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Tajikistan's Presidential Election Falls Short
Wednesday, December 13, 2006

By Kyle Parker and Knox Thames

On November 6, 2006, Tajikistan held its fourth presidential election, in which incumbent President Emomali Rahmonov easily won over four other competitors. The conduct of the campaign and the Election Day itself provided the international community with an opportunity to gauge Tajikistan’s commitment to democratization – the result was a mixed picture that displayed fundamental problems that must be addressed before Tajikistan can meet OSCE standards of free and fair elections.

The final results released by the Central Commission for Election and Referenda (CCER) of Tajikistan showed that President Rahmonov defeated four other candidates with 79 percent of the vote, based on approximately 3 million ballots representing 91 percent of the electorate. The nearest competitor garnered just over five percent. The OSCE’s Election Observation Mission (EOM) reported in its preliminary findings that the elections “did not fully test democratic electoral practices… due to a lack of genuine choice and meaningful pluralism,” and concluded that “the election process also revealed substantial shortcomings.”

Tajikistan in Context

Tajikistan is located at the heart of the ancient Silk Road traversing the Eurasian landmass, bordering Afghanistan, China, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan. With about seven million people, Tajikistan has a young, growing population that is largely Sunni Muslim and speaks Tajik, a language closely related to Farsi. Tajikistan has one of the lowest GDP’s of the former Soviet republics; up to one million Tajik citizens are migrant workers abroad, mostly in the Russian Federation.

Landlocked and home to the tallest mountains in the post-Soviet space, Tajikistan possesses abundant fresh water resources from glacial runoff. However, only six percent of Tajikistan is arable. Tajikistan also hosts one of the largest and most polluting aluminum smelters in the world. Additionally, since the fall of the Taliban in neighboring Afghanistan in 2001, the cross-border drug trade has dramatically increased, fueling corruption, drug addiction, and HIV/AIDS among the local population.

Following the dissolution of the USSR, Tajikistan was the only former Soviet republic to experience a protracted civil war that claimed the lives of at least 40,000 people and displaced nearly a million. Despite extreme poverty, the country has made notable gains since the peace agreement signed almost 10 years ago that ended the civil war. The accord created a power-sharing agreement among the warring parties, including the only legal Islamic party in post-Soviet Central Asia.

President Rahmonov was first elected in 1994 and re-elected in 1999. The Constitution of Tajikistan sets a presidential term of office at seven years. In 2003, a referendum amended the constitution to limit the number of consecutive terms an individual could be elected president to two, but allowed him to run again. As a result, President Rahmonov may seek another term in 2013, potentially serving until 2020.

Pre-Election Climate

As elsewhere in Central Asia, Tajikistan’s political system features top-down rule by the president, whose control of the state apparatus and state-run media greatly enhance his privileged position in any election. Pre-election decrees by the CCER did address some inequities in the election system, and the government provided opposition parties free air time on state television. However, the ability of independent media outlets to operate freely was restricted. And while multiple candidates did participate, the major opposition leaders experienced significant harassment from authorities and did not or could not run.

For instance, Muhammadruzi Iskandarov, the former head of the Democratic Party, was sentenced to 23 years in prison in October 2005 under questionable circumstances. This year, authorities repeatedly threatened criminal penalties against the Chairman of the Socialist Democratic Party, Rahmatullo Zoyirov, for statements made regarding the number of alleged political prisoners in Tajikistan. Before his death in August, charges of slander were brought against the late Said Abdullo Nuri, Chairman of the Islamic Renaissance Party, who was arguably the only opposition presidential candidate with a national following. Of these three parties, only the anti-Iskandarov “Vatan” faction of the Democratic Party entered a candidate. Their bid was unsuccessful, as they could not obtain the necessary petition signatures in time to qualify for ballot inclusion.

The CCER registered five candidates out of six nominees who submitted signatures for the election: Olimjon Boboev (Party of Economic Reform of Tajikistan); Abdukhalim Gaffarov (Socialist Party); Amir Karakulov (Agrarian Party); Emomali Rahmonov (Peoples’ Democratic Party of Tajikistan); and Ismoil Talbakov (Communist Party of Tajikistan).

To run, candidates had to collect signatures representing five percent of registered voters, or approximately 160,000 names. Individuals could not sign more than one petition, and yet remarkably, the six applicants reportedly collected over 1.5 million signatures, equaling roughly half of the electorate in just 20 days. Considering that the pro-government Agrarian and the Economic Reform Parties were both established this year, their ability to set up a network to collect the required signatures was remarkable and implausible. Although roughly one of every two voters signed a petition (based on the claims of the parties), Commission staff did not meet any individual voter who had signed a petition nor did staff hear of any other OSCE observer that met a voter who also signed a petition.

Each candidate had up to 30 minutes of free air time on state television and radio. Nevertheless, the OSCE EOM described the campaign period as “largely invisible,” with party platforms that were “similar,” and concluded that “none of the four candidates running against the incumbent offered a credible political alternative.” Furthermore, there was “little media coverage of the election campaign and a high media profile of the incumbent, raising doubts whether voters received sufficient information to make an informed choice.”

Violations on Election Day

The November 6 election was the first presidential election in Tajikistan observed by the OSCE, as minimum conditions for democratic elections were not in place for previous presidential contests. The EOM deployed 12 experts and 13 long-term observers to the capital city of Dushanbe and five other cities. The Mission was headed by Mr. Onno van der Wind of the Netherlands. Mr. Kimmo Kiljunen, a parliamentarian from Finland, led the observation delegation from the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, which was integrated into the EOM.

On Election Day, the EOM deployed 123 short-term observers representing 31 OSCE participating States. OSCE observers visited approximately 500 of 3,042 polling stations throughout Tajikistan and observed the closing procedures and tabulations in 47 District Election Commissions.

Helsinki Commission staff members were accredited as OSCE observers and visited 15 polling stations in the Dushanbe area, ranging from large urban stations to smaller semi-suburban stations and two military precincts. They witnessed the opening and closing of a polling station, as well as tabulation at the District Electoral Commission level. Commission staff witnessed some type of violation in approximately three quarters of the polling stations visited. The most common problem was the appearance of identical signatures on the voter registry, possibly indicating proxy voting. However, proxy voting was only witnessed in one station. Family voting was widespread. In the vast majority of precincts, ballot boxes were not adequately sealed, but there was no visible evidence of tampering. There were no observed instances of voters being denied the opportunity to cast a ballot, nor were any such complaints raised with Commission staff.

Commission staff did encounter teams of observers accredited by the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), the Russian Federation, and the People’s Republic of China. None of these teams appeared to operate under any kind of election observation methodology, in clear contrast to OSCE observers. As in past elections, the CIS observers drew starkly different conclusions about the electoral conditions than the conclusions of the OSCE EOM.

Of the irregularities observed throughout the day, none appeared to be deliberate attempts to skew the final tally in favor of, or against any particular candidate. The infractions appeared to stem from a lack of proper training, old Soviet habits, and/or a general lackadaisical attitude to what was largely seen as an exercise with a foregone conclusion.

Still, the vote count monitored by Commission staff at polling station 10 in Dushanbe’s Second District raised questions about the motives of the precinct workers, who appeared determined not to allow a credible observation. Initially, Commission staff were not permitted to enter the station. Once inside, they were not allowed to come within 15 feet of the table where election officials were counting the ballots. In addition, election officials stood in such a way as to block observers from having any view of the tabulations. Precinct staff did not follow closing procedures – counting the blank ballots last rather than first; results were not entered into the protocol as they were established, but rather at the end of the entire count. Staff questions about these concerns directed to the Precinct Election Commission head were unsatisfactorily answered.

The EOM preliminary report echoed these findings. Of the polling stations visited by OSCE observers, proxy voting was cited in 19 percent of the stations and identical signatures were observed in 49 percent of the stations. The report cited incidents of security officials interfering in the work of the observers. In addition, the report found that “counting procedures necessary to ensure integrity and transparency of the process were generally not followed.”

The report did note some areas of progress, such as the peaceful nature of the voting; CCER training for electoral commissions; provision of free air time for candidates; voter education efforts; ballots in multiple languages; and the availability of polling stations abroad.

However, the EOM report concluded that overall the election “did not fully test democratic electoral practices” because of a “lack of genuine choice and meaningful pluralism.” The findings went on to state that “the election was characterized by a marked absence of real competition. Parties that determined themselves as political opposition to the incumbent chose not to contest the election. Thus, voters were presented with a choice that was only nominal.” Other issues of concern were: significant shortcomings in the election legislation; lack of transparency by the CCER; a government-controlled media environment; and an unusually high signature threshold for candidate participation.

Post-Election Tajikistan

The outcome of Tajikistan’s presidential contest was never in doubt – the only question was whether President Rahmonov’s final tally would be in the 80th percentile (as in Kyrgyzstan last July) or the 90th percentile (typical for Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, and recently equaled in Kazakhstan). By that standard, the 79 percent that Rahmonov received could be considered modest for Central Asia.

Nevertheless, the international community was able to assess Tajikistan’s commitment to democratization through its conduct before and during the election. Overall, the campaign and election presented a mixed, but generally frustrating, picture – while the electoral code reform, the lack of Election Day violence, and the participation of multiple candidates was positive, the prevalence of irregularities and the intimidation or arrest of major opposition leaders call into question President Rahmonov’s commitment to democratic reform. Although there was little question he would win a fair contest, the deck was carefully stacked anyway.

Problems with Tajikistan’s electoral conduct are not new, as the OSCE observed their 2000 and 2005 parliamentary elections and found significant violations in both. The conclusions of the 2000 observation mission stated that Tajikistan must do more to “meet the minimum democratic standards for equal, fair, free, secret, transparent and accountable elections.” Despite OSCE engagement in the pre-election period last year, the 2005 parliamentary elections remained problematic, with the OSCE mission stating they “failed to meet many key OSCE commitments and other international standards for democratic elections.” Against that background, the 2006 presidential election was disappointing for not having achieved more and deeper systemic reforms.

President Rahmonov, now safely reelected, has consolidated his position. The next real test of his commitment to electoral reform will be the 2010 parliamentary election, specifically, whether independent opposition parties can operate and organize freely. Many observers believe that the electorate’s vivid memory of the civil war has created an appreciation for the stability he represents, despite the country’s democratic shortcomings. However, 60 percent of the population is reportedly under 35 years old and if serious democratic reforms are not entrenched, and the 2010 parliamentary election again falls short of international standards, the political gains achieved since the end of the war may be jeopardized.

As Rakhmonov begins a new seven-year term of office, it is critical that reform efforts move forward. A good sense of his government’s direction could come early in his new administration, if problematic draft NGO or religion laws, are reintroduced, since previous versions fell short of OSCE commitments. In addition, continued governmental efforts to close or harass independent media outlets will also indicate whether old policies will hold sway during the new term of office.

Conclusion

The United States should continue to find ways to help this impoverished nation develop economically and democratically, lending assistance when appropriate, while continuing to hold Tajikistani authorities to the OSCE commitments they freely undertook. The United States would do well to continue to actively encourage those laboring for a stable and open society in this country that has the potential to be a key partner in battling regional threats to U.S. interests. In addition, the growth of democracy and respect for human rights would enable Washington and Dushanbe to deepen their engagement, while cementing the stability and progress achieved in Tajikistan.

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Rather than inspiring further discussion about the real dangers faced by environmental defenders, however, the statement was met only with vague comments from a handful of participating States on the importance of funding environmental protection. Good “Green” Governance The Maastricht Strategy (2003) defines good governance as a contribution to prosperity, stability, and security at all levels. Within the environmental dimension, the OSCE promotes commitments to both good governance and environmental sustainability. Most, if not all, participants shared their 2030 plans to “green” their economies, which included measures like limiting industrial risk, aligning national and international economic agreements, and modernizing technological innovation for greater efficiency. Instead of sharing the obstacles they face in reaching the 2030 sustainable development goals or the funding and support they need to realistically meet their needs (for example, the OSCE offers its support of cross-border cooperation in the form of agreements like those between Albania and North Macedonia like the Ohrid Lake Joint Commission which establishes a framework for integrated border management to stabilize relations over Ohrid Lake), most nations focused solely on national policy strategies and improved legislative frameworks. Womenomics and Water Management Women are disproportionately burdened when water resources are mismanaged or scarce. “Women are much more active than men in activities related to water,” says Matluba Rajabalieva, Chairperson of the Garm Development Centre, a Tajikistan-based NGO working to promote women and girls’ empowerment in communities. Womenomics, the idea that women’s economic advancement improves the whole economy, has been well-documented in water management and has fueled several OSCE initiatives. The OSCE and its participating States have developed programming and initiatives that address water diplomacy with women-centric solutions. Through workshops, initiatives, and activities, the OSCE Gender Section and the Office of the Coordinator of OSCE Economic and Environmental Activities (OSCEEA) connects water users and decision makers and ensures gender parity between the two groups. At the EEDIM, the Permanent Delegation of Finland to the OSCE hosted an official side event titled “Water Diplomacy, Proactive Peace Mediation,” which focused on the OSCEEA’s extra-budgetary project, “Women, Water Management and Conflict Prevention.” The project aims to enhance the participation of women in conflict resolution and water management at all levels in Central Asia and Afghanistan. The Kazakh-German University also recently launched a water resource management program which focuses on women participation.

  • Inclusive Leadership Summit

    “The real political division lies between people who believe we should be more inward looking versus those who want a more globalized world.  If we don’t include citizens, then we diminish our values. Inclusivity is not a constraint, but a true opportunity we need to seize and build on.” - Drancy Mayor Aude Lavail-Lagarde, France By Nida Ansari and Dr. Mischa Thompson From September 18 to September 20, 2019, more than forty European and U.S. leaders representing 12 countries across Europe and the United States participated in the second annual Inclusive Leadership Summit held in Paris, France. Focused on Achieving Political Inclusion, the summit featured findings from a recent report and knowledge-sharing among participants on advancing the practice of inclusive leadership through four essential areas: inclusive representation in legislatures; inclusive policymaking; civic participation; and election systems. Hosted by the German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF), the Summit included alumni of the GMF, U.S. Helsinki Commission, and State Department-supported Transatlantic Inclusion Leaders Network.   As leaders incorporating inclusive practices into their organizations, participants emphasized the importance of the widening circle of representation in political discourse and establishing leadership networks to specific strategies and techniques to strengthen political inclusion. They also stressed the need for increased engagement with marginalized communities to ensure the development of policies that are inclusive of all members of society. Participants also discussed strategies for engaging political parties, navigating difficult political environments, and effectively promoting diversity across sectors to advance political inclusion. Participants also explored opportunities and pitfalls of political engagement through technology and the role of the private sector in advancing inclusivity. Dr. Mischa Thompson of the Helsinki Commission, facilitated a panel on how diverse government leaders have successfully envisioned and met inclusivity goals. Promoting safe, inclusive, and equitable societies is a priority of the Helsinki Commission for the 116th Congress. Commission efforts on inclusion have included briefings, hearings, legislation, and inter-parliamentary initiatives in the U.S. Congress and Europe. In addition, the Helsinki Commission frequently partners with the U.S. State Department and other stakeholders in the United States and Europe to empower diverse voices at the decision-making table to be able to effectively devise public policies that meet the needs of all members of society, rather than just a few.

  • Chairman Hastings Leads Bipartisan Delegation to Tunisia, Israel, and Morocco

    WASHINGTON—From September 28 to October 6, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) led a bipartisan, bicameral U.S. delegation to Tunisia, Israel, and Morocco to assess the state of security, human rights, and democracy in the Middle East and North Africa. The delegation concluded with the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (PA) Autumn Meeting in Marrakech, Morocco, where the strong U.S. presence demonstrated the consistent and bipartisan commitment of the United States to security and cooperation in the OSCE and neighboring Mediterranean regions. “As a Member of Congress, I spent decades traveling to the Middle East and North Africa,” said Chairman Hastings, who formerly served President of the OSCE PA as well as the OSCE PA Special Representative to the Mediterranean Partners for Cooperation. “This trip was an occasion to revisit long-standing relationships and discuss some of the most consequential dynamics impacting the Mediterranean region today.” Chairman Hastings was joined on the delegation by Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS); Helsinki Commission Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02), Helsinki Commissioner Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, II (MO-05), and Rep. Andy Harris (MD-01). In Tunisia, the delegation met with Interim President Mohamed Ennaceur, who noted that that the gravest threat facing his nation is the economic and social despair afflicting many young people. Members also held roundtable discussions with civil society groups and local and international election observers, who provided an assessment of the September 15 presidential election and prospects for country’s upcoming legislative election and presidential run-off. In Israel, the delegation met with both Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mohamed Shtayyeh. Members also met with civil society to assess possible threats to the rule of law impacting both Israelis and Palestinians, and with Christian leaders to explore interreligious relations and the mediating role Christian churches play in the Holy Land. During the OSCE PA Autumn Meeting, Chairman Hastings and other members of the delegation discussed ways to maximize cooperation with OSCE Mediterranean Partners in areas ranging from migration and human trafficking, to tolerance and non-discrimination, to energy and water, all in the context of good governance and democratic institutions. “In the coming days, I urge you, my distinguished colleagues, to continue exploring ways to integrate civil society in our work and to deepen engagement with the OSCE Mediterranean Partners, particularly through support for, and observation of their electoral processes,” said Chairman Hastings during the meeting. Co-Chairman Wicker, who serves as a vice-president of the OSCE PA and as the 2019 Head of the U.S. Delegation to the OSCE PA, chaired a session focusing on regional and national perspectives of cooperation across North Africa and the African continent. In Morocco, members also met with the Algerian, Moroccan, and Ukrainian delegations to the OSCE PA; OSCE PA President George Tsereteli; and OSCE PA Secretary General Roberto Montella.

  • Remarks to the Mediterranean Forum

    Autumn Meeting of the OSCE PA *NOTE: As prepared for delivery* Before arriving in Morocco, I led a bicameral and bipartisan Congressional delegation to Tunisia and Israel. While in these countries, my colleagues and I held high-level exchanges with national leadership, civil society, religious leaders, and others to assess the current state of regional security, human rights and democracy. As a Member of Congress, I spent decades traveling to the Middle East and North Africa.  I was never more proud of that engagement, than when I served as President of the Parliamentary Assembly and its  Special Representative to the Mediterranean Partners for Cooperation. This trip was an occasion to revisit longstanding relationships and discuss some of the most consequential dynamics impacting the Mediterranean region today. Our delegation arrived in Tunisia and Israel at sensitive political moments. Tunisia held its second democratic presidential election ever on September 15 and will follow in the coming weeks with its third-ever free legislative election and a presidential run-off. In Israel, the country’s second national election this year on September 17 once again delivered an ambiguous result, touching off a flurry of government formation negotiations with no end in sight. In Tunis, my colleagues and I met with Interim President Mohamed Ennaceur. I commended him for leading his country through a historic peaceful transition of power following the death of President Beji Caid Essebsi earlier this year. When I asked about the most serious existential threat facing Tunisia, he had a bracing assessment: that the gravest threat is the economic and social despair afflicting so many youth. We should heed President Ennaceur’s words and commit ourselves during this meeting of the Parliamentary Assembly to discussing ways to restore hope and opportunity for the youth in our societies. Early next year, I intend to do my part to respond to the call of President Ennaceur and others by hosting young parliamentarians from throughout the OSCE region and the Partners for Cooperation in Washington for a seminar that empowers our future leaders. I look forward to sharing details with your delegations in the near term. While in Tunisia, our delegation also held roundtables with civil society groups and local and international election observers. I was encouraged by the bold commitment of these groups to preserving and advancing the gains Tunisia has made since 2011 in respect for the rule of law, democracy, and fundamental freedoms. I remain concerned, however, that the ongoing imprisonment of one of the leading presidential candidates could undermine confidence in the democratic process. In Israel, our delegation met both with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mohamed Shtayyeh. Both leaders were candid in their assessments of the impasse in the peace process. While no clear opportunities emerged, I was affirmed in my belief that parliamentary diplomacy bridges divides. Prime Minister Netanyahu shared his sobering assessment of the global threat posed by Iran and the existential danger it poses to the people of Israel. I hope we will discuss ways of addressing this matter during our debates in the coming days. During a roundtable with Israel-based civil society, we heard warnings about possible threats to the rule of law impacting both Israeli citizens and Palestinians. In a separate meeting with the leaders of major Christian denominations, including Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem Theophilos III, we explored interreligious relations and the mediating role Christian churches play in the Holy Land. In Luxembourg this summer, this assembly passed a resolution I authored on the importance of integrating and protecting civil society engagement in the work of the OSCE and this Assembly. Our meetings with such groups in Tunis and Jerusalem confirms the value of consulting local activists in our work as parliamentarians at home and abroad. In the coming days, I urge you, my distinguished colleagues, to continue exploring ways to integrate civil society in our work and to deepen engagement with the Mediterranean Partners, particularly through support for- and observation of their electoral processes.

  • Safe and Dignified Return

    In July, nearly 300 parliamentarians from the 57 OSCE participating States met for the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (PA) 2019 annual session in Luxembourg, where they addressed in a final declaration the wide range of issues of current concern to the organization. Of these issues, none received more attention than those relating to human rights and humanitarian questions; the relevant section of the declaration contained more than 180 paragraphs. Leading subjects of concern included the treatment of investigative journalists, manifestations of discrimination and intolerance in society, gender inequality, and efforts to stifle dissent. The text also focused heavily on migration, including the rights of refugees. During the consideration of a final text for adoption, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (TX-18), who has been active in representing the United States at OSCE PA meetings in recent years and serves on the OSCE PA’s Ad Hoc Committee on Migration, proposed an amendment underlining the importance of the right of safe return of refugees. Her amendment, co-sponsored by other members of Congress and by parliamentarians from Cyprus, Georgia, Ireland, Italy, and North Macedonia, made clear that returns should not only be safe, but also voluntary and dignified. The adopted text, included in the Luxembourg Declaration, reads as follows: “The OSCE Parliamentary Assembly underlines that the right of voluntary, safe and dignified return for refugees and internally displaced persons to their homes and properties must be guaranteed;” The concept of voluntary return is at the heart of binding international law on refugees. The 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees states, “No Contracting State shall expel or return (‘refouler’) a refugee in any manner whatsoever to the frontiers of territories where his life or freedom would be threatened on account of his race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.” The convention originally was restricted to people who became refugees because of “events occurring in Europe before 1 January 1951.” The 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, which removed the convention’s time and geographic restrictions, maintains the binding “non-refoulement” obligation. There are only a few exceptions on “grounds of national security or public order” and only after “due process of law.” According to the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, presented in 1998 by the United Nations Secretary General’s Representative on Internally Displaced Persons, “Competent authorities have the primary duty and responsibility to establish conditions, as well as provide the means, which allow internally displaced persons to return voluntarily, in safety and with dignity, to their homes or places of habitual residence, or to resettle voluntarily in another part of the country.” The principles are not legally binding on governments, but they are the point of reference for how a government should respond to internally displaced persons.

  • Co-Chairman Wicker Welcomes Confirmation of Assistant Secretary Destro

    WASHINGTON—Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) today welcomed the confirmation of Robert A. Destro to serve as the Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor. The Assistant Secretary traditionally also serves as the State Department’s representative on the Helsinki Commission. “I am pleased that Assistant Secretary Destro has been confirmed to this critical post, and I look forward to working closely with him to promote security and human rights around the globe,” said Co-Chairman Wicker. “I encourage the White House to act quickly and formally appoint him to the Helsinki Commission. America’s voice is strongest and most effective when our executive and legislative branches work together. The Helsinki Commission offers a unique opportunity to reap the benefits of such a partnership.” Mr. Destro is a human rights advocate and a civil rights attorney with expertise in religious freedom issues and election law. He is also professor of law and founding director of the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies at The Catholic University of America.

  • Helsinki Commission Leaders Appoint Shannon Simrell as Representative to U.S. Mission to the OSCE

    WASHINGTON—Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20), Chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (U.S. Helsinki Commission), today announced the appointment of Shannon Simrell as the Representative of the Helsinki Commission to the U.S. Mission to the OSCE (USOSCE). “On behalf of the Commission leadership, I am pleased to welcome Shannon Simrell as the Helsinki Commission’s representative to USOSCE for the 116th Congress,” said Chairman Hastings. “Her extensive experience with a wide variety of OSCE missions and institutions makes her an invaluable resource not only to the Helsinki Commission but also to Ambassador Gilmore and our other State Department colleagues.” For 25 years, Simrell has worked to advance U.S. comprehensive security objectives in the Balkans, Central and Eastern Europe, Caucasus, and Central Asia. Early in her career, Simrell organized short-term democratization and environmental study tours in the United States for emerging leaders in Central and Eastern Europe and Russia. Between 2006 and 2008, she served first as a democratization officer then as acting regional center director at the OSCE mission in Kosovo. Following her time in Kosovo, Simrell spent a decade recruiting, deploying, and supporting more than 2,300 American experts serving in nearly 100 OSCE permanent, special, and election observation missions on behalf of the U.S. Department of State.  During this time, she observed elections in Kosovo, Georgia, Ukraine, and Tajikistan, and conducted dozens of site visits to OSCE missions and institutions. Simrell replaces Janice Helwig, who returns to the Helsinki Commission in Washington to resume her previous position of senior policy advisor. Helwig’s portfolio will include Central Asia, trafficking in persons, and the OSCE’s human dimension.

  • A Global Pandemic: Disinformation

    By Annie Lentz,  Max Kampelman Fellow Popularly and ambiguously dubbed “fake news,” malign efforts to spread false facts often are wrongly lumped together with politicians’ diatribes against negative media coverage. Well-orchestrated disinformation campaigns do exist around the world, using algorithms, social platforms, and advertisements as a means of deceiving the public and undermining democracy. Due to its proliferation and widespread attention, the definition of so called “fake news” has been lost. Even the meaning of the terms it is defined by are ambiguous. In fact, misinformation and disinformation are not synonymous. Misinformation refers the inadvertent spread of false information, while disinformation refers to the purposeful circulation of deceptive news stories by both state and nonstate actors. Disinformation plagues the modern world in increasingly sophisticated and pervasive ways largely due to widespread use of social media. Whether it’s shared through Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, or WhatsApp, fake news is easy to share, difficult to identify, and almost impossible to stop. Easy to Share The trickle-down effect of counterfeit news campaigns is massive. A single fake story has the potential to reach millions, propagated by bots and trolls and manipulation of social media content algorithms. For example, a heavily edited interview from conservative CRTV portrayed a fictional conversation between one of their hosts and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez where the Congresswoman admitted to know nothing of the legislative process. Although CRTV eventually said it was satire, the video was viewed almost 1 million times within 24 hours prior to CRTV’s clarification. This was not an isolated incident. Thanks to the universality of social media, with Facebook and Twitter having a global presence economically and socially, cultures around the world are all susceptible to manipulation through such platforms. Following the 2019 European Union elections—second only to India as the largest democratic elections in the world—the European Commission documented “ongoing disinformation campaigns” by Russian sources. Officials went on to demand Facebook, Google, and Twitter “step up their efforts” in combatting fake news; they classified the fight as enduring, saying, “Malign actors constantly change their strategies. We must strive to be ahead of them.” The influence and impact of Russian disinformation efforts remains unknown and therefore future elections in both the EU and elsewhere remain at risk. Difficult to Identify Several aspects of the communication space make disinformation hard to identify. When reading content from a seemingly trustworthy source, even if there is no evidence of professionalism, most naturally consider the information to be trustworthy. However, that is not always the case and those creating and spreading propaganda are well-versed in mimicking reputable sources in structure and design. Moreover, the more specific the topic and narrow the scope, the easier it is for disinformation to spread as consumers lack the background and context to identify red flags, which are becoming ever harder to detect. According to Politifact, earlier this year a Facebook post about Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, claiming he was trying to take away health care from millions of Americans, went viral. This claim was a mischaracterization of his stance on federal funding for health care and falsified his personal history with the program. Regardless, the false narrative spread to thousands of people who lacked the in-depth background knowledge to recognize the inaccuracy. Disinformation is not limited to false news stories or phony websites; it also extends to doctored photos and videos, like the CRTV interview previously mentioned. The Washington Post’s guide to fact-checking video makes the point, “Seeing isn’t believing.” Even high-profile politicians can be fooled by such disinformation. One doctored video appearing to show Nancy Pelosi drunk that was retweeted by President Trump, who shared the false narrative with more than 62.8 million followers. Even content originating from seemingly trustworthy sources can be deceptive. For example, pro-Brexit campaigns from the UK Independence Party (UKIP) during the EU referendum vote in 2016 told a false story through misleading photos (actually from the border of Slovenia) of thousands of immigrants pouring into the UK. Though the poster and campaign were widely condemned, it is impossible to measure the number of voters that may have been influenced. However, the very existence of such misleading material threatened the democratic integrity of the referendum. The Russia Problem While there are many guilty parties—like those who spread doctored stories and videos leading up to India’s elections in April and May of 2019 and incited hatred between Buddhists and Muslims in Sri Lanka and Malaysia on Facebook—the biggest culprit behind the growth of widespread disinformation is the Russian Government. The Kremlin has used sophisticated disinformation campaigns to justify its actions in Crimea and eastern Ukraine, interfere in the 2019 European Union elections, and attempt to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential elections. However, Kremlin interference isn’t isolated to politics. RT America, cited as a principle meddler in the 2016 presidential elections, aired a campaign of stories about health risks associated with 5G signals, none of which were supported by scientific facts. Such efforts from “the Kremlin’s principal international propaganda outlet” match what experts cite as the Kremlin’s ultimate goal: to amplify voices of dissent, sow public discord, and exacerbate social divides. Impossible to Stop … or Not? There is no global police force to defend against disinformation. There are platform-specific efforts, such as Facebook’s regulations for political advertising; grassroots efforts, like Factitious, an online game designed to teach students to identify fake news stories; and coalitions like the one formed by Facebook, Google and Twitter after the March 15 massacre in Christchurch, New Zealand, when the tech giants signed an agreement with world leaders to fight hate speech online. However, with the amount of disinformation growing every day and no unified or cohesive approach from both the public and private sector to aggressively and actively combat online propaganda, these efforts are akin to putting a Band-Aid on a broken leg. Any attempts to regulate disinformation are constrained by the right to free speech. If the response is too broad–whether from a corporation like Facebook or a government entity–it quickly challenges the fundamental freedoms afforded to citizens. On the one hand, stopping false facts from spreading and inundating social media benefits democracy and freedom the world round. On the other hand, the people’s right to free speech must be respected. Any meaningful efforts to battle disinformation must carefully balance the protection of the community against the protection of the individual. In addition, those with the best ability to fight against disinformation—private companies like Facebook and Twitter—have no true legal obligation to do so and may have alternative interests in terms of profit. Until Congress shined a light on this problem, there were no serious efforts on the part of social media platforms to fight against foreign influence. As social platforms and their users maintain the right to freedom of expression, the ability of Congress to require them to undertake any specific efforts is lacking. However, that hasn’t stopped them from trying. There are other solutions. One is promoting better media literacy among citizens, so they can more easily identify false or misleading information. Another is “sourcing” news stories, so readers know the true origin of a story—a story about a local issue in Kansas may in fact emanate from Russia, for example. The content would still be available, but readers would have a better awareness of potential manipulation by outside actors. To combat the ripple effect of disinformation, media self-regulation to verify sources and stories before publishing them is another effective tool. The most important and most effective way to confront disinformation is by understanding it. Through events like the 2017 Helsinki Commission hearing on Russian Disinformation, and OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media Harlem Désir’s efforts to lead the OSCE in combatting disinformation, additional progress can be made. Disinformation is a disease to which no one is immune; the longer the virus goes untreated, the worse it becomes.

  • INTRODUCTION OF THE TRANSNATIONAL REPRESSION ACCOUNTABILITY AND PREVENTION ACT OF 2019 (TRAP ACT)

    Mr. HASTINGS. Madam Speaker, as Chairman of the U.S. Helsinki Commission—a congressional watchdog for human rights and democracy in Europe and Eurasia—I am frequently reminded of the new opportunities that technology and globalization present for human rights defenders around the globe. For those struggling to defend their liberty and human dignity, our interconnected world brings with it the possibility of sharing information, coordinating action, and demonstrating solidarity across thousands of miles in fractions of a second. It means that truth is more capable of piercing the veil of enforced ignorance erected by the world’s most repressive states Technology also further empowers dissidents in exile to connect with, and influence the foot soldiers of freedom who march on in their homelands. But with these new openings for liberty come novel approaches to repression. Authoritarian and autocratic regimes are appropriating agile, 21st century technology to prop up sclerotic systems of brutality and corruption. Technological developments have provoked greater feelings of insecurity in these brittle regimes and propelled them to extend their repression far beyond their borders, sometimes reaching into the refuge of democratic societies where political opponents, independent journalists, and civil society activists operate in safety. Madam Speaker, I recently introduced bipartisan legislation to tackle these emerging challenges with my friend and Helsinki Commission Ranking Member, Representative JOE WILSON of South Carolina We are confident that this legislation, supported by the bicameral leadership of the Helsinki Commission and other leaders on human rights, will place the United States on course to lead the free world in holding the line against these modern manifestations of political persecution, or what some have called ‘‘transnational repression.’’ The Transnational Repression Accountability and Prevention Act—or TRAP Act—is designed to counter one key instrument in the autocrat’s 21st century toolkit politically-motivated abuse of the International Criminal Police Organization, more commonly known as INTERPOL. INTERPOL is a legitimate and potent tool for international law enforcement cooperation—one that the United States relies on heavily to bring criminals to justice and thwart threats to security around the globe. Sadly, autocrats have recognized the potential for repression in INTERPOL’s worldwide communications system that ties into the law enforcement agencies of its 194 member countries. The Helsinki Commission regularly receives credible reports from human rights defenders, journalists, political activists, and businesspeople who have fallen victim to the efforts of corrupt regimes to ensnare them using INTERPOL’s system of international requests for arrest and extradition, known as Red Notices and Diffusions. These are the modern-day ‘‘traps’’ addressed by the TRAP Act. Because of these notices, innocent individuals live in fear of traveling mternationally and have been detained, had their bank accounts closed, and, sometimes, been returned into the hands of the very regimes from which they escaped. Madam Speaker, our legislation opens three new fronts agamst the threat of INTERPOL abuse. First, it clearly states that it is the policy of the United States to use our influence in INTERPOL to advance specific reforms that increase transparency and accountability for those that abuse the system while helping the organization to live up to its stated obligations to uphold international human rights standards and resist politicization It further establishes that the United States will use its diplomatic clout to confront countries that abuse INTERPOL and work to ensure the freedom of movement and ability to engage in lawful commerce of victims of this abuse the world over. Second, the TRAP Act exerts oversight over the United States’ internal mechanisms to identify, challenge, and respond to instances of INTERPOL abuse. The bill requires the Departments of Justice, Homeland Security, and State—in coordination with other relevant agencies—to submit to Congress an assessment of the scope and seriousness of autocratic abuse of INTERPOL, an evaluation of the adequacy of the processes in place domestically and at INTERPOL to resist this abuse, and a plan for improving interagency coordination to confront this phenomenon. Third, and perhaps most importantly, the TRAP Act places strict limitations on how the United States Government can use INTERPOL notices in legal or administrative proceedings that could interfere with the freedom or immigration status of individuals in our country. We have been deeply concerned by reports that some authorities in this country have improperly cited INTERPOL notices from autocratic countries to detain individuals and place them in danger of being returned to the very countries from which they fled. The TRAP Act will make crystal clear that autocratic regimes cannot use INTERPOL notices to weaponize the U.S. judicial system against their political targets. Madam Speaker, these measures are critical to restricting the freedom that some autocratic regimes have enjoyed to harass, persecute, and detain their political opponents around the world. Authoritarian and autocratic states like China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Turkey, Azerbaijan, and Venezuela must be called out by name and held to account for their repeated manipulation of legitimate law enforcement tools for petty political ends. Madam Speaker, I would also like to place the TRAP Act in the context of the other work that the U.S. Helsinki Commission has done to address the grave threat of transnational repression and malign influence by authoritarian regimes. The Countering Russian and Other Overseas Kleptocracy—or ‘‘CROOK’’ Act, the Kleptocrat Exposure Act, and the Rodchenkov Anti-Doping Act have all been the result of a focus by Commissioners and Commission staff on developing a bipartisan congressional response to the existential threat of global authoritarianism. We can no longer sit idly by, content that those who wish to do us harm are on the other side of the world. In this new age of autocracy, the threat is here—now—and it comes in the form of abusive Red Notices, dirty money, and bought-and-paid-for lawfare tactics The purpose of these tactics is to silence journalists and activists, hollow out the rule of law, and ensure that no one ever dare pursue this new class of transnational kleptocrats whose sole goal is the wholesale looting of the countries they claim to serve and the seamless transfer of those ill-gotten gains to our shores and those of our allies. 

  • 2019 Human Dimension Implementation Meeting

    From September 16 to September 27, OSCE participating States will meet in Warsaw, Poland, for the 2019 Human Dimension Implementation Meeting (HDIM), organized by the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR).  As Europe’s largest annual human rights conference, the HDIM brings together hundreds of government and nongovernmental representatives, international experts, and human rights activists for two weeks to review OSCE human rights commitments and progress. During the 2019 meeting, three specifically selected topics will each be the focus of a full-day discussion: “safety of journalists,” “hate crimes,” and “Roma and Sinti.” These special topics are chosen to highlight key areas for improvement in the OSCE region and promote discussion of pressing issues. Human Dimension Implementation Meeting 2019 Since the HDIM was established in 1998, the OSCE participating States have a standing agreement to hold an annual two-week meeting to review the participating States’ compliance with the human dimension commitments they have previously adopted by consensus. The phrase “human dimension” was coined to describe the OSCE norms and activities related to fundamental freedoms, democracy (such as free elections, the rule of law, and independence of the judiciary), humanitarian concerns (such as refugee migration and human trafficking), and concerns relating to tolerance and nondiscrimination (such as countering anti-Semitism and racism). Each year, the HDIM allows participating States to assess one another’s implementation of OSCE human dimension commitments, identify challenges, and make recommendations for improvement. The HDIM agenda covers all human dimension commitments, including freedoms of expression and the media, peaceful assembly and association, and religion or belief; democratic elections; the rule of law; tolerance and non-discrimination; combating trafficking in persons; women’s rights; and national minorities, including Roma and Sinti. Unique about the HDIM is the inclusion and strong participation of non-governmental organizations. The United States has been a stout advocate for the involvement of NGOs in the HDIM, recognizing the vital role that civil society plays in human rights and democracy-building initiatives. OSCE structures allow NGO representatives to raise issues of concern directly with government representatives, both by speaking during the formal working sessions of the HDIM and by organizing side events that examine specific issues in greater detail. Members of the U.S. delegation to the 2019 HDIM include: Ambassador James S. Gilmore, U.S. Permanent Representative to the OSCE and Head of Delegation Christopher Robinson, Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs Roger D. Carstens, Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor Elan S. Carr, Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism Alex T. Johnson, Chief of Staff, U.S. Helsinki Commission

  • Helsinki Commission Leaders Introduce Transnational Repression Accountability and Prevention (TRAP) Act

    WASHINGTON—Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) and Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) today introduced the Transnational Repression Accountability and Prevention (TRAP) Act (H.R. 4330) in the House of Representatives. Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) and Ranking Member Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) introduced the TRAP Act (S. 2483) in the Senate on Tuesday. The legislation addresses politically-motivated abuse of the International Criminal Police Organization (INTERPOL) by autocracies. “Today’s autocrats don’t simply try to silence journalists, activists, and other independent voices at home. They also hunt them down in their places of refuge abroad,” said Chairman Hastings. “Such repressive regimes even manipulate INTERPOL—a legitimate and potent tool for international law enforcement cooperation—to trap their targets using trumped-up requests for detention and extradition. The United States must act to prevent this flagrant abuse and protect those who fight for freedom, human rights, and the rule of law." “Instead of facing consequences for their serial abuse of INTERPOL, autocratic states like Russia and China have instead jockeyed for senior positions in the organization,” said Co-Chairman Wicker. “The United States and other democracies should impose real costs for this global assault on the rule of law. This legislation would ensure that the United States remains at the forefront of defending the vulnerable against the long arm of state repression.” “The Transnational Repression Accountability and Prevention Act continues the tradition of U.S. leadership in combating INTERPOL abuse, holding perpetrators accountable, and advancing necessary reforms within the U.S. Government and INTERPOL to respond to this threat,” said Rep. Wilson. “This legislation makes it clear that the United States stands on the side of freedom for those who defy repression, resist corruption, and defend human rights wherever they seek refuge and a voice.” “Autocratic regimes are increasingly exporting their repression overseas, including to our own country. The United States must respond more forcefully to these attacks against the rule of law and deter the serial abuse of INTERPOL by repressive governments,” said Sen. Cardin. “This legislation is critical to establishing stronger protections for dissidents and other independent voices whom these regimes wish to apprehend in the United States on politically motivated charges.” The Helsinki Commission regularly receives credible reports from political dissidents, human rights defenders, and members of the business community who are the subject of politically-motivated INTERPOL Notices and Diffusions requested by autocratic regimes. These mechanisms, which function effectively as extradition requests, can be based on trumped-up criminal charges and used to detain, harass, or otherwise persecute individuals for their activism or refusal to acquiesce to corrupt schemes. Following reports that U.S. immigration authorities have cited such politically-motivated INTERPOL requests to detain some individuals and consider removing them from the United States, the TRAP Act formally codifies strict limitations on how INTERPOL requests can be used by U.S. authorities. The TRAP Act further declares that it is the policy of the United States to pursue specific reforms within INTERPOL and use its diplomatic clout internationally to protect the rights of victims and denounce abusers. The bill requires the Departments of Justice, Homeland Security, and State, in consultation with other relevant agencies, to provide Congress with an assessment of autocratic abuse of INTERPOL, what the United States is doing to counteract it, and how to adapt United States policy to this evolving autocratic practice. The State Department would also be required to publicly report on the abuse of INTERPOL in its annual Country Reports on Human Rights to create a transparent, public record of these violations of the rule of law. Russia is among the world’s most prolific abusers of INTERPOL’s Notice and Diffusion mechanisms. Other participating States of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE)—principally Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Turkey—and other authoritarian states, such as China, also reportedly target political opponents with INTERPOL requests that violate key provisions of INTERPOL’s Constitution, which obligate the organization to uphold international human rights standards and strictly avoid involvement in politically-motivated charges. Original co-sponsors of the legislation include Helsinki Commission members Sen. Marco Rubio (FL), Sen. Cory Gardner (CO), Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (RI), Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (PA-01), Rep. Richard Hudson (NC-08), Rep. Gwen Moore (WI-04), and Rep. Marc Veasey (TX-33). Rep. John Curtis (UT-03), Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (TX-18), and Rep. Tom Malinowski (NJ-07) are also original co-sponsors.

  • TOOLS OF TRANSNATIONAL REPRESSION

    To silence dissent from abroad, autocrats often turn to the International Criminal Police Organization, known as INTERPOL, to file bogus criminal claims seeking the arrest and extradition of their political targets. This abuse of INTERPOL Red Notices and Diffusions enables autocratic governments to harass and intimidate their opponents thousands of miles away, even within free and democratic societies. Titled “Tools of Transnational Repression: How Autocrats Punish Dissent Overseas,” this U.S. Helsinki Commission hearing examined INTERPOL abuse among other autocratic practices aimed at suppressing dissent across borders, including surveillance, abduction, and assassination. Commission Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker chaired the hearing and was joined by Commission Ranking Members Sen. Ben Cardin and Rep. Joe Wilson and Commissioners Sen. Cory Gardner, Sen Sheldon Whitehouse, and Rep. Marc Veasey. Co-Chairman Wicker opened the hearing by stating that “the Helsinki Commission is particularly concerned by the politically motivated abuse of Interpol by autocratic states wishing to harass and detain their opponents overseas, often in the hopes of trying them on bogus criminal charges.” While acknowledging INTERPOL as a legitimate and potent law enforcement tool, Sen. Wicker noted that its “broad membership leaves it open to manipulation by authoritarians.” In his opening remarks, Ranking Member Cardin proposed ways to respond to the phenomenon of transnational repression include putting a spotlight on it through the hearing, passing legislation, and enforcing the Magnitsky sanctions. Ranking Member Wilson noted that INTERPOL abuse “is not only imperiling champions of freedom around the world, but undermining the very integrity of INTERPOL and, more broadly, the international system we’ve worked so hard to build.” Witnesses included Alexander Cooley, Director for Columbia University’s Harriman Institute for the Study of Russia, Eurasia, and Eastern Europe and Claire Tow Professor of Political Science at Barnard College; Sandra A. Grossman, Partner at Grossman Young & Hammond, Immigration Law, LLC; Bruno Min, Senior Legal and Policy Advisor for Fair Trials; and Nate Schenkkan, Director for Special Research at Freedom House. They described the roots of transnational repression, salient examples of its use, how INTERPOL systems should be reformed to safeguard the rights of the innocent, and INTERPOL abuse affects the American immigration system. Mr. Cooley recognized that while transnational repression is not a new phenomenon, there is a current upsurge in its use that stems from a global backlash against democratization. He further cited the role of globalization in creating new diaspora communities around the world and the rise of new information technologies as other factors contributing to the increasing incidents of transnational repression. Mr. Schenkkan recommended that the United States and other democratic states work to “blunt the tools of transnational repression,” including through INTERPOL reform, and to “to raise the cost of engaging in transnational repression,” such as by sanctioning its perpetrators. Mr. Min explained Fair Trials’ recommendations for INTERPOL reform, including ways to improve the review process of red notices and diffusions, further integrate due process standards into INTERPOL’s appeal process for red notices and diffusions, and increase the transparency of INTERPOL’s internal decision-making. Ms. Grossman addressed instances in which United States’ Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) used Red Notices to detain or otherwise render immigration determinations against individuals in this country, even though the Department of Justice does not recognize Red Notices as a legitimate basis for arrest. She recommended that the U.S. government take steps to improve the understanding of immigration officials concerning the proper handling of Red Notices. Mr. Cooley, Mr. Schenkkan, and Ms. Grossman all endorsed the Transnational Repression Accountability and Prevention (TRAP) Act introduced by the Commission’s leadership to address the abuse of INTERPOL internationally and the misuse of its communications by U.S. authorities.

  • Simulating a Baltic Security Crisis

    By Brittany Amador, Intern On August 29, 2019, U.S. Helsinki Commission personnel, joined by Congressional staff from several relevant offices, participated in a simulated security crisis in the Baltic region centered on the U.S. and NATO response to a hypothetical act of Russian aggression. The event followed the Helsinki Commission’s historic field hearing on Baltic Sea regional security, where members of Congress convened senior Allied and partner leaders from Poland, Lithuania, Estonia, Sweden, and Finland, as well as the United States European Command (EUCOM) and the U.S. Mission to NATO, to better understand current and evolving security threats in the region.  Participants in the simulation. Ambassador (ret.) John Heffern, a former Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Europe and Eurasian Affairs and Deputy Chief of Mission to the U.S. Mission to NATO, led the simulation. Ambassador Heffern, who currently serves as a Distinguished Fellow of Diplomacy and Entrepreneurship at Georgetown University, was assisted in the facilitation of the game by Andrew Carroll, an officer with the United States Air Force who recently completed his Max Kampelman Policy Fellowship at the Helsinki Commission. 2d Lt Andrew Carroll describing the parameters of the simulation. During the three-hour event, attendees played the roles of various regional actors, and debated possible actions in response to realistic scenario inputs. Participants were provided immediate feedback on their strategic decisions, knowing in real time the impact of their simulated actions. The scenario underlined the challenges and opportunities inherent in any response to a security crisis in the Baltic Sea region. Ambassador (ret.) John Heffern explaining tactical movements.

  • Why the Helsinki Commission still matters

    Forty four years ago, President Gerald Ford joined 35 other heads of state, including longstanding American adversaries, to sign one of the most significant international agreements of the 20th Century—the Final Act of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, better known as the Helsinki Accords. The accord committed the United States, Europe, and the Soviet Union to respect human rights, to manage the spread of dangerous weapons, to foster economic opportunity, and to ending the territorial disputes in Europe that had already twice plunged the world into war. The U.S. Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, better known as the Helsinki Commission, was created to uphold these commitments. Since its inception, the Helsinki Commission has provided a crucial voice for defending freedom, opportunity, and human rights across the world. Composed of members of Congress from both parties and chosen from the House and Senate, the Helsinki Commission represents our democracy’s commitment to preserving and advancing the peace, freedom, and prosperity across the world that previous generations of Americans sacrificed so much to achieve. That is why I am honored to be among the latest members of Congress to be appointed to serve on the Helsinki Commission. The world has changed dramatically since the Helsinki Commission began, but the need to defend the principles of freedom, opportunity and human rights is greater than ever. Rising authoritarian powers are contesting the principles of democracy like never before--these powers are undermining a fair and free electoral process by interfering with elections across the democratic west and directly invading their neighbors. The most shocking part is that the United States’ own commitment to values is being challenged from within—from the very officeholder once considered the leader of the free world. The challenges that democracies face today signify the work that this Commission is doing is now more important than ever. Who better to respond to a president who rejects the pillars of traditional American foreign policy than a bipartisan commission composed of members of Congress? I am hopeful that my Republican colleagues on this Commission, who understand the importance of American leadership on the issues of human rights and democracy, will feel the same way. I am eager to get to work and face the challenges that this position presents. I look forward to having the opportunity to make a positive impact on the world, as well as ensuring that the priorities of the great state of Texas are represented on an international stage. It’s on those of us entrusted by the American people with representing them in Congress to make clear to the world that despite what they may hear from the White House, our country is still the same country that showed up, negotiated and implemented the Helsinki Accords—one that leads in defending freedom, opportunity and human rights across the world. Congressman Marc Veasey is a proud representative of Texas’ 33rd District in the U.S. House of Representatives.

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