’s acquisition of the unique Lety concentration camp archives.  The Organization on Security and Cooperation in Europe works with national and local governments, civil society and international organizations to promote equal opportunities for and the protection of the human rights of Roma. 

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

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

  • Helsinki Commissioners Reintroduce Ukraine Religious Freedom Support Act

    WASHINGTON—Helsinki Commission Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) and Commissioner Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, II (MO-05) yesterday reintroduced the bipartisan Ukraine Religious Freedom Support Act (H.R. 496) in the House of Representatives. The House unanimously passed the original legislation, which targets Russia’s religious freedom violations in Ukraine, on November 18, 2020. “The Kremlin and its proxies continue to imprison and torture people on Ukrainian territory for their faith. Russian government perpetrators must be punished for these crimes,” said Rep. Wilson. “This legislation would ensure that the president of the United States has the authority and mandate to impose costs on Russian officials who are responsible for such assaults on religious freedom.” “The yoke of Putin’s occupation and oppression weighs heavily on Ukrainians. The desire to seek and follow the truth, to explore ultimate meaning, is written on every human heart,” said Rep. Cleaver. “We must stand up to the Russian government’s attempts to suppress the freedom of Ukrainians to follow their religious conscience.” The Ukraine Religious Freedom Support Act would require the president of the United States to consider particularly severe violations of religious freedom in Russia-occupied or otherwise controlled territory in Ukraine when determining whether to designate Russia as a Country of Particular Concern (CPC) for such violations. The bill authorizes the president to hold Russia responsible for violations in Ukrainian territory it illegally occupies or controls, not just for violations inside Russia’s internationally-recognized borders. The International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 requires the president to designate CPCs when their governments engage in or tolerate particularly severe violations of religious freedom, including killings, torture, abduction, and detention. It also requires the president to then take 15 specific actions, or commensurate action, and ban the foreign officials responsible from entering the United States. The Secretary of State has placed Russia on the Special Watch List for countries with severe violations every year since 2018. The legislation also states, “It is the policy of the United States to never recognize the illegal, attempted annexation of Crimea by the Government of the Russia or the separation of any portion of Ukrainian territory through the use of military force.” Russian forces first invaded Crimea in February 2014 and continue to illegally occupy it. Since April 2014, Russia has controlled parts of the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine with non-state armed groups and illegal entities it commands. Under international humanitarian law, including the Geneva Conventions, Russia is responsible for religious freedom violations in Crimea and parts of the Donbas. Participating States of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, including Russia, have repeatedly committed to respect and protect freedom of religion or belief. The Helsinki Commission has compiled 16 documents outlining religious freedom commitments made by OSCE participating States. Original co-sponsors of the legislation include Helsinki Commissioners Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (PA-01), Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), Rep. Richard Hudson (NC-08), and Rep. Gwen S. Moore (WI-04). Rep. Gus M. Bilirakis (FL-12), Rep. Anna G. Eshoo (CA-18), and Rep. Andy Harris, M.D. (MD-01) are also original cosponsors.

  • Helsinki Commission Digital Digest: January 2021

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