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Helsinki Commission

The Helsinki Commission contributes to the formulation of U.S. policy on the OSCE and takes part in its execution, including through Member and staff participation on U.S. Delegations to OSCE meetings and in certain OSCE bodies. The Commission convenes public hearings and briefings with expert witnesses on OSCE-related issues; issues public reports concerning implementation of OSCE commitments in participating States; and organizes official delegations to participating States and OSCE meetings to address and assess democratic, economic, security, and human rights developments firsthand.

Commissioners communicate with the President of the United States, the Secretary of State and other senior U.S. officials and issue public statements on matters of concern as needed.  Commissioners and staff meet officials and prominent visitors from other OSCE States in Washington, and travel to countries of concern to monitor and encourage implementation more directly, including through election observation. When warranted, Senate and House Commissioners act in their capacity as Members of Congress to introduce and seek passage of legislation.

Staff Contact: Stacy Hope, communications director

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  • Commission Staff Observes Ukrainian Elections

    By Orest Deychakiwsky, CSCE Staff Advisor United States Helsinki Commission staff observed the March 31, 2002 parliamentary elections in Ukraine as part of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly contingent of the OSCE-led International Election Observation Mission (IEOM). Half of the deputies to the 450-member parliament were elected from party lists and the other half from single-mandate districts. Six parties passed the 4 percent threshold necessary to be seated in the party list vote, with reformist former Prime Minister Viktor Yushchenko’s Our Ukraine bloc winning the most votes. In the single-mandate district voting, the pro-presidential For United Ukraine bloc obtained the largest number of seats. Both the OSCE and the U.S. State Department concluded that the March 31 elections indicated progress over the 1998 elections, but “important flaws persist.” In its April 1 press conference in Kyiv, the IEOM declined to prepare a final analysis before post-election procedures are concluded, and promised to return to Ukraine within a month to follow up, after watching how election authorities and the judiciary perform while tabulating and publishing results and adjudicating disputes. Positive elements cited included a new Election Law that took into account OSCE/ODIHR recommendations from previous elections; improvements in the mechanism to address election disputes, with clearer complaint and appeals procedures; multi-party commissions; the engagement of civil society in the electoral process; and greater access by candidates and parties to the media through TV debates, free air time and paid advertising. On the negative side, media coverage was biased and state-funded television gave disproportionate coverage to pro-presidential candidates. Other problem areas included abuses of state resources in the election campaign, interference by local authorities, and a campaign sullied by the murders of two candidates, and other isolated instances of violence, including one just a few days before the elections. Compared to previous elections, the level of pressure by government officials and workers to campaign in support of the main pro-presidential party, including direct pressure on individuals to vote for specific candidates, had significantly increased. The abuse of state resources created an uneven playing field and the main beneficiary of such violations was the pro-presidential bloc For a United Ukraine. Despite these advantages, pro-presidential parties did not do all that well in the party-list vote, and several did not even surpass the four percent threshold required for inclusion in the Verkhovna Rada (parliament). Furthermore, the two opposition parties garnered more votes than expected, securing for themselves seats in the new parliament. According to the IEOM, there were also shortcomings in the implementation of the legal framework, including uneven enforcement of provisions on violations of electoral rights, the lack of deadlines, and clear definitions regarding candidate de-registration and campaigning. According to the OSCE experts, these weaknesses derived from the inability of the Rada and the President to agree on amendments to the Administrative Code, so, in effect some of the positive provisions of the Election Law could not be enforced. Another problem was the lack of reliable voter lists – outdated information, including voters who had moved to other districts, left the country, or are deceased – and the widespread practice of issuing absentee ballots to voters unrelated to their place of residence. Voter lists may be amended up until election day; however, voters cannot be included in the registers of their place of residence on election day without a judicial decision. Voters were added to registers and allowed to vote – without the required court order– in about one third of polling stations visited by international observers. Voting day During the polling on voting day, the most serious problems were violations of the secrecy of the vote and voters added to registers in apparent contravention of the law. OSCE staff observed the elections in Lviv oblast in western Ukraine. Most polling stations visited by Commission staff were run efficiently, in a calm atmosphere, and commission members seemed hard-working and dedicated. Furthermore, there were numerous party, candidate and domestic observers. In a minority of polling stations staff witnessed incompetence, chaos, overcrowding, inadequate facilities – usually premises that were much too small and had an inadequate number of voting booths. Overcrowding was responsible for the violation most frequently observed – voting outside of booths – but there appeared to be no element of intimidation here. Instead, voters simply did not feel like waiting in long lines. According to the non-partisan domestic observer group Committee of Voters of Ukraine (CVU), 15 % of voters were unable to vote due to overcrowding or poor facilities. Also, CVU estimated that one third of precincts were not able to conduct the elections in an organized manner. Despite the uneven playing field and violations with respect to the vote tabulations in a number of single-mandate constituencies, generally, the elections reflected the will of the voters. The actual results did not differ significantly from the results of several exit polls. Results and What Next The results indicate a country divided into three broad political orientations. Our Ukraine, the center-right, pro-reform, pro-Western coalition headed by Yushchenko, took the most seats in the party-list vote. The Communists garnered 20 percent of the party-list vote, clearly indicating their continued downward trend with each passing election. For the first time since Ukraine became independent in 1991, they will not constitute the largest political grouping in the Rada. In third place in the party-list vote was the pro-presidential For a United Ukraine, which had benefitted the most from the authorities’ abuses of state resources in the campaign. This bloc, however, had a strong showing in the single-mandate district voting, and will almost certainly end up with the largest number of overall deputies, especially as their numbers will be expanded with those who ran as “independents.” No one political grouping will have a viable majority in parliament; hence, will need to make concessions with other groupings to act. The pro-presidential For a United Ukraine may be compelled to team up with Yushchenko’s Our Ukraine to form a government and pass pro-reform legislative initiatives. With this kind of political configuration, shifting alliances may be more likely than any kind of solid coalition. As a result, cautious moves towards economic and political reform rather than sweeping changes are more likely. Nevertheless, judging by the results, the Ukrainian people are increasingly endorsing a pro-European, pro-market, pro-democratic orientation.

  • Missed Opportunity in Belarus

    By Orest S. Deychakiwsky, Staff Advisor and Ron McNamara, Chief of Staff Commission staff observed the September 9 presidential election in Belarus, in which Belarusian strongman Aleksandr Lukashenka prevailed in a fundamentally unfair election marred by harassment of the opposition and independent media. Unprecedented obstacles erected by the authorities impeded normal long-term observation of the election while Lukashenka lashed out with vitriolic threats against OSCE mission head Ambassador Hans-Georg Wieck and U.S. Ambassador Mike Kozak in the closing days of the campaign. Hopes that the election would bring an end to the country’s self-imposed isolation were dashed by wide-scale rights violations by the regime in the weeks leading up to election day and serious irregularities in the balloting. The International Limited Election Observation Mission, which consisted of the OSCE’s Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) and the Parliamentary Troika composed of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE/PA), the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe and the European Parliament, concluded that there were fundamental flaws in the election process and that the elections failed to meet OSCE standards for democratic elections. Commission staff participated in the OSCE/PA delegation, on election day observing the vote in Miensk and in towns and villages in the Miensk,Vitsyebsk and Mahilyow regions, including in the village in which Lukashenka was born. The problematic pre-election campaign period determined the election’s outcome. The election took place against a backdrop of recent credible revelations of involvement by close associates of Lukashenka in the disappearances and presumed murders of leading opposition members. Criteria established by the OSCE in 2000 as benchmarks for democratic elections – transparency of the elections process, access of opponents to the state-run media, and a climate free of fear – were not met. There was a profound lack of a level playing field for the candidates. The weeks leading up to the presidential contest were characterized by harassment of the opposition, raids on non-governmental organizations and independent newspapers, with the confiscation of campaign materials, newspapers, printing presses and computer equipment. The dominant state-owned media outlets were overwhelmingly biased in favor of Lukashenka. The Belarusian authorities did everything they could to thwart the opposition, including ruling by decree, failing to guarantee the independence of the election administration, and allowing abuses in “early voting.” The authorities’ treatment of the OSCE observation mission, including delays in issuing an invitation which forced the mission to limit its observation to a mere three weeks before the election and denials of visas, was described by one OSCE election official as “unprecedented” -- worse than in any other of the more than two dozen countries in which the OSCE has observed elections. The regime maintained firm control over virtually every aspect of the election process, from the makeup of the election commissions with their visible lack of representatives of the opposition, to keeping independent observers from scrutinizing the vote tabulation. One of the few positive outcomes of the Belarusian presidential race was the development of the democratic opposition and civil society, despite the intense pressures it faced from the Lukashenka regime. Regrettably, Lukashenka and his inner circle squandered the opportunity presented by the election to restore some degree of normalcy to relations between Belarus and most OSCE participating States, including the United States. Desperate for a modicum of international recognition, members of Belarus’ “National Assembly” were out in force making overtures to OSCE Parliamentary Assembly observers in hopes of ending their isolation following last year’s flawed parliamentary elections.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • Prosecuting War Crimes in the Former Yugoslavia: an Update

    This memorandum is part of a continuing series of reports prepared by the staff of the Helsinki Commission on the conflict in the former Yugoslavia. In the summer of 1991, Members of Congress and representatives of non-governmental organizations began to call for the establishment of a war crimes tribunal that would hold those responsible for war crimes in the former Yugoslavia personally and individually accountable for their actions. As atrocities mounted over that summer and information about concentration camps became public, these calls began to reverberate at on-going meetings of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) then being held in Prague, Vienna and Helsinki.

  • 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 State of Human Rights in Turkey: An Update

    Since September 12, 1980, many governments, international bodies and nongovernmental organizations have taken an extreme­ly active interest in the human rights situation in Turkey. That date marked the third time in as many decades that the Turkish military had taken power, this time in the wake of governmental paralysis, political polarization, and an uncontrolled wave of vio­lence and terrorism which even civilian-imposed martial law could not stem. Still in power in 1982, the ruling generals had made it clear that power would not be returned to civilian hands until, in their view, the causes of the previous unrest had been eliminated. Political activities remained restricted, and large numbers of Turkish citizens were in prison awaiting trial on a variety of politically related charges. Allegations of serious human rights abuses were wide­spread. The Commission had been urged by nongovernmental organiza­tions, by Members of Congress, and by parliamentarians in other NATO countries, to investigate the charges of abuse. A staff delegation visited Turkey from August 22-29, 1982, and its report repre­sented one of the first open expressions of concern about the Turkish situation by official representatives of the United States. Since the October 1982 report, the Commission, Members of Con­gress, various international bodies, and a variety of private organi­zations have followed events there with great interest. In the past six years, certain sanctions have been applied by the international community, and have been rescinded as progress was made in im­ proving the human rights situation. In light of its ongoing interest m Turkey, and the concern which private organizations continue to express, the Commission felt it appropriate to visit Turkey again and to assess the situation once more. The Commission believes that, since the previous staff report, Turkey has made impressive strides toward a full restoration of human rights and the democratic process. The past six years have seen a renewal of the national commitment to achieving democrat­ic ideals for all Turkish citizens and patterns of tolerance have emerged. They are being strengthened by institutional reform, a citizenry largely committed to the democratic process, and by the activities of the press and various private organizations. The Commission also believes that certain human rights prob­lems, which often predate the 1980 military takeover, persist in Turkey. The report describes them and certain measures which are being undertaken in order to deal with them. This report by the staff, describing developments since the 1982 report and assessing the current state of affairs, is a product of the Commission's continuing interest in Turkey's progress toward full democratization. The hard-won national independence of 1923 en­ compassed a vision of the future which incorporated a proud histor­ical heritage in a Western framework. The profound changes that followed required great national will and commitment. It is the Commission's hope that the momentum of Turkish human rights improvements will be sustained. Turkey is a geographical and cul­tural bridge between Europe and the Middle East, and the Turkish experience may serve as a lesson for both worlds.

  • Chairmanship of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe

    This hearing was convened to discuss H.R. 4504, a bill introduced by the committee chairman, the Honorable Dante Fascell, of Florida.  This legislation provided for several changes in the administration of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe. First, it stipulated that the Chairman of the Commission could not also be the chairman of another sitting committee. Second, it provided for rotation between the House and the Senate for chairman of the Commission to ensure that it meets the needs of both houses of Congress. Third, it established the position of co-chairman, which had previously been an informal arrangement. Representatives of several organizations, including the National Conference of Soveit Jewry, the Helsinki Watch, and the Joint Baltic American National Committee, spoke in favor of the legislation. The bill was ultimately passed in a vote by the House Committee on Foreign Affairs' Subcommittee on International Operations.

  • Helsinki Commission Annual Report - 1978

    Created in 1976 as an independent agency to monitor and encourage compliance with the 1975 Helsinki Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE), the Commission has carried out its responsiblities in a variety of ways during the 95th Congress. Primary focus of Commission activity during the past two years was on the Belgrade CSCE review conference which met from June 1977 to March 1978 to review implementation by all signatories of the military and security, economic and scientific, humanitarian and other goals of the Helsinki Final Act. The Commission was instrumental in formulating U.S. policy for the Belgrade meeting and then played an important and active role as part of the U.S. delegation to the review conference. It has also been active in planning for and staffing official U.S. delegations to a subsequent meeting of scientific experts in Bonn, as well as other conferences within the CSCE process. In addition to carrying out its monitoring and informational responsibilities in major international fora, the Commission has been extremely active on a day-to-day basis in promoting implementation of the Helsinki accords. Extensive and continuing hearings during the last two years have provided an important source of information on the state of Helsinki Final Act implementation, particularly in the human rights area. Human rights, especially family reunification, was also the subject of a large number of Commission meetings and staff interviews during the 95th Congress. As a result, the Commission has been able to provide a regular flow of reports and information to the Congress, press and public on human rights and other issues involving Helsinki Final Act implementation. The Commission has a unique role in policy formulation and coordination on CSCE; during the past two years, Commissioners and staff held extensive meetings with officials of the Executive Branch to review and initiate CSCE policy issues. In addition, periodic consultations were held with officials of the other signatory governments. It is likely that this process will intensify and expand in anticipation of the next major review conference at Madrid in 1980.

  • Podcast: Seeking Justice in Serbia

    Twenty years after U.S. citizens Ylli, Agron, and Mehmet Bytyqi were brutally murdered in Serbia in the aftermath of the 1999 conflict in Kosovo, their brother Ilir documents his family’s fight for justice in the face of inaction by Serbian authorities. Ilir is joined by family lawyer Praveen Madhiraju and Helsinki Commission senior policy advisor Robert Hand. "Helsinki on the Hill" is series of conversations hosted by the U.S. Helsinki Commission on human rights and comprehensive security in Europe and beyond. The Helsinki Commission, formally known as the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, promotes human rights, military security, and economic cooperation in 57 countries in Europe, Eurasia, and North America. Transcript | Episode 2: Seeking Justice in Serbia | Helsinki on the Hill

  • Podcast: In the Beginning

    In the inaugural episode of "Helsinki on the Hill," the Helsinki Commission's first staff director, Spencer Oliver, shares how the Helsinki Commission evolved from its beginnings in the 1970s to become an organization that reflects the overarching commitment of the United States to security and cooperation in Europe, and that has played a vital role in introducing and promoting the concept of human rights as an element in U.S. foreign policy decision-making globally. He also shares details about the role he played in the creation of today's OSCE, and his service as the first secretary general of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly from 1992 to 2015. "Helsinki on the Hill" is series of conversations hosted by the U.S. Helsinki Commission on human rights and comprehensive security in Europe and beyond. The Helsinki Commission, formally known as the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, promotes human rights, military security, and economic cooperation in 57 countries in Europe, Eurasia, and North America. Transcript | Episode 1: In the Beginning | Helsinki on the Hill

  • OSCE Election Observation

    After OSCE nations pledged in 1990 to hold free and fair elections, election observation – one of the most transparent and methodical ways to encourage commitment to democratic standards – became a core element of the OSCE’s efforts to promote human rights, democracy, and the rule of law. As part of its OSCE commitments, each OSCE country is expected to invite foreign observers to observe its elections. In 2018 alone, the OSCE was invited to observe elections in Azerbaijan, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Finland, Georgia, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Luxembourg, Macedonia, Monaco, Montenegro, Russia, Slovenia, Sweden, Turkey, Turkmenistan, and the United States.* History of OSCE Election Observation In 1990, all OSCE countries voluntarily committed to holding democratic elections that meet the same basic standards: universal access, equality, fairness, freedom, transparency, accountability, and privacy in voter submission. Because violations of these commitments can endanger stability in the OSCE region, as well as within an individual country, OSCE nations also agreed to open their elections to observers from other participating countries. To encourage compliance and confidence in the results of the observation missions, countries agreed to observe elections together under the OSCE umbrella. Since the 1990s, OSCE election observers have been present at more than 300 elections throughout the OSCE region. While some OSCE countries benefit from foreign observation more than others – especially those that formerly had one-party communist systems and little experience with democracy – the OSCE also observes elections in more established and stable democracies, such as the United States, Canada, Germany, and the United Kingdom. As one of the original 35 members of the OSCE, the United States has participated actively in OSCE election observation missions, both by providing observers for foreign elections as well as by inviting the OSCE to observe every general and midterm election since 2002. Election Observation in Practice By analyzing election-related laws and systems, as well as the effectiveness of their implementation, election observation missions help ensure that elections in OSCE countries are free and fair for voters and candidates alike. OSCE election observation missions often are undertaken jointly by the OSCE Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) and the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (PA). The missions, which combine strong technical expertise and sound political judgement, include ODIHR officials, professional analysts, parliamentarians, and others on loan from OSCE member countries. To ensure that no single country’s point of view is overrepresented, the OSCE limits the number of observers from any one country. No matter where they are from, observers must commit themselves to an election observation code of conduct, which limits their role to observing and reporting. Observers have no authority to instruct, assist, or interfere in the voting, counting, tabulation, or other aspects of the electoral process. Ahead of the elections, observers receive briefings from the host government, political parties, civil society, and media representatives. Long-term observers also follow pre-election activities including candidate and voter registration, political campaigns, and media coverage. On Election Day, two-person teams of short-term observers fan out across the country to observe the conduct of the election, including opening of polling stations; checking whether ballot boxes are empty and properly sealed; the counting of ballots; the handling of spoiled or unused ballots; and the transmission of polling station results. Observers monitor how voters are processed, the accuracy of voter registries, and whether voters are able to vote in secret and in an environment that is free from intimidation. After the elections, long-term observers note how electoral complaints and appeals are handled. The OSCE election observation mission publishes preliminary findings immediately after the elections, with a final comprehensive report issued a few weeks later. The final report includes in-depth analysis of the election’s political context and  legislative framework;  election  administration;  voter  and  candidate  registration; the election campaign; the media; participation of women and national minorities; and the voting, counting, and tabulation processes. The OSCE methodology represents the global standard for quality election observation. Its expertise has been shared with other regional organizations, and the OSCE has contributed to observation efforts outside the OSCE region. The Helsinki Commission Contribution The U.S. Helsinki Commission was the first to propose concrete commitments regarding free and fair elections more than a year before they were adopted by the OSCE in June 1990. By that time, Commissioners and staff had already observed the conduct of the first multi-party elections in seven East and Central European countries transitioning from one-party communist states to functioning democracies. As the OSCE developed its institutional capacities in the mid-1990s, the Commission joined the efforts of an increasing number of observer teams from across the OSCE region, which evolved into the well-planned, professional election observation missions of today.  Commissioners and staff have observed well over 100 elections since 1990. The Commission continues to support OSCE observation efforts, focusing on countries where resistance to democratic change remains the strongest. Learn More Elections: OSCE Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights Election Observation: OSCE Parliamentary Assembly * Following Needs Assessment Missions designed to assess the situation and determine the scale of a potential observation activity in a particular country, election observation was deemed unnecessary in some cases.

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