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Citizenship and Political Rights

Political rights refer to an individual's ability to participate in the civil and political life of the society and state without fear of discrimination or repression, and is tied closely to citizenship status. Such rights include not only the right to vote in an election, but also the rights to join a political party; run for office; and participate freely in political rallies, events, or protests.

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  • Tribute to Erika Schlager

    I want to acknowledge one individual who recently announced that she is retiring, Erika Schlager, after 34 years of service to the Commission and to the global community. Erika received her bachelor’s degree from the University of North Carolina in Greensboro, where she graduated magna cum laude and was elected to Phi Beta Kappa. She earned her A.M. degree from Harvard University in Soviet Union studies and her juris doctor degree with honors from the George Washington University Law School. She studied at Warsaw University as a Fulbright fellow and received a diploma from the International Institute of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France. Quite a record. She used that academic preparation to make a difference in the world—and what a difference she made. Erika has been an unfailing professional in her dedication to doing whatever is necessary to ensure that the commission meets its mandate and defends human rights abroad. Her deep expertise, which she has honed over decades of work, is renowned both among policy professionals in the United States and in the countries of Central Europe that she followed for the commission. Erika is one of our nation’s top experts on Europe’s most vulnerable communities. She is a leading voice on Roma rights—Europe’s largest minority, with significant populations also in the United States. I have joined Erika in the crusade to speak up for the Roma population, a group that has been denied citizenship in so much of Europe. What a difference she has made in their lives. Erika has worked with Members of Congress, the Department of State and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to address issues ranging from the enslavement and sterilization of Roma to a permanent memorial in Berlin dedicated to the Sinti and Roma victims of the Nazi regime, to annual recognition of International Roma Day. She has brought to my attention the candidacy of Ethel Brooks to be the first Roma board member of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. I know that Erika will continue to bring Roma perspective and history on the Holocaust to further the tolerance, education, and human rights work of the museum. I have the honor of representing the Senate on the Holocaust Memorial Museum board, and I can tell you that Erika is so deeply respected by the professionals at that museum for the work she has done in furthering the goal of that institution to prevent atrocities against any groups of people. Erika has long been one of my top advisers on the Holocaust restitution and Europe’s Jewish community. She has worked closely with me over the years to raise concerns about the rise of Holocaust revisionism in countries like Hungary and Poland; to foster implementation of the Terezin Declaration on Holocaust Era Assets measures to right the economic wrongs that accompanied the Holocaust; and to hold accountable a French railway that transported thousands of Holocaust victims to their deaths. She worked on all of these issues and made significant progress. Erika has been instrumental in ensuring that the Helsinki Commission works to hold the United States accountable for our own human rights record, examining U.S. policies and conduct concerning Guantanamo Bay detention camps and U.S. policy regarding torture. Erika’s counsel greatly assisted me in my role as the Parliamentary Assembly of the OSCE’s Special Representative on Anti-Semitism, Racism, and Intolerance, where I was focused on human rights and justice here at home and across the expanse of the 57 participating States of the OSCE. From the plight of African Americans and Muslims to migrants and refugees, Erika has been integral to the Helsinki Commission’s mandate of upholding the myriad of human rights commitments defined in the Helsinki Final Act and subsequent OSCE agreements. In addition to her many professional milestones and achievements, Erika retires from the commission having left a deeply personal mark on those she worked with, from diplomats and civil servants to the staff of the Helsinki Commission. She is a natural teacher with a gift of taking a complex issue and distilling it in a way that makes it both relevant and accessible. Erika has taught our diplomats at the Foreign Service Institute and spoken at international meetings and at universities across the nation and around the world. She displayed her exceptional teaching ability at the Department of State’s annual training program on Roma rights, and she has ensured that Roma civil society groups could also participate. She has actively sought out dialogue and collaboration with new colleagues to help deepen their understanding of the Helsinki Commission’s role, of the challenges the commission could usefully seek to address abroad, and of the unique tools at its disposal to do just that. Erika is always quick to ask about a colleague’s well-being or inquire after a family member’s well-being. She has fostered collegiality among the Commission’s staff through her unfailing kindness and good nature. In so doing, she has repeatedly demonstrated how deeply she cares, not just for the work she has dedicated her career to, but also for the people whose great privilege it is to call her a colleague and a friend. I will say on a personal basis that I have benefited so much from her friendship, from her understanding, from her strategic thinking, from where we can make a difference. We know there are a lot of problems around the world. We know we can’t settle all the issues. But Erika helped us focus on areas where we can make a difference, and thanks to her input, we have made a difference. I know I speak on behalf of all Helsinki Commission members and staff and scores of other individuals—many who may not know her name—and groups concerned about advancing human rights around the globe and here at home when I say how we will miss Erika. Henry David Thoreau said: ‘‘Aim above morality. Be not simply good; be good for something.’’ Erika has embodied that maxim in her professional career and in her life. She has made an enormous difference, and she will continue to do so. I wish her all the best with respect to her future endeavors. I know we will continue to hear from her. Thank you, Erika, for the way you served the commission, our country, and the global community.

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

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

  • Helsinki Commission Leaders Call on Belarusian Authorities to Release Journalists, Political Prisoners

    WASHINGTON—In response to the ongoing crackdown on journalists and civil society in Belarus, including the detention of RFE/RL consultant Ihar Losik for almost 300 days on spurious charges, U.S. Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) and commission leaders Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) and Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) issued the following joint statement: “Despite Aleksandr Lukashenko’s attempt to intimidate Belarusians, the resounding call for freedom and democracy in Belarus has been heard around the world. Ihar Losik, Katsiaryna Barysevich, Dzianis Ivashyn, Katsiaryna Andreyeva, and Darya Chultsova are just a few of the brave Belarusian journalists who have been imprisoned for simply doing their jobs. “We stand in solidarity with the people of Belarus, and in admiration of the courageous journalists who provide critical information to their fellow citizens despite the serious risks they face. “We call on Mr. Lukashenko to release all political prisoners without exception, and to end the attacks against journalists, civil society, and all Belarusians peacefully exercising their rights.” Since the run-up to the fraudulent August 2020 election, and during the subsequent protests, Belarusian authorities have conducted a sweeping crackdown on journalists, civil society, and opposition politicians. Sen. Wicker immediately condemned the election results and violence against protestors in Belarus, and Rep. Alcee L. Hastings, then chairman of the Helsinki Commission, asked the U.S. administration to revoke access to the U.S. financial system for the nine largest state-owned companies in Belarus following the government’s violent suppression of peaceful protests. According to Belarusian human rights groups, there are now more than 350 political prisoners in the country. On March 31, the State Department announced that unless Belarus releases all political prisoners, the general license issued by the Treasury Department authorizing transactions with nine state-owned enterprises in Belarus will lapse in late April.  

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

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

  • Chairman Hastings Introduces LITE Act to Foster Shared Values, Restore Faith in Democratic Institutions on Both Sides of the Atlantic

    WASHINGTON—Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) on Thursday reintroduced the Leadership Institute for Transatlantic Engagement (LITE) Act to strengthen ties with U.S. allies, protect democratic institutions, and support visionary leadership on both sides of the Atlantic. The legislation was originally introduced in March 2020. “Dramatic disparities in wealth, health, employment, education, and justice are leading some to question whether democracy can deliver on its promise of freedom and opportunity for all,” said Chairman Hastings. “By helping leaders ensure that laws are equitable, transparent, and enforced; elections are free and fair; and the same protections, rights, and laws are extended to all in their constituencies, we can restore faith in democratic institutions on both sides of the Atlantic.” LITE would further codify transatlantic leadership exchanges and knowledge-building activities to equip Western policymakers with legislative, communications, conflict resolution, and other leadership tools to strengthen democratic institutions in their societies as well as the transatlantic relationship. It complements President Joe Biden’s initiatives to address racial equity and discrimination, as well as to reengage with America’s European allies. Recognizing the rapid and ongoing demographic change on both sides of the Atlantic, LITE also focuses on inclusive and intergenerational solutions to current challenges and would empower individuals across generations and from diverse backgrounds with the knowledge, skills, opportunity, and access to fully participate in their democracies. In addition, LITE would assist in community reunification by helping leaders develop strategies to build resilience against the exploitation of community grievances that can lead to dangerous divisions in society. During the 116th Congress, the Helsinki Commission, under the leadership of Chairman Hastings, organized multiple initiatives to promote inclusive democracies, including a September 2019 hearing on the state of diversity and inclusion in Europe. In December 2019, the commission convened a hearing on public diplomacy initiatives that cultivate leaders who espouse democratic principles, including inclusive and representative governance. In February 2020, the Helsinki Commission hosted more than 30 young legislators from OSCE participating States and partner countries to discuss the role of young people in peace and security efforts and forge a transatlantic network for political action to address emerging human rights and security challenges. For more than a decade, the Helsinki Commission has convened U.S. and European policymakers with the State Department and other partners under the banner of the Transatlantic Minority Political Leadership Conference and Transatlantic Inclusion Leaders Network to support increased political representation in Western democracies. In November 2019, the State Department, in cooperation with the Helsinki Commission, launched a new transatlantic democracy program for youth, “On the Road to Inclusion.” The program empowers young people to collaborate across diverse social, cultural, religious, and generational differences to promote positive change through democratic practices. Representatives Gregory Meeks, Gwen Moore, Steve Cohen, and Sheila Jackson Lee are original cosponsors of the bill.

  • Helsinki Commission Leaders Decry January 6 Attack on U.S. Capitol

    WASHINGTON—Following the violent assault on the U.S. Capitol on January 6, Helsinki Commission leaders Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20), Sen. Roger Wicker (MS), and Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) issued the following statements: “I never thought that in my lifetime I would see our country’s democratic institutions literally under siege.  In America, we pride ourselves on the integrity of our elections and on a peaceful transition of power. We demonstrate this not only through our words but through our actions, both at home as well as abroad, where we ardently support freedom and democracy from Vancouver to Vladivostok,” said Rep. Hastings. “Wednesday’s violence was a vicious attack on democracy, the rule of law, and every value that our country holds dear. President Trump must immediately condemn the actions of his supporters and recommit to his oath to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution for the remainder of his term. Otherwise, the consequences could be unpredictable and potentially dire.” “Our country has long been a beacon of freedom and the orderly transfer of power. Wednesday’s attempt to disrupt our democracy through lawlessness and intimidation was intended to cast doubt on that principle but was doomed to fail. The guardrails held, and the work of the U.S. Congress continues,” said Sen. Wicker. “However, the divisions that led to this chaotic attack on the U.S. Capitol cannot be ignored. If the United States is to continue to inspire others who are fighting for their fundamental freedoms worldwide, we must work together to rebuild confidence in our institutions. In spite of our political differences, all Americans must make it clear that we will not stand for this kind of attack on the rule of law. And we must prosecute to the fullest extent of the law those who seek to undermine our democratic processes through violence.” “Violent behavior and blatant disregard for the rule of law can never be normalized in the U.S. or anywhere around the world. The American Capitol was attacked by a mob incited by a president who refused to accept the results from a free and fair election and who worked to overturn the will of the voters. If a foreign leader acted in such a blatant way to overturn legitimate election results, the full United States Congress rightly would forcefully condemn such autocratic and undemocratic actions,” said Sen. Cardin. “To move forward as a nation, members of both parties must stand together to reaffirm the resilience of our democracy, honestly confront the toxic voices in our society that seek to tear us apart, and so prevail over the dangerous extremism that led to this violent rampage.”

  • Co-Chairman Wicker Urges Russia to Reverse Expulsion of Vanessa Kogan

    WASHINGTON—Following reports last week that Russian authorities cancelled U.S. citizen and human rights lawyer Vanessa Kogan’s residency permit and ordered her to leave the country by mid-December, Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) issued the following statement: “The type of human rights work Vanessa Kogan is doing in Russia is essential in a country where rule of law is often subverted to serve the interests of those in power. After more than a decade living in Russia and after all she has done for so many Russian citizens, to uproot her and her family from their home is cruel political theater. She should be allowed to stay in Russia and continue her work.” Vanessa Kogan is the director of the Justice Initiative Project, which provides legal aid to people whose human rights have been violated in Russia and elsewhere in the former Soviet Union. Its team advocates for victims of torture, abductions, and other grave human rights abuses and has brought many cases to the European Court of Human Rights. Although Kogan has lived in Russia for 11 years, is married to a Russian citizen, and has two children who are dual citizens, authorities gave her just two weeks’ notice to leave Russia after her application for a Russian passport was denied and her residency permit annulled. The reason given was that she “poses a threat to the country's security.” Some of the Justice Initiative’s branches previously have been subject to harassment by Russian authorities, including police searches of their premises, being labeled as “foreign agents,” and being forced out of offices. Russia’s State Duma is currently pursuing an expansion of existing “foreign agent” laws that could create even greater obstacles to the work of NGOs, independent media, and individuals.

  • ONGOING TRANSATLANTIC ENGAGEMENT THROUGH THE OSCE PARLIAMENTARY ASSEMBLY

    Mr. HUDSON. Madam Speaker, I rise today to highlight my recent efforts to engage with our allies across Europe to address the current political turmoil in Belarus and seek a way forward. On September 23, I joined a video call of the leadership of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE PA), where I serve as Chairman the Committee on Political Affairs and Security. Joining us for the discussion were the Head of the Belarusian delegation to the OSCE PA, Mr. Andrei Savinykh, and the leader of the Belarusian opposition and former presidential candidate, Ms. Svetlana Tikhanovskaya. Ms. Tikhanovskaya shared with us the long struggle of the people of Belarus for their rights under President Alexander Lukashenko's 26-year authoritarian rule. The fraudulent presidential election on August 9, in which Lukashenko claimed he ``won'' with over 80 percent of the vote, led thousands of Belarusians across the country to come out into the streets. They risk physical harm and imprisonment to demand free and fair elections and the release of political prisoners. Unfortunately, these individuals have been met with brute force from the authoritarian regime. They continue to injure and detain protestors, journalists, and even bystanders on a massive scale. Instances of torture in detention have been reported, and some have been killed. Lukashenko is clearly afraid for his political future. In another desperate move, he recently held an illegal, early "inauguration'' in an attempt to consolidate his illegitimate power. I strongly condemned Lukashenko's violent repression of Belarusians and express solidarity for their desire to choose their own leadership in a democratic and transparent manner and to exercise their fundamental freedoms without fear of violent repercussions or harassment. During our meeting, I noted two particular cases that we in the United States are watching closely. U.S. citizen Vitali Shkliarov, who was in Belarus visiting family, was unjustly detained in July and languishes in a Belarusian prison since the end of July. We are concerned for his welfare and I called for his release. I also mentioned that the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Minsk-Mogilev, Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz, has been denied re-entry to Belarus after a visit abroad, even though he is a citizen. He has openly criticized the government's use of violence against peaceful people, including the detention of priests and clergy, and we fear that this too is a political act on the part of Lukashenko and an infringement on religious freedom. The future of Belarus belongs to its people, and, as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has emphasized, this path should be ``free from external intervention.'' Indeed, my colleagues in the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly understand that it is not our place to choose the leadership of Belarus, but to use the unique role of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly as a representative body to foster authentic dialogue, prevent and resolve conflict, and hold each other accountable. As an OSCE participating State, Belarus has an obligation to abide by the provisions of the Helsinki Final Act, including those on human rights and fundamental freedoms. I am pleased that 17 participating States of the OSCE, including the United States, have invoked the Moscow Mechanism, which will establish a mission of independent experts to look into the particularly serious threats to the fulfillment of human rights commitments in Belarus. The report that the mission issues will hopefully offer us greater insight into the situation in Belarus and recommendations for future actions. It is a privilege, through the U.S. Helsinki Commission, to represent the United States Congress in the Parliamentary Assembly of the OSCE. The Parliamentary Assembly provides Members of Congress with a unique, bipartisan opportunity to work with our friends and allies to help resolve pressing global issues while promoting our shared values. Because the Parliamentary Assembly includes representatives of Belarus and our European allies, it is uniquely suited to address the human rights and security implications of the moment in Belarus. Madam Speaker, please join me today in calling for an end to violence and mass detentions in Belarus and recognizing the importance of continued Congressional engagement with the Parliamentary Assembly of the OSCE.

  • Chairman Hastings Asks Treasury Secretary to Revoke Access to U.S. Financial System for Largest State-Owned Companies in Belarus

    WASHINGTON—In a letter to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin released today, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) asked the U.S. administration to revoke access to the U.S. financial system for the nine largest state-owned companies in Belarus. The letter, which follows the violent suppression of peaceful protests in Belarus after the country’s fraudulent presidential election on August 9, reads in part: “As President Alexander Lukashenko violently suppresses peaceful protests in the Belarus and flouts international election commitments, it is unacceptable for the United States to be doing business with this brutal regime… “Executive Order 13405—Blocking Property of Certain Persons Undermining Democratic Processes or Institutions in Belarus—was originally issued in June 16, 2006 in reaction to [Belarus’] March 2006 elections and subsequent repression of protests.  It targets the human rights abuses that have sadly become characteristic of the Lukashenko regime and which he is committing now more aggressively than ever as he attempts to squash fair political competition. There has never been a more appropriate time to fully implement this Executive Order and consider expanding its principle objectives with additional executive action.” During the March 2006 presidential election in Belarus, Chairman Hastings led the OSCE’s short-term international election observation mission of more than 500 observers; its report noted that the “arbitrary use of state power and widespread detentions showed a disregard for the basic rights of freedom of assembly, association and expression, and raise doubts regarding the authorities' willingness to tolerate political competition.” The full text of the letter can be found below: Dear Mr. Secretary, I request that you revoke General License No. 2G with respect to Executive Order 13405, which authorizes access to the U.S. financial system for the nine largest state-owned companies in Belarus.  As President Alexander Lukashenko violently suppresses peaceful protests in the Belarus and flouts international election commitments, it is unacceptable for the United States to be doing business with this brutal regime. For the March 2006 presidential election in Belarus, I served as Special Coordinator of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Chair-in-Office, where I led the international election observation mission of more than 500 observers and declared that those elections were not free and fair.  At that time, President Lukashenko failed to live up to international commitments by arbitrarily preventing 19 international observers from joining the mission, enforcing a pattern of intimidation against voters and opposition candidates, as well as manipulating state media.  I am sad to see that nothing has changed in more than a decade and the reach of President Lukashenko’s regime has consequently done even more irreparable damage to the Belarusian people. Ahead of Belarus’ presidential election on August 9, Lukashenko, who has been in power for 26 years, has once again authorized crackdowns on opposition protestors, journalists, and civil society activists.  Over 1,300 people were arbitrarily detained in the course of the campaign.  Still more are being detained in protests following the election.  The president disqualified or jailed his top three competitors, hoping to ensure victory.  Belarus also failed to extend a timely invitation to international observers, preventing impartial monitors from the OSCE from observing the election process, which increases the likelihood of large-scale fraud. Lukashenko underestimated, however, how much the public would rally around the wife of an intended presidential candidate who was unjustly imprisoned.  As an opposition candidate and everyday citizen concerned for the future of Belarus, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya has mobilized thousands across Belarus to demand change in their country, starting with free and fair elections.  Tikhanovskaya and her family are now safely in refuge under the protection of the Lithuanian government for fear of what might become of them now that the fraudulent election results have been announced. Executive Order 13405—Blocking Property of Certain Persons Undermining Democratic Processes or Institutions in Belarus—was originally issued in June 16, 2006 in reaction to the aforementioned March 2006 elections and subsequent repression of protests.  It targets the human rights abuses that have sadly become characteristic of the Lukashenko regime and which he is committing now more aggressively than ever as he attempts to squash fair political competition. There has never been a more appropriate time to fully implement this Executive Order and consider expanding its principle objectives with additional executive action. The people of Belarus have demonstrated through these protests their deep desire for democracy and their refusal to be silenced.  It is incumbent upon us to stand with them.  At the very least, this means that we should not be inadvertently providing support to the Lukashenko regime by allowing its state-owned companies access to our financial system. Sincerely, Alcee L. Hastings Chairman

  • The OSCE: A Bulwark Against Authoritarianism

    As we mark the 45th anniversary of the 1975 signing of the Helsinki Final Act, the founding document of today’s Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the ideals of democracy that had been advanced by that pact—freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and civil liberties—are under threat. In 1975, Soviet totalitarianism was the great threat to human rights and fundamental freedoms; today, authoritarianism poses a growing threat to human dignity and rights in the region. Authoritarianism is a fact of life in much of Eurasia, a reflection of the actual worldwide tension between countries defending universal human rights obligations and countries attempting to undermine trust in democratic institutions and promote an authoritarian model. This is true not only in repressive nations like Russia; even among some U.S. partner countries, there are warning signs. Some nations have also taken it upon themselves to block vital leadership roles in international institutions during a global pandemic unlike anything we have seen in a century. The ultimate outcome of this conflict is up to us. Liberty and human rights will prevail, but only if freedom-loving people everywhere join together to defend and preserve human rights and fundamental freedoms for all. Many international institutions dedicated to freedom and human rights were founded with U.S. support in the wake of World War II, in which more than a million U.S. citizens were either killed or wounded and trillions of dollars spent on the effort to defeat fascism. Democratic ideals are ingrained in the founding charters that established those organizations. For nearly 75 years, such institutions have consistently served as a bulwark against totalitarianism, communism, terrorism, and other forms of tyranny; limited conflict among nations; helped raise millions out of poverty; and spread democratic values throughout the world. The OSCE grew out of the Helsinki Final Act, a 1975 political agreement among the United States, Canada, the Soviet Union, and other European nations. Signed by both democratic and communist regimes, the Final Act acknowledged openly that respect for human rights within states is crucial to security among states, and that human rights concerns could legitimately be raised among signatories. Today, the OSCE is the world’s largest regional security organization, encompassing 57 countries in Europe, as well as the United States and Canada.  It includes Russia, Ukraine, and many other successors of the former Soviet Union, reaching as far east as Central Asia and Mongolia, and north beyond the Arctic Circle. The phrase “Vancouver to Vladivostok” accurately describes the organization’s reach. With its “comprehensive concept of security,” the OSCE addresses military security, economic and environmental cooperation, and human rights and takes steps to prevent, manage, and resolve conflict within and among its members. The OSCE also supports the democratic development of nations that gained or regained independence in the post-Cold War period and are still finding their footing, often torn between corruption and the promise of a democratic future. Thirteen OSCE field missions operate in member countries seeking assistance in developing their democratic institutions. The OSCE recognizes and supports the important role played by civil society and the media in holding governments to account for blatant human rights violations and abuses of power. Unprecedented Gap in OSCE Leadership OSCE institutions—including its assembly of national legislators—foster an essential defense against the spread of authoritarianism. However, despite its comprehensive vision, we are now faced with an unprecedented gap in leadership at the OSCE due to the block on the extension of mandates for four senior leaders, including the Secretary General. Each week, the OSCE Permanent Council—comprising ambassadors to the OSCE from each participating State—meets in Vienna, Austria. In this forum, the United States seeks to shine a light on contraventions of States’ OSCE tenets and violations of international law. The OSCE independent institutions, like the field missions, carry those messages forward.  In addition to the organization’s other work defending human rights and fundamental freedoms, its Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) manages the OSCE’s election observation missions, internationally recognized as the “gold standard” for their methodology. Other independent offices lead the OSCE’s work on Freedom of the Media and rights of national minorities. Unfortunately, in July, these vital institutions were deprived of strong and consistent leadership by countries—including Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, and Turkey—that seem intent on attempting to weaken the OSCE’s ability to hold countries accountable for their actions and undermining the principles of the Helsinki Final Act. The executive and legislative branches of the U.S. government are partners in bringing American leadership to support the OSCE’s work. Several times each year,  members of Congress—including lawmakers serving on the U.S. Helsinki Commission, which monitors implementation of the Helsinki Accords  —gather at meetings of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, where they secure political commitments and build mutually beneficial relationships among legislators from the OSCE’s participating States to help push back against anti-democratic actions by national governments. Unfortunately, several OSCE participating States—countries that have repeatedly committed to upholding the principles and values enshrined in the Helsinki Final Act— are exhibiting a troubling slide toward authoritarianism. The United States and our democratic allies have criticized efforts to restrict and persecute journalists, human rights defenders, civil society, members of the political opposition, and members of ethnic and religious minorities. We also have jointly criticized efforts to stifle media freedom and limit political pluralism in Russia, Belarus, Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan, as well as raised concerns about media consolidation in Hungary, and limitations on freedom of speech and freedom of the press elsewhere. Russia’s Destabilizing Actions No OSCE participating State bears more responsibility for fomenting mistrust, insecurity, corruption, and human rights violations and abuses in this region than the Russian Federation. Russia’s destabilizing actions contravene all 10 Helsinki Final Act principles, ranging from respect for human rights to the prohibition of military incursions into neighboring countries. Russia continues its aggressive actions in Ukraine, including its purported annexation of Crimea. The proxy forces Russia arms, trains, leads, and fights alongside in eastern Ukraine make it dangerous for the unarmed OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine to fulfill its Permanent Council-approved mandate to monitor the conflict. Russia uses its resources—economic, political, informational, and military—to defeat freedom and democracy. Russia does not rely on military force alone to threaten democratic governance; it also uses hybrid tactics daily, ranging from cyber intrusions to influence campaigns — aimed at undermining democratic elections. We hope that someday, authoritarian countries like Russia will start behaving again according to the rules of international law. Unfortunately, these countries currently reject the values of democracy, liberty, and human rights. The authoritarian regimes view democracy as an existential threat—hence the actions some of them have taken to restrict the OSCE’s ability to do its work.  The struggle today is between those who believe authoritarianism is the right way forward and those of us who still believe that Thomas Jefferson was right in his declaration that the desire for freedom exists within the heart of every human being. In a hyper-connected modern world in which disinformation becomes an ever more powerful weapon and the divisions within free societies are exploited by malign actors, U.S. membership in organizations like the OSCE emphasizes clearly, openly, and emphatically that America will not cede the field to the authoritarian regimes. We will not allow them to be the ones to dictate what is truth and what is fiction. Human Rights and Ideals Just as Valid in 2020 Through the OSCE, the United States directly confronts the deceit of Russia and other authoritarian powers. By raising our voices, through our participation and leadership, we reassure our friends that the United States stands with them and supports our shared values against the growing tide of autocracy. By raising our voices, we remind allies and adversaries alike that the United States remains engaged and committed to what is fair, what is right, and what is true. Together, our U.S. Mission to the OSCE and the U.S. Helsinki Commission remind allies and adversaries alike that America will not ignore regimes that are actively hostile to our values and see our liberty as an existential threat. We will always prioritize respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, defend the principles of liberty, and encourage tolerance within societies, because such efforts are vital to the promotion of democracy and to U.S. national security. We reject the authoritarian notion that our fundamental freedoms are a weakness. They are our greatest strength. The United States and other like-minded countries use the power of the OSCE to show that human rights and ideals are just as valid in 2020 as they were in 1975, when the Helsinki Accords were signed. These rights not only ensure the physical, economic, and mental wellbeing of all our populations, they make the countries’ governments stronger by building legitimacy in the eyes of their citizens. America’s unwavering support of these values through multilateral organizations like the OSCE remains vital. As noted in the Trump administration’s U.S. National Security Strategy, “Authoritarian actors have long recognized the power of multilateral bodies and have used them to advance their interests and limit the freedom of their own citizens.  If the United States cedes leadership of these bodies to adversaries, opportunities to shape developments that are positive for the United States will be lost.” The OSCE deserves to be recognized by the people of both the United States and our allies and partners as a valuable tool in the fight against autocracy. We must not abandon it by leaving its most important institutions without leadership beyond its 45th anniversary. Instead, through our efforts, and those of our allies and partners in the OSCE, we must continue to defend liberty and human rights in our region and provide a beacon of hope for citizens everywhere who aspire to a free and democratic future.

  • Hastings: Petty Parochialism Denies OSCE Vital Leadership During Global Crisis

    WASHINGTON—Following yesterday’s failure of OSCE representatives to renew the mandates of four leadership positions—the OSCE Secretary General, the High Commissioner on National Minorities, the Representative on Freedom of the Media, and the Director of the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights—Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) issued the following statement: “We are in trouble when petty parochialism denies us vital leadership in the midst of a global crisis. Now more than ever, reliable multilateral institutions are needed to forge solutions during and after the current pandemic.  “Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, Turkey, and other OSCE participating States who have blocked consensus on extending dedicated public servants should be ashamed of themselves. History will show the folly of abandoning essential leadership for cooperation.” Negotiations to renew each mandate collapsed in part in response to the written objections of Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, and Turkey, and the subsequent withholding of consensus by other participating States. Even efforts to devise interim extensions failed, leaving vital OSCE leadership positions vacant during an unprecedented global crisis. The failure highlights the unwillingness of some OSCE participating States to live up to their stated commitments to democratic institutions, the rule of law, media pluralism, and free and fair elections. Leaving key leadership roles unfilled drastically weakens the OSCE’s ability to hold countries accountable for their actions and undermines the principles of the Helsinki Final Act.  The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) is the world’s largest regional security organization. It spans 57 participating States reaching from Vancouver to Vladivostok. The OSCE sets standards in fields including military security, economic and environmental cooperation, and human rights and humanitarian concerns. In addition, the OSCE undertakes a variety of initiatives designed to prevent, manage, and resolve conflict within and among the participating States.

  • Chairman Hastings Marks International Roma Day, Notes Consequences of Systemic Racism Exposed by Pandemic

    WASHINGTON—To mark the occasion of International Roma Day on April 8, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) issued the following statement: “This year, we sadly must put aside many of the annual celebrations of Romani art, culture, music, and heritage that usually mark International Roma Day, and instead address the urgent concerns exposed by a global pandemic. “This health crisis has spotlighted many of the consequences of systemic racism long faced by Romani communities. Unequal access to care—or in some cases even basic sanitation and clean running water—puts not only Roma but also other socially excluded groups in great danger of infection. Now more than ever, governments must ensure that all members of society have permanent access to healthcare, functioning sanitation facilities, and clean water. “In addition, around the world—even in our own country—there are those who seek to use this crisis to fan the flames of bigotry. We must not tolerate or excuse such discrimination on the basis of fear. Stoking racism and xenophobia will not make us healthier or stronger. It will only divide and weaken us at a time when unity is most needed. “To successfully counter COVID-19, OSCE participating States must work with local community representatives to build trust, enhance the transparency of national initiatives, and bolster participation in critical public health efforts. Roma and other marginalized groups must not be forgotten. To quote from the OSCE Action Plan, ‘for Roma, with Roma.’” In the April 2020 episode of the Helsinki Commission’s “Helsinki on the Hill” podcast, Romani scholar and activist Dr. Margareta Matache discussed the state of Roma rights in Europe, as well as resolutions introduced by Helsinki Commission leaders to celebrate Romani American heritage.   In April 2019,  Chairman Hastings, Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS), Rep. Steve Watkins (KS-02), and Ranking Helsinki Commissioner Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) introduced resolutions in the U.S. House of Representatives (H.Res.292) and the U.S. Senate (S.Res.141) celebrating Romani American heritage.  In 2003, OSCE participating States adopted an “Action Plan on Improving the Situation of Roma and Sinti within the OSCE Area.” These guidelines—recommendations for participating States and OSCE institutions—are intended to combat racism and discrimination; ensure equal access and opportunities in education, employment, housing, and health services; enhance Romani participation in public and political life; and address issues relating to Roma in conflict and post-conflict situations.

  • Reflecting on Chechnya

    By Mia Speier, Max Kampelman Fellow On December 11, 1994, Russian forces advanced into Chechnya, a republic in the North Caucasus near Georgia and Azerbaijan, to stop an attempt at secession. A Chechen separatist movement started to gain momentum following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Russians refused to allow any chance at separation. This marked the start of the First Chechen War, a conflict that erupted after decades of hostilities between the former Soviet government and the Chechen forces. The war dragged on for nearly two years, destroying the capital city of Grozny and killing tens of thousands of people—mostly civilians. The conflict, which started as an internal national movement, was complicated by flows of foreign money and foreign fighters. Militant Islamists joined the fight against Russia during the latter half of the war as part of a declared global jihad. Officials in Russia feared a repetition of the violence that occurred during the Soviet war in Afghanistan nearly a decade prior. Though Russia withdrew from Chechnya for a short time after the first war, the Second Chechen War broke out in 1999. This second war began after Putin blamed Chechen secessionists for bombings that killed Russian civilians, although there was no evidence of Chechen involvement in the bombings. Russian forces were sent into the republic again, and the Russian government succeeded in putting Chechnya under its control. Since then, the region has been a republic of Russia and is governed by Putin-appointed president Ramzan Kadyrov. Amid the conflict, however, the international community took steps to confront Russian aggression and violence in the region. On March 13, 1997, the U.S. Helsinki Commission convened a hearing called “The Future of Chechnya,” to discuss the efforts of Chechen citizens to free themselves from Russia’s painful yoke and fight back against Moscow’s defiance of international principles and the rule of law. The Helsinki Commission hearing focused on the 1994 Organization for Security and Cooperation Budapest Document that requires all participating States, including Russia, to ensure that their armed forces are commanded in a way that is consistent with international law. At the time of the hearing, an estimated 30,000 to 80,000 people had died in the territory, and tens of thousands of citizens had been displaced. The violence against and displacement of citizens in Chechnya was a clear violation of the Budapest Document. Then-Chairman Rep. Alfonse M. D’Amato chaired the hearing and noted that though many people were paying attention to the ongoing conflict in Bosnia at the time, it was important to also pay attention to the conflict in Chechnya and, more specifically, to think about the role of the OSCE in the region. “The world watched, horrified, as the Russian military used massive firepower against the Chechen guerrillas,” D’Amato said. “While the international community recognizes the principles of territorial integrity, there can be no doubt that in its effort to keep the Chechens in the Russian Federation, the Russian Government violated recognized international principles.” Since 1997, the Helsinki Commission has held several other public events related to human rights abuses, arbitrary arrests, abductions, and disappearances and the plight of Chechen refugees. In 2003, the commission penned a letter to then-Secretary of State Colin Powell urging the U.S. delegation at the United Nations Commission on Human Rights in Geneva to express concern over reported rights violations in Chechnya. Though it has been nearly 30 years since the First Chechen War, the situation in Chechnya remains bleak. In 2017, Congress passed a bipartisan resolution condemning widespread anti-LGBT persecution and violence in Chechnya after it was revealed that state law enforcement officials beat, imprisoned, and murdered hundreds of men perceived to be gay or bisexual. In June 2018, then-Chairman (and current Co-Chairman) Sen. Roger Wicker and Sen. Benjamin Cardin penned a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo urging the United State to invoke the OSCE’s Moscow Mechanism in response to escalating human rights abuses in Chechnya. The Moscow Mechanism allows for the establishment of a short-term fact-finding mission to address a specific human rights concern in the OSCE region. In November 2018, the 16 of the 57 OSCE participating States invoked the Moscow Mechanism to investigate the alleged disappearances, killings, and torture taking place in Chechnya—all of which were concerns raised at a Helsinki Commission hearing just months prior.  Though Russia failed to cooperate with the fact-finding mission, the resulting report concluded that the evidence clearly confirmed the allegations of very serious human rights violations and abuses in the Chechen Republic of the Russian Federation. Today, multiple reports of journalists and bloggers in Chechnya being beaten or murdered calls for even more concern for individual freedom and civil liberties in the region. In early February, Yelena Milashina, a prominent Russian journalist and lawyer who exposed the cruelty against gay Chechen men, was beaten in Grozny. Imran Aliev, an outspoken Chechen blogger who criticized President Ramzan Kadyrov, was found murdered in France earlier this year. Aliev’s death is one of many deaths and disappearances in recent years of Chechen dissidents throughout Europe, sparking heightened fears of Chechen death squads hunting down those seeking asylum outside of the republic.

  • Chairman Hastings Introduces LITE Act to Strengthen Ties with U.S. Allies, Support Visionary Leadership on Both Sides of the Atlantic

    WASHINGTON—Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) yesterday introduced the Leadership Institute for Transatlantic Engagement (LITE) Act (H.R.6239) to strengthen ties with U.S. allies, protect democratic institutions, and support visionary leadership on both sides of the Atlantic. “Numerous challenges are putting western democracies and the transatlantic partnership at risk, including disparities in wealth, health, employment, education, and justice that lead citizens to question whether democracy can deliver on its promise of freedom and opportunity for all,” said Chairman Hastings. “We must find new and better ways to help democratic leaders ensure that laws are equitable, transparent, and enforced; elections are free and fair; and the same protections, rights, and laws are extended to all in their constituencies.”  LITE would further codify transatlantic leadership exchanges and knowledge-building activities to equip western policymakers with legislative, communications, conflict resolution, and other leadership tools to strengthen democratic institutions in their societies as well as the transatlantic relationship.  Recognizing the rapid and ongoing demographic change on both sides of the Atlantic, LITE focuses on inclusive and intergenerational solutions to current challenges and would empower individuals across generations and from diverse backgrounds with the knowledge, tools, opportunity, and access to fully participate in their democracies. In addition, LITE would assist in community reunification by helping leaders develop strategies to build resilience against the exploitation of community grievances that can lead to dangerous divisions in society. For more than a decade, the Helsinki Commission has convened U.S. and European policymakers with the State Department and other partners under the banner of the Transatlantic Minority Political Leadership Conference and Transatlantic Inclusion Leaders Network to support increased political representation in western democracies.  In 2019, Helsinki Commission held hearings featuring European lawmakers, and focusing on global leadership, democracy, and public diplomacy.  In February 2020, the Helsinki Commission hosted more than 30 young legislators from OSCE participating States and partner countries to discuss the role of young people in peace and security efforts and forge a transatlantic network for political action to address emerging human rights and security challenges.

  • Chairman Hastings Introduces Bill to Promote Diversity and Inclusion in the Federal Workforce

    WASHINGTON—Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) yesterday introduced H.R.6240, a bill to establish a government-wide diversity and inclusion plan to ensure fair access and opportunity to federal jobs for all Americans.  “Estimates indicate that by 2050, more than half of the U.S. workforce will be made up of Americans from diverse populations,” said Chairman Hastings. “Effectively governing our nation will require that we fill federal jobs—whether they are in the military, intelligence, foreign service, health, or education sectors—with an equally diverse federal workforce who can meet the needs of our country.” The bill would require the development of a government-wide diversity and inclusion plan to ensure that all branches of the federal government are engaged in multi-year strategic planning to recruit, hire, promote, retain, and support workers representing America’s diverse talent pool. It also calls for a review of diversity in government contracting and grant-making. “Diversity and inclusion are the underpinnings of democratic societies,” said Chairman Hastings. “It is time to ensure that those from all segments of our society have an equal opportunity to contribute to the future of our nation as part of the vibrant workforce that is at the heart of our democracy.” The introduction of the bill follows the February 2020 GAO report highlighting problems in the State Department and legislative initiatives to increase diversity in the national security workforce.  Advancing societies that are safe, inclusive, and equitable is central to the work of the Helsinki Commission. The commission supports programs to address inequities in employment, political participation, and other sectors for women and minorities and strives to empower communities to unite against bias and discrimination to foster truly democratic, inclusive, and free societies.

  • Restrictions on Civil Society in Hungary

    Since returning to power in 2010, Viktor Orban has systematically dismantled a system of checks and balances, facilitating the consolidation of control by the Fidesz government, which is now in its fourth (third consecutive) term. This has included introducing significant changes to the legal framework for parliamentary elections; stripping hundreds of faiths of their state recognition in 2011 and then channeling money to religious groups that do not challenge government positions (increasing dependence of those groups on the state); overseeing the consolidation of most Hungarian media, first into the hands of government-tied oligarchy and then into a single foundation exempt from anti-trust regulation; and eroding judicial independence by, for example, expanding and packing the constitutional court. In light of restrictions imposed on political opposition, faith organizations, the media and the judiciary, the role of Hungarian civil society in holding the government to account (by, for example, suing the government for non-compliance with the Hungarian constitution or Hungary’s international legal commitments) has taken on heightened importance. At the same time, civil society organizations have become the targets of escalating rhetorical attacks and legislative restrictions, including laws that significantly lower the bar for what it takes to jail people who seek to exercise their freedoms of speech, assembly, and association. Download the full report to learn more. Contributors: Erika Schlager, Counsel for International Law and Daniela Ondraskova, Max Kampelman Fellow

  • Human Rights and Democracy

    For nearly three decades, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) has been at the forefront of efforts to promote human rights and democracy throughout the 57-nation OSCE region. Although best known for international election observation, ODIHR has also been instrumental in countering various forms of intolerance, helping governments combat human trafficking, protecting human rights defenders, and implementing OSCE commitments to fundamental freedoms. The U.S. Helsinki Commission convened the hearing to demonstrate bipartisan support for ODIHR, to reinforce the U.S.’s support related OSCE initiatives, and to hear about the ongoing work of ODIHR.  Commission Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) chaired the hearing and was joined by Commissioners Rep. Robert Aderholt (AL-04), Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), Rep. Gwen Moore (WI-04), and Rep. Marc Veasey (TX-33). Rep. Wilson’s opening remarks highlighted the historic achievements of ODIHR, which include assisting countries to “transition from communism to democracy,” supporting “civil society participation in OSCE events,” and facilitating “strong cooperation with the Parliamentary Assembly.”  In her first appearance before Congress, ODIHR Director Ambassador Ingibjörg Sólrún Gísladóttir addressed multiple challenges that have impeded the effectiveness of ODIHR activities. She then outlined ODIHR’s role in offering proactive solutions.  In particular, Ambassador Gísladóttir stressed the importance of dialogue and asserted that democracy is about “respect and trust, an acceptance of differing opinions, an exchange of views, and the willingness to share power and seek compromise.” She concluded on an optimistic note, emphasizing unity within the OSCE and its “commitment to democracy and to the wellbeing of its people.” Although conscious of ODIHR’s efforts, commissioners voiced concerns that some OSCE participating States are not complying with their commitments to uphold basic human rights standards. Commissioners specifically acknowledged restrictions on religious freedom in Russia, poor conditions for activists and journalists, and rising anti-Semitism and discrimination against the Roma people across the region. This hearing continued the Helsinki Commission practice of regularly engaging with senior OSCE officials.The Commission typically holds hearing with the foreign minister of the country holding the rotating chairmanship of the OSCE. The Commission has also held hearings with previous ODIHR directors as well as the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media.

  • Election Observation 101

    On January 22, 2020, Helsinki Commissioner Rep. Mark Veasey (TX-33) moderated a roundtable at the Texas A&M School of Law titled “Election Observation 101: Strengthening Democracies Old and New in the 21st Century.”  Rep. Veasey—who also is a co-chair of the Congressional Voting Rights Caucus and a former member of the Elections Committee in the Texas House of Representatives—and expert panelists discussed the importance of election observation missions across the OSCE region. Rep. Veasey was joined at the roundtable by veteran election observer Lindsay Lloyd, director of the human freedom initiative at the George W. Bush Institute; Amanda Schnetzer, chief operating officer of Pointe Bello; and Helsinki Commission Chief of Staff Alex T. Johnson.  Law school dean Robert Ahdieh offered a warm welcome and reflected on his fondest memories of the Helsinki Commission as a young man living in Moscow, Russia. Rep. Veasey then set the stage with the 30-year celebration of the 1990 Copenhagen Document which established the international standards for “free and fair elections”, while Mr. Lloyd explained the dynamics of how teams are assembled. Mr. Johnson further clarified the role of observers as strict watchers or objective examiners, and never interventionists, and Ms. Schnetzer shared how her experience observing elections in Tunisia forever shaped her passion for civic engagement and democratic values.  “[In 2011], the people of Tunisia were voting... To see the looks on the faces of women, grandparents coming to poles for the first time, casting a vote, and bringing a grandchild in tow, to say ‘I have waited all my life to do this’ was simply inspirational,” Ms. Schnetzer said. “I saw the stark comparison in the United States because few get excited on the first day they get to vote… I wish that we could find a way to positively spark that enthusiasm here [in the U.S.].” Looking ahead to the U.S. elections in November 2020, all panelists agreed that more could be done to inform the American public about foreign observers and the benefits of international election observation. Election observers from both the OSCE Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights and the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly are expected to be invited by the United States Government to observe the 2020 elections. The OSCE was first invited to observe U.S. elections by the Bush Administration in 2002 and has been invited to observe every midterm and general election since (2004, 2006, 2008, 2010, 2012, 2014, 2016, and 2018) by the administration in office. However, the decentralized nature of the U.S. electoral system means some states prohibit or greatly restrict foreign observers. A few states explicitly permit foreign observation, or at least a sufficiently public observation to include those from other countries.

  • Director of OSCE Office For Democratic Institutions and Human Rights to Testify at Helsinki Commission Hearing

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following hearing: HUMAN RIGHTS AND DEMOCRACY Obstacles and Opportunities in the OSCE Region Wednesday, January 29, 2020 10:00 a.m. Longworth House Office Building Room 1334 Live Webcast: www.youtube.com/HelsinkiCommission For nearly three decades, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) has been at the forefront of efforts to promote human rights and democracy throughout the 57-nation OSCE region. In her first appearance before Congress, ODIHR Director Ambassador Ingibjörg Sólrún Gísladóttir will discuss the organization’s flagship work in international election observation; countering anti-Semitism and other forms of intolerance; and helping governments to combat human trafficking, protect human rights defenders, and better implement their commitments to fundamental freedoms including assembly and religion. The OSCE, the world’s largest regional security body, is based on a comprehensive concept of security that recognizes that respect for human rights and functioning democratic institutions underpin regional peace and security. ODIHR provides support, assistance, and expertise to participating States and civil society to promote democracy, rule of law, human rights, and tolerance and non-discrimination. ODIHR observes elections at the invitation of participating States, reviews legislation, and advises governments on how to develop and sustain democratic institutions. The office also works closely with the OSCE’s field operations and organizes Europe’s largest annual human rights meeting, bringing together annually hundreds of government officials, international experts, civil society representatives and human rights activists.  

  • First Person: Nothing Unusual

    By Rachel Bauman, Policy Advisor Election day began like every November day in Belarus: black. Without the time change that makes a late-autumn morning in DC bearable, darkness enveloped Belarus until almost 9:00 a.m. We would be rising much earlier than that to observe the opening of the polls for the November 17 parliamentary election. This was my second election observation, after the first round of the Ukrainian presidential election in March 2019. That election was widely considered free and fair—a great achievement for a new democracy plagued by a Soviet legacy. In Belarus, the last election generally considered free and fair was the 1994 election of President Alexander Lukashenko, who remains in power, with essentially complete control over the government, 25 years later.   Most Belarus-watchers suspected that much of the number-fudging was done before the arrival of election day observers. Early voting took place throughout the week before election day, providing an opportunity to inflate turnout numbers. Multiple opposition candidates could not even make it on the ballot due to selectively-imposed restrictions and technicalities applied to stamp out the competition well before voting took place. Neither I nor the other members of my election observation team (two diplomats already in Minsk: one from the U.S. Embassy, and one from the Swedish Embassy), expected many surprises from the conduct and outcome of the elections. The day started smoothly enough, with a standard, albeit sparsely attended, opening. As we moved on to other polling stations throughout the day, the conditions were mainly the same: observers registered with the chair of the election commission for that precinct and were seated at a table specifically for observers, both national and international. Sign directing voters to polling sites in Belarus. Because the vast majority of OSCE PA observers remained in the Minsk region, and we had traveled a few hours northeast to Vitebsk, we came across only Belarusian observers, whether from trade unions, political parties, or other groups. The observer tables were far enough away from the action that in most cases we could not see much of the voter sign-in and identification check process. When we asked to see the voter lists, we were denied in multiple instances. This was startling for me; in Ukraine, we wandered freely throughout polling stations and had access to everything. Nevertheless, the mood was festive and the people friendly. Music—from disco to Soviet favorites to patriotic tunes—played in the background at several polling places. We received candies in one location and a proud explanation of the region’s main industry in another. A few photos were taken with us, and at one polling place a neighboring observer remarked how interested she was that I had come all the way from the United States just for the election in Belarus! Despite the fun and frivolity, it became clear to us by the end of the day that, though we had seen no gross violations in conduct, the whole process lacked the transparency I had witnessed in Ukraine, or that should be expected in any OSCE country committed to democratic norms.   Nowhere was this more apparent than during the count. As usual, we were confined to the observers’ table just far enough from where the action was taking place to limit real observation. The mobile voting, early voting, and election day ballots were collected and counted in one pile, silently. Because we could not fully see or hear the count, there was no way of knowing whether it was accurate, even though the precinct chairwoman came over occasionally to riffle through the marked ballots for us. By only 9:15 p.m.—the polls had closed at 8—the count was finished and a winner declared. Votes being counted at a polling site. Our next step was to follow our companions from the polling station to the District Election Commission, where they would deliver the results protocol and election materials. After watching a few deliveries from around the area and encountering many familiar faces from earlier in the day, we decided to head back to the hotel, arriving at a remarkably early 10:30 p.m. Though it was still a long and exhausting day, many such elections, including the one I’d observed in Ukraine, had counts lasting long into the night. The next morning’s results were both surprising and unsurprising. It was no great shock to see that the reported turnout was over 77 percent—suspiciously high for elections to a body with no real power. According to the Statement of Preliminary Findings and Conclusions, the OSCE International Election Observation Mission noted that early voting turnout in particular (35.77 percent) seemed inflated compared to the reports of observers. More disturbingly, not a single opposition candidate was elected (there had been two in the previous parliament). That Lukashenko would not permit even a semblance of pluralism calls into question the seriousness of his seeming attempts to court the West when faced with a revanchist and controlling Russia—a topic which the U.S. Helsinki Commission explored in a hearing held shortly after the election. Observers would be wise to watch the trajectory of the country as Lukashenko navigates his tricky relationships with the West and Russia. Ultimately, stability—in large part the stability of his own job—will be first in his mind as the 2020 Belarusian presidential election swiftly approaches. A major political upheaval is not likely in the cards. When my colleague stationed in Grodna asked a young independent observer if he’d seen anything interesting or unusual during election day, the observer responded, “Unusual? No. Nothing unusual. This is Belarus. There has been nothing unusual for 25 years.”

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