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Year in Review: 2010 Supplementary Human Dimension Meetings
Friday, January 28, 2011

By Janice Helwig and Mischa Thompson, Policy Advisors

Since 1999, the OSCE participating States have convened three “supplementary human dimension meetings” (SHDMs) each year – that is, meetings intended to augment the annual review of the implementation of all OSCE human dimension commitments. The SHDMs focus on specific issues and the topics are chosen by the Chair-in-Office. Although they are generally held in Vienna – with a view to increasing the participation from the permanent missions to the OSCE – they can be held in other locations to facilitate participation from civil society.

The three 2010 SHDMs focused on gender issues, national minorities and education, and religious liberties. But 2010 had an exceptionally full calendar – some would say too full. In addition to the regularly scheduled meetings, ad hoc meetings included:

A February 9-10 expert workshop in Mongolia on trafficking;

A March 19 hate crimes and the Internet meeting in Warsaw;

A June 10-11th meeting in Copenhagen to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Copenhagen Document;

A (now annual) trafficking meeting on June 17-18; and

A high-level conference on tolerance June 29-30 in Astana.

The extraordinary number of meetings also included an Informal Ministerial in July, a Review Conference (held in Warsaw, Vienna and Astana over the course of September, October, and November) and the OSCE Summit on December 1-2 (both in Astana).

Promotion of Gender Balance and Participation of Women in Political and Public Life

The first SHDM of 2010 was held on May 6-7 in Vienna, Austria, focused on the “Promotion of Gender Balance and Participation of Women in Political and Public Life.” It was opened by speeches from Kazakhstan's Minister of Labour and Social Protection, Gulshara Abdykalikova, and Portuguese Secretary of State for Equality, Elza Pais.

The discussions focused mainly on “best practices” to increase women’s participation at the national level, especially in parliaments, political parties, and government jobs. Most participants agreed that laws protecting equality of opportunity are sufficient in most OSCE countries, but implementation is still lacking. Therefore, political will at the highest level is crucial to fostering real change. Several speakers recommended establishing quotas, particularly for candidates on political party lists. A number of other forms of affirmative action remedies were also discussed. Others stressed the importance of access to education for women to ensure that they can compete for positions. Several participants said that stereotypes of women in the media and in education systems need to be countered. Others seemed to voice stereotypes themselves, arguing that women aren’t comfortable in the competitive world of politics.

Turning to the OSCE, some participants proposed that the organization update its (2004) Gender Action Plan. (The Gender Action Plan is focused on the work of the OSCE. In particular, it is designed to foster gender equality projects within priority areas; to incorporate a gender perspective into all OSCE activities, and to ensure responsibility for achieving gender balance in the representation among OSCE staff and a professional working environment where women and men are treated equally.)

A few participants raised more specific concerns. For example, an NGO representative from Turkey spoke about the ban on headscarves imposed by several countries, particularly in government buildings and schools. She said that banning headscarves actually isolates Muslim women and makes it even harder for them to participate in politics and public life. NGOs from Tajikistan voiced their strong support for the network of Women’s Resource Centers, which has been organized under OSCE auspices. The centers provide services such as legal assistance, education, literacy classes, and protection from domestic violence. Unfortunately, however, they are short of funding.

NGO representatives also described many obstacles that women face in Tajikistan’s traditionally male-oriented society. For example, few women voted in the February 2010 parliamentary elections because their husbands or fathers voted for them. Women were included on party candidate lists, but only at the bottom of the list. They urged that civil servants, teachers, health workers, and police be trained on legislation relating to equality of opportunity for women as means of improving implementation of existing laws. An NGO representative from Kyrgyzstan spoke about increasing problems related to polygamy and bride kidnappings. Only a first wife has any legal standing, leaving additional wives – and their children - without social or legal protection, including in the case of divorce.

The meeting was well-attended by NGOs and by government representatives from capitals. However, with the exception of the United States, there were few participants from participating States’ delegations in Vienna. This is an unfortunate trend at recent SHDMs. Delegation participation is important to ensure follow-up through the Vienna decision-making process, and the SHDMs were located in Vienna as a way to strengthen this connection.

Education of Persons belonging to National Minorities: Integration and Equality

The OSCE held its second SHDM of 2010 on July 22-23 in Vienna, Austria, focused on the "Education of Persons belonging to National Minorities: Integration and Equality." Charles P. Rose, General Counsel for the U.S. Department of Education, participated as an expert member of the U.S. delegation.

The meeting was opened by speeches from the OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities Knut Vollebaek and Dr. Alan Phillips, former President of the Council of Europe Advisory Committee on the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities. Three sessions discussed facilitating integrated education in schools, access to higher education, and adult education. Most participants stressed the importance of minority access to strong primary and secondary education as the best means to improve access to higher education.

The lightly attended meeting focused largely on Roma education. OSCE Contact Point for Roma and Sinti Issues Andrzej Mirga stressed the importance of early education in order to lower the dropout rate and raise the number of Roma children continuing on to higher education. Unfortunately, Roma children in several OSCE States are still segregated into separate classes or schools - often those meant instead for special needs children - and so are denied a quality education. Governments need to prioritize early education as a strong foundation. Too often, programs are donor-funded and NGO run, rather than being a systematic part of government policy. While states may think such programs are expensive in the short term, in the long run they save money and provide for greater economic opportunities for Roma.

The meeting heard presentations from several participating States of what they consider their "best practices" concerning minority education. Among others, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Greece, and Armenia gave glowing reports of their minority language education programs. Most participating States who spoke strongly supported the work of the OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities on minority education, and called for more regional seminars on the subject.

Unfortunately, some of the presentations illustrated misunderstandings and prejudices rather than best practices. For example, Italy referred to its "Roma problem" and sweepingly declared that Roma "must be convinced to enroll in school." Moreover, the government was working on guidelines to deal with "this type of foreign student," implying that all Roma are not Italian citizens. Several Roma NGO representatives complained bitterly after the session about the Italian statement.

Romani NGOs also discussed the need to remove systemic obstacles in the school systems which impede Romani access to education and to incorporate more Romani language programs. The Council of Europe representative raised concern over the high rate of illiteracy among Romani women, and advocated a study to determine adult education needs.

Other NGOs talked about problems with minority education in several participating States. For example, Russia was criticized for doing little to provide Romani children or immigrants from Central Asia and the Caucasus support in schools; what little has been provided has been funded by foreign donors.

Charles Rose discussed the U.S. Administration's work to increase the number of minority college graduates. Outreach programs, restructured student loans, and enforcement of civil rights law have been raising the number of graduates.

As was the case of the first SHDM, with the exception of the United States, there were few participants from participating States’ permanent OSCE missions in Vienna. This is an unfortunate trend at recent SHDMs. Delegation participation is important to ensure follow-up through the Vienna decision-making process, and the SHDMs were located in Vienna as a way to strengthen this connection.

OSCE Maintains Religious Freedom Focus

Building on the July 9-10, 2009, SHDM on Freedom of Religion or Belief, on December 9-10, 2010, the OSCE held a SHDM on Freedom of Religion or Belief at the OSCE Headquarters in Vienna, Austria. Despite concerns about participation following the December 1-2 OSCE Summit in Astana, Kazakhstan, the meeting was well attended. Representatives of more than forty-two participating States and Mediterranean Partners and one hundred civil society members participated.

The 2010 meeting was divided into three sessions focused on 1) Emerging Issues and Challenges, 2) Religious Education, and 3) Religious Symbols and Expressions. Speakers included ODIHR Director Janez Lenarcic, Ambassador-at-large from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Kazakhstan, Madina Jarbussynova, United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, Heiner Bielefeldt, and Apostolic Nuncio Archbishop Silvano Tomasi of the Holy See.

Issues raised throughout the meeting echoed concerns raised during at the OSCE Review Conference in September-October 2010 regarding the participating States’ failure to implement OSCE religious freedom commitments. Topics included the: treatment of “nontraditional religions,” introduction of laws restricting the practice of Islam, protection of religious instruction in schools, failure to balance religious freedom protections with other human rights, and attempts to substitute a focus on “tolerance” for the protection of religious freedoms.

Notable responses to some of these issues included remarks from Archbishop Silvano Tomasi that parents had the right to choose an education for their children in line with their beliefs. His remarks addressed specific concerns raised by the Church of Scientology, Raelian Movement, Jehovah Witnesses, Catholic organizations, and others, that participating States were preventing religious education and in some cases, even attempting to remove children from parents attempting to raise their children according to a specific belief system. Additionally, some speakers argued that religious groups should be consulted in the development of any teaching materials about specific religions in public school systems.

In response to concerns raised by participants that free speech protections and other human rights often seemed to outweigh the right to religious freedom especially amidst criticisms of specific religions, UN Special Rapporteur Bielefeldt warned against playing equality, free speech, religious freedom, and other human rights against one another given that all rights were integral to and could not exist without the other.

Addressing ongoing discussion within the OSCE as to whether religious freedom should best be addressed as a human rights or tolerance issue, OSCE Director Lenarcic stated that, “though promoting tolerance is a worthwhile undertaking, it cannot substitute for ensuring freedom of religion of belief. An environment in which religious or belief communities are encouraged to respect each other but in which, for example, all religions are prevented from engaging in teaching, or establishing places of worship, would amount to a violation of freedom of religion or belief.”

Statements by the United States made during the meeting also addressed many of these issues, including the use of religion laws in some participating States to restrict religious practice through onerous registrations requirements, censorship of religious literature, placing limitations on places of worship, and designating peaceful religious groups as ‘terrorist’ organizations. Additionally, the United States spoke out against the introduction of laws and other attempts to dictate Muslim women’s dress and other policies targeting the practice of Islam in the OSCE region. Notably, the United States was one of few participating States to call for increased action against anti-Semitic acts such as recent attacks on Synagogues and Jewish gravesites in the OSCE region. (The U.S. statements from the 2010 Review Conference and High-Level Conference can be found on the website of the U.S. Mission to the OSCE.)

In addition to the formal meeting, four side events and a pre-SHDM Seminar for civil society were held. The side events were: “Pluralism, Relativism and the Rule of Law,” “Broken Promises – Freedom of religion or belief in Kazakhstan,” “First Release and Presentation of a Five-Year Report on Intolerance and Discrimination Against Christians in Europe” and “The Spanish school subject ‘Education for Citizenship:’ an assault on freedom of education, conscience and religion.” The side event on Kazakhstan convened by the Norwegian Helsinki Committee featured speakers from Forum 18 and Kazakhstan, including a representative from the CiO. Kazakh speakers acknowledged that more needed to be done to fulfill OSCE religious freedom commitments and that it had been a missed opportunity for Kazakhstan not to do more during its OSCE Chairmanship. In particular, speakers noted that religious freedom rights went beyond simply ‘tolerance,’ and raised ongoing concerns with registration, censorship, and visa requirements for ‘nontraditional’ religious groups. (The full report can be found on the website of the Norwegian Helsinki Committee.)

A Seminar on Freedom of Religion and Belief for civil society members also took place on December 7-8 prior to the SHDM. The purpose of the Seminar was to assist in developing the capacity of civil society to recognize and address violations of the right to freedom of religion and belief and included an overview of international norms and standards on freedom of religion or belief and non-discrimination.

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    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following briefing: Ongoing Human Rights and Security Violations in Russian-Occupied Crimea Thursday, November 10, 2016 2:00 PM Rayburn House Office Building Room B-318 In Russia’s ongoing illegal occupation of the Ukrainian region of Crimea, occupying authorities persistently and egregiously violate the human rights of those perceived to oppose Russian annexation of this Ukrainian territory, especially Crimean Tatars.  At the same time, with Russia’s militarization of the peninsula, the security situation in the surrounding Black Sea region is becoming increasingly perilous. The briefing will examine the current state of affairs in the region in the face of Russian aggression, analyze the response of the international community, and discuss how – 40 years after the Ukrainian Helsinki Monitoring Group was formed to  monitor the Soviet Government’s compliance with the Helsinki Final Act – Ukrainians continue to defend Helsinki principles in the face of violations by Moscow. The following panelists are scheduled to participate: Oksana Shulyar, Embassy of Ukraine to the United States John E. Herbst, Director, Dinu Patriciu Eurasia Center at the Atlantic Council; former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine   Paul A. Goble, Editor, Windows on Eurasia; Professor, The Institute of World Politics Taras Berezovets, Founder, Free-Crimea Project, Kyiv, Ukraine

  • Hearing Addresses Genocide, War Crimes Driving Refugee Crisis in OSCE

    WASHINGTON—At a hearing convened today by Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04), witnesses unanimously expressed support for Chairman Smith’s recently introduced Iraq and Syria Genocide Relief and Accountability Act of 2016 (H.R. 5961), bipartisan legislation that provides relief to victims of genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes in Iraq and Syria, and accountability for perpetrators.   “The atrocities in Iraq and Syria have been so horrible, for so long, with so little action from the Administration, that it has been difficult to hope. Nevertheless, when [Secretary Kerry] declared genocide, we dared to hope that finally the Administration would hear the voices of the victims and act. Instead, the Administration has said the right words and done the wrong things,” said Chairman Smith. “Displaced genocide survivors cannot pay for food, medicine, or shelter with words from Washington,” Chairman Smith continued.  “When the Executive Branch fails to acts, then Congress must require it to act. That is why I recently authored and introduced the bipartisan Iraq and Syria Genocide Relief and Accountability Act of 2016, with Representative Anna Eshoo as my lead cosponsor.” Witnesses discussed ways to support religious and ethnic communities that have survived such atrocities. In addition, they encouraged the U.S. to fund the criminal investigation, prosecution, and conviction of the perpetrators, and identified gaps in U.S. criminal statutes that make it difficult to prosecute Americans or foreigners in the U.S. who have committed such crimes. Former U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes Issues David Scheffer said, “H.R. 5961 demonstrates an undeniable logic: the survivors of genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes in Iraq and Syria merit the fullest possible assistance of our government, including consideration of admission of victim refugees to the United States.” “The perpetrators of atrocity crimes not only in Iraq and Syria but elsewhere in the world should be subject to investigation and prosecution,” Scheffer continued. “Federal jurisdiction over crimes against humanity and war crimes remains non-existent or very limited…it is a raw fact that the United States is currently a sanctuary for alien perpetrators of crimes against humanity or war crimes.” “The Iraq and Syria Genocide Relief Act [is] a much needed, not to mention overdue, piece of legislation,” said Chris Engels, deputy director of the Commission for International Justice and Accountability. “Criminal investigations done contemporaneously with the criminal acts are essential to ensuring later accountability. Otherwise, as we have seen in the past, evidence is lost and those responsible for these mass human rights violations go unpunished.” Witnesses also highlighted the humanitarian vulnerabilities and lack of assistance that force the survivors to flee their homes and recommended ways to support entities effectively serving genocide survivors in-country, including faith-based organizations. Steve Rasche, legal counsel and director of resettlement programs for the Chaldean Catholic Archdiocese of Erbil, noted, “Since August 2014, other than initial supplies of tents and tarps, the Christian community in Iraq has received nothing in aid from any U.S. aid agencies or the UN. When we have approached any of these entities regarding the provision of aid assistance …we have been told that we have done too well in our private efforts…every morning we wake up and rob six Peters to pay 12 Pauls.” “The current policy prioritizes individual needs but does not consider the needs of vulnerable communities,” said Carl Anderson, Supreme Knight, Knights of Columbus. “On one hand, we have the unanimous policy of the elected branches of the United States Government stating that a genocide is occurring. On the other hand we have an aid bureaucracy that is allowing the intended consequence of the genocide to continue, even though it is in our power to stop it.” “There is nothing unconstitutional, illegal, unethical or unprofessional about prioritizing their right to survival as a community,” Anderson added, referring to Christian and other communities that face extinction in Iraq and Syria. Bill Canny, executive director for migration and refugee services at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), said, “We are gravely concerned by the small number of religious minorities who have been resettled in the United States during the current fiscal year.” “It is unclear at the time of this writing precisely why the percentage of Syrian Christians, who have been registered as refugees or resettled in the United States as refugees, is so low,” Canny continued. “It is clear, however, that Christians and other religious minorities have become a target for brutality at the hands of the non-state actor ISIS, and that they are fleeing for their lives, and that far too few of them have been attaining U.S. resettlement.” USCCB resettles more refugees annually in the U.S. than any other agency. Chairman Smith was joined at the hearing by a bipartisan group of lawmakers, including Helsinki Commission Co-Chair Senator Roger Wicker (MS), Ranking Commissioner Senator Ben Cardin (MD), and Commissioners Rep. Joe Pitts (PA-16) and Rep. Alan Grayson (FL-09). In 2013, ISIS began its brutal campaign of extermination and expulsion in Syria, expanding to Iraq in 2014. Many of those who survived these atrocities have been joining the flood of refugees streaming out of the region to Europe and other areas of safety. Resolving their plight is a key component to helping address the refugee crisis and has been of intense interest to countries in the OSCE region.

  • Atrocities in Iraq & Syria: Relief for Survivors and Accountability for Perpetrators

      The civil war in Syria, which began in early 2011 and since spread into Northern Iraq has devastated both countries. Estimates of the number of people who have died during Syria's civil war since March 2011 range from 250,000 to 470,000. In Iraq, the estimated range is between 19,000 and 41,650 deaths since January 2014. The people living in these regions have been subjected to an extensive list of atrocities  including genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes. Thosands of refugees have fled Iraq and Syria to seek refuge in the OSCE region. The desperate situation in these areas has resulted in the worst refugee crisis since World War II. With the war in Iraq and Syria showing little signs of abating the danger for vulnerable groups in these countries continues to worsen.  This hearing examined the current situation in Iraq and Syria regarding the persecution of religious and ethnic minorities, and looked at how the United States and the international community can best help protect persecuted people in this region and ensure that perpetrators of genocide and related crimes in Iraq and Syria are punished. It featured witnesses from CIJA, the former Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes Issues, and leaders from the Catholic community. “The atrocities in Iraq and Syria have been so horrible, for so long, with so little action from the Administration, that it has been difficult to hope. Nevertheless, when [Secretary Kerry] declared genocide, we dared to hope that finally the Administration would hear the voices of the victims and act. Instead, the Administration has said the right words and done the wrong things,” said Helsinki Commission Chairman Chris Smith (NJ), “When the Executive Branch fails to acts, then Congress must require it to act. That is why I recently authored and introduced the bipartisan Iraq and Syria Genocide Relief and Accountability Act of 2016, with Representative Anna Eshoo as my lead cosponsor."  Witnesses discussed ways to support religious and ethnic communities that have survived such atrocities. In addition, they encouraged the U.S. to fund the criminal investigation, prosecution, and conviction of the perpetrators, and identified gaps in U.S. criminal statutes that make it difficult to prosecute Americans or foreigners in the U.S. who have committed such crimes. Former U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes Issues David Scheffer said, “H.R. 5961 demonstrates an undeniable logic: the survivors of genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes in Iraq and Syria merit the fullest possible assistance of our government, including consideration of admission of victim refugees to the United States.” “The perpetrators of atrocity crimes not only in Iraq and Syria but elsewhere in the world should be subject to investigation and prosecution,” Scheffer continued. “Federal jurisdiction over crimes against humanity and war crimes remains non-existent or very limited…it is a raw fact that the United States is currently a sanctuary for alien perpetrators of crimes against humanity or war crimes.” “The Iraq and Syria Genocide Relief Act [is] a much needed, not to mention overdue, piece of legislation,” said Chris Engels, deputy director of the Commission for International Justice and Accountability. “Criminal investigations done contemporaneously with the criminal acts are essential to ensuring later accountability. Otherwise, as we have seen in the past, evidence is lost and those responsible for these mass human rights violations go unpunished.” Witnesses also highlighted the humanitarian vulnerabilities and lack of assistance that force the survivors to flee their homes and recommended ways to support entities effectively serving genocide survivors in-country, including faith-based organizations. Steve Rasche, legal counsel and director of resettlement programs for the Chaldean Catholic Archdiocese of Erbil, noted, “Since August 2014, other than initial supplies of tents and tarps, the Christian community in Iraq has received nothing in aid from any U.S. aid agencies or the UN. When we have approached any of these entities regarding the provision of aid assistance …we have been told that we have done too well in our private efforts…every morning we wake up and rob six Peters to pay 12 Pauls.” “The current policy prioritizes individual needs but does not consider the needs of vulnerable communities,” said Carl Anderson, Supreme Knight, Knights of Columbus. “On one hand, we have the unanimous policy of the elected branches of the United States Government stating that a genocide is occurring. On the other hand we have an aid bureaucracy that is allowing the intended consequence of the genocide to continue, even though it is in our power to stop it.” Bill Canny, executive director for migration and refugee services at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), said, “We are gravely concerned by the small number of religious minorities who have been resettled in the United States during the current fiscal year.” “It is unclear at the time of this writing precisely why the percentage of Syrian Christians, who have been registered as refugees or resettled in the United States as refugees, is so low,” Canny continued. USCCB resettles more refugees annually in the U.S. than any other agency. Chairman Smith was joined at the hearing by a bipartisan group of lawmakers, including Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Senator Roger Wicker (MS), Ranking Commissioner Senator Ben Cardin (MD), and Commissioners Rep. Joe Pitts (PA-16) and Rep. Alan Grayson (FL-09).                

  • Helsinki Commission Honored for Work on Ukraine

    At yesterday’s 2016 Ukraine in Washington forum, the U.S.-Ukraine Foundation recognized the Helsinki Commission for four decades of support for Ukraine and Ukrainian dissidents. “Long before Ukraine’s independence and the formation of the House and Senate Ukraine Caucuses, we must remember there was the Congressional Helsinki Commission,” said Robert McConnell, co-founder of the U.S.-Ukraine Foundation. “It was doing everything possible to shine international klieg lights on Ukraine’s human rights issues, from its political prisoners to the illegality of the Ukrainian Catholic Church.”  The Helsinki Commission has a long history of supporting Ukrainians’ aspirations for human rights and democracy, even prior to independence when Ukraine – the largest non-Russian republic in the Soviet Union – was viewed as a particular threat to Moscow’s rule. Since 1991, the Commission has been a strong supporter of the development of an independent, secure, democratic Ukraine. The Commission was instrumental in introducing and ensuring passage of the original resolution calling for the U.S. to recognize Ukraine’s independence in the face of State Department opposition.  In the intervening 25 years, Helsinki Commission hearings, briefings, and other activities have highlighted issues including Chornobyl; the state of democracy and rule of law; the political situation in Ukraine; elections; and – more recently – Russia’s war against Ukraine and human rights violations in Crimea and the occupied territories of the Donbas.  “We know the Ukrainian people want freedom and democracy, whether it be in Crimea or other parts of the country,” said Helsinki Commission Chairman Christopher Smith (NJ-04). “Yet we find again that this persistent aggression by the Russians—which is reminiscent of Soviet times—continues to make the freedom, democracy, and prosperity that the people so richly deserve that much harder to achieve.” (View video.) Commissioners have also played an active role in the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly on Ukraine, especially in condemning Russia’s aggression and violation of all core OSCE principles enshrined in the Helsinki Final Act. Commission leadership has led several Congressional delegations to Ukraine, including three since Russia’s invasion, and the Commission has observed virtually every national election in Ukraine since 1990. “The Helsinki Commission’s efforts then and now must never be forgotten as they were – though often like cries in the wilderness – critically important in keeping the truth of Ukraine alive and in providing a rallying point for so many efforts that eventually helped Ukraine shed the Kremlin’s shackles,” McConnell said. “The Helsinki Commission for decades was like a beacon of hope. It was an outside promise for the Ukrainian Helsinki Group and a critical source of support for Ukrainian-Americans and so many others as they persevered in their quest for freedom against what seemed like insurmountable odds.”

  • Azerbaijan’s Constitutional Referendum Creates Crisis of Legitimacy

    WASHINGTON—In a recent letter to Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04) expressed deep concern about the country’s September 26 constitutional referendum, which proposes changes that would undermine Azerbaijan’s international obligations to protect democracy. The bipartisan letter urging President Aliyev to reconsider holding the referendum and to live up to his government’s commitment to human rights was also signed by Helsinki Commissioner Rep. Joe Pitts (PA-16) and Rep. Adam Schiff (CA-28). “By lengthening presidential terms and expanding presidential authorities, the proposed constitutional changes are susceptible to abuse that would entrench political authority, making it less responsive to the will of the Azerbaijani people,” the Members of Congress wrote. “We are especially troubled by amendments that would restrict fundamental rights that are vital to open public debate and government accountability.” Proposed changes to Azerbaijan’s constitution include extending the presidential term from five to seven years; removing the age limits for holding elected office; providing immunity for vice presidents; allowing the president to dissolve the national assembly and call early elections; and reorganizing the presidential line of succession. The Government of Azerbaijan has already faced international criticism for its crackdown on journalists, activists, opposition politicians, and members of religious minorities.  The referendum would further restrict fundamental freedoms by placing limits on freedom of expression when it provokes “hostility,” freedom of assembly when it “disrupt[s]…public morale,” and property rights when they violate “social justice and effective use.” “The upcoming referendum creates a grave crisis of legitimacy,” the letter read. “Neither the international community nor the Azerbaijani people can have confidence in a vote that takes place without free access to information, open debate, and transparency. That the Azerbaijani people are being asked to vote on measures that erode democratic principles makes the situation even more unacceptable.” In December 2015, Chairman Smith introduced H.R. 4264, the Azerbaijan Democracy Act, a bill that would deny U.S. visas to senior members of the Azerbaijani government until such a time that Azerbaijan makes substantial progress toward releasing political prisoners, ending its harassment of civil society, and holding free and fair elections. The full text of the letter is below. September 8, 2016 His Excellency Ilham Aliyev President of the Republic of Azerbaijan Presidential Palace Istiglaliyyat Street 19 Baku, AZ 1066 Dear President Aliyev, We write to you to express our deep concern regarding Azerbaijan’s upcoming constitutional referendum on September 26, 2016. We believe that the proposed changes to the constitution and the means for adopting them will undermine your government’s international obligations to protect democracy and human rights. By lengthening presidential terms and expanding presidential authorities, the proposed constitutional changes are susceptible to abuse that would entrench political authority, making it less responsive to the will of the Azerbaijani people. We are especially troubled by amendments that would restrict fundamental rights that are vital to open public debate and government accountability. Shortly following independence, the Government of Azerbaijan in 1992 joined the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) thereby expressing its commitment to the protection of fundamental rights and freedoms as one of the basic purposes of government. We regret that in the years hence Azerbaijan's human rights record fails to reflect this commitment. Time and again, the credibility of Azerbaijani elections has been marred by credible reports of ballot stuffing and irregularities with vote counting, as well as limitations on freedom of expression and freedom of association. These troubling precedents motivate our concern about the upcoming referendum. If successful, the vote would change the constitution to extend the presidential term from five to seven years, remove the age limits for holding elected office, provide immunity for vice presidents, allow the president to dissolve the national assembly and call early elections, as well as reorganize the presidential line of succession. Additionally, it would subject fundamental rights to vaguely worded restrictions, circumscribing freedom of expression when it provokes “hostility,” freedom of assembly when it “disrupt[s]…public morale,” and property rights when they violate “social justice and effective use.” We are deeply concerned that Azerbaijani voters are being asked to consider such consequential changes to Azerbaijan’s constitutional framework in a climate that makes free debate all but impossible. In recent days, it has been reliably reported that a number of political activists campaigning against the referendum and several journalists have been detained on trumped-up charges and some have faced mistreatment and torture at the hands of authorities. Even before the latest round of arrests and intimidation, half a dozen journalists were already in jail, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty has remained closed since December 2014, and other independent journalists and media outlets faced official harassment. The upcoming referendum creates a grave crisis of legitimacy. Neither the international community nor the Azerbaijani people can have confidence in a vote that takes place without free access to information, open debate, and transparency. That the Azerbaijani people are being asked to vote on measures that erode democratic principles makes the situation even more unacceptable. We urge you to reconsider this constitutional referendum and to re-invigorate your government’s flagging commitment to promote the freedom and dignity of its people by ceasing all harassment and proceedings that target political activists and journalists who peacefully express their visions for Azerbaijan. We are inspired by the example of these brave voices and hope that your government will recognize that Azerbaijan’s strength and stability derives from the liberty of its people. Sincerely, Christopher H. Smith Member of Congress Joseph R. Pitts Member of Congress Adam B. Schiff Member of Congress           

  • It’s Time for the United States to Act on Azerbaijan

    David J. Kramer is senior director for human rights and democracy at the McCain Institute for International Leadership and a former assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor. Richard Kauzlarich is an adjunct professor at George Mason University and former U.S. ambassador to Azerbaijan and to Bosnia and Herzegovina. Earlier this year, President Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan looked like he was softening his authoritarian grip on his country. In March, he released 14 political prisoners ahead of his visit to Washington for President Obama’s Nuclear Security Summit. Even the harsh anti-American rhetoric from Azerbaijani officials and regime media seemed to subside. While in Washington, Aliyev had sit-downs with Vice President Biden and Secretary of State John F. Kerry. But since the April summit, Aliyev’s regime has intensified its crackdowns on freedoms. Azerbaijan’s rapid, dangerous deterioration demands more decisive action from the United States, yet the Obama administration has remained largely silent. The government in Baku has increased its arrests and detentions of another dozen opposition figures, peaceful religious believers and civil society activists. Nearly 100 political prisoners are languishing in the country’s jails. Azerbaijani writer Akram Aylisli was detained at the national airport and prevented from leaving the country. Faig Amirli, financial director of Azadliq newspaper and assistant to the chairman of the Azerbaijan Popular Front Party, was arrested last month. Other opposition politicians arrested in August include Natiq Jafarli,  executive secretary of the REAL movement, and NIDA civic movement activist Elgiz Qahraman. The situation on the ground may get even worse. On Sept. 26, Aliyev’s regime plans to force a referendum which aims to enhance his powers. The result of the referendum is already known; we can be sure that the government will ensure its approval. That means that Aliyev can extend his term from five to seven years, create new positions of vice president (to which he might name a member of his family) and lower the age for members of parliament — opening the door for his son Heydar to be elected. It would not be a surprise if elections were called early under the new constitution to ratify these authoritarian steps. Quiet diplomacy, we are told, is the only way to protect American interests in Azerbaijan. Along with its strategic location on the Caspian Sea between Russia and Iran, the country of 8 million is rich in oil and gas resources, and plays a role as a national security ally to the United States. No American interests are served if Azerbaijan’s increasing authoritarianism explodes into a political and social crisis. Moreover, Azerbaijan is following in the footsteps of Vladimir Putin’s media tactics in Russia by increasingly  painting the United States as the enemy. An editorial in the state-approved media outlet, Haqqin, accused the United States of “losing” Azerbaijan, “driving it into a corner” and “neglecting a valuable partnership” with Baku. The editorial warned that Azerbaijan will be left with no option but to establish closer relations with its immediate neighbors, Iran and Russia. Aliyev’s supporters have pointed to the failed Turkey coup and have accused the United States of supporting opposition forces not only to spoil the upcoming referendum — but to plot a coup in Azerbaijan. Aside from legislation introduced by Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-N.J.) last December and the cries of activists and human rights groups, Azerbaijan has received a free pass from the Obama administration. Rarely do either the U.S. Embassy in Baku or the State Department in Washington speak out against human rights abuses. Even the 2014 raid on U.S.-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) and the arrest of one of its journalists, Khadija Ismayilova, triggered a mild response from Washington. Ismayilova was released from prison earlier this year but has been refused permission to travel outside the country. RFE/RL  is still barred from operating in Azerbaijan, as are most American nongovernmental organizations. In the past, we have called for sanctions — asset freezes and visa bans — against Azerbaijani officials involved in and responsible for gross human rights abuses, similar to the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law and Accountability Act for Russia. President Obama doesn’t need new legislation to take such measures; he can do so under existing presidential authorities. Beyond that, we should withhold U.S. support for International Monetary Fund and World Bank assistance should Azerbaijan request it amid its deteriorating economic situation and end Overseas Private Investment Corporation and Export-Import Bank lending to Azerbaijan. The United States should consider recalling our ambassador for extended consultations over human rights concerns as well as the rising anti-American rhetoric of Azerbaijan officials and government-sanctioned media. We also need to get the Europeans on board with similar measures. These steps should be taken unless and until all the political prisoners are released and the referendum enhancing Aliyev’s powers is voided. Letting Azerbaijan follow through on its threat to form closer ties with Moscow and Tehran without balance from the United States may be a necessary, albeit unpleasant, learning experience for the regime in Baku. The problem in Azerbaijan is not that Aliyev has too little power; it is that he exercises the power he has in the wrong ways against innocent people.  America’s silence as the situation on the ground worsens risks making us accomplices to a looming human rights disaster in Azerbaijan.

  • Chairman Smith Supports Genocide Victims in Syria and Iraq

    WASHINGTON—Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04), Rep. Anna Eshoo (CA-18), Rep. Trent Franks (AZ-08), and Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (NE-01) today introduced bipartisan legislation to provide relief for survivors of the ISIS-perpetrated genocide against vulnerable religious and ethnic groups in Syria and Iraq, and to ensure that perpetrators of genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes in those countries are punished. The Iraq and Syria Genocide Relief and Accountability Act of 2016, H.R. 5961, directs the U.S. Administration to treat these heinous acts as the crimes that they are, and to prioritize supporting the criminal investigation, prosecution, and conviction of perpetrators. “Mass murder and rape are not only human rights violations – they are also criminal acts that require careful investigation, documentation, and prosecution to bring the perpetrators to justice,” said Chairman Smith. “We need to support entities doing this work in the field, and close gaps in U.S. law so that our justice system can prosecute foreign perpetrators present in the U.S., as well as any Americans who commit such crimes.” The legislation also requires the U.S. State Department to create a “Priority Two” (“P-2”) designation for Iraqi and Syrian survivors of genocide, and other persecuted religious and ethnic groups in Iraq or Syria. Refugees who meet the P-2 criteria are able to apply overseas for resettlement in the United States without requiring a referral from the United Nations, an NGO, or a U.S. Embassy. “Although a P-2 designation does not guarantee admission to the United States – applicants must still clear the same security screening as other refugees – it provides victims of genocide with a much-needed additional path to access the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program,” said Chairman Smith. Finally, the bill directs the U.S. Administration to identify warning signs of deadly violence against genocide survivors and other vulnerable religious and ethnic communities in Iraq or Syria; assess and address the humanitarian vulnerabilities, needs, and triggers that might force them to flee their homes; and ensure that the U.S. supports entities effectively serving genocide survivors, including faith-based entities. Chairman Smith noted that the Chaldean Catholic Archdiocese of Erbil, which provides vital assistance to internally displaced families of Yezidis, Muslims, and Christians, including to all of the approximately 10,500 Christian IDP families in the Erbil region, has received no funding from the U.S. Government or any other government. “So far, the Administration has failed to keep its promise to enable these genocide survivors to remain in Iraq and Syria. It is overlooking groups, like the Chaldean Catholic Archdiocese of Erbil, that are serving tens of thousands of survivors every day. If the needs of these communities are ignored, thousands of victims may have to leave their ancient homelands forever and never return,” Chairman Smith said.

  • Five Years of the Transatlantic Inclusion Leaders Network

    2016 marks the fifth anniversary of the Transatlantic Inclusion Leaders Network (TILN), an innovative project of the U.S. Helsinki Commission, in cooperation with the U.S. State Department, German Marshall Fund, and other stakeholders that prepares diverse, young leaders with a global outlook. TILN bridges the transatlantic divide between the U.S. and Europe by annually bringing together driven individuals from a range of political backgrounds for a week-long workshop focused on inclusive leadership. Workshops take place in European cities ranging from Copenhagen to Brussels to Turin – allowing participants to immerse themselves in international policy-making at national and regional levels.  Participants engage with public and private sector figures while shaping their personal missions and strengthening leadership skills to support careers in public service and transformative initiatives that will promote more equitable societies.  The TILN project already boasts an impressive list of alumni, including U.S. Congressman Ruben Gallego, Swedish Parliamentarian Said Abdu, UN Expert on Minority Issues Rita Iszak, and other Parliamentarians, Ministers, Mayors, City Councilpersons, regional and local leaders. During its five-year history, TILN annual workshops have highlighted issues of special interest to the US Helsinki Commission from the ongoing struggle to realize Roma and migrant rights to racism, anti-Semitism, and religious discrimination.  Additionally, many TILN alumni support innovative initiatives that promote equality and inclusion in their home countries through alumni Action Grants that allow former participants to maintain their connections, further the work of multinational inclusion, and maximize the impact of collective action. For example, former German and Dutch participants have launched national inclusive leadership programs inspired by TILN. The German “Network Inclusive Leaders” program (NILE), created by Gabriele Gün Tank and Daniel Gyamerah of the TILN class of 2013, is a week-long seminar that provides 20 diverse young adults with an opportunity to engage with German political leaders, academics, artists, and others on anti-racism and anti-discrimination efforts. Following the 2016 TILN event, Dutch alumni Mpanzu Bamenga and Kamran Ullah – along with GMF’s Marshall Memorial Fellows Ahmed Larouz and Mei Ling Liem – launched the “Inclusion Leaders Network” in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. The event successfully brought together more than 40 community and political leaders from different parties and sectors to discuss tools and strategies to increase inclusion in political, economic, and education sectors. Both the NILE and the Inclusive Leadership Network have enjoyed the support of the U.S. Helsinki Commission, State Department, GMF, and other stakeholders. Hosted by Helsinki Commissioner Representative Alcee L. Hastings, TILN experts and alumni Simon Woolley, Assita Kanko, Gabriele Gün Tank, and David Mark also attended the 2014 three-day Quad Caucus meeting of the National Black Caucus of State Legislators (NBCSL), the National Asian Pacific Caucus of State Legislators (NAPACSL), the National Caucus of Native American State Legislators (NCNASAL), and the National Hispanic Caucus of State Legislators (NHCSL) in the United States.  In his opening remarks to the Quad Caucus, Commissioner Hastings highlighted the importance of inclusive and representative governance in all countries.  The TILN delegation followed with a panel discussion on the similarity between the U.S. and Europe on experiences of Roma, Muslim, Afro-descent, and other diverse communities, leading to support for joint U.S.-Europe partnerships and initiatives from members of the Quad Caucus. As a result of these meetings, the TILN alumni network was able to organize a speaking tour in Germany for Ajenai Clemmons of NBCSL – a 2015 TILN participant – to share the U.S. minority caucus model in Germany. The momentum of the Quad Caucus also advanced development of anti-discrimination legislation authored by TILN alumni Mpanzu Bamenga in the Netherlands, which was later adopted by Eindhoven City Council. The U.S. Helsinki Commission congratulates TILN on five successful years, and looks forward to witnessing further fruits of the Network as alumni continue to advance inclusive policymaking, thought, and leadership in our societies.

  • Fox Business: Sen. Wicker on Turkey

    Following the July 2016 attempted coup in Turkey, Helsinki Commission Co-Chair Senator Roger Wicker joined Fox Business Network to provide his perspective on recent events in the OSCE participating State and NATO Ally. Calling President Erdogan's subsequent actions "very disturbing," Co-Chairman Wicker noted, "There has been an all-out assault not only on the military -- on admirals and generals -- but also on the judiciary, on universities, on religious leaders." In addition to serving as the co-chairman of the Helsinki Commission, Senator Wicker is a senior member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and chairs the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA) Committee on Political Affairs and Security.

  • President Erdogan's Assault on the Human Rights of the Turkish People

    Mr. SMITH of New Jersey. Mr. Speaker, I rise to remind our government that the human rights abuses committed by Turkish President Erdogan are grave and ongoing, and to distinguish between the Turkish president and the Turkish people--and to stand with the people. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has in recent years been aggressively violating the human rights of Turkish citizens and undermining the rule of law, in order to root out dissent and consolidate his personal power. The freedom of the press and the rights of common citizens to run schools, businesses, and volunteer associations have come under direct threat. Since assuming the presidency two years ago, President Erdogan has undermined the independence of the judiciary, jeopardizing access to a fair trial and undercutting government accountability. In 2014, he worked to stack the country's High Council of Judges and Prosecutors with party loyalists, enabling his government to ease arrest procedures and curtail opportunities for appeal. This facilitated the detention of thousands of activists, journalists, and businessmen under the country's overbroad terrorism statute. The President has exploited his growing leverage over the courts: his government's reshuffling last month of 3,700 judges and prosecutors rewarded pliant members of the judiciary while punishing others who ruled against the government or heard cases involving official corruption. A law passed earlier this month dismissed most of the judges on Turkey's highest courts, leaving it up to the High Council of Judges and Prosecutors to reappoint them or pick their successors. Mr. Speaker, in addition to undermining government institutions, President Erdogan's tightening grip on Turkey is also weakening the vitality of Turkish society. Under President Erdogan's direction, state authorities are undertaking a campaign of retribution against Erdogan's critics. Since Erdogan assumed the presidency in 2014, the government has opened nearly 2,000 cases against people suspected of “insulting the president” – a crime in Turkey. Professional journalists and major news outlets in particular have incurred the wrath of the President. For reporting that is unflattering to Erdogan, whether on national security issues, the conflict with the Kurds, or official corruption, press outlets have been charged with “supporting terrorism” or have had their entire operations taken over by government-appointed trustees. In one of the most egregious examples, Turkish authorities in March raided the offices of the nation's highest-circulation newspaper, Zaman, and overnight placed it under hand-picked, pro-government management. Mr. Speaker, President Erdogan has taken to politicizing the charge of “supporting terrorism”--undermining the serious business of fighting terrorism, one of the gravest threats faced by the Turkish people. One persistent critic of Erdogan's centralization agenda and authoritarian tendencies is Fethullah Gulen, the founder of Hizmet, a moderate, Islamic civic movement dedicated to promoting education, popular piety, and civic engagement. Because of this criticism, Hizmet and its followers have suffered wave after wave of unfounded terrorism charges and forcible government seizures of businesses, universities, and schools. In May, the Turkish Cabinet approved a decision to designate Hizmet a “terrorist organization,” guaranteeing that this campaign of political retribution will continue. Gulen's followers have been placed in the crosshairs of the very arbitrary policies they criticize. Yet neither our State Department, nor the European Union, nor any other respected body outside Turkey, has ever characterized Hizmet as a terrorist group or anything like it--the Cabinet's designation is absurd. Mr. Speaker, in recent months, the Turkish people have been struck by a wave of violent attacks perpetrated by Islamist and Kurdish terrorists--most recently, a triple-suicide attack at Istanbul's international airport by Islamist extremists killed 44 innocent civilians. Our thoughts and prayers go out to all those maimed in these attacks, to all those who lost beloved family and friends. I am confident that the Turkish people--for centuries renowned for their bravery--will never be cowed by terrorists, and that they will equally resist President Erdogan's attempt to undermine their rights, laws, and freedoms. Our government should stand with the Turkish people on both fronts.

  • U.S. Delegation to OSCE PA Drives International Action against Human Trafficking, Discrimination, and Anti-Semitism

    WASHINGTON—Seven members of Congress traveled to the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA) Annual Session in Tbilisi, Georgia last week to demonstrate the U.S. commitment to the principles of the Helsinki Final Act, including respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. At the Annual Session, which brought together nearly 300 parliamentarians from 54 of the 57 OSCE participating States, the U.S. lawmakers introduced several successful resolutions and amendments targeting current challenges facing the OSCE region, ranging from human trafficking to discrimination and anti-Semitism to the abuse of Interpol mechanisms to target political opponents and activists. The delegation included Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04), Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS), Commissioner Rep. Robert Aderholt (AL-04), Commissioner Rep. Randy Hultgren (IL-14), Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick (PA-08), Rep. Richard Hudson (NC-08), and Rep. David Schweikert (AZ-06). Rep. Aderholt currently serves as a vice-president of the OSCE PA, while Sen. Wicker was re-elected to a third term as chair of the OSCE PA Committee on Political Affairs and Security, also known as the First Committee, during the annual meeting. Chairman Smith led international lawmakers in battling international human trafficking and child sex tourism through a successful resolution calling on all OSCE participating States to raise awareness of sexual exploitation of children in travel and tourism (SECTT), especially by convicted pedophiles, business travelers, and tourists. Chairman Smith, who serves as the OSCE PA Special Representative on Human Trafficking Issues, also hosted a July 3 briefing on U.S. efforts to prevent SECTT through a new international reciprocal notification system – known as International Megan’s Law – that facilitates timely communications among law enforcement agencies. A second U.S. resolution, authored by OSCE PA Special Representative for Anti-Semitism, Racism and Intolerance and Helsinki Commission Ranking Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), called for action against the anti-Semitic and racist violence sweeping across North America and Europe. The resolution, which passed overwhelmingly, urged members of the OSCE to develop a plan of action to implement its long-standing body of tolerance and non-discrimination agreements, called for international efforts to address racial profiling, and offered support for increased efforts by political leaders to stem the tide of hate across the region. The resolution was fielded by Commissioner Hultgren. Chairman Smith also called on participating States to more effectively prevent and combat violence against European Jewish communities through the introduction of two amendments to the resolution of the OSCE PA General Committee on Democracy, Human Rights and Humanitarian Questions (also known as the Third Committee). His first amendment called for the explicit recognition of the increase in anti-Semitic attacks in the region, while the second encouraged participating States to formally recognize and partner with Jewish community groups. Responding the abuse of Interpol systems for politically motivated harassment by Russia and other members of the OSCE, Co-Chairman Wicker authored a successful amendment to the First Committee resolution, which called on participating States to stop the inappropriate placement of Red Notices and encouraged Interpol to implement mechanisms preventing politically motivated abuse of its legitimate services. The amendment was fielded by Rep. Hudson. During the Annual Session, members of the delegation also offered strong support for important resolutions fielded by other countries, including one by Ukraine on human rights in illegally occupied Crimea and another on the 30th anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear accident. They voted for a highly relevant resolution on combating corruption fielded by Sweden, and helped to defeat a Russian resolution attacking the Baltic States, Poland and Ukraine in the context of combating neo-Nazism.  U.S. delegates indicated their support for the work of attending Azerbaijani human rights activists, and met with attending members of the Israeli Knesset.  While in Tbilisi, the group also met with several high-ranking Georgian officials, including Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili; Tedo Japaridze, Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, Parliament of Georgia; Mikheil Janelidze, Georgian Minister of Foreign Affairs; and David Bakradze, Georgian Minister of European and Euro-Atlantic Integration.

  • Chairman Smith Introduces Bipartisan, Bicameral Bill to Aid Holocaust Survivors

    WASHINGTON—U.S. Senators Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) and Marco Rubio (R-FL) and U.S. Representatives Chris Smith (R-NJ) and Joe Crowley (D-NY) today introduced the Justice for Uncompensated Survivors Today (JUST) Act. This bipartisan and bicameral bill will improve efforts to assist Holocaust survivors and the families of Holocaust victims by requiring the State Department to report on the progress of certain European countries on the return of, or restitution for, wrongfully confiscated or transferred Holocaust-era assets. “Holocaust survivors—witnesses to the brutal murders, torture and heartless thievery of the Nazis and their accomplices—continue to be cheated and defrauded, inexplicably, as they fight for the rightful return of their stolen property,” said Rep. Smith, who chairs the U.S. Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission. “This bill will help survivors get justice instead of excuses from their governments.” “We urgently need an improved public accounting of other countries’ efforts to address Holocaust-era property restitution issues,” said Senator Baldwin. “Tragically, we are losing survivors every day, and it is my sincere hope that this legislation, by shining a spotlight and solidifying this issue as an American foreign policy priority, will spur action in countries that are falling short of their obligations, ultimately resulting in a measure of justice for these individuals who have waited far too long.” “I am pleased to be the lead Republican sponsor of this important bipartisan legislation which, if passed, will play a critical role in ensuring that Holocaust-era property restitution is finally realized,” said Senator Marco Rubio. “Seventy years after this dark chapter in human history, the restitution of Jewish communal, private and heirless property in Central and Eastern Europe, illegally confiscated by the Nazis and their collaborators during World War II, remains a largely unresolved issue and a source of lasting pain for many Holocaust survivors and their heirs. American leadership in addressing this injustice is vital, which is precisely what this legislation will provide. I join Senator Baldwin in pressing for swift passage of this measure.” “Several decades removed from the horrors of the Holocaust, a substantial amount of Jewish-owned property still hasn’t been returned to their rightful owners, nor have they been compensated. This is unacceptable,” said Rep. Crowley, Vice Chair of the Democratic Caucus. “It’s important that we do what we can to ensure European governments are keeping their word, and I’m proud to join my colleagues in this legislation that will put us one step closer to bringing justice to Holocaust victims, survivors, and their families.” Seventy years after the Holocaust, in which the unprecedented looting of Jewish assets was a central aspect, the restitution of Jewish communal, private, and heirless property in Central and Eastern Europe remains unresolved. Indeed, decades after the Holocaust and the fall of Communism, most formerly Jewish-owned, real properties confiscated by the Nazis and their collaborators have not been returned, nor has compensation been provided to the rightful owners or their heirs. The JUST Act will build on the international Terezin Declaration on Holocaust Era Assets and Related Issues of 2009, which affirms that the protection of property rights is an essential component of a democratic society based on the rule of law and recognizes the importance of restituting or compensating Holocaust-related confiscations made during the Holocaust-era between 1933-45. Unfortunately, many nations that endorsed this declaration, including many of our NATO allies, have not fully addressed the restitution of Jewish communal, private and heirless property. The JUST Act permanently amends current law to require the State Department to report on certain countries’ compliance with and progress toward the goals of the 2009 Terezin Declaration on Holocaust Era Assets, as well as on what actions those countries are taking to resolve the claims of U.S. citizens. This will enhance on-going U.S. efforts to urge Central and Eastern European countries to achieve progress on this issue and will help build on America’s commitment to ensuring justice for Holocaust victims and their families. “Holocaust-era property restitution provides a measure of justice to victims and their families, and to surviving Jewish communities, for the violation of their basic human rights. The JUST Act would encourage countries around the globe to live up to the existing international consensus they endorsed in 2009,” said Abraham Biderman, co-chairman of the World Jewish Restitution Organization's Executive Committee. “We commend Sens. Baldwin and Rubio for helping advance America’s leadership in the fight for justice for Holocaust victims and for the restitution of Holocaust era property.  It is critical to spotlight how countries are fulfilling property restitution commitments and to hold them accountable if they fail to do so.  Enshrining this as a priority of America’s human rights reporting provides another diplomatic tool to enhance the vital efforts of the Office of the Special Envoy for Holocaust Issues,” said Stacy Burdett, Vice President, Government Relations, Advocacy & Community Engagement, Anti-Defamation League. “Seventy years after the end of World War II and twenty-five years since democracy has been restored to the nations of Central and Eastern Europe there can no longer be any excuse for delaying the restitution of Holocaust-era properties to their rightful owners. We hope this legislation will push those governments to finally act,” said Rabbi Andrew Baker, Director, International Jewish Affairs, AJC. The JUST Act has received strong support from organizations across the country including World Jewish Restitution Organization (WJRO), American Jewish Committee (AJC), Anti-Defamation League (ADL), J Street, Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA), B’nai B’rith International, HIAS refugee assistance organization, Milwaukee Jewish Federation and the Jewish Home and Care Center Foundation in Milwaukee.

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