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Freedom of Thought, Conscience, Religion, or Belief

The Helsinki Final Act of 1975 recognizes religious freedom as a “human right and fundamental freedom.” Participating States of the OSCE “will recognize and respect the freedom of the individual to profess and practice, alone or in community with others, religion or belief acting in accordance with the dictates of his own conscience.”

To help ensure this commitment is fully honored, the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) has senior staff focused on religious freedom.

The Helsinki Commission promotes and defends the religious freedom of people in the OSCE region, particularly prioritizing the cases of individuals and communities whose religious freedom has been violated and laws and policies that conflict with the Helsinki Final Act.

Staff Contacts: Nathaniel Hurd, senior policy advisor; Mischa Thompson, senior policy advisor

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  • Forced Labor in the Soviet Union

    The subject of our hearing is forced labor in the Soviet Union. We have long been interested in the subject at the Commission, as many others have. The Commission issued staff reports on the subject as early as August 1980. There is no exact statistics exist in the West on the central question of the total number of Soviets engaged in various types of forced labor. The generally accepted minimum number is 3 or 4 million people-including about 10 000 political prisoners-performing forced labor in places of imprisonment and on penal labor brigades. The robust discussion provided by experts will make clear the vast extent of Soviet reliance on forced labor.

  • Soviet Jewry: H. Con. Res. 63

    This joint hearing by the Committee on Foreign Affairs, Subcommittee on Human Rights and International Organizations, and the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe examined the plight of Jews in the Soviet Union. Moscow's heightened campaign of hatred against its own citizens, in flagrant disregard of international law, was identified as a factor in whether the United States should enter into any further agreements with the Soviet Union, especially ones which involve United States security. Witnesses testifying at this hearing expressed their concerns about the continued persecution and harassment of the Jewish community in the Soviet Union. The repressive policies instituted by the Soviet regime to destroy Jewish culture, despite its commitment to the human rights terms agreed upon during the Helsinki Final Act, were outlined.

  • 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.

  • The Helsinki Forum and East-West Scientific Exchange

    The Committee on Science and Technology as well as the Committee on Foreign Affairs and the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe sponsored the hearing to examine free and open scientific exchange among the OSCE member states. Amidst the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Andrei Tverdokhlebov, physicist and human rights activist, gave testimony about the restrictive state of freedom of association in the U.S.S.R., its effects on the scientific community, and attempts by the Soviet Government to silence Andrei Sakharov. The witnesses and the Commissioners discussed possible non-essential travel bans on future scientific exchanges and other joint international scientific efforts.

  • Implementation of The Helsinki Accords Vol. XI – Religious Persecution In U.S.S.R. & HR Violations in Ukraine

    The first part of this hearing, led by Commissioner Dante B. Fascell, focused largely on the imprisonment of Russian Pastor Georgi  Vins, who had spent eight of the last thirteen years in prison simply due to his occupation. Repression of this Baptist minister exemplified such repression of other Baptist clergymen by the U.S.S.R., whose denomination in the country dated back to the early 1900s. However, in 1965, the Soviet Baptist movement split into the recognized and legitimated all-union Council of Evangelical Christians, and the dissident reform Baptists, making the latter the first Soviet dissident human rights group. The second portion of the hearing discussed Ukrainian political retribution and dissidents, exemplified by the cases of witnesses who had all been political prisoners in the Eastern European country.

  • Implementation of The Helsinki Accords Vol. X – Aleksandr Ginzburg On The Human Rights Situation In The U.S.S.R.

    CSCE Chairman Dante Fascell presided over this hearing on the human rights situation in the USSR. Aleksandr Ginzburg,a Russian human rights activist who had finally been released from the Gulag Archipelago and subsequently returned to his family, testified.  The hearing also focused on the repression and imprisonment of members of the Moscow Helsinki Monitoring Group, a Russian human rights advocacy organization whose work focused on pressure in support of the Helsinki Final Act. The hearing gave Ginzburg a platform to candidly discuss the as human rights abuses taking place in the USSR.

  • Soviet Law and the Helsinki Monitors

    Between February 3, 1977 and June 1, 1978, twenty Soviet citizens active in the defense of human rights in five different Republics were arrested and imprisoned; two others, traveling abroad on Soviet passports, were stripped of their citizenship and denied the right to return to the USSR. All are members of the Public Groups to Promote Observance of the Helsinki Agreement in the USSR (the Soviet Helsinki Watch) or, in the case of two men, of its subsidiary Working Commission to Investi­gate the Abuse of Psychiatry for Political Purposes. The twenty-one men and one woman are being punished under a variety of different criminal charges. Their "crime," however, is identical: political dissent, ex­pressed in the non-violent, open effort to spur Soviet authorities to implement the human rights and humanitarian undertakings of the August 1975 Final Act of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (the Helsinki Accord.) The following study by the staff of the U. S. Commission on . Security and Cooperation in Europe examines the workings of Soviet law and criminal procedure as applied in these cases of political dissent. It discusses the guarantees of Soviet law, including international covenants ratified by the USSR, against arbitrary arrest and unfair trial and compares those to the practices used against the Helsinki Watchers. From the study it is evident that those guarantees -- both substantive and procedural -- have been repeatedly violated in the persecution and prosecution of the twenty-two human rights activists. The violations uncovered range from improper conduct of pre-arrest house searches through illegally prolonged pre-trial detention to unlawful denial of the rights of the defense at the trial. This pattern of official conduct toward free, but dissenting political expression is not new in the Soviet Union. In the treatment of the Soviet Helsinki Watch, however, it has been systematic and can be termed, without question, a gross and intentional violation of both the pledges in the Final Act and the safeguards promised by the Soviet Constitution, Criminal Codes and Codes of Criminal Procedure.

  • Implementation of the Helsinki Accords Vol.I - Human Rights & Contacts

    Hon. Dante Fascell, Chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, presided over this hearing on the implementation of the Helsinki Accords. This hearing focused on the Commisison's consideration of the provisions of the 1975 Helsinki Accords dealing with respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms and with freer movement of people and information. The purpose was to define what the Commission knew of implementation of the accords and of their violations, to explore proposals for advancing compliance, and to seek advice on the role the accords played bettering East-West relations. Hon. Fascell was joined by Leonard Garment, former U.S. Representative to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, and Vladimir Bukovsky, former Soviet political prisoner.

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