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U.S. Helsinki Commission Hosts Staff Briefing on World’s Biggest Data Set of Hate Crime Statistics
Wednesday, November 06, 2019

On Wednesday, October 23, 2019, the U.S. Helsinki Commission hosted a congressional staff briefing on addressing hate crimes in Europe and the United States. The event was moderated by Dr. Mischa Thompson, Director of Global Partnerships, Policy and Innovation at the U.S. Helsinki Commission.

The Commission’s guest speaker, Cristina Finch, the Head of the Tolerance and Non-Discrimination Department at the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) provided an overview of hate crimes statistics in Europe and North America. She described the efforts that the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has made to address hate crimes and hate incidents in the region. Finch also discussed the commitments made by the 57 OSCE participating States to document, investigate, and prosecute hate crimes, as well as the tools and best practices available to assist countries in meeting their commitments.

ODIHR’s Annual Report on Hate Crime combines official government reports submitted by 33 OSCE participating States with an additional 108 reports from 135 civil society organizations. In 2018, 5,258 hate crime incidents were reported to ODIHR.

As Finch described it, this volume of information makes the report “the world’s biggest data set on hate crime.” The full 2018 Hate Incidents data set will be published on November 15, 2019.

According to Finch, accurate recording of hate crimes by the police remains a serious issue. “In many countries police do not record hate crimes as a specific category in a systemic way,” she noted. “This means that information is missing, which impedes investigation, prosecution, prevention and policy making.”

Other serious obstacles to publishing accurate data exist. For example, estimates indicate that 90 percent of hate crimes are not reported by victims to the police at all.

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.  Additionally, Helsinki Commission Ranking Member Sen. Ben Cardin serves as the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly’s Special Representative on Anti-Semitism, Racism, and Intolerance and has called for increased efforts to address hate crimes in the region.

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  • The OSCE as a Model: Asian Insights

    From April 14 to 22, 2017, Helsinki Commission Chief of Staff Ambassador David Killion and Policy Advisor Paul Massaro traveled to Tokyo, Japan and Seoul, South Korea for consultations with these OSCE Asian Partners for Co-operation. Major topics of discussion included the call for a Helsinki Final Act-inspired arrangement for northeast Asia and the heightened tensions on the Korean Peninsula. The future of the OSCE Asian Partners dialogue and further cooperation with the OSCE and other European institutions were also discussed. The OSCE Asian Partners for Cooperation is a grouping of countries in Asia with which the OSCE engages in a perm-anent, active dialogue, recognizing the linkages between European and Asian security. Currently, the OSCE Asian Partners include Japan, which joined in 1992; the Republic of Korea; which joined in 1994; Thailand, which joined in 2000; Afghanistan, which joined in 2003; and Australia, which joined in 2009. Mongolia was previously an Asian partner, having joined the grouping in 2004, but became a full OSCE participating State in 2012. The trip offered Helsinki Commission staff the opportunity to get a firsthand account of the situation in northeast Asia at a critical time, and ahead of the annual OSCE Asian Partners Conference taking place in Berlin later this year. Download the full report to learn more. Contributors: Ambassador David Killion, Chief of Staff, and Paul Massaro, Policy Advisor

  • How the State of Russian Media Becomes the State of International Media

    It was a bad week for reports on freedom of the media in Russia. On Wednesday, Reporters Without Borders released its 2017 world press freedom index. Russia came in at 148, after such bastions of independent media as South Sudan and Thailand. On Thursday, a Ukrainian human rights delegation briefed the Helsinki Commission on the case of Oleg Sentsov — a Ukrainian filmmaker imprisoned in a Siberian penal colony for his opposition to the annexation of Crimea — and abuses of Ukrainian journalists and creative professionals more broadly. On Friday, Freedom House unveiled its Freedom of the Press 2017 report. That report gives Russia partial credit for the world’s 13-year low in press freedom. “Vladimir Putin’s regime in Russia has been a trailblazer in globalizing state propaganda. It continues to leverage pro-Kremlin reporting around the world,” the report states. The three taken in tandem tell a story — one in which violence against journalists in Russia and the region is connected to violence against journalism around the world. Consider the case of Oleg Sentsov. In 2015, Sentsov was sentenced to 20 years in prison for planning terrorist attacks in Crimea. In his trial, he said he had been tortured. The international human rights community believes this to have been payback for the filmmaker’s outspoken stance against the annexation of Crimea (it is also worth noting that Russia treated Sentsov, a Ukrainian, as though he were a Russian citizen; after the annexation of Crimea, Russia considered all who did not explicitly apply for Ukrainian citizenship to be Russian, to which Sentsov objected in court by saying, “I am not a serf to be transferred with the land”). Russian-backed media reported it as a terrorism case. And so the case contains both the physical threat that looms over journalists and creative types who fail to parrot the party line and also the threat that Russian state-backed media can pose to understanding in the wider world. “Many people perceive [Russian state-backed media] not as propaganda, but as an alternative point of view,” Natalya Kaplan, Sentsov’s cousin, told Foreign Policy in an interview before heading to the Helsinki Commission briefing. “They tend to trust what Russian propaganda says.” In the case of Sentsov, that means some outside of Russia (to say nothing of those in it) thought he was neither filmmaker nor terrorist, but some combination of the two. Americans can no longer tell the difference between actual fake news and fake fake news, Ukrainian PEN member Halya Coynash told FP. “The thing is that you really think the media and information you get from Russian media, it is media. Which is wrong. We have state media, and state media are part of [the] strategy of [the state],” said Mustafa Nayyem, journalist turned Ukrainian member of parliament. Alternative facts are not facts, and false equivalences are not equivalent. But consumers of Russian state-backed media around the globe can be duped into treating them as such, Nayyem said. He argued Russia presents reality and a bold-faced lie as though they are but two different perspectives, the truth of which lies somewhere in the middle, for viewers to decide for themselves. “We know that [Sentsov] never was involved in some attacks, or in some revolution, in terroristic things. He’s a filmmaker, and his movies are recognized internationally. The lie is that this guy was a terrorist, and no one even tried to understand the basis of this [accusation] … There is guy: a filmmaker, and a terrorist. What is true? They think that maybe he’s some filmmaker-terrorist. It’s insane.” Nayyem ardently believes those who want to protect freedom of media and speech need to build up conventions regulating what are accepted as media outlets and news. But there’s a thin line between banning propaganda and furthering censorship and repression. Russia’s independent Dozhd (TV Rain), for example, was recently banned in Ukraine for reporting that Crimea is part of Russia. “Recent democratic gains have bolstered media freedom overall,” the Freedom House report states, “but restrictions on Russian outlets and attempts to foster ‘patriotic’ reporting raise questions about the government’s commitment to media autonomy.” And besides, even Ukrainians, more prepared for Russian media influence than their western counterparts, are not entirely immune. “The Russian media are much better funded” than their Ukrainian counterparts, Kaplan said, and it takes time and resources to counter reports put out by the Russian state-backed media machine. “Even my Ukrainian friends who live in Kiev, after watching two hours of Russian TV, start to question themselves. ‘Am I a fascist?’” Kaplan does not, at present, see much reason for optimism. While it was a bad week for reports on the state of Russian media, it was inevitably a much worse week for those trying to correct or improve it. “Journalism in Russia is dead. It happened quite a while ago,” Kaplan said. “There are small islands of freedom of speech in Russia,” she said, but they aren’t on TV, and they aren’t available to those who don’t know how to access certain sites. Besides, she said, the sophisticated propaganda machine will figure out how to move onto the internet, too. “Russian journalists face the biggest challenge. Their job is simply to survive.” Hanging in the air is the idea that, at present, surviving is actually journalism’s job, too.

  • Human Rights Abuses in Russia Focus of Upcoming Helsinki Commission Hearing

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the U.S. Helsinki Commission, today announced a hearing to examine the grim state of human rights and democracy in the Russian Federation. DEMOCRACY & HUMAN RIGHTS ABUSES IN RUSSIA: NO END IN SIGHT Wednesday, April 26, 2017 9:30 AM Dirksen Senate Office Building Room 124 Live Webcast: http://www.senate.gov/isvp/?type=live&comm=csce&filename=csce042617 Russia’s overt external aggression against countries such as Ukraine, its support for the Assad regime in Syria, and its efforts to disrupt western democracies are made possible by the internal repression of its own people.  For example, Russia has not had a free and fair election since March 2000. Opposition activists are routinely assaulted or even murdered, giving rise to a new term: “Sudden Kremlin Death Syndrome.” Political prisoner numbers now match those of the late Soviet era, and on March 26, tens of thousands of people in cities across 11 time zones protested widespread government corruption, with more than 1,000 arrested. More nationwide protests are expected on June 12, the national holiday of the Russian Federation. The following witnesses are scheduled to testify: Vladimir Kara-Murza, Vice Chairman, Open Russia Rachel Denber, Deputy Director of the Europe and Central Asia Division, Human Rights Watch Daniel Calingaert, Executive Vice President, Freedom House

  • Helsinki Commission Staff Attend OSCE Permanent Council

    By A. Paul Massaro III, policy advisor, Janice Helwig, Representative of the Helsinki Commission to USOSCE, Orest Deychakiwsky, policy advisor, Alex Tiersky, policy advisor, and Jackson Lines, intern On March 30, 2017, Ambassador David Killion, Chief of Staff of the Helsinki Commission, and Helsinki Commission Policy Advisors Paul Massaro and Everett Price attended the Permanent Council (PC) of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in Vienna. Helsinki Commission staff members occasionally have the opportunity to attend OSCE events, including PC meetings, which help inform the work of Congress with regard to the OSCE region. What is the Permanent Council? In contrast to OSCE Summit or Ministerial Meetings, which are held annually and provide political direction and standard setting for the OSCE, the Permanent Council is the regular body for political consultations and decisions concerning the day-to-day operational work of the OSCE, and also provides a forum to address current issues. PC Meetings are held once a week at the Ambassadorial level in Vienna, Austria, and usually consist of a report by the head of an OSCE field mission or an invited speaker, and discussion of current issues. Any decisions are taken by consensus.   The PC is generally closed to the public and press, although press may be allowed in for statements by high-level visitors, and academic and other visiting groups are occasionally allowed to observe the proceedings. The Helsinki Commission, joined by the State Department, has long recommended opening the Permanent Council and webcasting it as a way to improve transparency. The United States Mission to the OSCE (USOSCE) regularly posts statements it makes in the PC on its website and shares them on social media. March 30 Meeting The March 30 meeting included a report by Ambassador Michael Scanlan, Head of the OSCE Mission to Moldova, which focused largely on discussions of the future status of Transnistria within Moldova; a discussion of Russian intervention in Eastern Ukraine; and remarks on media freedom in Belarus and religious freedom in Russia. Ambassador Scanlan noted that, due to a lack of elections this year, 2017 is an important opportunity to address the Transnistrian autonomy issue in a meaningful way. Many participants expressed hope that a mid-May conference meant to open dialogue on the issue would make tangible steps towards Transnistrian autonomy. If a framework can be agreed upon, the PC volunteered the OSCE to mediate talks finalizing the deal. The United States, through its Chargé d’Affaires, Kate Byrnes, intervened on each issue. On Moldova, the United States reaffirmed its commitment to working with the 5+2 partners to find a comprehensive conflict settlement that respects the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Moldova and affords a special status for the Transnistrian region. On Ukraine, the United States summarized the appalling continuation of Russia’s ongoing aggression and detailed violations of the ceasefire. The U.S., Ms. Byrnes stated, “affirms its staunch support for Ukraine’s sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity within its internationally-recognized borders.” While no participant was willing to take responsibility for the escalation of tensions in Ukraine, all delegations remained concerned with the situation and agreed that both sides in the conflict need to abide by the Minsk Agreements if progress towards peace is to continue. The United States also condemned crackdowns on protestors in Russia and Belarus. The United States, EU, and the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights Director (ODIHR) Michael Link joined together to issue statements reminding Belarus of the need to uphold its obligations to human rights and fundamental freedoms as part of the OSCE. The U.S. and EU delegations also condemned the arrests of protestors in Russia. Both called for the release of those arrested, with a particular focus on Alexei Navalny. Finally, the United States expressed concern about a Russian court case against the Jehovah’s Witnesses that could lead to the disenfranchisement of the group in Russia, violating OSCE commitments to uphold freedom of religion.

  • First Person: Election Observation in Armenia

    By Everett Price, Policy Advisor As the Helsinki Commission’s policy advisor for Armenia, I participated in the election observation mission (EOM) to Armenia organized by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA) from March 31 to April 3, 2017. On April 2, the Republic of Armenia held its first parliamentary election since approving constitutional amendments in a popular referendum in 2015 that transition the country from a semi-presidential to a parliamentary system. The election was also significant as the first nation-wide vote held under sweeping 2016 revisions to the country’s electoral code that implemented a new process for allocating legislative seats, improved transparency, mandated advanced voter authentication measures, and increased female and minority representation quotas. I was one of a 63-member delegation of parliamentarians and staff deployed by the OSCE PA to serve as short-term observers to the Armenian election. This parliamentary delegation complemented the work of a team of 14 experts, 28 long-term observers, and over 300 short-term observers sent throughout the capital and across the country by the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR). Representatives from the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) and the European Parliament (EP) also participated. The OSCE PA and ODIHR regularly lead EOMs in the OSCE region at the invitation of the host country. (Learn more about OSCE election observation.) In the days before the vote, our OSCE PA observation team received extensive briefings on the election process and current political dynamics from ODIHR experts and from Armenian government officials, political parties, civil society, and media representatives. These briefings focused on allegations of electoral violations, the complexity of the electoral code, the role of international and local observers, and the tenor of the campaign. We heard a “unified message of concern” from civil society representatives.  Citizen activists, journalists, and opposition members told us that the ruling party would abuse its access to administrative resources to get out the vote and that it, and other parties, would engage in voter intimidation and vote buying.  They warned that while new electoral procedures might mitigate concerns about the casting and counting ballots, the ruling party and powerful oligarchs would wield improper influence outside the voting booth, diminishing the fairness of the vote. One political commentator assessed that the difficult economic situation experienced by many voters during this election season would make them especially susceptible to selling their vote. Briefers also discussed the complexity of Armenia’s new electoral code and the extent to which it would address past electoral violations. Significantly, this was Armenia’s first time employing electronic voter identification, multiple ballots, and a partial open list voting system that allows voters to express their preference for specific candidates. The code incorporated many recommendations from Armenian civil society, ODIHR, and other international experts and was generally assessed as a positive step forward. Concerns remained, however, about the complexity of voting procedures, voter registration policy, relatively weak campaign finance transparency provisions, and restrictions on citizen observer participation, among other issues.       Civil society activists specifically raised concerns about the overall number of citizen observers and the rules governing their access to polling stations. Armenia registered over 28,000 citizen observers in a country of less than 3 million people, prompting concerns about overcrowding at polling stations and questions about the origins of the organizations and individuals behind these observation missions. One civil society representative said that only 600 of the citizen observers were from known NGOs and that many of the rest are likely from NGOs established by political parties. Some worried that the large number of citizen observers was meant to suppress the participation of legitimate groups since the electoral code stipulates that a maximum of 15 citizen observers are allowed in a polling station at one time. Ruling party officials, meanwhile, noted that hundreds of citizen observers were foreigners registered under local NGOs. They intimated that these observers could be a vehicle for unwelcome foreign influence. One media representative characterized the content of the campaign as “the most primitive” in recent memory, while another political commentator lamented the “poverty of ideas” and “competition of personalities” on display. Several members of the media and some political party officials regretted that lack of any televised debate among candidates—only three of the nine parties and political coalitions on the ballot were willing to hold such a debate. What’s more, several journalists noted that many parties actively avoided the press and restricted most of their candidates from interacting with the media.    Before dawn on election day, two other observers and I deployed to our first assigned polling station to watch the opening procedures. At a school in downtown Yerevan, I watched as the precinct chairwoman capably organized the precinct committee that worked together to prepare the space and voting materials for the arrival of the day’s first voters. The importance of orderliness at this particular polling station became evident within the hour when presidential security arrived to prepare for Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan to cast his vote there. Despite this exceptional circumstance, in other ways the experience at this polling station typified the voting I observed elsewhere throughout the day. I saw non-credentialed citizens hovering watchfully—and in violation of the electoral code—outside the polling station and engaging voters—likely local party officials keeping tabs on voter participation. Inside the polling place there was some overcrowding, a malfunctioning electronic voter authentication device, and modest voter confusion about the voting procedure, which involved selecting among nine separate ballots and optionally marking a candidate preference on the reverse side. I visited a total of seven polling places that day, stretching from downtown Yerevan to the shores of Lake Sevan and the surrounding hinterland 60km northeast of the capital. In larger precincts I witnessed large contingents of party proxies and citizen observers monitoring the vote. In several instances, citizen observers credentialed under the name of a local NGO turned out to be from foreign countries and were unable to explain to me the mission of their organization, highlighting the opaque origins of some citizen observation efforts. In most precincts I saw a mix of credentialed and non-credentialed individuals from political parties and local NGOs mingling inside and outside the polling station, engaging voters, and generally making their presence felt. Our day ended in Yerevan where we observed the closure procedure at a polling place where about 700 votes had been cast. The precinct chairwoman carefully walked the precinct committee through the process step by step, openly acknowledging to us the difficulty of carrying out the complex procedure for the first time. The tallying took place transparently in front of us and in full view of several local observers and party proxies that stayed late into the night to oversee the count. We had the opportunity, along with our fellow observers, to ask questions of the precinct chairwoman about how she and her team were adjudicating individual ballots and counting votes. Although my observations here are anecdotal, they are consistent with the preliminary findings and conclusions of the international election observation mission that the elections “were well administered and fundamental freedoms were generally respected” although the vote was “tainted by credible information about vote-buying and pressure on civil servants and employees of private companies.” The end result was a vote that suffered from “an overall lack of public confidence and trust.” (Read the full Statement of Preliminary Findings and Conclusions.)        While Armenia’s democracy took some important strides in the procedural conduct of this election, much work remains to be done. With the vote tallying complete, Armenia now embarks on a critical period of transition to a parliamentary system that will be fully realized at the end of the President’s final term in April 2018. All political actors, but particularly the new governing coalition, must shoulder their responsibilities to ensure that this new system of governance earns the trust of the public it serves. To build this trust, Armenia would benefit from a process of political evolution that accompanies its institutional transition and procedural reforms. Specifically, Armenia’s political parties and new parliament would do well to ensure a competition of ideas replaces the all too common clashes of personalities and patronage networks on display during this election.

  • International Roma Day 2017

    International Roma Day is observed annually on April 8, commemorating the anniversary of the1971 London meeting of Romani activists from across Europe. The 1971 London meeting, convened as the "World Romani Congress," was one of the first transnational gatherings of Roma.  Since 1990, International Roma Day has been an opportunity to celebrate Romani culture and counter anti-Roma prejudice that fosters political and economic marginalization.  Roma—Europe’s Largest Ethnic Minority Roma live throughout all European countries as well as the Americas and Australasia. In Europe, the Roma population is very conservatively estimated at 15 million, with large concentrations in Central, Eastern, and Southern Europe.  Roma have migrated to the United States since the colonial period. There are an estimated one million Americans with some Romani roots (recent or distant Romani ancestry).  Roma live throughout the United States, with larger communities in New York City, Baltimore, Chicago, and Los Angeles. They are sometimes the victims of racial profiling by law enforcement.  The last explicitly anti-Roma law in the United States was repealed in New Jersey in 1998. Romani Americans have served as public members on the U.S. delegation to several OSCE human dimension meetings.  In 2016, the President appointed Dr. Ethel Brooks to serve on the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum Council, bringing a Romani voice to that body. Helsinki Commission Advocacy on Romani Human Rights The Commission has long record of addressing human rights issues relating to Roma.  As early as 1990, a Helsinki Commission delegation in Bucharest raised alarm orchestrated attacks on Roma conducted as part of a larger crackdown on dissent.  Helsinki Commissioners have continued to engage regarding the situation of Roma through hearings, briefings, and congressional meetings with Roma in Europe and the United States.  In recent years, the Commission has supported Romani inclusion in annual initiatives for political leaders such as the Transatlantic Minority Political Leadership Conference (TMPLC) and Transatlantic Inclusion Leaders Network (TILN).  On March 27-28, the Commission worked in cooperation with the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights to hold a workshop during “Roma Week” at the European Parliament in Brussels titled, “Strengthening diverse leadership, participation and representation of Roma, including women and youth, in public and political life.”  Roma Day Events in the United States Harvard will host its fifth Annual Roma conference on April 10, where Helsinki Commission staff will participate. Scholars of Romani culture and Roma who work as academics, activists, and performers will convene a conference at New York University April 28-29. Later in the spring, on May 6, the 20th Annual Herdeljezi Music Festival will be held in the San Francisco area at the Croatian American Cultural Center. In the Washington area, the Embassy of the Czech Republic supported a March 30 screening of the documentary about the prejudice faced by the FC Roma football club. On May 17, the Czech Embassy will support a concert at the national Gallery of Art by Romani-Czech pianist Tomas Kaco. Learn More International Roma Day: Statement by U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson Celebrating International Roma Day: Statement by USOSCE Acting Deputy Chief of Mission Michele Siders International Roma Day: Statement by OSCE/ODIHR Director Michael Link

  • Romani Political Participation Key to Change

    On March 27 and 28, 2017, thirty-five Romani elected officials and civil society representatives participated in a two-day event held by the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) in cooperation with the U.S. Helsinki Commission, as part of the European Union’s “Roma Week.”  The event focused on opportunities to enhance Romani political participation as a means of strengthening the long-term strength and stability of the OSCE region.  As citizens of many OSCE participating States, Roma have long contributed to the prosperity of their countries in numerous ways, ranging from serving in the military to educating the next generation.  However, Roma are often described and perceived in negative terms, leading political leaders and others, to consider Roma a problem rather than a solution. Referring to the political rhetoric that instigated the tragic murders of Roma in 2008 and 2009, Romani-Hungarian researcher and Transatlantic Inclusion Leaders Network alumni Roland Ferkovics stressed, “Political narratives should not only motivate and influence people but should also unite…Political leaders must take Roma as equal partner(s) using narratives [that] focus on similarities instead of differences.” Diverse speakers from across the OSCE region also shared experiences and practices that have been successful in inspiring democratic change. “Standing for elected office and using one’s right to vote is a powerful tool for Roma communities in Europe to counter anti-Roma rhetoric, hate crimes and racism,” said Mee Moua, former President of Asian Americans Advancing Justice (AAJC), who also served as a Minnesota State Senator in the United States. Noting the importance of united communities, Killion Munyama, a member of the Polish Parliament and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, noted the importance of Roma having a seat at the decision-making table:  “Societies benefit from broad and diverse participation representing the voices of all communities in the public and political spheres.” Participants also stressed the urgency in ensuring the success of current Romani legislative initiatives and the importance of ensuring that legislative initiatives aimed at Roma, such as the EU Framework Strategy for Integration, are designed and implemented with the participation of Roma at all levels of government.  Other speakers at the event included MEP Terry Reintke, former MEP Livia Jaroka, and Jamen Gabriela Hrabanova of the European Roma Grassroots Organizations Network. Dr. Mischa Thompson of the Helsinki Commission participated as a facilitator.

  • Russian Supreme Court Considers Outlawing Jehovah's Witness Worship

    The Russian Supreme Court could declare the Jehovah's Witnesses an extremist organization in a Wednesday hearing, a move that would lead to the seizure of the church's headquarters near St. Petersburg and the outlawing of the group’s organized worship. In advance of the hearing, international concern has grown. “If the Supreme Court rules in favour of the authorities, it will be the first such ruling by a court declaring a registered centralized religious organization to be ‘extremist,’” the UN human rights’ high commissioner's office said in a statement on Tuesday. The ruling would also cap off years of increased restrictions by the Russian Federation against minority religions. Last summer, Russia introduced an anti-terrorism law that also restricted evangelism, and a regional court ordered the deportation of six missionaries with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In 2015, a court banned the Church of Scientology’s Moscow branch. Under a Russian law passed in 1997, there is freedom of religion, but four faiths are designated to be traditional—Orthodox Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism—and other religious organizations must register with the government. Some groups, like Jehovah’s Witnesses, who are registered, still face bureaucratic and legal hurdles. Jehovah's Witness leaders estimate that there are 175,000 Russian-based adherents to the faith, which was founded in the United States the 1870s. Unlike Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox Christians, Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that Jesus is the son of God but do not believe in the Trinity. “They would basically be prosecuting Jehovah’s Witnesses as criminals,” David Semonian, international spokesperson for the Jehovah’s Witnesses, says of the pending court declaration. “Anyone who would actually would have our publications could be criminalized. It is of great concern.” Jehovah’s Witnesses have filed a counter claim asking the court to rule the Justice Ministry’s actions as political repression. A ruling in favor of the ministry would make it a crime for Jehovah’s Witnesses to worship in the Russian Federation and dissolve the faith’s legal means to own or rent Kingdom Halls, their places of worship. In 2015, the Russian Federation banned the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ website JW.org, and customs officials stopped shipments of Jehovah’s Witnesses’ Bibles, citing the possibility they were extremist literature. Last year, Russia threatened to close the group’s national headquarters. Roman Lunkin, a human rights fellow at the Wilson Center and an expert on church-state relations in Russia, says that Russian authorities have been targeting minority religions as “extremists” in an effort to demonstrate support for the Russian Orthodox Church and to marginalize organizations with suspected pro-western sympathies. "The treatment of the Jehovah’s Witnesses reflects the Russian government’s tendency to view all independent religious activity as a threat to its control and the country’s political stability," the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom said in a statement on Tuesday. “Jehovah’s Witnesses are no threat to either the Russian Orthodox Church or to the Russian Government,” Semonian says. “The constitution guarantees freedom of worship, and that is all we are asking, to have the same rights as other religious groups have so we can go about our ministry in a peaceful way.” Jehovah’s Witnesses are pacifists, and their religious beliefs require them to abstain from political activity. They declare allegiance only to God, not to a state or political entity. They do not vote, lobby, protest, or join military. This lack of participation can be seen as a threat if a state demands nationalist and patriotic activity. “The persecution of the Jehovah’s Witnesses is very much tied to the resurgence of a new view of nationalism, where everything within the state is fine, but anything outside of the state has to be crushed,” Kristina Arriaga de Bucholz, a U.S. commissioner for International Religious Freedom appointed by House Speaker Paul Ryan, says. “A pacifist group that tells its members that their allegiance is to something outside of the government is immediately a group that will be perceived as dangerous to the regime.” Other minority Christian groups in Russia, like evangelicals, have not yet faced the same level of scrutiny. Lunkin says it is impossible to accuse evangelicals of extremist activity because their literature and Bible translation matches that of the Russian Orthodox Church. Jehovah’s Witnesses have their own translation of the Bible, and they also have their own magazine and educational materials. Evangelicals also have closer relationships with government officials, he says. “It’s [about] a protection of traditional religions, and the Orthodox identity of Russian people,” Lunkin says. “But in fact it is about protecting personal power, because the main fear is changing of regimes in Russia.” Jehovah’s Witness church leadership has reached out to the U.S. State department’s Office of International Religious Freedom, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, and the U.S. Helsinki Commission for aid. “We will do everything within our legal means to have the judgment reversed,” Semonian says. “Jehovah’s Witnesses are known worldwide for our peaceful activities, and under no circumstances would we ever resort to violence or any other activity that could be misunderstood or considered extremist.” Jehovah’s Witness leaders have also asked their eight million members worldwide to write letters to Russia officials, including President Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, to ask them to intervene. Instructions tell writers to “be candid but respectful,” and to mention how the faith has benefited their families. “Keep in mind that ‘a mild answer turns away rage,’ and ‘a gentle tongue can break a bone,’” the instructions say, quoting the Biblical book of Proverbs. The decision will come as the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom is finalizing its annual report identifying countries of concern, its first such report for the Trump administration. The Commission is a bipartisan government advisory group that makes policy recommendations to the President, Congress, and the Secretary of State. Since 2009, the group has designated Russia as a “Tier 2” nation, on the watch list one step below countries of particular concern. “The fate of the Jehovah’s Witnesses is the fate of any religious group that does not pledge its allegiance to the Russian government,” Arriaga says. “April 5 will definitely mark a new chapter of religious persecution in post-Soviet Russia.”

  • Baltic War Game Scenario Plays Out at Helsinki Commission

    On March 3, 2017, U.S. Helsinki Commission staff, joined by Congressional staff from various offices, took part in an interactive, informal simulation led by the RAND Corporation, which demonstrated RAND’s research on the shape and probable outcome of a near-term hypothetical Russian invasion of the Baltic states. The meeting followed the Commission’s December 2016 briefing, Baltic Security After the Warsaw NATO Summit, where RAND expert Michael Johnson presented the research and war-game approach exploring how a hypothetical Russian invasion of the Baltics would actually play out tactically. During the event, Johnson and his team not only described their research but also demonstrated the advantages of the flexible platform of physical simulation in such a context. Attendees were able to “play out” military deployments on both sides of the board, representing both Russian and NATO forces. Using a physical model – as opposed to a digital platform – allowed attendees to pose hypothetical scenario-based questions to one another and to the RAND team, and to explore the defense outcomes on a representative military theater. The RAND simulation demonstrated that, under current NATO postures, Russian forces would be likely to be able to take the capitals of all three Baltic States in 60 hours or less. More information on the war-gaming research by Michael W. Johnson and David A. Shlapak can be found in their report, Reinforcing Deterrence on NATO’s Eastern Flank: Wargaming the Defense of the Baltics (2016).

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