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Freedom of Association and Assembly

The freedom of peaceful assembly and association is a cornerstone of democracy; a fundamental freedom. In the Helsinki Final Act and numerous other CSCE/OSCE agreements, all participating States have committed to protect peaceful assembly and to respect the right of individuals to associate with others, even if in so doing they voice opinions critical of the government or are generally unpopular. 

Throughout the decades, the Commission has repeatedly addressed violations of freedom of assembly and association in various participating States, in hearings and briefings, meetings with representatives of governments and parliaments of countries of concern, statements, letters and other venues.  The Commission has also contributed to official U.S. efforts to raise these violations, including statements at the annual OSCE Human Dimension Implementation Review meetings.  Currently, prominent violators of these freedom include Russia, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgystan, Belarus, and Russian-occupied Crimea and the Russian-separatist occupied territories of eastern Ukraine.

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  • Status of Religious Liberty for Minority Faiths in Europe and the OSCE

    The purpose of this hearing, which the Hon. Christopher H. Smith chaired, was to discuss the reality of disturbing undercurrents of subtle, but growing, discrimination and harassment of minority religious believers, as opposed to discussing the widespread documentation of torture and persecution of practitioners of minority faiths. In a number of European countries, government authorities had seemed to work on restricting the freedoms of conscience and speech in much of their governments’ actions. For example, in Russia, on September 26, 1997, President Boris Yeltsin signed the law called “On Freedom of Conscience and on Religious Associations,” which blatantly violated agreements of the OSCE which the former U.S.S.R. helped to initiate. Through use of witnesses, then, attendees of this hearing, namely commissioners, gained a deeper understanding of the religious liberty violations within OSCE member countries and insight into how to best influence governments to adhere more closely to internationally accepted human rights standards.

  • U.S. Statements on the Human Dimension, 1996 OSCE Vienna Review Conference and Lisbon Summit

    This compendium of statements illustrates the U.S. perspective that one of the key and distinguishing features of the OSCE is the interlocking framework of critical, politically binding commitments which provide a common set of principles to which all participating States can aspire. The OSCE draws its real strength and practical flexibility from participating states' commitments to the values of the original Helsinki Act, rather than from a legalized, treaty-based institutional structure. A fundamental strength of the OSCE is the review process, which provides a regular opportunity to assess a participating states' efforts to further the realization of the Helsinki Accords within its own borders, and in its relations with other OSCE states. The OSCE is increasingly a pillar of European security. By facilitating honest implementation review the OSCE can strengthen security links based on common values.

  • The Current Situation in Belarus

    This briefing evaluated the signs of serious deterioration in the political and economic situation as growing authoritarianism and repression of human rights that had become the subject of increasing concern both within and outside Belarus. The violation of Belarus' freely undertaken commitments under the OSCE in regards to basic rights and freedoms, freedom of expression, assembly, and association was also addressed. Witnesses testifying at the briefing – including Zyanon Paznyak, Chairman of the Belarus Popular Front; Jack Segal, Director of Ukrainian, Belarusian, and Moldovan Affairs for the State Department; Jan Zaprudnik, Former Editor of Radio Liberty, Belarus; and Antti Korkeakivi, CIS Legal Advisor for the Lawyers’ Committee for Human Rights – examined the role of President Lukashenko in the formation of the lawless regime in Belarus. Numerous violations of human rights were cited by all witnesses, and the role of Russian support for these types of policies was also discussed.

  • Serbia and Montenegro: The Prospects for Change

    A staff delegation of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (Helsinki Commission) traveled to Serbia and Montenegro for one week in April 1996 to assess the situation in these republics in light of changes in the region resulting from the implementation of the Dayton Agreement and the end of the conflict in neighboring Bosnia-Herzegovina. In addition to meetings in the Federal and Serbian capital, Belgrade, and the Montenegrin capital Podgorica, the delegation traveled to Vojvodina, Kosovo and the Sandzak, where large non-Serb/Montenegrin populations reside. A seminar on refugees in the former Yugoslavia, held in Kotor, Montenegro, was also attended. The delegation met with federal, republic and regional officials, as well as representatives of independent media, opposition political parties, and human rights or humanitarian groups in each location. Upon the conclusion of their visit, the staff reported the delegation's findings and recommendations to the countries belonging to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and gave a public briefing immediately upon its return to Washington. Serbia's President, Slobodan Milosevic, has been viewed as largely responsible for the conflict associated with former Yugoslavia's demise, especially in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, and for un- democratic and ethnically intolerant conditions within Serbia itself. Montenegro, having some cultural af- finities with Serbia but also a desire for distinctness, is viewed as Serbia's reluctant accomplice, especially when the two proclaimed a new Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in 1992. The new, or "rump," Yugoslavia has largely been isolated by the international community as far as bilateral relations and multilateral activity. After almost four years of conflict in Bosnia-Herzegovina, however, the signing of the Dayton Agreement in December 1995 changed the regional environment in southcentral Europe significantly. Not only did the Agreement propose a settlement for Bosnia-Herzegovina, which is now being implemented, but it also created a more positive regional environment in which other problems plaguing the region might be resolved. Dayton could not have been achieved without the international community again working with the Serbian regime.

  • Russian Media in Light of Upcoming Elections

    This briefing examined the Russian media in light of the upcoming elections and also with reference towards Russia's obligations to permit and protect the free media in Russia in accordance to the Helsinki Final Act. The true state of the press in Russia and whether the Yeltsin regime is complying or even trying to comply with its internationally recognized obligations were topics of discussion. Witnesses testifying at the briefing – including Elena Masyuk, Reporter for NTV and Catherine Fitzpatrick, Program Coordinator of the Committee to Protect Journalists – illuminated the issues that journalists and the media in general had encountered in recent years, including government sponsored threats and deprivation of accreditation. The Committee to Protect Journalists, in particular, voiced its concerns about the restrictive and even deadly conditions in the Russian republic of Chechnya.

  • Armenia's Parliamentary Election and Constitutional Referendum

    This report is based on a Helsinki Commission staff delegation trip to Armenia from June 29 to July 6, 1995. Commission staff spoke with Armenian government officials--including President Levon Ter-Petrossyan, Speaker of Parliament Babgen Araktsyan, Foreign Minister Vahan Papazyan, and Senior Advisor to the President, Jirair Libaridian--and interviewed representatives of Armenian political parties, journalists, and candidates, as well as spokespersons of American non-governmental organizations in Yerevan. The Helsinki Commission would like to thank Ambassador Harry Gilmore and the staff of U.S. Embassy Yerevan, and the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly observer delegation, led by Danish Parliamentarian Annette Just. Armenia had, in the most difficult economic circumtances, impressively managed to combine stability, political pluralism and economic reform. But apprehensions grew about realizing the high hopes this success had engendered. Apart from providing humanitarian and technical assistance, the United States was in a good position, through continued close interest, involvement and suasion, to help consolidate the development of democracy in Armenia.

  • Status of Media Freedom in Democracies

    This briefing detailed the progress of media freedom in newly democratic states, especially within Eastern Europe. The role of the media in the democratization process and methods for promoting freedom of the media were examined as well. Witnesses testifying at the hearing – including David Webster, Chairman of the  Trans-Atlantic Dialogue on European Broadcasting and Sandra Pralong, President of Democracy Works – detailed several major values that a free media promotes in the democratic process, including peaceful social change, education of the democratic electorate, dissenting opinions about the government and society in general, and transparency of political corruption.

  • Human Rights and Democratization in Romania

    Romania's ongoing journey toward democracy is generally viewed, even by the government of Romania, as slower and more circuitous than that of its neighbors. Romania has certainly had farther to go; Nicolae Ceausescu's regime was the most repressive and demoralizing of the Warsaw Pact countries. Yet Romania's gloomy distinctiveness carried into the post-Ceausescu era. The Romanian revolution of December 1989 was the bloodiest of the region. The early months of 1990 were marked by confusion and tension, including violent inter-ethnic clashes. The first free elections of May 1990 were tainted by serious irregularities in the campaign period; one month later, thousands of pro-government miners rampaged through Bucharest, bludgeoning anti-communist demonstrators and ransacking opposition party headquarters. This report examines the developments in the areas of human rights and democracy in post-Ceausescu Romania.

  • Russia's Parliamentary Election and Constitutional Referendum

    This report is based on a Helsinki Commission staff delegation to Russia to observe the December 12, 1993 parliamentary election and constitutional referendum. Because of the importance of the event, and because charges had been leveled of improprieties and unfair access to the media, the Commission sent five staff members to Russia to observe the process for a period of more than two weeks. Michael Ochs and Orest Deychak went to Russia two weeks before the voting to monitor the pre-election campaign. The Commission's Senior Advisor, David Evans, and staff members John Finerty and Heather Hurlburt, arrived subsequently and remained through December 12, when they monitored balloting in various cities and regions.  Despite a number of problems and irregularities, both during the campaign and the voting, the Helsinki Commission believes that the Russian voters were able to express their political will freely and fairly. The Russians have made genuine progress in bringing their electoral procedures into conformity with international standards, and the election itself represents a significant step in the ongoing process of democratization in Russia.

  • The Current State and Future Prospects of Democracy in Russia

    As its name suggests, this hearing, which Steny H. Hoyer presided over, dealt with the prospect for the implementation of democratic institutions in the former Soviet Union. In addition, though, part of the hearing focused on the Russian legislature’s dissolution after the presidency of Mikhail Gorbachev (i.e. post-Communism), as well as, of course, Russia and its formerly incorporated countries’ courses for the future. Witnesses who attended this hearing were: Michael Dobbs, Resident Scholar at the Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute; Dr. Leon Aron, Resident Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute; and Dr. Robert Krieble, Chairman of the Krieble Institute of the Free Congress Foundation.

  • Human Rights and Democratization in Bulgaria

    The Helsinki Commission's last comprehensive report on Bulgarian CSCE implementation was published in 1988. (The Commission also published a report in 1991 on the ethnic Turkish minority in Bulgaria). At that time, Bulgaria was in violation of many of its CSCE commitments. Its human rights record was among the worst of the Helsinki signatory states. Clearly, much has changed since then. Since the fall of communism in November 1989, Bulgaria has made impressive strides towards becoming a democratic state based on the rule of law. Bulgaria is experiencing a rare historical opportunity in which it can genuinely forge its own fate. Unshackled from the external Soviet empire of communist rule with which it had especially close links, Bulgaria is developing a democratic, rule of law state where the rights of all of its citizens are being met with greater respect. While Bulgaria faces considerable problems in its post-communist transition, and will continue to in the foreseeable future, it is doing much better than most of its Balkan neighbors. Moreover, it is exceeding the expectations of those who until recently viewed Bulgaria through the prism of being the Soviet Union's “16th republic” and the home of papal assassination plots and forcible assimilation campaigns. Despite its very real problems, Bulgaria is indicating that it is more tolerant, pluralistic, democratic and stable than many would have supposed.

  • Situations of Kurds in Iran, Iraq, and Turkey

    This briefing focused on the Kurdish minority, the fourth largest nationality in the Middle East primarily concentrated in the States of Iran, Iraq, and Turkey, a CSCE signatory state. The lack of institutional protection of human rights and individual freedoms that the Kurdish minority suffers from in each of these states was addressed. Additionally, the principles of territorial integrity, self-determination, and respect of human rights were explored in the context of the Middle East. Witnesses at the briefing – including Ahmet Turk, Chairman of the People’s Labor Party and Barham Salih, a Representative of the Iraqi Kurds – offered descriptions of the historical context and the political framework in which the issue of violations of the human rights of the Kurdish minority has arisen. Mr. Salih presented his personal experience as the evidence of the process of forced assimilation that Kurds were enduring in Turkey at the time.

  • The Moscow Meeting of the Conference on the Human Dimension of the CSCE

    In accordance with the mandate of the Vienna Concluding Document, the 38 states participating in the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) met in Moscow from September 10 through October 4, 1991, for the third meeting of the Conference on the Human Dimension (CHD, or CDH from the French acronym) of the CSCE. The first meeting of the Conference was held in Paris from May 20 through June 23, 1989, and the second was held in Copenhagen from June 5 through 29, 1990. The meetings of the CHD address the full range of human rights and humanitarian concerns associated with the Helsinki process.

  • Geneva Meeting on National Minorities and Moscow Meeting on the Human Dimension

    The hearing will focus on two important CSCE meetings, the Geneva Experts Meeting on National Minorities.   The Geneva meeting which recently ended was mandated to discuss national minorities, the meeting had three components: exchange of views on practical experience; review of the implementation of relevant CSCE commitments; and consideration of new measures. The distinguished speaker will outline the major points of the Geneva meeting and how the United States can best utilize its success while moving towards the upcoming human dimension meeting in Moscow.

  • Revolt Against the Silence - The State of Human Rights in Romania: An Update

    Patterns of repression in Romania remain sadly the same year after year. The Romanian regime has kept up pressure on members of religious and national minorities, as well as on all who have sought to express themselves freely. It has harassed and punished would-be emigrants by removing them from jobs and housing. It has exiled writers, philosophers and former leaders. It has jailed those who have sought the means to worship freely, and used psychiatric incarceration to punish free expression. The regime has steadily curtailed the opportunities for members of ethnic minorities to maintain and cultivate their cultural heritage, cutting minority-language instruction and publishing to a minimum. Minority cultural and family ties have also been strictly limited. The regime has used violence and threats of violence to discourage citizens from seeking to exercise their rights. Many Romanian dissidents inside and outside the country have received black-bordered death threats, widely believed to be a favorite calling-card of Romania's notorious Securitate (secret police). Increasingly, the regime's persecution has touched all Romanian citizens, who suffer from severe, state-imposed food shortages and the threat of displacement through the sjstematizare, or systematization, program. Despite the Romanian Government's March announcement, with great fanfare, that it had repaid the country's foreign debt, there is no sign that the regime will reorder its fiscal priorities in favor of consumption. Rationing continues unabated, while construction of new industrial projects seems to be moving forward with redoubled speed.

  • The State of Human Rights in Romania: An Update

    One year after worker-led disturbances erupted in Brasov and other Romanian cities, Romanian society remains tense, divided and increasingly impatient with a regime that exhibits little regard for the well-being of its citizenry. While the Romanian Party and Government have succeeded in quashing most open expressions of dissent, they have failed abysmally in garnering popular support for their programs -- if such support was ever solicited or even de­sired. Systematically depriving its citizens of the possibility to exer­cise the most fundamental human rights, and robbing them of the social and economic rights it supports so heartily in words, the Ro­manian regime has lost any legitimacy it might once have enjoyed among its citizens. Romanian citizens and recent emigrants from that country testi­fy that repression has grown in the year after Brasov. While most prisoners of conscience were released under a January 1988 amnes­ ty, dissidents continue to be surveilled, followed, called in repeatedly for questioning by the Securitate, and placed under house arrest. Telephone lines are cut and mail intercepted to increase the dissidents' sense of isolation not only from the world outside Romania, but also from contacts within the country. Censorship has become more severe, and the security apparatus maintains an even more visible presence than before. The notorious but still unpublished Decree 408, which requires Romanian citizens to report to police all meetings with foreign citizens within 24 hours, is stringently enforced. Romania's economy continues to deteriorate. Fuel and electricity have been rationed for years. Staple foods, including milk, bread and flour, are rationed, and in many localities even these are unavailable. Meat is a rarity; soup bones only occasionally appear in stores. Decades of financial misplanning and inefficient industrial devel­opment have led to the dire condition of the Romanian economy, making it the poorest in Europe after Albania. The Government continues to repay its foreign debts at a swift rate and modernizeat the expense of the Romanian people's well-being.  

  • Reform and Human Rights in Eastern Europe

    During the course of the last several years, tremendous political changes have occurred in Eastern Europe. On the plus side of the ledger, the United States normalized relations with Poland, symbolized by the reinstatement of Poland's Most-Favored-Nation trad­ ing status (MFN) in 1987, following a series of prisoner amnesties and political improvements peaking in 1986. In Hungary, progress has included the introduction of a new passport law, undoubtedly the most liberal in Eastern Europe to date, permitting passport is­ suance according to roughly the same standards as in the West. In the German Democratic Republic, record numbers of people have been permitted to travel and to emigrate. On the negative side of the ledger, to mention only the most striking case of deterioration, United States relations with Romania have chilled because of that country's progressively poorer human rights performance. This led Romania to renounce its MFN privileges rather than face what promised to be a highly critical as­sessment before the U.S. Congress in 1988. In spite of worldwide condemnation of its policies, Romania has forged ahead with plans to destroy up to half of its approximately 13,000 villages. All this is painted onto domestic political and economic canvases which can seem alternately diverse and yet uniform, capable of metamorphosis and yet stagnant. In spite of the notable changes, there are few discernible area-wide trends in this geographic region united by its postwar fate. It is no wonder, then, that East European analysts have been left scratching their heads, trying to make sense out of all that is happening, or -- in some cases -- not happening. One of the traditional questions posed by these analysts involves the degree of influence events in the Soviet Union have on developments in Eastern Europe. The latest angle in this sophisticated guesswork has become the question of what role Mikhail Gorbachev performs in Eastern Europe's own passion play. Since World War II, Europe from the Baltic to the Black Sea has been the victim of push-me, pull-you politics emanating from Moscow: now racing to catchup with de-Stalinization, now being punished for taking de-Stalinization too far. Today's Eastern Europe seems to continue to walk a poorly defined path between being reactive to events in the Soviet Union, and proactively lead­ing the way to parts unknown. Understanding the changes taking place in the region -- and the opportunities for the West which have arisen as a result of them -- may be more critical now than at any time since the end of World War II. Consequently, the Helsinki Commission has followed develop­ments in Eastern Europe more closely during the past Congress than ever before. Extensive hearings have been held on virtually every aspect of the Helsinki Accords as they apply to Eastern Europe, drawing on a wide range of experts on East European af­fairs, including renowned scholars, high-ranking government offi­cials, representatives from nongovernmental organizations, and East Europeans speaking from their firsthand experiences. In addition, the Commission has led congressional delegations to all six East European countries. These unprecedented trips provid­ed Helsinki Commissioners and other Members of Congress with the opportunity to engage government officials in a dialogue on all aspects of the Helsinki Final Act, and to exchange views regarding specific areas of bilateral and multilateral concern. Just as impor­tant were delegation meetings with a wide range of private citi­zens, representing independent and unofficial thinking among the political, religious, and cultural communities. Commission staff del­egations to Poland, Romania, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia have performed important follow-up activities. The report that follows is based on the information garnered by the Commission's numerous hearings, delegations, and reports. It is an attempt to take that information one step further and, like The Gorbachev Record which precedes it, present a sober, factual analysis of trends in the countries of Eastern Europe. It is hoped that, as a result, we will better understand where and in what ways positive change is taking place in Eastern Europe, and where compliance with the Helsinki Final Act cries for improvement.

  • Reform and Human Rights - The Gorbachev Record

    Based on the Commission's continuing, professional contacts with a wide range of experts on Soviet affairs in this country and abroad, this report is a sober, factual survey of Mikhail Gorbachev's efforts during his first three years as General Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party to promote significant reforms in the politics, economy and society of his country. The report is designed to contribute to that consistent pressure, for in describing how much has changed or seems to be in the process of changing, it also documents how many fundamental rights of Soviet citizens to freedom of expression, of belief, of movement and of national character remain restricted and unprotected. There has been much to applaud in the three years of Gorbachev's rule, especially compared to the repressive actions of his predecessors. The release of many political prisoners from camps and psychiatric prison-hospitals, the rise in the numbers of Soviet citizens permitted to emigrate and to travel, the increasing candor of the official Soviet press and the increasing tolerance shown to unofficial groups and unorthodox points of view are all welcome first steps in the right direction. They are, however, no more than first steps. And as our reportdocuments, they were taken slowly and could be retracted almost overnight. Until the rule of law establishes a decent balance between the power of the Soviet state and the human dignity of individual Soviet citizens, the latter will always be at risk.

  • Transcripts: Restrictions on Artistic Freedoms in the Soviet Union, October 29, 1985; and the Budapest Cultural Forum, December 11, 1985

    * Public Hearing on Restrictions on Artistic Freedom in the Soviet Union The Commission met, pursuant to notice, in room 210, Cannon House Office Building, at 10 a.m., Senator Alfonse M. D'Amato, chairman, and Representative Steny H. Hoyer, cochairman, presiding. In attendance: Commissioners and Senators John Heinz, Gordon J. Humphrey, and Dennis DeConcini; Commissioners and Representatives Dante B. Fascell, Don Ritter, and Christopher H. Smith. Also in attendance: Michael R. Hathaway, staff director, and Mary Sue Hafner, general counsel of the Commission. This hearing concerned restrictions on creative freedom in the Soviet Union.   Public Hearing on the Budapest Cultural Forum The Commission met, pursuant to notice, in room 538, of the Dirksen Senate Office Building, at 11 a.m., Senator Alfonse M. D'Amato, chairman, and Representative Steny H. Hoyer, cochairman, presiding. In attendance: Senator Malcolm Wallop, Commissioner. Also in attendance: Michael R. Hathaway, staff director, and Mary Sue Hafner, general counsel of the Commission. In this hearing, the Helsinki Commission heard testimony on the most recent international meeting in the Helsinki process, the Budapest Cultural Forum.

  • Human Rights in Czechoslovakia: The Documents of Charter '77, 1977-1982

    The documents in this publication reflect the efforts of Czechoslovak citizens to express their opinions on issues of importance to them and on rights guaranteed to them under Czechoslovak law, the Helsinki Final Act, and other international agreements. In Principle VII of the Helsinki Final Act, the participating States confirmed the "right of the individual to know and act upon his rights." They also agreed to "promote and encourage the effective exercise of civil, political, economic, social, cultural and other rights and freedoms all of which derive from the inherent dignity of the human person..." The signatories further pledged to "recognize and respect the freedom of the individual to profess and practice, alone or in community with others, religion or belief acting in accordance with the dictates of his own conscience." Sadly, these noble words ring hollow in Czechoslovakia, one of the 35 signatories to the Helsinki Final Act. In an effort to improve their country's adherence to the principles and spirit of the Helsinki document during the last five years -- over 1,000 czechoslovak citizens -- workers, scholars, clergymen, professionais, students, government employees, scientists and others -- have affixed their names to the manifesto of human rights known as Charter 77. Many have also worked actively with VONS -- the Committee for the Defense of the Unjustly Persecuted -- to report and document violations of basic human freedoms. While in most signatory countries these efforts on behalf of human rights would be applauded and rewarded, in Czechoslovakia both signers of Charter 77 and members of VONS have fallen victim to unrelenting government repression. Charter 77 clearly emphasizes that its aim is not to change the existing sociai system, but simply to demonstrate the need for "observance of laws" -- both domestic and international -- by the Czechoslovak authorities. As an example of this committment to international law and other agreements, Charter 77 called upon the Czechosiovak delegation to the Madrid Meeting of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe to honor its word and implement all the provisions of the helsinki Final Act, including Principle ViI. The constant surveillance, house searches, detentions, arrests, beatings and terms of imprisonment to which these courageous men and women are subjected are difficult to reconcile with the statements attesting to full implementation presented by the Czechoslovak delegations to both the Belgrade and Madrid review meetings.

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