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U.S. Holds Historic Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom
Wednesday, August 22, 2018

By Nathaniel Hurd,
Senior Policy Advisor

From July 24-26, 2018, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo hosted the first Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom in Washington, D.C. U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom and former Helsinki Commission Chairman Sam Brownback coordinated the event, which brought together governments, religious leaders, non-governmental organizations, and the private sector to “to discuss challenges, identify concrete ways to combat religious persecution and discrimination, and ensure greater respect for religious freedom for all.”

The United States invited 81 governmental delegations from “countries that have a demonstrated record for advancing religious freedom and are committed to promoting Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, or that recently have taken meaningful steps to begin to do so.” Participating countries included four from North America; seven from South America; nine from Africa; 36 from Europe; nine from the Middle East; 14 from Asia; one from Oceana; and Australia. Foreign ministers led 13 delegations. Forty of the countries represented are participating States of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. The OSCE, European Union, and United Nations also took part, along with more than 400 leaders from religious groups and non-governmental organizations.

Uzbekistan was the only governmental participant that had been designated by the United States as a Country of Particular Concern because of particularly severe religious freedom violations like torture, prolonged detention without charges, or clandestine detention. In remarks on the final day of the ministerial, Secretary Pompeo stated, “We applaud the steps that Uzbekistan is taking towards a more free society. We have great confidence that a degree of religious freedom greater than before will have a positive ripple effect on their country, their society, and the region as well.”

Ministerial Activities

During the event, survivors of religious persecution or their representatives—including Jacqueline Brunson Furnari, daughter of imprisoned American pastor Andrew Brunson—spoke to the full assembly. Furnari testified at a November 2017 Helsinki Commission hearing, “Prisoners of the Purge: The Victims of Turkey's Failing Rule of Law,” where she pleaded for her father’s release. When Ambassador Brownback reported that Turkish authorities had transferred Pastor Brunson—who had been jailed since October 2016 on false charges of terrorism, espionage, and attempting to overthrow the state—from prison to house arrest, attendees applauded.

Other speakers included representatives from Burma, China, North Korea, Vietnam, Pakistan, Iran, Iraq, Nicaragua, and Sudan.   

Plenary sessions focused on religious persecution around the world and opportunities to work together to advance religious freedom. The ministerial also featured panel discussions on private sector engagement, religious freedom grant opportunities at the State Department, effective advocacy on behalf of religious minorities, preventing genocide and mass atrocities, the relationship between religious freedom and economic prosperity; religious freedom in the context of countering violent extremism; legal limitations on religious freedom; religious freedom and women’s rights; the needs of displaced minorities during humanitarian emergencies; and cultural heritage.

During the ministerial, the United States also presented “Statements of Concern” to the delegations regarding repression in Burma, China, and Iran; “Counterterrorism as a False Pretext for Religious Freedom Repression;” and “Religious Freedom Repression by Non-State Actors, including Terrorist Groups.” Twenty-four participating governments joined the United States as signatories on at least one statement of concern. The governments of Armenia, Brazil, Canada, Denmark, Estonia, Georgia, Israel, Kosovo, Oman, Poland, Sri Lanka, and United Kingdom signed all three thematic statements of concern. The governments of Canada and Kosovo signed all three country-specific statements of concern.

Speaking at the event, former U.S. Congressman Frank Wolf, author of the landmark International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, said, “Religious freedom is deeply imbedded in our own legal tradition reaching all the way back to the Magna Carta, but is also understood as a necessity for human dignity by the international community ... I stand before you today with a grave and growing sense of urgency regarding the erosion of religious freedom around the globe. All over this world, people are denied the fundamental and inalienable human right to confess and express their beliefs according to the dictates of their conscience.”

Senior U.S. government officials who addressed non-governmental representatives over the ministerial included Vice President Mike Pence; Secretary of State Mike Pompeo; Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan; Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback; Director of the Office of Management and Budget Mick Mulvaney; Administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development Mark Green; Assistant Secretary for Educational and Cultural Affairs Marie Royce; Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Public Affairs Michelle Giuda; Senior Policy Advisor to the Secretary of State and Director of the Secretary’s Policy Planning Staff Brian Hook; Senior Advisor in the Office of the Under Secretary for Civilian Security, Democracy and Human Rights Pam Pryor; and Special Advisor for Religious Minorities in the Near East and South/Central Asia Knox Thames.

There were more than 15 side events during the ministerial, organized by members of Congress, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, and the Religious Freedom Roundtable and its members. Topics included Christians in the Middle East, parliamentarian engagement on religious freedom, Southeast Asia, India, politicization of religious freedom and human rights, Baha’is in Iran and Yemen, China, securing U.S. government grants, Russia, parental rights, technology, security and religious freedom, violent conflict, and fragile states.

Follow-Up Actions

During the ministerial, Secretary Pompeo unveiled the Boldline Religious Freedom plan, the State Department’s “partnership accelerator aimed to support and scale innovative public-private partnerships…to promote and defend religious freedom around the world.” In October 2018, the first Boldline workshop will convene civil society organizations, public institutions, corporations, innovation companies, entrepreneurship support organizations, and financial institutions.

On the final day of the ministerial, Vice President Mike Pence announced two new initiatives. The International Religious Freedom Fund is designed to help governments and entities that already promote freedom of religion and belief extend financial support to initiatives that address the barriers to freedom of religion or belief, or provide assistance to those facing discrimination on the basis of religion or belief. The Genocide Recovery and Persecution Response Program will facilitate partnerships with local faith and community leaders to rapidly deliver aid to persecuted communities, beginning with Iraq.

Following the ministerial, the United States also issued the Potomac Declaration, which reaffirmed the U.S commitment to freedom of religion or belief, and proposed the Potomac Plan of Action to defend the freedom of religion or belief, confront legal limitations, advocate for equal rights and protections for all (including members of religious minorities), respond to genocide and other mass atrocities, and preserve cultural heritage.

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Racism, sexism, and homophobia still exist in many Christian denominations – my own included.” He ended his testimony by underlining that “the most important thing that religious actors and organizations can do to combat hate crimes is not only to fight the hatred on the outside, but on the inside as well.” Imam Gamal Fouda also testified by video and remarked on New Zealand’s response to the tragic shooting that targeted and killed Muslims at the Al Noor Mosque and Linwood Islamic Centre in Christchurch, where he is the imam. “New Zealand set a good example to the whole world for how to look after your people, how to actually support all your people. And we all stand together against hate, hate speech, and hate crimes,” he said. He said the power of New Zealand was demonstrated in the wake of the Christchurch shooting and called for more education on the strength of diverse and inclusive societies. “We have to stand together looking at the diversity in our communities as something that is strengthening our community,” he said. “It is the secret of the power of our community to see different colors and different languages.” Rabbi Jeffrey Myers, victim, witness, and survivor of the 2018 attack on the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, PA—the worst attack on a synagogue in the history of the United States—stated, “The metaphor of America as a melting pot, is a beautiful image, but sadly, it is not true, [because …we] do not know our neighbors. We live in silos, with no bridges connecting them. Many choose to live in their own private silos, not wanting ‘others’ to enter their silo.” He believes that the key to addressing hate—what he referred to as the “H-word”— is to learn to build bridges. “Some people just don’t know how to build a bridge. This is where religious leaders like me make a difference…I’m a bridge builder. When the Muslim community extended an olive branch to me, I responded by offering an olive tree,” he said. Reverend Aaron Jenkins testified on the power of developing partnerships and relationships across different sectors of society to adequately tackle the issue of hate and hate crimes wherever they occur. He remarked, “Any plan to address hate must engage faith actors within and across their faith traditions in respectful and meaningful ways. We cannot wait until the next hate crime happens.” He stated that partnerships, resources, and relationships were needed to address the problem. Radia Bakkouch spoke about the situation in France and Coexister’s “belief in the concept of ‘faith for good’ and the practice of interfaith cooperation in empowering young people to address violence and exclusion.” She stressed the importance of defending pluralistic societies and highlighted the importance of building coalitions to address the rise in hate-based violence taking place in France and elsewhere in Europe. Usra Ghazi detailed federal hate crimes statistics, highlighting that hate crimes historically and consistently are underreported. This, she said, is partly due to a lack of a standardized reporting processes and “strained relationships between bigotry-impacted communities and law enforcement entities.” Ghazi shared that many members of the Muslim, Arab, and Sikh communities affected by anti-Muslim discrimination, hate, and violence in the United States have opted to keep low profiles rather than report these events. She stressed, “Due to the rise of hate crimes and hate speech against Muslim and Sikh Americans, these communities by necessity have had to organize outreach efforts to humanize themselves while raising cultural and religious literacy among their neighbors and governments.” Ghazi also shared positive examples of how discriminated communities are building their civic health, getting more involved in elections, and running for office at record rates. “We now have Muslim and Sikh mayors of American cities, as well as officials from these faiths in a range of governmental positions. These efforts help to ensure that our cities, counties and states are truly representative of the rich diversity of American communities.” Alina Bricman’s video testimony concluded the hearing. She presented an overview of the first-ever report of Young Jewish Europeans: perceptions and experiences of antisemitism, released July 4, 2019. Findings included that “44 percent of young Jewish Europeans have faced anti-Semitic harassment, that’s almost 1 in 2 Jews; […] and 25 percent identified as too scared to display Jewish-affiliated ornaments or accessories.” To address the problem, Bricman recommended investing in education (such as anti-racist and anti-bias training) that emphasizes the importance and strength of diversity and diverse communities, supporting civil society, and depoliticizing anti-Semitism and racism by having leaders engage responsibly in the public arena where it is not viewed as a left or right issue.

  • Truth, Reconciliation, and Healing Focus of Upcoming Helsinki Commission Briefing

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following briefing: TRUTH, RECONCILIATION, & HEALING Toward a Unified Future Thursday, July 18, 2019 10:00 a.m – 12:00 p.m. Rayburn House Office Building Room 2167 Live Webcast: www.facebook.com/HelsinkiCommission Today, many countries seek to address historic wrongs, heal wounds, bridge divisions, and build a shared future. Truth and reconciliation efforts to encourage restitution, reparations, and restorative justice have been called for in many places, including the United States, Western Europe, Canada, and the Balkans, while Holocaust survivors and other victims of Nazi persecution continue to seek justice worldwide. For example, in June, Amsterdam city councilors voted to apologize for the city’s role in the transatlantic slave trade. In April, Belgium’s Prime Minister Charles Michel apologized for the kidnapping of thousands of children born to mixed-race couples during its colonial rule in several African countries. In 2015, Sweden published a historic white paper on abuses and rights violations against Roma in the 20th century. A decade ago, Canada established a reconciliation process in response to the Indian Residential School legacy, which forced First Nation children to attend government-funded boarding schools. At this briefing, panelists will review lessons learned and discuss ways to heal and reunify societies divided by war, genocide, hierarchal systems of human value, and other tragedies stemming from extreme nationalism, racism, anti-Semitism, and other forms of ethnic and religious discrimination. Speakers will address official government apologies, truth and reconciliation processes, restitution, reparations, and other policy prescriptions that have been used or are currently being considered to address historic wrongs and unify citizens in countries across Europe and North America. The following speakers are scheduled to participate: Dr. Gail C. Christopher, Founder, Ntianu Center; Chair, Board of the Trust for America’s Health Ambassador Stuart Eizenstat, Author, “Imperfect Justice: Looted Assets, Slave Labor,” and “The Unfinished Business of World War II;” Senior Counsel, Covington The Hon. Tracy Tansia Bibo, former City Councilor, Liedekerke, Belgium Councilor Don Ceder, Municipal Councilor, City of Amsterdam, the Netherlands The Hon. Soraya Post, former Member of the European Parliament, Sweden Dr. Diane Orentlicher, Professor of International Law, American University; former Special Advisor to the High Commissioner on National Minorities of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe; Author, “Some Kind of Justice: The ICTY's Impact in Bosnia and Serbia”

  • Helsinki Commission Hearing to Examine Role of Religious Actors in Responding to Hate

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following hearing: RESPONDING TO HATE The Role of Religious Actors Tuesday, July 16, 2019 11:00 a.m. – 1:00 p.m. Rayburn House Office Building Room 2200 Live Webcast: www.youtube.com/HelsinkiCommission In the past year alone, places of worship in Christchurch, Colombo, Pittsburgh, and Poway were targets of hate-based violence, resulting in the tragic loss of more than 300 lives.  Effectively countering hate crimes requires a comprehensive effort bringing together government institutions, criminal justice systems, civil society actors, and international organizations.  Religious actors and interfaith institutions play an important role in promoting safe and inclusive societies and reducing violence, hostility, and discrimination. Witnesses will describe how religious actors and interfaith institutions can work together to further human rights and protections for all in the OSCE region, and share strategies to prevent and respond to hate crimes and violence targeting our societies in public places, including places of worship and social institutions. The following witnesses are scheduled to participate: Rabbi Hazzan Jeffrey Myers, Rabbi and Cantor, Tree of Life Synagogue, Pittsburgh, PA Father James Martin, Editor at Large, America Media, New York, NY Imam Gamal Fouda, Imam, Al Noor Mosque, Christchurch, New Zealand Radia Bakkouch, President, Coexister, Paris, France Alina Bricman, Elected President, European Union of Jewish Students, Brussels, Belgium Usra Ghazi, Director of Policy and Programs, America Indivisible; Mayor’s Interfaith Council, Washington, DC Reverend Aaron Jenkins, Vice President of Policy and Advocacy, The Expectations Project (TEP), Washington, DC Additional witnesses may be added.

  • Delegation Led by Co-Chairman Wicker Demonstrates U.S. Commitment to Countering Kremlin Aggression and Preserving Stability in Europe

    WASHINGTON—From July 4 to July 8, Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) led the largest bipartisan, bicameral U.S. delegation in history to the 2019 OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA) Annual Session in Luxembourg. The participation of 19 members of Congress showed the deep U.S. commitment to European security and to countering Kremlin aggression and anti-democratic trends across the 57-country OSCE region. “The size of our delegation for this Parliamentary Assembly is a clear demonstration of the importance that the Americans place on this institution and its mission,” said Sen. Wicker ahead of the official opening of the event, which brought together approximately 300 parliamentarians from North America, Europe, and Central Asia. Sen. Wicker, who also serves as a vice-president of the OSCE PA, was joined in Luxembourg by House Majority Leader and former Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Steny Hoyer (MD-05); Helsinki Commissioners Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), Rep. Robert Aderholt (AL-04), Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), Rep. Richard Hudson (NC-08), and Rep. Gwen Moore (WI-04). Other participants included Sen. John Cornyn (TX), Sen. Rick Scott (FL), Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04), Rep. Tom Cole (OK-04), Rep. Val Demings (FL-10), Rep. Jeff Duncan (SC-03), Rep. Garret Graves (LA-06), Rep. Tom Graves (GA-14), Rep. Andy Harris (MD-01), Rep. Billy Long (MO-07), Rep. Gregory Meeks (NY-05), and Rep. Lee Zeldin (NY-01). In the opening plenary, Rep. Hoyer, a founder of the OSCE PA, reminded the delegates of the OSCE’s commitment to human rights, fundamental freedoms, and democratic governance. Rep. Moore then spearheaded the passage of a resolution on protecting and engaging civil society that was originally introduced by Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20). The assembly also adopted a second U.S. initiative on educating children to avoid human trafficking introduced by Rep. Smith, who serves as OSCE PA Special Representative on Human Trafficking Issues. Fourteen of the 16 amendments proposed by the U.S. delegation were adopted, including those holding the Kremlin accountable for the collapse of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty; criticizing Moscow for abusing INTERPOL diffusions to harass Kremlin critics abroad; expressing concern about the overreliance of European countries on Russia for energy supplies; and seeking to protect those who report hate crimes from retaliation.  During the annual session, Sen. Wicker and Rep. Smith co-hosted a presentation to raise awareness and encourage reporting of efforts to entice children into being trafficked. Sen. Cardin, who serves as the OSCE PA Special Representative on Anti-Semitism, Racism and Intolerance, hosted a discussion on best practices to combat hate in society. Prior to attending the annual session, Co-Chairman Wicker convened the first-ever Helsinki Commission hearing held outside of the United States. In Gdansk, Poland, senior U.S. civilian and military leaders briefed members of Congress on their approaches to enhancing security in the region. High-level defense officials from Lithuania, Poland, Finland, Sweden, and Estonia also provided regional perspectives on the evolving security environment in and around the Baltic Sea. Hearing participants included Lt. Gen. Stephen M. Twitty, Deputy Commander, United States European Command; Douglas D. Jones, Deputy Permanent Representative, United States Mission to NATO; Raimundas Karoblis, Minister of National Defense, Republic of Lithuania; Maj. Gen, Krzysztof Król, Deputy Chief of the General Staff of the Polish Armed Forces; Janne Kuusela, Director-General, Defense Policy Department, Ministry of Defense of the Republic of Finland; Jan-Olof Lind, State Secretary to the Minister for Defense, the Kingdom of Sweden; and Kristjan Prikk, Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Defense, the Republic of Estonia. The hearing underscored America’s commitment to security in the Baltic Sea region and its unwavering support for U.S. friends and allies.

  • Countering Hate: Lessons from the Past, Leadership for the Future

    Today at the 28th Annual Session of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly in Luxembourg, Helsinki Commission Ranking Member Sen. Ben Cardin hosted a U.S. side event in his capacity as OSCE PA Special Representative on Anti-Semitism, Racism and Intolerance. The event, “Countering Hate: Lessons from the Past, Leadership for the Future,” called for parliamentarians from across the 57 OSCE participating States to adopt an action plan to counter bias and discrimination and foster inclusion.  Several members of the U.S. delegation—along with U.S. Ambassador to the OSCE James Gilmore and U.S. Ambassador to Luxembourg Randy Evans—attended the event, where speakers included Dr. Rebecca Erbelding of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and OSCE parliamentarians Michael Link (Germany), Nahima Lanjri (Belgium), and Lord Alf Dubs (United Kingdom). “We are here today to exchange information on what we are doing in our home countries to address the problem and how we might be able to develop a plan of action to work better together to address the rise in hate-based incidents we have been witnessing across the OSCE region and beyond from Pittsburgh and Poway to Christchurch,” said Sen. Cardin. “It is not only the most vulnerable in our societies whom are in danger when we fail to act, but the very foundations of our democracies.” Dr. Rebecca Erbelding of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum shared a cautionary tale, reminding the audience, “The Holocaust did not appear out of nowhere [and] the Nazi Party was in power in Germany for eight years before mass killing began.”  Warning signs in the past were ignored, she stated.  “A rise of populist leaders, of simple solutions, of demonizing minorities, of propagandizing hate, of neglecting or ignoring refugee protections, of isolationism, of appeasement—these factors, when taken together, have led to genocide in the past, and not just in Europe. We must [..] work together to prevent genocide in the future.”  OSCE parliamentarian and former director of the OSCE Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) Michael Link stressed the need for action, saying that we are witnessing these first alarming signs of hate, but have a choice in whether we will repeat the past. He lauded the success of and need to continue the OSCE’s Words Into Action project funded by the German government to increase education on addressing anti-Semitism, security protections for the Jewish community, and build diverse coalitions across communities against hate. He cautioned that Romani populations should also not be forgotten in the efforts to address the problem. OSCE parliamentarian Nahima Lanjri described rampant discrimination in Belgium’s employment sector and its negative impact on the labor market. Citing the need for increased tools to fight all forms of discrimination that have the negative affect of repressing talents needed for societies to flourish, she called for more disparities data and initiatives that address economic and other forms of discrimination and bias. Lord Dubs, a British parliamentarian who was born in Prague in what was then Czechoslovakia, was one of 669 Jewish children saved by English stockbroker Nicholas Winton, and others, from the Nazis on the Kindertransport.  He shared a recent hate post he had received online and stressed the need to address increasing hate in our societies through education, legislation against hate speech and discrimination, and by shifting public opinion that denigrates communities instead of building them up. U.S. House Majority Leader Rep. Steny Hoyer cited the anti-discrimination work of Brian Stevenson and stressed that difference does not make one “less than." Parliamentarian Hedy Fry of Canada noted rising hate crimes in her country amid numerous initiatives addressing disparities and inclusion. U.S. Rep. Gregory Meeks highlighted the importance of Jewish and African-American coalitions in the civil rights movement. Stating that no group should have to fight for their rights alone if we truly espouse democratic values, he said, we all should be joining the Roma in their human rights struggle.  U.S. Rep. Val Demings called for the conversation to also include LGBT+ communities, recalling the tragic mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub in her Orlando, Florida district.  The sessions concluded with Special Representative Cardin calling for an OSCE Action Plan to address bias and discrimination and foster inclusion and OSCE/ODIHR Advisor Dermana Seta providing an overview of tools currently offered by the OSCE to assist governments in addressing hate crimes and discrimination. 

  • The Helsinki Process: A Four Decade Overview

    In August 1975, the heads of state or government of 35 countries – the Soviet Union and all of Europe except Albania, plus the United States and Canada – held a historic summit in Helsinki, Finland, where they signed the Final Act of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe. This document is known as the Helsinki Final Act or the Helsinki Accords. The Conference, known as the CSCE, continued with follow-up meetings and is today institutionalized as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, or OSCE, based in Vienna, Austria. Learn more about the signature of the Helsinki Final Act; the role that the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe played during the Cold War; how the Helsinki Process successfully adapted to the post-Cold War environment of the 1990s; and how today's OSCE can and does contribute to regional security, now and in the future.

  • Co-Chairman Wicker on Release of 2018 Report on International Religious Freedom

    WASHINGTON—Following the release of the 2018 Report on International Religious Freedom by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback, a former chairman of the Helsinki Commission, Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) issued the following statement: “This report shows that some of the worst government violators of religious freedom in the world continue to be in Eurasia, including Russia, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan. I am concerned that these OSCE participating States have not made any progress in implementing their commitments to ensure freedom of religion. “One exception where the situation has improved is Uzbekistan. I hope the final version of the country’s new religion law will demonstrate the commitment of President Mirziyoyev and his government to advancing religious freedom reforms. I would not want a situation in which the new law retains the most problematic elements of current law. That would put Uzbekistan at risk of remaining on the Special Watch List or even once again being designated as a Country of Particular Concern. “The Government of Uzbekistan must also keep its promise to formally work with international experts, including the OSCE Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, to ensure its religion law complies with Uzbekistan’s international commitments.” In October 2018, Co-Chairman Wicker urged the Government of Uzbekistan to formally request that the OSCE Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights conduct a legal review of Uzbekistan’s draft religion law. He repeated the call during a December 2018 Helsinki Commission hearing with Ambassador Brownback. Following last year’s International Religious Freedom Report, Secretary of State Pompeo designated OSCE participating States Tajikistan and Turkmenistan as Countries of Particular Concern. Turkmenistan has been designated as a CPC since 2014 and Tajikistan since 2016. Pompeo further designated Uzbekistan and Russia for the Special Watch List, for continuing religious freedom violations. For Uzbekistan, the designation upgrades the country’s ranking in recognition of progress made under the regime of President Mirzoyoyev. Uzbekistan was a CPC from 2006 to 2017. Russia was designated for the Special Watch List for the first time. As OSCE participating States, these countries repeatedly have committed themselves to respecting religious freedom. The annual State Department International Religious Freedom Report details religious freedom in every country. The report includes government policies violating religious belief and practices of individuals and religious groups, and U.S. policies to promote religious freedom around the world. Following the release of the annual report, the Secretary of State has 90 days to submit updated designations for the Countries of Particular Concern and the Special Watch List.

  • Chairman Hastings on Release of 2018 Report on International Religious Freedom

    WASHINGTON—Following the release of the 2018 Report on International Religious Freedom by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback, a former chairman of the Helsinki Commission, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) issued the following statement: “The Helsinki Commission welcomes the release of the annual International Religious Freedom Report. Robust reporting on the full range of human rights—including respect for religious liberties—is critical to the preservation of democratic institutions. “The report details a number of continuing concerns in countries including Hungary and Turkey. In Hungary, government officials have engaged in anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic rhetoric and publicly venerated World War II-era anti-Semites and Hitler allies. Amendments to Hungary's controversial 2011 religion law came into effect in April, but it is not yet clear if the new and more complicated law will end discrimination against the Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship and other faiths. In Turkey, long-standing concerns persist about respect for the rights of Alevis and non-Muslim minorities to freely manage their religious activities and internal affairs. “These violations of religious freedom are extremely troubling, especially since Hungary and Turkey—like all participating States of the OSCE—have committed to protecting freedom of religion or belief and preventing intolerance and discrimination based on religious grounds.” The annual State Department International Religious Freedom Report details religious freedom in every country. The report includes government policies violating religious belief and practices of individuals and religious groups, and U.S. policies to promote religious freedom around the world.

  • Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe and Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Commitments Regarding Freedom of Religion or Belief

    The 57 participating States of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe have repeatedly committed to recognizing and respecting freedom of religion or belief. The 35 participating States of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe–the forerunner of the OSCE–signed the Helsinki Final Act of 1975, which included: “The participating States will recognize and respect the freedom of the individual to profess and practice, alone or in community with others, religion or belief acting in accordance with the dictates of his own conscience.” The OSCE’s Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights has staff dedicated to freedom of religion or belief, led by a senior advisor. ODIHR legal reviews to help participating States comply with their OSCE commitments have included existing law and draft legislation on freedom of religion or belief. ODIHR only conducts such reviews after receiving a formal invitation from a participating State. A panel of OSCE/ODIHR experts on freedom of religion or belief assists OSCE/ODIHR, and the ODIHR director appoints the panel’s 14 members every three years. This compilation, developed by Helsinki Commission staff, covers CSCE/OSCE commitments on freedom of religion or belief in 16 documents from the Final Act to the OSCE Ministerial Council in 2015. It includes the document title, excerpted text, and links to the original document. Participating States have also made commitments relating to discrimination or hate crimes base on religion or belief. Some examples are in “OSCE Human Dimension Commitments: Thematic Compilation.” This Helsinki Commission compilation only includes commitments on freedom of religion or belief. The Commission will update the compilation when new commitments on freedom of religion or belief are made.

  • Partially Protected?

    The U.S. Helsinki Commission convened an expert briefing on the background, implementation, and legal and political implications of temporary protection for people in the United States and Europe who come from countries of conflict or natural disaster but not qualify for asylum. The discussion explored whether some European Union countries are choosing temporary protection even when asylum claims are credible. Alex T. Johnson, Chief of Staff for the Helsinki Commission, said in his opening remarks, “Chairman Hastings sees [protected status] as a priority, particularly in the United States and in the OSCE region because of the erosion of human rights and democratic institutions that we are seeing now. It’s particularly urgent as we look at our own domestic compliance with commitments in the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and how we partner with countries who are also exploring issues related to granted protected status for vulnerable communities in their midst.” Johnson also noted Chairman Hasting’s introduction of H.Con.Res. 5, which expresses support for Haitians residing in the United States with Temporary Protected Status (TPS). In the discussion that followed, Jill Wilson of the Congressional Research Service provided context on TPS and its implementation in the U.S. Wilson reported, “Ten countries are currently covered by TPS, benefitting some 400,000 individuals in the United States. The Trump administration has announced terminations for six of these ten countries on the grounds that the conditions on which the original designations were based no longer exist. These terminations are currently on hold pending court action.”  Recent efforts by members of the 115th and 116th Congress saw a greater number and variety of TPS-related bills that seek either to expand or restrict TPS and shift the decision-making power from the Secretary of Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to the U.S. Congress. Currently, the Secretary of the DHS, in consultation with other key government offices namely the U.S. State Department, has the power to designate a country for temporary protection in periods of six, twelve, or eighteen months based on three categories: armed conflict, natural disaster, or extraordinary circumstances that prevent the safe return of a country’s nationals. Marleine Bastien of the Family Action Network Movement shared her expertise on the current political and economic situation in Haiti, following the catastrophic earthquake in 2010 and subsequent natural disasters that resulted in major public health emergencies, about 300,000 displaced people, and severely damaged infrastructure. Despite these continuing poor conditions, Haiti’s TPS status is subject to termination. Bastien remarked, “We hope that Congress will take a close look at what’s going on in Haiti today…The conditions in Haiti continue to deteriorate. Haiti still qualifies for temporary protected status… TPS is still applicable, not only for the countries that qualify now, but for the countries in the future which may experience natural and political disasters.” Without its TPS re-instated, she said, Haiti does not have the capacity to resettle and support the 58,000 Haitians currently living in the U.S. Sui Chung, an attorney with the Immigration Law and Litigation Group in Miami, Florida, and Chair of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Committee of the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA) stated that unless legislation like the American Dream and Promise Act, H.R. 6 is passed, TPS recipients remain at risk of being detained or deported. Chung remarked, “Although the federal courts have enjoined the termination of TPS for some countries, these court orders are temporary. If a higher court rules unfavorably, those with TPS would be vulnerable to losing authorization to work and reside in the U.S., and they would be subject to deportation.” Chung stated that 94 percent of individuals under TPS are employed, generating about $5.5 billion in federal, state, and local taxes, with roughly $25 billion spending power. According to Chung, losing this population could cripple the U.S. economy and harm communities.  Catherine Woollard, Secretary General of the European Council on Refugees and Exiles, described Europe’s decision-making process for protection status as an inconsistent and unfair “asylum lottery” She argued that the lack of fairness and uniformity in granting TPS originates from the selection process, where the decision to grant protection status is left solely to the discretion of the twenty-eight European Union Member States rather than a universal eligibility process. Woollard noted, “Our analysis shows that these different protection statuses have a wide variation when it comes to the rights attached. Key rights that are of interest and necessity for people who are seeking protection vary. If you have refugee status, your residence rights are for a longer duration. For subsidiary protection, less time is granted for residential rights. In some cases, there are very stark differences.”

  • Russia's Counterproductive Counterterrorism

    Russia’s counterterrorism approach, which is problematic in both conception and execution, makes Moscow an ill-suited partner with the United States in this field, experts told the U.S. Helsinki Commission at a hearing on June 12, 2019.  The hearing closely examined the development, history, and repercussions of the Kremlin’s approach to counterterrorism under Vladimir Putin, including Moscow’s attempts to present itself as a regional and global leader on this issue.  Witnesses included Dr. Michael Carpenter, Senior Director of the Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement at the University of Pennsylvania and former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense; Rachel Denber, Deputy Director, Europe and Center Asia Division, Human Rights Watch; and Dr. Mariya Y. Omelicheva, Professor of Strategy at the United States National War College of the National Defense University.  In his opening statement, Rep. Richard Hudson (NC-08), who chaired the hearing, noted concerns expressed by many, including the U.S. Director of National Intelligence, about Russia’s attempts to assume the mantle of leadership in the counterterrorism sphere, through efforts that include placing Russian nationals in senior counterterrorism positions in international organizations.  Rep. Hudson further expressed concern regarding overly broad use of “terrorism” and “extremism” labels by the Kremlin and authoritarian regimes across Central Asia, in contravention of their commitments to human rights Rep. Hudson was joined by other Helsinki Commissioners. Sen. Cory Gardner (CO) underscored the inherently destabilizing nature of Russia’s counterterrorism policies and practices and recalled legislation he has introduced that would require the Department of State to formally determine whether Russia should be designated a state sponsor of terrorism.  Rep. Robert Aderholt (AL-04) raised questions regarding Russia’s role in the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight 17 over eastern Ukraine and whether such an action amounts to state-sponsored terrorism, as well as the impact of Russia’s counterterrorism policies on its Muslim population.  Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (PA-01) drew upon his experience in the Federal Bureau of Investigation to highlight the challenges of sharing investigative techniques and best practices for fighting terrorism with Russia, as opposed to other countries in the region.  Dr. Omelicheva discussed how the Kremlin has increasingly prioritized fighting terrorism, both as a policy and as a political theme. She described how punitive measures, rather than a focus on socioeconomic improvement to address root causes of radicalization, have long been a preferred method of Russia’s military and security services for addressing terrorism.  She also noted that some Central Asian states have copied the Kremlin’s heavy-handed methods.    Ms. Denber noted the broad criminal code Russian authorities inappropriately apply—under the guise of fighting terrorism—to persecute people “inconvenient” to the Kremlin.  She discussed in detail other domestic applications of Russia’s counterterrorism criminal laws, including monitoring and storing of Russian citizens’ internet metadata, as well as labeling groups like Jehovah’s Witnesses as extremist organizations.  Russia’s counterterrorism policies may well have alienated segments of Russia’s Muslim population and led individuals to join extremist organizations such as the Islamic State and Hizb ut-Tahrir, Ms. Denber stated.       Dr. Carpenter asserted that active U.S.-Russia counterterrorism cooperation runs counter to U.S. interests and values—highlighting Russia’s penchant for claiming to be fighting extremism while actually punishing dissidents, notably individuals in Crimea critical of the ongoing occupation of the peninsula.  “A single mother was recently imprisoned on extremism charges because she had posted comments critical of Russia’s annexation of Crimea on her social media feed,” he said.    Dr. Carpenter’s experience in government led him to conclude, “Russia approaches counterterrorism from the position of counterintelligence;” when Russia cooperates, it is with the aim of eliciting information rather than pursuing common solutions. Using Syria as an example, he emphasized how Russian leadership does not think in win-win terms when it comes to counterterrorism, even when the U.S. does.  “Moscow will be happy, of course, to host dozens of international conferences, and will periodically suggest that a solution is within reach.  But at the end of the day, its interests are best served when Iran, Hezbollah and Assad are in power to make mischief in the region, because that’s when Russia’s influence with the Europeans, with Israel, and the Gulf States is at its peak,” he said.  Dr. Omelicheva added to these comments with an overview of lessons the Russian government has learned in past failed counterterrorism operations, including the Dubrovka Theater hostage crisis of 2002 and Beslan school siege of 2004.     “The key lesson that the government learned was that they have to have sufficient force to secure the perimeter of the counterterrorism operation, that they need to be able to constrain the freedom of movement, the freedom of mass media, and other types of freedom.” 

  • Helsinki Commission Briefing to Explore Non-Asylum Protections in United States And Europe

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following briefing: PARTIALLY PROTECTED? Non-Asylum Protection in the United States and the European Union Friday, June 14, 2019 2:00 p.m. Rayburn House Office Building Room 2237 Live Webcast: www.facebook.com/HelsinkiCommission The United States and the European Union give legal protection to some people who flee armed conflict or natural disaster, but do not qualify as refugees. In the United States, the Secretary of Homeland Security designates countries of origin for “Temporary Protected Status” (TPS), enabling their nationals to legally remain in the United States and work until and unless the Secretary terminates the designation. Approximately 417,000 individuals from 10 countries currently have TPS, living in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and U.S. commonwealths and territories. In 2018, more than 100,300 people were granted similar non-asylum protection, on an individual basis, across the 28 countries of the European Union. Since 2017, the United States has extended TPS for Somalia, South Sudan, Syria, and Yemen, and announced terminations for El Salvador, Haiti, Honduras, Nepal, Nicaragua, and Sudan. Lawsuits have challenged the terminations. To date, Members of Congress have introduced at least 10 TPS-focused bills in the 116th Congress. This briefing will explore the background and implementation of non-asylum protection in the United States and Europe—including whether some European Union Member States are according this protection even when asylum claims are credible—legislative and legal responses, and implications for policy, law, and protection. The following panelists are scheduled to participate: Marleine Bastien, Executive Director, Family Action Network Movement Sui Chung, Attorney at Law, Immigration Law and Litigation Group, and Chair, Immigration and Customs Enforcement Committee, American Immigration Lawyers Association Jill H. Wilson, Analyst in Immigration Policy, Congressional Research Service Catherine Woollard, Secretary General, European Council on Refugees and Exiles Additional panelists may be added.

  • Helsinki Commission Hearing to Examine Russia’s Approach to Counterterrorism

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following hearing: RUSSIA’S COUNTERPRODUCTIVE COUNTERTERRORISM Wednesday, June 12, 2019 10:30 a.m. Rayburn House Office Building Room 2255 Live Webcast: www.youtube.com/HelsinkiCommission The Kremlin actively seeks to present Russia as a global leader in the practice of counterterrorism and countering extremism. However, Moscow’s policies and practices in this area may be problematic at best and counterproductive at worst. Witnesses will offer expert views on how the Kremlin’s counterterrorism approach has evolved over time; its effectiveness; the extent to which it complies with Russia’s commitments to uphold human rights and fundamental freedoms; regional implications; and whether Kremlin actions dovetail—or not—with U.S. interests.  The following witnesses are scheduled to participate: Dr. Michael Carpenter, Senior Director, Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement; former U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Russia; former National Security Council Director for Russia Rachel Denber, Deputy Director, Europe and Central Asia Division, Human Rights Watch Dr. Mariya Y. Omelicheva, Professor of Strategy at the United States National War College, National Defense University; author, “Russia’s Regional and Global Counterterrorism Strategies” and “Russia’s Counterterrorism Policy: Variations on an Imperial Theme”

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