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Elections

The 1990 OSCE/CSCE Copenhagen Document states that ”the will of the people, freely and fairly expressed through periodic and genuine elections, is the basis of the authority and legitimacy of all government.” Elections conducted according to OSCE commitments and standards yield political representatives accountable to their electorates. Pluralistic, democratic societies are underpinned by free and fair elections. Elections genuinely reflecting the will of the people are essential for a healthy, functioning democracy.

While the vast majority of OSCE participating States generally conduct free and fair elections, in some (notably Russia, Belarus, Azerbaijan, and most Central Asian countries), elections consistently fall short of international democratic standards, and in some cases, are a farce.   

The OSCE has been involved in election observation throughout the region, including the United States, and represents the “gold standard” in international election observation. Since 1989, the Commission has observed well over 100 elections in the OSCE region – the vast majority of them as members of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly delegations to the larger OSCE-led international observation missions.

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  • Democracy & Human Rights Abuses in Russia: No End in Sight

    The U.S Helsinki Commission held a hearing on Wednesday on “Democracy and Human Rights Abuses in Russia: No End in Sight.”  It was the first hearing in the 115th Congress focused on internal human rights repression in Russia. Vladimir Kara-Murza, vice-chairman of pro-reform movement Open Russia; Rachel Denber, Deputy Director of the Europe and Central Asia Division at Human Rights Watch; and Dr. Daniel Calingaert, Executive Vice President of Freedom House, testified about the crisis of Russian democracy and the country’s worsening human rights record under President Vladimir Putin. In his opening statement, Mr. Kara-Murza underscored the necessity for the OSCE participating States to give an honest assessment about what is happening in Russia, where the number of political prisoners now exceeds a hundred people (a number that has doubled in less than a year). Mr. Kara-Murza, a vocal critic of the Kremlin who has survived two poisoning attempts, estimated that more than 30 activists have been murdered by the Putin regime since Vladimir Putin assumed power in 2000. He also called for an end to impunity for human rights violations in Russia. “The U.S. does have a mechanism for such accountability in the Magnitsky Act that provides for targeted sanctions on human rights abusers. This law should continue to be implemented to its full extent,” Mr. Kara-Murza said. His concerns were echoed by Human Rights Watch’s Rachel Denber, who noted that today, “Russia is more repressive that it has ever been in the post-Soviet era.” At Chairman Wicker’s request, Ms. Denber provided detailed information about each of the Russian political prisoners who were featured on posters in the room, and also spoke at length about the repression of gay men in Chechnya. Dr. Daniel Calingaert of Freedom House highlighted the fact that Mr. Putin was the primary author of the modern authoritarian’s playbook, which has subsequently been replicated by many autocratic rulers in the region.  “His methods for suppressing civil society and political opposition have inspired other dictators, and his media manipulation has impacted most of Eurasia directly and extended to Europe and the United States,” Dr. Calingaert said. However, despite the grim situation, Mr. Kara-Murza voiced some optimism about the future. “Increasingly, the young generation in Russia – the very generation that grew up under Vladimir Putin – is demanding respect and accountability from those in power,” he said. Mr. Kara-Murza pointed to a wave of anti-corruption demonstrations that took place in dozens of cities across Russia in late March, with tens of thousands of people, mostly young protesters, taking out to the streets to demand the resignation of Prime Minister Dimitriy Medvedev. “This movement will continue. And these growing demands for accountability are the best guarantee that Russia will one day become a country where citizens can exercise the rights and freedoms to which they are entitled,” he added.  

  • First Person: Election Observation in Armenia

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

  • Helsinki Commission Chairman Wicker Comments on Poisoning of Pro-Democracy Russian Activist, Fighting in Ukraine

    WASHINGTON–Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) today issued the following statement regarding the recent acts of aggression perpetrated by the Russian government: “In today’s Russia, there is a disturbing trend of violence that targets members of the political opposition. I am particularly concerned about Vladimir Kara-Murza, who is fighting for his life in a Moscow hospital after being poisoned.  Mr. Kara-Murza has appeared at multiple Helsinki Commission events and is a tireless advocate for restoring democratic freedoms to the Russian people. The United States should have no illusions about the nature of the Russian regime. “Meanwhile, fighting in eastern Ukraine continues to spread.  Last week, the OSCE’s Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine reported the heaviest fighting since combined Russian-separatist forces captured Debaltseve in January 2015.  The OSCE Parliamentary Assembly has repeatedly condemned Russia’s ‘clear, gross, and uncorrected’ violations of OSCE principles with respect to Ukraine. “I stand with UN Ambassador Nikki Haley in condemning the escalation of violence.  Russia should respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine.” Vladimir Kara-Murza has a longstanding relationship with the Helsinki Commission. He first appeared at a Helsinki Commission briefing in 2011. He testified at a Helsinki Commission hearing on Russia in 2015 and briefed Commission staff before the 2016 Russian parliamentary elections.

  • Moldova at a Crossroads

    Twenty-five years after its independence, Moldova is at a crossroads as it prepares for presidential elections scheduled for October 30. While it seeks to overcome significant internal challenges, the country is also squarely in the crosshairs of Russian destabilization efforts intended to maintain Moscow’s influence and strike at the foundation of Moldovan democracy. The experts at this briefing offered valuable insight on the significant internal and external challenges Moldova faces as it approaches presidential elections in October 2016. The speakers addressed continued threats to Moldovan territorial integrity and sovereignty; hostile Russian actions including disinformation campaigns, an economic blockade, and threatening rhetoric; and the roles of the Moldovan government and external actors, including the OSCE, in addressing Moldovan vulnerabilities. Commissioner Rep. Joe Pitts (PA-16) opened the briefing with a statement on Moldova and the Transnistrian conflict, as he has been deeply interested and engaged in Moldova throughout his career.  Witnesses Ambassador William Hill and Matthew Rojansky then discussed Moldova's internal and external challenges in greater depth. As a veteran diplomat in Moldova and the region, Ambassador William Hill assigned an absence of rule of law as Moldova’s central challenge. Mr. Rojansky, a renowned scholar on this subject, offered historical perspective on Russia’s objectives in maintaining instability in neighboring countries like Moldova. Before beginning audience Q&A, the event also welcomed comments from Tatiana Solomon, Chargé d’Affaires ad interim of the Moldovan Embassy, who thanked the witnesses and the Helsinki Commission for engagement on the issues discussed. All participants encouraged U.S. support for Moldova and the region as it works towards a stable, democratic, and prosperous future.

  • OSCE Human Dimension Implementation Meeting 2015

    “The Human Dimension” is OSCE-speak for human rights, democracy, and humanitarian concerns.  When the Helsinki Final Act (HFA) was signed in Helsinki, Finland in 1975, it enshrined among its ten Principles Guiding Relations between participating States (the Decalogue) a commitment to "respect human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the freedom of thought, conscience religion or belief, for all without distinction as to race, sex, language or religion" (Principle VII). In addition, the HFA included a section on cooperation regarding humanitarian issues that provided an umbrella for addressing (among other things) family reunification and working conditions for journalists. "The Human Dimension" was a term coined during the drafting of the 1989 Vienna Concluding Document to serve as shorthand to describe the human rights and humanitarian provisions of the agreements concluded within the framework of the Helsinki process. Today, it has come to include the OSCE’s watershed commitments on democracy, the rule of law, and free and fair elections. In any given year, the OSCE participating States address human dimension issues in multiple fora.  The Human Dimension Implementation Meeting – HDIM – attracts the largest number of participants, covers the greatest range of issues, and is open to participation by civil society. That work includes formal sessions on the full range of human rights  issues as well as rule of law, free elections, and democracy-building issues. National minorities, Roma, and tolerance and nondiscrimination are also on the agenda.  U.S. Delegation Led by David Kramer The 2015 HDIM was held September 21 to October 2 and drew 1,386 participants.  The U.S. delegation was led by David J. Kramer, Senior Director for Human Rights and Human Freedoms at the McCain Institute and former Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor.  It also included U.S. Ambassador to the OSCE Daniel Baer; Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Robert Berschinksi; Department of State Special Advisor for International Rights Judith Heumann; and Helsinki Commission Senior Senate Staff Representative Ambassador David T. Killion.  Helsinki Commission staff participated in all aspects of the delegation’s work. In addition to active engagement in the formal sessions, the United States participated in side events focused on specific countries or issues organized by civil society, OSCE participating States, or international organizations, and held numerous bilateral meetings with other delegations to raise and discuss human rights.  Special Advisor Heumann led a panel highlighting the importance of disability rights for OSCE countries as part of a U.S. side event cosponsored with Finland. Russia: External Aggression and Internal Repression During the HDIM, Russia’s aggression in and against Ukraine was raised in connection with almost every agenda item for the meeting.  The OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) also issued a joint report prepared with the OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities detailing widespread human rights violations in Russian-occupied Crimea.  Increasing levels of repression within Russia also were raised throughout the HDIM and served to highlight the relationship between external aggression and internal repression. In early 2015, Boris Nemtsov, an advocate for the rule of law and accountability in Russia and an outspoken Russian critic of the Russian government’s war against Ukraine, was gunned down just outside the Kremlin.  Russia’s increasingly repressive government has eroded the democratic institutions that ensure a government’s accountability to its people. A free and independent media is virtually nonexistent and the remaining state-controlled media is used to propagandize disinformation, fear, bigotry, and aggression. Azerbaijan’s Record Draws Sharp Criticism In 2015 Azerbaijan unilaterally shuttered the OSCE Mission in Baku, effectively blocked the OSCE’s independent election observation in October, and sentenced journalist-heroine Khadija Ismayilova to 7 ½ years in prison for reporting on government corruption.  The government of Azerbaijan has also escalated pressure against the family members of its critics, in a further effort to stifle dissent.  As a consequence, throughout the HDIM, Azerbaijan was the subject of singular attention and criticism. In one particularly sharp exchange with the moderator during the discussion of fundamental freedoms in the digital age, Azerbaijan challenged its critics to name at least 25 of an estimated 100 political prisoners.  A partial list – 25 names – is below. Abilov, Abdul Aliyev, Intigam Aliyev, Nijat Akhundov, Rashadat Guliyev, Araz Hasanov, Nasimi Hashimli, Parviz Hazi, Seymur Ismayilova, Khadija Jabrayilova, Valida Jafarov, Rasul Karimov, Fara Mammadli, Anar Mammadov, Hilal Mammadov, Igar Mammadov, Omar Mirkadirov, Rauf Ramazanov, Rashad Rustamov, Aliabbas Rustamzada, Ilkin Seyidov, Elnur Yagublu, Tofig Yunusov, Arif** Yunus, Leyla** Zakharchenko, Irina **Leyla and Arif Yunus have been released from prison since the HDIM but remain under house arrest.

  • What is the OSCE Doing in Ukraine?

    In Ukraine, the OSCE monitors the cease-fire, weapons withdrawal, and overall security situation in eastern Ukraine. In addition, the OSCE has observed local elections and reports on widespread human rights violations in Russian-occupied Crimea. Special Monitoring Mission (SMM) Mandate adopted by consensus on March 21, 2014 and extended until March 31, 2016 634 international monitors as of November 18, 2015 Posts daily updates at OSCE.org Has encountered episodes of hostage-taking and been fired upon OSCE Observer Mission at the Russian Checkpoints Gukovo and Donetsk Mandate adopted by consensus on July 24, 2014 Gathers information and reports on the security situation at the two checkpoints Minsk Agreement Adopted September 5, 2014, by Russia, Ukraine, and Russian-backed separatists under OSCE auspices OSCE tasked with monitoring its implementation, including the cease-fire and weapons withdrawal Minsk II Adopted February 11, 2015 Continues work of Minsk agreement OSCE Election Observation Observed local elections in 2015 Joint report by ODIHR & HCNM on Russian-occupied Crimea ODIHR and HCNM report released September 17, 2015, identifies widespread human rights violations

  • Helsinki Commission Briefing to Examine Serious Decline in Respect for Human Rights in Azerbaijan

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following briefing: “The Rule of Law and Civil Society in Azerbaijan” Thursday, November 5 2:00PM Cannon House Office Building Room 311 The last two years have witnessed a precipitous decline in the respect for rule of law and human rights in Azerbaijan. Many independent civil society organizations have been forced to close due to onerous regulations, threats of intimidation, or the arrest of the organization’s leaders. Independent media has been severely curtailed or closed down. Opposition parties are harassed and often shut out of the election process. High-profile politicians are serving lengthy prison sentences on charges that many observers believe were politically motivated. This briefing will have a particular focus on the rule of law and how the government of Azerbaijan is using its judicial system to intimidate and imprison critics of the government. The briefing will also analyze the results of the November 1 parliamentary election and its implications for Azerbaijan’s future direction. The following panelists are scheduled to participate: Ambassador Richard Morningstar, US Ambassador to the Republic of Azerbaijan from July 2012 to August 2014 and Founding Director of the Global Energy Center, Atlantic Council Natalia Bourjaily, Vice President – Eurasia, International Center for Not-for-Profit Law Dinara Yunus, Daughter of imprisoned Azerbaijani human rights defenders Leyla and Arif Yunus

  • Helsinki Commission Chair Chris Smith Shines Light on Egregious Rule-of-Law Abuses by Russian Government

    WASHINGTON—At a Congressional hearing today, the U.S. Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, spotlighted the many recent violations of the rule of law committed by the Russian government. “Forty years after the signing of the Helsinki Final Act, we face a set of challenges with Russia, a founding member of the organization, that mirror the concerns that gave rise to the Helsinki Final Act,” said Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04), who called the hearing. “At stake is the hard-won trust between members, now eroded to the point that armed conflict rages in the OSCE region. The question is open whether the principles continue to bind the Russian government with other states in a common understanding of what the rule of law entails.” “Russia’s annexation of Crimea and subsequent intervention in the Donbas region not only clearly violate this commitment, but also every guiding principle of the 1975 Helsinki Final Act.  It appears these are not isolated instances.  In recent years, Russia appears to have violated, undermined, disregarded, or even disavowed fundamental and binding arms control commitments,” Smith continued. “[I also] question Russia’s OSCE commitment to develop free, competitive markets that respect international dispute arbitration mechanisms...[and recent government actions] demonstrate Russia’s readiness to abuse its laws and judicial system to limit individual freedoms both within and beyond its borders.” Witness testimony highlighted case studies corresponding to each of the three dimensions of comprehensive security established by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE): politico-military security; economic and environmental security; and human rights and fundamental freedoms. Tim Osborne, executive director of GML Ltd., the majority owner of the now-liquidated Yukos Oil Company, said, “It is clear that the Russian Federation is not honoring its obligations and commitments under the rule of law or in a manner consistent with the Helsinki process.  Russia’s tendency, more often than not, has been to ignore, delay, obstruct or retaliate when faced with its international law responsibilities…Russia cannot be trusted in international matters and that even when it has signed up to international obligations, it will ignore them if that is what it thinks serves it best.” “Russia had engaged in the uncompensated expropriation of billions of dollars of U.S. investments in Yukos Oil Company,” observed former U.S. Under Secretary of State for Economic, Business and Agricultural Affairs Ambassador Alan Larson. “American investors—who owned about 12 percent of Yukos at the time of the expropriation—have claims worth over $14 billion, and they are entitled to compensation under international law even though they have no option for bringing claims directly against the Russian Federation.” Vladimir Kara-Murza, a well-known Russian activist and the coordinator of the Open Russia Movement, said, “Today, the Kremlin fully controls the national airwaves, which it has turned into transmitters for its propaganda…the last Russian election recognized by the OSCE as conforming to basic democratic standards was held more than 15 years ago.” “There are currently 50 political prisoners in the Russian Federation,” Kara-Murza continued. “These prisoners include opposition activists jailed under the infamous ‘Bolotnaya case’ for protesting against Mr. Putin’s inauguration in May 2012; the brother of anti-corruption campaigner Alexei Navalny; and Alexei Pichugin, the remaining hostage of the Yukos case.” “A clear pattern emerges when one looks at Russia’s implementation of its arms control obligations overall,” observed Stephen Rademaker, former Assistant Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security and Nonproliferation. “Should Moscow conclude such agreements have ceased to serve its interest, it will ignore them, effectively terminate them, violate them while continuing to pay them lip service, or selectively implement them…Russia believes that this is how great powers are entitled to act, and today Moscow insists on acting and being respected as a great power.” Chairman Smith was joined at the hearing by a panel of lawmakers including Commission Co-Chairman Senator Roger Wicker (MS) and Representative Robert Aderholt (AL-04).

  • Chairman Smith Urges OSCE Leaders: Respond to Humanitarian Needs in Eastern Ukraine

    WASHINGTON—A renewed effort is underway in the Organization for Cooperation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to urge it to respond to humanitarian needs in eastern Ukraine, and to follow through on OSCE commitments to fight human trafficking and anti-Semitism. Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04) led the U.S. Delegation to the annual Winter Meeting of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA) last week in Vienna, where he spearheaded this push. Smith expressed particular concern about the potential for human trafficking of vulnerable groups stemming from the current conflict in Ukraine. In a question to Ivica Dačić, the OSCE’s Chairman-in-Office for 2015 and the Foreign Minister of Serbia, Smith drew attention to the needs of internally displaced persons and the potential for human trafficking in eastern Ukraine. He noted that, among the nearly one million internally displaced persons, woman and children are particularly vulnerable to trafficking, and raised concerns that criminal gangs are taking advantage of the conflict:   “Is the OSCE equipping the special monitoring mission and other OSCE entities working in the Ukraine conflict zone, or with IDPs, to recognize and protect human trafficking victims, and is the OSCE taking trafficking prevention measures for this particular vulnerable population?” At a private meeting during the event, Chairman Smith met with Chairman-in-Office Dačić  to discuss the humanitarian, human rights, and security concerns arising from the Russian-backed conflict in eastern Ukraine. Smith encouraged Serbia to vigorously uphold the commitments made at the at the 10th  anniversary of the OSCE's Berlin Conference on anti-Semitism, and to review and reform the OSCE’s contracting regulations to ensure that OSCE activities do not contribute to trafficking in persons. He also urged Chairman-in-Office Dačić to promote an appropriate commemoration by the OSCE of the 20th anniversary of the Srebrenica genocide. Chairman Smith also met the Director of the OSCE’s Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, Michael Georg Link. In addition to human trafficking and anti-Semitism, the two discussed OSCE election observation missions, as well as the organization’s current efforts to protect freedom of religion. In a meeting with Ambassador Madina Jarbussynova, the OSCE Special Representative and Coordinator for Combating Trafficking in Human Beings, Chairman Smith spoke about the most effective ways to fight human trafficking and assist with the rehabilitation of trafficking victims – including by working with faith-based organizations, as well as by encouraging participating States to adopt legislation preventing child sex tourism, such as Chairman Smith’s legislation currently pending in the U.S. Senate. Chairman Smith has pioneered OSCE engagement in fighting human trafficking and anti-Semitism. Since 2004, he has served as the OSCE PA’s Special Representative on Human Trafficking Issues – click here to read his most recent report. Starting in 2002, Smith led the movement to put anti-Semitism on the agenda of the OSCE, and he continues to work closely with Rabbi Andy Baker, the OSCE’s Representative on Combating Anti-Semitism, to ensure a more vigorous implementation of OSCE commitments in the area. In 2005 Smith authored H. Res. 199, a landmark congressional resolution recognizing the atrocity at Srebrenica in which an estimated 8,000 civilian men and boys were murdered by Serb forces as a genocide.

  • Ukraine's Pivotal Parliamentary Poll

    Hon. Michael Burgess, a member of Congress from the state of Texas, presided the briefing on Ukrainian parliamentary elections, an important moment for the future of the State. Ukraine faced significant internal challenges, such as overcoming the institutional corruption which had so debilited the country, reforming the system of governance, getting the economy back on track and tracking the dire humanitarian situation resulting from the war and other challenges. Hon Burgess was joined by four distinguished panelists, all seasoned experts with long years of exeperience working with Ukraine: Olha Aivazovska, Katie Fox, Stephen Nix, and Gavin Weise.

  • Helsinki Commission to Hold Public Briefing on Ukrainian Elections

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the U.S. Helsinki Commission, today announced the following public briefing: “Ukraine’s Pivotal Parliamentary Poll” Friday, November 14, 2014 2:00PM – 3:30PM Dirksen Senate Office Building Room 608 On October 26, Ukraine held early parliamentary elections that international observers—including the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe—assessed as largely positive, with the exception of the disenfranchisement of voters in Russian-occupied Crimea and southeastern Ukraine. The elections, which swept into power Ukraine’s most pro-Western parliament in history, represented a critical milestone in the country’s democratic evolution.   Experts from three major organizations with decades of on-the-ground experience in Ukraine will examine the conduct and results of the elections, as well as the potential for the newly elected parliament to confront the coming challenge of forging a democratic, secure, independent future for their strategically important country. The following panelists are scheduled to participate: Olha Aivazovska, Board Chair, Ukrainian citizen network OPORA Katie Fox, Deputy Director, Eurasia, National Democratic Institute Stephen Nix, Director of Eurasia, International Republican Institute Gavin Weise, Deputy Director, Europe and Eurasia, International Foundation for Electoral Systems

  • U.S. Helsinki Commission Congratulates Ukraine on Successful Parliamentary Election

    WASHINGTON—Following the successful parliamentary election in Ukraine on October 26, Senator Ben Cardin (MD), Chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, and Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04), Co-Chairman of the Commission, issued the following statement: “We congratulate the people of Ukraine on yesterday’s parliamentary election. According to election observers, including those from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the election was held in accordance with international norms and upheld Ukraine’s democratic commitments to its citizens.   Unfortunately, voters in many parts of Donetsk and Luhansk were prevented from exercising their democratic rights through the interference of illegal armed groups. In addition, no voting took place on the Crimean peninsula due to its illegal annexation by the Russian Federation earlier this year. Although this casts no doubt on the validity of the overall election, we are reminded that citizens in Ukraine still face serious challenges – both internal and external – as they work to build a stable, independent, and prosperous democracy.   The U.S. will continue to stand with the Ukrainian people and the new Ukrainian government as they forge ahead with their courageous and determined efforts to foster democracy, human rights, and the rule of law in Ukraine.”

  • Co-Chairman Smith and Rep. Keating Introduce Resolution Supporting Progress and Reform in Bosnia

    WASHINGTON— U.S. Representative Chris Smith (NJ-04) introduced House Resolution 746 expressing support for the people of Bosnia as they prepare for elections on October 12, and for reforms that will enhance the country’s prospects for Euro-Atlantic integration.  “Nineteen years after the Srebrenica genocide and the Dayton Peace Accords, ethnic divisions have hardened as a generation has grown up under a system that classifies people into one of three ethnic communities, and diminishes the rights of anyone that doesn’t belong to one of those communities,” observed Rep. Smith, Co-Chairman of the U.S. Helsinki Commission and Chairman of the Human Rights subcommittee of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.  “As the people of Bosnia prepare to go to the polls, they should know the United States Congress supports their aspirations to have effective government institutions that serve them rather than perpetuate political stalemate, so that their country can advance toward Europe with its neighbors rather than fall further behind.” Rep. Bill Keating (MA-09) joined Co-Chairman Smith as the lead Democratic co-sponsor of the measure. “More Western Balkan states have been moving forward with their European Union and NATO aspirations while mitigating interethnic conflicts through the use of dialogue and negotiation, instead of brutality and division. In this way, the upcoming elections in Bosnia and Herzegovina present an opportunity for Bosnians to make their voices heard and demonstrate their willingness to pursue a peaceful and productive future,” said Rep. Keating, Ranking Member of the House Subcommittee on Europe, Eurasia, and Emerging Threats. “This resolution should serve as a strong indication that Members of Congress remain committed to Bosnia and Herzegovina’s path forward and will continue to urge the political leadership of that country to refrain from the divisive rhetoric and policies of the past in order to allow for all Bosnians to progress along with their Balkan peers.” House Resolution 746 expresses support for the people of Bosnia and Herzegovina as they seek to hold government officials accountable, prepare for elections at the state, entity and cantonal level, and consider constitutional or other reforms to enhance the country’s prospects for European and Euro-Atlantic integration. The Dayton Peace Accords, brokered by the international community with U.S. leadership in late 1995, ended a more than 3-year conflict in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The Accords we followed by a decade of gradual recovery, but attempts to move beyond the compromises that were needed to end the conflict but now impede progress has led to increasingly ineffective and corrupt government, divisive political rhetoric and growing public frustration.  The resolution also expresses the hope of Congress that the mid-October elections and commemoration of the Dayton Accords on their 20th anniversary next year will jointly serve as a catalyst for reform needed for Bosnia to move closer to eligibility for NATO and European Union membership. Rep. Smith, who is Co-Chair of the Congressional Caucus on Bosnia, also spoke to the situation in Bosnia in remarks delivered on the floor of the House. As Chairman of the Helsinki Commission in the 1990s during the Balkan conflicts, Rep. Smith chaired over 21 hearings on countries of the former Yugoslavia. In 2005, he authored H. Res. 199, which initiated a series of clear acknowledgements by other parliaments and international bodies that the atrocities which occurred at Srebrenica in 1995 constituted genocide.

  • U.S. Helsinki Commission to Hold Briefing on OSCE Mediterranean Partners

    WASHINGTON - Today the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (U.S. Helsinki Commission) announced the following hearing: Political Pluralism in the OSCE Mediterranean Partners? Wednesday, July 9, 2014 10:00 am U.S. Capitol Visitor Center Room SVC 203/202 The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and its Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA) have cooperated closely through tangible projects, expertise exchanges, election assistance, conferences, and rich dialogue to advance human security with the OSCE Mediterranean Partners for Cooperation – Algeria, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Morocco, and Tunisia. A hearing of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe will serve as an opportunity to take stock of political developments among the Mediterranean Partners in the years following the popular uprisings that began in late 2010, now often referred to as the “Arab Awakening.”  This hearing will explore political transition among the Mediterranean Partners in terms of current developments in democratic reforms, civil society empowerment, political pluralism, and the role of international community engagement.  The following witnesses are scheduled to testify: The Honorable William Roebuck, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Egypt and the Maghreb, Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs The Honorable William B. Taylor, Vice President for Middle East and Africa of the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) Dr. Shibley Telhami, Anwar Sadat Chair for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland and Brookings Institution Saban Center Non-Resident Senior Fellow Ms. Zeinab Abdelkarim, Regional Director for Middle East and North Africa at the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES)

  • U.S. Helsinki Commission to Hold Hearing on Azerbaijan

    WASHINGTON - Today the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (U.S. Helsinki Commission) announced the following hearing: The Security, Economic and Human Rights Dimensions of US-Azerbaijan Relations Wednesday, June 11, 2014 10:00 am Russell Senate Office Building Room 432 The Republic of Azerbaijan has been an ally of the United States since its independence in 1991. It is a supplier of energy to Europe and has played an important role in assisting the U.S. and the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan through the contribution of troops and as a conduit for the Northern Distribution Network. Azerbaijan is a participating State in the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and in May it assumed the rotating chairmanship of the Council of Europe (COE). Despite membership in both of Europe’s leading human rights institutions, Azerbaijan has been consistently criticized for its undemocratic elections and its use of the judicial system to punish political opponents. As the U.S. Helsinki Commission prepares to attend the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly Annual Session in Baku at the end of June, this hearing will examine the U.S.-Azerbaijan relationship and the impact of regional and domestic issues in Azerbaijan on that relationship. The following witnesses are scheduled to testify: Tom Melia, Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, Department of State Eric Rubin, Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs, Department of State Miriam Lanskoy, Director for Russia and Eurasia, National Endowment for Democracy Brenda Shaffer, Visiting Researcher, Center for Eurasian, Russian and East European Studies, Georgetown University

  • Cardin Statement on Ukrainian Presidential Elections

    WASHINGTON – U.S. Senator Ben Cardin (D-Md.), Chairman of the U.S. Helsinki Commission and a senior member of the Senate Foreign Relations Commission, issued the following statement on the May 25 early presidential elections in Ukraine. “Sunday’s vote was a day of destiny for Ukraine and a turning point in the nation’s effort to overcome Russia’s interference in Ukraine’s democratic development.   It also offers Ukraine a chance to turn a corner on a crippling legacy of corruption. The election also was important for the OSCE which is undertaking massive efforts in Ukraine aimed at fostering stability and encouraging democracy in Ukraine.  These elections present an historic opportunity to build and independent, prosperous state based on the rule of law. “I congratulate the Ukrainian people and the interim government on the conduct of yesterday’s free and fair vote.  Along with my colleague, Sen. Rob Portman, I was pleased at the opportunity to observe the elections first-hand and witness ordinary citizens who were clearly determined to freely make their choice and be stewards of their own destiny. “At the same time, I deplore the actions of those who have deprived Ukrainians in Russian occupied Crimea and parts of Donetsk and Luhansk regions in eastern Ukraine their right to vote through violence, intimidation and fear. “Ukraine’s people have shown remarkable courage and perseverance over the last six months in the face of tremendous internal challenges and serious and ongoing external threats.  We will continue to stand by the people of Ukraine and their newly elected president as they work to overcome these challenges and forge a free, independent and democratic future.”

  • Confronting Internal Challenges and External Threats

    The hearing focused on the current situation in Ukraine and discussed how the United States, along with the including EU and the OSCE, could best assist Ukraine and deters further Russian aggression. Since November of 2014, Ukraine has been in turmoil, with a deteriorating economy, public unrest by millions of protesters against human rights abuses and corruption. Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Victoria Nuland discussed the geopolitical complications from Russia’s illegal referendum and annexation of Crimea, and stated that Russia's actions in Ukraine are an affront to the principles of the Helsinki Final Act. The United States' approach to the situation includes four pillars: bilateral and multilateral support for Ukraine's democratic future, the costs imposed on Russia for its aggressive actions, efforts to de-escalate the crisis diplomatically, and unwavering commitment to the security of NATO allies. The hearing also highlighted the work of the Commission’s delegation sent to monitor Ukraine’s May 25th elections.

  • U.S. Helsinki Commission to Hold Hearing on Ukraine

    WASHINGTON - The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (U.S. Helsinki Commission) today announced the following hearing: Ukraine: Confronting Internal Challenges and External Threats Wednesday, April 9, 2014 10:00 am Room 215 Dirksen Senate Office Building Following the February 22 removal of the corrupt Yanukovych regime, the new interim government has been working to address numerous internal challenges, including badly needed economic and political reforms. This includes preparations for the May 25th presidential elections. At the same time, Russia continues to threaten Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity with further military intervention and attempts to undermine the legitimacy of the new government. The hearing will offer an assessment of the current situation in Ukraine as it addresses difficult internal challenges exacerbated by Russia’s seizure of Crimea as well as an assessment of ongoing threats and challenges to other countries in the region. The hearing will address current U.S. policy, and how the United States, together with the international community, including the EU and the OSCE, can best continue to assist Ukraine and deter further Russian aggression.  Scheduled to testify:  The Honorable Victoria Nuland, Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs, U.S. Department of State

  • Developments in the Western Balkans and Policy Responses

    This hearing on the Western Balkans examined the progress being made towards democratization. Commissioners Benjamin L. Cardin and Christopher H. Smith presided over the hearing, which included testimonies from: Hoyt Yee, Deputy Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs for the U.S. Department of State;  Tanja Fajon, Member for the European Parliament from Slovenia; and Kurt Volker, Executive Director of the McCain Institute for International Leadership. This hearing held great significance, not only for the members of the Commission, but the wider foreign policy community, as whilst the Western Balkans is no longer the setting for violent conflict that it was two decades ago, the United States has had to devote considerable resources—financial, diplomatic and military —to restore peace and to encourage the democratic and other reforms necessary to sustain it. However, that job is not yet done—the need to see the task of a stable, democratic and fully integrated Western Balkans is yet to be completed.   http://www.senate.gov/isvp/?type=live&comm=csce&filename=csce030514

  • Bulgaria Holds Early Parliamentary Elections; OSCE Mounts Full-Scale Election Observation Mission

    By Helsinki Commission Staff Country-Wide Street Protests Trigger Snap Elections In early 2013, 30 Bulgarian cities were rocked by demonstrations. In some instances, violence erupted between demonstrators and police. In addition, in the months immediately preceding the elections, six people committed suicide by self-immolation in acts of public protest and desperation. The street demonstrations were triggered by sharply rising electricity rates in a country widely described as the poorest of the EU’s 27 members. Discontent was further fueled by dissatisfaction with political leaders across the board and widespread corruption. In February, following the street demonstrations, Prime Minister Boyko Borisov resigned, paving the way for May 12’s early parliamentary elections. For those elections, 8,100 candidates stood for seats in the 240-member unicameral National Assembly allocated by proportional representation from 31 multi-mandate constituencies (with a 4% threshold for both parties and coalitions to enter parliament). Altogether, 63 parties (38 outside of coalitions and 7 coalitions) were registered as well as two independent candidates. The resulting ballot was roughly a yard long. OSCE Mounts Full-Scale Election Observation Mission The OSCE mounted a full scale Election Observation Mission (EOM) – the first in Bulgaria since 1997 and the first ever in an EU country. Eoghan Murphy (MP, Ireland) was appointed by OSCE Chair-in-Office Leonid Kozhara to serve as Special Coordinator and leader of the short-term observer mission (parliamentarians and observers seconded by OSCE participating States). The OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) long-term observer team was headed by Miklos Haraszti. Roberto Battelli (MP, Slovenia) headed the OSCE PA delegation. Andreas Gross (MP, Switzerland) headed the observers from the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE). On Election Day, there were 158 observers deployed from 39 countries. Of an estimated 6.9 million voters (a number that, in any case, the OSCE and Council of Europe Venice Commission suggest may be high), 3,541,745 went to the polls. Voter turnout was at about 50 percent – the lowest turnout since the fall of communism – reflecting the voters’ antipathy even more than apathy. Approximately 850,000 votes were cast for parties that failed to overcome the 4% threshold to get into parliament. Reportedly 107,799 Bulgarian citizens voted abroad, with 63,152 votes cast in Turkey. The Mysterious Case of the Extra Ballots The administration of the elections on E-Day was largely unremarkable. It was, however, preceded by two separate but related wiretapping scandals suggesting that the Ministry of Interior had bugged journalists and state officials. The day before the elections, an “extra” 350,000 ballots were discovered in a printing house in Sofia. (A week after the elections, it was reported that more than 2,000 extra stamps for electoral commissions had also surfaced.) In its preliminary findings, the Election Observation Mission drew particular attention to the alienation of voters, lack of confidence in the electoral process, concerns over ballot security (the “extra” ballots), and persistent allegations of vote buying or voter intimidation. (A final report from the Mission is forthcoming.) Roma and Other Minorities in the Electoral Context Bulgaria has a population of 7.36 million (from almost 8 million in the 2001 census and roughly 8.4 million in the 1992 census). This continuing drop reflects declining birth rates and labor migration to other parts of Europe. The ethnic Turkish minority comprises 8.8 percent of the population. Almost 5 percent of the population self-identified as Romani on the last census, but Roma are estimated to be roughly 10 percent of the population. Last year, the Bulgarian Government estimated that 23 percent of the working age population is Romani. The Bulgarian Constitution prohibits the formation of political parties on ethnic, racial or religious lines, which is contrary to OSCE and other international norms on freedom of assembly. The OSCE has criticized this restriction in previous reports on Bulgarian elections. The Electoral Code stipulates that the election campaign must be conducted in the Bulgarian language only, also contrary to standards on free speech and minority language use set out in the 1990 Copenhagen Document. These restrictions also impede get-out-the-vote efforts. The Movement for Rights and Freedoms is, de facto, an ethnic Turkish minority party, although it has largely been allowed to function with a wink and a nod from the authorities. After the elections, it was reported that Lyutvi Mestan, head of the MRF party, was fined in Sliven for campaigning in Turkish. Bulgaria's last two local and Presidential elections (which were held simultaneously in 2007 and 2011) were preceded by outbreaks of anti-Roma violence. In 2011, just a few weeks before the elections, 14 Bulgarian cities erupted into anti-Roma riots. In July 2012, the headquarters of the EuroRoma political party were firebombed, killing one man. The investigation has not produced any results. On April 8, 15 Romani civil society organizations withdrew from their advisory role with the National Council for Cooperation on Ethnic and Integration Issues, effectively deeming the government’s work in this area and the consultative process to be a sham. There were no Roma in electable positions on the lists for any of the leading parties. As a result, the National Assembly produced by the May 12 elections will be the first Bulgarian parliament since the fall of communism to have no Romani MPs.

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