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International Law

Principle X of the Helsinki Final Act Decalogue commits the participating States to fulfill “in good faith their obligations under international law.”  This core principle reflects the recognition that the willingness of countries to uphold legal commitments they have made to each other is a necessary component for predictability and stability in international relations. The Helsinki Commission has primarily focused on international law related to human rights, international humanitarian law (war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide) and military security obligations undertaken within the framework of the OSCE.

Staff Contact: Erika Schlager, counsel for international law

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  • Helsinki Commission Announces Hearing to Examine Europe's Refugee Crisis

    Europe is experiencing an enormous refugee crisis. An estimated half a million migrants and refugees have crossed the Mediterranean to Europe so far in 2015; as many as 50 percent are Syrian refugees.  Thousands more join them each day, and many of the European nations of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) are struggling to cope.

    As the regional security organization in Europe, how can the OSCE use its tools, standards, and commitments to help manage the humanitarian crisis and ensure that security and economic challenges are addressed? What has the US government done, and what should it be doing? The hearing will examine the reasons for the current crisis; relevant OSCE and other European agreements, commitments, and structures; the response of the OSCE, the EU, and the US; potential security issues related to the ability of extremists to infiltrate the refugee stream; and the potential for refugees to become victims of human trafficking.

  • Chairman Smith and Rep. McGovern Introduce “Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act”

    WASHINGTON—Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04), Chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the U.S. Helsinki Commission, and Rep. Jim McGovern (MA-02), today introduced the “Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act” (H.R. 624). The bill prohibits foreign human rights offenders and corrupt officials operating anywhere in the world from entering into the United States and blocks their U.S. assets. It effectively globalizes and strengthens the “Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act of 2012,” which was directed at individuals and entities from Russia. “The ‘Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act’ is a game-changer, and demonstrates America’s commitment to protecting human rights worldwide,” said Chairman Smith. “We are sending a message to the world’s worst human rights violators:  we will shine a spotlight on your crimes. We will deny your visas. We will freeze your assets. No matter who you are or how much money you have, you won’t be enjoying the fruits of your misdeeds by visiting the United States or taking advantage of our financial institutions.” “We have made important progress in the last few years,” Rep. McGovern said.  “But since the introduction of the original Magnitsky Act, human rights defenders and anti-corruption activists worldwide have urged us to pass a law that covers similar violations in countries other than Russia.  Through the Global Magnitsky Act, we can better standardize our approach to human rights violators and provide clear guidance to the executive branch on how we expect these perpetrators to be held accountable.” “Conscripting child soldiers, kidnapping political opponents, and brutalizing people based on their religion are horrifying acts for which people must be held accountable – and this bill will do it,” said Chairman Smith. “The earlier Magnitsky Act enjoyed overwhelmingly bipartisan support in both the House and the Senate. I expect the Global Magnitsky Act to move forward with the same level of commitment in both chambers, and on both sides of the aisle.” Earlier this week, Senators Ben Cardin (MD) and John McCain (AZ) introduced similar legislation in the Senate, which also applies worldwide and employs visa bans and property freezes. Unique aspects of the House bill include the requirement that the President impose sanctions if he or she determines that a foreign person has committed gross human rights offenses. The bill also permits the President to sanction perpetrators regardless of whether the victims were exercising or defending basic human rights; requires that the annual Global Magnitsky List be released each year on Human Rights Day; and directs the Comptroller General to assess and report on implementation. Both the “Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act” and the earlier “Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act of 2012” were inspired by Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, who was arrested and imprisoned by the Russian government following his investigation into fraud involving Russian officials. He was beaten to death by prison guards in 2009 after being held in torturous conditions for 11 months without trial. Summary: The “Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act” This act requires the President to publish and update a list of foreign persons or entities that the President determines are responsible, and who the President has sanctioned, for gross violations of internationally recognized human rights – including extrajudicial killings, torture, enforced disappearances, and prolonged, arbitrary detention – or significant corruption. Known as the Global Magnitsky List, the list will be due annually on December 10 (Human Rights Day). Although the bill directs the President to prioritize cases where the victims were seeking to exercise or defend internationally recognized human and rights and freedoms, like freedom of religious, assembly, and expression, or expose illegal government activity, the President can act regardless of the victim. Sanctions on these individuals and entities will include: Prohibiting or revoking U.S. visas or other entry documentation for foreign individuals. Freezing and prohibiting U.S. property transactions of a foreign individual or entity if such property and property interests are in the United States; come within the United States; or are in, or come within, the control of a U.S. person or entity. This act also requires the Comptroller General of the United States to assess the implementation of the law and report to Congress, so that Congress can ensure it is being executed fully.

  • Cardin Statement on the Senate Intelligence Committee Report on Torture

    WASHINGTON – U.S. Senator Ben Cardin (D-Md.), a senior member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and chairman of the U.S. Helsinki Commission, released the following statement in response to the Senate Intelligence Committee’s review of the CIA’s detention and interrogation program: “The United States has a solemn obligation to protect human rights both abroad and at home, as we honor our Constitution and international commitments.  Shortly after taking office, President Obama thankfully ended the CIA’s detention and interrogation programs.  The exhaustive report from the Senate Intelligence Committee documents that the CIA’s enhanced interrogation techniques were not effective and violated international commitments and the core principles of the United States. It also resulted in fabricated information and did not lead to the collection of imminent threat intelligence. Years may have passed by since these egregious activities occurred, but the United States must confront the mistakes that were made as we responded to the devastating 9/11 attacks.  We must put in place mechanisms to ensure that these types of abuses never happen again.  America’s reputation and moral leadership in the world are at stake.  We can and must strive to prevent and disrupt future terrorist attacks while continuing to safeguard the core values and human rights we as a Nation hold dear.”

  • Statement by Commissioner Representative Mike McIntyre at the OSCE PA Fall Meeting

    OSCE PA Autumn Meeting Session 1: Political and Military Dimension Debate on the Crisis in Ukraine  This Parliamentary Assembly spoke clearly on this matter in the Declaration adopted at the annual session in Baku.  Starting with vicious propaganda and intimidation of journalists, Moscow created this conflict by stoking irrational fears and then reinforcing violence in Ukraine with men and materiel from the Russian Federation. Russia has flagrantly violated international norms and commitments, including all ten core principles of the Helsinki Final Act. This is an attempt to deny a neighboring country and fellow OSCE member of the ability to make its own decisions regarding its own future. Russia has worked actively to suppress Ukraine’s aspirations towards freedom, democracy, and human dignity.  The United States underscores the critical role of the OSCE throughout this tragic conflict which began with the attempted illegal annexation of Crimea. As the largest regional organization in the world, the OSCE has a prominent role in trying to end this war. We have been encouraged by all of the efforts of the OSCE in Ukraine to monitor and work to reduce tensions and foster peace, security, and stability. The OSCE can become a stabilizing presence as to what is, in-fact, happening.  We are increasingly concerned by continued reports of Russian and separatist violations of the ceasefire. We have seen little progress by the Russian Federation or the Russia-backed separatists since these agreements were adopted last month. Russia-backed separatist forces continue to attack Ukrainian positions, including several positions within the agreed exclusion zone area!  Our frank criticism is not, as some might assert, an effort to create a new Cold War environment, but an effort to prevent one. That has been, and will always be, the purpose of our candid debates in the OSCE. Let us fulfill our mission as the OSCE!  We again call on the Russian Federation to implement its part of the agreements fully by immediately withdrawing all Russian military forces and equipment from inside Ukraine and returning control of the international border to Kyiv. That is the bottom line! Russia must respect Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity by ending both its unlawful activities in eastern Ukraine and its occupation of Crimea.  Why do we have an OSCE if nations will not respect one another’s sovereignty and dignity? The time is now. This is the test! May God grant us wisdom in this decision.

  • 15th Anniversary of the Bytyqi Brother Murders in Serbia

    Madam President, 15 years ago this week three American citizens--the brothers Ylli, Agron and Mehmet Bytyqi --were transferred from a prison to an Interior Ministry camp in Eastern Serbia. At that camp, they were executed and buried in a mass grave with dozens of Albanians from Kosovo. Today, I again call upon the Serbian authorities to bring those responsible for these murders to justice. Belgrade has given us assurances in recent years that action will be taken, but no clear steps have actually been taken to apprehend and prosecute those known to have been in command of the camp or the forces operating there. The three Bytyqi brothers went to Kosovo in 1999, a time of conflict and NATO intervention. Well after an agreed cessation of hostilities in early June, the brothers escorted an ethnic Romani family from Kosovo to territory still under Serbian control, where that family would be safer. Serbian authorities apprehended the brothers as they were undertaking this humanitarian task and held them in jail for 15 days for illegal entry. When time came for their release, they were instead turned over to a special operations unit of the Serbian Interior Ministry, transported to the camp and brutally executed. There was no due process, no trial, and no opportunity for the brothers to defend themselves. There was nothing but the cold-blooded murder of three American citizen brothers. Serbia today is not the Serbia of 15 years ago. The people of Serbia ousted the undemocratic and extreme nationalist regime of Slobodan Milosevic in 2000, and the country has since made a steady, if at times difficult, transition to democracy and the rule of law. In 2014, Serbia began accession talks to join the European Union, and in 2015 it will chair the OSCE, a European organization which promotes democratic norms and human rights. I applaud Serbia on its progress and I support its integration into Europe, but I cannot overlook the continued and contrasting absence of justice in the Bytyqi case. The new government of Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic has pledged to act. It must now generate the political will to act. The protection of those responsible for this crime can no longer be tolerated. The surviving Bytyqi family deserves to see justice. Serbia itself will put a dark past behind it by providing this justice. Serbian-American relations and Serbia's OSCE chairmanship will be enhanced by providing justice. It is time for those responsible for the Bytyqi brother murders to lose their protection and to answer for the crimes they committed 15 years ago.

  • Cardin Praises Bipartisan Unity in Support of Ukraine, Sanctions Against Russia

    WASHINGTON–U.S. Senator Ben Cardin (D-Md.), a senior member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and Chairman of the U.S. Helsinki Commission (CSCE), praised the full Senate passage of a package of loan guarantees for the new Ukraine government and economic sanctions on those responsible for the invasion of Crimea. “With today’s vote the Senate sent a clear message of solidarity with the people of Ukraine, and indignation for those responsible for the invasion of the Crimea. Russia must be held accountable for its blatant violations of international agreements. The sanctions leveled by Congress are intended to show that Mr. Putin’s inability to conform to international norms, and honor Russia’s agreements, will come at a heavy price. The government in Kyiv has the full support of United States and we will use all available diplomatic and economic tools to return stability to Ukraine,” said Senator Cardin. “I am disappointed that H.R 4152 does not include essential reforms that would strengthen the International Monetary Fund. Despite the omission this bill is a firm and confident step towards returning the region to normalcy. ”

  • Senate Floor Statement on Ukraine

    Madam President, Russia's invasion of Ukraine is one of the most serious breaches of the OSCE principles since the signing of the 1975 Helsinki Final Act. These principles are at the foundation of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Russia, as a participating state, agreed to hold these principles, including territorial integrity of states, inviolability of frontiers, refraining from the threat of use of force, peaceful settlements of disputes, and others. With this invasion, which is based, as Secretary Kerry has stated, on a completely trumped-up set of pretexts, Russia has shown its utter contempt for these core principles, indeed, for the entire OSCE process--not only the OSCE but the 1994 Budapest Memorandum signed by the United States, the United Kingdom, Russia, and Ukraine that provides security assurances for Ukraine, and the 1997 Ukraine -Russia bilateral treaty, and the U.N. charter, and other international agreements. Russia’s military invasion of Ukraine is also a gross violation of the Vienna Document's confidence and security building mechanisms which govern military relations and arms control. So let's examine Vladimir Putin's justification for this unprovoked invasion. He claims there is a need to protect Russian interests and the rights of Russian-speaking minorities. They characterize it as a human rights protection mission that it clearly is not. Russian officials fail to show any real evidence that the rights of ethnic Russians in Crimea--where they actually constitute a majority and have the most clout politically--and Ukraine at large have been violated. In fact, there is overwhelming evidence that the protests in some Ukrainian cities are being stoked by the Russians. Putin and other Russian officials make all sorts of unfounded accusations, including that masked militia are roaming the streets of Kyiv, although the Ukrainian capital and most of Ukraine has been calm for the last few weeks. Mr. Putin claims there is a “rampage of reactionary forces, nationalist and anti-Semitic forces going on in certain parts of Ukraine.'' Yet Kyiv's chief rabbi and a vice president of the World Jewish Congress on Monday accused Russia of staging anti-Semitic provocations in Crimea.  Mr. Putin accuses Ukraine's new legitimate transition government--not yet 2 weeks old--of threatening ethnic Russians. Yet there is a myriad of credible reports to the contrary. Indeed, although there has been unrest in some cities, there has been no serious movement in the mostly Russian-speaking eastern and southern regions to join with Russia. The clear majority of Ukrainians wants to see their country remain unified and do not welcome Russian intervention. All Ukrainian religious groups have come out against the Russian intervention and stand in support of Ukraine's territorial integrity and inviolability of its borders, as have minority groups such as the Crimean Tatars and the Roma. I submit that the real threat posed by the new government is that it wants to assertively move Ukraine in the direction of political and economic reforms and in the direction of democracy, respect for how human rights, the rule of law--away from the unbridled corruption of the previous regime and the kind of autocratic rule found in today's Russia. As for protecting Russian interests in Crimea, the Russians have not produced one iota of evidence that the Russian Black Sea Fleet, based in the Crimean city of Sevastopol, is under any kind of threat. Indeed, when the Ukrainians reached out to the Russians to try to engage them peacefully, they have been rebuffed. Russian authorities need to send their troops back to the barracks and instead engage through diplomacy, not the threat or use of force. The Russian actions pose a threat beyond Ukraine and threaten to destabilize neighboring states. I pointed out at a hearing we had this week in the subcommittee of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and in a hearing of the Helsinki Commission, that if Russia can use force to try to change territories, what message does that send to the South China Sea, what message does that send to the Western Balkans? Just as Poland has already invoked article 4 NATO consultations, the Baltic States and others in the region are wary of Russian goals. As chairman of the Helsinki Commission and a former vice president of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, I am encouraged to see active and wide-ranging engagement of the OSCE to deescalate tensions and to foster peace and security in Ukraine. The OSCE has the tools to address concerns with regard to security on the ground in Crimea, minority rights, and with regard to preparations for this democratic transition to lead to free and fair elections. In response to a request by the Ukrainian Government, 18 OSCE participating states, including the United States, are sending 35 unarmed military personnel to Ukraine. This is taking place under the Vienna Document, which allows for voluntary hosting of visits to dispel concerns about unusual military activities. Various OSCE institutions are activating, at the request of the Ukrainian Government, including the OSCE's human rights office, known as the ODIHR, to provide human rights monitoring as well as election observation for the May 25 Presidential elections. The OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities, Representative on Freedom of the Media, and the head of the Strategic Police Matters Unit, among others, are all in Kyiv this week conducting fact-finding missions. A full-scale, long-term OSCE Monitoring Mission is being proposed, and this mission needs to go forward. All of these OSCE efforts are aimed at deescalating tensions, fostering peace and stability, ensuring the observance of OSCE principles, including the human dimension, helping Ukraine in its transition, especially in the run-up to the May elections. These OSCE on-the-ground efforts are being thwarted by the Russian-controlled newly installed Crimean authorities. The OSCE Unusual Military Activities observers have been stopped from entering Crimea by unidentified men in military fatigues. Also, the OSCE Media Freedom Representative and her staff were temporarily blocked from leaving a hotel in Crimea where she was meeting with journalists and civil society activists. The U.N. special envoy was accosted by unidentified gunmen after visiting a naval headquarters in the Sevastopol. The blocking of international monitors--who were invited by the Ukrainian Government and who clearly are trying to seek peaceful resolutions to the conflict--is completely unacceptable and we should hold Russia responsible for their safety. Russia is a member of the OSCE--one of the founding members--and they are openly violating the core principles of the Helsinki Final Act. Russia signed on to the institutions that are available under OSCE for this exact type of circumstance--to give independent observation as to what is happening on the ground. Sending this mission, at the request of the host country, into Crimea is exactly the commitments made to reduce tensions in OSCE states, and Russia is blocking the use of that mechanism. The United States and the international community are deploying wide-ranging resources to contain and roll back Russia's aggression and to assist Ukraine's transition to a democratic, secure, and prosperous country. Both the Executive and the Congress are working around the clock on this. President Obama has taken concrete action and made concrete recommendations.  As the author of the Magnitsky Act, I welcome the White House sanctions announced today, including visa restrictions on officials and individuals threatening Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity and financial sanctions against those "responsible for activities undermining democratic processes or institutions in Ukraine .'' It was just a little while ago that we passed the Magnitsky Act. We did that in response to gross human rights violations within Russia against an individual named Sergei Magnitsky. What we did is say that those who were responsible for these gross violations of internationally recognized rules should be held accountable, and if they are not held accountable, the least we can do in the United States is not give them safe haven in our country, not allow the corrupt dollars they have earned to be housed in America--no visas, no use of our banking system. The President is taking a similar action against those responsible for the invasion and military use against international rules in Ukraine. These steps are in addition to many other actions, including the suspension of bilateral discussions with Russia on trade and investment, stopping United States-Russia military-to-military engagement, and suspending preparations for the June G8 summit in Sochi. Both Chambers are working expeditiously on legislation to help Ukraine in this delicate period of transition. We also need to work expeditiously with our European friends and allies, and I am encouraged by the news that the EU is preparing a $15 billion aid package. Ukraine has exercised amazing restraint in not escalating the conflict, particularly in Crimea. I applaud their restraint and their action. The people of Ukraine have suffered an incredibly difficult history, and over the last century they have been subjected to two World Wars, 70 years of Soviet domination, including Stalin's genocidal famine. They certainly do not need another senseless war. Nothing justifies Russia's aggression--nothing. Our political and economic assistance at this time would be a testament to those who died at the Maidan just 2 weeks ago and a concrete manifestation that our words mean something and that we do indeed stand by the people of Ukraine as they make their historic choice for freedom, democracy, and a better life. I yield the floor.

  • Justice In The International Extradition System, The Case Of George Wright And Beyond

    This briefing discussed the case of George Wright.  In 1963, Wright was implicated in the robbery of a gas station, during which he fatally beat and shot a man named Walter Patterson (a veteran of World War II and a Bronze Star recipient). Wright was sentenced to prison, but escaped to Algeria in the middle of his stay at Leesburg State Prison. 41 years later, Wright was discovered in Portugal. In spite of the U.S.’s and Portugal’s firm commitment regarding extradition, a court in Portugal inexplicably refused to extradite Wright. This hearing’s goal was to scrutinize what transpired in this case and what could be achieved in order to bring Wright to justice, raising the broader question about the international extradition system.

  • Healing the Wounds of Conflict and Disaster: Clarifying the Fate of Missing Persons in the OSCE Area

    The hearing examined efforts by governments and their partners in clarifying the fate of persons missing within a number of OSCE participating States and partner countries, especially in the western Balkans and northern Caucasus. The hearing also appraised the adequacy of assistance to governments and other entities engaged in locating missing persons, the obstacles that impede progress in some areas, as well as how rule of law mechanisms help governments fulfill their obligations to the affected families and society in clarifying the fate of missing persons. Currently, over a million persons are reported missing from wars and violations of human rights. In addition, there are thousands of reported cases a year of persons missing from trafficking, drug-related violence, and other causes. Locating and identifying persons missing as a result of conflicts, trafficking in humans and human rights violations and other causes remains a global challenge, with significant impact within the OSCE area.

  • The Escalation of Violence Against Roma In Europe

    This hearing focused on the discrimination, exclusion, and persecution faced by the Roma people in Europe.  Witnesses discussed the E.U. countries’ various national strategies for Roma integration and their effectiveness.  The witnesses also provided recommendations for the Commissioners on how to support European countries’ integration efforts on the government-to-government level.

  • U.S. Congressman Pledges to Push for ICC Indictment of Belarusian President Lukashenka

    The chairman of the U.S. Helsinki Commission has pledged to call on the Obama administration to push for the indictment of hard-line Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka by the International Criminal Court (ICC). While the chances of an indictment are unlikely, the pledge by Representative Chris Smith (Republican, New Jersey) was a clear sign that U.S. lawmakers have not forgotten the egregious human rights situation in the country ruled by the man some dub "Europe's last dictator." At a Helsinki Commission hearing that focused on Minsk's continuing crackdown on political opposition and civil society, Smith said he would send a letter to members of the Obama administration and the UN Security Council asking them to push for the indictment. In an interview with RFE/RL, he later said, "When you commit atrocities for 17 years, as [Lukashenka] has done, the time has come." "[Although] Belarus is not a signatory to the ICC, to the Rome Statute -- and nor are we, frankly -- we've done this before, and we did it with [President Omar al-] Bashir in Sudan. It will take a lot of work, but we need to begin that effort now to get the [UN] Security Council to make a special referral to begin that process," he said. "I'm sure China and Russia will object, but that's worth the fight, because this man commits atrocities on a daily basis against his own people," Smith added. The congressman made his pledge following the testimony of former Belarusian presidential candidate Ales Mikhalevich, who is in Washington for the first time since his release from a detention center in Minsk on February 19. Mikhalevich was one of seven opposition candidates and more than 600 people arrested during the regime's violent crackdown on protesters following Lukashenka's disputed reelection in December 2010. The official reaction to demonstrations drew widespread international condemnation and a coordinated sanctions program by Brussels and Washington. The financial and travel restrictions were accompanied by a boost in funding for the country's beleaguered civil society, journalists, and activists. As the one-year anniversary of the election approaches, watchdogs say the jailing and harassment of human rights defenders and protesters continues, while the independent media and judiciary face intense, often institutionalized, pressure. Mikhalevich says he had to sign agreement on collaborating with the Belarusian state security forces, which are still called the KGB, in order to secure his release. He has since been granted political asylum in the Czech Republic. Ahead of meetings with State Department officials and Washington-based NGOs, he told U.S. lawmakers that supporting Belarusian civil society -- and not holding out hope that Lukashenka will reform -- is the only way to effect change. "I'm absolutely sure that Lukashenka is ready to defend his power by all possible means. Unfortunately, we can compare Lukashenka with [former Libyan leader Muammar] Qaddafi. So I urge the United States, the European Union, and the international community not to trust another game of liberalization badly played by the regime," he said. "Cooperate only with independent civil society in Belarus: nongovernmental organizations, both unregistered and registered, independent newspapers and media, and democratic activists." Analysts say Lukashenka has long employed the tactic of pledging to loosen to grip on the country in exchange for a reprieve from sanctions -- a tactic that has worked in the past. Observers say he has also sought to capitalize on rifts between the United States and the EU, as well as between neighboring Russia and the West, to inhibit united action against his regime. After testifying, Mikhalevich told RFE/RL that he hoped the United States would more fully take on the role of "bad cop" if the EU, which borders Belarus and relies on it as a transit country for gas from Russia, hesitates to do so. "I'm absolutely sure than in order to succeed, the international community should have both the good cop and bad cop. Someone should play the role of the bad cop, and unfortunately, the European Union would not play this role. So I hope that the United States will be ready to do it," Mikhalevich said. Mikhalevich also offered a harrowing account of what he called "constant mental and physical torture" during his two months in custody, including being "stripped naked and forced to assume various positions." "Our legs were pulled apart with ropes and we could feel our ligaments tear," Mikhalevich said in his prepared remarks. Smith appeared visibly moved by account. "Rather than calling them the KGB, it ought to be called the KGB 'P' for 'perverts.' Masked men who strip other men naked, and women, presumably, as well -- those are acts of perversion that should not go unnoticed by the international community," said the Congressman. In July, the U.S. House of Representatives approved a bill sponsored by Smith that would strengthen existing sanctions against Minsk. It is awaiting consideration in the Senate. Smith told RFE/RL that Western attention on the situation in Belarus had been "obscured" to some extent by the events of the Arab Spring, and especially by the global economic downturn. He said that pushing for ICC action would be a sign that human rights are not "taking a back seat." "I've been very much involved for years in the special [UN-backed] court that [U.S. prosecutor] David Crane oversaw for Sierra Leone, and what I learned from that, and from the Rwandan court, and of course from the Yugoslav court, which held [Slobodan] Milosevic and [Ratko] Mladic and [Radovan] Karadzic to account, is that these thugs are frightened by the fact that they may be held to account. And Lukashenka will fear it, I believe, if we make a very serious effort to hold him to account at the International Criminal Court," said Smith. Mikhalevich told RFE/RL that he thinks the chances of ICC action against Lukashenka are slim, but that the prospect of such a move could help pressure the regime to release its political prisoners. "I think that definitely, it's very difficult to organize any [such] political process unless thousands of people are being killed, but still, it's necessary to do all attempts," he said. "And you never know how this regime will develop -- and how many victims we will have next year."

  • Belarus: The Ongoing Crackdown and Forces for Change

    Nearly one year after the brutal post-December 19, 2010, election crackdown, the human rights picture in Belarus remains bleak. Brave and committed individuals who attempt to promote a democratic future for Belarus continue to be crushed by the dictatorial Lukashenka regime. Civil society continues to be under assault, with NGOs facing ever greater constraints, and freedoms of assembly and expression are severely curtailed. Yet the ongoing economic turmoil has produced growing disaffection, as manifested in Lukashenka’s plummeting popular support, and a changing domestic and international environment. The hearing will focus on the extent and impact of the crackdown on the lives of its victims and on the larger society, and what more can be done by the U.S. and our European partners to promote democratic change in Belarus.

  • Labor Trafficking In Troubled Economic Times: Protecting American Jobs And Migrant Human Rights

    This hearing brought attention to the extremely lucrative criminal enterprise of human trafficking. Specific attention was focused on those who were most likely to be victims (i.e. people who were poor, had lost their jobs). Therefore, human trafficking, which involves forced labor, profits more in times of economic decline.

  • OSCE 2010 Informal Ministerial: Kazakhstan Persistence Earns a Summit in Astana

    By Winsome Packer Policy Advisor Kazakhstan hosted its long-sought OSCE Informal Ministerial in Almaty July 16-17, 2010, the realization of a key aim of its Chairmanship. A second important objective of the Kazakh Chairmanship: a summit on Kazakh soil during 2010, came closer to realization during the meeting. An Astana Summit would be the OSCE’s first since the 1999 Istanbul Summit, which yielded the Adapted Conventional Armed Forces Treaty. Early and persistent calls for “substance before summit” by the U.S. Delegation and other participating States had put in doubt both the informal ministerial and the summit for months. However, a number of the participating States argued for the high level attention to wide-spread security challenges in the OSCE region and the erosion of OSCE values in some quarters. Ten years after the last OSCE summit, they argued, necessitated a meeting of heads of states and governments to reaffirm the participating States’ commitment to the organization’s values and agree on a way forward to tackle the challenges confronting the region today. Thus, six months of, at times, heated informal Corfu dialogue on security challenges in the OSCE region, which was mandated by the Athens Ministerial Declaration, yielded more than 50 “food for thought” papers from the participating States, the Parliamentary Assembly, the OSCE Secretariat, the Partners for Cooperation, think tanks and non-governmental organizations. The thematic papers evolved into an Interim Report during June, which incorporated the proposals submitted within the Corfu Process. It formed the basis for the agenda at the Almaty Informal Ministerial and for the Summit which will be held in Astana December 1-2, 2010. The Almaty Informal Ministerial saw the participation of more than forty foreign ministers, including from the Russian Federation, France, Germany, Canada, Spain, Portugal, Poland, Georgia, Turkey, Austria, and Ukraine. The Parliamentary Assembly’s delegation included President Petros Efthymiou, and Secretary General Spencer Oliver. The U.S. delegation was headed by Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg who, in a bilateral meeting with the Kazakhstanis on July 16, affirmed U.S. support for an OSCE summit this year. The joining of consensus on the summit decision by the United States elicited private expressions of relief from many delegates, and heightened expectations for the summit which would reflect the outcome of the Corfu Process: a declaration and an action plan. The Chair-in-Office requested that the OSCE delegations work toward these aims throughout the summer. During the meeting, delegates voiced support for the summit, to be held in Astana. A majority of the participating States urged OSCE support for Kyrgyzstan, in particular, through the deployment of a police mission. The United States and many delegates stated that the substance of the summit should be based upon the four proposals put forward by the European Union to: (1) bolster the OSCE’s capabilities in all three dimensions to promote early warning, conflict prevention and resolution, crisis management and post-conflict rehabilitation, including in relation to the protracted conflicts; (2) strengthen implementation and follow-up of OSCE norms, principles and commitments in particular, human dimension commitments covering human rights and fundamental freedoms, including freedom of the media; (3) enhance the conventional arms control framework, including confidence and security building measures, through updating the 1999 Vienna Document and the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty); and (4) increase attention to transnational threats in all three OSCE dimensions. Some delegates also called for a summit to: focus on instability in Afghanistan; intensify efforts to resolve protracted conflicts in the region, and address nuclear terrorism and the proliferation of nuclear and weapons of mass destruction. The United States called for greater military transparency, implementation of human dimension commitments and addressing inter-ethnic conflict in Kyrgyzstan. The U.S. delegation also expressed support for the expeditous deployment of a police force to Kyrgyzstan and for an action plan for the future work of the participating States. In addition to supporting the European Union’s four summit process proposals, the United States also expressed support for a focus on Afghanistan. A Chair’s Perception Paper, resulting from the informal ministerial, incorporated these concerns. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov reiterated Russia’s support for the summit “this year.” He urged the involvement of other regional and sub-regional leaders in addressing the Kyrgyzstan situation. He expressed hope that action would be taken on Russia’s proposal for a European Security Treaty (EST) and that it would not merely remain a “subject for discussion.” Lavrov said that the summit document should reflect the post Cold War situation and the security system that emerges should be “free of dividing lines.” He said that Russia was studying NATO’s response to the EST proposal and underlined that the summit should give strong, political impetus for supporting Kyrgyzstan. Concurrent with the Informal Ministerial, draft decisions on the holding of an OSCE summit during 2010 and draft decisions on the agenda and modalities of the summit and agenda and modalities for a review conference were circulated. The review conference would be held in Vienna, Warsaw, and Astana. Negotiations on the draft decisions began on July 19.

  • OSCE Holds Conference in Astana on Tolerance and Non-Discrimination

    On June 28 and 29th, Kazakhstan, the OSCE Chair-in-Office for 2010, hosted a “High Level Conference on Tolerance and Nondiscrimination” in Astana, preceded by a one-day civil society forum. At the opening session, President Nursultan Nazarbayev called for 1) the establishment of an OSCE centre on tolerance and non-discrimination and 2) an OSCE High Commissioner on InterEthnic and Interreligious Tolerance. Kazakhstan Foreign Minister and Chair-in-Office Saudabayev concluded the meeting with a statement that he dubbed the “Astana Declaration.” More than 600 people registered to attend the conference. A large number of countries were represented by their bilateral Embassies in Astana and/or by their representatives to the OSCE from Vienna. There were no reports of NGOs having difficulties registering or gaining access to the meeting site. OSCE officials participating included Janez Lenarcic, Director of the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights; Knut Vollebaek, OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities; and Dunja Mijatovic, the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media. The three Personal Representatives appointed by the Chair-in-Office tasked with dealing with these issues all attended and participated: Rabbi Andrew Baker, Personal Representative of the Chair-inOffice on Combating Anti-Semitism; Senator Adil Akhmetov, Personal Representative of the Chair-in-Office on Combating Intolerance and Discrimination against Muslims; and MEP Mario Mauro, Personal Representative on Combating Racism, Xenophobia and Discrimination, also focusing on Intolerance and Discrimination against Christians and Members of other Religions.

  • U.S. Lawmaker Urges Action on Russian Lawyer's Death

    A U.S. senator is urging the State Department to deny entry to the United States for all Russian officials responsible for the prison death of a lawyer. Sergey Magnitsky died in November after spending nearly a year in jail. He was awaiting trial on tax-evasion charges linked to his work with a British investor barred from Russia because of allegations he was a security risk. Maryland Democratic Sen. Benjamin Cardin released a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Monday asking her to deny entry of several senior officials from the Russian Interior Ministry, the Federal Security Service and the Federal Tax Service. Magnitsky's colleagues and attorney believe them to be involved in the death of Magnitsky.    

  • Helsinki Commission Applauds U.S. Human Rights Reports

    U.S. Senator Benjamin L. Cardin (D-MD), Chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation (U.S. Helsinki Commission) and Co-Chairman Congressman Alcee L. Hastings (D-FL) hailed today’s release of the State Department’s annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices as a key tool to monitor and track progress on universal freedoms. “The State Department reports on human rights provide a valuable reference point for assessing human rights trends in countries throughout the world, including those in the expansive OSCE region stretching from Vancouver to Vladivostok,” Chairman Cardin said. This year’s reports have increased significance as 2010 is the 35th anniversary of the Helsinki Final Act and the 20th anniversary of other international human rights agreements. “In a year commemorating landmark human rights documents of the Helsinki Final Act, the Copenhagen Document, and the Charter of Paris for a New Europe, today’s State Department reports remind us that many of the promises countries made in those historic documents still have not been met with meaningful action,” Co-Chairman Hastings said. “These reports on human rights around the world are a critical tool, and they’ll provide a fact-base to inform our foreign policy in the year ahead,” said Michael Posner, Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy Human Rights and Labor. Posner, who serves as the State Department Commissioner on the U.S. Helsinki Commission, unveiled the reports with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at a news conference this morning. As leaders of the U.S. Helsinki Commission, the Co-Chairmen have consistently voiced concerns about the pattern of rights violations cited in several of the OSCE participating States. “In Belarus, the political space for opposition remains tightly controlled and independent media face continual harassment,” said Cardin, who travelled to Minsk in July 2009. “The overall situation in Russia remains disturbing with the murder of a leading human right advocate, harassment of Jehovah’s Witnesses and forceful break up of public demonstrations. I urge Kazakhstan, as the current chair of the OSCE, to lead by example through concrete actions, starting with the release of activist Yevgeny Zhovtis.” The Co-Chairmen welcomed Assistant Secretary Posner to the Commission Feb. 25.Posner’s activity with the Commission and the State Department’s annual human rights reports mandated by Congress are examples of legislative-executive branch cooperation to keep a spotlight on human rights abuses.

  • Embassy Row: Wall Fallout

    A Democratic congressman this week used a celebration of the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall to criticize President Obama for failing to nominate a U.S. ambassador to a key European human rights panel. Rep. Alcee L. Hastings of Florida urged Mr. Obama to find time to fill the ambassadorship to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). "I'm disappointed that the administration has still not yet nominated an ambassador to one of the pre-eminent human rights organizations," said Mr. Hastings, co-chairman of the congressional version of the OSCE, the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe. "For a president who so strongly supports international engagement and reinvigorating multilateral institutions, I expected better." Mr. Hastings added that he hopes Mr. Obama will nominate an ambassador to the 56-nation OSCE before the end of the year. Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin, chairman of the congressional panel, called on the United States "to renew its commitment to human rights, not as a personal belief of any political leader or simply an administration policy but as a moral obligation of our country to uphold international law and universal principles." The Maryland Democrat joined other panel members, including the ranking Republican, Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas, for the commemoration of the fall of the Wall at the Newseum, which displays the largest section of the Wall outside of Germany. Ambassadors Klaus Scharioth of Germany and Cosmin Vierita of Romania also attended the event, along with House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, Maryland Democrat, who chaired the congressional commission in 1989 when Germany tore down the Berlin Wall.

  • Report on the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination Review of the US and Seventh Annual Meeting of the UN Working Group on People of African Descent

    By Mischa E. Thompson, Policy Advisor Moving into the 21st century, racism and discrimination continue to be a problem throughout the fifty-six European, North American, and Central Asian countries that make up the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), including in the United States. Recent reports by the OSCE, European Union’s Fundamental Rights Agency (2008, 2007), and European Network Against Racism have found that racial minorities and increasingly migrants are the targets of hate crimes and racial/ethnic profiling, in addition to experiencing discrimination in employment, housing, education, and other areas. Political parties espousing anti-migrant and racist positions are also on the rise, with the potential to undermine current efforts to implement tolerance and nondiscrimination initiatives throughout the region. Efforts to address these problems over the years have resulted in the development of multi-lateral instruments to stem the tide of racial discrimination. The International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD) is often considered a premier international instrument in this area. Adopted by the United Nations in 1965 and entering force in 1969, over 173 countries including the United States, have agreed to have their government policies reviewed to determine if they create or perpetuate racial discrimination. ICERD defines racial discrimination as “any distinction, exclusion, restriction or preference based on race, color, descent, or national or ethnic origin which has the purpose or effect of nullifying or impairing the recognition, enjoyment or exercise, on an equal footing, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural or any other field of public life.” According to the treaty, countries are required to amend or repeal laws and regulations deemed to be discriminatory and are allowed to introduce positive measures such as affirmative action when necessary. As such, countries are obligated to protect against inequality and discrimination in the enjoyment of human rights, including in the areas of education, housing, criminal justice, health, voting, labor, etc. While the 1975 Helsinki Final Act requires its members to respect human rights and fundamental freedoms “without distinction as to race, sex, language or religion,” no review mechanism comparable to the ICERD currently exists within the OSCE. In recent years, the OSCE participating States have urged ratification of the ICERD (e.g., Copenhagen 1990, Helsinki 1992, Maastricht 2003), adopted complimentary initiatives such as the Annual Hate Crimes Report, and conducted consultations and other activities within the United Nations on relevant initiatives. The ICERD and its implementing committee, the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD), therefore continue to remain a primary resource in outlining and determining the success of OSCE countries’ efforts to eliminate racial discrimination. For this reason, the 2008 CERD review of the United States and the status of U.S. efforts to combat racial discrimination were widely followed. From February 18 to March 7, 2008 the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) held its seventy-second session in Geneva, Switzerland. The Committee of eighteen independent experts, including a U.S. representative, is charged with periodically reviewing the performance of the 173 countries that have signed and ratified ICERD. During the seventy-second session, the Committee reviewed anti-discrimination efforts undertaken by the Governments of the United States, Fiji, Italy, Belgium, Nicaragua, Moldova, and the Dominican Republic. The United States appeared before the Committee on February 22 and 23 after having submitted a report in April 2007 on its efforts to eliminate racial discrimination after last appearing before the Committee in 2001. Over four hundred U.S. non-government organizations (NGOs) also compiled and submitted a “Shadow Report” to the Committee, which provided supplementary independent information in addition to the government perspective. Twenty-three persons made up the diverse high-level U.S. delegation, headed by Ambassador Warren Tichenor, Permanent Representative of the United States to the United Nations in Geneva. The delegation also included: Grace Chung Becker, Acting Assistant Attorney General in the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice, and Ralph Boyd, a former member of the U.N. Committee. Other members of the delegation were from the Departments of Interior, Justice, State, Homeland Security, and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. For the first time more than one hundred U.S. NGO representatives also attended the session as a “shadow” delegation. The review began with the United States noting the continuing problem and challenges of combating racial discrimination, but disagreeing with the Committee’s views on causes and solutions. Ambassador Tichenor stated that, “the United States supported the elimination of racial discrimination at home and abroad [...] and had made significant progress in improving race relations in the past [and] continued to work actively to eliminate racial and ethnic discrimination. However, challenges still existed, and a great deal of work remained to be done.” The United States then went on to argue that the causes of continuing racial disparities were poverty and other socio-economic variables, including poor choices made by minorities and discriminatory actions by non-state actors, as opposed to institutionalized practices stemming from past unjust government policies (e.g., slavery, segregation). The United States further argued that it should not bare the primary responsibility for addressing racial disparities because it was not solely responsible for creating the current situation. To bolster this argument, the United States also argued that the Committee’s interpretation of the intent of the ICERD was incorrect in terms of the government needing to play the lead role in combating racial discrimination and disparities. (Find excerpts from the U.S. statements at the end of this report.) This line of argument caused the Committee to question whether the United States still possessed the political will to comply with its ICERD commitments. Indeed, much of the proceedings involved Committee members reiterating the commitments ICERD countries have undertaken as signatories, including augmenting laws and regulations which “have the effect of creating or perpetuating racial discrimination wherever it exists.” Confusion was expressed as to why the U.S. government had supported efforts to end affirmative action in schools, while simultaneously highlighting the existence of racial disparities in all sectors of U.S. society. Further puzzlement was displayed as to why the United States was arguing against playing a lead role in combating discrimination, while at the same time introducing widely acclaimed new initiatives to combat discrimination such as the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s E-RACE Initiative and National Partnership for Action to End Health Disparities. The Committee also questioned the status of and anticipated plans for other U.S. efforts to address de facto discrimination, manifested by racial profiling, lack of equal access to quality housing, healthcare, and education, the failure to preserve Native American land rights and return Hurricane Katrina victims to their homes. Committee members also expressed disappointment in the United States. Several Committee members noted that they viewed the U.S. civil rights movement and resulting policies to address past inequities such as affirmative action, as models for policies they were considering and/or using in their own countries to address human rights concerns stemming from inequities and historical injustices. In some cases, these policies were developed following consultations with the U.S. government. Indeed, the Colombian Committee member remarked that he had participated in a visit to the United States as part of an Afro-Colombian delegation invited to view U.S. programs to combat racial discrimination. Members of the Committee also requested that the United States participate in the 2009 Durban Review Conference, a follow-up to the 2001 World Conference against Racism, as a means for continuing the conversation on eliminating racial discrimination. The United States responded that it had withdrawn negotiators from the first Durban Conference “because of pervasive anti-Semitism in its discussions” and would make a decision regarding participation at a later date. A summary of the U.S. Review before the Committee and Concluding Observations of the Committee included recommendations to the United States in areas ranging from affirmative action and immigration to voter disenfranchisement and the rights of Native Americans and tribal peoples. This includes a request for an interim report due in February 2009 on how the United States has implemented the Committee’s recommendations regarding: 1) racial profiling and counterterrorism efforts impacting Arab, Muslim, South Asian and others, 2) protecting Western Shoshone lands, 3) efforts to return displaced Hurricane Katrina victims, 4) decreasing minority youth imprisonment rates, and 5) organizing training programs and other initiatives to make government officials and parties at the state and local levels aware of U.S. responsibilities under the ICERD. This last point was repeatedly raised by the civil society shadow delegation. In particular they were concerned by “U.S. exceptionalism” – or the perception that United States tells other nations to abide by international human rights laws, but refuses to comply with those laws itself. The Committee also called for greater consultation and cooperation between the U.S. government and civil society in preparation of its next report due in November 2011 following concerns that civil society was not sufficiently consulted during the drafting of the 2007 report. Also, of relevance in addressing global efforts to eradicate racial discrimination was the seventh annual meeting of the United Nations Working Group on People of African Descent (WGPAD). Formed in April 2002, the Working Group studies and proposes solutions to the problems of racial discrimination faced by people of African descent living in the Diaspora, with a focus on improving their human rights situation. The Working Group met for its seventh Annual Session on January 14 to 18th, where it reviewed its proceedings of the past seven years on thematic issues that impact the experiences of persons of African descent in the following areas: administration of justice, media, equal access to quality education, employment, health, housing, participation in political, economic, and social sectors, racial profiling, and the empowerment of women of African descent. The WGPAD seventh Annual Session focused on the development of recommendations based upon these past sessions as a UN requirement in preparation for the 2009 Durban Review Conference. The United States participated as an Observer at the meeting. The Final Recommendations included calls for countries to: develop and/or adopt national action plans and monitoring bodies to combat racism and assist victims, address racial profiling and other disparities in the criminal justice system, introduce socio-economic data collection methods that include African descendants, counter negative media stereotypes, develop a best practices report and index on racial equality, and create a fund to support NGO participation in future WGPAD activities and meetings. The next WGPAD meeting is scheduled for January 12-14th and will focus on youth. Within the OSCE context, the WGPAD holds special importance as the only multilateral entity focused on the human rights situation of the more than five million persons that make up the African descendant or Black European population. In recent years, partially as a result of their high visibility in European countries, Blacks have increasingly become the targets of hate crimes and experienced discrimination in education, employment, housing, and other sectors. Additionally, Blacks are often the targets of anti-immigrant campaigns, including racial profiling, regardless of their citizenship (see also U.S. Helsinki Commission Hearing The State of (In)visible Black Europe: Race, Rights, and Politics). Initiatives such as the CERD and WGPAD have been critical to maintaining a global focus on countries’ efforts to monitor and combat racial discrimination in line with their human rights commitments. Additionally, they complement OSCE efforts in this area such as this year’s OSCE Supplementary Meetings in Vienna on Roma and national institutions to fight discrimination against minorities and migrants. Because of the role promoting equality and non-discrimination plays in the protection of human rights and ensuring peace and security in the OSCE region, the U.S. Helsinki Commission has also increased its focus in this area.

  • Guantanamo Detainees after Boumediene: Now What?

    The hearing reviewed the detainee-related policy issues – particularly for Guantanamo detainees -- that remain in the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Boumediene. Witnesses also had the opportunity to discuss a related question: what does Europe do with its terror suspects, and are there any lessons for the United States from the European experience? The Supreme Court ruled in a 5-4 decision in Boumediene v. Bush that foreign terrorism suspects held at the Guantanamo Bay detention facility have the right under the Constitution to challenge their detention in a U.S. civilian court.

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